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).
Jul. 23rd, 2016
09:12 pm - On ExB: Lady of the Lake (1998)
Sometimes, I am rather down on indie horror of the semi-professional type. Sometimes, on the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to go with a film’s problems and be charmed by its virtues.
Maurice Devereaux’s Lady of the Lake is the latter kind of movie, so this month’s column over at the not drowning but swimming Exploder Button is a happy one.
12:35 am - In short: American Muscle (2014)
Stuck in jail after his partners – including his brother Sam (Todd Farmer) and his wife Darling (Robin Sydney) - shot him and left him behind in a heist turned bloodbath, formerly mild-mannered John Falcon (Nick Principe) has developed a new outlook on life, expressed through the rather minimalist philosophical maxim of “You owe. You pay.”.
When he’s released after ten years for good behaviour, John decides quite a few people owe him some dying, so off he goes in his canary yellow muscle car and kills them all, while occasional flashbacks needlessly detail a backstory as obvious as the film’s “twist”.
I’m still not quite sure if I should love how single-mindedly Ravi Dhar’s American Muscle keeps to every single cliché of the 2010’s style low budget desert-set US vengeance movie to become a delivery machine for violence, tits and ass, or if I should be annoyed by it. I am pretty sure I’m not terribly fond of the film, particularly since its brand of single-mindedness gets in the way of any kind of ambiguity and makes it pretty difficult to keep up much interest in the fate of its beefcake skinhead asshole hero. I know, he’s supposed to be all sensitive at his core, but this is not the kind of film that ever shows its hero doubting what he does, so that sensitivity is something the film may owe but certainly never pays.
It’s certainly pretty to look at, well edited, and there’s little to complain about when it comes to the action but I mostly found myself appreciating it all as technical achievements where a movie like this should really produce a little adrenaline rush. I just don’t find the film very fun at all, while on the other hand it is too superficial to be not fun in a worthwhile way.
Jul. 21st, 2016
08:37 pm - Salvage (2006)
Warning: spoilers ahead
Nineteen year old Claire (Lauren Currie Lewis), trying to get through community college while working in her small town, has a disturbing experience. Instead of her boyfriend Jimmy (Cody Darbe) who is usually doing this, she is picked up by a really creepy guy (Chris Ferry) driving Jimmy’s pick-up after work. The man explains Jimmy couldn’t make it and sent him instead. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be a crazy killer who cuts Claire’s face off.
At that point, Claire wakes up at her job, to be picked up by Jimmy instead of the creepy killer. However, her experience wasn’t just a bad dream, for Claire now finds herself stricken by a feeling of dread, always expecting somebody to step out of the shadows, always feeling someone behind her, while the people around her tend to act a bit off. Sometimes, the killer appears again too, until Claire suddenly wakes up again only for things to repeat themselves in increasingly surreal variations. Claire does her damndest to find out what’s going on but the answer to that question might not be one she’s going to like.
“Indie horror film shot in Ohio in the 2000s” isn’t exactly the sort of description that makes me run out to watch a film. Certainly, there are some good to brilliant lower than low budget films around that keep the spirit of the local/regional cinema of the 70s and 80s alive but more often than not, this sort of thing turns out to be a film whose only redeeming virtue is that the people making it clearly meant well.
However, Jeff and Josh Crooks’s Salvage turns out to belong to the small group of the pretty brilliant ones, avoiding all the pitfalls of tiny productions. So instead of scenes that go on and on and on struggling to understand how transitions are supposed to work (or simply what the point of any given scene is), this is a tightly edited piece that never meanders but always pushes its narrative forward and its protagonist deeper into things, even though the forward momentum here from time to time happens by taking a step back. Instead of actors stiffly ACTING(!), we have a naturalistic and very effective performance by Lewis, some really creepy stuff by Ferry and generally decent performances by the rest working with dialogue that just works as things you believe coming out of these people’s mouths, Mostly, that is – I was not terribly convinced by the handful of more humorous moments, but these are so few and far between they don’t matter much.
What does matter is how well Salvage works with some well-worn genre tropes, given the narrative twist a genre-savvy viewer will expect a further little turn, making it infinitely more interesting. The writer/directors also manage for their film what many a mainstream production with a twisty plot often not even tries to do and play fair with the audience, providing all the information to understand what’s actually going on well in advance and trusting their telling of the tale to be compelling enough to keep the viewers who get it watching.
That’s a well-made bet, for Salvage is nothing if not engrossing. It’s not just the tight editing and clever writing that makes this one so great. There’s also the sure-handed way the directors make use of the local colour – or perhaps a lack thereof – of the place where this was shot, making the surroundings feel like a real dead-end town. This does of course make the increasing weirdness of the things Claire goes through even more effective, for they break the rules of a well established reality instead of just being weird for weirdness sake. Last but not least, the Crooks (which is probably not the moniker the directors would have wanted, so sorry) are very good at suspense and horror scenes in the classic style, despite a handful of jump scares clearly preferring the creeping dread to shouting boo, creating many of the best moments of horror and excitement here out of of limited visibility, slow movement, and the knowledge there’s something lurking just around a corner.
Salvage is a truly fine film, is what I’m trying to say, the sort of film that quickly made me forget it must have been shot on a shoe-string budget through the power of really great genre filmmaking.
Jul. 19th, 2016
09:03 pm - In short: He Never Died (2015)
Jack (Henry Rollins) is a human blood-drinking, flesh-eating immortal. Actually, he’s a very specific immortal, but that’s neither here nor there. He has gone cold turkey on the murders that generally come with this sort of thing outside of YA novels and survives on a diet of small amounts of black market blood he buys from one of those body part hoking interns (Booboo Stewart) you find in every movie hospital. That diet isn’t too good for Jack’s personality though, and he spends his life sleeping, sleeping, sleeping, playing bingo, sleeping, keeping any given conversation ambiguously monosyllabic and ordering “hot tea” (one shudders to think what he’d get if he only said “tea”) in a local diner. Waitress Cara (Kate Greenhouse) is the closest Jack gets to actual human contact, and for reasons only known to her, she seems to have taken a bit of a shine to him.
Things will change for Jack when Andrea (Jordan Todosey), the daughter he didn’t know about, appears in his life, and he gets involved in his intern blood dealer’s trouble with some low level gangsters.
Tonally, Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died is as far away from most other contemporary horror comedies as possible. There’s nothing zany here, and the film’s not interested in being parodic or self-consciously weird either. Instead, the humour here is bone dry, driven by Jack’s skewed attempts at pretending to be a normal human being, his peculiar interactions, and the quiet joy it brings to watch Henry Rollins play bingo.
Despite quite a body count – a part of which is held elegantly off-screen because once the audience has seen what Jack can do, it doesn’t need to be shown again and again which makes an interesting comparison to something like the much more mainstream Denzel Washington Equalizer that has certain obvious plot parallels – I’d describe Krawczyk’s film as low key, approaching a surprisingly far-reaching mythology as matter-of-factly as it does its view of big city life, and never seeming afraid to just let things stand without detailed explanation and let the audience think about them a bit.
There’s a fine bit of irony going on here, too, with Jack being the more bizarrely literal-minded and socially awkward the less he’s involved in drinking blood, eating flesh and making a bloody mess. He’s more functional as an actual human being when he’s acting like a monster, which I find rather difficult not to read as a rather poignant choice of the film’s writer/director.
Rollins, not exactly the picture of variety when working as an actor (so just like when he’s working as a musician), is pretty much perfect here, breathing life into Jack’s awkwardness and weirdness and nailing his more human phases too. That Rollins, even in his mid-50s, can still embody physical threat when necessary is no surprise at all, of course.
Jul. 18th, 2016
Jul. 17th, 2016
08:03 pm - Doctor X (1932)
A mysterious serial killer dubbed the Moon Killer goes around murdering people on full moon nights. His modus operandi is a bit complicated, seeing as it involves strangulation, the use of a very specific surgical instrument and a bit of cannibalism (hooray for pre-code movies!). The brain-dead cops investigating are completely out of their depth, until they realize the surgical instrument is only used in the medical school/research institute of Dr. Jerry Xavier (Lionel Atwill) who also just happens to be the local coroner.
They’re in luck too, for it is holiday time, so obviously, the deeds can only have been committed by one of the handful of teachers using vacation time for their studies (the idea a student or a random visitor might just have stolen one of the things goes unmentioned, of course, or that someone just might have brought one of the instruments from another country). The problem is that these teachers (as played by Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford and Arthur Edmund Carewe) are all hilariously creepy horror movie characters who all have backgrounds that might involve cannibalism. Then there’s that other tiny problem that our cops don’t actually interview potential suspects, as well as problem number three: Xavier really doesn’t want the bad publicity that’d come with a proper investigation (and what’s a few murders, right?), so he talks the police into giving him 48 hours to find out the truth himself.
For that purpose, Xavier does the obvious thing – packing up his handful of suspects, his daughter Joanne (Fay Wray), his creepy butler (George Rosener) and the obligatory comic relief maid (Leila Bennett), isolating them in an Old Dark House on an island, and testing his peers for craziness via the power of Mad Science(!) and murder re-enactments. There’s of course also the mandatory wise-cracking reporter (Lee Tracy) smuggling himself in, though this one is armed with joy buzzer, so watch out, evil! Obviously, more murders will happen too.
If one applies contemporary standards and tastes to the script for Michael Curtiz’ Doctor X, it’s pretty much impossible not to think of it as a misbegotten mess that violently squashes together unfunny comedy, pulp nonsense science, old dark house movie elements, and an obligatory romance until no narrative sense can have any chance. Even by the looser standards of 1932, quite a bit here could have been handled better.
However, it is exactly this utter disregard for coherence and taste that makes the film as fun to watch as it is. For once, a 30s horror movie actually holds to the promise of being a lurid tale that feels ripped right out of the pulps – and we’re not talking comparatively tasteful pulps like Argosy here but the sort of crime magazine that would mutate into the weird menace pulp soon enough. In fact, this rather suggests an alternative reality where the Hayes Code was never instated and where a movie could try to get close to become a moving shudder pulp (for better and worse). This one’s not quite there yet, but neither were the pulps. and the films that would have been exist only in the imagination but man, Curtiz’ film does come rather close to the ideal.
Making up for the load of comedy, Curtiz films the actual horror parts with surprising intensity, just pushing through the silliness of many of their set-ups to the soft core of horrific goodness. Seriously, the director gets quite a bit of mileage out of decidedly contrived situations, pushing through this viewer’s jaded distance by the sheer power of visual imagination and tight editing. If you’ve seen the wrong movies of this era of filmmaking, you might assume a certain static and theatrical look was the only possibility with the technical possibilities of the time but Curtiz’ film feels dynamic and lively throughout. It’s not a naturalistic looking film, obviously. Curtiz, particularly in the wonderful and completely bonkers third act, uses quite a few expressionist techniques that are only made to feel more unreal thanks to the beautiful yet strange - to modern eyes - two-tone Technicolor this was shot in.
All of this – as well as properly exalted acting and some choice SCIENCE(!) equipment – does turn the experience of watching this into something quite close to having a lurid dream.
Jul. 16th, 2016
10:36 pm - In short: The Last Heist (2016)
A group of former military operators led by one Paul (Torrance Coombs) is starting on what looks like the easiest heist possible. Their target is a deposit box vault that has nearly been closed down, and is only open to let a very few remaining customers get their valuables back. Consequently, there are only two people still working there, no security at all (which obviously stretches belief, but so will much of what’s to come), and there won’t be all that many civilians to control. But where’s the payoff for crime in this case, one might very well ask oneself. Turns out, there is something rather valuable in one of the deposit boxes still in house. We’ll even learn the what and why of this very special thing but because it belongs to one of the many, many complications the film will throw in, it’s not strictly necessary to explain.
Anyway, one of the guys working the place today is Danny (Michael Aaron Milligan) who just happens to be Paul’s brother. For what I can only assume to be good reasons the script just forgets to mention, Paul at once unmasks when he sees Danny, dooming the civilians to potential murder by some of his more bloodthirsty companions. Speaking of bloodthirsty, one of these civilians – and as it so happens the one ideally placed to not get tied up by Paul’s cohorts – turns out to be Los Angeles’s top serial killer, known as “Windows” because he likes to cut out the eyes of his victims after death, which just might complicate things further. Add that Danny quickly manages to send off a text message to the 911 line, and soon the police as represented by Sergeant Pascal (Victoria Pratt) gets involved too.
The script will add further complications, but I think I can stop here. As is quite obvious, the script to Mike Mendez’ The Last Heist (written by Guy Stevenson who also has a minor role in front of the camera) tries to get around that most notorious problem of many a modern low budget action film, the somewhat problematic fact that these films can’t actually afford to show much action, by replacing the escalations that would mean stuff actually needed to happen with complications that mostly give the characters opportunity to have more stuff to stand around and talk about.
It’s a daring approach, and not one I’m keen to encounter too often, but it is something of an improvement in so much as the characters don’t have to talk about the same stuff again and again to fill out the running time. Hooray, I guess.
Though seriously, The Last Heist is mildly diverting, mostly because the actors are good enough – with Rollins and Pratt the obvious stand-outs, the former in voluntary hilarity, the latter in professionalism – and because Mendez does his best to keep the not exactly exciting happenings visually interesting. There’s only so much that can be done without the money for about two action scenes, of course, but it’s the thought that counts in filmmaking, right?
01:21 am - Past Misdeeds: The Oracle (1985)
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.
Poor Jennifer (Caroline Capers Powers)! It's not enough that she has to be married to super-moustached jerk Ray (Roger Neil), no, she also has to find a planchette that belonged to the old woman who lived in Jennifer's and Ray's new apartment before them, accidentally awakening her own mediumistic powers with it.
At first, it's all fun and games and a ghost (or is it a demon?) scrawling "help me" on a piece of paper during a Christmas party, but all too soon our bedraggled heroine has nightmares and visions of the most disturbing kind. The ghost seems to have become quite obsessed with her and is enthusiastically trying his hand as an interior decorator (preferred style: destruction and bava-green lighting). Ray, like every husband or boyfriend in every Findlay film, isn't getting less jerky, either, and aggressively berates Jennifer, like you do with the woman you love when you fear she is losing her mind.
After some time, the ghost makes itself a little clearer. It looks as if he belongs to a certain Mr. Graham and is in dire need of Jen's help in taking revenge on the people who murdered him. Ghostly Graham manages to send Jen a dream in which she can see the faces of his murderers quite well. Not surprisingly, attempts at informing Graham's wife (Victoria Dryden) of the truth about her husband's supposed suicide only bring the young woman's own life in danger. Evil Lesbian hobby & professional killer Farkas (Pam La Testa; somewhere between the worst evil Lesbian clichés and utter perfection) ain't someone to mess with.
And these are still not enough problems for Jennifer. Additionally, the ghost is growing a bit too protective of her and kills everyone trying to get between him and Jennifer in ridiculous and gory ways. I won't blame anyone - ghost or not - for killing off Ray, though. Jennifer will certainly be better off without that guy.
Roberta Findlay, you're my hero! The Oracle is the first film the great lady made in the final (horror) phase of her career, after she left the world of pornography - although not the porno facial hair - behind for something only slightly more reputable, and it is glorious.
There is only a small amount of Findlay's patented semi-documentary shots of the scummier parts of New York - which would go on to take more and more room in her horror films - on display here. The Oracle places a much greater emphasis on rubber monsters, rubbery gore and Farkas and her artificially deepened voice (don't ask why - it's a Findlay film), yet I can't rightly complain about the relative absence of dirty streets when the film shows us this stuff instead.
Findlay did learn the fine art of cheap but effective photography when she was working as (not always billed) camera operator/director of photography on the sexploitation films she made with her then-husband Michael (whom I suspect to be the source for the jerky husbands and boyfriends in her horror movies) in the 60s, so her films are usually much nicer to look at than their budget would suggest. (Although I have seen her films called "amateurishly photographed" in more than one review; obviously, there's no accounting for taste).
What might be a problem to some viewers is the utter inability of anyone on screen to "act" in the more conventional sense of the word. Fortunately, there's more important things to acting in cheap little numbers like this one, and most everyone on screen has that special something to endear her or him to me for evermore. The men have their porno moustaches, Farkas a silly potty-mouth and the charming butchness of terror, and Caroline Capers Powers is intensely good at going into full body hysterics like it is seldom displayed outside of Italian genre cinema.
Powers performance in the last thirty minutes alone would be more than enough to recommend The Oracle, yet there's still more and more to love about it. How about lots and lots of multi-coloured goo? Bonus moustaches? A plot that starts out slow and boring yet gets as hysterical and jumpy as the main actress? A sex scene that is nearly as wooden and disturbing as the one in Don Dohler's Nightbeast? More (hysterical) running around than in a whole season of Rupert Davies-penned Doctor Who? Random classy-looking shots and moody lighting between the moments of shoddy insanity and bad effects? Some wonderful moments of serenity in a exceedingly badly secured New Yorker mental institution? A soundtrack that was composed by a monkey randomly pushing buttons and keys on a synthesizer? And best of all, a scene in which Ray's head is ripped off by the hands of an angry ghost? The Oracle truly has it all, possibly even more.
I know that I'm usually putting a certain emphasis on the importance of filmmakers caring about the films they make, or at least not hating their audience with a burning passion. Roberta Findlay however is one of the great exceptions to this rule. The woman utterly loathed the horror genre and everything it stands for, and didn't have especially warm feelings for the genre's fans either, yet she still managed to make a handful of lovely films in it. I think her horror films are the products of someone trying to make films for the least respectable and least intelligent audience she could imagine, and just throwing everything that could possibly be of interest to that audience on screen (much like a monkey does with poo), in the hope that some of it would stick, even if none of it made any sense whatsoever.
It is this hateful and ignorant attitude to its own audience - and possibly filmmaking itself - that makes The Oracle such a fascinating experience for me. This movie is what happens when someone just doesn't give a shit about what she is doing one way or the other, yet is still too talented not to produce something interesting. And this, dear readers, is what I call "movie magic".
Jul. 15th, 2016
Mindwarp (1992): I know I shouldn’t expect anything beyond fan service in form of KNB gore that often feels shoe-horned in for no good reason, horror fan favs Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm, and some moments that aim for taboo breaking but fall flat because they’re as pointless as a reality show from a Fangoria production. However, there’s just no excuse for this particular piece of crap to include all these things and be boring, surely. The script’s just terrible – and I mean terrible for the standards of a low budget post-apocalypse movie with added gore – moving at a snail’s pace and containing little that’s surprising or as freaky as the film pretends it to be. Director Steve Barnett does his work with all the panache and style of a full garbage can, Campbell and Scrimm get paid, and I had myself a nice little nap.
The Light at the Edge of the World (1971): Where Barnett's film is just crap, Kevin Billington’s very free adaptation of a Jules Verne novel is something of an intriguing mess. Sometimes, it’s a psychologically tense cat and mouse game between Kirk Douglas and Yul Brunner that makes excellent use of the (Catalonian?) piece of rock it has been shot on; sometimes, it’s a decent adventure movie; at other times again, it shows the same ruthless, pessimist spirit I love about early 70s horror. A few scenes later, it’s suddenly a meandering mess that just doesn’t seem to know what point it is trying to make about people in general or its characters, just pushing stuff in front of its audience without discernible rhyme or reason. The good parts do make this one very much worth watching, though.
Shame the Devil (2013): If you always dreamed of watching a British movie partially “inspired” by the Saw films with a bit more of the standard serial killer thriller thrown in, this one’s clearly your fault. I have to say, though, this thing does give me a new appreciation for the Saws, for while the entries in that particular franchise are as implausible as all get out, pretty tacky and directed with all the wrong fashionable direction tics, they do at least hang together as actual movies and do their best to make their implausibilities work in the context of their narratives. Shame the Devil, on the other hand, has some of the worst writing I’ve ever encountered, with dialogue that’s at once stilted and unnatural, dumb and lacking in flow, everyone talking at each other in non sequiturs. The plot is obvious, badly paced, full of ill used clichés and just plain disinteresting. The writing is so bad and hangs together so little, I can’t bring myself to actually criticize the actors for the way they stumble through their scenes, for it’s pretty damn clear that there’s nothing to work with in the script. Paul Tanter’s direction sure as hell doesn’t provide anything for them to hang their performances on. It’s just a dreadful mess of a movie, as far from being entertainingly bad as it is from being competent filmmaking.
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