Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Quiet Cool (1986)

When she loses all contact with her brother, his wife and their late teenage son Joshua (Adam Coleman Howard), Katy Greer (Daphne Ashbrook) fears the worst. The little Pacific Northwest town in the the middle of nowhere where she is making her home, and the neighbouring woods her brother lives in are the area of operation of some very evil marihuana growers. These people aren’t your pleasant hippies growing some grass where nobody will look – as a matter of fact, their leadership under a certain Valence (Nick Cassavetes) looks like an 80s New Romantics band, they have all three law enforcement officers of the pop. 183  town in their pocket, keep a little army hidden away in the woods and they kill everyone who gets in their way. The last – as the audience knows – is exactly what happened to Katy’s relations, all, that is, apart from Joshua, who has been left for dead.

Fortunately, Katy has a former ex-boyfriend to call on for help. Joe Dylanne (James Remar) is your typical 80s action movie cop hero. Well, to be frank, he’s only about 5 out of 10 on the 80s action movie cop hero scale where Stallone’s Cobra would be a 10, which means he is probably not a fascist, only murderous when provoked, not an asshole and sometimes even outright nice.

Neither the locals nor the bad guys themselves are doing much of anything to hide what’s going on in town, apart from keeping the identity of Valence’s secret boss, only known as The Man, mysterious, so Joe doesn’t have to do much of that thing 80s action movie cop heroes can’t do anyway – investigate. Quickly enough, he’s out in the woods getting shot at right at the point where and when Joshua re-emerges to start his own little guerrilla war. At first, there is some vague mumbling about that “law” stuff some police have heard about, but Joe and Joshua quickly team up to enthusiastically slaughter a lot of people, particularly after the obvious motivation for 80s action movie cop heroes happens to Joe.

After it started with a desperately annoying motorbike chase through New York, I was already ready to write off Quiet Cool as another 80s low budget action film of dubious interest and without a sense of fun, particularly given its director Clay Borris’s future in pretty uninteresting TV shows. But soon enough, the film began to charm me with a no nonsense approach to its plot that clearly wanted to get to the meat of the matter – a guy and a boy slaughtering people – quickly, setting up the situation and then letting things rip.

And letting rip it truly does: there’s not just the surprisingly huge body count (at least half of which is caused by a teenager who just has no time to be annoying, or to mean anything but business) to make the action movie friend happy, the film also knows about the importance of variety. So people not just get shot and exploded, they are also speared, crushed by trees and so on and so forth, all in the spirit of merry diversity. Borris shoots the carnage in straightforward but usually excellently timed manner, often even bothering to build up some suspense, an approach that is rather atypical for most action movies but does work wonders when it comes to stretching a budget in a manner still pleasing to an audience. The very picturesque woods all of the violence takes place in do help in making Quiet Cool look much better than you’d expect, too, providing mood and a sense of place in a genre that often prefers your generic big city.

There’s a fine streak of perfectly straight-faced silliness running through the film: where else would you get to see a fluffy bunny-based suspense scene? Not to speak of the awesome true identity of The Man and its somewhat cliché-subverting effect. On the other hand, Borris never takes this element of the film too far into camp territory, never quite hinting if he actually realizes how silly some parts of the film truly are.

Apart from the very beginning, there’s very little about Quiet Cool I’m not willing to call pretty fantastic, or even pretty damn fantastic. Well, there’s Nick Cassavetes’s completely expressionless Valence, who is way too bland for the time he spends on screen as the main threat, but the film doesn’t seem to be very interested in him anyway, so this is still the little wood-set 80s action movies that could.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

In short: The Gift (2000)

As a widow with three kids somewhere in the rural South of the USA, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) doesn’t have a particularly easy life. She’s earning a living as a clairvoyant, though in her particular case, this means she is a combination of amateur social worker and amateur psychologist, helping people in her community who’d never seek or find professional help with kindness and empathy as best as she can. There’s for example Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) who is regularly abused by her prick of a husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), despite Annie telling her again and again she should pack up and leave; or the local car mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), whom she is trying to help confront some deeply buried trauma that is breaking him apart inside.

Annie does have actual psychic powers, mind you. Dreams and visions do tend to tell her things, and right now, those visions are telling her there’s trouble on the horizon, though it’s unclear what kind of trouble it is. The only thing that’s sure is that it’s going to be bad.

Say what you will against Sam Raimi (we all have suffered through that thing with Kevin Costner, and various odious comic relief outings by his brother Ted, after all), but the man has always been more than just a one-trick pony, by now showing a filmography that manages to be diverse in tone and style yet still showing a consistent world view and a personal touch.

So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that his Southern - mildly gothic and supernatural - thriller The Gift shows a filmmaker who is just as accomplished at making a character-focused film without any big set-pieces or much blood as he is when concerning himself with Bruce Campbell’s blood-spattering adventures or Spider-Man.

While its plot about guilt, murder, and ghosts isn’t terribly original – these things are what we expect in the South to happen right? - The Gift thrives on two things. Firstly, it carries a deep sense of place, turning what could be cliché South into something that lives and breathes like an actual place (from my chair in Germany I wouldn’t dare suggest an authentic depiction of the South, mind you), built up by Raimi through often surprisingly subtle framing choices and a direction style that always emphasises the bits of scenery that tell us about the place they belong to without the film ever actually pointing it out.

Secondly, there’s the acting ensemble. It’ll come as no surprise that Blanchett is pretty damn great, turning a character that could be your usual caricature medium right out of a mediocre TV show into a believable woman - in turns fragile, strong, sad, and nearly painfully compassionate without ever feeling like a sugary saint. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to be a little bit shocked by seeing Keanu Reeves do that thing I never thought he could do: act, and quite convincingly thanks to the magic casting someone against type can produce.

All of which leaves us with a calmly accomplished film that is unspectacular only in theory but in practice can knock off a pair of socks or two.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Evil of Dracula (1974)

Original title: Chi o suu bara

aka The Bloodthirsty Roses

Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) comes to what the film calls “the bleak north” of Japan as the new psychology teacher of a boarding school for young women, shortly before the term break. It’s not an ideal time for such an arrival: the principal’s (Shin Kishida) wife (Mika Katsuragi) has died in a car accident, her body laid out in the cellar of the creepy western style mansion next to the school where she and her husband lived. The Principal explains this rather un-Japanese treatment of the body with a local custom that sees the bereft praying for a dead person’s revival for a week before cremation.

The Principal has other news for Shiraki too. He has decided the young teacher is to be his successor at the school in a few months or so. Shiraki’s understandably confused by this, as much as he is by his new boss’s insistence on him spending a night at the mansion before he moves into his own room in the school building. That night, Shiraki has a dream in which he is accosted by blue-faced women in nightgowns – one of whom looks a lot like the portrait of the Principal’s wife hanging in the mansion – who clearly (and perhaps disappointingly) have nothing good for him in mind.

If this experience has indeed been a dream is a question Shiraki will increasingly ask himself, for it seems connected to all kinds of strangeness going on at the boarding school. That one of the other teachers is a creep who likes to creepily stare at the students while dramatically – as well as creepily - quoting Baudelaire might be explained by this being a Japanese movie. But what is Shiraki to make of the tales the local doctor Shimomura (Kunie Tanaka) tells him about the place? Apparently, every year, one or two students of the school just disappear without a trace, and nobody seems to care all that much. And that’s just the beginning of it – this year’s disappeared girl looks exactly like one of the women from Shiraki’s dream. Shimomura also has some curious ideas about vampire legends of the area to share, as well as tales of the curious fact that the principals change rather regularly here but every new principal changes his behaviour radically once he is in the new job and starts acting a lot like his predecessor. Well, except for that one guy who just went crazy and is spending the rest of his life institutionalized. It’s all rather confounding and disconcerting to Shiraki, and becomes even more so when some of the students are getting stalked and attacked by someone who looks a lot like the Principal.

Evil of Dracula is the final film of Toho’s and director Michio Yamamoto’s western vampire aka “Bloodthirsty” trilogy. Where the first two seem to be closely related to Italian gothic horror, this one’s trying to split the difference between the Italian approach and Hammer’s style of the gothic. Particularly Kishida as the main vampire is heavily indebted to the Christopher Lee version of Dracula, ticking off all the check marks on the Christopher Lee Dracula scale: not a seducer but a rapist, likes to snarl and look pissed off at the slightest provocation, and is generally a physical threat as much as a spiritual one.

Evil’s vampirism is more sexualized again than it was in its successor, with the victims in general, once bitten, clearly having a rather pleasant time of it, while Mrs Principal prefers to suck the blood of young women from a point slightly above their breasts (providing the film also with a decent opportunity for some rather more artsy than sleazy looking breast shots). Getting bitten by a vampire still means instant Renfieldisation, too, so the film also keeps his predecessor's paranoia motives to a degree. It is, however, a less personal kind of paranoia here because nobody is quite as close as a sister to anyone else here, and the film doesn’t put its emphasis there.

Rather, this one returns to the mystery influences of the first film, concerning itself mainly with Shiraki, Shimomura and the - alas weakly drawn and rather uninteresting - female main character Kumi (Mariko Mochizuki) trying to puzzle out what exactly the vampires are planning, and how.

And the how turns out to be really rather interesting and creepy, involving a technique to take over someone else’s life I’ve certainly never seen in any other vampire movie, Japanese or western. It’s also a method not to be spoiled for the first time viewer.

Otherwise, Yamamoto still follows the method that worked out so well for him in the first two films and shoots contemporary surroundings in the style of gothic horror, doubling down when it comes to the obligatory creepy mansion. So shadows and the air of a dream abound, people act irrationally, and the irrational acts upon them. It’s all rather fitting to a series of films among whose recurring motives is their characters’ difficulty to discern dream from reality.

Most of this is atmospheric and effective, particularly the film’s final third providing one great moment after the other, Yamamoto regularly adding little flourishes like the Principal’s habit of sending his victims white roses that turn red once he’s killed them. It’s not a film for anyone who needs to have a plot or characters which work logically but I’d argue all three of Yamamoto’s vampire movies would be poorer for the addition of workaday logic, for they’d stopped being dreams.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

In short: UFO – Es ist hier (2016)

aka UFO: It Is Here

The obligatory troupe (gaggle? murder?) of film school students are shooting documentary footage at a zoo when they witness what looks like a meteorite crashing down in some woods at least several kilometres away. After some bickering, they decide to change their documentary project and go meteorite hunting. Soon, they are in the deep dark woods (well, as deep and dark as woods get that look to be rather close to a decent road).

What they find doesn’t look much like a meteorite and rather more like some kind of wreckage – but the wreckage of what? Because these people have very bad survival instincts, and it’s rather late in the day now, our protagonists decide to spend the night in the woods and poke around in the wreckage in the morning.

When our heroes awaken, they realize that one of their number has disappeared, leaving behind a camera that suggests he has been attacked by something. Indeed, they’ll find his mutilated corpse in a tree after a while. Somehow, they also manage to get completely lost in the process – their cellphones naturally don’t work anymore – and soon make the acquaintance of the creature that killed their friend – and more of its ilk.

At one point early on in Daniele Grieco’s (second, following Die Präsenz ) German POV horror film, I was tempted to turn it off again right quick, expecting the ten minutes or so of bickering guys and gals meandering through the woods in the worst sub-Blair Witch Project style to mean the rest of the film would continue as exactly the sort of bad copy of betters things these scenes suggest. Fortunately, I persisted, for while UFO certainly isn’t terribly original, it quickly stops borrowing its ideas exclusively from that often so badly copied film, and actually comes around to a handful of pretty effective moments of suspense, even taking us into seldom POV-explored terrain like a cave and a farmstead in the process. Which is a lot more than I can say for many a film riding these particular coat tails.

The aliens we get to see are pretty effective designs too, with lots of slimy appendages, icky eggs and unhygienic habits. Again, this sort of thing is obviously not original per se in horror, but not overused in POV horror. More importantly, Grieco does manage to sell slime, glowing eggs, worm things and shadowy movements as actual threats to his protagonists, as well as somewhat creepy to the jaded viewer.


On the negative side, there’s clunky dialogue, a bit too much shaky cam when it’s not really necessary, and characters without traits, but I still did end up having more fun with UFO than I expected. There’s certainly enough of value and fun in here to make for a satisfying eighty minutes of film.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The White Buffalo (1977)

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.

Wild Bill Hickock (Charles Bronson) returns from his showbiz career to the West to fight against destiny. Hickock is plagued by a recurring nightmare about battling a gigantic white buffalo (that looks very much like the mechanical construct it is) on a snowy, disquietingly artificial looking plateau. He usually wakes up from the dream with guns blazing. Hickock believes that his dream enemy really exists and that he has to find and kill it or be doomed in some inexplicable way.

The gunman has too much of a history in the West, and so uses the pseudonym of James Otis, but he can't help meeting old enemies like Captain Tom Custer (Ed Lauter) or his former love Poker Jenny (Kim Novak), saying goodbye to various parts of his old life in one way or the other.

Hickock's also quite good at making new enemies, like Whistling Jack Kileen (Clint Walker, in the Western surroundings a much more convincing actor than in any of the non-Westerns I have seen him act in), who follows Hickock into the mountains when the gunman and an old acquaintance, the trapper Charlie Zane (Jack Warden), move out into the mountains where Zane was nearly killed by a rock fall caused by the white buffalo.

Also hunting the strange animal is Crazy Horse (Will Sampson), now going under the moniker of Worm. The animal had attacked one of the Oglala villages and killed the war chief's daughter, leaving him without his name and position until he can wrap her body into the buffalo's pelt.

Despite Hickock's racism and Worm's distrust of white people, the two men recognize the kindred spirit in the other when they meet and help each other in their desperate hunt as best as men like them are able to.

The White Buffalo surely is one of the weirder Westerns to come out of the US, and not at all the typical late 70s Bronson vehicle I would have expected from a director like the usually very down-to-Earth J. Lee Thompson. It's as if Thompson and his star (also not exactly known to feature in flights of fancy) had had a very peculiar dream of making a sort of movie they didn't usually make themselves.

The film is a strange mixture of the scepticism and semi-naturalism of the revisionist Western and the feeling of utter irreality one usually only finds in dreams, the naturalistic elements so peculiar in and of themselves that they are only bound to strengthen the dream-like aspects of the movie.

I suspect this wavering between the hyper-real and the completely unreal will be what truly makes or breaks the film for a given viewer - either you will be sucked in by the mood of mythical doom by the way of both Moby Dick and Jaws embedded in a semi-cynical (and very dirty) interpretation of the Old West, or you will just be annoyed by the way everything in the film feels just a little bit off. Often, the two antithetical impulses of The White Buffalo seem to wrestle each other until either the naturalism or the irreality decide to give up for a scene or two and let its enemy do its own thing.

This feeling of two forces fighting each other runs through the whole film. It is there on a plot level with the obvious duel between the men and the animal (which sometimes seems to stand in for a self-destructive part of their nature, sometimes to want to say something about the nature of the Old West it just can't bring into precise words), and in how the older, less dumb Hickock fights against the consequences the actions of his brash younger self still leave him to deal with decades later.

It can also be found in the film's handling of dialogue full of realistic (or rather realistic sounding, I certainly don't know how people of the time and place actually spoke) jargon and phrases my modern ear needed to work hard on parsing, that is spoken in a consciously artificial sounding way that permanently points out its own artificiality.

And this feeling is also there in the contrast between some fantastic (well, if you're like me and like to look at snowy mountains and Bronson Canyon) looking location shots and the beautiful yet obviously fake sets that make up most of the movie's night sequences and interior scenes.
Somehow, all this strangeness and contradictoriness comes together to form one of the most dream-like Westerns I have ever seen, the sort of film that dreams itself being Moby Dick as written by an opium-addicted Western pulp writer.

Apart from being as damn peculiar as films come, The White Buffalo is also a very slow film without the clear and strong plotting that is typical for most US Westerns, though not necessarily those of the revisionist type. Here, again, the slow drifting feel of a dream comes to mind. I find it difficult to imagine a rhythm that would fit this movie better. Its mixture of myth, historical figures which carry their own myths around their necks, and a still romantic view of an historical era that pretends to be a sceptical and unromantic view would fit badly into something straight and fast.

That also seems to have been what Thompson thought, and so his camera work tends to the unhurried and slow throughout, giving even shoot-outs something ponderous, as if time in The White Buffalo would not function in quite the same way as the audience understands it. I suspect the influence of especially Leone's Spaghetti Western here.

Thompson, or probably Richard Sale's script, also point out the moral complexity of the life at the frontier from time to time, in short political discussions between Hickock and Worm, or the rather sobering way Zane isn't able to treat Crazy Horse as a fellow human being at a point where most other films would have the frontiersman and the warrior become grand friends, but as thoughtful as these moments are, they only make the film's actual thematic core more muddled, like that of Moby Dick after 150 years of interpretation. Say a dozen things and each and every one of them can be found somewhere in the movie, but don't expect any of them to be "what the film is about".


To me, that's not a bad thing in a dream-like semi-naturalistic Western about Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse hunting a supernatural white buffalo; it's rather what I want from it.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

In short: Camp Fear (1991)

A bunch of young women – most of whom have no connection at all to the rest of the movie – shower and walks through what I assume to be their sorority house bare-breasted, for, as all pubescent boys know, girls always walk around in the nude when members of their strange and frightening species are alone with one another. I was kinda missing a pillow fight there, but the film follows up with the girls who will be our actual main characters first spending some time in class with hawt archaeology and/or anthropology professor Hamilton (Vincent Van Patten who is about as convincing a professor as he is an actor), so there’s that.

Afterwards, it’s off to a nightclub for a musical number, some lambada and the introduction of some evil biker dudes. During the long and painful course of these scenes, we learn that one of the sorority sisters is apparently the professor’s girlfriend, so add dubious professional ethics to his lack of acting ability and his hair. Then, finally, it’s the next morning and our protagonists are off for some sort of vague archaeological project with the professor at a place called Mystic Mountain. The gang encounters George “Buck” Flowers, a native American shaman (Jim Elk) standing in for Crazy Ralph who warns them off the mountain, and meet the bikers again, who have taken a rapey shine to the girls.

After more bullshit, our protagonists find themselves isolated from any potential help by the powers of handwaving plot developments and not just in trouble with the bikers but also a big guy with bad dressing sense (embodied by one Tiny Ron). The big guy is, it seems, a druid trying to avert the millennial end of the world by offering up human sacrifices, and has an embarrassing pet lake monster.

All this – except for the rape – does make Thomas Edward Keith’s fortunately only feature sound rather fun, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is one of those films that sound much more fun than they are when one has to actually sit through them. Camp Fear’s problem is not so much the complete lack of talent among the people involved than the fact that their lack of talent manifests with a total lack of charm, making much of the film terribly dull instead of terribly entertaining.


Which, come to think of it, might have something to do with the fact that the film’s first twenty minutes are bound to lull one to sleep with some of the most awkwardly filmed female nudity outside of Playboy Mansion, as well as with much pointless filler. It doesn’t help that the following twenty minutes are so dull not even the hilarious lake monster or the druid can wake one up again, nor that the film’s attempts at mixing two types of backwoods horror are crushed by the sad and tragic fact that its director couldn’t film a suspense sequence to save his life. On the positive side, um, the thing ends?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Wax Mask (1997)

Original title: M.D.C. – Maschera di cera

The year 1900, Paris. Young Sonia Lafont survives the brutal murder and mutilation of her parents by hiding under a commode. Twelve years later, Sonia (grown up to be played by Romina Mondello) is living in Rome. She’s trying to get a job designing clothes in the city’s new house of wax. Once he’s taken a (creepy) look at her, the wax museum’s (creepy) boss, Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein), is all too happy to hire the girl, despite her lack of practical experience in her chosen field. One can’t help but think there’s more and worse to the man’s decision than just Sonia’s pretty face – even though she’s certainly a very fetching young lady.

Sonia’s new place of employment, being a wax museum in a horror movie, does of course harbour more than just one dark secret - and would you believe it? The wax figures on show in it may very well contain only a very small amount of wax, and more of a rather more…human ingredient! Might there be a connection to some curious disappearances that started happening in town ever since Volkoff has arrived, or even a connection to the murder of Sonia’s parents? Obviously.

Initially, The Wax Mask was supposed to be a film made by the great Lucio Fulci, even involving Fulci’s old nemesis Dario Argento on the production and story side, but in the end, Fulci died before shooting began, and Argento’s input looks to have been very minor too. The job of replacing Fulci fell to the maestro’s favourite effects man, Sergio Stivaletti, who made his debut on the director’s chair, with very little too follow.

As a director, Stivaletti is no Fulci, not even the late hit or miss Fulci making cable TV movies. It’s not so much a lack of technical expertise – Stivaletti clearly knows more than just the basics of the whys and wherefores of directing – but one of spirit. Particularly the film’s – very pretty in the Italian style created by Stivaletti – gorier sequences suggest to me that Stivaletti is just a little too nice, lacking the curious mixture of nastiness, all-around misanthropy and plain surreal weirdness that made Fulci as great as he was. Given that he’s working off a script made for and in part written by Fulci for Fulci, Stivaletti does of course have little opportunity to find something of its own to replace the Fulci mix, so that the film often feels less like an homage to the maestro made by another great than like a somewhat reticent attempt at copying the maestro’s weaker late period style. Luckily, it’s a weaker attempt at copying the great man made by a guy who actually worked with him, and seems interested in more than just the gory bits of his film.


Consequently, The Wax Mask does feature quite a few good parts beside its problems, too: some of the film’s locations are beautiful and creepy and while Stivaletti could do more with them, he certainly isn’t wasting them; while the violence doesn’t feel quite right – except for the pig attack (don’t ask, just watch) which does feel absolutely wrong/right – it does rise above the gore for gore’s sake style you’d probably suspect from an effects artist by actually having a degree of style, perhaps even a sense of moderation; and the film’s final twenty-five minutes or so are absolutely bonkers in the best Italian horror tradition, with the villain demonstrating his true mad scientist qualifications by turning into more than just your usual horror movie wax museum proprietor, developing a Fantomas-style ability at disguising himself (enabling a wonderful minute or so spent with the good old doppelganger motif), and turning into a thinner version of dear T-1000.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In short: H.P. Lovecraft & The Frozen Kingdom (2016)

I’m not the kind of orthodox Lovecraft fan who clamps his tentacles in horror at the mere idea of an all ages animated film concerning the man (or as in this case the boy) and his yog-sothery, so in principle, I have no problem whatsoever with the basic conception of Sean Patrick O’Reilly’s animated feature. Unfortunately, I do have quite a few with the film’s actual execution.

The animation side suffers from all the problems you might suspect when confronted with low budget computer animation: movement is often jerky, characters lack personality thanks to their painfully generic design and a minimum of detail, and the lack of background detail here borders on the absurd.A more creative approach to these technical and budgetary limitations could have turned into a style of its own for the film, but the way things end up on screen, the characters and environments just looks tacky and cheap. That’s certainly not a way to get sucked into the film’s world – unless bad digital animation is cosmic horror for kids.

The voice acting is weird. On paper, the film features a perfectly capable cast (with the bigger names of course playing the smallest roles), yet the style of the performances fluctuates wildly, one third of the actors aiming for an 80s Saturday morning cartoon style, another third sounding as if they were reading directly from a script the have just encountered for the very first time, and only the last third turns out something that actually fits the tone of the film they are in. It’s so all over the place one might question if there was any voice direction involved at all.


The concepts for the film’s world aren’t half bad, though you can hold it against The Frozen Kingdom that half of its Lovecraft references are mere namedropping without any actual use for the narrative, whereas much of the other half is used in often terribly un-Lovecraftian ways. The latter isn’t a problem for me, but the more conservative Lovecraft fans among the audience might get somewhat annoyed. And it’s not as if there’s much to distract anyone from any annoyances here, what with the lack of visual power, and a plot that is a very basic quest set-up presented with a lot of convoluted detail to make it look more complex than it actually is - and failing at that. Frankly, it’s a waste of a good idea, or the rough draft of a movie waiting for someone to actually polish it up.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lake of Dracula (1971)

Original title: Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me

aka Bloodthirsty Eyes

Ever since she was small, Akiko (Midori Fujita) has had a terrible recurring nightmare. In her dream she runs after her little dog towards a creepy western style mansion. Inside the building, she finds a beautiful dead woman at a piano, and is attacked by a blue-faced man (Shin Kishida) in black with blood on his face, very sharp teeth and yellow eyes she can’t forget.

Now, more than fifteen years later, Akiko tries to exorcise the dream by using her holidays in a nice modern house close to a pleasant looking lake to turn it into a painting. Alas, that dream will turn out to be a repressed memory once the mandatory amount of strange stuff begins to happen around Akiko.

A coffin is loaded off at the close-by tourist centre (hut), and soon, the friendly old guy working there is turning into a blue-faced somewhat rapey Renfield, Akiko’s sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) starts acting like different person, and Akiko’s dog is murdered. Either our heroine is losing it, or some evil from her past has come to get her. Fortunately, her boyfriend, the doctor Takashi (Choei Takahashi) is one of those rare horror movie boyfriends who actually listen when their girlfriends are starting to tell strange stories, so at least, she doesn’t have to fight against the vampire who wants to make her his bride alone. Which is a good thing, what with her not being much good at the whole vampire fighting business.

The second film in Toho’s and director Michio Yamamoto’s western vampire non-trilogy (sometimes also known as the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” because that word is in each of the Japanese titles) is the weakest of the three. There are a couple of reasons for that: the pacing is just a tad too slow even for a gothically inclined horror film of the early 70s, the plot is not terribly eventful and the general set-up is just not quite as interesting as in the other films of the trilogy.

It’s still a nice example of gothic horror from Japan, mind you. I particularly enjoy how Yamamoto mixes a mostly modern setting with very classical gothic horror patterns, with a nervous and appropriately beautiful heroine who could have stepped right out of the pages of a gothic horror revival novel stumbling panicked through a world that very suddenly and quite literally turns into a nightmare for her, and where the people closest to her apart from her boyfriend turn into evil mirror images of themselves.

The film seems more interested in the personality changes in the people under the vampire’s spell than in the more typical sexual angle (which is there but not really a point of emphasis – there’s not even the scene of undead Natsuko trying to seduce Takashi you’d expect, particularly since the film appears to set it up a little earlier). The film’s not so much afraid of foreigners stealing a gentleman’s wife or of anyone getting sexually liberated than of the people around you stopping to repress their worst sides, sex apparently not falling under the description of bad for once in a horror film. It’s an interesting choice I wish the film had done a little more with, but it’s certainly there, and it plays nicely with Akiko’s fear of her reality turning into her recurring nightmare.

Interestingly enough, the film never actually threatens this kind of change for Takashi, nor does it ever go down the route of having him think Akiko is crazy. In fact, the guy generally seems to assume his girlfriend is just as strong and competent as he is – though she alas really isn’t – and treats her accordingly; not exactly a concept of relationships one encounters often in Japanese movies of this era, and it’s certainly welcome, though I rather wish the heroine treated this way were actually a bit a more proactive.

On the visual level, I don’t find Lake quite as strong as The Vampire Doll but there are still quite a few moody scenes, most of them hard-won out of shooting and lighting modern (by the standards of the early 70s) interiors as if they were part of an old crumpled castle. At times, the film also manages to mirror Akiko’s panic in her surroundings, becoming dream-like more literally than we use that word normally. Even the film’s flatter moments demonstrate the usual high technical standard of Japanese genre film of this time.

So, while I’m not as crazy about Lake of Dracula as I am about The Vampire Doll, I still think it’s a fine example of cultural appropriation doing its good work.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

In short: House of Dracula (1945)

Erle C. Kenton’s House of Dracula is the last adventure of the classic Universal monsters before they finished their decline in the most traumatic manner possible, by meeting Abbot and Costello. It’s not a terribly good one, as last hurrahs goes, but it’s also not as bad as it could be. At the very least, House of Dracula (a film not at all concerning the house of Dracula, not even metaphorically, of course) is a watchable and mostly entertaining film if you go in with the appropriate lowered expectations and do have a degree of patience and sympathy for this stage of Universal’s development.

The film’s main problem, as always with the monster mash phase of Universal, is a terrible script that is episodic for no good reason, can’t be bothered to make even a lick of sense, and seems afraid of doing anything even vaguely new with its characters. So Lon Chaney Jr. whines, John Carradine’s – bad but not as bad as in his last outing – Dracula maybe has evil plans or not, and Frankenstein’s Monster (this time around Glenn Strange who is no Karloff, nor a Chaney Jr.) wakes up for a thirty second rampage. The more interesting and sort of new elements of the plot and cast, consisting of actually friendly Mad Scientist Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) turning into an alter ego I can only dub Evilmann while his sympathetic pretty hunchbacked assistant Nina (Jane Adams) nearly becomes the film’s heroine, could have made for a nice film of their own – particularly since Kenton suddenly shows himself as a stylish old-style Universal director whenever Evilmann is on screen. Alas, this is late period Universal, so the usual tired creature pool and the Jekyll and Hyde plot rob each other of the screen time they’d need to breathe.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Blood Massacre (1988? 1991? Yesterday?)

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.

Murderously deranged Vietnam vet Rizzo (improbably cast Don Dohler vet George Stover in what just might be the only time in his career in which he's basically playing Rambo) and three sort-of buddies rob that favourite victim of all such criminal efforts, the local video store. Who would have believed that the video store owner has a handgun and a female employee willing to use it? Welcome to Maryland. Fortunately for them, the gangsters survive the ensuing confrontation and only the needlessly heroic video store employee has to die, but that's no consolation for our protagonists, who are now being hunted for murder instead of armed robbery as they had expected. Hope the 720 Dollars are worth it.

The mandatorily moustached cop Micky McGuire (Herb Otter Jr.) is picking up their trail, connecting Rizzo with another murder the man committed at the beginning of the film while he's at it.

While Micky's investigating, the gangsters' flight is stunted by their car breaking down in the middle of the woods. They're in luck, though, for they manage to grab themselves another car and a useful hostage in the form of country girl Liz Parker (Robin London) in the space of only a few minutes. They force Liz to drive them to her, her sister's and her parents' home even deeper in the woods and plan on holing up there for a bit. The Parkers seem harmless enough, perhaps a little too harmless, but a nice warm dinner for everyone and blood-letting sex with Liz for Rizzo are nothing to sneeze at.

All is well until our protagonists take a look inside the trunk of Liz's car. There, they find a dead psychiatrist and papers that declare the charming young lady to be a murderous maniac. They will soon realize that Liz is not the only one of that sort in her family. In fact, these people are all cannibalistic murderers - as well as cooks of a very famous stew - always on the look-out for new food sources.

Now only Rizzo's Vietnam vet expertise in killing people can save the day. At least until the final ridiculous/awesome plot twist.

We're back in Baltimore, Maryland and in the arms of its greatest son, Don Dohler. Blood Massacre should become the last film Dohler directed in the 20th century, but it's a fantastic way to end the first part of a career.

What could be better than a creaky, yet strangely intense variation on backwoods horror crossed with (the more harmless) elements of movies whose titles begin with "Last House on" as an end to anything, really?

If you just thought to yourself "Nothing!", then Blood Massacre features a lot to recommend it to you, beginning with dialogue full of odd non-sequiturs and the type of bizarre tough guy talk one can usually only find in the English dubs of Italian movies. The ride to bliss this movie is continues with reaction shots consisting of people lit from below (often in Hong Kong blue or red), staring directly into the camera, their faces either unmoving and expressionless or grimacing as if they were in a silent movie. Though, perhaps surprisingly, the acting is much less wooden than in most of Dohler's earlier movies. It's not "good" in any conventional sense, mind you. Everyone's line delivery is way too off for that, but it's off in a lively amateur acting sort of way that fluctuates between being quite charming and being frightening like pictures of monkeys with guns.

The film's sound mix is just bizarre with sound effects that are sometimes insanely loud compared to the dialogue - possibly in the hope to sell the film on to the US military as a sound weapon - adding to the impression that something just isn't right with this movie.

Since Nightbeast, Dohler seems to have forgotten much of what he knew about conventional filmmaking technique, but instead of making Blood Massacre worse, everything that should look incompetent, Dohler's skewed editing, the wonky camera angles and even the messed up sound, lends the movie a quality of weirdness Dohler's earlier efforts didn't aim for. Everything seems less competent but is also much more lively. The editing might be rough and just feel a little wrong, yet it is also much more dynamic than anything Dohler did at the cutting table before. Instead of the rather glacial pace of the director's past, Blood Massacre possesses a hyperactive rhythm at odds with my expectations for Dohler's work.

Visually, the film is dominated by unpleasant close-ups and claustrophobic framing that push the mood even more in the direction of a low-budgeted dream. Consequently, the script's lapses in sanity and basic logic aren't weaknesses here, but are an essential part of Blood Massacre's nature; the normal would only hurt itself on a sharp and pointy object wielded by an over-acting maniac.

Speaking of pointy objects, Dohler also manages to surprise me with the nature of the film's violence. There's a rough and rather nasty feel to it that fits the tradition of the backwoods cannibal horror movie perfectly, and isn't like anything I've seen before from a director who always seemed a bit afraid of going to any extremes in his films. Typical gore hounds won't be too shocked by it - they, as well as I, have seen much worse - but anyone expecting Dohler's more typical reserve will be in for a surprise.

Even if you ignore the violence, there is something raw and uncontrolled about the movie I honestly wouldn't have thought Dohler had in him. Where films like Nightbeast or The Alien Factor were attempts at re-creating only very slightly updated classic monster movies and their tropes belonging to the 50s, and Fiend his late 60s suburban arty gothic film, Blood Massacre is Dohler's sudden arrival in 70s horror (if a decade too late). He shows himself to be quite at home there, turning from the loveably square budget-deprived competent director of his early work into one of those slightly mad savants who made all the best films of the 70s.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mute Witness (1995)

Mute special effects make-up artist Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina) is working on a rather entertaining looking slasher her sister Karen’s (Fay Ripley) boyfriend Andy (Evan Richards) directs in Russia. When she’s accidentally locked in the shooting location, Billy witnesses what some of the Russian crew get up to with the equipment when everyone else has gone home. It’s not pretty, for the guys are shooting a snuff film. Worse, they soon realize they aren’t alone in the building and start chasing Billy.

In a series of tense scenes, she manages to evade capture and ends up in the arms of Karen and Evan who proceed to contact the police. The bad guys manage to convince the police that they weren’t shooting a snuff film, though, so things should come to an unpleasant end, yet still an end. Unfortunately for Billy, these guys are only tiny cogs in a big prostitution, drug, and snuff film racket, and their boss, only known as The Reaper (the upper body and head of Alec Guinness in a tiny cameo) doesn’t like loose ends. Even less fortunate for Billy, there’s also a McGuffin involved the bad guys think she possesses for no reason. So soon, she has to fight for her life again.

In part, Anthony Waller’s Mute Witness is a huge, sloppy kiss on the mouth of all the things the films of Alfred Hitchcock teach about making a thriller. Indeed, the film is pretty much, and rather showily, adapting the textbook the creepy genius never got around to writing. For the first half of the film or so, until the film leaves the shooting location, things work out rather excellently. There’s a tight focus on Billy, her plight, and the inventive ways she uses to avoid her would-be killers, with intense editing and camera work that does deserve an adjective like “breath-taking”, while Sudina manages to believably project vulnerability and strength at the same time.

Alas, once that part of the film is over, things start to go off the rails fast: instead of continuing to focus on Billy, the film spends too much time on other characters, repeatedly breaking its own tension and rhythm and generally acting as if Waller doesn’t quite know how to escalate properly. Instead Mute Witness broadens in a deeply awkward manner and loses sight not just of its main character but also of that imaginary rulebook on how to make a thriller. Usually, this particular sausage isn’t made by stopping for comic relief and such. Sure, Hitchcock often got away with this sort of thing, but unlike Waller, Hitchcock unerringly knew how to turn seeming digressions into elementary parts of the plots of his films.

Waller just digresses. Thanks to these digressions, and the lack of distracting excitement, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the implausibilities of the plot, or the way neither the heroes’ nor the villains’ moves make even a lick of sense for the goals they want to achieve. In this context, Waller’s visual pizazz starts to feel stale and disconnected to what’s actually going on in the film. What started exciting turns into a slog of a movie that randomly throws in twists it didn’t bother to prepare or think through, with some of the most gratuitous nudity you’ll find outside of a 60s exploitation movie thrown in as a dubious bonus.

The first thirty minutes would still make a fine short film, though.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Vampire Doll (1970)

Original title: Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô

aka Legacy of Dracula

aka Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll

Beware: I am going to spoil some plot elements of this four decades old movie!

After six months overseas, doctor Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura) makes his way to the home of his fiancée Yuko Nomura (Yukiko Kobayashi). Once he’s arrived at her family mansion, and after the Nomura’s family servant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) has stopped trying to kill him (“he’s mute and hard of hearing” is his excuse), Yuko’s mother (Yoko Minakaze) gives him very bad news. Apparently, Yuko has died in a car accident about two weeks ago. Mum will show Kazuhiko her daughter’s grave the next day, and he can stay the night.

While Kazuhiko is lying in bed, still trying to come to grips with the news of Yuko’s sudden death, he hears the sounds of a woman crying. The noise leads him to Yuko’s former bedroom where he encounters what looks a lot like the girl herself, just very pale and with a strange look on her face, and hiding herself in a walk-in closet. Before Kazuhiko can act on this, he is knocked out. When he awakes, Yuko is gone, and her mother suggests he just must have had a very bad dream. But when he’s alone again, Kazuhiko looks out the window and sees someone who looks very much like Yuko running away from the house. He follows her to a graveyard. There, Yuko first begs him to kill her, but Kazuhiko instead moves in for hug. The traditional hug-cam shows a shot of Yuko’s face, her eyes turning into something halfway between cat and lizard, a terrible grin on her lips, and a knife in her hand just about to cut into Kazuhiko.

Which is when Kazuhiko’s sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) awakes in her home from a terrible nightmare about him. Keiko is very concerned, for she hasn’t heard anything from her brother at all ever since he went off to see Yuko at the family mansion; usually, he would have phoned, but…nothing. Keiko convinces her friend – supposedly her fiancée but they don’t really act that way – Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to drive to Yuko’s mansion with her. There, Mrs Nonomura tells them the same story she told Kazuhiko about Yuko, adding that Kazuhiko left right on the day he came. Keiko has a bad feeling about all of this, and it’s little wonder. Not only doesn’t this story fit Kazuhiko (nor the things the audience has seen) but Mrs Nonomura is pretty damn creepy, and her house comes directly out of a western gothic horror novel. When Keiko and Hiroshi find one of Kazuhiko’s cufflinks in the graveyard covered in blood, they decide to investigate.

Usually, The Vampire Doll is seen as the first of Toho’s loose trilogy of western vampire inspired horror films directed by Michio Yamamoto. It’s a vampire movie in the loosest sense of the term, though, with a concept of vampirism that is an interesting cross of yurei lore, weird science, and a certain M. Valdemar. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, for the film’s own little vampire mythology is really rather more interesting than your usual bloodsucking count, opening the doors for a bit of psychological depth, as well as some lurid gothic family drama. To someone who has seen a lot of vampire movies, it’s always a pleasant surprise when a film’s version of vampirism offers some surprises.

Not that these surprise are all Yamamoto’s film has going for it. There’s some lovely set design at play in the western-style mansion the Nonomura family (or what’s left of it) is living in, the place sharing a clear kinship to comparable edifices in Italian gothic horror of the 60s, perhaps with a smidgen of Hammer added to the mix; the western Gothic once again viewed through Japanese eyes. The mansion is pleasantly creepy, Yamamoto using the strangeness of the place for all it is worth, interpreting it as the logical expression of the dubious history of the family whose last members (of course another obvious gothic trope) now dwell in it.

Obviously, there’s a very clear consciousness of the where and what-for of the tropes of gothic horror visible in The Vampire Doll. The film may update the dark family secret to something a little more contemporary to the Japanese experience and interests of the time, yet it still hits basically every note of the film version of the genre (with an added heavy debt to Poe himself - more than to Poe by the way of Corman, interestingly enough), effectively turning the Japanese countryside into the playground of otherwise difficult to express anxieties about the influence of the past (which, as it was in Germany at the same time, too, was not something people liked to talk about, for obvious reasons) on the younger generation, the older generation exclusively consisting of people who harbour dark secrets instead of helpful advice.

Apart from this, The Vampire Doll is also a film rather fetching to look at. Yamamoto makes particularly interesting use of blotches of deep black that isolate characters as well as emphasise them, but he’s also adept at the art of the slightly disquieting camera angle, and knows how to use coloured lighting (though not to an excessive degree). Yuko is rather effectively creepy in her habits: she tends to appear in the corner of a room (and therefore the corner of the eye), head down, pale-skinned, and stiffly limbed like a doll or a corpse. Add to that the jerky jump-cut movements she uses in a few scenes, prefiguring J-horror and the US consequences, and the whole idea of a dead woman kept artificially alive while losing everything that actually made her the woman she was, and you have a very effective, and sympathetic, monster.

On a plot level, The Vampire Doll is told like a weird mystery (a favourite genre in Japanese art), with Keiko and Hiroshi attempting to understand what’s going on around them through very traditional means of investigation yet always stumbling back into the realm of the gothic again; even a visit with the local doctor produces a ghost story. Clearly, trying to understand the world like a detective only works when that world is actually built on a basis a detective could understand.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Abattoir (2016)

Real estate reporter Julia’s (Jessica Lowndes) sister and her sister’s family are murdered by a random violent killer. The house where the deaths took place is sold off too quickly going by Julia’s expertise, suggesting to her that something nefarious might be going on beyond the slaughter of her relatives. A look inside the building shows that the whole interior of the room where the family was murdered has been removed.

Further investigations reveal some very curious facts: it looks like a man named Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie) has been buying up houses in which people suffered a violent death for decades, removing the rooms where the deaths happened and selling the rest of the houses off again, as if he were trying to build the most haunted house of all times out of the pieces he collects. Julia’s shocked and confused, of course. A combination of the obligatory sinister hints from mysterious sources and her own research suggests that Crone brings the house parts to a town with the decidedly lame name of New English (not located in New England, one assumes) to do something with the ghosts he collects with them.

As it happens, New English is also the town where Julia and her sister were born and lived before their mother gave them up for adoption elsewhere. One might think some sort of horrible doom once postponed is waiting for our heroine – and her cop sort-of boyfriend Grady (Joe Anderson) who’ll tag along – in that quaint little town.

Given that he’s directed  Saw number 2 through 4, I am not exactly the president of the fan club of Abattoir’s director Darren Lynn Bousman. Those non-Saw films in his filmography I have seen generally start out promising enough, demonstrating an admirable willingness to begin their plots strange and get ever stranger from there. Alas, they also tend to fall apart somewhere around the hour mark.

Which is exactly what happens with Abattoir too – the film’s basic idea is rather wonderful, and for quite some time it expresses some really silly concepts with a straight face, repeatedly doubling down on being strange in everything, using stilted and absurd dialogue – there’s not a single sentence Grady says that isn’t a gruffly-toned cliché of the highest order for example – in a way that feels like a purposeful attempt at confusing the viewer with artificiality rather then incompetence, and presenting most of the story in the slightly off tones of a peculiar dream. That last impression grows even stronger thanks to weird (in all the good ways) lighting choices, tight yet sometimes unconventional editing, and Bousman’s somewhat Italian 70s/80s horror idea of style. In other words, the first hour or so of the film is the sort of thing that friends of believable and logical narratives in their horror movies will loathe with all of their might but that makes me rather happy with all its consciously non-naturalistic dreaminess.

Alas, the last half hour or so of Abattoir treats its horrors as a pretty boring carnival ride, with a big bad that lacks all charisma and menace (even more so when he gets a pretty stupid horror movie villain bass voice post-processed on), too much exposition that still manages not to explain anything and an ending that aims for an emotional impact the film hasn’t properly prepared and its director can’t deliver. In fact, the last half hour is so bad I’m not  sure the first hour isn’t as interesting as it is by chance.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Darkness (2016)

On a visit to the Grand Canyon autistic-to-keep-the- plot-“mysterious”-for-longer youngest of the Taylor family Michael (David Mazouz) picks up some nice little stones which unfortunately free some animal-themed evil spirits once incarcerated by the Anasazi. This sort of thing is really bound for giving a family trouble. So, soon after they come home, the Taylors – also including mother Bronny (Radha Mitchell), father Peter (Kevin Bacon) and sister Stephanie (Lucy Fry) – have to fight off random paranormal phenomena as well as suffer through equally random attacks of Lifetime movie-style melodrama done very badly.

Praise be to The Darkness’s director Greg McLean for making a mainstream horror movie not fixated on jump scares. Alas, that’s the only thing the film has going for it, for everything else here put together forms a practically archetypal concoction of all that is wrong with contemporary mainstream horror - and nothing of what’s right with it.

Worst offender is the terribly sloppy writing. The script keeps things so vague I honestly couldn’t even tell you if the dysfunction presented in the Taylors (of course the usual foursome, because we don’t want to get creative by having a family of three or five) is supposed to be caused by the evil spirits hitchhiking their way from the Grand Canyon (Anasazi spirit prisoner security is kind of lacking, I have to say), if it is made worse by it, or if the writers just put some random family melodrama in here to pad out the running time. The film does throw in a few half sentences suggesting it’s all the spirits’ fault in one of its moments of exposition but there’s nothing in what’s actually shown on screen which would bolster that idea. It probably doesn’t matter anyhow, for the perfunctory checklist style way the film treats plot lines like the daughter’s bulimia makes these parts of the plot pointless in any case. And no, of course The Darkness does put zero effort into establishing any kind of baseline of dysfunction for anyone involved so the audience can't put what’s happening during the course of the film into the context of how the family members usually act, leading to a film whose characters have emotions that just come and go randomly for no particular reason apart from their convenience for the plot (such as it is).

Which, come to think of it, is the same feeling I get from the supernatural scenes as well: random crap that lacks any coherence and weight – what’s a “theme”? – and is only in the movie because the three screenwriters didn’t have anything as avantgardistic as a plan what the film is supposed to be and do apart from providing a best of (but worse) of every damn cliché about haunted families you’ve seen in a horror movie in the last ten years. The whole mess of the script also includes sure signs of total disinterest by everyone involved like repeating exposition about its random core haunting two and a half times (to help out those in the audience with a damaged short term memory, one supposes), and a finale that is about as much a culmination of everything the characters experienced and learned before as I am an alien invader from Yuggoth.

The whole of The Darkness feels terribly underdeveloped, not like a proper finished movie made by seasoned professionals, but like the first draft of something that might have become a decent if unspectacular horror movie if anyone had cared enough about it (or its suffering audience) to put the work in.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

In short: Lake Nowhere (2014)

Usually, if something is described with the word “retro” and praised for its particularly effective mimicry, I’m out. I’m a big fan of media and art taking generally discarded approaches from the past and using them as a starting point for something new; imitating the surface values of the past alone just doesn’t interest me much as a viewer, though not quite as little as ironic goofing off about these values does.

Fortunately, the short – with fake trailers bringing it to the length of a very long short - Lake Nowhere – as directed by Christopher Phelps and Maxim Van Scoy – isn’t only an excursion into mimicry. It does indeed get the colours, the music, the actors and the spirit of locally produced low budget slashers of a very specific point in time quite right but it also understands that part of the pull of the best of these films was their strangeness – sometimes even Weirdness – a fiercely individual quality you can’t copy but must reach all by yourself. Where lesser films of this kind at best manage a surface level imitation of the dream (well, nightmare) logic of their models that consequently only reads as randomness, Lake Nowhere actually finds a strangeness all of its own that turns what could be an exercise in goofy irony (though there is of course irony here, especially in the fake trailers before the main short feature) into a film I found rather special, and at times surprising.

There are a lot of clever touches besides the Weirdness, too. The film gets, for example, a lot of mileage out of at the surface level imitating films that were often technically primitive but then using these “primitive” visual methods in clever, thoughtful ways that increase the film’s mood of strangeness in exceedingly clever ways, thereby turning surface imitation into an actual element of style.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Black Samson (1974)

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.

Samson (Rockne Tarkington) has made quite a life for himself - he owns a well-loved, permanently overcrowded strip bar, has a big stick to hit people with, a (probably doped up to the gills) lion lying around on the bar's counter and is very much in love with his girlfriend Leslie (Carol Speed) who just happens to have the biggest afro I've ever seen.

Samson deserves all that, too, because he is a deeply righteous man who lets the local elderly alcoholic spend the night in his bar, and helps drug addicts clean up their act. Well, after he has threatened them with his stick. He's also the man responsible for keeping his part of town clean from two larger criminal organizations.

The more harmless one of these organizations is lead by his old friend Arthur (Michael Payne) - who also moonlights as a perfectly legal and supremely terrifying undertaker - and is not much of a problem, but the mafia family of the Nappas is quite a different thing.

Old man Nappa (Titos Vandis, the first mafioso with a Greek accent) might be the Gandhi of organized crime abhorring violence and spurting ridiculous wisdom whenever the camera meets him, but his nephew Johnny (William Smith) is quite a bit less tolerant.

Johnny has a few problems with things like impulse control and a tendency to react violently to, well, everything, and he really really hates Samson, so he's planning on killing our hero and taking over the bar owner's area, if his uncle likes it or not.

That's easier said than done, though. As Johnny's uncle would say: "Piece of cake? I know a man who choked on a piece of cake".

Samson doesn't have much of a problem with surviving the first murder attempts of Johnny's goons, what with his would-be killers bringing no weapons when they are trying to kill someone and him always armed with the Stick of Hitting +5, so Johnny has to get creative. And he has some brilliant ideas. The first one is letting his own girlfriend (Connie Strickland) work as an undercover stripper at Samson's place to get info on his enemy's activities. Not surprisingly, that doesn't work out too well for anyone, and only when Johnny's plans get more baroque with blowing up Samson's bar, kidnapping Leslie (this time with armed men!) and pushing his girlfriend out of a driving car so that she will tell Samson of Leslie's whereabouts, does our hero have to work a bit harder for his money.

As one might surmise from the more bonkers details of Black Samson's plot, it isn't a film bound to win the Across 110th Street memorial prize for intelligent and politically sound blaxploitation movies, but it is such an enthusiastic piece of low-brow fun that I don't think that matters too much in its particular case. It's not a completely stupid film either. Most of Black Samson's characters (ignoring the psychopathic Johnny Nappa) aren't deep, yet are at least two-note instead of one-note characters. Take Arthur (played by Payne with insane enthusiasm, bug-eyed stares, a love for cocaine and a tone of voice that make him look like Flavor Flav born too early), who is definitely a bastard, a drug dealer and a coward but still stops short of taking sexual favours from Leslie to help Samson. While that's not necessarily character depth, it's more than I'd have expected to find in a blaxploitation film directed by a future TV workhorse like Charles Bail.

It is also of interest to note that Samson is supposed to be a Black Nationalist of some kind, and still allowed to be the film's hero and source of inspiration to the people of his quarter. Compare that to the way politicized African Americans are shown in most other blaxploitation movies and be amazed.

Bail's direction is mostly just workmanlike, without any of the more psychedelic flourishes you sometimes find in the genre (which would have fit the film's weirder ideas nicely), but the film doesn't drag and the action scenes - while they aren't exactly Hong Kong quality - are quite solid.

The actors seem to be having a lot of fun doing their respective things, too. I already mentioned Michael Payne's scenery-chewing, and that would be enough for a normal film. Surprisingly, Payne's performance is overshadowed by William Smith, who tries to be the most insanely insane bad guy in blaxploitation and mostly achieves his goal by smirking, shouting and punching like a loon. I was especially enamoured of the scenes with his uncle, which consist of him cursing and getting angrier by the second while still needing to keep smiling and his uncle spouting ridiculous words of wisdom.

Tarkington doesn't share in the overacting of his fellows and does instead the cool (yet funky, don't worry) hero bit very well indeed, while the actresses just don't have all that much to do except for looking pretty, crying and being kidnapped and roughed up - unfortunately a destiny all too typical of women not named Pam Grier in this genre.

I also need to point in the direction of the film's dialogue again that contains some great pearls of silliness (and probably wisdom). Did you for example know that the smell of death is not a nice smell, Johnny?

And then there's the film's grand finale that starts with a punch-up between the Stick of Hitting and a few mafiosi, turns into a peculiar car chase whose participants just steal a new car when they crash their old one, and ends with the bad guys being bombarded with household appliances, doors and mattresses. I think one of them is even killed by a flying fridge, which is hard to beat when it comes to inappropriate ways of dying.
It's all as pleasantly silly as one could wish for and exactly the sort of thing I hope for in my classic exploitation.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Three Films Make A Post: Five lives... Ten years... And a Million Tons of Thundering Suspense!

Child’s Play (1988): Of all the supernatural slasher franchises, I’ve always been particularly fond of the Child’s Play films, even once they discovered self-referantialism for themselves. Tom Holland’s first one primarily convinces through its unassuming qualities: there aren’t terribly many genre films of this era that seem to care so little for keeping the body count up for its own sake and instead go for more classic thriller and suspense methods in their goal of getting to the audience. Okay, Alex Vincent is as horrible as child actors go, but if that’s your film’s biggest problem, you are doing rather well.

Beyond Dream’s Door (1989): One might call Jay Woelfel’s film a more dream-like sibling of the Nightmare on Elm Street series whose outré qualities are decidedly enhanced by the awkwardness of some of the acting and the low budget of the production. It’s certainly coming from a related dream demon spirit to Craven’s film and what followed, though it goes much farther in the way dream and reality mix, adds a bit of Cosmicism to the mix and delights me to no end, even though its special effects are dubious, and its gore is so squishy as to be absurd. Absolutely a film that should deserve a longer piece and only does not get it from me because it is really better seen than talked about.

(Flight) 7500 (2014): The last decade or so of director Takashi Shimizu’s career has been a qualitative rollercoaster bound to confuse even the more patient viewer. This disaster/horror movie outing with the most obvious twist ending in the world (yes, it’s exactly the one you think it is right now, so spoilers, sweeties) is Shimizu at his lowest point, with the appearance of one of the man’s beloved stuffed rabbit toys as up as the high points of this one go. Otherwise there’s only wasted acting talent rather good at not showing any (hello, Amy Smart, Scout Taylor-Compton, Leslie Bibb, Ryan Kwanten et al), a script by Craig Rosenberg that’s as clichéd, badly paced and emotionally flat as they come, and direction so bland and characterless I’m not completely sure Shimizu hasn’t been replaced by DIRECT-O-BOT-1000 for this one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fatal Intuition (2015)

aka It’s Him

Original title: 그 놈이다

Jang-woo (Joo Won) and his teenage sister Eun-ji (Ryoo Hye-yeong) live together in a run-down coastal town, where Jang-woo runs the laundry business that once belonged to their parents, who died when Eun-ji was still very young. Consequently, Jang-woo has spent the years after their death as his sister’s replacement parent, clearly loving the kid dearly but rather tending to a very overprotective style of parenting.

Yet still, Jang-woo can’t protect Eun-ji from being murdered. Indeed he has to bear some of the actual responsibility for her death by providing the killer with a choice opportunity for the deed when Jang-woo locks his sister up in their home. The bereaved brother can’t let the death of his sister just stand, and while I usually look rather askance on the whole thing where people try to solve a crime themselves, the local police would probably not be able to catch a killer even if he ran into their office shouting “I’m the killer!” while wearing a placard reading “KILLER! ARREST ME!” around his neck. Jang-woo soon focuses his investigation on the local pharmacist Min (Yoo Hae-jin), one of the few outwardly nice people in a town full of assholes. Jang-woo is assisted by another town pariah, Si-eun (Lee Yoo-Young), who is mistreated by basically everyone she meets during the course of the film because she sees spirits and even has a some clairvoyant abilities. Alas, the only thing she ever sees is peoples’ death. In fact, Si-eun predicted Eun-jin’s death, but, like it always goes for her, couldn’t do anything to change the girl’s fate.

Yoon Joon-hyeong’s thriller with light supernatural elements is a very typical example of the South Korean type of the form, as expected featuring some slick yet not stupid direction, fine performances, and writing that is always at least decent.

Fatal Intuition is not quite as good a film as other examples of the genre from the country: its emotional content tends to drift towards the somewhat too obviously manipulative from time to time, and its use of clichés isn’t quite as clever as it could be, perhaps choosing things useful for narrative mechanics over things true to character or reality a few times too often. Surely, there’s no real need to make the police quite this incompetent and ignorant, for example. This love of the well-worn cliché never gets so bad as to ruin the film, but it tends to stand in the way of it being more than just a slick entertainment (even though there is of course little wrong with a film just being that), and certainly stands in the way of the film saying as much about grief, guilt and obsession - the three things all three main characters are all about - as it could.

Apart from the basic joy of a good thriller plot that is certainly there and accounted for, and the film’s technical achievements, there are other things to like here too: how the killer’s back story turns out to be a choice bit of Korean gothic that also works to turn the guy into a little more than just the monster you’d expect, and which also fits into Si-eun’s ghost visions quite nicely; how the film’s colour scheme turns gialloesque for the finale; or that the most stupid cop among extremely stupid cops gets killed.

That’s not quite enough to turn it into a film you should run out to see, but Fatal Intuition is still very much worth one’s while, the kind of film whose flaws stand out so clearly because the rest of it seems made with such a sure hand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In short: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I appreciate that it’s rather difficult to attempt to update Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp stalwart Tarzan to modern times, seeing that there are quite a few things central to the character that many people today would call “problematic” (many of them even for good reason). As a pulp reader, I’m perfectly fine with a film making heavy changes to these characters if that’s needed to keep them palatable to a non-specialist audience – it’s not as if the process would make the original stories disappear, nor will I be sad to see their racist, sexist etc elements go.

So it’s not in its attempts at updating Tarzan that David Yates’s film fails for me, it’s in the way it fails to update the character to anything interesting. Because this is a major mainstream production, its courage fails the film regularly. While I certainly like the whole “colonialism bad” approach, choosing the Belgian Congo for the plot is ill-advised, because the film really can’t go into the true atrocities committed at that time and place without exchanging being an adventure movie for something much darker, and certainly not anything Tarzan belongs in. Consequently, Legend awkwardly stops somewhere halfway between pulp adventure and horrible truths - shoehorning Opar in for good measure - and just sort of shuffles its feet. And don’t even let me get started about a film that makes various gestures towards giving Jane (Margot Robbie) some agency of her own, only to then let her kidnapping be Tarzan’s main motivating factor.

For Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan, you see, is that least interesting kind of hero, a reluctant one who spends much of the first half hour throwing around tragically bored looks. Which is pretty much what I felt during that part of the film, too, what with there about five minutes of something of interest or relevance happening in it. Turns out, stuff actually happening is rather important in an adventure movie. Who knew? Most probably not David Yates, going by the blandly polite, generally uninvolving way he directs action sequences that show little creativity or sense of fun, the truly embarrassing CGI vine-swinging, and the ponderous pacing he gives a film that doesn’t have actually all that much to ponder, and which could use a good kick in the arse.

Keeping to that form, Skarsgard’s Tarzan and Christoph Waltz’s big bad Leon Rom mostly seem vaguely bored, going through the motions but leaving charisma – and seemingly interest in entertaining their audience – somewhere in a different movie. The only actors on screen actually alive are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (or George Washington Williams, as the film curiously calls him) and Margot Robbie, but of course, the film doesn’t deign to give them much to do. I could go on here, complaining about a Tarzan film that seems embarrassed about the hero’s traditional dress, his comic relief chimp, and so on, but that would be nearly as tiresome as the film itself is.

The Legend of Tarzan is a mostly tedious slog that really demonstrates how good many of the low budget Tarzan movies were, what with them actually containing scenes of Tarzan having adventures.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

About two years after the cancer death of his wife Mary (Debra Messing), journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) suddenly finds himself sitting in his car outside of a farm, in some sort of rural area. It is night, and Klein has not the slightest idea how he got where he ended up. He only knows for sure that his car is dead. Later, Klein will learn he is in the outskirts of the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant. The town is in the opposite direction from where Klein wanted to go, and there isn’t any realistic possibility of him having reached it in the time that has passed since got in his car in Washington. It’s by far not the last bit of strangeness he will encounter.

In fact, before he can even start on trying to understand his own private case of teleportation, he has more pressing matters to attend to. Apparently, someone looking exactly like Klein has been disturbing the owner (Will Patton) of the farm where he has appeared during the last two nights, so when a rather confused journalist knocks on the man’s door to ask for help for his ailing car and for information on where the hell he has ended up, Klein’s supposed third appearance is greeted with a shotgun in his face. After local cop Connie Mills (Laura Linney) has been called in and has defused the situation (working on the assumption that semi-famous journalists can’t be crazy), she explains to Klein that there has been quite a bit of weird stuff going on in town during the last few weeks. The populace is haunted by strange phone calls, inexplicable lights in the sky, and the appearance of a huge, winged humanoid creature with glowing red eyes, as if reality has worn out around them. It’s the description of that creature that really gets to Klein, for it looks exactly like something his wife had seen and drawn obsessively shortly before her death.

So Klein finds himself drawn into investigating what increasingly look like attempts at communication from an entity from some kind of Outside. The journalist is unsure what it is the entity tries to communicate exactly - perhaps it wants to warn about some future catastrophe, perhaps it tries to cause it, or it may have reasons not parsable by humans at all. Whatever the thing is, and whatever it wants to say, Klein slowly becomes obsessed with it and its messages, much to the detriment of little things like his own sanity.

Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies (of course based on the “non-fiction” book by John A. Keel) is another of those long-time favourites of mine I never seem to get around to writing up. As a mix of one of my very favourite pieces of Fortean mythology – Keel in general being a particular favourite of mine in this realm - with a bit of psychological melodrama, and some Hollywood slickness, it’s not exactly a type of film we get to see very often.

Pellington is just the right director for this sort of thing, coming from a music video background but showing obvious interest in experimental film techniques that turn out to work rather well for The Mothman Prophecies’ trippier sequences. Here, the technical slickness typical of directors coming from the music video world is tempered by a sense for the strange and the slightly surreal, creating many a scene that feels off in just the right way for the film, while still looking absurdly polished. Particularly the film’s middle is full of moments where it believably feels like Pellington is making the attempt to show how his characters translate things human senses aren’t made to experience into something more palatable for them, yet which even after this translation still feel off, like bad dreams. Even the somewhat more Hollywood-style ending sequence featuring the climactic catastrophe fits in here, as it is staged more than a nightmare than an attempt at naturalistic reproduction and so never breaks the tone Pellington has set until then.

The more usual psychological elements work just as well, with Gere portraying Klein’s increasing estrangement from reality more convincing than I’d have expected him to, while interpreting the man’s mental state in an appropriately ambiguous manner. Consequently we’re never quite sure what we are witnessing: an encounter with the inexplicable or “just” a guy finally breaking down from the trauma caused by the death of his wife, or perhaps a mixture of the two.

Still, the film never attempts to explain everything we see or hear as simple mass hysteria. Rather, it emphasises the strangeness of whatever it is that contacts Klein and the people of Point Pleasant, something so weird a human can’t cope with it on its own terms. The Keel stand-in of the movie, one Alexander Leek (Alan Bates), compares what’s happening to a human trying to make contact with a cockroach – humans being the cockroach in this case – which is as good an explanation of the word “alien” in a more cosmic sense as any.

And even though the entity does do Klein and some people a good turn in the end, the film stays completely ambiguous if this is an act of kindness, a mistake, or part of something else we wouldn’t even have words for, demonstrating that you can have cosmicism while still having a happy end (sorry, Mr. Joshi), and that slickness in a movie doesn’t necessarily have to mean stupidity.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

In short: Vigilante Force (1976)

Ever since the oil fields of South Californian Elk Mills have been reopened on account of the energy crisis, the small town’s standard of living has sunk rapidly despite money flowing in again. Gambling, prostitution and cases of bringing guns to a barroom brawl run rampant, and the more anarchic elements around don’t bring their guns only to the bar anymore.

The good people of the town decide they need some tougher law enforcement, so they send out straight-laced tractor mechanic and salesman Ben Arnold (Jan-Michael Vincent), to bring the town’s black sheep, his somewhat estranged brother, Vietnam veteran Aaron (Kris Kristofferson) back, so they can put him in a police uniform. Aaron agrees to the proposition and also brings in a bunch of friends – ex-cops or ex-soldiers all – for a bit of mercenary law enforcement.

At first, Aaron’s unconventional policing methods bring good results, but once the town is cleaned up, he brings in his own gambling, prostitution and protection rackets, killing whoever gets in his way. Obviously, this is the sort of thing only all-out war brother against brother will solve in the end.

The Gene Corman produced Vigilante Force certainly isn’t the high point in director George Armitage’s small but fine filmography. It’s a bit flabbier around the narrative middle than it strictly needs to be, and some of Armitage’s usual sly and sarcastic comments on the state of the USA feel more like time-filling digressions than actual parts of the narrative. I also think that Armitage’s script underplays the initial problems that lead to the brothers’ estrangement too much, so that the film loses quite a bit of potential emotional tension.

Vincent is terribly stiff as the Good Brother, and Kristofferson certainly has his patented charisma but lacks the technique to give his character the extra-dimension the script doesn’t provide either.

There is still a lot to like about Vigilante Force: while the Armitageisms aren’t organic, they are still very amusing; the director is also very good at turning the town into something that feels like an actual place with some broad yet effective brush strokes. There are also some thoughts about the way class works in the US Armitage’s later films will develop further, and an eye for a country blue collar aesthetic.

Last but not least, while much of the film’s action isn’t spectacular (but still effective), the grand finale pulls out all stops, dressing the participants into some seriously absurd costumes (if you ever wanted to see Kristofferson in a red marching band outfit taking part in a shoot-out, this is gonna be your day) and letting things explode with a vengeance. At this point, things border at the absurd yet never quite teeter into that particular abyss. There’s worse things to say about a film than that it really knows how to finish.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Sartana the Gravedigger (1969)

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.

The North Western Bank is supposed to be the most secure bank in the West. Guarded by ridiculously uniformed men, a gatling gun and some choice examples of the art of safe-building, nothing and no one should be able to get away with an assault. But a very tricky gang of robbers manage to get inside and make away with several hundred thousand dollars. One of the bad guys seems to be the famous bounty hunter Sartana (Gianni Garko), or at least a guy with Sartana's dress sense and gun. Turns out Possibly-Sartana is also the mandatory bandit who kills off his partners in crime to have all of their ill-gotten gains for himself.

Understandably, the authorities put a nice little price on Sartana's head.

Of course, everyone's favourite cloaked bounty hunter is innocence itself and feels the dire need to find out who framed him for the robbery. To make his job more difficult, quite a few of Sartana's colleagues (and supposed friends) in the bounty hunting biz decide that they'd very much like to have Sartana's bounty, the moral and practical problems (surely, there must be easier prey than Sartana) notwithstanding.

Sartana's search for his enemies leads him at first to his old acquaintance and friend, the hobo thief Buddy Ben (Frank Wolff). Buddy sends him to a guy named Dynamite Butch who probably helped outfit the bank robbers, but Butch is murdered before Sartana can talk to him. That will be a repeating problem in the bounty hunter's pursuit of his hidden enemies. Whoever knows something gets killed before Sartana can acquire the information he wants.

And then there are Sartana's colleagues to cope with, guys with names like Shadow (Jose Torres), Deguejo (Gordon Mitchell), or the delightful Hot Dead (Klaus Kinski), who is only in the bounty hunting business to pay off the debts his incredibly bad luck at gambling brings him.

Somehow, the man in black still manages to follow a trail I didn't manage to actually comprehend and arrives in the perfect little town of Poker Falls where he will spend the last thirty minutes of the movie, killing people and having fun.

The ground rules I have set when writing about some of director Giuliano Carnimeo's other Spaghetti Westerns also apply to Sartana the Gravedigger. That is to say, the film is lacking in the depth the films of directors like the Sergios brought to the genre. Neither politics, nor social commentary, nor even slightly complex (and complicating) character work seem to interest Carnimeo. Words like "light" and "fluffy" come to mind, and if I were a less happy-go-lucky kind of guy, I'd probably spend most of this review complaining about the film's utter lack of subtext.

That would of course be quite unfair to Carnimeo's achievements in this particular movie. I believe the director must have put quite a bit of energy into excising every Spaghetti Western cliché and archetype that could even vaguely be connected to a reality outside the film; the only element that could be read as even vaguely meaningful for the world at large is the inevitable evilness of rich men, but even this aspect is treated with so little interest by the director that the greatest effort couldn't convince me to interpret this point as even slightly politically motivated, be it consciously or subconsciously.

Instead of using his imaginary West as a place to apply his theories about the nature of man, the corruptive influence of capitalism, or to break the American concept of Manifest Destiny into little pieces, Carnimeo treats his West as a giant playground. Seldom is the Spaghetti Western as close to the spirit of kids playing Cowboys and Bandits as it is here, but it's also seldom that a Spaghetti Western's utter lack of earnestness works as well as it does here.

Sartana the Gravedigger is dominated by a sense of the absurd and the whimsical that at times makes it feel as if it had been scripted by a very clever child, following every idea that comes to its mind whenever it does come to its mind. If you expect a strong, clear narrative, you'll probably run away in terror. This is the sort of movie that doesn't have any problem with just leaving its hero and the main narrative behind for ten or fifteen minutes just to check in and see what a minor character with little actual importance to the main plot like Kinski's Hot Dead is doing on his search for Sartana. Not much of import, as it turns out, but who cares about that as long as what Kinski is doing is fun to watch?

Looking for fun instead of meaning or narrative structure is very much what Carnimeo makes his business here. The film merrily flutters from one scene to the next, not very concerned with how everything hangs together, but very concerned with making every single scene fun to watch for its audience.

Carnimeo shows itself to be a very creative director when he needs to be. The director goes from (actually funny, for once) comedic bits to exciting and inventive action scenes, to the sort of iconic looking shots that give the Spaghetti Western genre some of its power as if it was the easiest thing in the world. While the film's script is as loose and episodic as they come, Carnimeo's direction feels tight and assured - a far cry from the Wtf-style other light Spaghettis like Ferdinando Baldi's The Stranger Gets Mean utilize.

The director is assisted by a bunch of character actors - basically everyone you see in every second Spaghetti Western - visibly having a blast with their weird and exalted roles. Even often wooden Gianni Garko shows a bit of charm, even enthusiasm, and Kinski is as funny and relaxed as I've ever seen him.

With so much sparkle coming from the screen, one would be quite a curmudgeon to not like Sartana the Gravedigger. I, for one, won't be one this time.