Thursday, March 22, 2018

In short: Big Bad Wolf (2006)

Teenagers in cabins. Does is ever end well? Sensitive teen Derek Cowley (Trevor Duke) really wants to get into the student fraternity his deceased father – who died from having a leg ripped off by a werewolf while on a hunting trip in Africa, though his son doesn’t know that – belonged to at his age. So he has to agree when a couple of his future frat bros and their girlfriends ask him to host them for a weekend in the cabin in the woods belonging to his awful, abusive step father Mitch (Richard Tyson). In need of reinforcements, Derek also invites his friend and crush Sam (Kimberly J. Brown). A good decision, as it will turn out, for her solidly developed survival skills will save both of their asses when the cabin is attacked by a quipping werewolf who won’t ever shut up with rape jokes. Sam and Derek are the only survivors.

Back home, the two soon develop a terrible suspicion: Mitchell might not just be abusive, he’s a werewolf!

Lance W. Dreesen’s Big Bad Wolf is a frustrating movie, mixing sleaze, terribly unfunny humour, quite a bit (which is to say, too much) rapiness, solid filmmaking, good effects and some enticing ideas that attempt to treat the werewolf as a symbol for abusive men.

The last bit is obviously what I find interesting about the film. There are a couple of scenes which – also thanks to Tyson’s good performance – indeed seem to want to say something about what regular abuse – be it verbal or physical – does to its victims as well as to the humanity of its perpetrators. Unfortunately, these moments and the film’s sense of humour are no fit at all, seeing as it is a rather difficult proposition to seriously thematize abuse and its psychological consequences while making rape joke. It’s a bit as if Dreesen (who also wrote the script) was mashing two werewolf films of rather incompatible tones randomly together, weakening the interesting one decisively with the heap of bad decisions that is the other.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Haunted (1991)

When the Smurl family – mother Janet (Sally Kirkland), father Jack (Jeffrey DeMunn and quite a bit of facial hair), a couple of grandparents and an ever increasing number of children – first move into their shiny new house, a couple of horrifying things happen: a hammer disappears, a toaster starts burning, and, well, I suppose some socks don’t make their way back from the washer, but nobody mentions it. Anyway, over the course of the following years, lots of small things make the life of the Smurls more difficult, inducing the make-up department to paint quite some shadows under poor Sally Kirkland’s eyes.

Supernatural activity does increase over time, until black shadows have a bit of a float around, someone makes bathing noises, someone invisible “uses foul language” in Janet’s voice (the horror! the horror!) and so on and so forth. Things turn so bad, Janet becomes convinced the house is haunted. It takes quite some time, but once Jack has the opportunity to hear the whispers coming out of Janet’s pillow, he’s convinced of it, too. Eventually, the Smurls call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Stephen Markle and Diane Baker), who will, as is their wont, not actually be terribly much help to anyone, as won’t the Catholic Church, who is unwilling to exorcise the Smurls and their house even after the Warrens have churned out their usual diagnosis of “It’s demons! And ghosts!”. There’s other rambling stuff to come, some escalation of the hauntings, but if you are hoping for some form of a dramatic climax, all you’ll get is a prayer meeting and the slow fizzling out of a plot that wasn’t terribly interesting in the first place.

Which is of course not a terribly surprising problem in a film that sells itself on being “based on a true story” and actually means it, for the sort of manifestations generally reported from actual hauntings (full disclosure: I don’t believe in the authenticity of any of this, but I’m perfectly willing to play) tend to be, well, a bit boring, really, so if you have a pretence of realism, you’ll have mostly boring manifestations too, as well as a non-ending where nothing is resolved or explained. However, the film – it was produced for FOX television, after all - does feature some rather spectacular elements. Dad is raped by a demon, after all, and Janet gets up to a bit of levitation action, so there’s really no reason for the film to not also come up with a decent climax or an ending.

The film’s true problem, I think, lies in the direction of Robert Mandel. A better director could have managed to milk the more quotidian moments for chills pretty well, but in Mandel’s hands, there’s a blandness to much of the proceedings. There is, to be fair, a tense sequence where Janet follows the bathing sounds through darkened corridors that really works wonders, and the business with Janet’s talking pillows is handled rather well, too. The rest, though, just doesn’t work at all. The demon rape sequence is so awkwardly done, it’s even funny, something no rape scene should ever be. In that particular case, it doesn’t help the film’s case at all that DeMunn underplays his character’s reaction afterwards terribly. Apparently, demon rape is not a big thing for him (happens all the time in suburbia, once presumes). The film’s pacing is just off, too, with too many scenes wasted on business like the family calling in the press only to then complain that the press is besieging their house. What did they expect – exorcism by journalists?

The most interesting aspect of this whole thing is probably its connection to a certain rather popular mainstream horror franchise. This is an earlier example of the Warren businesses’ media-savvy, somehow managing to rope perfectly normal filmmakers into making feature length ads for them, though it curiously enough suffers from the same problems that – to my eyes – haunt the The Conjuring films, too. It’s not just the holier-than-though aspect of the characters, or their really boring version of Christian mythology, that makes their popularity in fictional films a bit puzzling to me, it’s also how boring their emphasis on being “normal” makes them as characters. If there were demons in the real world, I very much suspect the people fighting them would be a lot more interesting than these non-entities. Another curious parallel to the The Conjuring films is of how little use the couple actually is to the people they are supposedly helping. They are not quite on the low level of LeFanu’s Martin Hesselius but are generally portrayed as pretty ineffectual in anything they do before a film’s finale rolls around, even though the films themselves never seem to actually realized this and talk throughout as if they were badass conservative demon fighters. A problem The Haunted exacerbates by not having an actual finale.

So, unless you really need to watch all Warren-related horror movies, this is one to avoid.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In short: Night Terror (1977)

aka Night Drive

Through various twists of fate, Carol Turner (Valerie Harper) finds herself alone on a night drive through the US desert states. Usually, Carol is disorganized and seems a little helpless when confronted with the vagaries of her daily life, a state I believe is certainly not helped by a husband (Michael Tolan) who presents with all the hallmarks of 70s TV husbands. He’s a bit of a belittling arse, is what I’m saying. So our heroine seems to be a terrible fit for the situation she finds herself in when she witnesses the murder of a highway patrol officer by a mute killer (Richard Romanus). She doesn’t actually see the killer’s face, but still finds herself chased by him through endless, dark miles of highway, having to outthink and outmanoeuvre him throughout the night.

This fine thriller directed by TV veteran and mainstay E.W. Swackhammer is clearly somewhat inspired by Spielberg’s Duel but it’s not so much a case of straight-out copying the other film than taking the basic set-up, and adding variations that get it onto a different lane in the end. Swackhammer makes a lot out of very simple and straightforward suspense set-ups. A particular favourite is the sequence where our heroine has to break into a gas station where she encounters a series of interlocking obstacles, pretty much like in an old adventure game. Scene like this could in lesser hands feel a bit tedious, perhaps even silly but are usually so well paced on so organically staged they are rather on the nail-biting side.

Harper is – as usual it seems – convincing at portraying Carol’s change from the mentally scattered housewife to a woman capably and effectively fighting for her life. There’s an obvious – unobtrusive – feminist bent to this, where Carol, when taken outside of the zone society (and her husband – shudder) prescribe her, finds strengths and talents she probably never realized she had. I also liked how believable her mistakes are, not the slasher sort where the lamb is basically running into the blade of its slaughterer, but ones perfectly fitting to a woman confronted with a situation nobody sane expects or would be mentally prepared for.

Romanus makes a rather striking villain, achieving creepiness through physical menace, his relative muteness – sometimes he uses a larynx microphone to communicate - a very effective replacement for gloating speeches. You might add a mental digression about the problematic use of his disability as part of his creepiness, or you might shrug about this sort of thing in what is a pulp-style kind of entertainment made four decades ago. Personally, I don’t see much use in the former, but as always, your mileage may very well vary.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Stone Killer (1973)

After a public outcry following his having killed a black teenager in actual self defence (!), experienced New York police lieutenant Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) loses his job (!) and moves to another big city police department “on the Coast” (that’s at least how all characters will describe the place). A couple of years later, a professional yet drug-addled mafia killer is murdered in Torrey’s custody while he’s bringing him from the Coast to New York. His following investigations put Torrey on the track of a plan to murder the heads of the Mafia. Mafiosi Al Vescari (Martin Balsam) has a plan of vengeance forty years in the making. In a stroke of genius, he has hired and trained a small army of military veterans, thrown away by society after using them, as his kill squad.

As I’ve explained a couple of times here, I’m usually not terribly satisfied with the filmic output of regular Charles Bronson director Michael Winner. However, there are a couple of films in his filmography where he used all his powers of cheap cynicism and his lurid sensibilities for good, resulting in films that are as good as anything in the crime, thriller and action genres they belong to. For my tastes, The Stone Killer is such a film. It is not quite as great as The Mechanic but still is a brilliant series of action scenes and more set in front of the backdrop of all sorts of grimy 70s places Winner grimed up a bit more.

There’s something more to the film, too, for while you can see the beginnings of the classic Bronson character he would increasingly live in after the first Death Wish, Torrey is actually an interesting mix of a character. There are elements of the Dirty Harry style cop who doesn’t seem to think twice about using violence to reach his goals, beating people up and getting into public shoot-outs, but Bronson also gives the character a world-weariness not based on the law not allowing him to shoot more people. As a matter of fact, this is a Bronson character who seems to support gun control (!!!), who tempers casual racism in his language (though he interestingly enough very consciously does not use the N-word, unlike other characters) with actually fair behaviour towards black people. The film even sees him having a decent relationship with the local Black Panthers, and usually preferring de-escalation as a police tactic. Why, the film even suggests Torrey is feeling bad even for the people he kills in self defence. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d expect in a Bronson/Winner film – even this early in their partnership – but it turns Torrey into a character who is more interesting than a perfect killing machine would have been.

Speaking of killing, the film is a rather interesting portrait of its time, not just because Winner shoots in quite a few authentic looking, atmospheric locations, and works from a script full of fantastic hard-boiled dialogue for his 70s character actors to chew on. There are also a lot of snide – this is still a Michael Winner joint – remarks about the mental health of US society of the time (with obvious parallels to the now, if you look for them), particularly in the film’s suggestion that shipping off a whole generation of young, poor people to war, letting them suffer through traumatizing events and teach them how to kill and then ignore their problems once they come back home, might just not be a terribly healthy idea, particularly not in a society quite this fixated on violent solutions to all problems. As it will turn out, in 1973, not even Charles Bronson’s violent solutions resulted in more than a change of leadership for the great and the corrupt.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Nothing's more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.

American Violence (2017): This thing, directed by Timothy Woodward Jr., is what they called a “stinker” in the olden times when I still had all my hair and teeth. It’s an overly ambitious movie that makes big gestures towards exploring the nature of violence and evil through a thriller lens but actually spends its running time regurgitating all serial killer thriller clichés you may or may not remember, presenting them through hilariously po-faced direction, tone-deaf dialogue of the “how not terribly clever people think intelligent people speak” type, and actors who just aren’t good enough to sell any of it. Seriously, when your best thespian is Denise Richards (adding a psychologist to her nuclear physicist etc roles), you have yourself a problem.

Patema Inverted aka Sakasama no Patema (2013): This anime directed and written by Yasuhiro Yoshiura, on the other hand, is really rather great. It concerns the adventures of (of course) two teenagers on a post-apocalyptic Earth where some people live with an inverted gravitational direction. That’s of course a pretty damn silly idea, but it drives the film to moments of true awe and wonder, and adds ingenious little twists to help a plot that at its core is as generic as they come feel as vibrant and alive as the animation itself.

There’s also a rather potent metaphorical level to a tale of two people coming from very different places with opposite gravitational pulls falling in love that should speak to romantics of all ages and places.

Cherish (2002): Finn Taylor’s comedy/thriller/whatever does remind me a bit of the films of Jonathan Demme when their genre descriptions were equally vague/all-encompassing. It’s not as good as Demme at his best – there’s a bit too much calculated twee-ness in here for that – but there are moments in here when the film truly sings with a mix of honest eccentricity, surprising ideas, and unpredictable tonal shifts that are indeed the actual tone of the film.

The whole high strangeness of the film is centred around a disarmingly charming main performance by Robin Tunney and an able supporting cast (among others Brad Hunt as an improbable love interest, and Ricardo Gil as our heroine’s gay, wheel-chair bound, little person neighbour who isn’t at all the caricature that description may suggest), whose performances organically shift and change with the film.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Mr Wrong (1986)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Meg (Heather Bolton perfectly embodying a mixture of inexperience/naivety and hidden strength) has left her country home for the big city (I'd insert a joke about what "big city" means in New Zealand here, but that would be oh so inappropriate seeing where I live), where she works in an antiquities store. To make it easier to visit her parents over the weekends - and probably as a symbol of her freshly won independence - the young woman buys a used Jaguar.

Her first long drive with the car does not go quite as well as Meg would have hoped for. When she stops by the side of the road to take a night nap, she's awoken by hard and pretty unhealthy sounding breathing noises from the back seat of the car that start whenever she turns off the interior lights. Worse, or at least even more frightening to her, there's nothing and nobody to see on the back seat.

After that experience, Meg becomes increasingly nervous and afraid of the car, a state of affairs that is certainly not improved by further peculiar happenings surrounding it. After Meg has had a nightmare centring on a long-haired woman, she sees the exact same woman standing by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride in her waking life. For whatever reason, Meg stops for her.

However, the woman isn't alone. A man (David Letch) gets in together with her, but he doesn't seem to actually be together with the woman as Meg assumes. In fact, he doesn't seem to know about the woman's presence at all, which becomes understandable but not exactly less peculiar when she suddenly just disappears from the car. The guy is more than just a bit creepy too, and Meg has a hard time getting rid of him.

This experience is nearly enough to convince Meg of getting rid of her car as soon as possible, and when she learns that its last owner was a young woman about her age who was murdered, and whose killer has never been caught, our heroine does indeed try to sell it off.

That, however, is much easier said than done, for the car begins to sabotage Meg's efforts in ways that could be explained away by bad luck, if it weren't clear to the young woman her car was haunted.

While all this is going on, a mysterious someone begins to send Meg roses - surely, this won't have anything to do with the rather more horrible things going on in her life right now?

I know little about the movie scene in New Zealand (with the exception of being quite intimate with the films of Peter Jackson and Jane Campion and some random bits and bobs here and there), so I can't really say how typical Gaylene Preston's Mr Wrong is for the cinematic output of the country in the mid-80s. What I can say is that it is a pretty fantastic little film in mode and mood of the clever - and quite weird - ghost story. Given that this is based on one of the handful of supernatural tales Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote, the "clever and weird" part isn't too much of a surprise; it is, however, quite a positive surprise how well the Weirdness of Howard's story and Preston's naturalistic eye on the New Zealand of the 80s complement each other.

As frequent readers of my ramblings will know by now, I am an admirer of low budget films that make use of the cheapest of all special effects - local colour - to set the mood of their stories, and am even more of an admirer of films that are letting the very real of a specific place and time collide with the Weird and the peculiar, so I am predisposed to liking Mr Wrong, as it is a film whose whole modus operandi is very much based on these techniques. Even better, Preston really knows what she's doing in this regard, showing herself to be equally at home with taking a - slightly sarcastic - look at her central character's live and times (I wouldn't be too surprised if there was a certain autobiographical element at work here, either) and with slowly showing the seams and cracks of Meg's existence where the disquiet and the strange can enter through, cracks, the film seems to say, even the most unspectacular of lives has. Are, after all, Meg's life and that of her unhappy predecessor in car ownership all that different from each other? Preston doesn't overstretch the parallels between the woman and the haunt. In fact, if you don't want to see this aspect of the movie - that is most probably there to demonstrate something about the way a woman still has to fight for her independence (in the sense of self-ownership) - you will probably never notice it at all. It's always excellent when a director is subtle with the treatment of her film's metaphorical level.

From time to time, Mr Wrong is a bit rough around the edges, but it's the kind of roughness that comes with the territory of making movies for little money in a place where making a movie can't have been all that easy to begin with, and is offset by direction that can be creative and imaginative without feeling the need to show off. After all, it's clear to see for everyone that the director really knows how to use the idiom of the ghost story and the thriller without any need for her to point it out to her audience like a bad Hollywood actor trying once in a blue moon for actual acting. Instead, Preston's film impresses through an unassuming intelligence.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In short: Summer House (2008)

aka Secrets of the Summer House

In this Canadian production for Lifetime, a somewhat likeable yuppie couple played by Lindsay Price and David Haydn-Jones (well, she’s supposed to be an artist rather than an actual yuppie, but talks a lot about art in a way that suggests her lines were written by someone who has no clue about it, and her art is terrible, so…) who like to engage in the sort of sex scenes which are neither titillating nor useful for the plot inherit the yuppie man’s ancestral home.

Turns out there’s a curse on his blood line, so ghosts are in the picture. Fortunately for the guy, his wife is hell-bent on keeping him alive and turning the place into an “artists colony” (of the blandest possible sort, don’t fret), and if that means a bit of research and some communicating with the spirit world, so be it.

Unfortunately, at least two thirds of the ghostly activity is weak even for TV movie standards, director Jean-Claude Lord clearly not having much of a hand for this sort of thing, and only stumbling on the couple of good scenes because some things are mildly entertaining even when they are directed very blandly.

Unlike today’s Lifetime movies that in my limited experience love to dial things up to camp eleven or at least make a decent try at insanity, Summer House is a bit of a sedate experience, gently strolling through plot points any sensible film would at least milk for maximum melodrama (Ghosts! Husband in a coma (it’s serious)! The shadow of slavery!). But then, this is a film where the useless and/or interesting medium demanded by trope and tradition is replaced by a helpful – but at least useless - middle aged woman with crystals, so I am probably expecting too much. On the other hand, my expectation of a film using the slave trade and assorted horrors as the inciting events of its spooking, to at least try and say something about it, seems to be perfectly reasonable.

Now having complained about all this, I also have to admit the whole affair is still perfectly watchable, exactly the type of film one might choose to inflict on oneself on a rainy Sunday afternoon when headaches prevent the watching of anything more substantial.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Devil’s Well (2017)

Warnings: spoilers ahead, I suppose!

A year ago, paranormal investigator Karla Marks (Anne-Marie Mueschke) disappeared without a trace while examining The Devil’s Well (a well in the cellar of an empty building that is supposed to be a gate to hell) together with her husband Bryan (Bryan Manley Davis). Finding nothing at all, the police decided to blame Bryan for the disappearance despite a complete lack of evidence for it, the best motive they could come up with being something along the lines of their website now having more hits.

Now, Bryan has asked his old college buddy Lucas (Chris Viemeister), who is leading another group of paranormal investigators going by the excellent acronym of S.I.G.N.S. (we never learn what that’s supposed to stand for, by the way – “Supernatural Investigations Go North, Sid”?) to return to the well with him. Lucas also invites a documentary filmmaker to produce the now mandatory documentary on the case. Things just might not turn out too well for anyone involved.

Needless to say, Kurtis Spieler’s The Devil’s Well is another POV/found footage horror film, though one that purports to be the actual documentary about the case. The film’s first act is a pretty good imitation of a cheap yet professionally done documentary, avoiding the typical first act drag of many POV horror films by providing exposition, characterisation and the general set-up concisely and through more than just showing us people who never turn off their cameras doing little of interest.

Now, I know quite a few people reading this really can’t stand the whole found footage approach to horror anymore. I still love the form to bits: it is a comparatively cheap way to make a film (and if the filmmakers are good, as Spieler certainly is, they still can smuggle in large amounts of clever and atmospheric filmmaking), it certainly can help with patching over problems coming with a low budget, and it has the immediate quality of a good campfire tale (or in 2018, a good piece of creepypasta). That the sub-genre tends to have quite a few tropes and plot beats its films hit again and again isn’t exactly something limited to POV films; slashers, just to go for the most obvious example, tend to be nearly ritualized. Basically, what the misadventures of spam in a cabin with a masked maniac are for other horror fans, POV horror is for me. However, I’d be perfectly okay with a moratorium for films that end on a character with a camera running through the woods for twenty minutes, screeching, while nothing much happens around them.

As luck will have it, The Devil’s Well doesn’t end on that note at all. In fact, there’s neither needless camera shaking at all on display, nor woods, nor all that many scenes of people running around panicking. Once death comes for the characters, it mostly comes quick, in a way that has a pleasant air of inevitability. Spieler’s script, even though it certainly uses many an element we all have encountered in other POV movies about paranormal investigators meeting their doom in an enclosed space cheap enough for a production with little money to throw at sets or costly locations, does feature quite a few small and not so small changes from sub-genre standards that keep the tradition in view but get away from it far enough to actually surprise. An obvious example is how believable the film treats its sceptic – his positions make sense throughout as ones an actual human being in his situation might have, and he lacks the shrillness that often mar sceptic characters in all kinds of horror movies (imagine every atheist would be like Richard Dawkins).

As a whole, the characters and their background feel a little better fleshed out than in most films of the style (which doesn’t lend itself to deep characterisation terribly well), and interact in ways that as as a whole make them believable as people who have actually worked with each other for quite some time. The acting is always at least decent throughout too, which certainly helped my immersion.

All of this adds up to a film that feels made with care and thought, well-paced and with at least two really great horror scenes and no bad ones. The POV horror watching year starts off rather well for me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In short: Keep Watching (2017)

The Mitchell’s – father Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), daughter Jamie (Bella Thorne), son John (Chandler Riggs) and stepmom Nicole (Natalie Martinez) – are returning from a vacation to the family home. Things are a bit strained, for Jamie’s not able to get over her father “replacing” her dead mother with Nicole, while Nicole’s clearly trying to pretend she doesn’t notice, like a politician hoping all problems go away if you just ignore them for long enough.

There’s even more stuff of this sort in the first half hour or so, but little of it will matter much for the rest of the movie, mind you, for while the family have been away their house has been rigged with a truly improbable number of hidden cameras and microphones. We the audience already know the Mitchells are going to be the newest project of a gang of masked killers who like to get into fights with troubled rich families, and kidnap the last survivors for a not at all surprising plot twist, streaming their exploits time-delayed on the Internet.

At its core, Sean Carter’s Keep Watching is a perfectly fine low budget home invasion thriller that tries to avoid the class issues of the genre by keeping its killers truly faceless – apart from the one plot twist bit, of course. The hidden camera angle – even though it is nearly absurdly improbable without the bad guys actually having super powers of precognition – works out much better for the film than I would have assumed, pushing it into quite a few original set-ups for shots which also influence the suspense scenes enough they do not feel quite as well-trodden as the plot and the nature of the suspense actually is. The actors are selling the material well too, with some good shadowy looming by whoever plays the masked people, a much better performance by Thorne’s final girl than we got from her in the last two horror films I saw her in (though one was that Amityville abomination, so that one only a very cynical watcher would blame on the kid), and decent stuff by Riggs and Martinez too.

So most of the film is a tight, rather entertaining thrill ride that combines the bourgeois fear of home invasion with vague anxieties about the evil Internet and surveillance, and that’s really all I’d ask of a pleasant low budget number like this one. Alas, the film also adds some elements of psychological mind-fuckery concentrating on Jamie it does too little with to be effective, and which do not actually feed as well into the final plot twist as they should. As plot twists go, I’ve seen worse – at least it has something to do with the rest of the movie – but I’d also argue the plot twist and what is supposed to prepare for it don’t really do much at all for the effect of the film, instead regularly slowing it down for business that just isn’t as riveting as Keep Watching seems to think it is.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Snowbound (1948)

Post-war Britain. Demobilized Blair (Dennis Price) is trying to earn his keep by working as a movie extra, when he’s not failing at selling whatever it is he writes (we only learn it isn’t screenplays). His new director turns out to be a man called Engles (Robert Newton), Blair’s former CO before Engles got drafted into intelligence operations. Engles has a much better proposition for Blair than the movie extra lark: why not go on a well-paid vacation to a ski cabin in the Italian Alps and observe what the other people living there are up to?  Officially, Blair’s supposed to write a screenplay for Engles. Despite his old boss not giving him any further details, Blair agrees, perhaps a little intrigued, perhaps a little stupid – a combination that’ll get him through the rest of the movie.

Because our protagonist is officially at the hut to write a screenplay for Engles, Blair is accompanied by one Wesson (Stanley Holloway), an oblivious director of photography who manages to know even less than our protagonist does.

Once at the hut, Blair encounters quite the rogue’s gallery of not at all suspicious people. There’s shady Brit Mayne (Guy Middleton), shady Greek Keramikos (Herbert Lom), a shady fake countess and Blairish love interest actually called Carla (Mila Parély) and her shady fixer Valdini (Marcel Dalio). Come to think of it, even the owner of the hut, one Aldo (Willy Fueter) is pretty shady. It’s quite obvious even to Blair – who is not a terribly insightful sort of thriller protagonist – that these people know one another, even though they strenuously pretend not to, that not one of them seems to be using their real name or nationality (apart from Valdini, perhaps), and that they are clearly there for sinister and mysterious reasons.

David MacDonald’s Snowbound, based on a Hammond Innes novel, is an interesting, if sometimes a little creaky, post-war thriller. The creakiness isn’t really the film’s fault: MacDonald certainly couldn’t know how the suspense techniques popularized by Hitchcock he uses, the know-nothing/innocent everyman protagonist who just happens to look like a film star, and so on, and so forth, would be regurgitated in the following decades so often by so many filmmakers that by now even a film which uses them well but not brilliantly (as Snowbound mostly does) can feel a little less well made than it actually is.

At times the film also nears the borders of the noir, but usually tends to step away from them at the last moment, out of British politeness and the abhorrence of making a scene, one supposes.

But let’s talk about Snowbound’s strengths. Certainly there’s no fault to be found with its main actors, a party of character actors whose somewhat ambiguous nationalities are a perfect fit for the just as ambiguous characters they are playing. Lom’s performance is particularly fine, balancing on the line between the sinister and the personable in an excellent acrobatics act, but everyone else works out great as the sort of people looking for any shady get rich quick scheme that populated Europe shortly after World War II in popular fiction (and perhaps in parts of reality).

There’s a palpable anxiety running through the film, a consciousness the war may be over, but the people fighting in it, and particularly the people who fought it behind the scenes are still there, lingering, searching something or someone, or planning to one day continue the madness they started. The ambiguity of characters’ identities or motivations only seems the logical conclusion to this state of affairs. Apart from Blair, of course. He somehow managed to make it through the war without getting a case of ambiguity or cynicism, and without learning that you probably shouldn’t go skiing with every shady character with attractive facial hair. Fortunately, Price for most of the time manages to sell him as a man in over his head instead of the complete idiot a lesser actor might have come up with when confronted with the same script.

Visually, the film is often atmospheric, generally attractive and usually clear. DP Stephen Dade certainly wasn’t a John Alton but he knew his way around night shots, lingering shadows, and other elements typical of black and white photography of the time, so there’s usually visual pull to any given scene, even if its is only another tableau one of men talking somewhere or other. The exterior and skiing shots – apparently done by Reg Johnson – are attractive too, if perhaps used a bit more indulgently than strictly necessary.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Greed has a price.

Werewolf (1995): Tony Zarindast’s originally titled werewolf movie is the sort of thing only a mother (or perhaps a director) will love. The acting’s awkward, the script makes no damn sense at all (the archaeologist bad guys apparently infect people with werewolfery so they can show them off caged, despite having a perfectly fine werewolf skeleton to present and slavery being rather frowned upon in modern times), and the direction…Well, the direction clearly aims for being stylish, but always, absolutely always hits the wrong spot, ending up in turns awkward, bizarre, or just plain inexplicable. I hope you like long, loving tracking shots through a museum while animal noises play in the background, or just as long, loving shots of that darn werewolf skeleton. Additional attractions are Jorge Rivero’s toupee, Richard Lynch, and werewolf make-up in various states of crappiness.

Happy Death Day (2017): Oh, look, it’s a time loop movie! Never seen one of these before. Vile college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is killed again and again by a mysterious masked killer, only to repeat the same day again and again, until she identifies her killer. The problem: she’s such a horrible person there’s nobody she knows who doesn’t have a motive. Speaking of unlikeable main characters, this one makes Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day look like a totally nice guy; and whereas that particular classic actually puts the effort in to show us its main asshole changing into a better person, Christopher Landon’s film doesn’t bother to put any effort into character development. Tree just suddenly isn’t a horrible human being anymore; the mild attempts to explain her character flaws through trauma simple don’t work.

Otherwise, this is a mildly diverting movie that suffers from being neither terribly thrilling, nor funny, nor clever yet also never gets too painful.

The Snowman (2017): Speaking of painful, I don’t hate Tomas Alfredson’s attempt at a serial killer thriller quite as much as most other people seem to do, but that doesn’t mean I’m confusing it with a good or even a mediocre film. There is, after all, nary a scene that doesn’t feature at least one completely inexplicable directing choice or an actor going completely off the rails, with many a scene additionally enlivened by not having any function whatsoever for plot, characters or theme. The violent as well as the more absurd flourishes of the plot really demand to be filmed either in the way of a giallo or of a modern potboiler; Alfredson instead directs them as if they were parts of a thoughtful Nordic style crime movie, at once inadvertently pointing out the stupidity of much what is going on and wasting its potential to entertain. Things are not improved by portentous pacing and a theoretically brilliant cast whose members seem as lost in the pointlessness of the whole affair as I was.

Well, now that I’ve thought about it, I actually do hate this just as much as everyone else does.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Étoile (1989)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

American ballerina Claire (Jennifer Connelly) travels to Budapest for an audition for either a role in "Swan Lake" or a place in a ballet academy (as about other things, Étoile is decidedly unclear about it, but it really doesn't matter in the long run). When her time to audition comes, though, Claire has a sudden case of nerves and flees, getting lost in the belly of the theatre the audition takes place in, until she comes to a stage where she, of course, begins to dance.

Claire is witnessed by the ballet troupe's director (Laurent Terzieff), who for some reason that will become clear later on calls her by the name of Nathalie. Which, of course, again drives Claire to flight.

Later, our heroine, in an understandably bad mood about her own behaviour, tries to distract herself by taking a walk through Budapest. She meets fellow American Jason (Gary McCleery) - with whom she had already met-cute before - and proceeds to do some of that earnest falling in love in minutes stuff young people in movies are so fond of; though it has to be said that Jason seems much more smitten with Claire than she is with him, for Claire has after all already found the love of her life in form of dancing, as she explains to him. Not one to be discouraged by that sort of thing, Jason promises to return to the theatre with Claire the next day to try and get her a second chance for her audition.

That very night, though, Claire is so disturbed by a nightmare about characters from "Swan Lake" the audience also already knows as part of the dance troupe she decides to just pack her things and fly back to the USA at once. Before she can escape whatever she's fleeing from, though, Claire's identity (and probably her reality, too)begins to shift. She signs a form with the name "Nathalie Horvath", and follows a call for a person of that name to the airport's information booth, from where she is directed to a car waiting for Nathalie/her. Not surprisingly, the car is driven by the dance troupe's factotum who brings Claire/Nathalie to a rather dilapidated mansion she had already entered once while cavorting with Jason.

From that point on, Claire becomes Nathalie, the prima ballerina of the dance troupe, and spends her time staring at swans in the park, rehearsing for "Swan Lake", and looking pretty zoned out.

On one of her outings to the park, Nathalie is observed by Jason, who had been pretty frustrated by her supposed return to the USA. When he tries to talk to her, Nathalie doesn't recognize him. Jason is understandably confused by the whole affair, and begins obsessing about Claire/Nathalie, follows her, sneaks around, succeeds in a Library Use roll, and eventually stumbles on the peculiar and rather horrible truth about his beloved's coming appearance in "Swan Lake". If Jason can't rescue Claire, a past tragedy will repeat itself.

To get the obvious question out of the way first, yes, there are clear parallels between Italian director Peter Del Monte's Étoile and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, but even though both films share certain thematic interests (loss or fluidity of identity of a young woman), and - obviously - "Swan Lake" (a ballet made to explore shifting identities if ever there was one), both directors have very different approaches to their material that can't all be explained by the different eras their films were made in. Where Aronofsky's idea of the irrational is grounded in very traditional psychological models (bringing the dreaded bane of "realism" even into a not at all realistically styled film about somebody losing touch with reality), Del Monte goes a more European way. The Italian is not very interested in realistic psychology, and instead aims for the archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, where symbols and the things symbols are supposed to signify are often one and the same.

It's difficult to ignore the influence Hitchcock - especially Vertigo - seems to have had on Del Monte's movie. Watching the film, I was frequently reminded of a less hysterical twin to Brian De Palma's Hitchcock-influenced (some people would argue ripping off Hitchcock; these people are wrong) phase, an impression that certainly did not decrease through the themes and visual cues these films share. The clear parallels to Hitchcock and De Palma are a bit of a problem for Étoile from time to time, pushing me to comparisons that make it look worse than it deserves. To use an easy example, Gary McCleery sure is no James Stewart (not even a Cliff Robertson).

It would probably have been better to cast the leads five to ten years older, which probably would have made them too old for the fairy tale parallels, but could have improved one of the film's weak spots to no end. Don't misunderstand me, McCleery isn't bad, and young Jennifer Connelly does dreamy, dream-like and beautiful very well indeed, but he is lacking the edge his more obsessive scenes need, and she is not at all convincing in the scenes when she takes on the role of the black swan, both things somewhat more experienced actors – like Connelly herself only a couple of years later - could have sold better.

These problems on the acting side aren't what will make or break Étoile for most viewers though, I think. Basically, the potential audience of Étoile will encounter (or enjoy) the same problems-that-aren't-actually-problems-but-parts-of-the-general-aesthetic many of my favourite European films of the fantastic show: the languid pacing and ambiguous working of space and time that have more to do with the structure of a dream than that of a textbook narrative; the characters that don't pretend to function like real people; the emphasis on mood possibly to the detriment of believability and clearly to the detriment of realism. Of course, all these things belong in a movie with no interest in picturing reality, or being "believable" as a depiction of consensus reality.

Generally, Del Monte seems to have control over his film (not something I'd say about all movies in this style) until we come to the climax, that is, when trouble rears its head. Let's just say that the scene of Jason fighting a giant black swan clearly oversteps the line between the dream-like and symbolic and the painfully ridiculous, and that a dramatic highpoint should probably not be a film's worst scene.

For most of its running time, though, Étoile plays out like a dream, with all the symbolism and all the ambiguity of symbols that implies. I suspect most of the film's viewers will either adore - like me - or hate that dream-like mood dominating it; I don't feel neutrality to be much of an option

Thursday, March 8, 2018

In short: Love & Peace (2015)

Original title: ラブ&ピース

Warning: spoilers ahead, little turtle!

Leave it to Sion Sono’s year of six films (William Beaudine had nothing on the man, particularly since Sono’s films are always good to brilliant) to include a sort of family Christmas movie that manages to not just feature an alcoholic Santa living in the sewers with a bunch of talking and living toys and talking animals who were deserted by their owners, and an adorable giant turtle rampage, but also manages to have that fit nicely as part of a tale about a socially painful office worker (portrayed by Hiroki Hasegawa in modes reaching from physically painful to witness to hilarious to grotesque to unpleasant to actually sad) who becomes a rock star and the same sort of hypocritical arsehole he always hated. While the plot is outrageous and weird in a very Japanese style of weirdness, it also makes complete sense on a thematic and emotional level. This isn’t just a whacky thing to gawk at.

Also leave it to Sono to shoot this tale in a style that teeters on, jumps over and completely ignores the lines between camp, artistry and truthfulness, until it becomes a question of personal taste more than analysis what of the film, if anything, is meant ironically or directly. What I can say is that I found Hasegawa’s way from complete outsider through all stages of glittery rockstardom and its accompanying stages of being a horrible person at times sad, at times incredibly funny, and at times hair-raising. I absolutely admired how the film ends on a grown-up yet hopeful note that shows kindness instead of condemnation to its characters faults. My emotions concerning the other plotline, I can’t even begin to describe.

Because it seems to genuinely be meant as some sort of family movie, Love & Peace should actually be watchable as one. There are, however, many moments in the film that transcend the ironic clichés and seem genuine more because than despite of them, as well as some darker feelings and ideas you can generally expect not to find in your family films outside of Asia anymore, even the strange ones. There is, after all a reason why Santa lives in the sewers and drinks too much, and his whole plot line centers around a perpetual repetition of certain kinds of pain and suffering that might as well belong in a horror film (even though it of course isn’t openly played that way by the film).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In short: Renegades (2017)

Warning: there are a couple of spoilers in here

Former Yugoslavia during the civil war. A group of Navy SEALS led by Matt Barnes (Sullivan Stapleton) has just barely managed to kidnap a Serbian general and war criminal, escaping with the man and their lives thanks to a mad dash through a city in an old Soviet tank.

Their long suffering superior (J.K. Simmons) clearly hasn’t been through enough, so they decide to get into some more trouble. One of them (Charlie Bewley) has a local girlfriend named Lara (Sylvia Hoeks), and Lara has a plan. Going by tales her grandfather told her, there’s a load of gold the Nazis stole buried under water smack dab in Serbian territory, and the SEALs just happen to have the ideal skill set to acquire it. Half of the money would go to the men, the other, Lara plans on using for the eventual rebuilding of Bosnia. Given that she proposes the magic combination of doing good, making a lot of money and going on a secret adventure, the guys are in pretty quickly.

Of course, quite a few problems will come up, not the least of them the followers of the general they kidnapped who’d rather like to murder them all in retribution.

When it comes to Steven Quale’s diving action adventure, I’m for once willing to skip the usual Europa Corp jokes (I mock because I sort of love, though), for this one’s such a nice bit of throwback adventure and so surprisingly lacking in mean-spiritedness for a contemporary action movie, it deserves to be treated with an equal lack of mean-spiritedness.

While I do understand why most contemporary action movies are on the grim and gritty side, and don’t have a philosophical problem with it, it’s such a nice change to for once see an action film whose heroes only kill a couple dozen guys - and all of them in self defence –, where only the bad guys are out for revenge, and where every one of the good guys not only deserves to be called a good guy but actually lives. I suppose we can thank the caper movie elements for that for this more light-hearted sister of the heist movie usually portrays its thieves as the good guys for one reason or another and treats them accordingly, and that’s certainly a concept Renegades shares.

This doesn’t mean the action is boring: the tank ride in the beginning is pretty crazy fun, and the various diving sequences are actually exciting – not something you’ll hear me say about many diving sequences, as a matter of fact.

The characters are pretty flat and one-note – I suppose Joshua Henry’s character is the clever one, Bewley the pretty one, Stapleton the tragically grizzled boss one, Hoeks the quietly heroic one, and so on, but there’s not much substance to any of them. The only character that really sticks in the mind is J.K. Simmons’s pretty hilarious outing as the grumpy, shouty superior with the heart of gold, and that’s on account of the performance, certainly not the role. This is just not much of a problem in something like the film at hand, though, because flat characters are enough for the fluffy yet good-hearted entertainment with explosions and sexy violence this is, as long as the film moves quickly enough – which Renegades does.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Mom and Dad (2017)

The Ryans are probably your typical movie white suburban family. Looking pretty rich to someone like me, they are still a friendly bubble of neuroses: father Brent (Nicolas Cage) is deep in the throes of a male midlife crisis with added existential dread, mother Kendall (Selma Blair) has the version of it allowed to women, while teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and younger son Josh (Zackary Arthur) show all the symptoms of their respective ages. But hey, these people do seem to love each other even when they are making their lives about as much worse as they make them better.

Alas, a mysterious syndrome possibly caused by alien invaders or terrorists hits the USA (like so many American films about apocalyptic events, Mom and Dad never bothers to even acknowledge the existence of the larger part of the world), and soon all that precious parental love all parents apparently carry turns into murderous, insane rage. The Ryan kids and Carly’s boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) - who will spend much of the film battered and unconscious only to repeatedly pop up to save everyone’s bacon and then get knocked down again in what I’m not too sure is actually supposed to be a running gag – will have a hell of a time surviving the day.

Mom and Dad’s director and writer is Brian Taylor, one half of Neveldine/Taylor, so nobody should go into this one expecting an ultra-serious film about generational gaps expressed through bloody violence. Instead, it’s mix of not exactly subtle, sardonic suburban satire, some mild splatstick, with a smidgen of disturbing moments that can turn grotesque and darkly funny at a moments notice, and an occasional sense of creepiness mostly based on the elder Ryans still acting like a suburban couple even when they are attempting to murder their children. They are very bourgeois child murderers, is what I’m saying.

The film does have a handful of serious scenes among the carnage, and the scenes of Cage and Blair running around shouting wildly, moments that handle the emptiness of these oh so unhappy rich people and their lives rather delicately, and to my great surprise – given Taylor’s general predilections for not having a single human being in his movies - effectively. While he’s playing crazy in the patented Cage style I rather love, the actor does also have some quiet moments he handles with equal effectiveness to suggest that Brent really was pretty close to murdering his family even before whatever happened to suburbia happened. Blair’s performance is more subtle, suggesting more complexity to Kendall than to Cage’s character, while avoiding getting drowned out by Crazy Cage; she’s also great in her creepy moments, selling the emotional horror involved.

It is interesting to for once watch a film that reverses the more typical evil kid trope, which of course allows a different kind of critique of the suburban US lifestyle by actually keeping the usual family power dynamics.

While all this doesn’t quite add up to a film I outright love – that would need a greater shift away from the blunt satire to the emotional horrors of the story – Mom and Dad is a highly enjoyable, sometimes disturbing, often very funny, piece that runs along sprightly and looks stylish without being overstyled while giving a fine showcase for Blair’s and Cage’s talents. Plus, there’s a fun appearance by the great Lance Henriksen as Nicolas Cage’s father, a casting decision so brilliant, I want to hug the people responsible for it.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid. Or in the case of this one, be very, very afraid.

Warning: there will be a lot of spoilers!

Your typical US white upper middle-class family – father Philip (Dennis Weaver), mother Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) and horribly obnoxious boy brat Kevin (Oliver Robbins) – move into a new home so they can live together with Laura’s mother Bernice (Ruth Gordon). Bernice, it appears, can’t  quite cope with life on her own anymore, and Laura must have pushed and prodded Philip a lot, because he and Bernice quite obviously loath one another other.

There’s a reason for that, as well as for Philip’s attempts at diffusing everything through humour and alcohol, Laura’s attempts to keep the family peace in ways bordering on the obsessive, Mary’s dreaminess and perhaps even Kevin’s loathsomeness, something beyond mere character incompatibilities and simple human weaknesses, something nobody in the family is actually talking about. As it turns out, the family had another daughter, Jennifer (Kristin Cumming), a girl close in age and everything else to Mary, whose death under circumstances the film will only explain much, much later has put the family and their relations under strains of guilt and grief nobody seems to be prepared to face outright.

So it isn’t exactly a surprise when Mary is plagued by horrible night terrors once they have moved into their new home. However, there’s more and worse going on here than “just” a little kid having a mental breakdown. The ghost of Jennifer begins appearing to Mary, at first frightening her but then reinitiating the co-dependent sibling relationship they once had. However, as Jennifer explains, various other family members are standing between them and being happy together again forever. She knows what to do about them, though.

If you’re like me, operating under the idea that the FCC rules of the time must have made it basically impossible to create TV films that were actually frightening and disturbing in more than a manner evoking pleasant chills (or a pleasing terror, if you would), Richard Lang’s film will come as something of a wake-up call. For, have no doubt about it, this is an absolutely ruthless film that directly and rather fearlessly attacks its themes of guilt and grief head-on in ways you won’t see too often on screens big or small, while adding the charming little plot of a child murdering the rest of her family with all the implications this has.

Lang, in whose filmography this seems to be a rather singular exception in tone and style, working off a script by Ned Wynn, who also has nothing else on offer which goes quite this deep and far, not only manages to portray the fissures between the members of the family and their increasing mental disintegration with subtlety and efficiency, trusting an audience’s ability to read visual cues and some wonderful physical acting to understand relationships between people. He also uses rather traditional elements of gothic ghost stories, creating a certain dream-like quality that turns into nightmare, as well as holding up a mood of slowly increasing dread and helplessness. The film’s main horror set pieces are very well realized on a technical level but what really makes these moments sing (not a pretty song, mind you) is how thoughtful the supernatural elements, the thematic concerns about guilt, grief and the immense pressures these feelings put on a family as a social unit, are resonating with each other, how much every part of the film belongs to the next.

Let me also emphasize again how ruthless the film is: grandmothers and little boys are killed by a dead little girl with the help of a living little girl, said little girl ends up in what looks like the worst mental health institution this side of a Gothic novel, and the mothers suffers what looks and sounds like a fate much worse than any death could ever be; and I don’t even mean her destroyed family. Harper’s final scream is absolutely haunting. Oh, and everybody is sort of actually somewhat guilty of what they feel guilty for, the white middle-class family clearly being a place where the repressed returns with a vengeance.

The acting as a whole is mostly brilliant too, starting with Harper’s and Weaver’s respective abilities to portray frayed people under ever increasing duress from inside and outside, while all giving a hint of what once drew them together, as well as Gordon’s portrayal of an elderly woman who clearly loathes getting old and still having to fight her own feelings of guilt and grief. The children are a bit more variable, because they are children, yet Ignico and Cumming hit the important notes spot-on.

Adding to all this is an emotional honesty I found utterly surprising, particularly in a medium that tends to the melodramatic when it comes to the portrayal of human emotions. It’s not as if there isn’t any melodrama here, but it is used in moments where its heightened sense is of use to the film. In other places – particularly scenes between Gordon and Harper and a loud, painful and quite brilliantly acted confrontation between Harper and Weaver – are raw, direct, and not terribly easy to watch.

Why this honest-to-Cthulhu masterpiece of genre filmmaking isn’t available to you or me via the wonder of Blu-ray – or at least a decent DVD – is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Terror Tract (2000)

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

A real estate agent of somewhat intense disposition (John Ritter) shows off three houses to a young couple (David DeLuise and Allison Smith). The prospective homeowners become increasingly disturbed, for the real estate agent follows the spirit of full disclosure (it’s the law, apparently) to the limit and tells them a tale of the horrible/hilarious things that went down in each of these places, leading to three segments, after whose telling things become rather peculiar.

In the first, “Nightmare”, a wife (Rachel York) and her lover (Carmine Giovinazzo) are caught in the act by her crazy husband (Fredric Lehne). Hubby hasn’t quite gotten the memo about grown-up reactions to this sort of thing and plans to shoot him and hang her, making it look like a murder suicide. The couple manage to turn the tables on him, leading to a very dead husband but because “the cops wouldn’t believe us” – a refrain in all three tales – they decide to hide the body and pretend he just disappeared. Alas, various natural – neither her nerves nor his brain can cope with the situation, plus the hubby’s fishing buddy was a cop – and unnatural – assholes seldom rest easily in horror movies after all – occurrences are standing in the way of anything but a darkly ironic ending.

The second segment, “Bobo”, sees the loving relationship between a man (Bryan Cranston) and his little daughter (Katelin Petersen) threatened when she finds a monkey dressed in a red suit out in the family home’s garden. Dubbing him Bobo, it’s love at first sight for the kid, but her Dad seems rather taken aback by the animal. Now, perhaps his wife (Jodi Harris) is right and he’s just feeling threatened by realizing he has no actual control about his daughter’s feelings towards anyone or anything – not even himself; on the other hand, the monkey might indeed be a crazed killer and brother in spirit to that charming animal in Argento’s Phenomena. In any case, the duel between Cranston and Monkey becomes increasingly deranged.

In the final tale, “Come to Granny”, a psychiatrist (Brenda Strong) suffers through a surprise visit by a young man (Will Estes) who tells her a wild tale about his mental connection to the local serial killer, dubbed the Granny Killer because he’s wearing a creepy old woman mask and offing his victims while making granny-based quips. Apparently, the guy has visions of all of the killer’s murders – or is he perhaps the killer?

Terror Tract – directed by Lance W. Dreesen and Clint Hutchison - is a low budget thriller anthology made for the USA Channel and/or the direct-to-DVD market of the time. As it goes with the former in its late period movies, the degree of sex and violence on offer is not terribly high – it’s about on the level of an X-Files episode (and not “Home”, for that matter), with a moment of sideboob thrown in. That’s quite a bit more of direct depravity than you got during the high water mark of this sort of TV production during the 70s, but the gore hounds among my imaginary readers might want to keep this in mind when they storm their imaginary video stores to acquire this.

As a whole, this anthology movie is a rather fun black horror comedy treating the US suburbs as a breeding ground for madness and violence full of absolutely crazy, nice, white, upper middleclass people and murderous monkeys. Pencil that in as conscious – if terribly blunt – satire, or just as a film following one string of US horror traditions to near absurdity. In any case, the whole thing culminates in a very silly yet also very funny and actually pretty clever sequence that suggests the specific suburb these tales take place in is indeed the place where all horror and thriller stories located in the suburbs take place in, or perhaps the platonic ideal of this place.

The framing sequences are – atypical for a anthology horror – very much worthwhile, with something that feels a lot like the kind of story Stephen King would have put into one of his first couple of short story collections taking place in the background. Ritter is playing against his image quite wonderfully, giving a performance that’s just the right kind of broad, and DeLuise and Smith mostly function as his straight people, until that excellent final sequence.

Of the episodes, “Nightmare” is probably the most traditionally straightforward one, apart from the fact that our doomed protagonists aren’t actually guilty of much more than adultery and stupidity. Usually, it takes a little more than that to be punished this heavily in an EC-style horror tale. It is atmospheric in any case, with some fine scenes that blur the line between dream and reality and an ending that feels surprisingly nasty.

“Bobo” is obviously the highpoint of the film. This is after all a tale in which a young-ish Bryan Cranston rants and raves through a psychological and physical duel with a wee little knife-wielding monkey. “Bobo” delivers everything that high concept promises through a brilliant tour-de-force performance by an increasingly deranged Cranston and some good work by the monkey(s) too. The editing’s also fantastic, as is the fact that this slightly insane little ditty also has more thematic resonance than I’d have expected. Of course, when you really think about it, what better way is there to talk about a white middle-class guy’s anxieties about the brittleness of his life, his love, and his possessions is there than to let him fight a monkey?

For some reason, the last proper segment of the film is its weakest. The Granny Killer mask is appropriately creepy, and the murder visions are filmed in a bit of a giallo style, but the plot as a whole is terribly predictable, the twist even more so. There’s just not much of interest going on there.

However, every anthology horror film is bound by law to have at least one weak segment, so Terror Tract is really only doing its duty here. It doesn’t matter much anyhow, for the rest of the film is not just pretty damn fun, it is also quite a bit more clever than I would have expected going in. And frankly, there is no way I wouldn’t recommend a film with “Bobo” in it, even if the rest of it were completely unwatchable.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Carny (2009)

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

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

And because I am a mad genius, I this is also part of Accidental TV Movie Week.

The very peaceful working life of small-town Sheriff Atlas (Lou Diamond Phillips) and his lone deputy becomes quite a bit more straining when the carnival comes to town. High-strung and melodramatic local pastor Owen (Vlasta Vrana) must have studied theology during the Dark Ages. Therefore, he is sure the outward deformity of people is proof of their inner sinfulness. Ergo, the arrival of a carnival equals the devil making the town his new vacation home.

Alas, in this particular case, the pastor isn't completely wrong. The carnival's boss, Cap (Alan C. Peterson), at least, is the kind of guy who doesn't even stop at murder to get what he wants, and uses a spiel about the outsiders of the world having to stick together to keep his people in line. This week's murder has brought Cap a nice little winged monster he plans on selling on, but surely, there's no problem with exhibiting it before that happens? It's not as if Cap's measures to keep the monster in its cage were half-assed at best, and the thing really not a fan of audience participation, right?

So, obviously, the monster escapes, and it's now the Sheriff's job to kill it before it eats everyone in town. This job is not made easier by the crazy pastor who will find reasons to become even crazier in time, nor by Cap's own, ruthless, attempts at catching his monster again. On the plus side, the affair does give the Sheriff opportunity for researching what monster of urban legend he is confronted with (I see no need to spoil it, unlike everyone else on the 'net) together with the carnival's authentic fortune teller Samara (Simone-Élise Girard).

Sheldon Wilson's Carny, ladies and gentlemen, might very well be the perfect SyFy/Sci Fi/Sci-Fi Channel movie, at least of the serious "monster munches through small town" variant. At the very least, it's among the best examples of the species I've yet encountered - I'm not sure I'd survive the joy if found one I enjoyed even more than this one.

Carny's just pretty much perfect as a clever little low budget monster movie in every respect. Wilson, working from a rather tight script written by Douglas G. Davis, is a deft hand at using visual short-hand and small bits of dialogue to do expository work, establishing character habits and expecting the audience to get them without feeling the need to point everything about its cast of small town characters out with grand gestures. Quite a few films of this type make their generally not very original characters less believable by having them talk everything out; Carny often just shows something. That doesn't sound like much, but it demonstrates a basic trust in Wilson's own abilities as visual storyteller, as well as in the audience not being too stupid to understand the basics of a monster movie without having them pointed out.

This approach leaves space for some advanced narrative elements, like actual subtext - if ever there was a SyFy Channel movie seriously sceptical of the kind of working class small town values these films generally espouse without demonizing every working class small town denizen, this surely is it - and the clever little touches that turn a competent little monster movie into something special. Just watch the Sheriff's first walk around the carnival, and try not to be impressed by how the film establishes Atlas as a good guy, not someone completely without prejudices but trying to work on that and the carnival people as protective of each other, because they are used to be treated with prejudices, without making everything too demonstrative.

I very much appreciate how messy the script is willing to keep everything, with the pastor and Cap both crazy men keeping their respective communities in line through fear - in the pastor's case, the fear of god and everyone who is different, in Cap's case the fear of (and often painful experience of) being mistreated for being different. Everyone in the movie is flawed, even our Sheriff hero, the difference just seems to be that some people are able to see their own flaws and try to work through them while others very much prefer a scapegoat. Carny is even willing to follow this line of thought into rather dark places for a SyFy movie, without laying it on too thick.

Whatever flaws the script has - let's be honest here, even carrying some thematic depth, the characters are still far from original and certainly rather on the broadly drawn side, and US small town horror is a sub-genre rather too common on screen and in print - the actors very much make up for. It's no surprise to anyone that much-loathed - but if you ask me just unlucky in his career - Lou Diamond Phillips was pretty much born to play this kind of laid-back, quietly competent small town sheriff. I am in fact quite sure that a mysterious fortune teller foresaw his fate as an actor when he was still a baby, and convinced his mother to proceed accordingly with his education, making him even more perfect for this kind of job.

However, the rest of the cast - probably not honed from birth for their parts - is equally wonderful for their roles, with Alan C. Peterson rendering his sleazy and absolutely ruthless carnival owner convincingly without resorting to too much scenery chewing. That part of the job is left to Vlasta Vrana, whose frequent outbreaks of melodramatics and loud preaching of nonsense should be ridiculous but really rather fit Carny's mood of macabre threat with a side dish of the quotidian turning a little bit mad.

Talking of said threat, the monster here is one of the better SyFy CGI (with a bit of practical effects magic in the appropriate places) creatures I've seen, with a simple yet cool design, showing little of the apparent sloppiness often characterizing this aspect of the Channel's movies. Even though it's pretty great, Wilson does put a lot of effort into not showing too much of his monster without resorting to overly fast editing, for once actually providing a SyFy monster with a feeling of menace.

Carny is also just very good at being an old-style creature feature, with just as much small, clever moments connected to the monster attacks as there are to the film's thematic interests. The finale is particularly cool, even turning towards a somewhat (small town) apocalyptic mood with excellent effect. The film's just lovely all around.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Strays (1991)

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

Even if your own sister is the real estate agent, the price of a house can still be too low. I don’t exactly know that Claire Lederer (Claudia Christian) doesn’t tell her sister Lindsey (Kathleen Quinlan) and her husband Paul Jarrett (Timothy Busfield) – who is also Claire’s divorce attorney – that the last owner of their new house out in the boons was an elderly cat lady who may or may not have been eaten by her cats after a particularly evil example pushed her down the cellar stairs, but I have my doubts. Anyway, the Jarretts and their tiny little daughter Tessa (Heather and Jessica Lilly) move in and are soon assailed by cat troubles. Now, you’d usually think that outrunning and outdriving a bunch of kittens shouldn’t be too difficult, but Shaun Cassidy’s script finds various contrived methods to keep the neighbourless place in the woods even more isolated – how about a phone repair person the alpha cat murders early on by, umm, I’m not sure, to be honest, and who will rot away in the Jarretts’ cellar for the next day without anyone noticing, and a tow truck tugging away the wrong car?

Apart from the poor working class guy, the cats mostly begin their campaign of terror by looking adorable, pissing on hubby’s wardrobe and attacking the family pooch, but after a little time, they do go on what goes for an all-out attack in a cat attack movie.

Let’s be honest here: horror films in which house cats are the main threat to people just don’t work. One of the reasons for this is the simple fact that about ninety-five percent of humanity could beat their house cat in a fightt, and we know it. Perhaps we’d end up a scratched up, and with a couple of bites that could potentially murder us via bacterial infection later on, but unless the cat is a cattician (or has the special abilities of the one in Tales from the Darkside), simple weight and size differences and the pesky laws of physics give our mewing friends bad chances at hunting us down. For a movie, with John McPherson’s made for the USA Network’s Strays certainly no exception, there’s not just plausibility and physics to conquer, but also the by now well-known fact that cats are not terribly cooperative actors. In Strays’ case, the evil alpha cat does act surprisingly cranky throughout, with its bad mood further enhanced by some bastard in the make-up department having mussed up its hair, but the kitty minions are mostly your typical horror movie evil cats, showing little to no aggressive body language, seldom getting up to anything better than looking adorable and pawing playfully at the camera. Unless the viewer is an ailurophobe, there’s really little to find threatening here.

The film’s not exactly helped by a script that not only suffers from too contrived attempts to isolate the characters and other moments that strain credibility a bit too far (would a mother really leave a child this young behind during a major cat attack like our heroine does?), but also includes an absolutely pointless subplot about Lindsey fearing Paul and Claire are stumbling into an affair, something that has no function in the plot nor any thematic import. The latter because there is no theme, apart from kittens being adorable. I’m also not sure why the film has three endings.

McPherson does try his best with what he is given. At least one of the cats is sort of threatening after all, the cast is perfectly decent (and would probably be actively good if there’d be only something to do for them), and at least the location and sets he has to work with are actually fit for their purpose. So he does what any decent director would do and aims for very traditional suspense beats, and ends on a mini siege (by kittens!) for his climax which takes place during a very atmospheric rain storm. He doesn’t exactly save the mostly dreadful script but certainly manages to turn it into a film that’s more watchable than not, even if it is as stupid as the day is long and features a highly adorable threat. Plus, the film is full of cute little kittens!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: Bridge Across Time (1985)

aka Terror at London Bridge

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

In the 60s, good old London Bridge was dismantled and parts of it shipped off to Arizona to become part of a partial reconstruction of the bridge using the original masonry crossing Lake Havasu. That’s the actual version of events; for the film at hand, the bridge was re-erected in Arizona stone for stone. Well, all but one stone that dropped into the Thames together with Jack the Ripper during a police chase, that is. Now, in 1985, this final stone has been found in London and is added to the Arizona version of the bridge with great fanfare. Alas, a female tourist bleeding on the stone revives old Jack who gets back to his old ways - except he’s not murdering prostitutes anymore but whatever woman he can find, has gone off the mutilation trip, even hides one of his victims, and well, honestly, doesn’t act like Jack the Ripper at all.

Anyway, the only criminological genius available in Lake Havasu’s Podunk tourist hellhole to solve the case is fresh Chicago import Don Gregory (David Hasselhoff). Don has the trauma obligatory to all cops after 1982 in his past, which in this case mean he shot a black kid he thought was holding a gun but who of course didn’t. For some reason (this is sarcasm, dear reader) Don didn’t land in prison but got a one month suspension for it. However, our protagonist turned out to actually have one of those conscience thingies police unions advise against, so he can’t cope with having to deal with guns anymore and left Chicago for supposedly more peaceful shores. Solving the pretty insane case and his trauma will of course not be Don’s only problem: the town fathers have a bad case of the Mayor of Amity, his boss (Clu Gulager) doesn’t like him (I can only assume he’s jealous of the Hoff Hair), and his new love interest (Stepfanie Kramer) is clearly only in the movie to be threatened by Jack in the end.

Given that this was written by well regarded horror writer William F. Nolan, it is a bit of a surprise that the weakest part Terror at London Bridge is indeed its writing. The script starts with a goofy idea, adds a barrel of clichés that were as ancient in 1985 as they are today, and can’t even get up to make its dialogue terribly amusing. The plot also suffers from having its protagonist stumbling around trying to find out things the audience knows from the beginning, resulting in quite a few moments where I mostly felt impatient for the Hoff to finally catch up. It’s not that this sort of structure cannot work, but it actually needs some element to keep an audience’s interest in the plot up, and there’s little of that to be found here.

That the film is still generally more entertaining than not is mostly thanks to its director E.W. Swackhammer. While Swackhammer may “only” have been a competent craftsman who shot whatever TV piece came his way, he’s an experienced hand at making decent entertainment out of the best parts of dubious material, so the handful of suspense scenes the script gives him are much more effective, at times even atmospheric, than they are goofy, and the obvious red herring character may be obvious, but is also presented as the sort of fun crazy person we all like to enliven movies of dubious intelligence.

Speaking of crazy, Hasselhoff does a pretty decent job throughout, clearly committing fully to the clichéd background of his character and laying his various emotional outbursts on so thick they are at least entertaining to watch throughout, be it when he makes the bug eyes of growing obsession, the bug eyes of Big Drama, or the bug eyes of love. His love interest as played by Kramer is alas pretty much a non-entity here (also thanks again to the script), while the more experienced actors – there are also Adrienne Barbeau as Kramer’s librarian-friend, and Lane Smith as the Mayor of Amity – do what they can to give their underwritten parts some punch.

And honestly, how couldn’t I be at least a little entertained by a film about the Knight Rider himself fighting Jack the Ripper in Arizona?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Accidental TV Movie Week: The Night Stalker (1972)

aka Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Accidental TV Movie Week is what happens when I read the excellent “Are You in the House Alone?” edited by blogger and podcaster Amanda Reyes and spend a week only watching the sort of US TV movie treated in the book. Don’t be afraid.

Let’s start this thing off with a classic, one of the handful of US TV movies known and loved even by those horror fans who have little interest in or knowledge of this specific side of the genre. As is often the case, find myself in between, by the way, a dabbler but neither completely clueless about nor a full-blooded fan of the classic US TV movie.

The Night Stalker’s plot is simple and to the point: dedicated reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) has been exiled to Las Vegas for his unwillingness to play politics as much as for his love for purposefully pissing off any authority figure he might encounter. Investigating a series of murders of young women that leave the victims without blood, many curious facts begin to add up to a crazy conviction – the killer is an actual vampire. The fact that the police will only ever half believe what is going on even once they have repeatedly encountered an inhumanly strong man impervious to bullets, and even if they do, won’t let any of this get in front of the eyes of the public (vampires are apparently bad for business), just might turn Kolchak into an improbable vampire hunter.

Apart from being straightforward (which doesn’t mean stupid, mind you), The Night Stalker’s plot has the distinction of being point-perfectly executed. Scripted by the great Richard Matheson (and produced by Dan Curtis, the patron saint of US TV horror of the 70s), the film is as tightly written as possible, exclusively consisting of scenes that move forward the plot and reveal character and explore the film’s themes, with no filler whatsoever. The dialogue, while always absolutely of its time, is always sharp, often funny, and provides information and flavour at the same time. Because this is Matheson at his very best, at least every second scene features an absolutely brilliant idea, just as brilliantly executed. If that sounds as if I’m laying it on a bit thick here, I’m not – this is as flawless a script as a viewer can ever hope to encounter, the sort of thing you’d wish any prospective writer of genre films would study closely.

Even better, the TV gods put the script in the hands of one of the most talented TV directors (whom I have once or twist in the past inexcusably belittled as merely dependable, but who was actually as brilliant a stylist as the rules of TV and TV production of the 70s allowed), John Llewellyn Moxey, a man who apparently recognized gold when he found it and treated it appropriately. So Matheson’s brilliance is treated with all the respect it deserves here, with Moxey delivering a series of very effective horror set pieces (the climax in the vampire’s genuinely creepy house with one particularly creepy detail being a particular favourite of mine), sharply shot dialogue scenes, and buckets of drive and atmosphere. The vampire (Barry Atwater) is genuinely wonderful too, with effective corpse-like make-up and even presenting a high degree of physical menace when he isn’t out-running cars or eating bullets.

The acting – featuring mainstays like Carol Lynley (as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail, who has the distinction of having a brain as well as of not being threatened by the vampire in the end), Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Elisha Cook Jr and Claude Akins – is absolutely on the level of the script too. McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak is fantastic, managing to keep the guy likeable while also being honest about how much of a pain in the butt he must be for everyone around him. Usually, a character who is right about everything and very loud about it should be perfectly insufferable, speaking truth to power or not, but Kolchak even at his smuggest also has a difficult to define quality of vulnerability under all of his swagger, created by McGavin and Matheson in concert.

So obviously, I think The Night Stalker is the masterpiece everyone says it is. Much of the rest of films I’ll talk about during this week (and the overflow of TV movies you can expect coming up during the next half year or so) of TV movies won’t be able to hold up to these standards to various degrees, but that’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed or disappointed about, for when it comes to intelligent yet pulpy 70s horror, this is one of the touchstones.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beyond Skyline (2017)

Warning: I’ll not be able to help myself and spoil all sorts of things this time around!

Remember the eminently forgettable invasion of Los Angeles (which in this sort of film is the world, because who cares about the rest of us, right?) that took place in the decided non-classic Skyline? Well, Beyond Skyline takes place on the eve of that very same invasion, but instead of some hipster yuppies, we follow the adventures of Mark (Frank Grillo), cop on leave with a tragic past. First, he only has to get his son Trent (Jonny Weston) out of custody again, but then the invasion strikes and he needs to go all out fighting for his life and the life of his son, teaming up with subway train driver Audrey (Bojana Novakovic), homeless blind war vet Sarge (Antonio Fargas!) and other people who get killed too early for me to care to keep track of their names.

And that’s just before the really weird stuff happens, which includes misadventures on the alien ship, a team-up with the protagonist of the first Skyline who is basically an ickier Kamen Rider without the motorcycle and the henshin now, and a crash-landing in an Indonesian action flick with Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian and Pamelyn Chee. Apparently, if you really want to fight back an alien invasion, get them to Indonesia.

This is The Purge all over again: just like with that other franchise, a pedestrian, unoriginal and just a bit boring first movie is followed by a sequel that is a box of candy-coloured, internationally minded fun and Frank Grillo.

Now, obviously, Liam O’Donnell’s (who wrote the first Skyline) film won’t impress people looking for an intelligent, incisive alien invasion film, because it is the purest popcorn cinema. If you want to call a film pure that not only uses elements of most of the alien invasion flicks of the last twenty years (without any “they are among us” elements, of course, because that’d need subtlety), and lets them collide with Indonesian style action cinema – while showing the good taste to hire the right actors for that part of the film – but also shows an ever increasing influence by tokusatsu and even has a mecha battle in its finale. That’s before the film’s epilogue which promises space opera for the probably never coming sequel.

I’m not going to pretend O’Donnell creates this Frankenstein monster-like film with taste (well, neither did the good Doctor), but there’s enough panache and sheer fun with cheese, silliness and all the good stuff of cool violence in cinema on the screen to make up for much greater sins. Plus, once Beyond Skyline really gets going, it doesn’t pause for a second anymore, so that a finale – taking place in front of very picturesque Indonesian temple ruins – that features Iko Uwais hacking aliens into pieces, Yayan Ruhian fighting on even when he’s lost an arm (one supposes it was just a scratch), a tiny mass panic and a just as tiny mass battle, a bad piloted organic mecha and a good piloted mecha slugging it out, a chosen child with vague genetic powers (oh, did I not mention the “save the baby” plotline?), and Frank Grillo being nearly as awesome as Uwais, just feels like the logical consequence of what came before. Well, perhaps not logical, but you know what I mean.

Given its comparatively small budget of apparently around 15 million dollars (which as it seems – and alas – it did not pull back, at least in the US), the special effects are pretty fantastic (if you’re okay with bargain basement Giger design, and who wouldn’t be?), as is the action choreography. What really had me grinning with delight for most of the running time, though, was the sheer willingness of the thing to just go there (as well as to Indonesia for the production value and the Uwais star power) and put a lurid, enthusiastic pulp fantasy on display that by all rights should be loved by anyone who loves classic genre movie values.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: It's Great...It's Grand...It's Glorious!

Flatliners (2017): The best thing I can say about this remake of the Joel Schumacher joint is that it does make the original movie look quite a bit better than it actually is. Schumacher’s film does at least have a sense of style (even if it is tacky and pretty nonsensical) whereas Niels Arden Oplev’s version of the tale of insipid supposed medical students making deeply idiotic afterlife experiments they wouldn’t have gotten away with in a 60s Italian Gothic is just boringly slick – generally boring too at that – without much of a point beside some hand-wavy moralizing that comes over about as convincing and honest as a used car salesman, and lacking in any kind of personality. This is the sort of film that could have been written and directed by basically everyone and comes as close to anonymous filmmaking as you’ll get. It is also just not very interesting.

Hotarubo no Mori e aka Light of a Firefly Forest (2011): Ironically, enough, the two drawn main characters in this short anime by Takahiro Omori, are much more convincing as people than the underused cast of Flatliners 2017. At its core this is a melancholic story about unhappy love, a girl growing up, and yokai, filling its forty minute running time with a soft sense of visual poetry and light, and actual emotions that aren’t at all in conflict with the magic at the core of the tale. It is very much inspired by folklore, suffused by a nostalgic longing for the wonders of the countryside but where this sort of thing could easily feel conservative and a bit lifeless, Omori reaches an air of timelessness without even seeming to have to try very hard.

The Harrow (2016): Not bad at all is this Southern low key psychological ghost story directed by Kevin Stocklin. It’s clearly made on an actual indie budget (I’m not talking Miramax here), but the acting is always at least decent, often better, the pacing is slow but in a properly thought-through manner, and the script – even though it contains a plot twist – is intelligent if not overly original.

It’s the sort of film that seems perfectly knowledgeable of which of its potential ambitions it can actually fulfil and goes for that, and only that, ambition with the kind of focus that gives a film grace even if its budget is showing from time to time.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Grave Encounters (2011)

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

(Don't) stop me if you've heard this one before. The footage Grave Encounters consists of is purportedly edited down from footage shot by the team of the ghost hunting TV show "Grave Encounters" during the filming of their rather fatal sixth episode.

An appropriately smug and somewhat cynical team of five (Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray and Juan Riedinger) sets out to spend a night locked in one of those creepy former asylums for the mentally ill that dot the US landscape (at least if I can believe what the horror movies - who clearly wouldn't lie to me - tell me). The ghost hunters don't go in expecting to actually find anything supernatural, obviously, but as long as they can pretend to be creeped out, it'll be good, successful reality TV, right?

Fortunately for the movie's audience, and very unfortunately for the film's protagonists, they will encounter quite a bit more paranormal activity than they ever could have expected or wished for. And while the things the crew first encounters, like doors moving by themselves, may only be a little creepy, later developments have a much more dangerous and disturbing bend. Clearly, not everybody - if anybody - will make it out of the place alive.

By now, I think, there are enough found footage/fake documentary/POV horror movies about ghost hunting TV people around to make up their own little sub-sub-genre. Unlike the other films of this sort I had the dubious honour of watching, Grave Encounters is actually a pretty good film.

The film does of course have its share of flaws. I think the interview parts before the crew is locked in could have been cut down a little, to make the film's start a little pacier. As it stands, the actual meat of the narrative begins about forty minutes into the film, just at the point when I was beginning to lose my patience with it a little.

I also could have gone without the overuse of the jerky zoom lens style in the interview sequences - it's the sort of thing nobody holding a camera in a professional or semi-professional capacity actually does (not even the directors of photography of ghost hunting reality shows), and it threatens the poor helpless audience with seasickness. Once the interview segments are over, the zoom lens is fortunately retired forever, so I'm not even sure why it's used this extensively early on at all.

Grave Encounter's biggest problem is probably the quality of its special effects. About half of the effects do actually look pretty decent to my eyes, but the other half (let me just say big-mouthed ghosts) looks too much like bad digital fakery and too little like terrible things from beyond. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that this is strictly a low budget affair, and even when the execution of the effects seems problematic, they're usually trying to show something creepy or conceptually interesting. When in doubt, I take a badly realized but interesting thing over something that looks slick but is basically boring.

As far as flaws in independently produced horror go, these are rather minor ones, and they are overshadowed by the things Grave Encounters' directors - going under the somewhat silly moniker The Vicious Brothers - do right.

Prime among things that the film does right is the way it treats its characters. Even though they are presented as slightly pompous and deeply dishonest towards their audience (I think this is what people call realism), the film still allows them more than enough sympathetic traits to make it easy for an audience (or at least me) to empathize with them. I'm not talking great character depth here - I doubt great character depth is anything POV horror can even achieve - but enough depth to make the characters human. The script certainly gets help here by actors who may be a little broad in their approach sometimes but are pretty good at switching from their early on-camera ghost hunting pomposity to people completely out of their depth and scared out of their wits.

Some of the things our not so intrepid protagonists have to face are pretty scary on a conceptual and on a concrete level, but even when they only encounter standard ghosts, these are standard ghosts doing ghostly things thematically appropriate for an empty asylum setting. These activities can't help but add a historical dimension to the ghosts, making them not just disquieting or frightening for the things they do to others, but also the things that have been done to them; a victim turned into a monster by outside forces is often more effective than a mere monster.

Aside from ghosts, though, there are also a few things making the protagonists' lives harder that come from the Weirder side of the tracks than mere dead people walking around being rude. The Vicious Brothers do some very effective things with temporal and spatial anomalies that suggest the influence of Daniel Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. It's exactly elements like these nods to Danielewski what most films of the contemporary (post-crappy-Paranormal-Activity, in contrast to the post-Blair Witch one) POV horror genre are too often missing for my taste. Hauntings of this kind are visually cheap to realize and give a film an added dimension of the frighteningly strange and unreal that rubs nicely against the hyper-realism of the POV-form, but I'm afraid too many horror directors working right now are in love with the straightforwardly scary.

Consequently, I'm glad that Grave Encounters dares to be this decisive bit different from its brethren. Now, where did I leave that EMP-meter?