The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat
Apr. 10th, 2019
11:46 am - For clarity's sake
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(This blog is licensed under a Creative-Commons-Licence).
Feb. 11th, 2016
09:22 pm - In short: Prom Night (1980)
A few years before the start of the film, and therefore pre-DISCO, a quartet of children kinda-sorta accidentally murdered one of their own. Being kids and all, they just run and pretend it didn’t happen, even when an innocent man is blamed for their crime and is horribly injured in a car chase. The supposed murderer has spent the last six years in a mental institution, but now he’s broken out, and he may or may not be out for vengeance.
He’s just in time for the anniversary of the death, too. Well, that and for prom night in the high school the now older kids go to. And look at that, someone wearing a glittering ski mask is carving a violent path through the kids and a couple of innocent bystanders! But is it truly that guy or someone else the film hasn’t spent more than a minute on before doing the deeds? And will the dead girl’s sister Kim – who didn’t have anything to do with the death – do what characters played by Jamie Lee Curtis in slasher movies do?
To be frank, no, she won’t exactly, for Paul Lynch’s Prom Night might want to drink from the money well of the slasher (there is such a thing, yes), yet is only beholden to parts of the more traditional slasher tropes. It’s a bit of a shame the film does eschew an actual final girl scene while keeping the obsession with the virginity of its characters (even though virgins die here too), but what can you do? In other regards, it’s a pretty typical slasher in form and function, though one that doesn’t go for much gore. One is nearly tempted to call the film classy, but then the next virginity discussion comes around, and I’m more tempted to call it fluctuating between squeamish and exploitative. So, it is a typical slasher.
Despite that, and the expected at times sloppy writing, the film still belongs in the upper third of films of the early slasher boom, mostly on the strength of some decent acting, a cast of characters you don’t necessarily want to see die in horrible ways, and first and foremost some damn good stalking scenes that make it a double shame the film doesn’t have a true final girl fight in the end. Lynch – assisted by Robert C. New’s cinematography and a string-heavy score by Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer – shows himself highly adept at the classical suspense notions these scenes live on. The movement of characters into ever more tight and threatening spaces can hardly be done more effective than in the scene where Anne-Marie Martin kicks the bucket.
If that’s just not enough for a discerning viewer, Prom Night also recommends itself with a mind-blowing scene of disco dancing Mithun Chakraborty would be proud of, yet no words could describe appropriately, and a little finale between axe murderer and victims also set to the oh so appropriate tones of DISCO!
01:20 am - Momentum (2015)
Alex Farraday (Olga Kurylenko) is helping out her former boyfriend with a little bank robbery on demand. It’s the sort of affair where one dresses in what we in the business call space ninja suits. Despite Alex being really good at penetration (yes, that’s what the film will later tell us, and not with a joking face on), things don’t go too well: one of the other bank robbers loses control so much she rather shoots him than let him kill an innocent. To add insult to injury she loses her mask during the altercation.
Afterwards, when our heroine is trying to relax a little before she can flee the country with her own little sack full of diamonds, things go from bad to worse. Turns out, the evil US senator (Morgan Freeman with a screen time of at least three minutes) who hired them wasn’t actually interested in diamonds or money so much as in a little USB drive that contains information he’d really rather not see going public. He’s also little interested in having loose ends, so he sends out evil Mr. Washington (James Purefoy overacting rip-roaringly and assuming an accent that might supposed to be German or Afrikaans or Dutch or Elvish) and his multi-racial, gender-progressive gang of henchpeople to cut them off.
Boyfriend doesn’t survive the night, but Alex – no surprise with her action movie protagonist name – makes Washington’s business very, very difficult. Turns out she isn’t just good at getting into places but has superior ass-kicking powers as well as a penchant for improbable plans that somehow work against all sanity and logic.
Basically, Stephen S. Campanelli’s Momentum already had me at least half way at Olga Kurylenko and James Purefoy, both the sort of somewhat luckless actors who’ll appear in just about anything and always put their game faces on – no matter if they are in a mid-level action movie like this one or a mid-brow costume drama. As a viewer of much crap, I appreciate actors who do get their hands dirty to make my life that much more enjoyable.
In Momentum’s particular case, Purefoy goes the well-worn route of portraying his bad guy exaltedly insane to the border of high silliness I generally hope for from the big bad in my silly action movies, while Kurylenko once again demonstrates she makes for a pretty fun action heroine and can act other emotional states than angry and determined your typical male action movie star will have his troubles with (I love my Jean-Claudes, and Dolphs and so on, but you gotta be realistic). Fortunately, the film uses that ability rather sparingly and doesn’t fall into the horrid mistake of making an action movie with a female lead “more relatable” by having her cry a lot, because girls are supposed to be like that.
In fact, and to my delight, Momentum doesn’t play up Kurylenko’s gender at all but just – correctly – assumes it’s normal for a female character to go through the same action movie hero tropes and plot beats a male character would have to. Why, the film even gets away with a bit of child protecting business without drawing on the typical and often very annoying mythical “motherly feelings” supposedly slumbering in all of them thar wimmin.
When it comes to the action, Campanelli – and very rightly so – bets on variety, including the by now traditional cat and mouse game in a hotel, car chases, wild shoot-outs and some rather fine close combat, as well as scenes in classic thriller and suspense tradition (though louder) with a tiny bit of the conspiracy thriller for added flavour. Campanelli’s direction thankfully eschews the flash cut and whoosh zoom aesthetic that has ruined many a US action film over the last two decades or so. The action is fast, it’s professionally staged and generally exciting (if not breath-taking), and thanks to Campanelli’s efforts, you can actually see much of the stunt work. The man’s no Isaac Florentine, obviously, but he clearly knows what he’s doing, and does it in an enjoyable way.
I should probably comment on the plot and the characters, but as it goes with this sort of film, looking for a logical narrative and deep characterisation seems to me to be rather beside the point. Let’s just say the action scenes are connected via vaguely sensible (if you don’t stop and think about them) developments, Kurylenko’s character moments are well enough placed, and the ending’s a curious attempt at either being ambiguous or attempting to hawk a sequel that won’t come (because people rather preferred the showy and offensively stupid John Wick with that wooden puppet in the lead to a decent film, I suppose). That’s enough for me, particularly in a film that does its work of letting people die in creative ways and furniture explode as well as Momentum does.
Feb. 9th, 2016
11:12 pm - In short: The Borrower (1991)
Some alien insect species (so Lovecraft was right) banishes one of their greatest serial killers to earth “devolving” him into a human. Here, the charming guy goes right on with the killing. The problems of the devolution process do make his life rather difficult, though, so he not only murders people but also steals their heads and wears them as his own. As you do.
Diane Pierce (Raw Dawn Chong), a cop slowly despairing at the world (or the state of New York), kinda-sorta gets on the killer’s trail, but saying she actually investigates the case or is hunting the alien would say too much. She’s a bit distracted by hunting human rapist and serial killer Scully (Neil Giuntoli), though here too, the film doesn’t show her doing much actual investigating. Of course, Scully’s head is going to end up on the alien in the end, but as with everything else, The Borrower gets to that point slowly, and in the least dramatic way possible.
I’m not surprised that John McNaughton chose to make something completely different in tone and style as his next film after his masterpiece Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed by the mediocrity of this horror/SF/comedy/cop movie hybrid thing. It’s not as if there weren’t any cheesy, entertainingly gory or just plain weird scenes in the film, or that it didn’t include some poignant scenes of urban decay. These are all there and accounted for, but there’s no visible effort at all put into actually turning the random assemblage of scenes into a narrative, or much of a movie.
In fact, the script seems to go out of its way to half-arse even the most obvious dramatic beats, generally starting off with something nice, cool, or interesting and then doing fuck all with it. It is, for example, pretty wonderful to find an early 90s genre movie from the US having a female protagonist, an African American one to boot, and even better, one that doesn’t have to prove her worth to anyone. It’s much less wonderful to then find this purported protagonist of the film never actually doing much of anything apart from wandering around looking miffed and a bit bored – and who can blame her, with her only actual confrontation with the alien taking up all of five minutes and leading up to one of the laziest endings one could imagine.
This isn’t an exception in The Borrower either, for if ever there was a script to call lazy, this one’s it. So how, just to make another example, do you get the alien and the human killer together for the head-exchange? Why, you just put them in the same morgue, of course, because screw drama, screw thematic resonance, who wants to write this damn movie anyway! If I sound offended by the quality of The Borrower’s writing, that’s because I am. There’s absolutely no need for it to be quite this lacking, and in result for the film as a whole to be quite this half-arsed. This isn’t shot in Mom’s backyard, after all, or made by people who don’t know how to point a camera in the right direction, and still it very much feels like it were.
Feb. 8th, 2016
06:53 pm - Music Monday: Weather Edition
Feb. 6th, 2016
10:29 pm - In short: A Wicked Within (2015)
One Dr. Woods (Eric Roberts cashing in his usual pay check for one day or so of work) is interviewing the survivors of a family meeting that ended with quite a few dead bodies. During the course of these interviews, Woods uncovers a story he quite understandably doesn’t believe. Looks like family member Bethany (Sienna Guillory) came down with a bout of demonic possession during the proceedings, adding all manner of fun stuff to the usual mix of secrets and lies dominating this charming little family.
It looks like I’m not the only one who always asked himself when watching another movie about a bourgeois family unit breaking down during some sort of family meet-up, “how much more fun would this be with demonic possession?”, for verily, director Jay Alaimo and writer Stephen Wallis made exactly that film, and it turns out to be rather great, or at the very least damnably entertaining.
This is not one of those psychological horror films that take ages to get going, nor one of these exorcism films that get to the fun stuff only an hour in: after thirty minutes, we’re already at the point where the family calls in a very matter-of-fact psychic (Sarah Lassez), and about fifteen minutes later, a not terribly competent priest (Heath Freeman) arrives. A Wicked Within sure isn’t fucking around except (perhaps) in a framing device that really rather reminded me of The Unusual Suspects, just not as cleverly used and with a lot more Eric Roberts than can be good for your health. That framing device, though, is quite useful for the film’s theological high concept, so there’s something more to it than mere Roberts-ploitation.
Anyway, the film starts really fast, drops the family’s dirty laundry quickly on the audience’s doorstep, and doesn’t stop for breathe at all, achieving a flow of pleasant hysteria, flying urns, and so on and so forth with such great enthusiasm even a confessed exorcism horror party pooper like me can’t help but have a lot of fun. Parts of the film are – true to the title - wickedly funny, some of it are fun, and some of it even demonstrates the filmmakers did think about what possession in the world of their film is actually good for.
This approach doesn’t lend itself to a film that’s very uncanny or creepy, but sometimes hysteria is just as good an emotional anchor for a horror film, particularly one featuring not just an entertaining ensemble cast (apart from the actors already mentioned Giannia Capaldi, Enzo Cilenti, Michele Hicks, Sonja Kinski and Karen Austin) but a particularly spirited possessed performance by Sienna Guillory who does all the spitting and gnashing of teeth, the writhing (sexualized and not), the cajoling, the sudden breakdowns into human fragility, and so on, and so forth with wonderful commitment and the kind of pizazz this sort of thing really needs, turning out one of my favourite possessed bits in any movie.
Feb. 5th, 2016
Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.
Rufus, the patriarch of the Sinclair family, is laid to rest in the family mausoleum. Nobody seems all that shaken by the old man's death, in fact, it would be difficult not to diagnose the bereaved with a certain amount of happiness. If we can believe their tales, Rufus must have been something of a sadist and a madman, making the life of his wife Abigail (Helen Warren) and that of their children a living hell. Which is not something I'd recommend to people like Rufus who have an uncommon physical illness that makes them prone to seem quite dead when they are still most definitely not, awaking fears of being buried alive. He might have set down certain security measures against it in his will, but no one is actually willing to take them. As you might have guessed, the Sinclair family is about as pleasant as Rufus himself was, with the exception of cousin Robert (Dino Narizzano), the boyfriend of Benson's daughter Deborah (Carnival of Souls' Candace Hilligoss in her completely forgettable other role). He's the young, bland guy the gothic trappings require to survive everything on account of the power of pure, concentrated boringness.
The opening of the will by family lawyer Benson (Hugh Franklin) doesn't go well, anyway, because the will also keeps the money out of the family's hands for a whole year, to make sure Rufus is truly dead. Oh, and by the way, dear children, if you are not doing what I told you, I'll come back from the dead and kill you all after a fashion based on your worst fears.
Obviously, it comes like it has to come - the old man's coffin is soon empty and a disguised figure is slaughtering the charming family one by one. The family calls the local chapter of the keystone cops, but those aren't of much help to anyone, so it's either up to alcoholic son Philip (a young Roy Scheider) or the bland one to step up to the occasion.
And lo! It happened that AIP made a shedload of money with Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and the early Gothics of Mario Bava. And Del Tenney said "I want some of that money too!", and decided to make his own little Gothic picture on the grounds of his father-in-law's highly photogenic property. But something strange and terrifying happened to Tenney. We are not sure if it was a sudden bout of artistic ambition or just a knock on the head with the rubber suit out of his The Horror of Party Beach, but in any case, Tenney suddenly developed the idea of making a cheap knock-off that was also trying to emulate the visual flair of the films (in a sense cheap knock-offs themselves) it stole its ideas from.
So the courageous viewer of Curse of the Living Corpse is confronted with things he won't usually connect with Tenney's handful of films - carefully constructed shots, rather thoughtful framing and effectively moody outside locations. It is really impressive to look at, and even though the sets used for inside shots are a little drab and perfunctory, Tenney (or is director of photography Richard Hilliard to praise?) for once films in a way developed to cover up these limitations.
Alas, while Tenney the director is showing actual artistic development from his earlier films, Tenney the scriptwriter isn't able to rise to the occasion. The script's weakest point is the terrible dialogue, obviously based on the way people in Corman's Poe adaptations speak, but Tenney is neither Charles Beaumont nor Richard Matheson and decides to turn the dialogue up to a crescendo of unbelievable stiffness that is at times difficult to stomach. It is the way stupid people think cultured people of the 1890s used to sound, I suppose.
The dialogue's weakness is quite a shame, too, because the basic character concepts that are lost among all the monologizing aren't bad at all. As a matter of fact, they remind me of the giallo principle of packing your cast full of the most unpleasant people you could imagine (and aren't all rich people unpleasant and of dubious morals, young grasshopper?), giving them more psycho-sexual hang-ups than necessary or in good taste and then killing them off in even more unpleasant ways. The slightly cruel streak as well as the violent-for-its-time murder scenes also give up a whiff of American proto-giallo (more than of proto-slasher), just less class-conscious and less willing to really go to the unpleasant places.
Pacing is of course also a problem. The film is money-savingly talky, something I am willing to tolerate, but also cursed with a bad sense of timing that usually puts the most annoying comic relief imaginable right after a scene that is atmospheric and immersive, as if something in Tenney just couldn't abide the thought of his audience actually being interested in his film, or even thrilled by it.
Acting wise, Curse of the Living Corpse is better than one would expect of a film that affords its - obviously not costly - cast to speak dialogue this stiff with fake English accents. Sure, the accents are sometimes off, but very tolerable, and most everyone does her or his role with solidity. Scheider and his film wife (and Tenney's real life wife) Margot Hartman are even rather good, obviously having fun with being less than pleasant human beings.
The three (oh yes, the humour is so painful it had to be divided between three people, or someone would have died from it) comic relief actors are of quite a different calibre, of course, even making me think wistfully of people like Johnny Walker (at least not, fortunately, of Jagdeep), but when has the odious comic relief ever been well acted, not to speak of funny?
All of this might make the film sound a lot worse than the experience watching it was for me, but I am a fan of Gothic and mock-Gothic horror and therefore easy to please in this regard. Your personal mileage will certainly depend on your love for Gothic tropes.
Feb. 4th, 2016
Clearly, not at all named with any hopes in mind people might confuse it with a certain Twilight Zone episode, oh no.
An extra flight – therefore populated with few enough characters from the disaster movie playbook we’ll get to know them all, yay! – from London to L.A. runs into a spot of trouble. Nope, it’s not just William Shatner’s acting as a defrocked priest (though it is indeed hilarious enough to be dangerous to the weak of mind – see also, Things Man Was Not Meant To Know) that’s the problem here. Part of the plane’s cargo consists of altar pieces taken from an old English abbey, and as every reader of Jamesian ghost stories knows, that sort of thing can only lead to danger. This particular altar also includes a former Druidic sacrificial slab, so soon, women are speaking in Latin, the cargo hold freezes, and the plane isn’t moving very far any more.
What follows is mostly a competition between the actors concerning who can chew the horrible 70s psycho-babble dialogue the best/worst, some moments of “people not played by Paul Winfield become utter shites when under pressure”, and a lot of wind noises with a bit of added chanting.
As far as US 70s TV horror movies go, David Lowell Rich’s epic isn’t anything special. There’s little of the cleverness and actual sense for the creepy films like Gargoyles knew on display here, with Rich fumbling every possible fright scene through his nearly improbable bland professionalism. The script buries the seeds for what could be a cool little British style ghost story - but on a plane! -, or for an interesting little film about the differences between superstition and faith and what happens when these collide with something supernatural you really shouldn’t pray to, under a few too many 70s disaster movie clichés, the already mentioned psycho-babble (where today’s TV is inordinately fond of clever quips, the 70s just loved to pretend to psychological depth by people spouting self-help book nonsense), and a haunting so hokey it’s pretty darn impossible not to use that dreaded word “camp” (the horror!). It’s rather frustrating, really, particularly once the film gets around to theoretically incredibly resonant scenes like the passengers preparing a doll as a symbolic sacrifice, and just buries them under the all-around hokum.
That impression of camp is certainly not dispelled by half a dozen actors fighting to out-act one another as outrageously as possible, resulting in so many bugged eyes, melodramatic pauses and weird line deliveries William Shatner’s acting approach here impresses as downright subtle, something that is bound to convince even a hardened sceptic like me of the existence of the supernatural.
Feb. 3rd, 2016
09:00 pm - Cold Harvest (1999)
Welcome to the double-apocalypse post-apocalypse. First, a comet collided with Earth hiding the sun away behind eternal clouds that just happen to make a film shot in the studio much more believable (in theory). Then, a mysterious virus with symptoms so mysterious the film never shows them or tells us about them rolled around to mop up the rest of humanity. In the end, it’s all darkness, people dressed in your typical post-apocalyptic rags (extra cheap edition) and something called “The Safe Zone”, whatever it may be.
Roland Chaney (Gary Daniels) roams decidedly not safe zones as a bounty hunter, for the world seems to have returned to some kind of frontier law. Being our action movie hero, Roland is of course haunted by a dark past. Things do not get lighter when hilariously sadist evildoer and Chaney childhood playmate Little Ray (Bryan Genesse) ambushes a government convoy in the hopes of picking up some goodies. Instead, he kills a bunch of civilians, as well as Roland’s twin Oliver (guess). Only Oliver’s wife Christine (Barbara Crampton) escapes.
Turns out Little Ray’s murder spree was an even worse idea than your typical murder spree, for the civilians in the convoy were the only surviving carriers of a gene that could make the virus a thing of the past. Thanks to a tracking device with extremely vague operational parameters, Ray follows Christine in the hopes of selling her on to the government; possibly after having had his way with her.
Too bad for him Christine and Roland meet and team up, and Roland’s the kind of bounty-hunting ass-kicker you really don’t want protecting your dedicated victim. Much violence, kidnappings, and a few explosions ensue.
I don’t think Cold Harvest is the biggest milestone in director Isaac Florentine’s decades-long crusade to make US direct-to-video action and martial arts films that are actually worth watching, carry a consciousness of genre history, and handle genre tropes knowingly yet lovingly. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a fun movie. In fact, it’s rather a lot of fun, but it does have a couple of problems.
For one, the post-apocalyptic world the NuImage budget provides is the usual mix of abandoned industrial buildings, and grotty sets, just with no lights in the sky (yet still an abundance of working light sources) and as such not exactly a delight to look at – it’s more than just a bit drab, and there’s very little to actually gawk at. Secondly – and I’m sorry, Gary Daniels fans – dear Gary Daniels only barely manages to get through the moments when the film actually needs him to act (and the script does take care not to put that much of a strain on him), even in scenes where saintly Barbara Crampton puts in rather a lot of effort to make him look good.
Which of course already leads us to some of Cold Harvest’s strong points, namely, Barbara Crampton who’d lighten up a shitty film and surely doesn’t do less to a really fun one like this, Gary Daniels when he’s not acting but hitting, kicking, shooting and pitchfork-ening people, and Isaac Florentine, esquire.
I’m not even sure it’s still necessary for me to praise Florentine’s action direction, but I’ll do it just to be sure: as usual, Florentine’s action scenes are incredibly energetic – it’s difficult not to use the old cliché of them exploding off the screen – yet never feel the need to go for the “cool” cop out shot that makes it more difficult to see what stunt actors and actors are actually doing. The basis of Florentine’s approach to action is based on the idea that the stuff his performers actually do is as cool as things can get, and it is his job to emphasise what they can do instead of hiding what they can’t. This time around, the style feels particularly Hong Kong to me, with 80s and 90s martial arts scenes and gun fu with a Western genre influence being the centre of Florentine’s attention. There’s a lot of action going around too, of course, but, as always, Florentine’s putting creativity and thought into the bits where nobody dies too.
Sure, the emotional parts are consciously cheesy (just look at the hilarious bit where Crampton washes her back while Daniels polishes his gun and watches her in a mirror and oh so many ever so slightly sexually loaded gestures are made) but then, that’s the only emotional content that fits a film like this.
Other joys are Genesse’s awesome and strange performance as Little Ray, a main henchman who is into noses (don’t ask him why), and a whole lot of overdubbed whoosh and swish noises. Turns out Gary Daniels can’t turn his head without the air around him going “woosh” in sheer excitement. And who could blame it?
Feb. 2nd, 2016
Unnatural (2015): So, how to prepare our dear animals for the horrors of climate change? One fine corporation says: genetic chimeras are the way to go, so let’s say hello to a polar bear with some wolf genes. Whoops, turns out you only get an animal attack horror movie out of that (they might perhaps have experimented on tiny little rabbits?). Consequently, a handful of people in a resort hut in the wintery wilderness of Alaska get eaten.
The resulting film is an okay, but most definitely not spectacular entry in its genre, with James Remar being quite overqualified for what he’s asked to do in the lead, an adorable bear thing, a bunch of decent actors having little to do, and few news for anyone who has seen this sort of film before. There are some laudable attempts at emphasising the mental strain on the characters, but the writing’s not really sharp or deep enough for that to lead anywhere interesting, and Hank Braxtan’s direction is too bland to at least milk the stuff for melodrama.
Demon Keeper (1994): How can you go wrong with the good old “demon drives boring rich people trapped in a house to deeds of sex and violence” set-up? Well, for starters, keeps the demon’s shenanigans as boring as possible, do not dare to make any scene of the demon tempting someone even mildly interesting, or tempting, or kinky, or anything else that might keep an audience awake. Then, never actually make anything of the opportunities your character set-up provides for giallo-esque wallowing in decadence or pseudo-decadence. Finish it off with some of the least interesting bits of “eroticism” you can imagine, and not even Dirk Benedict hamming it up as a medium and secret horror star Edward Albert can save your movie.
Monster in the Closet (1986): I’ve repeatedly gone on record with not being too fond of Troma’s particular brand of cheese. An overdeveloped self-consciousness with an underdeveloped sense of trying to make a film that isn’t actually crap will do that to me.
However, Bob Dahlin’s closet-based monster movie is one of the great exceptions to the rule for me, mostly because its self-consciousness doesn’t result in self-sabotage, and because it feels like it tries to be a parody of classic monster movies first and a Troma brand film second, so it comes by its weirdness the honest way.
And what a charming monster movie parody it is, often very cleverly playing with the tone of the original films, sometimes drifting off in pretty goofy and peculiar directions, sometimes subverting pretty annoying classic tropes, and sometimes just farting around rather adorably.
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