Saturday, November 18, 2017


If there’s one exploitation sub-genre that’s been consistently under-represented on the Winter of Discontent, it’s carsploitation. ‘Rolling Vengeance’, back in 2011, was the last time any automotive armageddon rolled through these pages. That season also featured ‘Rubber’, but whether a killer tyre movie with art-house pretensions counts as an entry in the carsploitation cycle is a semantic debate that I’m not ready to have with myself.

Not when I can give over the next couple of reviews to all things motor-revving, tyre-squealing and metal-rending, anyway. Starting this very evening with perhaps the most vanilla film ever to find itself invited to the Winter of Discontent backstage party: Elliot Silverstein’s ‘The Car’. This 12-rated DVD ended up in my collection on account of it going for a song in an HMV sale and my recollection of watching it on TV as kid and enjoying it.

Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since I watched ‘The Car’ on TV as kid. Enough to wash the fucking bridge away. ‘The Car’ is frankly a pile of wank. But, hey, it’s carsploitation and several hundred words taking the piss out of it helps make the numbers up for this year’s Winter of Discontent.

The Agitation of the Mind: work-to-rule since two hours ago.

‘The Car’ starts with a static shot of a mountain range and a long dusty road that quite fancies itself as a bit John Ford. Two minutes’ worth of credits play out over this image, after which Silverstein holds on it for another minute and a half as a plume of dust appears in the background and the growl of an engine in the distance becomes a roar as it approaches. Aha, you think: this is the scene setter where the eponymous automobile comes hurtling towards the screen as if hellbent on ram-raiding the fourth wall. But no. Silverstein cuts before the car even takes on any definition, cuts while it’s still in the middle distance, wreathed in dust.

You could almost believe that Silverstein made the decision to cut in order to disorient the viewer, to monkey with their expectations. But then he plays a similar trick throughout the first half an hour (i.e. a third of the movie) and does his utmost best to depict the car in abstract manner. Maybe the intent was to emulate ‘Jaws’ (made two years earlier) and keep the monster undefined/hinted at for as long as possible before reeling it (pardon the pun) onscreen front and centre for the extended finale. Maybe Silverstein and his creative team – you have no idea how much it pained me to type “creative team” – had their doubts as to how scary the car actually was. (Spoiler: not scary at all.) The story is very simple: there’s a sleepy American town …

… where the only thing that stands between the sheriff’s department and a zero percent crime rate statistic is the refusal of Bertha (Doris Dowling) to file a domestic abuse complaint about her asshole husband Amos (R.G. Armstrong, who grunts his way through the film with a pained look in his eyes, no doubt wondering how he could have gone from working for Peckinpah to starring in this pabulum in only a few years). Amos is a hard-drinking mean bastard with a hair-trigger temper so it’s entirely logical that he earns his living as an explosives expert. I mention that for a reason. Plot point, y’all.

The Amos/Bertha thing is particularly galling for Sheriff Everett (John Marley), who’s been kind of sweet on Bertha since high school. As a sub-plot, it’s sunk by the sixteen-year age gap between Marley and Dowling – an age gap exacerbated by Dowling having aged very gracefully and Marley very craggily – and totally redundant since (SPOILER ALERT) Everett is quickly dispatched by the car so that his deputy Wade (James Brolin) can assume hero duties, Brolin being the first billed actor ‘n’ all.

But before we get to Everett’s death and Amos’s night in the cells (just so he can be conveniently on hand when a demolition expert is called for the final act), we have some ennui-inducing padding to contend with. Such as Wade agonising about taking his relationship with school teacher Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd) to the next level and whether his two daughters from a previous relationship will accept her. Such as patrolman Luke (Ronny Cox)’s alcohol problem and whether he can keep it together when things get tough moderately perilous. Such as how the script becomes bumblingly racist while trying not to be every time Denson (Eddie Little Sky), a Native American patrolman, is onscreen, kind of like an embarrassing drunken uncle at a wedding who knows he shouldn’t be saying these things and tries desperately not to but … just … can’t … help … it.

Strip away the padding and the essential narrative is: supernatural car turns up in sleepy town and starts killing folk; lawman tries to stop it. ‘The Car’ would have been improved immeasurably by either (i) a minimum 20 minute reduction in running time, or (ii) more vehicular mayhem courtesy of the car. In fact, for a supernatural force that seemingly exists only to run people over, the car spends a lot of the movie basically pissing about. What it’s doing while Luke is agonising about his drink problem or Wade is kept overnight in hospital after a bruising encounter, who knows. Getting an oil change? Chasing rabbits? Fishing?

Some potentially interesting mythology forms around the car – an evil wind that precedes its appearance; the fact that it can’t run anyone over on hallowed ground – but remains half formed. Like so many of the subplots or character beats that the film expends a ludicrous degree of effort establishing, only to completely forget about a couple of scenes later, ideas about the car’s mythology and what (sorry!) drives it are laboriously incorporated but never developed. What the audience is left with is a lot of bad dialogue and not-much-better acting. Believe me, nobody is good in this film, even the three or four cast members who have proved demonstrably better elsewhere.

In fact, it’s probably the car itself that gives the best turn, even though it had every right to complain to its agent that it just wasn’t getting enough screen time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


Michele Soavi made his debut in 1987 with ‘Stagefright’ (a.k.a. ‘Deliria’, a.k.a. ‘Aquarius’, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Bird’) which made effective use of its single setting (a ramshackle theatre). He followed this a couple of years later with ‘The Church’ (a.k.a. ‘Demons 3’), which also made impressive use of a single setting. If you’d been looking, in the late Eighties or early Nineties, for someone to helm an Italian language remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I reckon he’d have done a bang up job.

By 1994, he’d put his stamp on the idiosyncratic black comedy ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (a.k.a. ‘Cemetery Man’) which uses a single setting – the graveyard – to quite brilliant effect for a good two-thirds of its running time before deconstructing in terms of its narrative, structure and theme (there is a case to be made that this was a quite deliberate decision) once it strays outside of this clearly defined environment and interacts with its larger fictive world in increasingly fragmented and bizarre ways.

In retrospect, ‘The Sect’ seems like a logical aesthetic transition for Soavi. While its most crucial scenes take place in the rambling rural home of protagonist Miriam Kriesl (Kelly Curtis), and in the architecturally improbable basement beneath it, the film opens with a ten-minute prologue set in California in 1970 before relocating to the Frankfurt of 1991. Or rather a version of Frankfurt that’s about as weirdly non-Germanic as Freiburg and its dance academy in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Just as California is represented by a nondescript landscape and the least convincing set of hippies you’re ever likely to see.

Moreover, the California-set prologue does nothing narratively except introduce a chapter of the titular sect active in America, thereby setting up a scene much later in the film where two chapters meet and the leader of one as much as says “oh, hi there, we’re your opposite numbers from the States”, when the script could just as easily have had them come in from, say, Berlin or Dusseldorf. Nor does the German setting make any sense (there isn’t a mythology akin to the Three Mothers of ‘Suspiria’ that requires geographical specifics) and everything that happens in the movie could have happened without a single alteration to the script if the setting had been Rome, Milan or Florence.

Nor do the next couple of sequences – a short and nasty murder in a suburban location, and an elaborate set-piece on a subway – add much to the story other than to establish that the members of the sect aren’t fucking around when it comes to disobedience and don’t flinch in their use of violence. They seem to be incorporated for no other reason than to big up the film’s epic scale after two smaller productions (‘The Sect’ had double the budget of ‘Stagefright’).

Once Soavi shunts his heroine onstage, however, and limits himself to her house, the cavernous spaces thereunder, the school she teaches at, and a nearby hospital, things bcome more focused. Even if the script does belabour her portentous meeting with enigmatic old cove Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) and take far too long to get to the weird shit that starts happening as a result of their meeting.

Credit where it’s due, though: the weird shit is certainly work the wait, whether it’s the surreal dreams that plague Miriam, full of crucifixion imagery and ‘Wicker Man’-style earth/nature/sex undercurrents, or the needlessly elaborate but memorable way that the sect isolate Miriam by removing from the board those few people who are close to her. The most striking and visceral example is their transformation of Miriam’s mousy colleague Catherine into a vamp trawling for rough trade at a truck stop …

… who bewitches a horny truck driver into murdering her. The scene plays out with all the sleaze, illogic and upended expectations that the description suggests. It’s also worth noting that the above screengrab shows the trailer said trucker is hauling. One can only assume that German HGVs are blessed with suspension and cornering of a spirit level bubble since not one single piece of freight is secured.

But then again, this is a film in which a hospital morgue is found in a leaky sub-basement area and looks like this:

So either Germany is the weirdest place on earth, with its dance academies and weird cults and people who drive VWs (ve must be in Cher-mahn-hee, ja, because Kelly Curtis is drivink ein VW), or it’s a safe bet Dario Argento had a hand the production. (He did: producer and co-scripter.)

But this is mere carping (mixed with a healthy dash of cheap sarcasm); ‘The Sect’ is an Italian horror movie made at the tail-end of that country’s several-decades run of great horror movies that were stylish-to-the-nines and narrative clusterfucks. ‘The Sect’ never achieves the visual gorgeousness of Bava or Argento at his best or even Fulci on a good day. But it has weirdness in spades, it has the chutzpah to cast Curtis (in her only lead role) for no other reason than she’s Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister, it casts Herbert Lom and basically gets him to do a Donald Pleasance impersonation, and it shoots for the moon in terms of an incendiary good vs evil finale that it has neither the budget nor the creative energy to achieve on the scale it good clearly wants to.

Oh, and it predates Lars von Triers’s ‘Breaking the Waves’ by five years as an example of a film that tries to con you in its closing moments that it’s deep concerned with a redemptive quasi-theological ending when it fact it was getting its jollies over the nasty stuff all along. With the crucial difference that ‘The Sect’ is a lot more fun to watch than ‘Breaking the Waves’.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Massacre in Dinosaur Valley

As an Italian exploitation sub-genre, the cannibal film had its genesis in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s ‘The Man from Deep River’ which was basically a rip-off of Eliot Silverstein’s 1970 gruel-a-thon ‘A Man Called Horse’ with the native American Indians replaced by Brazilian cannibals. The cycle really got its groove on in 1977-78 with Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Last Cannibal World’, Sergio Martino’s ‘Mountain of the Cannibal God’, and Joe d’Amato’s ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’. The d’Amato films had more to do with T&A than flesh-munching, but – hey! – that’s Joe d’Amato for you.

Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of these particular productions, they provided the momentum for what was the annus mirabilis of the cannibal film: 1980. If Altamont was the defining socio-political moment whereby the free love ethos of the Sixties transitioned to the political disenfranchisement and social upheaval of the Seventies – a decade that, for all its turbulence, proved to be a cauldron of creative risk-taking and new movements in music, literature and cinema – then a case can certainly be made for the fact that the against-the-system attitude that characterised the Seventies gave way to the soulless greed-is-good yuppiedom of the Eighties, and that the path was cleared by a cluster of cannibal films, two of which would come to define the sub-genre and gain notoriety for their prominence in the “video nasties” controversy that came to eat up (pun intended) so many column inches later on in that piss-awful decade.

At least half a dozen cannibal films were made in 1980, including Jess Franco’s ‘The Devil Hunter’ and – notable for being one of the very few non-Italian cannibal opuses – Tsui Hark’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’. But the two that came to define the sub-genre, and remain the colossi against which trash movie fans test themselves, were Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive’. These two should really have been the cannibal movie’s “thank you and good night” moment, but this is exploitation cinema we’re talking about and as long as there was a hint of a buck to be made at the box office, some producer somewhere would sign off on another one. And thus it was that the cycle limped on intermittently till 1988 and the death rattle of Antonio Climati’s ‘The Green Inferno’ (a title borrowed over quarter of a century later by Eli Roth); these last few entries included Lenzi’s grim-as-fuck ‘Cannibal Ferox’, Franco’s ‘Diamonds of Kilimanjaro’ and Mario Gariazzo’s ‘White Slave’, a film so schizophrenically marketed that it appeared in some territories as ‘Amazonia: The Catherine Miles Story’ and in others as ‘Cannibal Holocaust 2’.

The film under consideration today was made in 1985 and I’m not even going to try to pretend that it represents some last great throw of the longpig dice. But this is the Winter of Discontent and cannibal movies are just one of those sub-genres that have to be done – like gialli, polizia, nazisploitation, nunsploitation and anything that stars David Hess – and besides ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ was directed by Michel Massimo Tarantini (under the pseudonym Michael E. Lemick) and if the dude who helmed ‘Policewoman on the Porno Squad’ and ‘Women in Fury’ isn’t a natural fit for the Winter of Discontent then I might as well just give up and watch reruns of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.

‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ reunites Tarantini with ‘Women in Fury’ star Suzane Carvalho and gives her an equally thankless, frequently denuded and thoroughly sexually objectified role. After a very short career in exploitation films, Carvalho reinvented herself in spectacular fashion as a racing driver and I can’t help wondering how much her proficiency in this latter career was motivated by imagining Tarantini naked and clutching his extremities just behind the chequered flag as she powered towards him in several hundredweight of race-car …

But let’s park that image (again: pun intended) and stroll down the leafy expanse of Plot Synopsis Boulevard. ‘M in D V’ starts with respected academic Professor Ibanez (Leonidas Bayer) and his daughter Eva (Carvalho) arriving in a Brazilian backwater with the intent of seeking passage to the fabled Dinosaur Valley where Prof Ibanez can complete his palaeontological research. After a protracted first act which introduces fellow palaeontologist (or, to use his preferred appellation, “bone hunter”) Kevin Hall (Michael Sopkiw), Vietnam vet John Heinz (Milton Rodriguez) and his alcoholic wife Betty (Marta Anderson), photographer Jose (Joffre Soares) and fashion models Belinda (Susan Hahn) and Monica (Maria Reis), this mismatched bunch find themselves on the same light aircraft. A cockfight, a bar room brawl and some gratuitous nudity assists the viewer’s passage to this particular plot development, though no rationale is given as to why Jose and his models or the Heinzes are on the plane. Much is made, however, of the flight as off-the-books and into forbidden territory.

It hardly needs saying that the pilot encounters adverse weather conditions and someone tosses a toy plane into a puddle on the director’s front lawn the plane crashes. Three characters buy the farm in graphic detail while the rest emerge from the wreckage unscathed. There is no logic to this. Given the logistics of the forced landing, either they’d have all died or everyone would have stumbled out with a few abrasions at most. But I digress.

The survivors decide to make their way through the jungle, Heinz appointing himself leader on account of having done three tours in ’Nam. What follows is a “forty miles of bad road” type deal, as the group contend with leeches, snakes, cannibals, white slave traders, attempted human sacrifice and the gargantuan hindrance that is John Heinz and his planet-sized case of overcompensation. Example: Jose is set upon by piranha as the group splash through a river. Kevin plunges in to rescue him; Heinz sees his injuries as a liability and makes a brutal executive decision. Kevin attacks him and the two of them plunge into the selfsame piranha-infested waters, thrashing about for a good couple of minutes, all the time being resolutely untroubled by flesh-eviscerating fish. Quite what the piranha are doing the while – perhaps they’ve repaired to the opposite bank and started taking bets on the outcome – is left unanswered by the script.

As internal tensions within the increasingly depleted group reach boiling point, Kevin is split up from Eva and Belinda when the cannibal tribe attack. If I were trying to intellectualise this skeazy expanse of celluloid, I’d dwell on the fact that Eva and Belinda’s perils at the hands of the cannibal tribe occupy the middle third of the film rather than setting up its denouement, and they’re rescued by Kevin before much worse can happen than a flesh wound and some enforced nudity. Worse awaits them in the last twenty minutes or so when they fall into the clutches of slave-trader, unlicensed prospector and all-round sleazeball China (Carlos Imperial) who has designs on Eva, and his right-hand-woman Myara (Gloria Cristal) who gets all predatory towards Belinda.

Up to this point, ‘M in D V’ has unspooled through a fairly obvious checklist of exploitation tropes: it’s dealt in punch-ups, gun play, softcore sex scenes and mild peril, and throughout it all Tarantini and co. have maintained an aesthetic that could almost pass for good natured. For 65 minutes, ‘M in D V’ happily parades itself as one of the goofiest, least self-aware exploitationers you’ll ever see. Then the Tarantini of ‘Women in Fury’ steps up to the base and brings the nasty. Which is fair dues: let’s not forget what kind of movie we’re watching here. But the shift is abrupt and his attempt, in the closing scenes, to cut back to sub-Indiana Jones jokey pastiche only serves to emphasise the tonal inconsistency.

Ultimately, though, ‘M in D V’ is damned by its own irrelevance. The best of the cannibal films rubbed the audience’s collective nose in filth in order to make a point: viewer complicity in ‘Cannibal Holocaust’; the correlation between religion, brainwashing, sacrifice and manipulation in ‘Eaten Alive’. The slenderest of cases can just about be made for ‘Amazonia’ in respect of tabloid salaciousness and the exploitation of the exotic by those whose white privilege is its own ulterior motive. ‘M in D V’ adds nothing to the dialogue beyond its brisk pace and the appeal of a heroine who deserved to be more heroic.

Sunday, November 05, 2017


I had, of course, heard of Ottavio Alessi's 'Top Sensation' (a.k.a. 'The Seducers'). What self-respecting exploitation fan hasn't? I started watching it online a couple of years ago with an eye to a Winter of Discontent write-up. The print quality was so bad, however, that it was like having my eyeballs vigorously buffed with a Brillo pad. Never mind that there was a Rosalba Neri topless scene ten minutes in, I gave it up as a bad job. Now, though - thanks to Shameless DVD Releasing - 'Top Sensation' is available in a version that's not onerous to watch. Although, in an otherwise laudable attempt to present as complete an edit of the film as possible, they've shoehorned in every bit of recovered footage they could get their hands on and to say there are quality control issues with these inserts is putting it mildly.

Coming on like a lurid remake of Polanski's 'Knife in the Water' (made seven years previously) and pre-dating that ne plus ultra of sex-on-a-boat movies, Deodato's 'Waves of Lust' by six, 'Top Sensation' boasts two locations (yacht; island), lifestyle porn aplenty, and world-class eye-candy in the form of Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech and Eva Thulin. It's also utterly cynical and requires us to spend an hour and a half with some utterly venal characters - but, hey, that's exploitation for you!

Here's the basic set up: control-freak entrepreneur Mudy (author Maud de Belleroche in her only acting role) has hired loose-living couple Aldo (Mauricio Bonuglia) and Paola (Neri) to crew her yacht for the duration of a trip designed to provide R&R for her mentally troubled son Tony (Ruggero Miti). Mudy, despairing of the retinue of shrinks and specialists who have been unable to cure him, is convinced that he just needs to get laid. To this end, Aldo and Paola have been tasked with finding a girl suitable to this requirement. Dangling the promise of a big fat pay cheque in front of her, they have persuaded Ulla (Fenech) on board. The film begins in media res, the yacht a-sail, and all of these characters locked into a duplicitous game, the sexual tension simmering away.

Immediate complications are twofold: (1) Paola wants more from Mudy than just a one-off payment and will stop at nothing to get a cut of Mudy's latest business deal; and (2) Tony remains blandly disinterested in Ulla, proving that the boy really does have issues. Actually, make that threefold, since Aldo swiftly compounds things by running the yacht into a sandbank on account of doing the nasty with Ulla when he should have been navigating. Just when it seems like Mudy's on the verge of tearing all parties a new arsehole, Tony slips ashore and, when the others eventually find him, he's made the acquaintance of butter-wouldn't-melt farm girl Beba (Thulin) and they appear to be getting along famously.

Aldo, never one to miss an opportunity, discerns that if he can get Beba onboard the yacht and away from her boorish husband Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), then shenanigans of the salami-hiding variety between simpleton and shepherdess are a foregone conclusion. Beba is thusly, and in remarkably short order, seduced onto the yacht, seduced into a bit of lipstick lesbianism, and pimped out to Tony.

But before the lad can get devirginised, Andro turns up in a rowboat and 'Top Sensation' segues from pressure-cooker sexploitationer to something like Brian Rix farce leeched of the actual comedy. This weird tonal shift isn't the only problem with Alessi's film.

There are two main problems: the first is that Alessi, directing his second and last film after 1964's 'Whatever Happened to Baby Toto? ', achieves about as much visual style as a wall coated with slowly drying paint of a boring colour. It's not much to ask, surely, that a film with such a lurid story also be visually lurid? That a film whose main female leads are so voluptuously appealing also have appealing cinematography or production design? Christ, even the yacht doesn't look sleek and sexy – and when 70% of your film is set on a yacht belonging to a spectacularly rich person, this does not bode well.

Secondly, for a film that clocks in at just 90 minutes in the most complete edit that Shameless can manage, there aren’t half some dull patches! Endless scenes of Tony moping in his cabin, playing with toys like the man-child he is. Endless scenes of Mudy ranting at people and scowling. Endless scenes of … well, filler. Even the film's most notorious sequence – it involves Fenech, a photoshoot and a goat and I'm saying no more other than warning you upfront that once you've seen it, you will forever refer to 'Top Sensation' as “that film with Edwige Fenech and the goat”* – exists for no other reason than to pad out the running time.

In fact, stripped down to its actual narrative stepping stones – introduce everyone on boat and their motivations; establish that Tony isn't going to get jiggy with Ulla; get various parties to the island, thence to the boat; Andro turns up; everything goes pear-shaped - there's probably about half an hour's running time to be had out of the material. The rest of it relies on Neri and Fenech to look good in bikinis. Of course, it goes without saying that both of them ace this requirement. Indeed, Fenech – 21 when the film was released and on the cusp of claiming her crown as giallo goddess – is va-va-voom made flesh, while Neri gets to rock the kind of outfit that would make your average jeweler shut up shop and sneak home for a hour or two’s private time.

But for all that, it's de Belleroche's appearance that stays with me. Winner of the Prix Broquette-Gonin for her debut novel, she had published 'L'Ordinatrice' – generally considered her magnum opus – the year before she appeared in 'Top Sensation'. Which is kind of like Annie Proulx coming off 'The Shipping News' winning the Pulitzer and saying yes to a Rob Zombie job offer on the understanding that it involved a girl-girl scene with Kelly Brook. Now that'd be a Winter of Discontent flick!

*I'm not sure what the life expectancy of the average goat is, but I'm guessing the goat dined out on the story of most of the rest of said lifespan.

Thursday, November 02, 2017


Heard the one about the two guys driving a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re so busy talking shit and not paying attention to the road that –

Yeah, Fulwood, we’ve heard it before. Like in the opening scene of ‘Eight Legged Freaks’.

Well, yeah, but with a crucial difference. So listen: there’s these two hillbilly dudes in a truck loaded with barrels of toxic waste and they’re having the mother of all politically incorrect conversations about how dating a guy is easier than dating a woman (“we didn’t disagree about anything, it was real easy – except for the sex: the sex was brutal”) when, as a result of not driving with due care and attention, they hit a deer. The impact jolts a barrel of toxic waste off the back of the truck, whereupon it rolls down into the river and –

FFS, Fulwood, we said we’d heard this one before. The toxic waste infects the water supply causing genetic mutation and zombie-type shenanigans.

Well, yeah, but listen to me, motherfuckers: this toxic waste turns the local beaver population rabid and when you try to fight them off, they prove functionally immortal. These beavers come back from the dead. Because they’re zombie beavers.

They’re …

… zombeavers.

Hey! Hey! Where’s everyone going? Hey! Come back! Aw, c’mon, this kind of no-budget z-grade trash is why you hang out at The Agitation of the Mind and, brother, you know it!

Director Jordan Rubin and his co-scripters Jonathan and Al Kaplan know it, too. Well, not about The Agitation of the Mind, probably. In fact I’d be omigosh surprised if they’d even heard of this blog. But they know exactly what kind of audience they’re catering to and go all out to make exactly the kind of movie you anticipate (gleefully, with an underlying hint of guilt) when you see the title ‘Zombeavers’ on a DVD cover.

Let’s get jiggy with a plot synopsis, shall we? Shortly after the two sexually confused hillbillies lose the barrel of toxic waste, three coed friends (or rather frenemies, given the internal tensions) turn up at a lakeside cabin in rural America for a weekend ostensibly dedicated to helping Jen (Lexi Atkins) get over the heartbreak of her boyfriend cheating on her. Jen’s gal pals are bossy-little-thing Mary (Rachel Melvin) and trash-talking slapper Zoe (Cortney Palm). And if you think I’m being unfair in describing Zoe as a trash-talking slapper, just try spending five minutes’ screentime in her company.

No sooner have they taken to the lake (Zoe indulging in a spot of skinny-dipping) and fallen afoul of the locals than their boyfriends – or at least Mary and Zoe’s boyfriends and Jen’s now thoroughly cold-shouldered ex – turn up without invitation and with booze, partying and sex on their minds. Let’s meet The Three Douches. Jen’s asshole ex-boyfriend is Sam (Hutch Dano), Zoe’s obnoxious boyfriend is Buck (Peter Gilroy), and Mary’s slightly less douchey but still wanker-by-association boyfriend is Tommy (Jake Weary, who alone amongst the cast can actually claim a legimate film career on account of having been in ‘It Follows’*).

Buck and Tommy get their end away that night. Sam gets Jen’s kneecap in his gonads. Jen is startled in the bathroom by an aggressive beaver, which the guys dispatch with a baseball bat after some debate about who should tackle the creature. None acquit themselves as paragons of knight-in-shining-armour type behaviour. Next day, the sextet are at the lake when the zombeavers attack. Although Buck sustains injury, the group make it back to the cabin. The zombeavers lay siege. It’s the most pathetic siege in the history of horror cinema:

What follows is pretty much as you’d expect from a zombie film: foiled escape attempts, massively amplified internal tensions, gruesome deaths and the inability to get a mobile signal or find a functional landline (the visual punchline of zombeaver prints next to the severed cable is a nice touch). The drama around Sam’s dalliance behind Jen’s back is also resolved, and it’s touching to see that such a trashy outing as ‘Zombeavers’ can actually make time for its characters’ emotional closure before getting down to the business of their mortal closure. Hey folks, I’m kidding; the Sam/Jen thing merely allows for a bit of padding so that a short-as-it-is-anyway movie can just about clear the bar re: feature length.

Does it do anything unexpected, or anything new with the genre? Does it rug-pull with expectations or monkey with the formula? No, of course it fucking doesn’t! It’s a film called ‘Zombeavers’ – did you really expect it to be a game-changer?** It has zombie beavers and it makes no bones about the fact that they’re puppets (seriously: if Jim Henson had got fucked up on peyote and decided to make a movie that wasn’t for the kiddies, he’d have come up with exactly these furry-toothy-undead critters). It has a cast of college kids (albeit played by actors in their late twenties), so it features douchey behaviour and nudity. It’s a zombie movie, so people get chomped and/or eviscerated. Oh, and you know how the rules stipulate that those who are bitten become zombies themselves? Well, what do you think happens to people who are bitten by zombeavers?

You’re shaking your head now, aren’t you? Facepalming? Mumbling something along the lines of “oh, for the love of all things unholy, please tell me the filmmakers don’t actually go there”?

They go there. Of course they go there. This is a film called ‘Zombeavers’. Why would they not?

*Though I’ll be perfectly honest in admitting that I found ‘Zombeavers’ a far more rewarding film than ‘It Follows’.

**Although the closing credits song arguably is. It’s a brilliant piece of camp which recaps the entire narrative in the form of a Sinatra-esque swing number. Sample lyric: “Contaminated by toxic goo / A genetic mistake / They’re semi-aquatic, they’re hungry for you / Boys and girls, stay away from the lake”. Sample lyric #2: “Look out, they’re coming through the walls / Your girlfriend’s chewing off your balls / Zombeeeeeeeeavers!”).

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Coming soon on the Winter of Discontent

Now is the winter of this blog’s discontent. Now is the time when we springboard from 13 For Halloween into two months of darkness, depravity and dubious content. Now is the time to sample the fruits of your humble reviewer’s annual trawl through everything that is strange, seedy, sordid, shameful and shocking. Now is when these unhallowed pages fill up with reviews rich in alliteration, hyperbole and cheap sarcasm. Now the time for copy hammered out under the influence of alcohol and moonlight. Now is the season of Mrs Agitation rolling her eyes and slowly shaking her head and wondering where the committal papers are.

Well be kicking off in fine style tomorrow, and carrying on for as long as your humble reviewer’s mental health holds out. Here’s a small sampling of things to come:

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Witches

I’d like to have been at the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, where a member of the orchestra had to turn the by-then stone deaf Beethoven round so that he could see the audience rapturously applauding. I’d like to have been at Knebworth in 1979 when Led Zeppelin basically demolished the entire punk movement in one epic show and the crowd adulated. And I’d like to have been in the production meeting at Jim Henson’s offices when someone floated the idea that the absolute best person to direct a kid’s film based on a Roald Dahl novel was the dude who made ‘Performance’, ‘Walkabout’, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Eureka’.

It goes without saying that Nicolas Roeg was the absolute best person to helm a Roald Dahl adaptation – no other filmmaker has tapped into the grotesquery of Dahl’s work with such gleefully scatological intuition – but nonetheless I can only imagine it was akin to a studio meeting today wherein an E.L. Stine property is being discussed and a lone voice of insanity lobbies really hard for Darren Aronofsky. The day after ‘mother!’ opened.

Many Dahl adaptations fail because they shy away from how fundamentally fucked up his stories are, or – pace Tim Burton’s stab at ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – work too hard at trying to replicate the weirdness. Then we have the likes of Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’, which I walked out of after 40 minutes because (a) he just didn’t freakin’ get it, and (b) nobody involved had any Christing idea which decade they were setting it in. It was like watching an episode of ‘Electric Dreams’ where the main character gradually comes to realise he’s in an immediately recognisable but ultimately improbable simulation of England.

‘The Witches’ opens in Norway, its title sequence pulsating to Stanley Myers’ magnificently OTT score as Roeg’s camera whizzes over a snowy mountainscape. It’s like a mash-up of the opening credits scenes of ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘The Shining’ and it signals from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a typical kids’ movie. The first act has young Luke Evisham (Jaden Fisher) learning about witches from his eccentric grandmother Helga (Mia Zetterling, having the time of her life) while on a vacation to the old homeland with his parents. Fate intercedes and when they buy it in an offscreen car accident (this is a Roald Dahl story, and he never condescended to his readers about the essential unfairness of life), Helga relocates to England to look after him. A health scare sees Helga diagnosed with diabetes (yup, Roald D again: guy ain’t spoon-feeding ya) and advised to take a restorative break at a seaside hotel.

If Roeg’s vision of Norway is generally respectful (albeit a tad “chocolate box”), his take on England is pure satire, from the bicycle as the preferred means of transport to shiny red postboxes in picturesque village lanes by way of cheeky young lads who could have stepped living and breathing from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and insufferably pompous hoteliers whose establishments boast drab rooms and sticky buns. Speaking of the hospitality trade, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Stringer – his last great performance before he inexplicably embraced the moronism of ‘Mr Bean’, ‘Johnny English’ and all the other identikit rubber-faced pratfall roles he’s favoured for the last two decades – deliberately evokes one Basil Fawlty.

Into this parochial little England comes the Grand High Witch (a never-better Anjelica Huston). Under the guise of a fund-raiser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the GHW chairs a council of witches with the sole item on the agenda being how they can most effectively do the maximum amount of harm to children. Hint: it involves turning them into mice.

What follows – as Helga recognises the GHW as an antagonist of old, and Luke suffers the side-effects of a run-in with the witches – is as close as you’re likely to get to a live action treatise on the aesthetics and logistics of a cartoon on either side of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, and even ‘WFRR’ had to rely on a certain amount of traditional animation.

At its most manic and delirious, ‘The Witches’ is like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life with all of the not-for-the-kiddies sensibilities that description suggests. Its most astounding set piece is the aforementioned witches’ council, a sequence so extended that it virtually occupies the entire middle third of the film. In it, Huston’s GHW becomes so transported in her description of how the childrens’ fates will be effected that her vocal delivery and body language become almost sexual. This, twinned with the grotesque facial appearance of her true self (none of the witches can wait to shuck off their human disguises once they’re behind closed doors), makes for decidedly uncomfortable viewing.

Or take the scene where head chef Andre (Jim Carter) encounters an anthropomorphized mouse which tries to elude his anti-rodent attentions by running up his trousers. The ensuing comedy of embarrassments is more Brian Rix farce than kids’ film. Or how about the diversion the GHW creates at one point by sending a pram hurtling towards a cliff edge? In the office last week, during a conversation about favourite Halloween films, I intoned (in appropriate sing-song fashion) the line “real witches work only with magic” – several grown adults shuddered and told me not to.

Yes, Roeg was exactly the right person to direct ‘The Witches’. It’s a weirdly unconventional piece of filmmaking, in ways that it would take me an essay four or five times the length of this one to fully explicate; it’s not interested in traditional narrative functionality or even the requirement of having a hero; and it’s utterly committed to the macabre and the grotesque. It’s the ideal thirteenth in this year’s thirteen for Halloween.

Monday, October 30, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: The Naked Witch

The most useful facility the wannabe connoisseur of trash movies can develop is pragmatism. Trash movies are made quickly, on the cheap, with the sole object of turning a fast buck on very little investment. Low-rent advertising is the only kind available to the purveyors of such stuff, and often the most effective advert for the product is its very title. One learns to take lurid titles at face value, and steels oneself for disappointment.

So it was that I settled down to watch the film under consideration today, and as I hit play I intoned a small prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to know that a movie called ‘The Naked Witch’, made in 1961 with a fifty-nine minute and seven second run time, can’t possibly deliver on the dual promise of its title and will in fact probably be hard pressed to tick even one of those boxes. Amen.”

Serenity was granted and I watched ‘The Naked Witch’ and drank a bottle of Adnams Broadside and sat down to write and objective considered review, and never once did I feel compelled to hurl something across the room, or beat my fists against the screen while choking out the sob-drenched words, “You cheap lousy bastards, you called it ‘The Naked Witch’ and I didn’t feel a single tingle in the place where it’s nice to feel a tingle, and I want those fifty-nine minutes and seven seconds back, God damn you! God damn you all.”

And thus co-writer/directors Larry Buchanan and Claude Alexander escaped damnation and my blood pressure remained at a safe level. Now here we are, 270 words in, and you probably have a couple of questions. Taking an educated guess, the first is: When the hell you going to quit procrastinating and actually turn in a review? The second: Why do you keep harping on about the running time?

Well, I’ll tell ya. The running time of ‘The Naked Witch’ is fifty-three seconds shy of an hour. That’s pretty short for a feature. You’d expect an almost breathlessly pacy narrative, wouldn’t you? A narrative that puts its head down and runs hellbent for leather in the general direction of the end credits, tossing out – even allowing for our dialled-down expectations – at least a few nudity- and witchery-driven set pieces along the way.

No. Fucking. Chance.

‘The Naked Witch’ opens with an eight and a half minute prologue where a narrator with all the vocal nuance and intellectual charisma of a half-inflated whoopee cushion being suddenly sat on gives what I would normally describe as a lecture on the history of witchcraft. Except that lecture suggests the imparting of information; the marshalling of verifiable facts into a coherent overview; the education of the listener. Instead, what our droning voiceover artist does – as the camera roams interminably over a Brueghel canvas – is blether a load of purple prose to the effect that witches are scary and do weird supernatural shit. For eight and a half bastard minutes.

Then we get the opening credits, which include a quote from Shakespeare. Voiceover dude intones the quote in the same lifeless fashion. He also manages to misquote it. We’re over ten minutes into the film at this point. More than one-sixth of its running time has been expended and literally fucking nothing has happened.

Surely, with somewhere in the region of forty-eight minutes left to play with, Buchanan and Alexander are really going to pull out the stops and throw this motherfucker into overdrive.


We open on a sports car navigating the picturesque roads of Luckenback, Texas. Its driver is bland all-American nobody of the lumberyard school of acting. The credits have identified him as The Student. But since I don’t want to type The Student every time I refer to this pencilneck, I’ll call him Brock. He looks like a Brock. Plus it rhymes with cock.

Brock is on his way to a small town which is still a demographic stronghold of the German settlers who came to Texas in eighteen-something-or-other (the voiceover kicks in again almost the second the credits are done with), and whose history Brock is researching for … something. Term paper, assignment, whatever the 1961 equivalent of a blog was. I don’t know. Something. I’d picked up my phone and played a couple of moves on Words With Friends at this point.

Anyway, to cut a long anti-narrative short, Brock fetches up in town, listens to the children’s choir sing the kind of song that was probably really popular in the Hitler Youth, finds lodgings, flirts with flaxen-haired mädchen Kirska (Jo Maryman) – one of the few characters the script can be bothered to gift with a name – but does nothing about it when she flounces into his bedroom in a diaphanous nightgown and asks if he wants to borrow her book on witchcraft. He says thanks, opens the door for her, and sits down to read the book. Smooth work, Brock, smooth fuckin’ work.

From the book, Brock learns that a woman wronged by one of Kirska’s ancestors was deemed a witch and executed as a means of silencing her accusations against said blackguard. Brock goes looking for the witch’s grave – which has a lot of loose topsoil for something dug in the 1600s – and inadvertently awakens her.

We are now thirty-four minutes into the film. The title character – yup, she’s billed as The Naked Witch (Libby Hall) – has only just shown up, and we’re left with twenty-five minutes and a few seconds to document her unholy vengeance, bring her into conflict with Brock, steer Kirska into a woman-in-peril scenario, and deliver a tense, exciting denouement. Oh, and throw in some nudity, too.

Granted, The Naked Witch (let’s call her Helga) gets straight to business by offing two of the townsfolk then going skinny-dipping. Meanwhile, Brock, realising what he’s done but not wanting to admit it to his hosts, does some research into the witch, first by visiting the library then by heading to some caves on the outskirts of town where the very comely librarian is convinced a purely theoretical witch, having been awakened from her deathless sleep, would logically go to ground. Heading towards the caves, Brock notices Helga skinny-dipping and having presumably rediscovered his libido stands and watches her for what feels like the combined running time of ‘Satantango’ and ‘Out 1’. She catches him watching, leads him to a cave, they make out a bit, she does a weird dance which is not only non-seductive but curiously emphasises how big her hands are, then they make out again. Brock falls asleep post-canoodling. We’re now four minutes from the end of the movie.

Four minutes for Helga to fixate on Kirska as the last victim in her campaign of retribution, Kirska to be lured into a perilous situation, and Brock to save the day. Hands up everyone who thinks the ending’s going to suck like a Dyson that’s just been given a flux capacitor upgrade?

That’ll be all of you, then.

Oh yeah, and that first question you had for me: what about the review? That was just it. Right there. Proof positive that the sleazier the title, the greater the need to manage one’s expectations. Now, does anyone have a copy of ‘Virgin Witch’ that I can borrow…?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: The Pendle Witch Child

An hour-long BBC4 documentary presented by the poet Simon Armitage, ‘The Pendle Witch Child’ takes as its starting point the appearance of nine-year-old Jennet Devices at Lancaster Assizes in August 1612. Jennet gives evidence implicating most of her family and various others. The outcome of the trial is ten hangings.

From this, Armitage and writer/director Ros Ereira tease out the complicated intersections of superstition, fear, religion, law, politics, forensics and the power of words, be they the oral testimonies of those accused or accusing, or the written records of the trial. Which was, apparently, a big bestseller in its day. As was the slim volume ‘Demonology’, by King James the First – a publication unique in British literature: a guide to the danger of witches and the best way to deal with them, written by the then reigning monarch. ‘Demonology’, in its closing pages, offers guidance to courts on trying witches.

If kingly law-making influenced by superstition isn’t jaw-dropping enough – and it’s definitely not the kind of thing that crops up in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ or ‘Kavanagh QC’ – then Jennet’s catastrophic testimony effectively established a precedent regarding the giving of evidence by child witnesses. Something that would come back to haunt her, and very nearly cost her life, two decades later when a young boy accused her of witchcraft. Early application of what we would now call forensic evidence helped demolish the case, after which it was discovered that her accuser and his father were running a money-with-menaces scheme whereby any local women who didn’t pay up were accused by the lad.

It all paints a damning picture of a certain period in British history, one that Armitage and Ereira link to the ‘boogeyman’ mentality of our current age – if it isn’t paedophile rings that the media are telling us to be terrified of, it’s the threat of terrorism, this latter exploited by governments to justify rendition, detention and torture – to speculate that, while superstition doesn’t have the grip on society that it used to, other forces compel us to act in ways that prove human nature hasn’t changed much in 400 years.

Armitage’s low-key and dryly ironic presenting style is well suited to such heavy and often dispiriting material. A probation officer before his literary career took off, he’s the ideal person to guide the viewer through the labyrinthine and archaic workings of the law and the courts. Exteriors shot at Lancaster Castle – where the Jennets and others were jailed in 1612, and still a working prison until 2011 – are particularly atmospheric. Indeed, location work is used well here, and the ‘talking heads’ aesthetic that so often scuppers documentaries is sparing. Throughout, Ereira employs superimposed animations to dramatise the trial and the events leading up to it. They look odd and out-of-place to begin with, but take on a creepy life of their own as the narrative progresses.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: The Witch Who Came from the Sea

Numerology is very important in divination, and few numbers send a shiver down the spine that our unlucky friend itself: the number 13. Which is why, friends, I always review 13 horror films during October. But as a prelude to this evening’s film, let’s consider a less immediately auspicious number: 72. That’s how many titles were on the DPP’s list during the UK video nasties controversy, itself as fine an act of spell-casting as any witch could hope for and requiring neither wolfsbane nor eye of newt. Requiring, in fact, only a few acres of newsprint and an infinitely gullible public.

I’ve seen quite a few of the 72 titles on said list – 39 were successfully prosecuted for obscenity, the others were guilty by association – and many of them have led me to a sad but inescapable conclusion: membership of the video nasties club doesn’t necessarily make a film nasty. In fact, a lot of them – ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’ and ‘Anthrophagus: The Beast’ spring immediately to mind – are downright boring.

Of course, there are bona fide works of visceral nastiness to be found – a big round of applause, if you please, for ‘Cannibal Holocaust’: your flight attendant will be able to provide you with sick buckets – as well as a couple of items that flirt around the edges of the art-house camp, and one – Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ – that belongs in said camp entirely.

But we’re here tonight, dear readers, to consider a film that strives to do something provocative and intelligent with its material while leaving one foot planted firmly, obstinately and defiantly in exploitation territory. ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ is a curious work, directed by Matt Cimber, a man whose filmography tells its own story (‘Africanus Sexualis’, ‘Lady Cocoa’, ‘Alias Big Cherry’ and the Pia Zadora vehicle ‘Butterfly’), starring former Oscar nominee Millie Perkins as a sexually disturbed multiple murderess and written by her husband Robert Thom.

Thom was the writer of such lurid fare as ‘The Legend of Lylah Clare’, ‘Angel, Angel, Down We Go’, ‘Bloody Mama’ and ‘Death Race 2000’. Subtlety, we can immediate infer, was not one of his hallmarks. Perkins, too, is something of an eccentric talent. She made her debut in 1959 in the title role of George Stevens’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and picked up her Oscar nom in the process. TV work and small roles in the likes of ‘Ensign Pulver’ and ‘The Shooting’ occupied her for a decade or so. In 1974, she made an impression in Monte Hellman’s ever-so-slightly controversial ‘Cockfighter’, then two years later torn demonically into the lead role of ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’.

Which is where we came in.

It’s easy to see why ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ fell foul of the curtain-twitching guardians of the UK’s collective morality: a clearer correlation between sex and violence – in fact, an interweaving of sex and violence – you’d be hard pressed to imagine. And if the sight of a bare-ass naked Molly (Perkins) cutting loose with a straight razor on an equally bare-ass naked male victim isn’t enough, try juxtaposing that kind of imagery with flashbacks that leave you in no doubt that a pre-pubescent Molly was sexually abuse by her corpulent, gloating, wet-lipped father.

Did that last sentence induce a bit of uncomfortable squirming? To watch the film is to squirm uncomfortably for an hour and twenty-eight minutes. There’s something “off” about ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ from the start: the opening scene has Molly chaperoning her pre-teen nephews Tod and Tripoli at beach; one sibling has the other buried to his neck in sand while Molly gazes out across the light-fragmented waves and drones on dreamily about their sea captain grandfather, lost somewhere out there on the ocean and a fine man beloved of all.

And even before we learn that said individual was a slovenly pederast beloved of absolutely no-one, there’s something here that seems wrong. There’s a washed-out disconnectedness to the cinematography (by John Carpenter’s go-to guy Dean Cundey; a weirdness to the sound design; a woozy disjointedness to the editing. Images appear in negative, saturated with artificial colour.

The performances are all pitched at a slightly non-naturalistic level, from Perkins’s vacillations between wide-eyed child-like naivety to raging she-devil, to Vanessa Brown’s mounting hysteria as Molly’s sister Cathy, to Lonny Chapman’s grizzled scenery-chewing as Long John, owner to the nautical themed bar where Molly works. All of these actors, and the characters they inhabit, exist within the same fictive space and interact as if they’ve known each other for years, but there’s something about the way they play off each other – or maybe the way they don’t – that doesn’t quite gel. And I can’t for the life of me figure out whether Cimber achieved this deliberately or whether it was a happy accident. Happy because the all-pervading sense of “off-ness” is what gives ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ its curious power.

What is undoubtedly purposeful – Thom’s screenplay fixates on it to an unsubtle yet entirely effective degree – is the film’s commentary on contemporary lives lived according to and in the shadow of the false promises and images of television. Molly is obsessed with TV, and the dividing line between men she can have a functional sexual relationship with (Long John) and those she vents her fury on is whether they are real or products of television. Two big set pieces – one running almost ten minutes – put Molly in almost fantasy-based situations with people she has seen and effused over on the small screen and it becomes swiftly apparent that they are no more real to her for suddenly being corporeal.

Naturally, a flashback to the young Molly’s horribly ruined life with her father culminates in a scene where a TV set is destroyed. Molly’s adult life, then, has been spent arranging the past into a fiction and hammering it into the tightly compacted and easily turned-off emotive space the size of a portable black & white TV.

Many of the video nasties, for all their blood-gouting, innard-spilling brutality, key into the gothic terrors of yesteryear – the mythic figure of the sasquatch in ‘Night of the Demon’, ritual sacrifices to a pagan idol in ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’, the so-called savages of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, the folkloric idea of a vengeful killer back from the dead in any number of slashers – but the nature of the nastiness in ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’, and the tropes and visual metaphors by which Molly’s descent into madness is mapped out, are strikingly contemporary.

Monday, October 23, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Witchtrap

On its original release, posters and promotional material for Kevin S Tenney’s ‘Witchtrap’ carried the weird caveat that it was not a sequel to his earlier film ‘Witchboard’. There was probably a very good legal reason for this, but it seems utterly disingenuous. Granted, the word “witch” features in the title, and there’s a late-in-the-game plot development whereby a female character becomes a conduit to a malevolent male spirit, but in no other respect does it even resemble ‘Witchboard’. Apart from, y’know, the bad acting and the over-egged direction.

What it does resemble – I’m not saying plagiarism, dig, just resemblance – is Fabrizio Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’ (a.k.a. ‘Witchery’, a.k.a. ‘La Casa 4’), made the previous year. Let’s run a quick check and see how many hits we get on the resemble-o-meter:

Prologue featuring terrified character sprinting down long corridors prior to plummeting out of a second story window? Check.

A prime piece of real estate afflicted by a supernatural presence? Check.

Owner of said real estate financially burdened to the point where they have to make a go of it as a residential concern or face massive losses? Check.

Female protagonist who is well-respected within her profession introduced via gratuitous nude scene? Check.

Two sets of characters – one camp believing in the supernatural, the other not – compelled to work together? Check.

Aforementioned supernatural presence arranging things so that said characters are essential trapped in said piece of prime real estate? Check.

A foiled escape attempt (by helicopter in ‘Witchcraft’, by car here)? Check.

Really really bad actor with a stupid name (Robert Champagne in ‘Witchcraft’, Rob Zapple here)? Check. Okay, that last one was a bit tenuous. But you get the point.

For what it’s worth, let’s romp through a ‘Witchtrap’ synopsis. Devon Lauder (Kevin S Tenney, stepping in at the last minute after the originally cast actor dropped out) inherits a big old house that happens to be haunted by his uncle Avery (J.P. Luebsen)’s ghost. The terms of Avery’s will disallow Devon from selling the property, and he needs to make a go of the place as guest house or face financial ruination. A publicity stunt with Vegas magician The Amazing Azimov (Richard Fraga) – Devon thinks he can generate interest in promoting the venue as an authentic haunted house – backfires when said conjuror is supernaturally tormentor and defenestrates from the second storey. At his wits’ end, Devon calls in husband-and-wife parapsychologist team Agnes (Judy Tatum) and Felix Goldberg (Rob Zapple). Agnes quickly assembles her team: hubby Felix is a “mental medium”, Whitney O’Shay (Kathleen Bailey) is a “physical medium”, and Ginger Kowowski (Linnea Quigley) is there to handle the recording equipment and look hot in a crop top.

Accompanying Agnes and co – at Devon’s explicit instruction given what happened to The Amazing Azimov – is private security consultant Murphy (Jack W Thompson) and his top operatives Tony Vicente (James W Quinn) and Leon Jackson (Clyde Talley II). Vincente is Asian (yup: fine Asian fine is Vicente) and Jackson is black and the supposedly matey bantz between them is as casually racist as it gets without being a Walt Disney film circa ‘Dumbo’ or ‘Song of the South’. It’s probably worth mentioning that Vincente is some sort of super-cop whom Murphy only tolerates because Vicente’s reputation pulls in a fuckton of business. In actuality, Murphy and Vicente hate each other and never miss an opportunity to trade barbed insults. It’s worth mentioning that not because it has any fucking impact on the plot, but because the script bludgeons the viewer over the head with it at roughly five minute intervals for at least 70% of the entire fucking running time.

Quite why the Murphy/Vincente antagony is so painstakingly established only not to result in any kind of payoff, I have no idea. But then I have no idea why a Jackson/Ginger romance is hinted at only for one of the participants to be almost offhandedly despatched. Nor why Vincente and Agnes seem to be developing an under-Felix’s-nose flirtation only for Vincente’s protectorship to switch to Whitney. Nor why the film’s called ‘Witchtrap’ when the antagonist is so obviously a warlock.

In its defence, though, ‘Witchtrap’ isn’t as egregiously bad as ‘Witchboard’ or ‘Witchcraft’: it’s pacier and more eventful than the former, and nowhere near as powerfully stupid or riddled by inconsistencies as the latter. It is, however, the least well-acted of the three, with only Quinn bothering to create a character and deliver his lines with a bit of bite. Tatum and Bailey are almost inseparable in their woodenness; eventually the only way I could tell them apart was that Tatum had the scratchy voice and the stilted delivery while Bailey had the squeaky voice and the stilted delivery.

Still, every character in a film like this is essentially expendable: even those singled out from the start as Male Lead and Final Girl remain mere ciphers. The big bad is what counts in this type of flick, whether it’s a psycho-killer, a ghost, a demon, a warlock or an undead tax inspector. And Luebsen as Avery Lauder – while never likely to give Jason or Freddy or Pennywise a run for their money – does at least invest his characterisation with enough flamboyant malevolence to make the proceedings worthwile. In particular, Avery’s manipulation of a character who makes a final reel escape attempt gives the film its most effective sequence.

There’s also a sub-plot involving voyeuristic groundsman Elwin (Hal Havins) – a former associate of Avery’s – who comes across as well fucking dodgy from the outset and loses no time in going into complete meltdown. Whether a deliberate aesthetic decision or because Tenney’s script couldn’t be bothered to establish motivation, it’s never entirely certain whether the second-fiddle antagonist he becomes is due to Avery’s supernatural influence or his own mental health issues. I strongly suspect the ambiguity was accidental, but it’s definitely welcome and kicks against the boilerplate narrative beats elsewhere, so I’m not complaining.

Kevin S Tenney notched up his B-movie meisterwerk second time out with ‘Night of the Demon’, a quantum leap from the hack work of his feature debut ‘Witchboard’. ‘Witchtrap’ was his third role of the genre dice and he got enough things right to suggest a career path as a dependable purveyor of the cheap and nasty. How dependable? Well, the Winter of Discontent is just round the corner. Maybe it’s time to sample more of his wares …

Saturday, October 21, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Last Witch Hunter

Using the word “last” in your film title is both a signifier of dramatic content (how can what’s onscreen not be some kind of götterdämmerung?) and a self-styled elevation to some pretty impressive company. ‘The Last Picture Show’. ‘The Last Tycoon’. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. ‘The Last Waltz’. ‘The Last Emperor’. ‘The Last Seduction’. ‘The Last Detail’*.

And that’s why it’s so galling when lesser films go the “last” route. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. ‘The Last Castle’. ‘The Last Airbender’ (a film that sounds like it’s about the fin de siecle of flatulence). ‘The Last Boy Scout’. It’s as if you’d announced your piece of cinematic product as ‘The Last Motherfucking Badass Motherfucker’ and what unspooled through the projector was basically every single episode of ‘Ivor the Engine’ edited to feature length.

Which is a 130-word way of saying that a film entitled ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ sets up certain expectations. Granted, certain elements begin to undermine said expectations – Exhibit A: “starring Vin Diesel”; Exhibit B: “directed by Brett Eisner” – but then you note the presence of Michael Caine, Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood in the supporting cast. And besides, it’s called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to spend an hour forty-six minutes on a film called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’?


Oh. Okay.

So it is just me then.


‘The Last Witch Hunter’ (hereinafter ‘TLWH’) kicks off with a prologue set at some indeterminate point in history. I’d like to be charitable and describe it as the middle ages, but I rather think the production designer had watched too much ‘Game of Thrones’ (maybe he had some say in Leslie’s casting?). Some bearded dudes with heavy duty swords and axes venture through a wintry landscape and come across the lair of a witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht). Their numbers are decimated as the witch queen’s legions unleash themselves. Eventually, though it’s a smackdown between the witch queen and Kaulder (Diesel). Kaulder wields a sword of fire (yeah, that’s pretty much your first quality control plummet right there). He runs the witch through; the witch mortally wounds him.

But Kaulder doesn’t die. The witch queen curses him with immortal life. Cut to: the early twentieth century and Kaulder is working for a shadowy ecumenical organisation called the Axe and Cross (which every single cast member manages to enunciate as a single word – Axsunkross – making it sound like the world’s least convincing German death metal band), wherein he’s aided by a series of individuals known as Dolans. Each Dolan is a sort of composite butler, advisor and biographer. Kind of like Beauchamp from ‘Unforgiven’ crossed with Alfred the butler from the Batman films. The Alfred comparison is strengthened by the fact that Kaulder’s current Dolan (the 36th shadowy priest to have held the position, and on the verge of retirement) is played by Michael Caine. Not the Michael Caine of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or ‘The Prestige’, unfortunately – you know, the Michael Caine who’s interested in the role and committed to the performance – but the Michael Caine of, say, ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ or ‘The Fourth Protocol’: the Michael Caine who’s basically sleepwalking through each day on set while he tops up his retirement fund.

Anyway, Caine’s 36th Dolan doesn’t get much chance to enjoy his retirement. His internment and Elijah Wood’s swearing in as Dolan numero 37 occur on the same day. 37 tries to ingratiate himself with Kaulder, to limited effect. Kaulder isn’t convinced that 36’s death was natural: “I’ve seen men get old, retire and die – just not on the same day”.

Unfolding against an uneasy truce between elementals and the church – facilitated by a witches’ council – what follows, never mind how fuck-awful in conception and execution, is a pacy and entertaining enough romp through a bit of hasty world-building (or rather underworld-building, since the film is set in an immediately recognisable Big Apple where the witchy and warlocky business is done in basement bars, caverns and abandoned churches). For its first hour or so, it’s pretty much a procedural as eternal loner Kaulder, shoving 37 into the background, cuts a swathe through NYC’s coven community in search of the big bad. En route, he encounters bar owner, sorceress and dreamwalker Chloe (Leslie, who I’d love to see revisit the character in a spin-off): witch and witch-hunter form an alliance.

For its last act, ‘TLWH’ goes into full-on CGI mode as Kaulder’s investigation leads back to his erstwhile encounter with the witch queen and the nature of his immortality is threatened. These aren’t spoilers by the way, the narrative is just very predictable. The CGI is questionable. The stakes, however, are given a little weight. There’s a moment where it looks like Kaulder is eff ewe kay tee fukt, and that at least is something interesting in a Vin Diesel film.

Elsewhere, however, things are strictly boilerplate. The performances are as you’d expect. Leslie does her best, Wood wears the perpetually sad expression of one who once had a proper film career and it wasn’t so long ago either, Caine we have already spoken of, and Diesel we probably shouldn’t speak of. When an actor takes his stage name** from the acronym for vehicle identification number and a combustible fuel, it tells you all you need to know, non? Put it this way: if you saw a poster for an action movie starring Chassis Petrol or Engineblock Benzin, you wouldn’t expect a Paul Schofield or Christopher Plummer level of thespian excellence, would you?

And that’s exactly what you get in ‘TLWH’: a Vin Diesel performance attuned to the expected aesthetic of a Vin Diesel film. If only it had been Rose Leslie vs The Witch Queen From Hell.

*A film ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ should have emulated, in my humble opinion. Vin Diesel walking into a shitty dive, slamming a cross down on the bar and declaring “I am the motherfucking witch patrol, motherfucker” would have been instantly more iconic than anything on offer in the actual film.

**Vin Diesel’s birth name is Mark Sinclair.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: The Love Witch

A true one-off, this flick, and very difficult to quantify using any set of critical perameters. As an example of auteur theory, ‘The Love Witch’ is pretty much the ne plus ultra. The phrase a “film by” has seldom been so completely laid claim to as by Anna Biller who was responsible for its script, score, production, direction, set decoration, art direction, production design and costume design. IMDb doesn’t drill down into such detail, but I’d be willing to put money on her doing the catering, making the tea and designing the poster.

If Biller is the one-woman force of nature that got the film off the ground, Samantha Robinson as the eponymous sorceress makes it fly.

Robinson plays Elaine, a stylish, sexy but somehow slightly strange woman who arrives in a burst of colour and enigma in a small town and proceeds to turn the heads of most of its menfolk. I say “slightly strange” because everything in ‘The Love Witch’ is off-kilter: the camerawork has the too-bright intensity and in-your-face angles of classic gialli, the colours are unnatural, the performances are deliberately stilted, the production design locates the film in some fictive netherworld between 1963 and yesterday, and the music is as if Burt Bacharach suddenly became really interested in Anton LaVey.

Does the above sound like I’m handing out a half-and-half serving of compliment and bitchiness? All I can say is that ‘The Love Witch’ offers, simultaneously, the undiluted artistic expression of its creator and a viewing experience almost guaranteed to have the audience wondering just who the fuck Biller made it for. Its giallo stylisations overlay the first twenty minutes or so only, and moreover its narrative choices and mise en scene are utterly removed from the genre. Its depiction of witchery seems more like a conflation of mental illness and paganism. Its feminist trappings are at best confused. A weird second-half scene, extended to such a length that it must have conceived as meaningful, has a group of wandering minstrels enact a Shakespeare-cum-Wicker-Man-cum-support-group play involving a fake marriage. The whole thing is so po-faced and earnest and abjectly pointless that the only polite response is to gawp at the screen and not snigger.

Granted, most of the film is pitched at the level of pastiche rather than outright spoof or ironic commentary – an artistic decision which negates an entire swathe of conventional critical tropes – but the play scene exists in an entirely different register from anything else. It marks the point at which complete artistic control stumbles over the cracked paving stone of self-indulgence and falls face-first into the sinkhole of what-the-fuckery.

‘The Love Witch’ is a striking and original film that is engaging and entertaining and thought-provoking for approximately 60% of its needlessly extended two hour running time, and you can fuck me with a wagstick from here to the next equinox if the rest of it even remotely belongs on a length of celluloid that could otherwise have been used for road safety commercials.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Blair Witch

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’ came out of nowhere, terrified a generation, and opened the doors for far more “found footage” horror movies than were strictly necessary. It was a cultural phenomenon and tapped into … actually, I don’t know what the fuck it tapped into. I didn’t rate it at all. In fact, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ remains high in the top ten of Most Boring Movies I’ve Sat Through On The Big Screen.

I never even bothered with ‘Blair Witch 2: Book of Cash-In’ and from what I’ve heard of it, I was wise not to. Wish I could say the same of Adam Wingard’s ‘Blair Witch’, its oddly truncated title – suggesting a reboot while it’s actually a “15 years later…” sequel to the original – the least of its problems.

Wingard is one of those directors – like Ti West – who’s carved out a prolific career for a relatively young filmmaker, who turns out confident work on micro-budgets, who often attracts “future of the genre” epithets, and yet never seems to achieve that move to the mainstream the way, for instance, Jordan Peele has with ‘Get Out’. Nor is Wingard quite as smart a director as West or Peele, though parts of ‘You’re Next’ hinted at greater things.

‘Blair Witch’, however, doesn’t. In fact, all ‘Blair Witch’ hints at is the tired cult of remakes that is slowly draining the life from contemporary horror films. Sure, the film is a delayed sequel in which Heather-from-the first-film’s brother (who, given the timeframe, must have been in the neo-natal clinic when she disappeared) sees some footage online and leads a mismatched group of wannabe documentary filmmakers into the woods etc etc, and sure, they’ve got better kit than Heather & co., including a drone, but ‘Blair Witch’ is an almost beat-by-beat remake. It’s certainly a yell-by-yell remake in terms of how bratty and argumentative the principles are. And a shake-by-shake remake as far as the camerawork is concerned.

Where Wingard does pay lip service to originality, he achieves little. There are more principles this time round, including two locals, which should have shaken up the group’s dynamic, but instead just results in more people yelling at each other. There’s a drone to give us aerial shots of how vast the forest is when the endless shots of the group tramping through yet more swathes of woodland on ground entirely establishes the sense of scale anyway. There’s more business at the scary old house at the end, but whereas the original generated a sense of the unexplained by ending at the exact point at which it did, ‘Blair Witch’ plods around the scary old house for fifteen minutes and starts grabbing at anything it can just to fill up the time – tunnels, crawlspaces, characters who had earlier disappeared returning as servants of the witch, a huge God-light that illuminates the scary old house for no other reason, presumably, than someone on the production managed to get their hands on a Kleig light and figured they may as well use it.

Worse is still to come: ‘Blair Witch’ lumbers towards a conclusion straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan twist-ending-for-its-own-sake playbook. A twist that relies on the kind of temporal monkey-business – day suddenly becoming endless night, one character ageing visibly while the others don’t, and a summary of the bootstrap paradox for the YouTube generation – that you can only really get away with if you have a Tardis and a Gallifreyan birth certificate.

‘Blair Witch’ is a wretched piece of work whose 89-minute running time feels like you’ve sat through ‘Satantango’ with commercial breaks every quarter of an hour.