Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Warning: spoilers eighty decades in the making ahoy!

After a prologue that sees unfortunately named brilliant wax figure artist Ivan Igor’s (Lionel Atwell) life’s work destroyed because his money man (Edwin Maxwell) wants to cash in on some sweet, sweet, fire insurance money, we fast forward to New York, twelve years later.

After she has died under mysterious circumstances, the corpse of a female socialite is stolen from the morgue before anyone can get around to her autopsy. The police thinks her ex-boyfriend, Bland Male Lead #1 is responsible for her death and has hired someone to steal the body. Motor-mouthed, wise-cracking reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) disagrees, mostly because that stolen body is the eighth gone missing in the last few months. Fortunately, random chance – the script is not hip to bizarre concepts like journalists or police investigating something and following clues when it can get away with just putting them where the plot needs them by the hand of the script gods – soon suggests the newly opening wax museum of…Ivan Igor.

For Igor’s getting back into the wax business again. Because his hands and his legs have been badly damaged in the fire that destroyed his beloved wax figures, he has officially hired some deaf mute guy and Bland Male Lead #2 to be his hands. Well, and he’s also killing people and coating their bodies in wax, using a junkie (Arthur Edmund Carewe) as his off-site wax creation front. Oh, and wouldn’t you know it, Bland Male Lead #2’s girlfriend Charlotte (Fay Wray) just happens to be Florence’s roomie? But that’s not coincidence enough – she’s also a dead ringer for the masterpiece of Igor’s first museum, Marie Antoinette, so even if you’re from the 30s, you know where this is going.

Mystery of the Wax Museum brings parts of the main team behind Doctor X back together in the two-tone Technicolor horror business, namely brilliant director Michael Curtiz, Atwill, Wray, and some of the other actors. It also replaces the earlier film’s wise-cracking reporter with a female one, leading to the not exactly common sight of a pre-60s horror film with a female lead.

Of course, there’s two caveats to that. For one, despite being the film’s central non-villainous character, Florence’s agency is rather undercut by a script whose dependence on coincidence to get anything done borders on the absurd. So, while Florence certainly always is where things are happening, and does certainly show much more independent thought and action than any of the Bland Male Leads or Wray’s character who is only there to look pretty and scream in the last act – which I suspect is about all Wray was actually able to but I might be wrong – the script never actually does much with her. The second problem, at least to an audience in the 21st century, is that Florence is the most motor-mouthed wise-cracking reporter in a film landscape rather full of them, a character type one needs to be in a patient and tolerant mood to watch for more than five minutes. I found myself warming to Farrell’s performance, though, perhaps because her hyperactive craziness stands in such a marked contrast to the wax figure like blandness of everyone around her not named Igor.

For my tastes, the film also spends too many of its eighty minutes of runtime on showing us Florence finding out things the audience already knows, the film’s mystery elements and its horror parts never gelling very well. There’s also a subplot in which Igor takes revenge on the wax figure burning villain of his past but the film mostly hand waves through it in favour of showing us characters finding out things we already know.

In direct comparison, Mystery is still a much more coherent film than its predecessor Doctor X, but it tends to focus on exactly the wrong things and loses the free-form, lurid craziness that was that film’s forte without finding much worthwhile to replace it.

Of course, there are still many bits and pieces to like about Mystery of the Wax Museum. Curtiz – not unexpectedly – makes the best out of the awkward script, and creates a handful of scenes where the more expressionist of the sets and the colour technique create a creepy mood still effective after all these years. Atwill’s make-up is very good too, as is his over-the-top portrayal of the crazed artist, while Farrell goes all out in a genre that would take decades to give actresses many opportunities to do that, and Wray screams as is her wont. That’s certainly not enough to make the film what I’d call a classic but it is certainly enough to make it worth watching beyond its obvious historical interest.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

In short: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Obviously, for someone of my tastes, as goes for Seth Graham-Smith’s rather posthumous cooperation with Jane Austen’s zombified corpse this is based on, you can only improve on books about the Georgian marriage market by adding zombies and martial arts to them. For about the first half of the film or so, I even enjoyed myself immensely but after a time, various annoyances dragged the film down. These annoyances are very specific to my tastes, and are in part based on me taking this shit way too seriously, so any given reader’s mileage will certainly vary.

Firstly, the film sooner or later couldn’t help but land at the point where my dislike for certain elements of Austen’s work could no longer be contained, and not just the part where I’m never quite sure why I should care for whom these upper class people marry or not.

I loathe the way Austen turns their oh-so-important characters’ servants into mere furniture but I can cope with that and understand it as the writer being part of her time and social stratus. Watching a film made in 2016 that does take the time to add zombies to the whole thing but still doesn’t do more with servants (who are of course apart from that guy that gets dragged in the cellar nameless) is quite a different thing. Also not changed from Austen is the general philosophical outlook where characters complain a bit about playing the game of their society but actually not playing it (or at least dying dramatically trying that) is something that doesn’t even cross their minds. I do understand the whys and wherefores of that, too, but I never can get distracted by the writers’ wit enough to ever really get over it and relax into things. As a sort of Austen adaptation, the film unfortunately really doesn’t change any of this.

It even does add a few troubles all its own. I found the treatment of the intelligent still human zombies absolutely wrong, with the idea of finding a way for peaceful co-existence with them something that is relegated to the plans of bad guys (and is there an Austen version that treats Wickham as a person instead of a sexy panto villain?). Even worse, there’s that scene where the audience is supposed to cheer for Darcy’s cunning plan to feed actual human brains to these half-human zombies so that they turn from people into ravening beasts, which is the sort of thing we call a war crime around here. Consequently, I found myself rooting for the zombies.

Now, if you can stop yourself from overthinking all this quite as badly as I do, this is a well-made, well-acted film, though I’d argue one that could have done with doing a bit more thinking itself.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Dead Outside (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It's six months after the outbreak of the viral apocalypse (again). This time, a neurological virus in combination with a badly working vaccine (although I'm not sure the film really means "vaccine" and not just "specialized medication") has caused large parts of humanity to become dangerously deranged. Virus victims develop symptoms of schizophrenia which get worse until the only thing they seem to feel is anger. Still, these virus victims stay very much human, most of them are even still able to ramble angrily, so calling them zombies wouldn't feel proper.

Daniel (Alton Milne), who has lost (how and why will be sort of explained in flashbacks and visions) his family, drives through the Scottish countryside looking for a safe place to stay. His car runs out of gas, but fortunately there's a farmhouse close by for him to seek shelter in. At first, the place seems to be deserted, but the next day Daniel meets April (Sandra Louise Douglas), an armed, emotionally devastated teenager, whose grandparents were the owners of the farm. Initially, April doesn't want Daniel staying there, is even close to shooting him, but something changes her mind.

In the following weeks, the girl and the man grow closer, although both need some time to get over the distrust one develops when everyone else is mad and one can't even be all that sure about one's own state of mind. Daniel and April aren't really willing or able to disclose much about their pasts or their feelings to each other. He thinks she might be immune against the virus, while she panics at the mere thought of getting close to any of the remaining medical facilities. Still, there is trust growing between them.

Things get difficult again when another sane survivor, Kate (Sharon Osdin) arrives one day. Her presence disturbs the brittle, unspoken pact between April and Daniel, and catastrophe already waits around the corner.

It seems as if the British isles are the place to look when it comes to ultra-low budget outbreak films. Although this Scottish production isn't as excellent as Colin, my favourite example of the type, it is still a much better film than a lot of its peers are.

It is also a film many viewers won't like for its very slow pace, the conscious lack of clarity in its storytelling and its rather wonderful disinterest in gore. These things aren't caused by any lack of care in The Dead Outside's director Kerry Anne Mullaney, though, they are very much part of the film's design. The film's slowness fits a film about an end of the world that isn't flashy or explosive, but that instead has come slowly and creeping (the same way as the virus works).

The lack of clarity is a necessary part of a film which lets us see through the eyes of characters who aren't at all sure about their own sanity, and who can't and don't want to remember everything they have done too clearly. Mullaney bases some effective moments of dread on the lack of certainty about what's real and what's not her characters live in. I found the way Daniel's dead family and very real danger mingle much more effective than the typical goresplosion.

This is not to say that the film doesn't contain any action at all. There are two (probably budget-stretching) action set-pieces - of course without explosions - that impress through clever editing and the ability to build up a feel of claustrophobia in open, but dark, spaces.

Mullaney is obviously more interested in her characters than in the action or plot. This is not the sort of film that believes in expository dialogue (although there is one large expository monologue late in the film); much is insinuated and hinted at, probably in the hope for an audience willing and able to put a little work into understanding what is going on with the characters. One of the points the film is trying to make seems to be that there really is no clear difference between the state we call "sanity" and "madness". I don't think that's a point it could make by being clear and obvious about everything.

I thought that the actors were really selling their roles quite well. Sure, the acting is a bit strained in a "look! I'm acting!" way from time to time, but more often than not Douglas and Milne project a mix of normalcy and brittleness that is absolutely right for the direction the film is going in. Sometimes, acting that doesn't read as ultra-professional is of help to let the characters on screen seem like everyday people.

I had some problems with the film's visual side. While there are some impressive shots of the farmhouse and the creepy landscape around it (you know I'm a sucker for nature in its less sweet and mellow variations), the film suffers a little from desaturation syndrome. Of course, muted grey and brown colours help emphasize the desolation of the situation, but there's a lot to be said for using other parts of the colour spectrum too, if only to contrast them with all that grey.

Probably even more problematic is Mullaney's decision to shoot about eighty percent of the film with the camera tilted at an angle, as if everything took place on a ship close to sinking. Creepy angles might be a well established way to build mood, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The last point is certainly reached when I find myself tilting my head to the side while watching a movie.

Still, I found these to be minor problems that The Dead Outside more than made up for. I am an easy mark for the film's charms, seeing who much I despise exposition and clarity in movies, and how much I like the ambiguous and the slow, but even people who aren't me could be able to find something quite irresistible in the film's rhythm, in the way it feels like it was made by someone with very personal ideas of what could be interesting about a viral apocalypse.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

In short: Die Präsenz (2015)

Markus (Matthias Dietrich), an anthropology student, grabs his girlfriend Rebecca (Liv Lisa Fries), his best friend Lukas (Henning Nöhren) and of course a camera for a ten day vacation in Hohnau Castle. Well, at least he’s selling the whole affair as a vacation and romantic getaway to Rebecca. Lukas coming with them is a “surprise”, as is the actual reason for their stay in this particular place: the castle is supposed to be haunted and even has a choice assortment of mysterious deaths in its past. Markus thinks a bit of paranormal research there is exactly what he needs for his dissertation.

Of course, problems soon arise, for Rebecca isn’t happy with all these “surprises”. She also is rather afraid of the supernatural, so obviously, once the local ghoulies and ghosties start with a charming assortment of nightly banging noises, mouldering food, and so on, they do seem to concentrate on her a bit.
Things deteriorate quickly from there on out.

To nobody’s surprise, POV horror has made its way to my native Germany too (though the other two German sub-genre movies I’ve seen have been just too tedious to even mention). It’s still an obvious approach to take when there’s little money involved in a production, and I think it still rather fits into a world filled with creepy pasta and Youtubers shouting at jump scare horror games. And it certainly makes me more hopeful towards a German horror movie than the threat/promise of another pointless gore movie.

Despite a slightly different initial set-up (and a pleasant lack of people talking about demons), Die Präsenz is heavily indebted to the style of the Paranormal Activity movies when it comes to its shocks and its favourite camera positions; it does get going with the abnatural phenomena rather early, spending much less time on tedious characters being tedious at each other. That’s obviously a good thing, and even though the various scares and shocks are rather well-worn, director Daniele Grieco does time them competently, avoiding the tedium of the truly bad half of POV horror.

The actors are competent enough for what they have to do; the castle environs are creepy and not too common in the sub-genre. Everything seems done with competence and a degree of care, leading to a film that doesn’t add much new or memorable to genre formulas but which does while away eighty minutes well enough.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Kill Command (2016)

Some time in the somewhat near future. The squad of soldiers under one Captain Bukes (Thure Lindhardt) is – quite to their annoyance – ordered to undergo a mysterious surprise training manoeuvre on a far-off island. Bukes in particular is even less enthused when he is ordered to take Mills (Vanessa Kirby), a woman with a wireless computer interface in her brain, as an observer for the company who builds all the hi-tech tools he and his men work with on his team. There’s a bit of prejudice against the wired part of the population, and Bukes seems to be particularly angry in this regard.

So much so that his behaviour towards Mills is brazenly unprofessional for the first half hour or so in one of the script’s few obvious missteps, particularly since the film never gets around to explaining the man’s reasons to be such a prick to her. Anyway, the group will suffer from rather more serious problems rather quickly, for the robots and drones they are supposed to train against have developed some kind of hostile consciousness, learn very quickly from their mistakes, and shoot live ammo – wherever they might have acquired that. Until the squad is whittled down to the typical handful of survivors, the machines are having a rather easy time, too, for the battle hardened veterans these guys are supposed to be tend to act like fish in a barrel even once it is quite clear this isn’t any kind of training session.

Which obviously is the second big script problem of Steven Gomez’ science fiction action film Kill Command, with all of these supposedly experienced soldiers running around like chickens with their heads cut off for a bit too long. I’d buy it as reaction to the first shock of training turning into an actual fight, and I do realize that ineffectual space soldiery has a tradition in science fiction movies but most films sell that sort of thing by making the soldiers over-confident, mere cannon fodder, or something of that kind, whereas Kill Command just pretends everything’s normal.

I – as a declared enemy of contemporary script writing’s tendency to explain every fucking thing for no good reason whatsoever – also wish the film had just come out with Bukes’s tragic backstory instead of always suggesting he had one but never telling it; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this backstory would also have explained his loathing for people with chips in their heads.

And while I’m complaining about wasted chances in the script, there’s of course also the pointless, expected and boring in its obviousness kicker ending that at best is supposed to set up a sequel, but most probably is in there because all genre films have to have them today, no matter if they hurt a film or not. As a backseat writer and fan of written science fiction, I’m also rather disappointed the film doesn’t care a bit about the obvious philosophical questions machines developing a consciousness open up, even more so in a world where some people are enhanced a bit further than your typical baseline homo sapiens via electronics. If you’re looking for a film that asks questions about what it means to be human when we can change ourselves with technology, this one’s not going to be it, unless you think “thinking machines evil: kill” is a deeply philosophical approach.

Yet still, given these flaws and wasted chances for being clever or deeper than a puddle, I really rather enjoyed Kill Command, for when you are willing to buy into its set-up and ignore the burning questions that come up, this is a very competently made action movie (but in the future!). The actors do their best with the one-note characters they’ve been given, the effects are some of the most convincing CGI I’ve seen in this budget class, and what the film lacks in thoughtfulness, it makes up for in taut pacing, an ability to convey its locations as physical spaces that is incredibly useful in making a modern-style firefight interesting to watch in a movie, and production design that is clear, simple and highly effective in evoking the mood of this future time and place.

For most of the running time, Gomez’ film is just a bit too exciting for it to get brought down through the flaws of its script; most of the negatives only come to play with a bit of distance, which, given that action film is very much a genre of the Now, might just turn them into no negatives at all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In short: Ghostkeeper (1981)

Warning: spoilers ahead

While on winter holidays, Jenny (Riva Spier), her boyfriend Marty (Murray Ord) and Chrissy (Sheri McFadden) get lost exploring the snowy mountainside beyond the lodge they are staying at.

Because it’s turning dark and the snow is getting heavier, they are happy to stumble upon an old hotel that seems to have been empty for years. It seems like a good place to shack up in for the night, particularly since it is heated. The heating does of course suggest that someone is still living here but a cursory search doesn’t bring up anyone. At first at least. In truth, an elderly woman (Georgie Collins) is watching the protagonists’ every move and seems to be rather entertained by the show.

Jenny and Marty, you see, have one of those “open relationships” that consists of him fucking around as much as he wants while Jenny’s supposed to pretend she doesn’t notice. If she does, she gets the full paternalistic bullcrap, is berated for “not owning him”, for sharing his bank account, as well as for her fear of one day losing her mind like her dead mother. All that, after an evening of Marty and Chrissy salivating at each other in the least pleasant way possible.

Things will change for Jenny soon enough, though I’m not sure if “being chosen by a crazy old woman to become the caretaker of the wendigo possessed lumberjack locked up in the ice cellar” is that much preferable to being Marty’s girlfriend. Actually, I’m positive it is. Plus, at least Marty and Chrissy get killed in unpleasant ways, so that’s something, right?

Jim Makichuk’s Ghostkeeper very much plays out like the Canadian version of US local cinema - the more ambitious sort that tries to give its characters interesting psychological underpinnings its script can’t quite sell.

It’s a fine little film, mind you, mixing its own version of the Wendigo legend (always a favourite with me) with elements of the slasher, the crazy old lady movie, and some left-over 70s psychobabble in a very Canadian way. It’s a pretty slow film, with much of its running time taken over by people running, creeping and walking through the empty hotel, sometimes through the snow. It’s quite atmospheric running and creeping, though, Makichuk making much of the empty lodge he’s filming in - hitting the spot where a comparatively quotidian place becomes threatening by virtue of emptiness and isolation nicely - some creative lighting choices and the weight of the snow surrounding the place. Well, and the crazy people feeding their cellar cannibal, though they are somewhat polite about it.

For my – perhaps overly specific - tastes, a sense of place as strong as the one evoked in Ghostkeeper can be plenty enough to make a horror film entertaining and evocative. Add to that a favourite monster, decent acting, moments of sudden weirdness, and lots of snow, and you have a film I’m bound to enjoy quite a bit.

Your mileage, etc, etc.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wishbaby (2007)

Teenager Maxine (Tiana Benjamin) and her somewhat older brother Colin (Doc Brown) live a rather shitty life in London teetering right at the border of homelessness and worse. Their mother (Ann Faulkner) has left the family squat (as in, the building they are in fact squatting in) a while ago for reasons of drug acquisition, Maxine’s skipping regularly skipping school, and Colin escapes the pressures of having to take care of his sister and working a courier job with increasing regularity into drugs. The responsible social workers are ineffectual and clearly out of their depths, and other family isn’t really too keen on taking any responsibility for the kids. In fact, the social workers are just one step from shoving Maxine into the system of juvenile shelters, which certainly won’t make anyone optimistic for her future.

Things change when Maxine and her friend Jeanette (Leona Ekembe) save the elderly – and somewhat crazy – Eve (Fenella Fielding) from a gang of local thugs. Eve walks around with a creepy looking baby doll in a pram. It’s a wishbaby, she explains to Maxine, a magical creation that can fulfil one’s wishes, a process that has – or so she says – been taught to her by someone she calls The Governess (Claire Cox). Maxine’s rather sceptical about the whole story but when the the thugs who attacked Eve die in rather disturbing ways (people with doll heads are involved), and she learns about her coming future in the juvenile system, she changes her mind and asks Eve to teach her how to make a wishbaby of her own.

Eve agrees. But magic has its price and its dangers, and because Maxine – being black and poor unlike Eve who is white and well-off – needs the magic so much more than Eve ever did, the consequences of it for her will be much more severe. It doesn’t help that clearly nobody ever told Maxine stories about the basic malevolence of magical wish fulfilment, nor that the Governess returns to make things even worse for everyone involved.

Now this is a film that by all rights should be held in proud place as part of the canon of folk horror, seeing as it does take elements of the darkest of fairy tales, classic British weird fiction (think Arthur Machen more than Algernon Blackwood, though I also saw echoes of mid-period Ramsey Campbell) and kitchen sink drama, speaking of the same kinds of darkness folk horror is obsessed with but locating it in a contemporary and urban area.

Director Stephen W. Parsons achieves one of those things classical weird tales had their problems with (sometimes for philosophical reasons, sometimes out of disinterest) particularly well, namely rooting the abnatural occurrences in a believable human sphere. There’s always a danger to this approach of losing the weirdness through too much of an emphasis on the quotidian and the human, making the Weird “relatable” instead of letting it push through the cracks in normal life, but Wishbaby does this very well indeed, building the shitty life of its characters up only to let it become much much worse through an outside agency that may work through their own wishes but really cares little about them at all.

There’s a true weight of malevolence surrounding the supernatural here, the Governess embodying an outside force whose motivations seem to be understandable on first look but whose only truly unambiguous humanly understandable trait is a casual cruelty. There are many creepy and actually horrifying scenes here, be it the scenes where people become doll headed things, or the devastating return of what the Governess made out of Maxine’s and Colin’s mum. This is the sort of film where even what would have been an act of deliverance in other narratives is something that is controlled and enabled by the same outside forces the protagonists suffer under, and can’t lead them to any place better than the bad place they started from; the supernatural and the societal forces of life work very much in the same way against these two.

Wishbaby is clearly a film shot on s shoe-string budget, but apart from some very little things (the music is sometimes a bit too loud in the mix, and other minor technical details of that kind), Parsons quite obviously knows what he wants and how to achieve it, making the somewhat cheap look of whatever this was shot on a part of his aesthetics, and showing himself a deft hand at producing dream-like and strange scenes out of elements like some simple props and a dark room again and again, making this one of those films where vision very obviously wins out over the little stuff like a budget. Parsons is also very good working the intersection between the kitchen sink elements, perhaps subtly suggesting that of course those margins of society said society doesn’t care for or about will be the place where the borders between the real and the unreal are particularly thin. This does work particularly well thanks to a cast – particularly Benjamin and Doc Brown – of very natural feeling actors who don’t struggle at all with keeping the moments that are quite the opposite of natural believable.

And, you know, it sure doesn’t hurt to see a horror film whose protagonists are poor and black.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

In short: Hennessy (1975)

Belfast in the mid-70s. Despite a certain amount of IRA connections, Niall Hennessy (Rod Steiger) has sworn off all violence for whatever Cause. This changes when his wife and daughter are shot – not exactly on purpose - by a panicked British soldier (who is afterwards promptly killed by an IRA sniper) during a minor riot that goes catastrophically wrong.

Before his family is even buried, Hennessy takes off to London – the promised killing of the whole British squad involved by his former IRA buddies isn’t quite enough for him, it seems. Instead, Hennessy’s planning to blow up the British parliament on opening day, timed to kill every MP, the House of Lords, the Queen and most of the rest of the Royal Family. That’s not a plan the IRA would reasonably underwrite, so Hennessy is soon hunted by his former best friend Sean Tobin (Eric Porter) as well as equally damaged Special Branch Inspector Hollis (Richard Johnson).

Don Sharp’s mid-70s thriller is – not unexpectedly – quite a good film that does some rather interesting things, most of them well. Particularly striking is the horrible awkwardness of the violence in it, the death of Hennessy’s family setting up the style in which the film portrays violence as something that – once put in motion – tends to escalate to the point of catastrophe, something that would be funny if it didn’t leave so many dead bodies; the idea of controlled violence committed by professionals leading to computable results contemporary action cinema loves a little too much is completely alien to the film. Here, things escalate, people make mistakes, and innocents have to die for them, until mass murder doesn’t feel so much like a choice anyone makes but as something they just happen to commit because that’s what using violence to solve any conflict in the end will lead to.

Sharp isn’t much for Peckinpah-style slow motion blood baths in his portrayal of bloodshed; the tone of the violence here is much more matter of fact, lending everything that happens a – quite horrible – kind of logic. Generally, Sharp goes for the gritty and unsentimental style you’d expect from this kind of thriller shot in 1975, and doing the expectedly good job with it.

The director also somehow manages to reign in Rod Steiger’s love for scenery-chewing, dragging a quieter and more effective performance out of him whose only flaw is the bad Irish accent. But then, the film is full of those – just listen to what Lee Remick does -so I won’t blame Steiger too much.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Haunted Universities (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.


Haunted Universities is an anthology movie made up by four stories which are mainly connected through the presence of the same volunteer rescue team, as well as a few other details.

The first episode, called "The Toilet" starts out with two gangsters messing up a student and his girlfriend. It looks like the young man is trying his hands at being a junior drug dealer, but is unsuccessful enough to make the gangsters' boss so angry that he wants his drugs back (plus compensation for his troubles, of course). The genius kid pusher has stored his stash in his locker at university, so the quartet makes its way there. After the drugs are safely recovered, one of the gangsters, Cherd, gets awfully interested in the ghost story about the haunting of the toilet on the building's fifth floor the students tell him.

There's certainly nothing problematic at taking a look there, right? And I'm sure the nobody will meet one or more very enthusiastic ghosts on the fifth floor, especially not on the toilet.

The second segment, "The Elevator", is told to Muay (Panward Hemmanee), the youngest and only female member of the rescue crew seen in every episode of the movie, by a student named Nok Noi (Ashiraya Peerapatkunchaya). Nok Noi is the daughter of a general responsible for the shooting of several pro-democratic students during the 70s. One of the older students, whose family has lost some members during the occurrences, doesn't take too kindly to her family connections or her rather unrepentant take on her family's guilt, so the girl has to partake in a very special hazing ritual. Being pushed into the elevator where the students were shot, she has some rather disturbing supernatural experiences. But her troubles don't stop there. Now one of the student ghosts follows her wherever she goes. She becomes convinced that it is her responsibility to reunite "her" ghost with the ghost of his dead girlfriend, but this is not something that can be done as easily as it sounds.

As it turns out, Muay's help will be quite indispensable.

The third story, "Morgue" is the mandatory comedy segment about a student of dentistry (Pangsit Piseesotgan) with a terrible fear of the dead having to survive one working night in a hospital morgue. You know what will happen.

The last segment, "The Stairway", is a flashback into Muay's past that explains why she has the special ability which enabled her to help Nok Noi solve her problem.

Her roommate Sa (Anna Reese) meets a rather excitable young man on an Internet chat. It's all fun and games until he threatens to kill her, but who is afraid of random weirdoes on the 'net? Instead of getting nervous, Sa decides to go and buy dinner for herself and Muay. While Sa is out, Muay learns that the "random weirdo" is in fact their neighbour. Still, he seems more nerdy than dangerous and is easily dissuaded from whatever he was planning. Alas, while Muay talks with him, Sa has met a more suave example of the psycho species.

It turns out that Sa's new acquaintance is a friend of their neighbour, whom he has also met on the Internet - in a chat room for budding serial killers. Obviously, he, Internet weirdo and Sa will have to encounter each other in the dark.

The girl would have been tough enough to cope with one psycho, but two are a bit much for her, at least as long as she is still alive.

Haunted Universities' existence is certainly a by-product of the commercial success of the Thai anthology movie Phobia. Both films feature four tales of supernatural horror that seem inspired by the crosspollination between traditional Thai ghost stories and urban myth, but they still feel different enough that there's no reason to call Haunted Universities a mere rip-off. Frankly, it is also just too effective a film for that.

Instead of having four directors, Haunted Universities makes do with only two of them - Bunjong Sinthanamongkolkul and Sutthiporn Tubtim. It's not clear how the directing duties were divided between them, but I would not be surprised to hear that both were working together for the whole film. Of course, I have been known to be wrong quite frequently.

Be that as it may, the men's direction is what truly makes Haunted Universities work. The plots of the single segments (the highly peculiar last one excepted) are not exactly original, one could even call them rather thin, and the connections between the segments are not much to get excited about either, but Sinthanamongkolkul and Tubtim show a great sense for the proper timing of horror effects that just makes the stories work.

There's some rather exciting use of colour on display too, a very pleasant surprise after too many contemporary films insisting on looking all desaturated all the time, as if the only colours visible to the human eye were grey, black and a sickly yellow. Being a horror film, Haunted Universities takes much of its colour schemes from the less exciting parts of the spectrum too, but the directors get a lot of moody (and quite Bava) mileage out of techniques like contrasting strong green and red tones during the intrusion of the supernatural with warm yellows that suggest safety for the characters.

The more-than-real colouring in conjunction with the simple stories give the film a bit of a comic book feel. This is not a realist take on the horror anthology format, and does instead seem to stand firmly on the "pop" side of popular culture, which is a very fine place for a film to stand when it knows what to do there. And most of the episodes do know.

Of course, every anthology movie has to have a weaker segment, and it is more often than not the supposedly comical one that saps all energy and fun out of the film it appears in. As in the world of Amicus, so in the Haunted Universities. "Morgue" really isn't all that bad, it just isn't very funny (hint to directors: people being afraid of ghosts just isn't funny in a horror film where they have good reason to be afraid of them). Unfortunately, it is also the slowest segment of the bunch and drags the tempo of the whole film down a little. It's nothing proper use of the fast forward button couldn't cure, though.

Luckily, after they have bored us for twenty minutes, the directors are sending us out with the best and most odd episode. Where the first three segments deliver about what one expects of them, the fourth one is quite peculiar in its plot and its delivery, culminating in the promise of a confrontation between everyone's favourite monsters: female long-haired ghost and serial killer. Despite its theme, "The Stairway" is no less comedic than the film's third segment, its humour is however of a decidedly blacker type. I always had the feeling that the story would turn on me and get nasty just after the next grim joke, and in the end, it got even nastier than I expected before the film ended in a very ironic sort of happy end.

Now, if a nice Western DVD label would take it upon it to publish a subtitled DVD of Haunted Universities, friends of Thai cinema like me would happily drop some money in its lap. I'd highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

In short: Shadow Fury (2001)

Shadows, don’t they make you furious, too? Anyway, we’re in the near future (some time after the war on the Comoro Islands, apparently), which looks exactly like 2001. But there are clones - mostly chicken clones because human cloning is forbidden - and other mildly science fictional stuff.

The three chief scientists of the main cloning company hire liver-damaged bounty hunter Mitch Madsen – sometimes Madison because most character names here fluctuate depending on the actor using them – (Sam Bottoms) to find and kill their former colleague Dr. Oh (Pat Morita) who has grown himself some excellent mad scientist/Japanese fighting video game hair, and some clones, and wants to kill them, conquer the world, win Mortal Kombat, or something.

Despite the presence of super mega ninja clone Takeru (Masakatsu Funaki whose chest I now feel rather intimately acquainted with what with all the ripping off of his shirts here), Mitch manages to kill Oh. Unfortunately, Takeru escapes, and he’s programmed to kill Oh’s surviving ex-clients. On the positive side, Takeru also possesses the perfect human liver that could replace Mitch’s, so there’s rather good motivation for our hero to continue his work by protecting the scientists. When Takeru’s not trying to kill someone he spends time with Minnie Mouse voiced prostitute Sasha (Cassandra Grae) who just might be able to help the clone ninja lose his killer instinct, and perhaps hook him up with Godfrey Ho.

To complicate things, the scientists Takeru is programmed to kill - apart from sexy girls scientist Dr. Foster/Forster/Forrester (Alexandra Kamp) of course – are indeed evil and have their own program of evil killer clones with the strength of a boxer, the agility of a gymnast, and the psychology of Jack the Ripper (seriously). Why, might our near future hold a team-up between a crap ninja and a double-crap alcoholic (no doctor, the poison gas destroyed my liver, not me marinating it in alcohol) bounty hunter?

Usually, you didn’t get such a load of adorable bullshit in your cheap direct to DVD US action movies anymore in 2001, but thankfully, some Japanese gentlemen on the production and writing side, and director Makoto Yokoyama still carried the true spirit of the genre, and let it out quite wonderfully in this very special movie. Shadow Fury has it all: action sequences that start out ridiculously bad but end up ridiculous and quite good, the best mad scientist hair ever, some hilarious yet straight-faced “drama” that probably would work better if the film’s dialogue weren’t generally absurd, and often so wrong it’s funny.

Because it is that sort of film, we also get an evil kid clone and his various older versions, lots of hairlessness, a guest stint by Fred Williamson himself as Mitch’s black market weapons provider with a deep love of ninjas, some damaged clones in very bad wigs for the film’s more tokusatsu-style fight scenes, and lines like “I don’t want your goddamn liver! I want your help!”.

And if that doesn’t convince you of the Shadow Fury’s artistic merits, I don’t know what could.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

We Are Still Here (2015)

Emotionally reeling from the accidental death of their grown-up son, Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig) decide moving out of the house he grew up in might assist them on their way to closure. Turns out, moving to Aylesbury, Mass., situated right in Lovecraft Country might not have been the best idea to that end, for there’s something very wrong with the house they move to.

There’s a reason the place had been left uninhabited for thirty years. Particularly Anne finds herself confronted with various low key haunting effects that suggest the presence of the spirit of their son, but surely, actual ghosts don’t move to new homes with people. There’s also something deeply wrong with the house’s cellar that manifests itself in unseasonable heat, the smell of burning flesh, and – if you’re an unlucky electrician – the crispy-hot living dead.

After some time of weirdness, Anne convinces the more sceptical Paul, who still can’t quite wave away what’s going on, it might be a good idea to call a couple of friends of hers for help. May (Lisa Marie) and her hippie husband Jacob (the inevitable yet lovely Larry Fessenden) do have a talent for contacting the spirit world, it turns out, but there’s something worse in the house than just a few – already pretty damn bad, it’ll turn out – ghosts.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably already have read various bits and pieces about Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here emphasising how much of the film is a loving homage to Lucio Fulci. That’s absolutely true, too, but if you expect a film that feels or is meant to feel like a Fulci flick from his great period, you’ll probably end up confused or disappointed, for Geoghegan uses certain markers of Fulci’s aesthetic in a way often antithetical to the old maestro’s approach. I rather think that’s a good thing, too, for what would be the point in making a film that’s only aping a gone great?

But let’s start on the obviously Fulci-esque elements: the film’s colour-scheme, the characters’ wardrobes and the production design are very much taken from Fulci’s playbook, as are the nods towards Lovecraft (bonus points to Geoghegan for using Aylesbury instead of a more obvious place). And there’s really no doubt in which direction the scene with the electrician in the cellar nods; even though what happens to him is rather different to the doom of a certain Fulci workman in a Southern cellar.

However, no Fulci film – from whichever career phase – would ever have featured as naturalistically drawn characters as the Sacchetti’s (speaking of nods…), actual people with actually believable interiority who mostly do things that make sense, even when these acts are ill-advised. Crampton and Sensenig are rather wonderful as the Sacchettis too, selling much of the sadness and loss, as well as their long intimacy with gestures, posture and looks, without them or the script feeling the need to oversell it and drift into a more melodramatic direction.

Geoghegan’s script does in general – except for one bar scene involving Monte Markham telling the local bar owner stuff she already knows quite well for no good reason apart from clueing the audience in – tend to find the sweet spot between showing and telling and seems to trust in the audience not to need every little thing spelled out for them. Of course, this generally logical and humanly believable approach is pretty much the exact opposite to Fulci’s (and Sacchetti’s) love for slow, dream-like series of strange occurrences vaguely drawn characters just stumble through. I do think it works very well for We Are Still Here, mind you.

Keeping with the Fulci, even the way the film uses gore, once it arrives for the final act, is very different from the maestro’s, replacing the slow lingering on the bizarre and gloopy with relatively quick edits. Though it still is rather bizarre and gloopy.

All in all, Geoghegan uses elements of Fulci’s filmmaking to turn out a more conventionally accomplished movie, losing the dream-like, weird and just plain crazy mood in favour of being an effective, clever, and well-acted low budget horror film. I certainly won’t blame a film for being that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

In short: Road Games (2015)

Somewhere in rural France - the huge empty part films have taught me is nearly unpopulated except by cannibals, serial killers and immortal Nazis. After helping fellow hitch-hiker Véronique (Joséphine de la Baume) out of a spot of bother with a driver, brit Jack (Andrew Simpson) teams up with her. Despite a certain language barrier, there’s romance in the air: Jack running away from some sort of affair gone wrong and Véronique being rather French.

Things take a turn for the sinister when they are picked up by one Grizard (Frédéric Pierrot). At first, Grizard is perfectly pleasant – if a bit too happy picking up road kill and depositing it in his trunk for Jack’s (and my) taste – but Véronique doesn’t have a terribly good feeling about him. Nonetheless, they agree when Grizard invites them to spend the night in his and his wife Mary’s (Barbara Crampton) home. There’s a serial killer roaming the roads of this part of the country, so staying outside just isn’t safe, or so Grizard says. So perhaps, agreeing to the invitation was a better idea than horror movie lore suggests…Of course, the younger couple may harbour a secret or two themselves.

I was very pleasantly surprised by Abner Pastoll’s fine thriller. It’s the kind of film that does very little I’d strictly call new but it uses the old quite a bit better than many films tending the same plot(s). Why, this is a plot-twist heavy thriller where I even found myself enjoying the plot twists! It helps that these twists generally make sense, and don’t go out of their way to make the things that went on before them absurd even if they do stretch plausibility once or twice; it’s the sort of approach that even makes those twists you do see coming effective as parts of the narrative (well, most of them, at least).

Pastoll also makes very good use of the – sometimes as sun-drenched as is traditional – rural horror film landscapes of France, aiming for the feeling of isolation that comes with large empty spaces. As presented, the house of Gizard and Mary is pleasantly creepy too, without the film feeling the need to go so overboard with the New French Gothic (that’s a thing, right?) you have to ask yourself why anyone entering it wouldn’t just run the other way at once.

The acting is good too, the core quartet giving performances suggesting just the right amount of depths and secrets to their characters. I’m happy with Barbara Crampton’s career revival as a wonderful character actress anyhow, and her performance here just cements how good she is as the kind of weird role contemporary horror movies can provide.

Finally, the film even has a bit of a moral: when visiting a country, it might behoove one to understand something of its language beyond “hello”, “goodbye” and “I don’t understand”.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Criminal (2016)

Coming from the minds responsible (I choose that word carefully) for the script to The Rock and directed by one Ariel Vromen, this bizarre mess of a would-be Taken movie “with a twist” sees low functioning sociopath with brain damage Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner) abducted by the CIA and imprinted – in a highly illegal human experiment but don’t tell that to the film – by kindly scientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) via what I can only assume to be brain laser printing with parts of the brain of heroic, totally morally upright yet alas rather dead CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds). CIA bigwig Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) needs Pope’s brain, because he is the only one who knows how and where to contact a hacker generally known as The Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to install “a wormhole” in the US rocket system. Since crazy Spanish anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) as well as “The Russians” are after The Dutchman too, the matter is somewhat pressing.

So pressing indeed that Wells is throwing a patented Gary Oldman hissy fit when Jericho can’t deliver the information he wants about thirty seconds after he comes to from anaesthesia; a minute and some hilarious business about pain killers later, Wells already has Jericho carted off to be murdered somewhere else while Franks looks on with the same mildly embarrassed facial expression Tommy Lee Wallace most probably held on his face ever since he read the script. Of course, Jericho escapes, and of course he starts to hover around Pope’s family, beginning to develop curious stuff he never had before like “feelings”, and involves himself in the hunt for the Dutchman thanks to his newly developed conscience courtesy of a CIA agent. And nope, I don’t think the film actually sees the irony in that.

Obviously, Criminal is a wild concoction of stupid nonsense full of people with hilarious names (there’s also Scott Adkins wasted in a minor non-fighting role as one “Pete Greensleeves”) - at times hilarious, at times more than just a little annoying, stupid throughout. The older actors understandably go for all sorts of scenery-chewing, Costner perhaps hoping for an Oscar as some sort of ultra-violent Rain Man, Wallace looking as if he would really rather like to be elsewhere, and Oldman and Mollà just going all out crazy. It is, after all, pretty difficult to be subtle when your character is called Quaker Wells, and the narrative takes place in a world where everyone is really good at murdering people yet also monumentally stupid. Things are made even more hilarious by the script’s very earnest attempts at that human emotion stuff Jericho as well as his writers don’t get, with many a scene that thinks it does some “Flowers for Algernon” kind of clever tear-jerking when all it actually does is spit out clichés without ever earning any emotional involvement from the audience. It’s pretty funny, really, and made even more so by the writers’ obvious difficulty to understand the differences between various kinds of brain damage, sociopathy and the autistic spectrum. If only Pete Greensleeves had been there to explain.

While this is all really funny in a way that must make Luc Besson quite grumpy he didn’t have the idea, the film really lets its audience down with the action scenes. Vromen’s staging here is barely coherent, not terribly competent and lacking in all sorts of impact, making the action look not like the too-stylized nonsense someone like Olivier Megaton had delivered, nor like something a competent director had down, but rather like random jittery shots strung vaguely together after what someone in the editing room must have heard action scenes are supposed to look like years ago.

But hey, we’ll always have Quaker Wells.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Death means NOTHING to a beast with nine lives!

The Forest (2016): This is by far not the worst movie about people running through creepy woods I’ve seen, but Jason Zada’s film is pretty damn dull, going through the usual jumps scares and other mainstream horror business – of course there’s an embarrassing plot twist, too - with my worst enemy, boring competence. It’s too bad, too, for Natalie Dormer’s performance is as good as the underwritten script lets its be, and there are hints of the more individual and less generic film this could have been if it was made with a bit of artistry, thought and care instead of bland professionalism. While I’m complaining, I’d also have rather liked it if the film had actually made use of its Aokigahara setting; as it stands, this might as well have taken place in Oregon for all the use the film makes of the cultural background (or the potential differences between yurei and ghosts).

Slender (2015): On the other hand, the movie I watched the next day was this version of the slender man creepypasta turned internet folklore, making The Forest look much better. It’s not the difference in production values – Joel Petrie’s film not surprisingly being POV horror – so much as the fact that Zada’s film at least has a script acquainted with the idea that at least vaguely interesting things pertinent to a film’s plot should happen in regular intervals during said film’s running time. Whereas Slender mostly contains obnoxious characters being obnoxious assholes, background story that could have been developed in fifteen minutes bloated up so much it takes up most of the film, a surprisingly bland use of our slender titular character, and a pretty damn hard to believe way to get the characters to the place where they meet their dooms in form of ten minutes or so of badly realized POV horror standards, school division.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970): One of these days, I’ll treat this Hammer Dracula movie to the deluxe write-up it deserves. Until then, I’ll misuse it as a stop-gap so as not to have to write about three movies I loathed in one post. While its director Peter Sasdy’s output is rather variable in quality, this is an atmospherically and pleasantly gruesome entry in the series that also features a script that makes good on the unfulfilled promises of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave of trying to use Lee’s misogynist prick vampire to tell a tale about innocent youth vilified by their hypocritical (and hilariously bourgeois in their secret “decadence”) elders and driven into the arms of actual evil. Which is still a rather conservative view of 60s youth revolt but does work perfectly in the context of the film and gives Lee the opportunity to play his hated career-defining role as evil and petty as he’s able – which is rather deserving of a very capital E and P. Why, even Ralph Bates isn’t absolutely terrible here.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Blood Orgy of the She Devils (1972)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Professional witch Mara (Lila Zaborin) has quite a set-up in her dreamy Californian country palace. Apart from leading a coven of scantily-clad women, a black drummer and her shaggy gift from Satan, Toruke (William Bagdad), in interpretive dance orgies with added human sacrifice, she also works as a medium, helps people experience the deaths of their past incarnations and reads cards. Probably all in the name of finding new female members and male victims for her dance coven, but who really knows what's going on in her mind (director Ted V. Mikels certainly doesn't)?

And that's still not everything the good woman does for a living. Mara also hires her black magical powers out to some shady customers looking for a very special professional killer to get rid of the UN ambassador for Rhodesia. It seems that talking to demons and drowning a photo in a very large cognac glass is all that is needed to make the poor guy croak.

It is a little unfortunate for Mara and Toruke that her clients in crime don't like the thought of having any living accessories to their crimes and shoot the two (and a random coven member) dead. That's only a minor set-back for Mara, though. Shortly after being killed, she just turns into a green mist and then into an adorable black cat and revives Toruke (no luck for the poor coven member) by talking to him. It does not take long until her would-be killers get a taste of their own medicine through more entertaining and practical magickal workings.

While all this has been going on, the film has also treated us to the adventures of two very old students, Mark (Tom Pace) and Lorraine (Leslie McRae, or however her name was spelt that week). They are getting quite impressed by the witch, and even the raised eyebrows of their teacher, white magician Dr. Helsford (Victor Izay), can't keep them away from the witch's house.

This can only end in a climactic black (dancing) sabbath, an anti-climactic magical duel and the death of a rubber bat.

I had been able to protect myself from the siren song of the films of Ted V. Mikels for quite some time, but - like it happens in the film for Mark and Lorraine - it is now too late to save my soul from Mikels' (probably diabolical) influence. As is the case with the director's much more mean-spirited brother in weirdly obsessive and strangely compulsive no-budget film Andy Milligan, followers of mainstream conceptions of palatable filmmaking need not apply when it comes to Mikels' work; sane people shouldn't either.

They'd probably be repelled by the absence of narrative logic, the static camera work, the stilted and at times very silly dialogue, and the decidedly non-actorly acting, anyway. It is probably for the better.

Obviously, the less depraved movie fan's loss is my gain. The acting might be bad, but I found it utterly enjoyable and oh so very enthusiastic. Especially Lila Zaborin as main witch Mara lays it on as thick as her own make-up, which is of course absolutely fitting for someone playing a super witch with the awesome power of incessantly blabbering occult nonsense. When I think about the sort of people active in the guru biz in the real world, I'm not even sure anymore that what Zaborin does here should be called over-acting. After all, cult leaders aren't usually working their mojo by being subtle.

While it is true that Blood Orgy doesn't have much internal logic or sensible plot progression (oh, alright, I'll be honest, the film doesn't have a plot at all!), there still is a lot of stuff happening on screen. When Mikels isn't showing us a pop version of a dance-crazy black sabbath as choreographed by Bob Fosse's acid-loving spiritual twin, he delights us with other occult cheese of the highest quality, with one moment more absurd than the one that came before. The director also shows an excellent hand at filling his film with telling (that is to say, very odd) details, like the Winnetou-like Hollywood-Injun speak Mara's main spirit guide speaks in with utter disregard of good taste or the poor actors who have to react to her without falling over laughing. These moments of very special early 70s occultism mania are interrupted by "interesting" discussions about witchcraft, all probably taken verbatim from a cheap non-fiction paperback about the subject Mikels bought in a grocery store, and acted out in the puzzled tones of people who haven't the slightest clue what they are talking about and most assuredly don't know half of the words they are using.

To make the film even more fantastic, there are also hypnotic regression sequences Mikels cleverly uses to pad his film out to the required running time and add a little bit of the important spice of regular violence to it. Sure, these scenes only derail the plodding narrative further, but how could I complain about a bunch of very white, probably middle-class Californians pretending to be Native Americans and torturing Tom Pace to death?

And as if all this weren't enough, the movie also features (and I quote) "very special electronic music" composed by Carl Zittrer, the man who is also responsible for the excellent abuse of electronic devices in the films of Bob Clark. His score here consists of random warbling noises of the highest order of random warbliness and is therefore utterly perfect for the film it belongs to.

I suspect that if you have any interest in the products of the late 60s/early 70s obsession with the occult, or have even a little love for cheap-skate weirdo filmmaking (and if not, why are you reading this, unless you're my mum?), Blood Orgy of the She Devils will be right up your alley. In other words, this damn thing looks like it was made just for me.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

In short: Durango Is Coming, Pay or Die (1971)

Original title: Arriva Durango… paga o muori

We’re back in the Italian West. Gunman Durango (Brad Harris, making for a fun western hero) – inevitably called Django in the dub of the version of the film I’ve seen – works as a roaming debt and money collector. Bandits have stolen your cows? Get them back for ten percent of their worth! A thug owes you money? Durango takes care of it for his ten percent! He’s rather popular too, for it is clear our hero prefers selling his services to the working poor and the down-trodden. In fact, when Durango wanders into a town dominated by evil banker, loan shark and all around crazy asshole Ferguson (Gino Lavagetto) he somewhat disgustedly declines to work for him.

Ironically, stumbling upon the aftermath of a coach robbery, making short process of the Mexican bandits responsible and arresting their eccentric leader El Tuerto (José Torres), Durango sort of does work for Ferguson. At least, he’s getting him a whole lot of money back. Ferguson isn’t happy with Durango insisting on his usual ten percent instead of the pennies he wants to give him, and only pays our protagonist under Duress. Later, some of his thugs ambush Durango on and take the money back.

Of course, Durango ambushes right back a night or so later but instead of just letting the gunman ride away with his now hard-earned bit of money, Ferguson decides to double down, frames Durango for a murder and starts making a list with the jury members he prefers to find Durango guilty. Obviously, Durango will escape and take vengeance on the banker.

Roberto Bianchi Montero’s Durango Is Coming turned out to be a pleasant surprise for this long-time spaghetti western fan, seeing as I’m pretty sure I’ve reached the bottom of the barrel of the genre by now when it comes to films in it I haven’t seen. And sure, Durango isn’t a particularly deep or complex example of the genre, but it is a sprightly and entertaining film that uses clichés and well-worn plot elements with excitement and charm. And who can resist a film whose main villain is as realistic as they come – a crazy, greedy banker? Lavagetto gets a handful of good scenes too, with his insane bout of laughter about the usefulness of dead men for financial transactions certainly the high point there.

Montero’s direction isn’t particularly stylish but it’s generally visually interesting enough to keep one interested, while the action is staged with competence. This is one of the friendlier films of the sub-genre, and while it has quite the body count, it does lack the nasty streak of a lot of its genre companions, clearly on purpose, for where many a film of the genre shoots for angry political subtexts of varying kind or a generally bitter or cynical view of the world, this one’s really escapist entertainment at its heart. Which isn’t a bad thing at all, obviously, at least as long as a film is good escapist entertainment. Durango Is Coming surely is that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sacrifice (2016)

Warning: spoilers are as inevitable as the cold indifference of the universe

After a series of miscarriages, medical doctor Tora Hamilton (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Duncan Guthrie (Rupert Graves) decide to adopt a child. Because these people are rich shits only a baby will do, so they move to Duncan’s native Shetland where his family is involved in a clinic and adoption centre. They’ll just have to live and work in Scotland for twelve months and a new-born will be theirs. Who knew this baby adoption stuff is that easy?

While digging a hole to bury a horse in the peat around the house Duncan’s father (David Robb) found for them, Tora discovers a peat body. It’s a dead woman whose heart has been cut out, with runes branded on her back. She also must have delivered a baby only about a week or so before her death. The local police under DI McKie (Ian McElhinney) isn’t particularly perturbed about the dead body. Only thanks to Tora’s agreeable nosiness (we’re probably meant to think it’s caused by the magical word “baby” rather than her being very civic-minded, but let’s not go there) and her ability to look up weather news in old newspapers can they even be convinced the body is only a few years old, but there’s clearly nothing being done at all to even identify the corpse.

Not surprisingly, Tora assumes this amount of incompetence can’t be real, and somebody is trying to conceal some kind of secret. Soon, she finds herself involved in various – often rather illegal – avenues of research that suggest a kind of crazy fertility cult connection to proceedings. Finally, Tora does manage to convince McKie’s subordinate DS Dana Tulloch (Joanne Crawford) – who’s initially from Dundee – that something very mysterious is going on, but will the two women beat the patriarchy?

Sacrifice is a rather frustrating film. It features a highly competent cast, excellent photography, and decent if sometimes somewhat clumsy direction – just try and manage to watch the scene of Tora in front of the burning car and not start to giggle at the clichéd way it is staged – by Peter A. Dowling but manages not to use any of this quite to its own advantage.

The film’s main problem is how willing its is to fall back on very tired and standard gothic romance/romantic thriller and conspiracy thriller tropes without actually showing the ability to make effective use of them. Consequently, the conspiracy here does everything an evil conspiracy does in a movie, without thought or care taken if what it does actually makes sense for it. So of course the conspiracy leaves an absurd body trail for something that must have been a secret for several hundred years, and makes an hilariously bad job of making up excuses and picking scapegoats, while blocking every of Tora’s early investigations in exactly the way that is most bound to make her more suspicious. The conspiracy is also based on beliefs that just don’t work for the people that are supposed to have them.

It is particularly annoying because Sacrifice has a perfectly decent basic fear at its core, seeing as it concerns itself with a patriarchal secret society that can only see women as breeders and – literally – sacrifices and a modern woman fighting against it, with all the potential for social critique and paranoia towards the men who are closest to a woman that offers. However, the film’s treatment of this is so flabby, bland, and old-fashioned it actually manages to take this set-up and not feel feminist at all; one might praise it for at least not being misogynist, but having no position at all relating to a rather important part of one’s plot does nobody any good. Certainly not a viewer who expects a film to do more than just go through the motions of a thriller when its obvious possibilities for angry, or terrifying, or effectively depressing filmmaking are basically screaming in your face.

As it is, this is a perfectly watchable film that’ll probably anger nobody, which would be fantastic if not evoking emotions or thoughts were what films are for.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

In short: Dreamcatcher (2003)

Four friends (Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant) once gifted with random yet plot relevant psychic powers by their mentally disabled friend Duddits (Andrew Robb in the flashbacks, a dreadful Donnie Wahlberg later on) are having their annual reunion in the usual cabin in the woods somewhere in the snowiest part of Maine (or as we call it outside of the Movies, British Columbia). Unfortunately, this year, an alien craft has crashed down nearby and starts infecting people with toothy turds the film calls shitweasels, and the military gentleman responsible for alien defence (Morgan Freeman for reasons only known to him and the director playing a character that needs wild scenery chewing “naturalistically”) has grown murderously mad in twenty-five years of alien hunting.

But fear not, for this situation is exactly why Duddits gave our friends their psychic powers. Or something.

Given the film’s enthusiasm for stuff coming out of peoples’ arses and its overall quality, I’m probably not the first one using the word “turd” to describe Dreamcatcher. Bizarre train wreck is rather appropriate too, particularly when describing a film directed by Lawrence Kasdan and written by William Goldberg and Kasdan, men who one would expect to do better.

Sure, the Stephen King novel this is based on seems more like King just letting the favourite bits of his subconscious stream onto paper instead of writing a structured novel (or what goes as “structured” in his specific case), giving us a sort of Little Stevie’s Greatest Hits, so turning it into a decent movie surely would have meant rather difficult scripting work including judicious cutting and quite a few changes to make the thing flow or just make basic sense. Ironically, Goldman does change a lot about the story, but none of the changes seem useful to make anything work better on screen. In fact, there’s little about the script that works at all: the dialogue is generally preposterously bad, leading to cartoony one-note performances it is difficult to blame the cast for; the plot – and the way characters act – makes little sense and is pretty damn absurd without ever reaching the dream-like quality that could save the film; and the supposed suspense scenes are dragging along like nobody’s business.

That dragging does of course come with the territory of turning a deeply silly alien invasion plot into a slow and ponderous 130 minute colossus of a movie full of scenes that don’t seem to ever, ever want to end for no dramatic or practical reason. But what do I expect of a movie whose idea of suspense is “will the evil alien manage to lift a manhole cover before Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore end their completely pointless helicopter versus gun fight?”.

Another puzzling bit is the near total absence of female characters that make one dream of the presence of The Girl or The Wife. Making one or two of the friends women would clearly have been beyond even the wildest imagination of a film repeatedly calling its main villain “Mister Gay”.
On the plus side, Dreamcatcher is usually bad in unexpected and puzzling ways, and if one has the patience, one just might take a look at what crawled out of the asses of Kasdan and Goldman and have a good laugh at it.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (2015)

Original title: 퇴마: 무녀굴

Sin Jin-myeong (Kim Seong-gyoon) – in a way that does not seem uncommon for quite a few people in Asian countries like Japan and South Korea as far as I understand (which might not be far enough) – has one foot firmly planted in the world of belief and the other in that of science, in his combined role as a shaman and as a psychiatrist. It’s actually a useful combination of skill sets, in that it helps Jin-myeong to discern if someone is mentally ill or suffering from a spirit sickness and give her or him the proper help in any case. He is also neither a fraud nor interested in making a lot of money (though what we see of his lifestyle suggests he’s making quite a bit of it), very much trying to keep out of the limelight, even though TV journalist (with a history of debunking shamans as frauds, the film implies, though I suspect not because she doesn’t believe in the supernatural at all) Joo Hye-in (Cha Ye-ryeon) is trying her damndest to at least get an interview with him.

Joo Hye-in will actually get her wish when she helps Jin-myeong with information concerning his newest case, though there’ll be none of the debunking subplot you’d get in a western film because the journalist will quickly witness things nobody could debunk and does the culturally appropriate thing and quickly accepts Jin-myeong is no fraud. Said case is a rather disturbing and dangerous one, too.

Just before he dies in a mysterious accident, an old army friend of Jin-myeong’s sends him an email asking for help for his wife Kim Geum-joo (Yoo Seon) whom he suspects to be possessed, most probably by a vindictive spirit. At least, people around her die under mysterious circumstances, and she has curious blackouts during which she acts like a very different – and really rather unpleasant – person. On a first meeting, during which Geum-joo is in one of her “phases”, Jin-myeong quickly suspects that a very strong, very dangerous, and very malevolent spirit is having its way with her. It’ll take quite some investigative work and involve quite a bit of danger to help her, particularly since the spirit isn’t just interested in Geum-joo but also in her little daughter Se-yeon (Yoon Ji-min-I).

In large parts, Kim Hwi’s The Chosen is what you’d expect from a contemporary South Korean mainstream horror film (that is to say, the sort of horror film that gets a big release in the summer, which isn’t blockbuster but horror movie season there). It’s exceedingly slick on a technical level, well-acted by pretty people, and features the sort of production values many a western horror film would kill for to have. Unlike many a film made in the country in the last few years (the golden age of South Korean horror looking done and gone from over here), Kim’s film doesn’t work up to a nonsensical twist that makes everything that came before less interesting, though (an approach I blame on quite a few filmmakers misunderstanding misunderstanding what made A Tale of Two Sisters so great).

In fact, the film works more like a proper supernatural mystery, or to be more specific, an occult detective tale, with our hero investigating a phenomenon very much like a more quotidian detective would a murder, using hypnosis, his medium (Kim Hye-seong) and plain research and investigation to understand and conquer the problem. This does of course put our hero very much in the tradition of western literary characters like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, particularly since his mix of the spiritual and the scientific is very much in the same spirit as the approach these characters have to their jobs. I’d love to know if the-shaman-as-occult-detective is an approach you find often in Korean supernatural tales (I haven’t seen another movie from the country that does), if there are translations of things of the Blackwood or Hodgson stories into Korean, or if the film’s approach just happens to fit into one of my favourite horror sub-genres.

And make no mistake, this sort of thing is catnip to me, and a strong enough lure I don’t even mind much how jump scare heavy the film’s first half or so is. Although, to be fair, Kim’s approach to horror scenes is somewhat broader, and particularly the film’s second half features a pleasing mixture of these jump scares, general spookiness, well-developed moments of slowly creeping dread as seen in many an Asian horror film as well some choice moments concerning snake spirits and their habits. Also making an appearance are a somewhat unhinged Pastor (Cheon Ho-jin) – surprisingly not used to set up shamanism as the positive antithesis of crazy Christianity as much as I’ have expected/hoped though the western religion doesn’t get away scot free if you think about the plot a bit – an ancient evil, and the way the consequences of the government actions – as silently condoned by the US military - during the Jeju Uprising fed this evil and helped it break free. I was rather surprised to find the film talking rather openly about the Jeju Uprising, which is one of the moments in Korea’s history that have – when they have not been outright illegal to speak of – mostly gone unmentioned in Korea’s popular culture. There’s – given what causes most of the evil in the film’s narrative – more than just an implied political critique here, which is not something I’d expected to encounter in what is a mainstream horror film.

All that and an evil ancient snake spirit, too, so The Chosen: Forbidden Cave does work rather hard for our interest and affection, and I for one was mostly delighted, sometimes even surprised, by its efforts.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

In short: Messenger of Death (1988)

Denver, Colorado. The family – wives and children all - of Orville Beecham (Charles Dierkop), member of a Mormon splinter sect who think Utah-style Mormonism is just too gosh darn modern, is murdered by a shadowy figure with a shotgun. The police as represented by Chief Barney Doyle (Daniel Benzali) haven’t got a clue beyond putting Orville in custody for a time.

Fortunately, experienced, public-minded - and as it will later turn out two-fisted - reporter Garret “Gar” Smith (Charles Bronson) takes an interest in the case. At first, his investigation points in the direction of a religious feud between Orville’s father Willis (Jeff Corey) and Willis’s brother Zenas (John Ireland). At least, these two guys loather each other so much they believe the other responsible for the murders; and seeing that their respective – hopefully fictitious - versions of Mormonism put a heavy emphasis on smiting evildoers violently to save their souls, Gar suspects there just might be a bloodbath in the making. Quite unlike most other Bronson characters, Gar is set against this sort of thing and does his best to prevent further violence. He’s particularly keen because he suspects somebody else is using the family problems for their own nefarious plans. Hint to other potential conspirators: don’t repeatedly send your own company water trucks to murder a journalist, especially not one played by Charles Bronson.

For the standards of a late-period Bronson movie, Messenger of Death is strikingly original. Not only isn’t our hero a crazed vigilante, he also isn’t killing anyone at all during the course of the film. The film’s first half or so even sees our hero putting all of his effort into understanding a situation to prevent further bloodshed! Basically, this is bizarro Bronson land where everything you thought was true about Bronson characters is wrong.

If you’ve watched enough Cannon era Bronson, this J. Lee Thompson film is a bit of an oasis of sanity, with Bronson presenting a laidback confidence that makes Gar actually rather likeable, even suggesting a degree of personhood. He even seems mildly shaken up by violence. And while the conspiracy plot makes only a tiny amount of sense, it does so in low-key conspiracy thriller way instead of your usual Cannon craziness, certainly making the film less uproariously entertaining than the norm but providing a more human-sized kind of thriller that has its own charms.

As a director, Thompson seems rather more at home here than in Death Wish land. He’s not turning out a particularly energetic film (though there are two fine action scenes and a handful of solid suspense sequences in the movie), but there’s a relaxed rhythm to his work here that fits Bronson’s performance. Messenger of Death feels like two elderly gentlemen who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses quite well are making a somewhat friendlier film than anything they’ve done in quite some time, and enjoying themselves doing it.

As an admirer of the Thompson/Bronson films, I’m pretty happy about this.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Last Gateway (2007)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Peace in the small, dilapidated town of Pleasentville [sic] is disturbed by a series of strange events. Kids fish a strange creature out of the creek locals use to drain their excrements in, a very dead looking woman appears in front of hotel owner John (Patricio Schwartz) asking for her son and peculiar strangers roam the town, looking for each other, but especially a man named Michael (Rodrigo Aragon).

Although John is denying it, Michael and his wife Marianne (Salome Boustani) are in fact hiding away in John's hotel. One day, after some strangeness with the walking dead woman and while Marianne is away, Michael decides to explain their situation to John.

Some unspecified time ago, the couple had just moved into a new house. On their very first night in the new home, Michael suddenly started to suffer from terrible pain in the abdomen and hallucinations (or were they?) of something crawling out of him. Fortunately, their closest neighbour was Victor (Hugo Halbrich), a doctor of something or the other, so Michael and Marianne went to him for help. After some back and forth, it turned out that the good doctor also was an occultist who had made a terrible mistake in a ritual. He had planned to open a gate to hell in his house, but botched his spell so that Michael's body became the gate. Victor really did seem sorry for his mistake and seemed more than willing to correct it, but there were more problems in form of a group of cultists (seemingly old acquaintances of Victor), who wanted the newly opened gate for themselves. The best Victor could do was distract them so that Michael and Marianne could get away.

For the following months, the pair had been driving around the country, plagued by the things that regularly clawed their way out of Michael and hunted by the cultists, as well as by a weird duo consisting of a priest and a satanist. Sleeping in Catholic churches gave the pair some protection from the gate, after some time however, the protections of any given place began to fade, crucifixes to burn.

One day, the couple's car broke down in Pleasentville, right in the middle of nowhere and they decided to hole up in John's hotel for a while.
Here, everything will culminate.

I don't much about Argentinean movies, and nothing at all about the Argentinean horror scene, so I'm not able to put Demian Rugna's The Last Gateway into the proper local context.

The film was shot in English, most of the dialogue seems post-dubbed by people trying to put on fake American accents, giving me the first of many flashbacks to Italy of the 70s and 80s the film provides.

The script also has a certain Italian feel to it. It is slow, doesn't always make sense and seems utterly disinterested in the narrative aspects of filmmaking, taking on many of the aspects a Dardano Sacchetti script for a Lucio Fulci movie would have. There's not much plot logic, no proper ending, no explanations for the motivations of characters, flashbacks come and go and come again, important developments happen off-screen, the dialogue is strangely stiff - in short, all narrative aspects of a the film are a complete mess, as if the film was written by someone from an alternative reality somewhat related but not identical to ours.

Of course, when narrative flaws are as amassed in a movie as they are here, the best (possibly only) way to still enjoy it is to just go with the flow, to let one's expectations of how reality is supposed to work just drift sideways a little until one finds a different perspective on what is happening on screen.

To me, the easiest way to get something out of a film like The Last Gateway is to just ignore the narrative and view it primarily as a mood piece. As such, it often reminded me of Lucio Fulci in his best period with an insistence on long, moody scenes without much happening that take place in interiors that look hot, wet and slowly rotting away from the inside.

I'm somewhat surprised to find this kind of mood in a film shot on digital in one of those bleached-out colour schemes filmmakers using digital instead of film seem to love. Often, the digital picture has problems conveying the proper organic feel that is desperately needed when it comes to the cinematic depiction of decay, but something in Rugna's direction, very possible the slow, slow rhythm he gives much of the film and some excellently rotten locations (no warehouses here), manage to overcome this technical burden.

I am also quite impressed by the quality and creativity of the effects. While composition, pacing and flaws of The Last Gateway are very Fulci-esque, the film goes in a different direction when it comes to its effects. Fulci used to revel in showing gore effects even when he couldn't properly execute them, the potential for ridicule be damned as long as the ideas the great man had in mind found some way onto the screen. Rugna, on the other hand, seems determined to only show us what he is able to pull of convincingly, which leads to less effects sequences than in the Italian's films. Having said that, there still is some gruesome stuff on display, as well as some monsters deeply indebted to the creature design in the better modern Lovecraft adaptations, strange masses of flesh with tentacles, spikes and eyes in all the wrong places. I do appreciate a good monster of this kind.

I don't think it is necessary to say much about the acting in the movie, because I don't think "acting" is the point in a film like this. There are people on screen who are there to mouth certain sentences (mostly concerning exposition that doesn't really make sense and a thematic thread about faith that fittingly leads nowhere), to look sweaty and grimy and to die horrible deaths when needed. They do all that well enough.

The Last Gateway is one of those films I find difficult to recommend to anyone although I highly enjoyed it myself. The problem is that much of what I find enjoyable about it - the sense of decay, the feeling that this film does not play by the rules of reality - will make it utterly unwatchable for many other people. Worse, whether a film's mood works for a given person or not is one of the most subjective things in art, so even if you are willing and able to suspend your sense of reality (that is the step after "suspension of disbelief") for the film, there's a certain possibility you still won't get anything out of it.
So, I can't really recommend The Last Gateway, yet I still do.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

In short: Deadly Camp (1999)

Original title: 山狗1999

A group of young ones whose names are of no importance are dropped off on an island for a weekend of camping and partying. It’s going to be so wild, they decide to put all of their cell phones into a plastic bag and let one of them hide them in the jungle.

To nobody’s surprise, that’s a rather horrible idea, for the local chainsaw-wielding leprous serial killer and his mentally disabled son like to kill everyone who comes to the island. Because Anthony Wong needed a pay check - with the added bonus of fondling a much younger actress’ breasts – there are also a triad boss, his two odious comic relief underlings and his girlfriend hanging around to be killed.

Connoisseurs of depravity be warned: this cute little mess was only rated IIB when it came out, so don’t let Anthony Wong’s (short) presence fool you into believing this to be a CATIII schlock fest, nor should his presence confuse non-connoisseurs of depravity fond of Wong’s other acting side into getting their hopes up, either.

For the less refined viewer, Bowie Lau Bo-Yin’s backwoods (backisland?) slasher will probably include more than enough of the tasteless and the unpleasant, though there’s really not much blood and gore. However, it still features awesome moments of “what the hell are they thinking!?” filmmaking, like the scene where Wong tries to save his life by teaching a young mentally disabled man how to rape his tied-up girlfriend; and by teaching, I mean he’s laying hands on penis. I’m happy to report that the only thing this part of the film actually leads to is Wong’s well deserved demise.

Other highlights/low points include a most hilarious use of slow motion in a particularly big third act plot twist reveal, random bouts of melodrama (seriously), characters who hide from their serial killing attackers by having loud shouting matches, deeply unfunny comic relief, and often hilariously awkward direction.
So it’s perfect entertainment for the times when you feel sleazy and a bit unpleasant.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In short: Octane (2003)

Senga Wilson (Madeleine Stowe) is driving her daughter Nat (Mischa Barton) home from a stint with Nat’s father/Senga’s ex-husband. The two have quite the night drive in front of them, a situation that isn’t made any more pleasant by the fact that Nat and Senga are in perpetual battle - this evening’s casus belli being Senga forbidding Nat going to some sort of music festival with her friends - nor by Senga running on no sleep and a lot of psychopharmacology.

After a heavy row, Nat steals away with a teenage hitchhiker she just met an hour or so ago and her said hitchhiker’s freakish friends . Unfortunately, these guys belong to some sort of highway cult led by a man calling himself The Father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, rather unfatherly). They’re into brainwashing, dressing up as cops, ambulance drivers or truckers, causing car accidents as well as staging fake accidents. In a thematic curve ball, they are also heavily involved in bloodletting but cults all too often ignore the aesthetic pleasures of a coherent field of symbols.

After first being tricked by a fake cop who is part of the cult – not that the actual cops will turn out to be any help - Senga takes up the pursuit of the cult herself, a project that is made somewhat more difficult by her tendency to hallucinate a peculiar motivational speaker (Martin McDougall).

All the while, a man in a recovery van (Norman Reedus) is watching everyone involved, loitering sinisterly.

Marcus Adams’s Octane (working from a script by the great Stephen Volk) is a somewhat peculiar film that attempts to enrich a basic thriller plot with plenty of weirdness as well as a thematic emphasis on the strangeness that seems to be common when driving through the US by night. At least if you follow this British movie shot in Luxembourg.

Often, the film’s basic strangeness and willingness to aim for the dream-like instead of the gritty is quite a strength, providing it with a mood very much its own, and perhaps even a degree of actual thoughts underpinning it. From time to time, though, Octane drifts off into what feels like needless obscurity; at a few other times (particularly when it comes to Nat’s silly adventures in the cult’s brainwashing truck) its surrealism is rather on the silly side, with an adorably conservative idea of sex and drugs.

This is certainly no film if you want a straightforward thriller with a logical plot. When it works, it’s all strange ideas and waking dream-like direction and stuff that somewhat makes sense on a metaphorical or thematic level, and not so much on the field of narrative logic. Which is often the kind of thriller I prefer, so I found myself rather taken with Octane, not despite but because its plot logic breaks down repeatedly, if it ever existed at all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

Mumbai-based antiques dealers Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael (Jeremy Sisto) have lost their little son Oliver (Logan Creran), leaving particularly Maria desperately bereft. Given what we see of Michael during the course of the movie, I suspect he’s just too clueless to be hit quite as deeply as Maria is. They have another, younger child, Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky), too, but her care seems more to lie in the hands of housekeeper Piki (Suchitrya Pillai-Malik) now.

When Maria attempts suicide, Piki, who also lost a child once, tells her of a ruined temple near her home village where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin. There’s a ritual consisting of spreading the ashes of a deceased loved one on the temple steps, and locking oneself inside the place which is supposed to provide one with the opportunity to say one final goodbye through the closed temple doors. Of course, as Piki and any good folk tale will tell you, opening the temple door during the ritual can only lead to terrible things.

Convinced there’s no other way for her to find closure and be there again with the living she loves, Maria follows Piki’s suggestion. Of course, she will not leave that door closed, and so the spirit of Oliver will follow her home. At first, things seem well enough, with Oliver acting benignly, but the longer the spirit stays at his old home, the more aggressive and outright evil it becomes. Then there’s also the little thing with the Aghori who take quite an interest in Maria’s business, and the guardian of the underworld Myrtu (Javier Botet) who will go through creepy lengths to get Oliver’s spirit back where it belongs. While Maria suffers, Michael, is generally either absent or absurdly unaware of the things going on around him.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m very happy with Callies’s Maria being the central character but in the end, Michael feels more like a plot device than a person, apart from one scene early on meant to suggest much of his cluelessness is part of his method for keeping his grief at a distance.

For most of its running time, I was positively surprised by Johannes Roberts’s The Other Side of the Door. To my eyes, Roberts has always been one of these directors obviously able to make decent genre fodder who very much seems to have it in him to one day make a film that’s going beyond being entertaining and fun. He’s not quite there yet, but this one’s really close, I think.

At first, The Other Side threatens to dive into your usual jump scare-o-rama, but much of the film’s running time is devoted to effectively and cleverly using the supernatural to speak about the pain coming with the loss of a child. Sure, there’s some shouting boo now and then, but that’s only one part of a broader idea of how horror works in a film that does some good work connecting the inner life of its main character with the outward threat. Roberts also makes good use of the basic visual difference the Indian setting of the film provides it compared to many mainstream horror films and their fixation on the US suburbs. It’s not without a few somewhat troubling moments that exoticize India too much – the misuse of the Aghori being the most egregious example – but mostly, this isn’t a film trying to portray the country as a metaphor instead of a place.

There are, alas, the film’s final twenty minutes or so, which suddenly feel the need to throw quite a few random 21st Century mainstream horror clichés at the audience to make the ending more generically “exciting” instead of fitting it to the more low-key tone of the rest of the proceedings. At least, Roberts uses the usual stuff competently, and it never gets so overwhelmingly bad it ruins the film; it does drag it down from being excellent and of one piece to merely good, though.

I can hardly end this write up without mentioning Sarah Wayne Callies’s wonderful performance. She portrays Maria’s desperation and loss as well as the love these feelings come from without letting things become melodramatic, and goes through the horror sequences with the dignity of someone who isn’t afraid to look silly. Nice to see her not wasted on the role of The Wife, the horrible destiny mandated by Hollywood for most women over 25.