Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)

Original title: 貞子 vs. 伽椰子

College students Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) stumble upon one of those good old cursed video tapes containing the curse of Sadako of Ringu fame. Obviously, things do not develop into a pleasant direction for them from there, and soon they have to seek help from their urban myths teacher (Masahiro Komoto), who, it turns out, is totally okay with dying if it proves his favourite urban legend actually exists. At least he knows an exorcist.

While the girls have a bad time of it, the film from time to time pops in with high schooler Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), whose family has just moved in next to the Ju-On ghost house. Obviously, the girl gets in trouble with the ghost population there.

Fortunately, rogue exorcist Keizo (Masanobu Ando) gets on the case – for a lot of money – bringing with him a bad attitude, a blind little girl medium, and a genius plan to get rid of both ghostly menaces that surely won’t have any chance of backfiring rather badly, as well as a back-up plan that’s even worse. Spoilers, I guess?

As you’ll probably have realized by now, the monster mashing first crossover between the ailing (at least quality-wise) Ringu and Ju-On franchises is pretty damn cartoony (anime-esque?) in tone. But then, this is the hundredth film in two franchises that never were terribly ideal for the franchise game in any case (Ringu giving us three and Ju-On four worthwhile movies and a lot of crap afterwards), and if you have to do a monster mash, you really can’t go for a subtle and deep horror style.

Fortunately, the film is directed and written by Koji Shiraishi, one of the truly underrated horror filmmakers in Japan, a guy who on a good day can make a decent film out of idols screeching into a cellphone camera, so he has experience in getting decent performances out of his lead idols (which he does). Shiraishi apparently enjoys the higher than usual budget he’s working on here, using the opportunity to smuggle in an exorcist/shaman character who is very much like the one in his own Cult, and even a formless tentacle thing as featured in at least half of his films.

As an old pro with this sort of thing, Shiraishi realizes that, if you have a set-up quite this silly, and one that has to climax in something as absurd as a beat down between two pissed-off female ghosts to boot, you have only two choices: either turn it into a meta comedy or treat everything with the straightest of faces, using all the powers of moody camera work and classic shock techniques, as well as Hideo Nakata’s favourite camera angles, to pretend all this is terribly serious and scary.

Thankfully (not being American), Shiraishi goes with the second approach, presenting even the most absurd scene with so deep an earnestness it’s quite easy for the willing viewer (non-willing viewers having no business whatsoever in the monster mash movie watching business) to buy into the whole affair as threatening and scary. It does help that the camera work is generally calmly threatening, that Shiraishi knows other types of scares than jump scares and isn’t afraid to use them so that things get pleasantly tense after a while, that some of the more grotesque moments are as awesome as they are silly, and that the plot flows rather well. Why, even the hilariously bad plan for getting rid of the ghosts sounds like something appropriate to the film’s world, and while it is silly and dumb, it is absolutely the sort of silly and dumb that fits what else is going on in the movie.

So, while the endless franchisation (that’s a word, right?) of everything is of course deplorable, and so on and so forth, I had quite a bit of fun with Sadako vs. Kayko, which is much more than I expected from it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In short: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I think I can lose any explanation of the plot this time around. Though it has to be said that this second – after a lost German film apparently – film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel directed by Rupert Julian (or by Julian with various scenes taken over by Lon Chaney or even producer Carl Laemmle if you believe parts of the literature, though the sources for this sort of thing are, as it is so often in film history, dubious, unclear and generally not to be trusted) might surprise a viewer more knowledgeable about later versions. It did at least surprise me quite a bit when I realized how little of the tragic romantic figure of later versions this phantom is: he’s an escaped criminally insane guy who taught himself music and “the Black Art” in the pulp supervillain mode, a guy who is as ugly inside as he is on the outside and whose handful of tragic intertitles generally come over as a thin self-pitying veneer to make all the evil shit he does sound better to the poor stupid woman he’s obsessing over.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, particularly since Lon Chaney is – obviously – the perfect man to let this particular murderous madman come to life, using his today still very fine looking and conceptionally immensely creepy make-up and melodramatic body language to full effect, creating his Phantom as a villain so memorable, even if the film had only Chaney going for it, it would still be worthy of your time.

Fortunately, there is also a lot else to cherish here: be it Julian’s (or whomever’s) often immensely creative direction that lends a sheen of morbid romanticism to the film’s first two thirds, and then elegantly shifts paces to end up on a final act of energetic pulp-style craziness as befit this kind of potboiler that needs heating to the point of hysteria. Particular highpoints are the first time Mary Philbin’s Christine Daaé, at this point still half in thrall to the Phantom (or “Master” as she calls him in a move that has no subtextual resonance at all, no sir), ends ups in the Phantom’s lair, an unmasking scene that lets the camera shift out of focus either on purpose or, as legend has it, because the camera operator got the fright of his life from Chaney (a story that sounds less improbable than it should because Chaney is just that great), the bal masque sequence that sees the film shifting to two-tone Technicolor for a few minutes so the audience can get the full impact of the Phantom’s appearance as Poe’s Red Death, and the full on gothic pulp insanity of a third act that features everything you’d care to ask for, be it death traps, evil gesticulating, or a torch wielding mob of stage hands.

The highly melodramatic tone, the general strangeness of silent movies to the modern eye, the sheer beauty of the sets and the high-strung acting come together to form a kind of fever dream, very much in the spirit of Poe in his more excitable moments and not so much in that of poor melodramatic old bore Leroux, a thing that on paper might sound tawdry and silly but is in fact one of beauty and awe.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Yoga (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.

Hyo-jeong (Yoo Jin) works as a host for a home shopping show. Unfortunately, her producer thinks she's starting to show her age and replaces her with a younger beauty pageant winner, the fact that Hyo-jeong is not even nearing middle age notwithstanding.

Understandably Hyo-jeong is completely broken up about this career low that also fits in well with the copious amounts of self-doubt and dissatisfaction with her life she is carrying around. Fortunately (or so she thinks) there's hope for her on the horizon. On a meeting of former class mates she had met her former friend Seon-hwa (Lee Yeong-jin). "Former" friend because Hyo-jeong one school day decided that Seon-hwa wasn't pretty enough to associate with. But now Seon-hwa suddenly looks like the ghost of a supermodel.

After Hyo-jeong is fired, she meets Seon-hwa again and manages to convince her to tell her how she managed to change her appearance this much. Turns out Seon-hwa took part in a very special yoga retreat run by a former acting star and well-known beauty that completely changed her life.

Hyo-jeong talks herself into a place in that special yoga class too. Together with four other women feeling in need of "physical perfection" and a weird yoga trainer, she is locked into a rather rundown building full of greenish mold. There, the women are supposed to follow a rigorous yoga regimen and have to follow some rather peculiar rules (no eating! no mirrors! no showering until one hour after the training has ended! no cell phones!) that are supposed to isolate them from problematic influences and purify their energies. Still, only one of the women will be able to reach the goal of (and I quote) "perfect beauty" through this.

While Hyo-jeong and the other women have increasingly strange and dangerous experiences, that might have to do with the fasting regimen or just your usual supernatural shenanigans, Hyo-jeong's boyfriend stumbles over a dying director and finds some expository information about the actress who owns the school for us, the audience. The actress' story of being ousted by her director and (at least the latter is suggested) lover when live sound recordings for movies finally arrive in South Korea at the end of the 70s has some parallels to Hyo-jeong's life, and very possibly of a lot of women working in showbiz.

Obviously, whatever evil there is afoot in yoga class must have to do with this past unpleasantness.

At first, I was less than convinced by (female and feminist, at least in my reading of the film) director Yoon Jae-yeon's Yoga. 29-year old Yoo Jin is really a bit hard too swallow as woman fired from her TV job for having one wrinkle too many, especially since there aren't even any fake signs of aging plastered into her face. Now, I'm actually convinced that this is part of the film's point: that the societal demands on the appearance of women are so absurd that you can look like Yoo Jin and will still be looked at as flawed. It also helps that the feeling of beatenness Yoo Jin manages to convey is terribly convincing, as if her Hyo-jeong was carrying the problems of a much older woman around with herself. It only goes to show again that having been the member of a girl group does not necessarily mean one does not have talent for acting.

It all fits quite nicely into the film's basic message which seems to be: society's demands on women to be "perfect" (whatever that may mean) are so high that the only way to fulfil them is by becoming a soulless husk to be filled by the expectations of others and your own ability to be cruel to other women to perpetuate the problem. Yoon puts so much emphasis on the latter part that one could be tempted to interpret it as misogynist, but I think her point is more to show a system that - once it has been set in place - perpetuates himself without the need for much input by men. Once the impetus is given, people are all too good at building their own cages.

I was pretty impressed by Yoon Jae-yeon's other directorial effort, Wishing Stairs (a part of the consistently good to excellent Whispering Corridors series), and found that film to be highly influenced by the Italian giallo, especially the films of Dario Argento. Yoga again shows an Argento influence in the framing of sequences, production design and lighting (I hope you like green), not so much in movement and editing, but this time the parallels seem to be more to the Argento of Suspiria. Which, I think, is a perfect film to be influenced by when you're making a horror piece that's more based on dream-logic and metaphorical logic than on straight plotting and realism. Don't misunderstand me, though. Yoon as a director may show the influence of Argento, but she is much more than a mere copyist, taking certain stylistic elements of Argento and others typical of slick South Korean filmmaking of the last decade and making them completely her own.

Although I admire Yoon's directorial style, and appreciate her imbuing her film with meaning beyond "Oh, that's a nice gore effect!", I have one larger problem with Yoga. While watching it, I found the film intellectually and aesthetically stimulating, but emotionally very distant. Basically, I was thinking about the film and appreciating it, but not feeling it, especially not as a creepy or scary movie. I'm not sure if that's part of me being a guy and not understanding the incredible pressure on women on an emotional level, or a flaw of the film, though, so I hope that won't keep anybody reading this away from Yoga.

After all, even if the film "only" engages on an intellectual level, that is more than can be said about a lot of movies.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1977)

aka Dracula’s Dog

While excavating whatever in Romania, some Soviet soldiers stumble upon the crypt of the family Dracula, all family members apparently properly staked in their coffins. Alas, during the night watch, a sleepy guard without basic folkloristic knowledge frees one of the staked undead. It’s…Zoltan, Dracula’s rather large (vampire) doggy! Well, actually, Zoltan is more the dog of old Drac’s Renfield (or in the film’s parlance, “fractional lamia”) Veidt Schmidt (Reggie Nalder). After dispatching the soldier, Zoltan awakens Schmidt, and off they trot to find themselves a new master.

For this, they need to find the last of the Dracula family, who had been secreted out of the country when he was still a small boy. He’s all grown up now, going by the name of Michael Drake (Michael Pataki) and living the life of the working rich (or as the Americans say, “upper middleclass”) together with his wife Marla (Jan Shutan), their kids Linda (Libby Chase) and Steve (John Levin), as well as a dog couple and their new pups. Michael is obviously no vampire (please insert joke about bloodsucking upper classes here), but that doesn’t mean Zoltan and Schmidt – well, mostly Zoltan – aren’t going to try to turn him into one.

It certainly offers a nice opportunity for this sort of shenanigans that the Drakes are just going off on a camping trip in their RV somewhere a bit isolated from other campers. It’s all set for our bad guys to create a tiny vampire dog army to bite Michael, instead of just grabbing him and be done with it.

Fortunately, Romanian fearless vampire hunter Inspector Branko (José Ferrer) is on the case, and might just come to provide rescue and exposition before Zoltan is finished sniffing Michael’s butt.

As you probably realized already when reading its title, Albert Band’s Zoltan, Hound of Dracula is a pretty daft movie. Or rather, it is about half of the time, for some of its ideas are actually rather interesting, if one can only get away from the basic silliness of the vampire dog, the unfortunate glowy eyes effect the dog vampires have, the unnecessarily complicated plan to vampirize Michael the bad guys have, and so on and so forth.

About half of these screwy ideas are at least rather funny, like the vampire dog army part of the villains’ master plan, or the film’s final “shock” scene that is based on that most horrifying of creatures, an adorable vampire puppy. The other half, alas, is just a bit dumb without going off either into the stratosphere of the really bizarre or managing to reach the point where you just accept the stupid bits as a normal parts of the film’s world.

On the other hand, Zoltan’s isn’t trying to be funny at all. The film shows total conviction of being Very Serious Shit, and in some scenes, this approach does pay off. Despite everything around them, most of the dog attacks are pretty well done and suspenseful, with the short siege sequence the film’s obvious high point much preferable to its actual climax. In general, Band does manage some rather moody scenes that make effective use of the outdoors locations; unfortunately, in other scenes, things bog down to mediocre TV movie levels with basically nailed on camera, adding another somewhat schizophrenic element to the film.

Reggie Nalder certainly has the right presence for his role but I find it rather difficult to take a villain all that seriously who more often than not doesn’t actually do anything but lets his dog do all the work. Dracula apparently wasn’t a man of good henchmen choices. The rest of the acting is pleasantly competent, even when the actors have to fight through dialogue that probably aims for naturalistic but lands on mildly improbable and generally bland.

Which really is Zoltan’s problem in a nutshell: it’s neither strange or plain bad enough to be enjoyed in this way, not consciously funny enough to work as a comedy, nor so consistently effective I’m ever able to completely forget how silly it is. It’s still a film worth watching at least once in one’s life, mind you, if only to compare it with Devil Dog and Monster Dog.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In short: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (John Malkovich) is filming Nosferatu, his great, unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Unbeknownst to anyone but Murnau, the man playing the vampire Orloff, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), is in fact an actual vampire playing an actor playing a vampire. Murnau has bought his cooperation by promising him his lead actress Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) once the shoot is over, perhaps with the thought to betray him.

Though once the vampire starts to become impatient and sets teeth to some of the crew, it becomes quickly clear that the director is willing to – quite literally - sacrifice anyone on the altar of his art, apart from himself, of course.

That latter bit is one of the things E. Elias Merhige’s strange (in all the good ways) horror film, drama, dark comedy Shadow of the Vampire understands much better than most films concerned with questions of art and sacrifice: how it’s very often others who pay his price, while the artist takes on the pose of suffering. Consequently, Merhige’s view on artistic production seems cynical bordering on the outright bitter, Dafoe’s Schreck embodying all kinds of emotional horrors, among them the worst sides of certain artist types that, like the film’s Murnau, would commit every atrocity as long as they can excuse it with their art, in classic horror film style externalizing internal horrors.

At the same time as Shadow of the Vampire is an appropriately horrific look at the dark aspects of the artistic impulse with a vampire as a metaphor, it is also a horror movie whose vampire is quite real, an often visually darkly poetic film, and also a comedy with a wickedly dark sense of humour.

All three of these aspects are embodied in Dafoe’s fantastic portrayal of a thing so ancient it has forgotten what it means to be human, a monster grotesque, pathetic, and dangerous all at the same time.

How Merhige manages to keep all these different aspects of his film in check without them tearing apart Shadow of the Vampire while dragging it in all directions, I’m honestly not sure. A pact with the devil, perhaps? In any case, he does, and leaves us with a film so rich I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to make sense about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

A video supposedly found in the haunted woods around Burkittsville (now only nominally located in Maryland but actually shot in the well-worn woods of British Columbia every horror fan knows so well by now they’ll never look strange or frightening again) appears on the Net. James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather of “vanished in Blair Witch Project” fame, believes he recognizes his sister in a reflection and decides to rope in his best friend Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) to look for any trace of Heather.

At first, James’s project seems rather more organized than the outing of Heather and her friends but once they are in the woods – taking on Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) the people who found the video that incited the whole thing too – GPS, a cute little drone, and the superior technology of 2014 don’t help them any better than the slightly lower tech did the people they’ve come looking for.

Adam Wingard’s (as always written by Simon Barrett) new sequel to one of my favourite horror films of all time is one of those films I wish I liked more than I actually do. This is not a cynical, unlikeable cash-in, I believe, at least not from Wingard’s and Barrett’s position (Lionsgate, on the other hand…).

The filmmakers harbour obvious love and respect for the original Blair Witch - though I’m pretty sure they and I would disagree in many points about what makes it special - yet also are clearly going in with the intent of not just repeating the film’s beats and ideas. It’s not an attempt at deconstructing the original as it is one of giving its ideas slight twists while never outright contradicting any established lore, which isn’t that difficult when working from a film amongst whose strengths was the mythical vagueness to much what was going in it and around it.

These new twists are generally clever, and usually well executed, alas they are to a large degree also going in exactly the direction you’d expect a modern horror movie to go. The inherent weirdness and semi-professionalism of the original is replaced by a slick competence that only rarely leaves space to treat the supernatural as something that feels wrong. Even with one truly weird turn in its final act, this is a genre film in all the least interesting ways. So its Blair Witch is a a large monster that’ll only kill you when you look directly at it, a thing of high concepts easily described to a Hollywood producer, instead of the thing of folklore and legend that doesn’t have a clearly definable shape and only vague rules because folklore and legend are always shifting around cores that are ideas not monsters you can make an action figure out of.

If you’d rather see Blair Witch Project dragged down into the realms of the conventional, well-made horror film, this should make you very happy. If, on the other hand, you’re me, you’ll enjoy the film well enough for the kind of thing it is but can’t help and ask yourself what exactly the point of the whole sequel is when it doesn’t do anything with the material its working off that’s new and exciting, or actually all that frightening.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Gordon (Graham Skipper) returns to his hometown because his father has disappeared. It’s not the first time the alcoholic has gone AWOL, but this time, it seems to have stuck.

So Gordon has to reunite with his brother John (Chase Williamson), who stayed behind when Gordon left town and their father for good, to pack up their father’s house and the obsolete video store he owned. Both brothers have obviously suffered from abuse by their dear dad. As a consequence John as a young-ish man has turned into the sort of charming fuck-up who might soon replace the “charming” with criminal, dead, or drunk, and Gordon has difficulties to not turn into his father, fighting alcoholism and a tendency to violent outbursts. His girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) is coming to help sort through dad’s baggage too – after all, that’s what she’s been doing for Gordon for some time now, it seems.

Going through their father’s old office, John and Gordon find that most 80s of things – a VCR board game. There’s something strange going on with the game, though: the somewhat sinister woman (Barbara Crampton) on the game’s video tape tells the brothers the game is the only way to save their father’s soul, and might react to what’s going on around it, which is disquieting enough, but soon, board game and reality start to mix in sometimes bloody ways, turning the lives of the brothers and Margot into a fight for their life, limb and perhaps their very souls.

Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Door is a lovely bit of indie horror cinema, paying homage to the aesthetics of certain parts of 80s horror like a lot of films do these days, yet without falling into the trap of becoming too much of a copy of the style. Well, I’m not sure the film could actually afford to become one – this is after all a film where stepping into a different dimension happens via the movie magic of blue and purple lighting and some dry ice fog – but it is clear that Stewart knows what he’s doing in looks and tone.

I imagine some viewers will be frustrated by the film’s slow beginning and the rather budget conscious way it builds up to its climax, but I found myself charmed by the character interactions between the leads, appreciated how lacking in melodrama the treatment of the brothers’ backstories was, and generally found myself interested in these characters as people to observe for a movie’s length. Stewart is a pleasantly economic director of these character interactions, never letting things become too concise but also not falling into the trap of confusing the creation of believable people with long, rambling and pointless dialogue scenes. The film’s central metaphor on the other hand is as on the nose as they get, but that works out fine in a film taking its time for its characters as this one does.

Stewart treats the supernatural elements (Jumanji light – but with gore?) equally well, obviously putting all of his tiny budget on screen in a way that mostly works fine, demonstrates imagination and never descends into smugness. There’s fan enthusiasm even for the hokier parts of the horror genre that still doesn’t get in the way of the film’s own story, some pleasant macabre details, a smidgen of wonderfully gloopy gore, and Barbara Crampton glorying in her new role as queen of indie horror character actresses with some classy, controlled scenery chewing. Everything going on is rather small scale, of course, yet Stewart works so well with what he’s got, I enjoyed Beyond the Gates thoroughly, with a pleased grin pasted on my cynical old mug for much of its running time.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In short: Shark Lake (2015)

Clint Gray (Dolph Lundgren) is smuggling rare, dangerous and endangered animals for some gangster boss (Don Barnes). On the night when the local sheriff’s department finally catches up to him, he and his truck take a nosedive into a lake, freeing a pregnant shark. Nobody will notice that little problem until five years later, though.

Right about the time when Clint gets out of prison, a series of killings begins which most of the local police at first ascribe to bears. Most, that is, but Meredith Hernandez (Sara Malakul Lane), not only the only competent copper in town, but also the officer who arrested Clint, and the woman who took in his daughter Carly (Lily Brooks O’Briant).

She’ll soon be proven right, too, for it’s not bears, it’s (spoiler!) sharks. Because sharks alone supposedly don’t make a movie, there’s of course also a sub-plot about Meredith’s unwillingness to let Clint see his daughter again as well as another completely pointless one – taking up ninety percent of the meagre screen time Lundgren gets hired for these days even if he is supposedly a movie’s star – concerning the gangster boss pressing Clint into his service again to catch his damn shark. Also appearing are an oceanographer and would-be love interest for Meredith, a big shot BBC shark hunter (of course coming to a sticky end), and a lot of other people who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag.

In fact, the only people on screen who have their act together as thespians are Lundgren (don’t laugh, he’s a pro at this semi-cameo business by now), the actual lead Lane (putting in a ridiculous amount of effort the script neither asks for nor deserves, winning hearts and minds – well, mine at least – in the process), and Lily Brooks O’Briant (even though we all know by now how much I dislike child acting as a whole). The rest of the cast is all sorts of embarrassing: some painfully so, some in a funny way.

Otherwise, this is the most SyFy Original movie ever made that isn’t actually a SyFy Original, though the melodramatic sub-plot is so treacly I don’t think the SyFy Channel would actually go with it for reasons of artistic standards. Lundgren is as always first listed in the credits but actually just popping in for two or three days of shooting at best, while the rest of this thing plays out nearly exactly as you’ll think it will.

Jerry Dugan’s direction for its part makes no impression whatsoever, so this one’s mainly for the Dolph completists (poor souls that we are), the habitual watcher of shark movies (again, poor souls we), and people who like to hope for better gigs for clearly overqualified lead actresses.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Resurrecting The Street Walker (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.

James Parker (James Powell) is an aspiring filmmaker working as an unpaid serf aka "runner" for a shady little movie production company to get his foot in the door of professional film work by letting himself being exploited. This job and the fact that his dreams of becoming a filmmaker don't seem to lead anywhere  put quite a strain on him and the relationship with his family, who are the ones paying for his livelihood after all.

James' friend, the film student Marcus (Tom Shaw), films him in his attempts at making it, and what Marcus is shooting is the basis of the documentary Resurrecting The Street Walker purports to be. Intercut with Marcus' footage are interviews with Marcus himself and the other people in James' life hinting on something dreadful James seems to have done.

The bad times begin when James finds the reels of an unfinished black and white horror movie from the mid-80s called "The Street Walker". It's a film in the Maniac tradition, following a serial killer (Gwilym Lloyd) who pretends to be a director looking for actresses uncomfortably closely. The film stock the movie we are watching uses doesn't resemble that of a film of that decade too much, but the griminess and the vibe of seediness that is running through the material is exactly right for what Resurrecting is going for. The staging of the film inside the film - from camera placement to the disquieting feeling of authenticity that dominates horror films in the Maniac tradition - is done believably enough to make at least me squirm in my seat. The film's (actual) director Ozgur Uyanik is making good use of an experienced horror movie watcher's expectations here to build tension.

Not surprisingly given his personal obsessiveness when it comes to filmmaking, James grows even more obsessed with this particular film and tries his damndest to talk his boss at the production company into agreeing to a rather dubious plan to complete it. First it's only a question of editing, but after some time, James is convinced he needs to shoot a few scenes to give the film an actual ending.

Of course, everything (and everyone around him) seems to conspire to not let the young would-be director finish what he so desperately wants to. Of course, James slowly begins to unravel. At first, it's only minor things like a somewhat unhealthy fixation based on spurious hints on the idea that "The Street Walker" might be a snuff film, or at least that one of the victims might have accidentally died during the filming, but the more problems get into James' way, the more he begins to unravel, until he commits that final act Resurrecting The Street Walker doesn't show as gorily and directly as one would have expected.

This reserve at a point where other films would go all out on the violence points at how clever this film actually is, and how little it is satisfied with just doing the typical horror movie thing, even if the film's ending is obvious from very early on, which is of course part of its point.

Showing James' slow psychological break-down is more important to Uyanik than going the probably more marketable, yet also very boring, slasher route, and he's helped by an excellent and sympathetic performance by James Powell and a script that shows James as a likeable - if overly obsessive - guy slowly breaking through outside pressure and his own inability to admit defeat in an ambition of becoming a filmmaker that is the only thing his life has ever been about. In fact, one of the few gripes I have with the movie is that James is perhaps a bit too likeable, especially compared with the victim of his final act of violence whose only sympathetic character trait seems to be "being pregnant". Don't worry, the film does not directly argue that what James is doing is right or reasonable, or that his victim "deserved it", but I still would have wished for a victim that's as developed as the killer.

This is the sort of problem that only comes into play in a film with as high a standard as Resurrecting The Street Walker sets in the rest of the character department, so it's a sort of luxury problem caused by the film being really pretty fantastic at doing characterisation inside the fake documentary frame, a frame that all too often pushes filmmakers into not developing their characters too well, or even at all.

I especially liked how believable the "mockumentary" aspect of the film played out, deftly avoiding the "why are these people still filming?" problem that seems to annoy certain audiences (not me) about POV horror and fake documentaries so much. Resurrecting is believably structured like a real documentary, achieving a lot of its effect by building the feeling of authenticity (especially by using its directors own experiences as a runner for good effect) that this type of horror movie should live on. Although the film keeps quite a few things ambiguous, as they should be in any film that doesn't go for the gross-out, Uyanik makes great efforts to keep everything around those ambiguous elements believable and understandable, putting the lie to my beloved "naturalism is a dead end" mantra. Well, how about "naturalism is a dead end outside of fake documentary footage"?

Anyway, Resurrecting The Street Walker is another feather in the cap of (very, I suspect) low budget movies from the UK that are still interested in making horror films that go beyond fan service and succeed quite brilliantly.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Three Films Make A Post: You were right to be afraid of the dark.

Daemonium: Soldier of the Underworld (2015): This Argentinean SF/action/horror film directed by Pablo Parés and apparently written by half a dozen people consequently features a nearly unintelligible and wildly overambitious plot that includes everything you might think of - from battle androids to rebellious arch angels –, characters whose design looks cheap yet awesome in all the right ways but who mostly lack any visible reason to do the things they do, and a running time of nearly two hours where eighty minutes would have sufficed.

Yet this is also clearly a labour of love that looks and feels like the adaptation of an especially bonkers European science fiction comic. It throws visual clichés and inventiveness at its audience with great vigour and enthusiasm, features some wonderfully chosen and framed locations (Argentina apparently looks like a weird far future post-apocalyptic wasteland), and has action scenes that are bloody, clever and much better staged than you’d expect. So, despite its flaws, I find this one impossible to dislike. This was clearly made by my people.

The Frontier (2015): Oren Shai’s deeply 70s cinema and noir inspired and 70s set crime movie is a bit of a mixed bag. Jocelin Donahue’s main performance is excellent, and Kelly Lynch and Jim Beaver lend equally good support, but the rest of the acting is very hit or miss, which is no surprise seeing as the film demands from its actors to approach 70s-style naturalism with a conscious distance. This also follows from a script which at times can feel stilted and too interested in demonstrating its knowledge of gestures taken from other movies than in making its own. The result is a film that often feels artificial for no good reason beyond demonstrating the filmmakers’ ability to make it so. Which, ironically enough, is the polar opposite to the kind of 70s cinema it can’t stop telling us it is inspired by; while the noir way of stylisation (the film’s other hallmark) never was interested in stylisation as an end in itself.

Legend of the Phantom Rider (2002): In theory, Alex Erkiletian’s western/horror mix about two ancient spirits – one good, one evil, of course – doomed to be reincarnated again and again to murder one another this time around having their little spat in the Old West, sounds like a sure enough bit of entertainment. At least if you like your westerns and your horror films and like them even better when they get together (that is, if you are me).

Unfortunately, practice finds this direct-to-video film to be rather tedious, giving us scene after scene after scene supposed to prove to the audience how evil the bad guy is but which mostly demonstrate that watching a bald guy who can’t act for shit (Robert McRay) being a bit off a sadist gets boring pretty damn quick. I have no idea how his henchmen cope with the boredom.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Renegades (1989)

Buster McHenry (Kiefer Sutherland), 80s action movie cop by trade, spends his vacation on a private undercover mission, trying to puzzle out the identity of the crooked cop helping violent dirt bag Marino (Robert Knepper when he was still Rob in an excellently lizard-like outing) do his violent deeds. Unfortunately, Buster’s plan to achieve this goal consists of planning the robbery of a jewellery store with Marino, in the hopes off convincing Marino to let him meet the bad cop in person before the robbery can actually take place. However, idiotic plans like this can go wrong rather easily, and soon Buster finds himself indeed committing the robbery with Marino and his gang, and still without the information he seeks. Dead civilians and quite a bit of property damage result.

On the flight, the gang and the idiot cop stumble into an exhibition where Marino finds the time and inclination to grab the holy lance of the Lakota, and shoot one of the Lakota men watching over it. That man’s brother, Hank Storm (Lou Diamond Phillips), promises to get back the lance and take revenge for his brother. A fine opportunity to start on this work opens up to Hank when his mystical Indian tracking powers (seriously, that’s how the film plays it and will continue to play it) lead him to Buster, who is in rather bad shape after Moreno ended their short-lived partnership by shooting him.

Luckily for Buster, Hank’s dad (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman himself) is a capable shaman and takes time out of his busy schedule to pray his gunshot wound a bit better. Who needs a physician, right? Once that’s over, Hank and Buster will have to team up, at first (of course) very reluctantly but increasingly (of course) with full 80s buddy movie man love.

I am not the greatest fan of 80s buddy movies but it’s pretty difficult not to like a film whose future buddies are young Kiefer Sutherland (in his pre-“torture is awesome” phase) and Lou Diamond Phillips (in his pre-“Sheriff roles only” phase). Together, in good 80s action movies tradition, they fight slightly more crime than they commit themselves, crash cars, smash a large amount of things, and hurt or kill a lot of people in hilarious and improbable ways.

Director Jack Sholder’s just the right kind of guy at the right kind of place here, shooting the insipid, the hilarious and the exciting all in the straightforward and unpretentious manner this kind of thing demands, until nothing made of glass isn’t broken. It’s such a bunch of merry carnage (not terribly brutal as these films go) broken up by semi-embarrassing Indian (that’s the word the film prefers to use, even though it has the perfectly good word “Lakota” right there in the script; Buster of course is racist dickhead enough to always call Hank “chief”) mysticism, and general nonsense that it’s easy to miss that the script actually has some perfectly neat ideas beside the nonsense.

For once, the captain character in this sort of film (given by cop specialist Bill Smitrovich) does have an actual role to play in the plot apart from reaming out the insane, violent cop working for him, and even Buster’s absurd crusade against crooked cops has a reason to it. It’s nothing original, mind you, but I do think including some bits and pieces that actually make a degree of sense and hint at the real world in a plot only helps to make the general outrageousness of your typical action movies that decisive bit more interesting. Characters for their part are seldom not improved by adding some motivation for their actions either.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In short: Blood Trap (2015)

aka Bite

Freshly pensioned prison guard Roman (Costas Mandylor) assembles a bunch of pea-brained violent idiots (among them Gianni Capaldi and featuring a pleasantly short appearance of Vinnie Jones) for a brilliant plan: kidnap Nika (Elena Mirela), the daughter of one of the richest gangsters alive, from the stately mansion she resides in and press her Dad into paying a ransom of forty million dollars. Whatever could go wrong?

Well, for starters, while casing out said stately mansion, our protagonists somehow managed to overlook that with every sunrise, the mansion is automatically sealed off from the outside by practically indestructible blackout shutters. As it happens, that’s exactly the time of day when the kidnapping is going down, so the idiots find themselves locked in with their supposed victim. Of course, who exactly is going to be whose victim here might just become a pressing question when trapped in a mansion among whose other features include a freezer room full of human body parts, another room with 28 babies, and crazy naked people crawling through sewer tunnels.

I don’t write this sort of thing lightly or often anymore, but I have no idea what I just watched. What starts out as one of these generally insufferable would-be Tarantino movies, just with really abysmal dialogue, quickly turns into the weirdest horror comedy I’ve seen in quite some time. Director and writer Alberto Sciamma’s sense of humour is deeply peculiar, and if you’re like me, it might not make you laugh, but it sure as hell will get your eyebrows up into the stratosphere. I most certainly won’t forget that moment when Mandylor starts walking around in a golden full plate armour any time soon. Then there’s the Viagra torture scene, and…well, most everything that’s going on in the film’s second half is pure weirdness gold.

Much of the film, and not just its sense of humour, is utterly inexplicable, not because the elements it consists of are terribly original but because the way Sciamma uses them is so off. The film is clearly following a very individual vision, fuelled by old exploitation movies, and an unironic weirdness that may not be funny (though it might very well be) but that sure as hell did interesting things to my brain while I watched it. Apart from that, Blood Trap is also really nice to look at and stylishly directed, which of course makes the grotesqueness of its contents all the more potent.

So, I certainly do not have any idea what it is all about, but I highly approve of Blood Trap.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Child’s Play 2 (1990)

It’s some months after the end of Child’s Play. Nobody believes the crazy story little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) and his mother tell about the murders around them having been committed by a doll possessed by a serial killer out to steal Andy’s body, so Mum has been locked up in a psychiatric facility, and Andy is temporarily given into the joyous hands of the foster system. The film never tells us who the police think killed all these people, though they don’t seem to suspect Andy or his mother.

Be that as it may, out to prove that there was nothing at all wrong with their doll Chucky, the company who made him refurbishes the thing, finding nothing (which seems rather curious, what with the thing bleeding in film number one and all), but providing Chucky with the opportunity to live again (and of course to still be voiced by Brad Dourif). Of course, Chucky quickly sneaks and murders his way out.

While that’s going on, Andy is being given to his first foster family. As these things go, Joanne (Jenny Agutter) and Phil Simpson (Gerrit Graham) aren’t bad fosters at all. Well, Joanne’s pretty fantastic at least, while Phil – sceptic of Andy right from the start – will soon show that he’s not the kind of guy you want to have take care of a child with any deeper psychological problems. Andy quickly bonds with Joanne and even more so with the Simpson’s other foster kid, late teen Kyle (Christine Elise) but things take a rather dark turn once Chucky arrives and infiltrates the house as an undercover doll (damn you, mass marketed toys!). Chucky is still attempting to steal Andy’s body, but can’t help killing more people than can be good for his plans.

To enjoy John Lafia’s lesser sequel to that likeable (and sometimes cleverer than people – including myself – give it credit for) semi-classic Child’s Play, one really needs to keep in mind that it doesn’t take place in the real world, not even in the kind of real world where doll-possessing voodoo serial killers are to be found, but in Horror Movie Land.

It’s a place where kids who have gone through a deep trauma are quickly released from an institution to be given in laymen’s hands never to see a psychologist afterwards, where a possessed doll can just phone Foster Central, say it’s a little boy’s uncle, and get all the information about him it needs, where teachers lock unruly little boys up in their classroom (or is that an American thing, like voting insane crypto-fascist billionaires into the highest office?), where factories are built by M.C. Escher and contain absurd health hazards, and where protagonists only ever flee in the most idiotic direction. It is in fact a world where dolls possessed by serial killers are among the more probable things you’ll encounter.

If you’re like me, you can swallow this bizarre nonsense without even having to flinch, and may very well enjoy Child’s Play 2 for its virtues, like the way Don Mancini’s script may contain double the late 80s horror movie stupidity of its predecessor but also features many a clever little flourish to make the main characters a bit more believably human than you’d expect in their surroundings. There’s a sense of respect for the characters (well, most of them) many a horror film of the era lacks to its detriment which helps some of the kills become slightly more than just another murder on the check list. It’s also remarkable how Alex Vincent’s acting has improved in leaps and bounds in comparatively short time.

When that isn’t enough, it is generally a lot of fun to watch Mancini and Lafia (standing before a future of middling TV work) apply all the tricks of the thriller director’s trade to even the most ridiculous of set-ups.

To my own surprise, I even found myself rather pleased with the film’s sense of humour. Late 80s horror movie goofiness abounds, yet Child’s Play 2 never steps over the fine line between silly fun and annoying idiocy (unlike, say, the Nightmare on Elm Street films very quickly did), always realizing when to stop kidding around.

All this doesn’t come together to turn Child’s Play 2 into a masterpiece but it’s an unpretentious and well crafted bit of a good time (with people dying in horrible ways).

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In short: The Saint in New York (1938)

New York is held in the death grip of organized crime! The police can’t do anything, because – unlike today’s police in that very same city (and look how that’s working out) – they’re actually holding themselves to the laws, and consequently see guilty men go free in the seemingly eternal way of vigilante movies.

A group of concerned citizens – and the police commissioner – decide that the city would become peaceful again if only someone would murder, I mean bring to justice, six particular members of organized crime. They send out one among their number (Frederick Burton) to find gentleman criminal against criminals, inciter of revolutions, adventurer and part-time vigilante Simon Templar aka “The Saint” (Louis Hayward) and ask for his help.

Templar is all too happy to become involved, and soon the gangsters are dropping left and right. But Templar finds out something very interesting: the people he murders all work for a mysterious, shadowy figure only known under the less than sinister moniker “The Big Fella”. Looks as if his list of people to kill needs an addition.

Ben Holmes’s lone Simon Templar movie is also the only time Louis Hayward was playing the character, and I can’t say I’m all that surprised. It’s not that Hayward is a bad Templar – he certainly plays a memorable version of the character - but his Saint tends to read as creepily smug rather than suavely charming, keeping more to the tastes of the 2010s when it comes to the way heroic polite sociopaths are played than to those of 1938. I’d argue Hayward’s portrayal fits the vigilante version of the character as seen here well, perhaps better than a nicer, softer version would do, but I can’t see this guy getting into the more heroic or light-hearted troubles some of the coming Saint films demand.

Apart from its interpretation of the hero, The Saint in New York is your typically entertaining programmer of its era, filling out its slot in day at the movies nicely thanks to its zippy pacing, straightforwardly effective direction by Holmes – with some moments that become downright moody or clever in your patented late 30s style – and blunt yet competent acting by everyone involved. I suspect The Saint in New York’s audience at the time felt themselves pleasantly entertained, and I still found myself having a good time nearly eighty years later when sitting down to watch it.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Past Misdeeds: A Cold Night's Death (1973)

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.

Dr. Vogel, at the behest of "the space program" the lone scientist manning a behavioural science station on top of a mountain somewhere in the arctic parts of the US (I suppose), hasn't been heard from for four weeks. One would think his employers would be a little faster reacting to loss of contact with him, especially when one keeps in mind that his last radio messages were hinting at a psychological breakdown, but I digress. Anyway, said employers haven't seen the pre-credit sequence that makes it quite clear that something is absolutely not right up there.

Finally, two new scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) are flown to the station to find out what happened to Vogel and to replace him in his exciting work torturing helpless monkeys for science. They find the station in a state of disorder (but not disrepair), and Vogel dead, sitting frozen before a tape recorder in front of an open window. Vogel's corpse gets loaded into the helicopter our protagonists arrived in, and they begin to settle in.

It's too bad they don't listen to the last tape Vogel recorded at once, or they would have a fine explanation for what happened to Vogel made by himself. But very conveniently, they don't, and so someone or something has the opportunity to erase the tapes, although our not very bright scientists will at first think Vogel just didn't record anything. Which doesn't make any sense, but hey.

The corpse and the empty tapes are just the first mysterious things that begin to disturb the (of course methodically and characterwise diametrically opposite) scientists. Windows are opened at night, someone turns off the station's generator - one might begin to think there's someone else in the station, or a supernatural agency at work.

It doesn't take long at all until Jones and Enari begin to distrust one another and the question arises who is experimenting on whom here, and to what end?

I'm not as enamoured of US TV movies of the 70s as most of my American peers seem to be. For my tastes as someone who hasn't seen a single one of these movies when he was a child, many of them - certainly among them 1973's much-lauded Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - suffer from Boring Competence Syndrome and so don't really manage to excite me to reactions more emotional than a shrug. Of course, I'm also not very interested in the rich white people problems those films often love to deal with, so take that with as many grains of salt as you think applicable.

There are of course exceptions like Gargoyles or Killdozer which do manage to excite me, and A Cold Night's Death can now stand proudly among them. I'm sure ABC will be proud.

It's not that the film's script is anything near flawless. As more moments than just those I joked about in the plot synopsis or the very silly explanation for the mysterious happenings at the station demonstrate, the film's basic plot doesn't withstand close scrutiny very well. These plot holes, however, just don't seem to be all that important while on is watching a movie that isn't as much about showing off its clever plot as it is about evoking a mood of isolation and growing tension and letting its actors do the rest.

And the actors are putting a lot of effort in. I'm not always a fan of Robert Culp's performances. Too often he doesn't seem to know how and where to apply his decided talent for scenery-chewing and (oh, the pun, it hurts!) bites off more than he can or should chew. In this particular case, possibly held in check by the controlled yet intense performance by his acting partner Eli Wallach of whom I don't expect anything less, Culp is doing very fine work indeed with his intuitive genius scientist.

Being as effective as A Cold Night's Death at evoking mood is not what I'd have expected from a film made by a TV workhorse like director Jerrold Freedman, but he effortlessly and often elegantly transforms some very basic sets into a very cold haunted house through lighting and the sometimes gliding, sometimes lingering, always inventive photography of Leonard J. South.

One can't talk about the film, or rather the oppressiveness and tension of its mood, without also mentioning the movie's sound design. You can give David Lynch's much later Twin Peaks the main credit for bringing a consciousness of the importance of proper sound design into the US TV landscape, Twin Peaks however wasn't the first TV production to put thought and emphasis into this surprisingly often ignored aspect of the art of filmmaking. Case in point are this film's simple, yet excellent sound effects, especially the eerie howling of the wind and the unnerving screaming of the monkeys. It doesn't sound like much when you just read about it; hearing it is quite a different thing, especially accompanied by Gil Melle's bizarre yet appropriate (and so avantgarde sounding it wouldn't be out of place as a product of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop) synthesizer score that further emphasizes the irreality of the situation.

Add to all these things A Cold Night's Death does right that it pushes a lot of buttons belonging to my personal narrative kinks, as films and books taking place in cold, isolated places where people are plagued by mysterious forces usually do, even when they not hold the promise of the Blackwoodian supernatural in the end, and you will probably be able to imagine how much I liked this one.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

In short: Amsterdamned (1988)

A rather creative serial killer is terrorizing Amsterdam. Thanks to the city’s abundance of canals, he gets around town by diving through said canals wearing SCUBA gear, from time to time pulling people in and slaughtering them in various unpleasant ways. The head of the investigation, Eric Visser (Huub Stapel), doesn’t have much to go on, and since the only investigating he’s ever going to do is going through a list of citizens with diving licenses, he has ample time to romance museum guide Laura (Monique van de Ven).That subplot is going to be important for the finale because writer director Dick Maas clearly couldn’t be arsed to come up with a way of unmasking the killer that doesn’t result in a yawning viewer.

But then, the script to Amsterdamned really isn’t any great shakes anyway: the killer is exactly who you think it is once the character has been introduced thanks to the film not providing any alternatives, yet still Maas pretends the whole thing to be a big surprise; the characters have zero defining traits among them (Visser is hairy and drinks a lot, I guess?); and the first hour of the film’s too ample nearly two hours of running time is mostly spent on little of interest apart from the murders.

The murders are admittedly pretty great. There’s not just the silly yet fresh SCUBA killer angle, but Maas has also put some thought into keeping the murders diverse - which is one hundred percent more thought than went into the rest of the script. An additional feather in Amsterdamned’s cap is Maas’s lovingly scuzzy outlook on Amsterdam, turning the place into the only thing on screen whose characterization isn’t taken from everyone’s favourite film school course “cliché characters without personality 101”. Add to that the actually brilliant and insane motorboat chase late in the film, and you have a rather frustrating experience.

Amsterdamned is a film that could have been brilliant, and does in fact feature quite a few incredible scenes when it comes to murder and chases, but that also gets into its own way with deeply boring characters, and plodding plotting that often goes nowhere to follow red herrings and detours for way too long. For my tastes, all this overwhelms the delicious slasher/action movie hybrid Amsterdamned’s good bits try their best to deliver.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In short: The Neighbor (2016)

Not to be confused with other films about problematic neighbourhoods; also, there will be spoilers.

John (Josh Stewart) and his wife Rosie (Alex Essoe) work for John’s uncle Neil (Skipp Sudduth) as drug trafficking middlemen. They’ve put enough money aside to retire from their life of crime and move somewhere nicer far, far, away, hoping Neil won’t hunt them down and murder them. They didn’t steal from the man, mind you.

Unfortunately, the couple will have rather more trouble at their hands than an easily ticked-off Midwestern country drug lord. While John is making his final delivery to Neil, Rosie witnesses their neighbour Troy (Bill Engvall) murdering a young man. When John returns, Rosie is gone, supposedly run off, as Troy suggests to him. Only, if Rosie had wanted to leave John the day when they were splitting anyway, she probably would have taken the bag full of money in their house too, or at least some of it. So John knows Troy is lying, particularly since their last encounter the night before had already suggested something to be very wrong with the guy. Yes, wrong even from the perspective of someone in the drug trade.

Consequently John stealthily breaks into the house of Troy and his two sons (Ronnie Gene Blevins and Luke Edwards) to find Rosie, learning quite a bit more about their family business than he wanted to in the process, starting a night from hell for everyone involved.

I didn’t quite expect director Marcus Dunstan to follow up his silly yet wonderful The Collection with a clever little thriller making some caustic subtextual remarks about the American Dream™ like The Neighbor but I’m certainly not complaining.

This is the sort of relatively small-scale production that does basically everything right: the acting is fine throughout, the script effective and the direction is tight and focused, quickly introducing us to what’s what with the characters and then never stopping escalating their situation from there. There’s a sharpness (plus a whole lot of Kurtzman-created blood) to the proceedings even though The Neighbor does have something of an happy end, however ironic the film presents it. But then, one of the main points of the film is to show America (or at least the part of America it concerns itself with) as a place where it’s impossible not have blood on one’s hands.

Which doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to like John and Rosie; they are, after all, the only characters on screen who actually do something for others beyond taking care of their own survival, while their guilt for other people’s suffering through drugs and what comes with them is twice removed, them being middlemen (middlepersons?), after all.

If you’re really looking for something to complain here, it’s probably the basic set-up that’ll make you (un)happy there. It is a bit difficult to swallow that these particular people should end up to be neighbours but starting off from an improbable place as The Neighbor does is certainly a typical thriller move – Hitchcock certainly did it more often than not. And if I can suspend my disbelief for ghosts and zombies, I certainly can do the same when it comes to difficult neighbours.

Otherwise, The Neighbor is as fine a contemporary low budget thriller as you’re likely to find.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Night Feeder (1988)

A series of murders hits one of the parts of San Francisco populated by New Wavers, prostitutes and the kind of people who’ll eventually find a reason to become a mob (torches not mandatory). These are very strange killings, too, for the killer sucks the victims’ brains out through one of their eyes. Investigating Inspector Alonzo Bernardo (Jonathan Zeichner) has no idea what’s going on, and I don’t believe his general range of attitudes between very grumpy and painfully rude when talking to witnesses is helping him very much with getting a clue, or clues.

But don’t worry, San Francisco, writer Jean (Kate Alexander) is on the case as part of her rebound attempts following the separation from her insufferable husband. Well, when she’s not distracted by her new boy toy Bryan (Caleb Dreneaux), member of gothy new wave band Disease (gothy new wave band The Nuns), she is.

Quickly, people close to Jean are dying. Might it all have something to do with Bryan’s band and their shady past feeding groupies experimental drugs? Or is Jean right in suspecting a horribly disfigured homeless man to be the killer because she thinks he’s ugly? Or is something much more screwy going on?

Night Feeder is a surprisingly neat little shot on video (and direct to video, of course) gem made by people involved in San Francisco’s punk and new wave scene of the time, directed by Jim Whiteaker. The film mostly features highly enthusiastic amateur actors whose general demeanour oozes the sort of off-beat fun that can result when members and hangers-on of a scene get the opportunity to basically play themselves while possessing enough self-consciousness to laugh about what they see in the fun house mirror of the camera. So, despite - and perhaps thanks to - the low budget, the dubious production values and a lack of professionalism before the camera, there’s a delightfully authentic air about the world surrounding our heroine.

The dialogue wavers between what sounds like people having fun improvising, and stiff and peculiar yet often rather funny lines – Alonzo is the particular gift that keeps on giving, calling everyone he’s talking to at least once by a really stupid name. And don’t get me started on the tear-jerker (of laughter) that is the “romance” between him and Jean, a thing one needs to see to believe, only to doubt it again when one remembers it later.

This doesn’t mean Night Feeder is a stupid film. Whiteaker does his best to get around the typically bland look of shot on video projects of this time with all kinds of imaginative set-ups of coloured lights and peculiar camera angles, and the characters – let’s ignore the romance - are much better written than is typical of SOV affairs. Even Bryan turns out to be a bit more complicated than you’d expect, and Jean is downright like a person!

While the film clearly can’t afford too much monster action and gore, what is there is rather wonderful. Particularly the final reveal of the monster and the ensuing handful of minutes of wondrous madness are as good as SOV horror gets, taking something not completely original and yet making it messed up in the best horror movie way. If you like that sort of thing, there’s also a really icky scene in a morgue with a medical examiner who clearly loves his job way too much.

And even though calling Night Feeder “suspenseful” would be a bit of a lie, all the film’s digressions lead into at times curious and always interesting places in a world that’s just as lost as Ancient Egypt (if Ancient Egyptians had made shot on video movies about themselves), and offering an experience as close to time travel as we’ll get.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

It’s that time of the year again

when a red-garbed version of Nyarlathotep visits the Earth, and all good little eldritch abominations spend time with their loved and not so loved ones, indulging in Doctor Who Christmas specials and other traditions. Which is exactly what I’m going to do for the rest of this year, leaving the blog closed until the 3rd January 2017.

To all frequent and infrequent readers: have a good holiday of your choice, don’t despair, and kiss a loved one (if applicable). See you on the other side.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

In short: Vampire Buster (1989)

aka Ninja Vampire Busters

Original tile: 捉鬼大師

Mainland China. A horde of enraged fans of one Chairman Moa (that’s what the subtitles call him) – coming rather late to the Cultural Revolution - storms the house of Buddhist magician Cheung Sap Yat (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) to smash superstition. In practice, that seems to mean the furniture. Things nearly go too far when the – alas torchless – mob attempts to destroy a very special vase that holds a centuries-old black magician turned demon imprisoned. Cheung manages to prevent the smashing, but only by throwing the vase into the sea. You really couldn’t get away with this sort of thing in Chinese Hong Kong cinema now.

Anyway, the cursed things soon enough washes up in Hong Kong, where it finds its way to an auction house, and then into the possession of rich guy and city councillor Stephen Kay (Stanley Fung Sui-Fan). Thanks to the stupidity of fake fortune teller and fake feng shui expert Chan (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung), the demon is set free, possessing Kay and other members of his household – that also includes his mother (Hung Mei), his son (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau), his son’s girlfriend (Elsie Chan Yik-Si) and his own trophy girlfriend (Anglie Leung Wan-Yui) – on its way to doing Something Very Evil.

Fortunately, Cheung illegally immigrates to Hong Kong for some demon killing before the thing can get ideas like possessing Kay, becoming president of Hong Kong and building a wall on the border to Mexico.

On the scale of Hong Kong horror, or rather supernatural comedy, Stanley Siu Ga-Wing’s and Norman Law Man’s Vampire Buster (which doesn’t actually feature a vampire, be it Chinese or Western style), lands somewhere in the middle of the quality scale. It certainly isn’t a Mr Vampire, but it also isn’t one of those films that randomly stitch together supposedly funny scenes that aren’t, rape jokes and crap wire fu and pretends it’s all in good fun.

Rather, this is an actual movie with an actual plot, generally consistent characterisation (most characters are of course comedically cowardly, whereas comrade Cheung is of course an overweight badass surrounded by idiots), decently funny jokes – at least as far as I can make out through cultural distance and pretty bad subtitles – and perfectly okay filmmaking.

The last thirty minutes or so are even actually charming and fun, the film going through all the hallmarks of HK horror comedy and a bit of mild weird fu with genuine enthusiasm, providing lots and lots of blue light and dry ice fog while various people fly through the air, mystical glowing symbols are drawn on body parts, and various bodies are possessed by various spirits.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

In short: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Welcome to the third round of misadventures in a near-future USA ruled by a cabal whose rhetoric sounds a bit too much as if they’d fit right in with the actual near-future president of that particular country. There’s still the yearly Purge Night going on, where said twelve hours see all crime legal, leaving a lot of (mostly poor) people dead. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) wants to change that and abolish Purge Night if she becomes president – she even has a change to win the coming election.

In fact, the senator’s chances are so good, the Purge-loving establishment of the New Founding Fathers decides to make good use of the coming Purge Night and get rid of their enemy while acquiring a particularly pleasant human sacrifice for their not-so-secret ceremonies. Fortunately, Roan’s security chief is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). You might remember Leo as a rather lethal and effective kind of guy from The Purge: Anarchy, so the senator still has a good chance for survival even when members of her staff betray her.

Roan and Leo end up being chased through the streets by purgers and the mercs hired to kill her alike, but rather sooner than later they find allies in form of corner shop owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his employee and friend Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) who drives an underground triage truck on Purge Nights to make up for the bad shit she once did when she herself went purging.

Clearly, after the somewhat misguided home invasion movie that began it all, the Purge series had found its sweet spot with the near-future action of Anarchy, and writer/director/producer James DeMonaco continues with Election Year in the tone he left off with. So, the third Purge movie again offers blunt politics that suddenly look uncomfortably close to the spirit of the times, street level action in the spirit of Escape from New York, and about half a dozen warmed-up action movie clichés done well enough I don’t particularly mind how often I’ve seen them already.

While the film has some moments of semi-surrealist weirdness – mainly through many a mood-building vignette by the wayside of our protagonists’ path and a finale featuring fascist cultists who aren’t hiding their love for human sacrifices – its action tends to the more earthbound type. While calling it realistic would be absurd, the violence here does not go in for flying people (or cars) or big slow motion fests. As in the last film, DeMonaco is rather effective using this approach, so there’s a pleasant flow of diverse violence committed by a cast whose ethnic make-up puts the film’s money where its mouth is.

As an old leftie, I can’t disagree with the film’s politics much, either, even if it’s the sledgehammer version of a part of leftist thought sold to us by Universal, an irony that should probably bother me more than it actually does.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Don't Look Up (1996)

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.

Director Toshio Murai (Yurei Yanagi) is shooting what looks like a stylish, old-fashioned melodrama on a very tight schedule, but doesn't seem to have much of a problem coping with the latter.

Something about the dailies of the first day of shooting isn't right, though. At one point, the face of the movie's lead actress Hitomi (Yasuyo Shirashima) is suddenly superimposed with the face of another actress, then the whole film disappears and turns into an older movie, complete with a long-haired woman lurking in the background. Obviously, the film stock they are using are outtakes that were supposed to be thrown out, but somehow landed in the wrong place. Murai thinks he remembers the film from his childhood, but apart from asking someone working in the studio's archive to take a look at it, he just shrugs and continues his work.

Not completely surprisingly, the filming seems to be haunted now. It's mostly minor things, like people having the feeling of someone standing behind them, voices that might just be in someone's imagination, a shadowy long-haired woman standing in the distance or lurking at the ceiling of the studio, and some only vaguely defined past sometimes seem to take hold of the present. At least Murai and Hitomi are beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable, but there's not much they can do.

Then Saori (Kei Ishibashi), the actress playing Hitomi's sister in the movie, falls to her death in what might have been an accident or might be down to supernatural interference.

Although there's enough footage of Saori to finish the film without major problems, the shooting has to stop for some re-writes. Murai - now more frightened than he'd care to admit - uses the time to do some more research, but what he finds out is neither reassuring nor helpful in the long run. The actress in the film snippets he saw fell to her death in the same studio lot he is making his own movie in and what's even more disquieting, her film was never finished, so there's no way he could have seen it as a boy.

Still, somehow, the dead actress and her last film touch the present like a malevolent echo.

This is the Hideo Nakata's first long-form film, and possibly his first one not made for television (the English-speaking Internet at least says so, my eyes suggest it to be a cable TV movie like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seance). Watching it after his later masterpiece Ringu, parts of Don't Look Up seem like sketches of ideas Nakata would realize more fully in his later, higher budgeted and more concentrated movie. There's the mix of very traditionally styled ghosts with a very contemporary world, the concept of haunted media, as well as the directionless malevolence of Nakata's ghosts, who are so enraged by the things that happened to them in life that they have become creatures of pure wrath.

Nakata doesn't explain his dead actress as precisely as he would later do with Sadako, though. The audience never learns what exactly the reasons for her death were, how it was connected with the film she was starring in and how and why she latched onto Murai when he was a child. Friends of exposition and explanations of the inexplicable will certainly be infuriated. Although I agree that a few more concrete explanations would actually help Don't Look Up become more effective as a horror film and would enrich it on a thematic level by virtue of making its themes just a little less vague, I don't think this is a big problem for this particular movie. After all, a central part of the philosophy of horror directors like Nakata and Shimizu have popularized is that the supernatural isn't completely explicable or understandable, and that the slow seeping of ghosts into our world is terrible not just for what the ghosts do, but for the entry of the truly unexplainable and alien (and therefore wrong in a sense that has in my eyes clear parallels to Lovecraft) into a logical and orderly world.

This early in his career, Nakata is already quite brilliant when it comes to characterization through incidental detail and small gestures and in creating a creepy mood through the slightest occurrences. The best moments here, be it in the characterization or the attack of the supernatural are small, a little blurred and insinuate much more than the economical director is ever willing to explicate. However - as in his later work - Nakata isn't a director who unwilling to show something terrifying when he thinks it is more appropriate and effective than just insinuating it.

The director is also already a master of planting hints about the larger picture of his movie in small details. There's some clever - and rather disquieting - stuff going on with dialogue about looking up and looking down, for example.

Although the connection is never explained, Nakata left me with a feeling that there was something beyond vague parallels and the location that connects Murai, the old film, the actress and the new film, something that (and it could just be my excitable imagination speaking here, but who cares?) might just be too terrible to actually explain.

Quite unlike in Nakata's later films (and I'm just pretending the US The Ring 2 has never happened), Don't Look Up's moments of outright horror are unfortunately the moments when the film is at its weakest. Frankly, when seen clearly, the ghost looks just too much like a girl in pale make-up to be as frightening and strange as she should be (I wouldn't be surprised when this is what gave birth to the by now clichéd jerky movements of Sadako in Ringu), so that the scenes that should be the pay-off to a long and creepy build-up are a bit disappointing.

Still, I didn't mind this on paper quite distracting problem much when watching Don't Look Up. Nakata has a way of getting at the (my?) imagination that isn't disturbed by some blunders when it comes to more concrete frights. The subtleties and small fears evoked aren't going away again just because ten minutes of the more shouty stuff aren't as good as they could be.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: The emotions are real, everything else is questionable.

Wither aka Vittra (2012): Do you like Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead? So do Swedish directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, so they made this near-remake. Alright, there are a few differences: the possessed aren’t as chatty as those in Raimi’s classic and sometimes act more like zombies, nobody is raped by a tree, all colour has been desaturated out of the picture, and there’s no Bruce Campbell to be found. Otherwise the film keeps rather to close to its big inspiration without ever reaching its energy level nor its air of unbridled creativity, which is what happens when one plays in other peoples’ sandbox instead of building one’s own.

The gore is nice to look at though, and the film certainly isn’t boring.

Black Rock (2012): Katie Aselton’s film, on the other hand, sets out to play the good old game of role and trope reversal with the survival horror genre. The film isn’t interested in being ironic, though, so it’s still very much a highly focused survivalist thriller, but one with added feminist subtext that doesn’t overwhelm the text, and a deft hand at slightly undercutting expectations in favour of better characterisation. The acting by Aselton herself, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth is fine too, so there’s little here that doesn’t work rather wonderfully. Which is not a daily occurrence in a sub-genre whose tales about thin veneers of civilization breaking down again and again and again can become a bit tiresome.

Star Trek Beyond (2016): Reboot Star Trek the third, this time directed by Justin Lin (who actually manages to shoe-in a motorcycle sequence into the plot) is a very pleasant loud SF adventure movie, containing many a moment of great and loveable silliness, much loud and rather exciting adventuring, various explosions, generally rather stiff acting – basically all the charms I hope for in a contemporary blockbuster. It’s not up to Marvel standards in sudden bouts of humanity or half-hidden cleverness, but it’s far beyond (sorry) Michael Bay style blockbusting by virtue of having an actual flow, a story that makes some kind of sense, and by being actually fun instead of just being loud and obnoxious.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Hell House LLC (2015)

Some years ago, a commercial haunted house attraction in a small US town an hour’s drive away from New York ended with various unexplained deaths. The local authorities have done their utmost to cover up whatever actually happened, blaming the undisclosed number of deaths on some vague sort of technical problem. Hell House LLC – as is tradition – purports to be a documentary on the case. Rather untraditionally, it doesn’t exclusively consist of footage of a documentary crew traipsing through an old dark house and ending badly, though we’ll get to that eventually.

Between various talking heads and enticingly ambiguous footage made by visitors to the attraction, the documentary makers are contacted by Sara (Ryan Jennifer), apparently the sole survivor of the operators of the house. Sara doesn’t just give an interview, but also comes with a bag full of camera footage: security camera tapes from inside the attraction as well as much behind the scenes material shot by her and her friends. Much of the rest of the film does of course consist of Sara’s gift to documentary filmmaking and the story it tells.

A close-knit company of friends come to the not at all suspiciously named run-down old Abaddon Hotel to open their newest commercial Haunted House for the best month of the year. They don’t know about the building’s chequered past of mysterious deaths, nor do they come in expecting anything but a bit of hard work creating a spook show. Alas, there is something dwelling in the house that starts a series of strange and frightening events which will end with the wholesale slaughter of the opening night.

I’m always happy when a POV horror film takes its documentary conceit a bit more seriously, and while Stephen Cognetti’s Hell House LLC doesn’t quite parse as an actual documentary film – there are scenes in here nobody would ever use in an actual documentary for reasons of simple human decency and/or the fear of being sued penniless by various relatives – it certainly puts enough effort into this approach to buy into it. While he’s at it, Cognetti (who also wrote the film) does use the opportunities provided by the mock documentary format to tell his story a little differently than is POV standard.

Of course, we still witness the adventures of a bunch of doomed young people, but the slightly different narrative framing allows another kind of scares and a structure that can easier deviate from some POV horror standards. If you’re one of those people, you’ll probably still ask yourself why the characters keep filming even when the really horrible stuff starts happening; to me, that’s a bit like asking “who is filming this?” of a non-POV movie, but tastes and the ability to just go with things do vary. I found myself rather happy with the way Hell House LLC avoids some typical POV horror problems: there’s a pleasant lack of pointless scenes of the characters just farting around, shaky cam only happens in sequences where characters get rather excited, and the film’s general narrative structure clearly aims to use the fake authenticity and subjectivity POV horror has to offer without losing some of the opportunities a more standard style of film has to offer.

So this is not one of those POV horror films where actually interesting or creepy stuff is only happening during the last ten minutes or so. Scares and creepy things (clown manikins anyone?) are sprinkled throughout the running time, and the film makes effective use of the opportunities actual horrors happening in a place of fake horrors offer to make an audience nervous.

Hell House LLC does stay in the spirit of the haunted house attractions it is co-inspired by, though: this is a film built to provide ninety minutes of fun scares without terribly much subtext or deep thematic explorations of anything. In fact – and this is again something some viewers will loathe yet I appreciate when it is done as well as it is here – the film seems so focused on the scare show part of the business of being a horror film, it doesn’t explain anything it doesn’t need to explain for sake of the plot, not so much to be ambiguous but because it seems utterly disinterested in anything not having a direct effect on the audience’s horror glands.

That, mind you, doesn’t make the film any less fun to watch – it’s just a very specific kind of fun.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In short: Train to Busan (2016)

aka Busan Bound

Original title: 부산행

Fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) has chosen a rather unfortunate day to finally fulfil the wish of his little daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an) to get on the titular train to Busan with her and go for a visit with his divorced wife. Turns out today is the (fast, loud, with a tendency to tumble into hilarious heaps) zombie apocalypse. Quickly, many a carriage of the train is filled with the undead. It’s a fine day for one-note characters to learn valuable lessons and get bitten by the rampaging hordes.

If you’re an eternal optimist like me, you might go into Yeon Sang-ho’s zombies on a train movie Train to Busan hoping for something, anything new in zombie cinema; like me, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed to realize that the only even vaguely original plot element here is the fact that the cellphone networks will stay up for the whole of the movie, probably because we’re in the homeland of Samsung.

Now, as I’m saying often enough, originality isn’t all in genre cinema, and a film which has nothing new to say can still be a great time, as long as it is done well. Train to Busan isn’t that film, alas. Too much of its running time is filled with standard zombie apocalypse scenes done slightly worse than in your typical middling zombie film. The characters are boring and their character arcs obvious and without even a single surprise, yet still the film treats every generic self-sacrifice and death with overblown seriousness, violins on the soundtrack, slow motion, and if we’re really lucky with what feels like five minutes of a little girl crying.

I’m not against a horror film laying the melodrama on thick, but I’m also of the opinion that a film needs to put actual work into making me care for the characters it is going to kill off, instead of working on the assumption that it is enough to go through the gestures of your generic “tragic death” scene to make me cry. Unfortunately, just going through the motions without actually putting the work in is the whole of Train to Busan’s modus operandi when it comes to human feelings, with so many badly realized attempts at emotionally manipulating the audience, I at times wasn’t sure anymore if this is supposed to be a satire (it isn’t).

Add to that a running time that’s bloated up to nearly two hours where ninety minutes would suffice well enough, zombies that feel cartoonish instead of threatening, and action and suspense scenes which are mostly just okay, and you’re left with a whole lot of nothing.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Feardotcom (2002)

Still haunted by his inability to shave properly catch a serial killer named The Doctor (strangely enough not Colin Baker, but Stephen Rea doing a silly voice and a silly accent, probably because he wanted something to do), despite the guy streaming his murders live on the internet, police detective Mike (Stephen Dorff or the piece of wood they painted to look like him) stumbles upon a series of very curious deaths. The victims seem to die in accidents or by somewhat natural causes, but all of them see terrible things before their deaths and bleed from the eyes. The last bit puts health inspector – or something – Terry (Natascha McElhone or a different piece of painted wood) on the case too, and she won’t stop helping Mike even though it’s clear after five minutes of investigation that there’s no illness involved in these deaths. The script will also very randomly drop a romance between Mike and Terry on us, even though none of the scenes between them suggest any emotional connection at all, let’s not even speak of chemistry. In fact, it looks as if the actors were just as surprised by the development as the audience is.

Anyway, some disconnected dialogue scenes that stand in for an investigation later, our heroes learn that the victims are killed by a haunted website with the rather awkward URL of “”, an address that perfectly encapsulates the quality of the writing here. Apparently, the site is haunted (and designed?) by a ghost named Jeannine (sometimes Gesine Cukrowski in low level bondage gear, sometimes Jana Güttgemans, a little girl wearing a particularly obvious wig). Jeannine is a victim of the Doctor and uses her powers of net haunting to curse random people coming to her site. The curse will kill a victim after 48 hours of exposure via their greatest fear, unless, apparently, they catch the Doctor. Why Jeannine  thinks people like two German-speaking punks who have nothing whatsoever to do with law enforcement will be much help there, particularly since she doesn’t bother to actually tell her victims what she wants from them, is anybody’s guess. I’m not particularly hopeful the writers or director William Malone knew.

In fact, I have to hold myself back not to make a “you know nothing, Jon Snow” joke here, for the writing as a whole is so inconsistent, implausible and random in all the wrong ways, only utmost politeness can hold one back from heaping personal abuse on the people responsible. Consequently, the plot outline above is a best guess effort.

At the time it came out, Feardotcom was positioned as an attempt of getting at some of that sweet money reserved for bad US remakes of markedly superior Japanese horror films without actually having to buy any rights (or, one might add, perhaps with a degree of unkindness, without actually having a script). In practice, there certainly are some plot parallels to Nakata’s Ringu or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo but there’s exactly zero of the complexity or aesthetic achievement of these films visible on screen. In fact, the film seems more in the spirit of Italian rip-off cinema of the 70s – with the little difference that where Italian rip-offs of successful movies were often highly entertaining, Feardotcom is mostly boring.

Much of that boredom is what happens when a cast of characters consisting of non-entities mostly lacking the single character trait even a slasher movie victim gets wander through thematically indifferent set-pieces which in turn meander between vapid and unexciting horror sequences shot in very dark rooms, third-rate would-be Seven-style serial killer non-thriller scenes shot in very dark rooms, and flash cuts too embarrassing even for a White Zombie or Marilyn Manson video clip.

I could probably live with the total lack of thematic coherence, the film’s disinterest in its own narrative, and the non-characters if the visual aspects of the film suggested anything beyond Malone having seen some music videos, and a David Fincher film and probably once having heard of Japan and Italy and now crapping it all back on screen without rhyme, reason, a concept, or even an idea of mood. The courageous handful of defenders of Feardotcom (and all power to defenders of hopeless causes like this) tend to argue the film is actually a rather stylish affair but to my eyes and ears, there’s no coherence to its style, and therefore no style at all.