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The Fine Art of Tactical Retreat

Apr. 10th, 2019

11:46 am - For clarity's sake

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Apr. 4th, 2017

06:38 pm - If anyone's still reading my stuff here

In the future, all my posts are only going to go up at my Blogspot site http://houseinrlyeh.blogspot.com/

See you there!

Apr. 3rd, 2017

06:47 pm - Music Monday: Galactic Edition

Apr. 2nd, 2017

07:21 pm - The Trail (1983)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

aka The Trial (which has as little to do with the movie as the other English language title)

Original title: 追鬼七雄

Revolutionary era China. A guy going by the nickname of Captain (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) and his cohorts are using a most excellent opium smuggling technique: Captain and his second Ying (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying) dress up as Buddhist monks while the rest of the gang pack the loot into belts, straps those on and dress up as jiang shi (also known as hopping vampires, or in the case of these subtitles, zombies, though they are not exactly either) the supposed monks are herding around. It’s a rather brilliant plan, truly.

However, one local evil potentate (Miao Tian) pays our heroes to take the corpse of what he tells them is his brother with them, for his brother, his main henchman explains, has died of leprosy, and getting his remains away as stealthily as possible is absolutely necessary to protect the village’s good reputation. It’s a lie, of course, and the old bastard is trying to cover up a murder. This lie and their own greed will cost our dubious heroes dearly after they have dumped the body in a sulphur pit.

For because the corpse has a score to the settle with the potentate, it returns to life right quick as a real jiang shi (not doing any hopping but all the more rotting) and starts killing animals and opium smugglers alike. Captain and his gang decide to destroy the thing (his whole-sale slaughter of the local population and one of their own is bad for business, or something), arming themselves with the urine of virgin boys and the traditional yellow charms. Things are not going to go well for them.

The style of Ronny Yu’s The Trail has much less to do with the later jiang shi classic Mr Vampire than I had expected, apart from this too being a horror comedy. The depiction of the monster is much more gruesome than the pale hopping gentlemen in traditional garb other films about its kind have made me accustomed to (and, as far as I know, it’s much closer to the depiction of the creatures in much Chinese folklore about them). It’s a rotting, shambling monstrosity that is pretty close to a zombie, just stronger, meaner, sometimes cleverer and definitely harder to kill – probably even when its enemies were more competent than our protagonists are.

As a comedy, this is a pretty dark one, with a group of morally suspect protagonists mostly doomed to die pretty horrible deaths and two survivors who will learn exactly nothing from what happened to them, the film’s epilogue showing them disguised as catholic priests selling fake possessions but of course stumbling into a pretty hilarious The Exorcist situation. The humour is Hong Kong standard, though pleasantly avoiding the greatest extremes of slapstick and random nonsense, keeping most of the jokes integrated into the actual plot. In a really surprising turn of events, I even found myself laughing about a lot of the funny business, certainly thanks to the chipper casts of guys we know and love from dozens of other Hong Kong films, but also because Yu as a director always was rather fantastic at the timing aspect of things, be it in comedy, action, or suspense.

The suspense scenes here in particular turn out very nicely, with many highly effective sequences of our hapless heroes trying to first catch, then avoid the jiang shi only to see things getting worse and worse with every well timed bad turn. Yu escalates their troubles with a rhythm one could probably dance to, sometimes building tension out of comedic elements (there’s some excellent business concerning the monster and frog voice imitations), at other times ending the tension with a laugh that actually does work as comic relief for once.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a nice underground tomb set, some adorable miniature work and the mandatory blue light to gawk at and enjoy, as well as a bit of decent kung fu and an absurdly unsubtle yet curiously effective synthesizer score.

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Apr. 1st, 2017

07:07 pm - Three Films To Make Me Grumpy: One Day After A Million Years It Came Out Of Hiding To... Kill! Kill!

Big Bad (2016): So, some kids are locked into an abandoned jail for a fundraiser (don’t ask me, I didn’t write this nonsense), and are attacked by a hairy, scrawny monster. Supposed hilarity ensues, or as I call it, an unending series of jokes which turn out to be neither funny nor timed well. To be fair, Opie Cooper’s film also contains horror parts so mild they shouldn’t disturb a sensitive child, tedious plotting, and lots of feet dragging to get the thing to length, but that’s not exactly the sort of thing to make a film sound any better.

Turns out a horror comedy kind of needs to be funny. Who knew?

Ghost Team (2016): On the plus side, at least Big Bad doesn’t have a cloyingly corny moral like Oliver Irving’s film about a bunch of losers going on a ghost hunt and stumbling into a really crap Scooby Doo episode without even a talking dog in sight. The moral of the tale of course is that nobody’s a loser, except for the audience confronted with a bunch of jokes so obvious, my grandma is complaining they aren’t fresh enough – which actually is just as funny as ninety percent of the jokes in Ghost Team.

Shall I also complain about the boring and obvious characters and about the dearth of imagination on display? Done.

Bastard (2015): This is what you get when you randomly mash the visual style of one horror sub-genre with the soundtrack style of a different one, and include everything plus the cannibal/kitchen sink in your script, including the old ultra violence and some particularly random moments of “irony”. It’s a really pretty looking mess with fine practical special effects in search of a script that would either actually know how to connect all the different bits and pieces from a thousand horror sub-genres included here, had something interesting to say about them, or did anything else but demonstrate that directors Powell Robinson and Patrick Robert Young have seen a lot of horror movies. As it stands, it’s one of the best looking films that ever kept me quite this disinterested in anything going on in it.

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Mar. 31st, 2017

08:47 pm - Past Misdeeds: Rigor Mortis (2013)

Original title: 殭屍

A depressed, aging actor (Chin Siu-Ho) grieving for his lost family moves into a run-down apartment house somewhere in Hong Kong to hang himself in peace, but is first disturbed by a female ghost, then saved by Yau (Anthony Chan Yau), last in a long line of Taoist exorcists now working as a cook and secret soul of the building’s community.

It is a strange community indeed, for not only seems the world of spirits and ghosts particularly close here, all of the living seem to be lost souls too: there’s Yau and his lost calling, a mentally ill woman named Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) and her white-haired child protected by the building’s lone security guard Yin (Lo Hoi-Pang), an old, dying black magician (Chung Faat, I think), and the elderly couple of Mui (Pau Hei-Ching in a particularly impressive performance) and Tung (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon). All of the living are lost in one way or the other, cast aside by life or having cast their lives aside themselves, living in a sort of companionable stasis.

Things change at the time of the actor’s attempted suicide, though, when Tung dies in a ghost related accident. Mui realizes she can’t live without her husband and makes a gruesome pact with the magician that will bring her husband back to her, at least sort of, in form of a hopping vampire. From here on, the static but peaceful life in the building quickly deteriorates until Yau and the actor take it on themselves to stop what’s going on.

The only thing I had read about Juno Mak’s Takashi Shimizu-produced Rigor Mortis before going in was that it was supposed to be an homage to the classic joys of the Mr Vampire movies. This turns out to be about half true, depending on your definition of what an homage is supposed to be and do. While the film is dominated by actors who had their biggest time in Hong Kong cinemas of the 80s, and particularly in the Mr Vampire films, and Mak clearly loves these movies dearly (as he well should), this is not an exercise in nostalgia or imitation. Instead, the film takes a look at the older films it is inspired by, and proceeds to decide what it can do with some of their elements as well as with the in the last decade or so desperately underused talents of their actors thirty years later; respecting the past but also building its own thing on it. For my tastes, this is a much more productive and dignified approach to bygone eras of filmmaking than mere imitation, and certainly the one that should result in the more individual movies.

In Rigor Mortis’s case this means that this film paying homage to a series of comedy kung fu horror films isn’t a comedy at all, but rather aims for an arthouse approach to horror with a bit of CGI enhanced fighting thrown in at the end; fortunately, this doesn’t come over as an attempt of Mak to grim-and-grittify the hopping vampire movie but feels organic, like the logical place to take the characters the film spends a loving – and not humourless – half hour or so building before things begin to get truly threatening.

Despite some moments of ruthless and even to my jaded eyes rather shocking violence, Rigor Mortis’s horror is character based. The bad things happening here are the painfully logical results of the lives these people have led and of the wounds they took in the process. Even the black magician is a figure of pity or at least compassion to a degree. Evil – such as it is – in this film is the result of good intentions, bad decisions, loneliness and plain bad luck rather than of anyone twirling his or her moustache; consequently, the film’s good guys and the film’s bad guys (if you even want to use these terms) are equally flawed and human, and the film isn’t one to point any fingers of judgment at anyone involved. The true horror of the supernatural escalation is how much it is based on simple human sadness, makes it that much more disturbing than any kind of absolute or externalized evil ever could be.

As if this humanist approach to horror weren’t already enough to praise Mak’s film, there is also the brilliance of the performances. Particularly Pau Hei-Ching (there’s one scene between her and her dead, half-undead husband that’s just heart-breaking), Anthony Chan and Chin Siu-Ho are absolutely fantastic, and also demonstrate the impressive things middle-aged and elderly actresses and actors can do if a film just lets them. The way Mak integrates former roles the actors played into the characters without coasting on their reputations is also quite wonderful.

Mak’s visual approach to the film is atmospheric, moody, and claustrophobic, with many a gliding camera movement through the labyrinthine seeming building all of the film takes place in that provide the proceedings with the feeling of the not quite real, or the not quite unreal, turning the building into a locale on the border between the land of the living and that of the dead, as well as between the realm of logic and ill-logic. It’s the kind of place where the weird and the numinous is part of day to day life in more than one way. Even the film’s monochromatic, colour-drained look makes an aesthetic sense in this context: this building with its occupants whom time has left behind is not a place for colours.

Rigor Mortis also manages the impressive feat of making its hopping vampire (who really is more a unnaturally gliding one) seem horrific and threatening. The monster design very effectively puts emphasis on this creature being the most horrible of things – the corpse of an actual human being that has come to life. It’s particularly effective because the film’s script has shown us everything there is to know about the price that was paid for this thing’s creation, and makes clear what an abomination of the man it was in life it truly is. This is not something most vampire films, hopping or not, are any good at showing at all.

The only minor quibble I have with the film is with the at best mediocre quality of its CGI (the black ghost smoke being a particularly ineffective example), but then it never is so bad it gets in the way of the incredible number of things Rigor Mortis does well, so I’m not all that annoyed by it.

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Mar. 30th, 2017

06:36 pm - The Hitlist (2011)

Corporate engineer Alan Campbell (Cole Hauser) has a very bad day: the gangster he has debts with is getting violently impatient; at his job, the promotion he thought was his is going to a guy who may or may not have stolen his ideas (and who most certainly is an asshat of the highest degree); and when he gets home, he finds his wife (Ginny Weirick) sleeping with his best friend. I’m happy he doesn’t have any pets, or that’d have been a dead doggie, too, I suppose.

Obviously, Alan’s next step after that particular day is to find the next bar and get dead drunk. Alas, at the bar he meets a guy calling himself Jonas (Cuba Gooding Jr.). After giving Alan the cold shoulder for a bit, Jonas offers himself up as just the guy to cry to, which is exactly what Alan does while getting even drunker. At one point in the conversation, Jonas starts berating Alan for being a wet blanket but also offering help. Well, a very particular kind of help.

Jonas explains to Alan he’s a professional killer, and because he’s such a nice guy, he’s going to kill the five people Alan wants to see die the most for free. Alan, drunk, stupid, and believing he’s just venting in a particularly original manner, makes the list. Shortly after that, Jonas disappears.

Alan does think nothing of it – you don’t meet professional killers who give freebies randomly in bars after all – until he goes to work the next day and finds out his boss, the first man on his hit list, has been murdered. And Jonas certainly isn’t going to stop there.

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the best time for the actor himself, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of the phase in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career when he couldn’t find proper Oscar winning actor roles anymore but just kept on working in direct-to-DVD, or so cheap they might as well have been, action films and thrillers. I’m especially fond of these phase because Gooding never seems to approach his work there as if he is doing the films he is in a favour with his presence or as if he is slumming (though he surely is). Instead his performances in these films generally have the dignity of true professionalism, and more often than not, it feels as if Gooding’s contributions push everyone else involve to do better work than they usually do.

The Hitlist’s director William Kaufman doesn’t really need a push. While he has to follow the rules of direct-to-DVD action and so can’t quite ever reach the heights of his fantastic debut feature The Prodigy, at the very least his body of work suggests another dedicated professional in a part of the movie realm that has a few too many guys operating in it who don’t exactly seem to care to make a decent movie as long as they can put the names of Lundgren or Van Damme on a DVD cover, even when these hardly feature in the respective films.

While the budget clearly can’t provide too much actual action in this action movie, the handful of sequences that are there have more than decent stunt work and demonstrate a certain dry flair without Kaufman falling back at whoosh cuts, jump cuts or wildly wavering camera; the stunt crew really doesn’t need this sort of distraction because they, too, are dedicated professionals. The action is generally short and punchy, with a nice climax during which Gooding gets to shoot up a police station, Terminator-style.

Which of course leaves many a minute of running time to fill. That’s the point where quite a few direct-to-DVD action films truly falter, for filling the space between acts of violence seems to overtax quite a few imaginations. The Hit List, fortunately, has an actual plot – even one that makes sense if you are willing to buy into the basic set-up - and while the characters’ psychology isn’t exactly deeply insightful, people here usually have a motivation for what they do, and tend to act in ways that’s appropriate to the situation. Now, this doesn’t exactly sound like a glowing compliment to make for any movie, but in direct-to-DVD action movie land, this demonstrates an uncommon degree of care. It’s also, dare I say it, entertaining to watch, often even thrilling. Additionally, having an actual script doesn’t just give Gooding the opportunity to elegantly underplay (at least for this sort of environment) what could be an annoying scenery chewing maniac but also brings out the best of Cole Hauser. The less semi-famous Hauser, it turns out, is really good at playing our sad sack protagonist, believably going from helpless anger at his life to a very specific kind of courage in the end.

This all adds up to a fine bit of low budget action filmmaking.

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Mar. 29th, 2017

07:03 pm - Doll From Hell (1996)

Original title: 生贄

A group of criminals under a female boss traipse through a wooded mountain area in search of a former partner carrying a case full of drugs. Some of their activities are witnessed by one of the twin daughters of a doll-maker living in the area. The only answer to that is obviously death. Unfortunately, the idiot thugs kill the wrong daughter, leaving the doll maker bereft. However, the murdered daughter was doomed to die of what I assume to be consumption anyway, so the doll maker has made a life-sized doll that looks kinda-sorta (or in the words of the film: “exactly”) like her. And wouldn’t you know it, he uses the forbidden soul transference spell that has been part of the family tradition for ages to transfer his dead daughter’s soul into the doll, so that she can live on in it, sacrificing his own life in the process.

There’s a little problem with the doll being mute, creepy, lacking in any sense of ethical behaviour and only kept alive by somehow sucking peoples’ blood through her fingertips, but fortunately, the thugs’ drugs (this rhyme was provided to you by a glass of wine) end up in the doll maker’s house, so there are somewhat proper blood-sucking targets available. The doll’s twin is hiding away there too, swearing bloody vengeance against the thugs and showing a real talent for causing eye trauma.

Shinobu Murata’s little horror film is not one of the truly brilliant gems of Japanese V-Cinema (that is, direct-to-video etc film). Too frayed and vague is its plot in its first third, too much time is needed for the 75 minute film to actually get going, and too broad is the acting by a lot of people whose faces but not names you’ll know when you’ve seen a few of these films.

Saying a film isn’t brilliant is not the same as saying there’s nothing worthwhile about it, though: it is impossible for me to not find at least a small spot in my heart for a film whose second half commits to lighting every single scene in the traditional colours of Mario Bava and Dario Argento: that red, this green, and yonder purple, turning somewhat bland sets (though at least they are full of manikins) a bit dream-like and a bit strange, though it’s a very cheap kind of dream. The doll sister is pretty creepy too, once she finally gets moving, that is, and while the effects certainly aren’t convincing, they are enthusiastic and presented with a degree of conviction.

The script, once the entertaining second half starts, isn’t completely lacking in interest either, and certainly not in ambition. An example: we learn that one of the yakuza (played by Kazuyoshi Ozawa, I think) was a sculptor in his former life, until he murdered another sculptor out of jealousy for his more beautiful art, and only escaped jail because the girl boss convinced her father (who must probably be a major yakuza boss, movie lore tells me) to safe him, leaving the sculptor now turned yakuza (it obviously works like vampirism) as her property and official (fuck) doll. In the end, he’ll confront the doll sister with his own doll-hood, somewhat convincing her that they both should die because they aren’t actual living human beings anymore. While the scene isn’t terribly well written or acted, it certainly leads to a more interesting and less generic finale for the sort of film this is, with shots of the doll slowly wandering into the nearby lake reaching a certain folkloric beauty. Which is then followed by a silly yet decently realized – and very classic – final shock that does of course fit everything else that has been going on not at all.

Still, the second half absolutely makes Doll From Hell a worthwhile watch if you have the patience to slog through its beginning. This certainly isn’t a film only going through the motions, and given that Murata certainly wasn’t expected by anyone to do more than just that, I mark this down as a win.

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Mar. 28th, 2017

07:15 pm - In short: Child Eater (2016)

A rather pretty US small town with some pleasantly creepy locations. Sheriff’s daughter Helen (Cait Bliss) is babysitting little Lucas Parker (Colin Critchley). Lucas and his father have just moved into the local bad place, a house that supposedly once belonged to the town’s very own serial killer who went around murdering children (and whoever got in his way), eating their eyes to fend off an eye illness. Jeepers Creepers.

Unlike a lot of urban myths of that sort, the story about the local bogeyman is based on facts, for there really was an eye-eating child murderer once living in the Parkers new home. The more supernatural aspects of the tale will turn out to be true, too, for the arrival of a child with really tasty eyes awakens the Child Eater (I’d call him the Eye Eater, but what do I know?). Helen’s got a very special babysitting night before her.

The first half of so of Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Kickstarter financed horror film based on his own short film is rather strong: the production demonstrates a great eye for finding creepy locations, and the director has a moody style of shooting them; outside of action sequences when it becomes rather generic, the score is atmospheric and dense; character introductions and exposition are handled with speed yet aren’t too superficial, also on account of an acting ensemble that does well throughout; the villain very much sounds like a modern urban myth, and his first kill comes with the ruthlessness of 70s horror, presenting the sort of eye mutilation Lucio Fulci would have enjoyed with the appropriate enthusiasm.

The longer the film goes on, the more obvious a handful of problems become. Firstly, there just isn’t enough plot (or even just events) to fill the full 80 minutes of runtime, so there are some moments of the film awkwardly shuffling its feet, like when it first transports Helen to safety in the hospital, and then returns her to the place of action after a handful of pretty pointless scenes, mumbling something about responsibility (which is supposed to be connected to her being pregnant but really isn’t). Secondly, while the horror scenes are generally effective and well-handled, too many of them feel a bit too much like variations of other scenes from other films rather than scenes belonging organically to Child Eater’s story, with certain elements seemingly happening because this is a horror film and not because they are an intrinsic part of the specific horror film at hand.

This doesn’t mean Child Eater isn’t a worthwhile film. As I said, its first half is very good, and while the second one does leave marked room for improvement, there’s a basic level of visual craftsmanship and a general ability to create mood on display you don’t regularly get in indie horror. It’s the type of film that is too flawed to truly get excited about but that does leave this viewer looking forward to what Thoroddsen’s going to do next.

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Mar. 27th, 2017

08:03 pm - Music Monday: Seasonally Confused Edition

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