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).
Dec. 1st, 2015
09:19 pm - Berserker: The Nordic Curse (1987)
Warning: I’m going to get a bit spoilery here; on the other hand it’s going to be one of the spoiled elements that’ll be the film’s main draw for most potential viewers (you know who you are).
A bunch of the usual young ‘un stereotypes go fishing and hut dwelling in your usual dark woods somewhere in the United States. George “Buck” Flower is playing a guy called Pappy Nyquist; a police man exists (John F. Goff). One of the kids (character and actor names aren’t really needed) – the Intellectual, obviously – reads from a book about the Vikings, because the local area had mostly been settled by Norwegians. From him, we learn a bit about berserkers, specifically a curse that opens up the descendants of berserker bloodlines to possession by berserker ghosts. Oh boy, history can be so exciting.
And wouldn’t you know it? There is indeed someone or something with a bear snout and paws going around killing people in the area. Is it a berserker, or the bear the film shows off from time to time?
In many aspects, Jefferson Richard’s Berserker is your typical middle-80s (the point just before the films became all “funny”) low budget independent slasher movie. There are the paper thin characters embodied by actors with little experience and not much of a future in that career, the oh-so-very-slow first half of the film that spends a lot of time on things like showing the cop and Flower playing chess, or people just goofing around in front of the camera for no reason of narrative, mood, or character.
However, despite these not very enticing elements, Berserker has that peculiar something – call it magic – that made watching it a more pleasant experience than I’d feared. Some of that is caused by some actual filmic achievements, for Richard, particular once the plot gets going, does know how to shoot an (improbably bright by night) wood with all the atmosphere mist, blue light and a primitive (in a good way) soundtrack made out of fake wind noises and random synth warbling can provide, which is an excellent way to make something out of the best production values nature (and cheap electronics) can provide. Done right, and it is done right in this case, watching kids creep through the woods and getting murdered can provide a lot of bang for one’s buck, and doesn’t ever get old to my eyes (particularly since the advent of corridor horror redefined true visual boredom, or horror). What I’m saying, I think, is that the later parts of the film show a bit of a sensibility all its own. Let’s called it individuality. For an example, just look at how creepily it realizes the old tacky chestnut of the sex scene intercut with a murder scene. It’s not exactly tasteful, but it certainly works better at making me uncomfortable than a lot of these scenes do in other movies; most probably because Richard even mirrors the camera angles of the two scenes appropriately, really making the old sex and death story work for him.
There are also some surprises to the script: the way the film takes elements of slasher, nature strikes back horror, and some survivalist thriller bits is actually pretty clever, and leads to some truly unexpected scenes. In particular, it’s the scene where our film’s killer in his partial bear cosplay costume gets to wrestle a bear, a scene that nearly gives Leslie Nielsen mud-wrestling a bear in Day of the Animals a run for its money. And that’s not even the film’s actual climax, because that somewhat later scene aims for a bit of 70s horror feel, with our heroine (more or less) screeching “shoot him! shoot him!” until the rather doubtful looking cop indeed does shoot our killer. In other words, what starts out as a very typical cheapo slasher turns into something unexpected. People get killed if they had sex or not, I’m pretty sure the survivors aren’t virginal, and the way the survival horror elements make their way into the slasher narrative does lead to a handful of minor surprises.
It’s still seat-of-your-pants filmmaking of course (this is a film whose big guest star is Flower, after all), with many a rough edge, and a lot of elements it’d be easy to point at to call Berserker “bad”, but to my eyes, this one’s got heart and personality, and a head of its own, and is therefore good.
Nov. 30th, 2015
Nov. 28th, 2015
The zombie hand that survived the first part’s finale murders the step father of survivor Sarah (now played by Monika Schnarre). Because the police doesn’t believe in killer hands or physical evidence, she soon finds herself on trial for murder. Mark (still Zach Galligan), survivor number two, has the brilliant idea of looking through the stuff of Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee returning as a film projection and later as a raven) for anything that might help her out. There, they find a time compass thingie that opens up time portals that’ll lead them into a crap version of Frankenstein, a really crap version of Alien(s), a slightly less crap because it features Bruce Campbell doing Bruce Campbell version of The Haunting, and an abominable sword and sorcery filmlet.
During the course of their adventures, Mark’ll turn out to be a Time Warrior chosen by god, whereas Sarah is only there to be rescued again and again. Oh Lord.
Ugh, after the barrel of fun that was the first film, you’d think the same writer/director would get up to something equally entertaining in the sequel, but where the first film was an enthusiastic, fast, and charming homage to horror films, film number two uses its even looser narrative structure (which is to say, it doesn’t really have one) to churn out a series of inferior short versions of beloved classics with added slapstick and some shit about Zach Galligan being chosen by God (I assume the Christian one, because I’m pretty sure most other godhoods would be somewhat embarrassed). Turns out all that stuff with set-up, characters, and so on and so forth the films this one rips-off instead of quotes tend to have is somewhat important to make an audience care about what happens in a movie; Waxwork doesn’t have time for nonsense of this sort, because it needs to set up a David Carradine cameo, and really couldn’t care less about actually hanging together as a film. It’s also pretty damn boring by virtue of showing a lot of stuff, none of which is interesting or in any form involving.
Because Hickox makes no attempt at involving his audience emotionally (well, or intellectually), the whole thing feels pointless throughout, like a never ending attempt to show off that its director has seen quite a few movies. Ironically, the resulting film mostly suggests he hasn’t actually understood what’s good about them. So, it’s very much a film like what certain critics (the ones who are wrong) pretend Quentin Tarantino is doing.
Nov. 27th, 2015
10:00 pm - Past Misdeeds: High Crime (1973)
Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.
Genuan Commissioner Belli (Franco Nero) is one of those highly irascible cops movie Italy is full of, always screaming and raging about the terrors of corruption etc and etc.
Belli's unwillingness to play politics and his nearly comical impatience lead to frequent clashes between him and the chief of detectives, Commissioner Scavoni (James Whitmore), but the older cop obviously respects Belli's passion for justice a lot and treats the younger man with the patience one has for talented if absolutely mad little children.
Scavoni himself has a secret file full of information that he wishes to use to bring the whole network of corruption and crime that dominates his city to fall, yet he does not dare to use what he has too early out of fear that all his efforts might go to waste.
Life in Genua isn't going to get easier for the two. A new organisation tries to bust in on the turf of the city's aging crime lord Caffiero (Fernando Ray), and the new guys are even more brutal and reckless than the Mafia the police knows. A bunch of car chases and shoot-outs later, all tracks lead Belli to the highly respected industrialist clan of the Grivas, but witnesses have the sad habit of dying.
Belli is finally able to shout Scavoni into using the material he has on the Grivas, but the old cop is murdered and his files lost before he has even begun to make a ruckus.
Scavoni's death just intensifies Belli's crusade, a crusade that will in the end be very costly for everyone involved, especially Belli's loved ones.
Enzo G. Castellari's High Crime is one of the core films of the Italian police film genre of the 70s and to me, it is one of the best parts of it.
That the film is highly kinetic and racing from one brilliantly filmed action sequence to the next is par for the course in the genre, yet Castellari's action - always given a rhythm of its own by a hypnotic score by the de Angelis brothers - feels somehow more driven and desperate than the action scenes in the films of his contemporaries. There's a special feeling of recklessness and wildness at High Crime's heart you won't find in European films, even other Italian cop movies, too often and that connects Castellari's work in my mind with the sheer madness of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and early 90s.
But even here, the action is not all there is to the film. I remember more than one film of the genre I had difficulties to stomach on account of their unpleasant politics which usually just start with the supposedly heroic cops getting mightily pissed off by the fact that they have to keep to the laws they are sworn to protect. The longing for a police state is often quite strong in these films and makes me in cases like the films of Umberto Lenzi nearly physically uncomfortable. Now, I wouldn't call High Crime's politics pleasant, but they are a lot more complex than in some of the lesser films of the genre. It is very helpful that Belli may be overtly irascible and not exactly a stickler for human rights, but at least we never see him torture gay people or fake evidence. Basically, Belli comes over as a decent man in a society teetering on the edge of chaos, much more interested in getting the big fish than in kicking in the teeth of some junkie. Actually, one of the things the film seems to say the loudest is "look at the big picture to end corruption".
It does of course help quite a bit that Franco Nero plays Belli as highly sympathetic in his desperation for change, an impression that is strengthened further by the scenes he has with his girlfriend (Delia Boccardo) and his daughter. That a pleasant family life won't be in the card for Belli is obvious from the beginning, but the way Castellari handles the things that were bound to happen to the two is at once so ruthless and so right (in the context of the film, mind you) that I couldn't help but be impressed.
One of my pet theories about directors of action films is that the great ones can't be judged by the quality of their action sequences alone, but by the quality of the melodrama in their films and the way they use this melodrama to heighten the tension and meaning of their action. That's the reason why the American action cinema of the 80s does so little for me - they just didn't know what to do with their heroes' emotions, if they admitted to the existence of them at all.
Nov. 26th, 2015
08:40 pm - Arachnid (2001)
Somewhere in the South Pacific. An air force pilot crashes into an invisible UFO and saves himself only to have an unfortunate encounter with an alien and an uncomfortably large spider.
Some time later, a patient with a previously unknown infection caused by some mysterious bite has come into the loving care of the hospital of Dr. Leon (José Sancho) from an island somewhere close by. Off-screen Leon has set up an expedition to the island to find the cause of the infection and provide treatment for the locals if necessary. The island is rather difficult to reach, so it’s a nice twist of fate former air force hot shot Mercer (Alex Reis) has come to the area as pilot for hire. We will later learn the pilot of the intro sequence is her brother and she has been looking for him ever since he disappeared.
Apart from Mercer and Leon, the expedition consists of spider expert Henry Capri (Ravily Isyanov), probably because he really knows about bites, Leon’s assistant and former jungle badass Susana (Neus Asensi), three former marines – the leader and obvious male lead Valentine (Chris Potter), and his men Bear (Roqueford Allen) and the soon to be particularly unfortunate Lightfoot (Jesús Cabron) – and local guide Toe Boy (Robert Vicencio). Things go badly for the expedition right from the start – a mysterious loss of all electronics in Mercer’s plane leads to a crash that only doesn’t become deadly because she’s a superior pilot, something is making it impossible to radio the outside, and these are only the minor problems. It doesn’t help that Leon is such a major asshole he’s the last person who should lead any kind of expedition, and Mercer’s as prickly as she is competent. The latter actually makes a lot of sense for a female ex-military member even when you disregard the whole business about her missing brother, because I imagine not taking any shit at all will quickly become a very useful survival technique for a woman in a military environment with all the prejudices and macho bullshit she’d have to cut through.
And did I mention the jungle our heroes will have to make their way through now instead of flying over it is full of mutated spiders and other unpleasantness like huge ticks with even nastier habits than is the tick baseline?
Until now, I somehow managed not to see this film from Brian Yuzna’s short Fantastic Factory time in Spain, for reasons only known to the Gods that make me watch the films I watch and not others. Couldn’t I have seen this earlier rather than Paranormal Activity, ye Gods!?
It’s directed by good old dependable Jack Sholder in a good old dependable way, without much fanciness but with a good eye for traditional suspense effects and the pleasant absurdities of monster movies in the semi-classic style. It’s enhanced for the new millennium with a bit more ickiness and a script that doesn’t exactly break new grounds but does generally avoid to treat its female or non-white characters different (worse) than the white and male ones. Which might also have to do with the fact the film’s nominal male lead is actually a nice guy for a soldier but also frightfully boring. We’re not talking a major rethinking of the less pleasant genre traditions here (and the film still has some moments in its first half that can raise some eyebrows in mild irritation) but a film that realizes one major flaw of a 50s world view is that it just isn’t any fun and so cuts it out of a film that is all about fun.
For this truly is the sort of traditionally minded monster movie about twenty percent of the similarly positioned yet less usually less exciting SyFy Originals manage to be, though much less jokey and with often pretty damn beautiful practical effects standing in for shitty CGI (even though the CGI that is in here is indeed pretty damn shitty too), and a giant mother spider that looks convincingly unpleasant in at least half of its scenes (in a few, it just looks too stiff to be believable). So we get various joyfully silly yet effective monsters, some awesome fights against monsters while our cast is whittled down, a bit of body horror because who doesn’t like the icky stuff, and characters likeable enough we don’t necessarily want to see them killed. And if that doesn’t sound like fun to you, you’re just not part of the audience Arachnid was made for; I, on the other hand (see also several dozen write-ups of SyFy Originals, more than a few of them positive) am that audience, and find myself mightily pleased.
01:15 am - In short: The Freakmaker (1973)
aka The Mutations
University professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence putting on what I think is supposed to be a German accent that comes and mostly goes) is maybe a tiny bit mad. His fascination with genetic mutations and plants has led him to the belief that natural mutations are dangerous - and probably somewhat disquieting to the ordered mind, one assumes – and that humanity truly needs a bit of controlled mutating – and plant genes.
To further the cause of scientific (ha!) obsession, Nolter has brought circus freak show boss Lynch (Tom Baker) under his thumb by promising to some day cure his acromegaly with his future genetic super science. So now, Lynch acquires students (predominantly some going to Nolter’s own classes, because master criminality is hard) for Nolter to experiment on, and Nolter sometimes uses Lynch’s show to park his failed experiments. Which isn’t ideal when some of these experiments still got faces and friends in town, but then, these villains are idiots.
I have no idea what went wrong here. By all rights, The Freakmaker should be a perhaps silly but enjoyable piece of mad science horror. After all, it features Pleasance, Baker, and even good old Brad Harris as the nominal romantic lead, and was directed by Jack Cardiff, who has some excellent and a lot of competent work in his filmography.
Alas, nobody seems to have told the people involved about their talents, so Pleasence seems bored, Baker is hindered by his stupid make-up, and Harris goes through his scenes with a perpetual expression of embarrassment . And Cardiff? Well, he spends about half of the film dragging his feet with filler. This is a movie that starts with five minutes of archive footage of plants, continues with another five minutes of a dubious lecture by Pleasence, and often seems much more comfortable not actually showing anything of interest. Then there’s a sub-plot that’s a completely incompetently handled and misguided rip-off of Browning’s Freaks, just without feeling the need to include any of that film’s humanity.
There are a few scenes that show potential for a slightly uneasy bit of exploitational fun, like the short bit where Baker visits a prostitute (whom seems to have suspiciously low rates) and pays her to tell him she loves him, or the hilarious yet macabre man-plant thing that just happens in the film’s final twenty minutes. Not surprisingly, a couple of promising scenes do not a good film make; in The Freakmaker’s case, they also don’t make an entertaining one.
Nov. 24th, 2015
10:32 pm - In short: Jordskott (2015)
I don’t generally write up TV shows around here, because I’ve grown to loathe the episode by episode approach that seems to only lead anybody using it to whining and complaining about tiny details, or launching into the kind of high level philosophizing that leaves the thing you’re actually writing about so far behind you might as well be honest and not pretend to write about it.
So I’m only putting down a few lines about this Swedish TV show (with Finnish, Norwegian and British involvement) because firstly, I’d nearly missed out on it completely myself, and secondly find some of the stuff I read about it on the net rather puzzling, if not to say wrong-headed. Mostly, I’m puzzled by this being treated as some sort of spiritual successor of The Bridge, when it is actually a fantasy show that uses elements of Nordic Crime television in a way that’s increasingly turning out to be a Swedish approach to the Urban Fantasy genre. It is a local and individual approach, though, with the series firstly being rural and not urban and secondly not trying to bore its audience by the umpteenth story about vampire princes and alpha werewolves, instead using Nordic folklore and the X-Files for their mythology.
For someone who finds urban fantasy often painfully samey, that’s like a breath of fresh air in the genre, as is the (perhaps too clever, looking at the reactions) use of Nordic Crime elements to awaken viewer expectations it then consciously and willingly disappoints; an approach I personally love, but that will find some people feel tricked.
Thematically, this is very much a show about family, in particular the bonds between parents and children, the joys and horrors of this love, and the destructive force of secrets and lies. Here private horrors make uncontrollable ripples in the world outside of family units.
All this is presented with mostly stylish, often atmospheric direction and a fine ensemble cast – particularly Moa Gammel is great. The ten episode show is probably one or two episodes too long, with one or two side plots taking up more space than they need to be, but that’s not any worse than your 20 episode US network show that could use to lose five of them. What might be a flaw to some viewers and turned out something I quite enjoyed myself is how all out the show goes with its fantasy elements as well as its melodramatic vein in its last few episodes, subtlety clearly not being on its table there.
But then, it’s a fun show when you meet it on its own terms, and one whose willingness to find something sympathetic and human even in the least pleasant of its characters is far more interesting than the much more common talk about “evil”.
Nov. 23rd, 2015
Nov. 22nd, 2015
10:08 pm - In short: Mortuary (2005)
The Doyle family – mother Leslie (Denise Crosby), teenage son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and little daughter Jamie (Stephanie Patton) – move into some god-forsaken small town so that mum can fulfil her mortician dreams. Too bad their brand spanking new mortuary is actually a ruin and that strange stuff seeps from the septic tank. And let’s not even start on the blood-drinking fungus turning people into fungus zombies.
I’m usually giving Tobe Hooper’s later works a bit more of a chance than most tend to do, but when confronted with a confounding piece of crap like Mortuary, even my tolerance goes out the window. I do assume this isn’t actually supposed to be a pure horror film but rather a horror comedy – or Hooper’d have to be stupid, which he clearly isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s a horror comedy whose every single joke isn’t funny, and that also takes ages to get going.
Now, in other films you’d suspect the slowness of the first hour or so had something to do with the film building mood and character, but since everybody’s a cardboard cut-out, and the mood is mostly childish, there’s only boredom coming through. Afterwards, it’s thirty minutes of kids screeching while people in bad zombie make-up waddle around or puke at them, with no second of tension, fun, humour, or whatever. Despite some awkward attempts at the grotesque, the proceedings feel painfully harmless too, with nothing to even vaguely keep one’s interest, wasting the generally decent potential of what could be a tale of kids not being able to trust grown-ups anymore (with added fungus zombies).
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