Tuesday, November 27, 2018
I’m just guessing, but one evening director Julius Avery and screenwriters Billy Ray and Mark L Smith were over at JJ Abrams’s house ingesting hallucinogenic substances in Keith Richards-style quantities when somebody posited that doing one of those big-budget war movies like they did in the Sixties – ‘The Guns of Navarone’, say, or ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – but shot through with the hip insouciance of Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ would be the best thing ever, then someone else had the brass balls to suggest that ‘The Bridge at Remagen’ was a more radical big-budget war movie touchstone than some Alistair MacLean adaptation, at which point there was a fuck-off big punch up and, at some indeterminate moment while a fist was thwacking into a face and a jet of blood was slow-motioning its way toward the flock wallpaper, yet someone else had the deal-sealing idea that what would really tie these elements together was undead super-soldiers. Whereupon the various parties picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and worked out a contract. Then did a fuckton more skag. I rather imagine the script was developed under similar circumstances.
‘Overlord’ is a dumb movie. And when I say dumb, I don’t mean a slightly vacuous or a little bit silly or even the kind of cheesy and utterly nonsensical work that leaves you undecided whether to chuckle or facepalm. No: when I say ‘Overlord’ is a dumb movie, I mean powerfully fucking stupid. It’s also the most entertaining film I’ve seen on the big screen since ‘The Nun’ – and if that isn’t a commentary on how proper cinema needs to get its act together then I don’t know what is.
The plot is almost irrelevant – mismatched grunts; sadistic Nazis; medical experiments; fire fights and fist fights; shitload of things blow up: that pretty much covers it – and the characters ciphers. There’s the Reluctant Hero Who’s Never Killed A Man Before (Jovan Adepo), there’s the Hard Ass Lieutenant For Whom The Mission Is Everything (Wyatt Russell), there’s Wiseass Italian-American Who Never Stops Talking (John Magaro), there’s the Aristocratic But Slightly Rapey Nazi Officer (Pilou Asbæk) and there’s the Plucky French Villager Who Turns Out To Be A Veritable Fucking Badass (Mathilde Ollivier). Everybody else pretty much exists to get mown down in the kind of shoot outs where one of the good guys slams in a clip and twenty minutes later they’re still happily decimating the Third Reich.
As you’d expect, every narrative beat is predictable. Injured antagonist who uses the super-soldier serum on himself? Check. Previously irascible character who risks his life to save cute kid? Check. Unorthodox mission behind enemy lines with the odds stacked at a seemingly insurmountable level? Check. Male bonding under said conditions? Check.
And violence: lots and lots of the old ultraviolence, all of it comic book and cynical as fuck in its amorality? Check, check, checkity check.
‘Overlord’ suffers from a first forty minutes or so that veers from annoying (the extended opening scene that sets up the platoon before their plane gets shot to ribbons and they’re forced to make an earlier-than-expected parachute jump has more in keeping with a Vietnam flick than a WWII movie and the tone grates) to plodding (it takes far longer than it ought to for the survivors to regroup, encounter the Plunky French Villager Who Turns Out To Be A Veritable Fucking Badass and make it to the village). Once everything’s in place, though, the pace picks up, the red stuff starts flying and it’s good unclean fun all the way to the end credits. Subject of which, head for the exit the moment they start: the hugely anachronistic song that plays over them is just fucking horrible. And further evidence that the filmmakers were off their tits on Colombia’s finest.
Saturday, November 24, 2018
In an otherwise balanced article for The Spectator on the Wilma Montesi murder case*, Alexander Chancellor refers to Piero Piccioni as “a sleazy jazz musician and composer of film music”. I can find little on the internet regarding Piccioni’s alleged sleaziness, apart from the fact that he had a voracious appetite for women (he was, at one point, embroiled in an affair with Alida Valli) and the good life. The son of Attilio Piccioni, a high-ranking member of the post-war Italian Christian Democratic Party, he was a self-taught and prodigiously talented musician whose career as a lawyer was something he bailed on as soon as he hoved into the orbit of Rome’s film community where he carved out a good career writing film scores. Over 300 of them in fact, including ‘The 10th Victim’, ‘The Nun and the Devil’, ‘The Light at the Edge of the World’, ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ and the film under consideration today, Geoffrey Reeve’s ‘Puppet on a Chain’.
The reason I bring all of this up is because ‘Puppet on a Chain’ is chiefly remembered – by those who remember it at all – as “the one with the funky Piero Piccioni score and the cracking speedboat chase”. But is there more to it than that? Let’s find out. After, that is, we’ve paused for two minutes and forty-eight seconds to appreciate the Hammond organ driven glory of the opening credits theme. Seriously, I want to own this on vinyl and only ever play it after dark while drinking a martini and wearing a velvet smoking jacket.
‘Puppet on a Chain’ is based on a novel by Alistair MacLean, published in 1969. The film was released in 1971M acLean’s fame was at its height: adaptations of his earlier books ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Ice Station Zebra’ had made fucktons of money and he was riding high on an unbroken string of bestsellers that had commenced a decade and a half earlier with ‘HMS Ulysses’. The golden period was all but over, though. From 1973’s ‘The Way to Dusty Death’ to his swansong ‘Santorini’ (1986), the quality control of MacLean’s novels was to become unreliable at best, his slide into alcoholism not helping matters. Almost as if in imitation, the film versions struggled to find favour at the box office, with even solid second-tier adaptations like ‘Fear is the Key’, ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ and ‘Breakheart Pass’ – all of which I’d pick as an evening’s viewing over J. Lee Thompson’s bloated, talky and absurdly overrated take on ‘The Guns of Navarone’ – opening to disinterest if not outright indifference.
MacLean remains ill-served by the big screen. ‘Bear Island’ had a top-flight cast but makes so many deviations from the novel that the creative team could easily have saved themselves the outlay for the rights simply by giving it a different title. ‘Force Ten from Navarone’ also makes significant changes to the novel (a weird decision since MacLean had conceived as more of a sequel to the film of ‘The Guns of Navarone’ than to his original novel). ‘The Golden Rendezvous’ was so fucked-about-with during production that it emerged as borderline incoherent, while the less we say about ‘River of Death’ the better. Particularly galling are ‘Caravan to Vaccares’ – one of my personal faves in the MacLean bibliography – and the soap-opera-ish TV movie ‘The Way to Dusty Death’, both directed by Geoffrey Reeve. That he made such an effective MacLean adaptation with ‘Puppet on a Chain’ yet dropped the ball so badly with the other two** is borderline depressing.
So why does ‘Puppet on a Chain’ hit the spot when Reeve’s other adaptations don’t? I offer three factors:
Item one: MacLean himself wrote the screenplay for ‘Puppet on a Chain’ and therefore the degree of fidelity between book and film was a given. His greatest strength as a novelist was the ability to write cinematically. You don’t just read a MacLean novel: it unspools in your mind, in widescreen, with no expense spared on the special effects. And yet so many MacLean adaptations make the mistake of deviating from the novel. Such deviations as exist between ‘Puppet on a Chain’ in its two iterations – the most significant being the wholesale removal of one character – are there purely to condense the 250 pages of the book into 97-minute film.
Item two: the aforementioned score. Even when the film is at its most visually drab – and for much of the running time it’s as if Jack Hildyard’s cinematography is purposefully trying to avoid local colour in favour of local gloom – Piccioni’s soundtrack brings it exuberantly, vibrantly to life. And here’s an ideal place to pause again, this time to glory in the evocation of an Amsterdam when a groovy 70s swinging club looks like this …
… and you can dally with an anaemic hooker for thirty guilders:
Item three: the speedboat chase.
Let us discuss the speedboat chase. The one that isn’t in the novel. The one that damn’ near wasn’t in the film until the producers saw Reeve’s first cut and thought “oh shit, this is an Alistair MacLean thriller and there’s no big action set piece” and got Don Sharp on the blower and asked him if he’d shoot a speedboat chase. Sharp was a veteran director whose credits included Hammer productions ‘The Kiss of the Vampire’ and ‘Rasputin, the Mad Monk’, as well as a couple of Fu Manchu movies that starred Christopher Lee and, for the small screen, episodes of ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Champions’. He would go on to helm his own MacLean adaptation eight years later with ‘Bear Island’.
The speedboat chase predates that in ‘Live and Let Die’ (indeed, Sharp’s work on ‘Puppet on a Chain’ was said to have inspired it) by two years, ‘Amsterdamned’ by fifteen and ‘The World is Not Enough’ by almost three decades. It’s better than all of them. The speedboat chase is a tense, high-speed, kinetically shot and edited work of jaw-dropping awesomeness; it’s the waterways equivalent of the car chase in ‘Bullitt’ or – more suited to its down-and-dirty immediacy – the car/L-train chase in ‘The French Connection’.
In fact, ‘Puppet on a Chain’ has a certain kinship with Friedkin’s classic (made the same year): not only do both of them fit the précis “loose cannon lawman busts drugs ring whose product emanates from Europe”, but both trudge grimly through the logistic minutiae of moving the stuff, both feature essentially unsympathetic protagonists who are quick to use both gun and fist, both protagonists are rash and hasty in their actions and make mistakes, and both chase scenes end violently. The differences are that ‘The French Connection’ depicts a means of transporting drugs that is almost genius in its simplicity, while the method in ‘Puppet on a Chain’ is ludicrously overcomplicated (including pendulums, Bibles and dolls, submerged consignments retrieved by barges and helicopters and bases, warehouses and production centres on either side of the Zuider Zee); and that Gene Hackman’s performance in the Friedkin classic is the stuff of thespian legend whereas Sven-Bertil Taube in ‘Puppet on a Chain’ stomps moodily around in a leather jacket while exhibiting the dramatic range of a slightly oxidised piece of lead piping.
Elsewhere in the cast, Alexander Knox and Patrick Allen turn up and speak their lines and collect their pay cheque, Barbara Parkins looks ill-at-ease, and only Penny Casdagli seems engaged with actual characterisation. The weirdest and most grotesque scene in the novel – a sort of pre-‘Wicker Man’ scene of ritualism and violence – is re-imagined for the film and doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact. The low key scenes of investigation – following, being followed, incursions into shadowy buildings under the cover of darkness – are handled well and Reeve is certainly adept at maintaining movement and keeping tension on the simmer. Bill Lenny’s editing is focused and unfussy, each scene snapping at the heels of the previous one.
So yes, there’s more to ‘Puppet on a Chain’ than a speedboat chase and a soundtrack that makes me want to drink posh-boy booze and dress like a lounge-lizard, but not to the degree where any other element emerges as memorable or definitive enough to oust either of them from the viewer’s recollection of the film after the end credits roll. In all probability, the only thing you’ll be concentrating on during the end credits is scouring Amazon for the OST. Preferably on vinyl. That, or booking yourself a speedboat lesson.
*In 1953, the body of an attractive but unassuming lower-middle class girl was discovered near the estate of the Marquess Ugo Montagna, an infamous philanderer, the legitimacy of whose title was even in doubt. The haste of the police to close the case and the bewildering and borderline nonsensical cause of death offered by the coroner turned what might otherwise have been a minor news story into a cause célèbre that galvanised Italy. A muck-raking journalist threw all kinds of accusations in Montagna’s direction until litigation forced him to retract. This u-turn effectively pulled the rug from under a prosecution that was all set to go to court. The tragic Montesi’s death remains unsolved, although Stephen Gundle’s book ‘Death and the Dolce Vita’ works through every possible angle and at least offers Montesi a remembrance.
**Alistair MacLean adaptations account for three out of Reeve’s four directorial offerings. The odd one out is ‘Souvenir’ (1989), based on a war novel by David Hughes.
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
‘Humanoids from the Deep’ is about some fish-monsters (rather than, y’know, humanoids) who rise up from shallow coastal waters (rather than, y’know, the depths) and terrorise a small town whose livelihood depends on fishing, tourism and the economic upturn promised by the local dignitaries who are lobbying for the development of a new canning plant.
Embittered fisherman Hank (Vic Morrow) is all for the plant, convinced it’s his ticket to easy street, and reacts with naked hostility when Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena) organises his fellow Native Americans in a class action against the developers, asserting their historical claim to the stretch of river that will be affected once the plant is built.
Meanwhile, skipper Jim Hill (Doug McClure) keeps his own counsel regarding the development – although he has more in common with Hank, he’s sympathetic to Johnny – while accepting a commission to ferry scientist Dr Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) around while she conducts research into the cannery firm’s experiments with salmon-specific growth hormones.
Director Barbara Peeters focuses on the environmentalism vs industry subplot of Frederick James’s screenplay and much of the first half of ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ procedures in dour fashion at a pace that you might call measured if you were being charitable but would probably just shrug and think “screw it” and call it like it is, instead – slow!
Still, she builds up a reasonably realistic depiction (at least for a flick produced by Roger Corman) of a fishing town: the self-interested owners, the bored but perpetually horny teenagers, the shitty town hall socials, the forced jollity of the local carnival, the petty divisions and grudges that explode into fisticuffs or potentially murderous vigilantism at the drop of a hat. The talentless local C&W band. The personality devoid local radio DJ. The sheer parochialism of it all.
Slowly paced narrative or not, Peeters was definitely on her way to doing something with the material, the location and the cast (B-movie stalwarts McClure and Morrow are authentically interested in their characters, and even the congenitally wooden Turkel seems to be striving towards something maybe only two postcodes removed from a performance) and might have emerged with a halfway decent little flick had she focused on the conflict between Hank and Johnny.
Unfortunately, Hank vs Johnny as a microcosm for contemporary American battleground where corporationism and profit margins set out to ravage nature, culture and heritage is only half of the film. The other half of ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ is about rapist fish monsters.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Now, Peeters knew what she was taking on with the project – she’d helmed a number of low-budget exploitationers already – but her suggestive, cloaked-by-the-shadows approach to the Brett-Kavanaugh-with-gills part of the plot (which could, albeit distastefully, have operated on the level of visual metaphor: big business as a shadowy aggressor) didn’t go over too well with Corman who equated onscreen nudity with ticket sales.
Enter, at Corman’s behest, Jimmy T Murakami. Fresh off basing an entire space opera on Sybil Danning’s cleavage with ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’, Murakami went to town on Corman’s mandate of shoehorning into the film as much fish-monster-on-woman sexual violence as possible. Hence extended scenes where the fish monsters attack randy courting couples Jerry (Meegan King) and Peggy (Lynn Schiller), and Billy (David Strassman) and Becky (Lisa Glaser), as well as threatening Jim’s wife Carol (Cindy Weintraub) with the proverbial fate worse than death.
Now, while this kind of sleaze is par for the course in this kind of movie, and none of us approach a film like ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ (hell, even the title tells us to leave our sensibilities at the popcorn stand) with any expectation above, say, a baseline of cheap and nasty, it has to be said that there are massive stylistic differences between the 80% or so of the film that is Peeters’s work and the grubby Murakami inserts. Nor was it cool for Corman to foist these new scenes onto the film without telling Peeters. Male producer takes film off female director and gives it to a male director with a “more rape” instruction. I think we can all see what’s wrong here.
When Peeters saw the finished product, she petitioned Corman to remove her name from the production, as did Ann Turkel. Corman ignored them. Which is also not cool. You hear a lot about the amount of careers Corman helped jump-start (Scorsese’s with ‘Boxcar Bertha’ being the most frequently cited) but on this showing the guy was a knob-jockey of the first order.
Having made those comments, the question still needs to be asked, in the interests of critical fairness: how does ‘Humanoids from the Deep’ measures up as a monster movie? Well, Rob Bottin’s effects work is decent given the budgetary restraints and the fish-monsters are creepy enough … until they fully leave the water. Scenes where they plod around at the carnival in the film’s interminable set piece finale are ridiculous, mainly because the actors seem utterly constricted by the costumes and move sluggishly and falteringly as a result. It’s hard to be scared by a monster, no matter how savagely its claws can rake your flesh and how unhealthy its designs on your womenfolk are, when all you need to do to outpace it is to veer off in the other direction and maintain a pace that makes Alvin Straight look like Ayrton Senna.
Friday, November 16, 2018
Riccardo Freda’s 1971 giallo location hops from London to Dublin to Switzerland, features a series of grisly murders and attempted murders using acid and straight razors, has as its protagonist an ex-cop with a violent streak brought in by his former boss when more conservative methods of investigation fail, and said individual belligerently uncovers a morass of blackmail, envy, corruption, venal snobbery and casual sex. Throw in the fact that it stars Dagmar Lassander – the frankly gorgeous star of minor genre classics ‘The Frightened Woman’ and ‘Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion’ – and we’re talking giallo heaven, right?
Mmmmm, not quite.
It’s an odd one, is ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’. The title is reminiscent of Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and Sergio Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’ – both prototypical gialli shot through with lurid set design, POV-heavy camera work and grand guignol set pieces. ‘Iguana’ offers none of these. Visually, it’s austere: the palette is subdued, the locations drab to say that the film is peopled with privileged ‘establishment’ types, and the staging blunt and realistic rather than baroque and stylised. Nor is there any of the bizarre psychological noodlings that explain the killer’s motives in many a giallo, just a sad commentary on class and entitlement.
The film starts with a young woman being murdered. Shortly afterwards, her body is discovered in the boot of a limousine belonging to Swiss ambassador Sobieski (Anton Diffring). His eccentric and alcoholic wife (Valentina Cortese) and his shifty chauffeur, who wears sunglasses round the clock – he claims conjunctivitis – are easily the most suspicious of those present … until, that is, Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) turns up to make his enquiries and Sobieski, politely but firmly, refuses to cooperate by claiming diplomatic immunity, thereby hoisting himself to the top of the suspects list.
Lawrence responds by calling in John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a man with a violent past and a not-exactly-peaceable present. Norton, as Lawrence intended, promptly makes waves. He makes waves by dint of getting into a protracted brawl with Sobieski’s security staff and by starting an affair with his daughter Helen (Lassander). Along the way, we learn why he got kicked off the force (think Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ boiled down into a thirty second flashback). He makes for grim company, does Norton – even his courtship of Helen is a sour, cynical piece of manipulation – and yet the sleaziest, most pugnacious aspects of his personality are held in check by his domestic situation, wherein three generations of Norton’s, the other two being his mother (Ruth Durley) and his daughter coexist under one roof in an atmosphere of good-natured frustration at each other’s foibles.
Early scenes of en famille Norton are played for comic relief: Mrs Norton’s habit of losing her spectacles is set up as a running joke; the young Miss Norton’s wise-beyond-her-years shtick is cute. But as Norton’s investigation takes him closer to the truth and the culprit, his family come to the killer’s attention and the Norton women find themselves in mortal peril for precisely these reasons.
The narrative recalibration from Norton whittling down the suspects list by the simple expediency of provoking each of them into a reaction to the killer going after Norton’s family makes for a sudden tonal shift made particularly jarring since, for most of its first hour, ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ is an austere and procedural-driven giallo. Sure, it has its lurid moments – the killer’s modus operandi is a vial of acid tossed in the victim’s face followed by a straight-razor to the throat: overkill, much? – but for the most part we follow Norton as he talks to, accuses and sometimes punches people. Subject of his two-fistedness, a bit of rough ‘n’ tumble is no bad thing in a crime movie, but the film boasts two hand-to-hand set pieces, the first of which is filmed entirely in the shadows of an unlit room and blocked and edited in such a way as to suggest that the budget didn’t stretch to professional stuntmen and the actors weren’t comfortable with doing their own stunts. I’m not saying that the scene plays out in visually incomprehensible fashion, but here’s a screengrab taken at random:
The other fisticuff-centric set piece – Norton’s mano-a-mano smackdown with the killer at the end of the home invasion sequence – is shot with prurient attention to detail. Ditto the travails of Mrs and Miss Norton prior to Norton’s not-quite-timely-enough intervention. The filmmakers’ leering enjoyment of this final stretch is palpable, and the shift in tone is as if a Fernando di Leo poliziotteschi had lurched uncomprehendingly into, say, the final reel of Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. (In the interests of fairness, I’m not sure how many of the film’s failings can be laid at Freda’s door: he was apparently so unhappy with the final product that he had his name removed from it: the director’s credit goes to “Willy Pareto”.)
If for no other reason, you could make a case that ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ earns its giallo credentials purely by its title. Although you’d have to give more than a passing nod to the unapologetically tenuous bit of dialogue which explains the reference. But a giallo’s a giallo for a’ that and a’ that, and ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ offers corruption in high places, seductive and possibly duplicitous women, blackmail, jealousy, family secrets, murder most foul and if the not standard issue incompetent coppers who are a mainstay of the genre, then at least one who has to resort to unprofessional methods to crack the case. It doesn’t however, have any of the visual flair, eyeball-watering set design or style-over-substance set-piece porn that Bava, Argento, Martino and their ilk established as a gaudily beautiful template for the genre.
I’ve often said in these Winter of Discontent reviews that the cardinal sin an exploitation movie can commit – the audience, after all, has been ready to forgive bargain basement production values, bad acting, shoddy writing and wonky direction – is to be boring. ‘The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire’ isn’t boring by any means, but it’s visually and stylistically bland – and for a giallo that’s just as bad. If not worse.
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Friends, Romans, fellow exploitation fans, were I to ask of you if a nudity-addled movie in which Rosalba Neri slinks around seductively could entirely be a waste of time, would I be right in assuming that your response would be somewhere in the region of an overwhelming “no”?
Thought so. And yet ‘Two Males for Alexa’ never fully lives up to its promise; doesn’t make – or even try to make – all it could of the material.
And were I to ask of you, ye same merrie bunch, if it’s ever anything less than fun to watch Curd Jürgens wolfing down a big slice of ham as he glowers moodily at the camera, would I be right in assuming that you response would be the equivalent of a large flag hung from your bedroom window printed with the legend “CURD FUCKIN’ JÜRGENS – YEAH”?
Again: thought so. And yet the colossus of Jurgens is threatened in scene after scene by the subsidence of Juan Luis Gallardo’s vacuous performance.
And, since I’m throwing out questions left, right and centre, here’s one more before we get to the meat and bones of this review: can a claustrophobic narrative of deception and sexual tension that locks its central characters in a single location and turns up the heat on them – literally and metaphorically – survive the inclusion, at the critical and most tense moment, of a series of nested flashbacks? You might be tutting and shaking your heads right now, maybe murmuring “Hmmm, probably not.” And I wouldn’t argue with you.
As you’ve probably divined from the above, I have mixed feelings about ‘Two Males for Alexa’ – mixed feelings that extend to the fact that Neri’s character is called Alexa-with-an-x in the goddamn title while the closing credits refer to her as Alecsa which not only doesn’t have an x, but is a stupid fucking spelling whichever way you look at it.
*takes deep breath*
And that’s not my only title-related beef. A Spanish-Italian co-production (that exists in different cuts for each territory), the title is either ‘Fieras sin jaula’ or ‘Dues maschi per Alexa’ – respectively ‘Beasts Without a Cage’ and ‘Two Males for Alexa’. The Spanish title is meaningless, since two of the principles end up locked in a sealed room (i.e. essentially caged), while the maschi = males translation of the Italian is literal and a better rendering of the title would be ‘Two Men for Alexa’. In the US, it showed up as ‘Two Masks for Alexa’ – a forgivable mistranslation (maschi mistaken for maschere) resulting in what I consider a better title. In Germany, it was released as both ‘Im Rausche der Sinne’ (‘In the Chaos of the Senses’ is the best I can do with that one) and ‘Bitterer Whisky’ which simply means ‘Bitter Whisky’ and not, as I originally thought, ‘Whisky That’s More Bitter Than’. Because that’d be silly. More bitter than what exactly?
Anyhoo, whatever title you care to hang on it, and whichever version you watch (the crucial difference is that you get more boob for your buck in the Italian cut), the basic premise of ‘Alexa’s Two Fellas in the Chaotic Senses of the Bitter Whisky’ is thus: while gold-digger Alexa (Neri) dallies with her stud muffin lover Pietro (Gallardo), her considerably older husband Lord Mannering (Jürgens) seethes with revenge while his daughter Catherine (Emma Cohen) frets that Alexa – her contemporary at university – is out to steal her inheritance. Catherine’s subplot is abandoned pretty quickly (in fact, her scenes seem to alternate between exposition and padding) as director Juan Logar focuses on the logistics of how Mannering frames Alexa and Pietro for his own death (that’s only a minor spoiler, btw) and leaves them, quite literally, to rot.
Only, as noted earlier, no sooner does Logar’s script put the lovers in a claustrophobic predicament than he embarks on a lengthy series of flashbacks that serve very little narrative purpose (the interrelationships and Alexa’s manipulation of Mannering to vouchsafe herself a life of luxury have already been established, and how she comes to meet Pietro is neither here nor there); moreover, when Logar finally hauls the film back into the here and now, Pietro’s reeling from a defeated escape attempt, the details of which are vague and the fallout (half the room is on fire) inexplicable. The psychological trauma the pair undergo – which should surely have been the dramatic dynamo of the film’s second half – is rushed and dependent entirely on hamfisted voiceover when so much more could have been communicated visually.
As ‘Two Males for Alexa’ stumbles towards its final moments, the script flirts curiously with the possibility of a final twist (one that, admittedly, would have been difficult as hell to achieve but utterly impressive if Logar had pulled it off) only step back from it and deliver an ending that I’m tempted to call arbitrary or banal but it isn’t even that. I’d be hard pressed, in fact, to call it an ending. The film simply stops and the end credits roll.
But still, it’s got Neri looking hot than hell on a day when there was a heatwave in the ninth circle, it’s got Jürgens alternately glowering and the screen and chewing on his dialogue like he’s not eaten in weeks, it’s got lifestyle porn aplenty (and, boy, does Logar take a twisted pleasure in subverting it), and it’s got a lounge jazz soundtrack that’s marvellously out of place with anything that’s happening onscreen at any moment. You
Sunday, November 11, 2018
I’d heard of ‘Troll 2’. Of course I had. What self-respecting trash fan hasn’t? But until know I hadn’t seen it. Not the opportunity wasn’t there, or even the inclination – after all, I’m always on the qui vive for Winter of Discontent fare. No, it was more the film’s reputation. A reputation so bad, and yet so wrapped up in adoration for its badness, that its decade-and-a-half-later making-of documentary film is titled ‘Best Worst Film’.
Me being me, I’m always suspicious when something is declared the best (or worst) of anything. Is ‘Citizen Kane’ the greatest movie ever made, was Shakespeare the greatest writer who ever lived, is the Beatle’s White Album as good as popular music will ever get? There are those – plenty of them, in fact – who will return a resounding “yes” to each of these, and argue passionately, vehemently, maybe even violently with anyone who dares iconoclasm.
Ditto with critical drubbings. Two of the biggest across-the-board critical takedowns of the last few years were Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ and Zack Snyder’s ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, both of which I had a lot of fun watching.
In short, I simply didn’t believe that ‘Troll 2’ was the worst film ever made. I’ve seen Nico Mastorakis’s soul-destroying ‘Island of Death’, motherfuckers: I’ve seen Dario Argento’s bargain basement attempt at ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci’s vomitous ‘New York Ripper, I’ve seen Enzo Milioni’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘The Sister of Ursula’. I have seen a hell of a lot of truly fuck awful movies. Damn it, I’ve seen ‘Quantum of Solace’, y’all.
Then I noticed that ‘Troll 2’ was due to be excised from Netflix imminently (by the time you read this review, it will probably have disappeared) and figured it was the universe’s way of telling me that the time had finally come to square up to ‘Troll 2’ and make up my own mind.
Where the fuck do I start?
Title’s a good place. ‘Troll 2’ is a film that features the world’s least scary witch and a bunch of shape-shifting vegetarian goblins and not a single everloving troll. Writer/director Claudio Fragasso – under the pseudonym Drake Floyd – was developing the film under the title ‘Goblin’ (y’know, the title that would have been the logical choice) but for whatever reason decided that an opportunity existed to cash in on John Carl Buechler’s 1986 opus ‘Troll’. Granted, ‘Troll’ had made $5million against its $1million or so budget, but it was neither a huge success nor enough of a brand name – particularly four years later when Fragasso’s effort went before the cameras – that hi-jacking its title makes much sense from a publicity perspective.
And it’s not like ‘Troll 2’ deals in goblins but just presents them as generic creatures that the undiscriminating audience could happily assume were trolls. Quite the opposite: ‘Troll 2’ takes every fucking opportunity to tell you that its antagonists are goblins. The film opens with a young boy, Joshua (Michael Paul Stephenson) being a read a fairy tale by the ghost of his grandfather Seth (Robert Ormsby) from a book with the word ‘GOBLIN’ in huge gaudy letters on the cover. Later, Joshua and his family – dippy well-meaning mother Diana (Margo Prey), grumpy disciplinarian father Michael (George Hardy) and attitudinous sexpot sister Holly (Connie Young, credited as Connie McFarland) – go on holiday to a shithole rural town called Nilbog, and just in case anybody didn’t get it, the town sign is shown in reflection, and just in case anybody didn’t get that, Joshua gasps and states in a flat inflection: “Nilbog – it’s ‘goblin’ spelled backwards!” Later still, when Joshua, with a little bit of help from ghost-grandpa, figures out that there’s something up with the townsfolk, he repeatedly informs his parents, “They’re goblins, they want to eat us.”
Which is only partially accurate: they are goblins, but they first want to transmogrify their human victims into plants because they’re vegetarians. This is actually one of the more logical concepts in Fragasso’s script. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s skip back to grandpa Seth and that fairy tale.
Sitting behind Seth’s interplay with the narrative as it unfolds, and the degree of corporeality available to him by which he can manifest (sometimes as a floating head, sometimes as an actual being capable of physically utilising objects around him) is what I can only assume is a complex set of metaphysical rules. The script, however, makes no attempt to define them and Seth’s sudden disappearances at crucial moments, not to mention the almost arbitrary time-bound nature of his supernatural powers (he can freeze time for thirty seconds to allow Joshua to figure something out, but no longer), ultimately seem as random and illogical as anything else that happens in the movie.
The fairy tale concerns a young man named Peter (Glenn Gerner) who becomes lost in the woods one day due to a fog that is so heavy he can’t see his way. He meets an enchantress (Michelle Abrams) who feeds him a green gloop that looks like regurgitated pea soup; he’s turned into a plant and becomes a light snack for the girl’s goblin besties. The film dramatises the story as Seth reads it out: the entire sequence is shot under an azure, cloudless sky, every tree and blade of grass in the woods dappled with the most glorious sunlight and occasionally, very occasionally, the special effects dude remembers it’s supposed to be foggy as fuck and a few wisps of dry ice float in front of the camera.
Keep the gloopy green stuff in mind. It’s all there is to eat in Nilbog (goblin backwards, folks!) when the family get there. The holiday is an exchange with a group of gruff, monosyllabic hillbillies, to whom Michael hands over the keys to his own house with nary a flicker of uncertainty. Turns out the hillbillies never even leave town anyway, but again we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s put the culinary non-delights of Nilbog on pause for a moment and consider the subplot wherein Holly’s putative boyfriend Elliott (Jason Wright) pursues her to the sticks in his family’s RV, taking some of friends – Brent (David McConnell), Drew (Jason Steadman) and Arnold (Darren Ewing) – with him.
Pop quiz, folks: imagine you’re a horny-as-hell teenager hoping to hook up with an attitudinous sexpot and you have access to an RV that you’re hoping will double as a passion wagon: do you light out on your own or invite three buddies along with you who your girlfriend-in-waiting can’t stand anyway? Yeah, thought so. Same here. Perhaps Elliott’s bros-on-tour decision is a tacit admission that things are doomed to fail with Holly, anyway. Maybe he was picking up on the
And indeed the first thing Holly does when she discovers he’s stalked her, bros in tow, is punch him in the face. (Remarkably, Elliott and Holly seem to end up together: I came away from the film sincerely hoping the lad never spills her drink, let alone looks at another woman!) At this point, the bros get split up: Elliott joins Holly and her family at the exchange house where they hold the most pathetic séance in the history of cinema, pleading for grandpa Seth’s help, while the locals gather outside to lay the most pathetic siege in the history of cinema.
Meanwhile, Arnold goes wandering off and meets a girl in the worlds who is being pursued by goblins. He gives the goblins a stern telling off and gets a javelin in his shoulder by way of response. In short order, he and the girl find themselves the prisoners of goblin queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud* (Deborah Reed); the girl is turned into green goo and eaten, while Arnold finds himself trapped in a plant pot as bark and twigs sprout from him. He’s soon joined by Drew. Drew’s taken a jog into town (evidently forgetting that an RV constitutes vehicular transport) to get provisions and been conned by the locals that his mates are waiting for him at chez Creedence. Notwithstanding that there’s no way on God’s green earth, given the time frame, that the locals could have encountered Elliott, Arnold or Brent, Drew takes this bit of information at face value. There’s a moment of hope as Drew tries to rescue Arnold. But it’s not to be. Creedence returns and deals with them. Mind you, the escape attempt was doomed from the outset on account of Drew trying to drag the flower pot across the floor instead of simply smashing it and encouraging Arnold to walk.
Having dealt with Drew and Arnold, Creedence uses the power of a magic stone (the script doesn’t really expand on “magic stone”, by the way) to transform from grey of pallor and dermatologically challenged to vamp in a low-cut dress and goes sashaying off to where the RV is still parked and seduces Brent with a corn on the cob. This narratively purposeless and utterly bizarre sequence (and I say that in the context of a film whose every single fucking scene could easily be described in just those terms) ends with a visual metaphor whereby popcorn stands in for ejaculation.
Okay, folks, I’ve just coasted past 1,500 words and this review has taken me to a place where I’ve used “popcorn” and “ejaculation” in the same sentence. Time to wrap this motherfucker up, methinks.
Having sat through the 93 minutes of ‘Troll 2’, I genuinely don’t know whether it’s the worst film ever made or not. It’s pretty damn bad – no argument there. The performances range from terrible to so far up the mountain of pantomime that the abyss of tragic anti-talent is visible from the peak. As an assemblage of moving images, it has been put together with an almost dedicated lack of care and attention. As an exercise in what-the-fuckery, it owns its notoriety. From “they’ve eaten her and now they’re going to eat me, oh my Goddddddddddddd” to Holly’s robotic dance, from the meat sermon to Creedence’s hand regenerating, from the hoe-down (where a rendition of ‘Red River Valley’ seems to last as long as ‘In-a-gada-da-vida) to the twist in the tale that can only work if you conveniently forget an earlier scene, you can pick for yourself the enough-to-make-your-head-explode moment that truly epitomises ‘Troll 2’.
For Fragasso has, with ‘Troll 2’, crafted a film in which nothing makes even a modicum of sense – narratively, logically or aesthetically. Things happen and people do things (often not even by way of reaction: in fact, there are umpteen moments where you would expect characters to react to events and they simply don’t) and the camera is pointed at objects and locations and it all probably tied together in some greater whole in the feverish depths of Claudio Fragasso’s mind, but on screen it just sits there. In all honesty, ‘Troll 2’ comes very close to being boring – not least in Deborah Reed’s tendency to turn each sentence of Creedence’s dialogue into several minutes’ worth of syllabic elongation, oddly placed pauses and demented eye-rolling – and it’s only gyrations of the WTF-o-meter that keep you watching.
*I don’t even want to try to unpack how all of those references fit together.
Thursday, November 01, 2018
In time-honoured tradition (i.e. since 2010), the 13 For Halloween season segues into the Winter of Discontent, a two-month extravaganza of all things grubby, seedy and generally exploitative. And so it rolls this year. But after a short break.
Winter of Discontent 2018 will be opening its doors on the 11th November and, by way of apology for its delayed start, your humble curator will be running the retrospective till mid-January.
Some good cynical fare has already been selected. Here’s a little taster of things to come: it’s shaping up to be a giallo-centric winter and there’s a definite Rosalba Neri theme emerging.
Winter of Discontent 2018 will be opening its doors on the 11th November and, by way of apology for its delayed start, your humble curator will be running the retrospective till mid-January.
Some good cynical fare has already been selected. Here’s a little taster of things to come: it’s shaping up to be a giallo-centric winter and there’s a definite Rosalba Neri theme emerging.
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
The prologue to ‘Annabelle Creation’ takes place in 1943, with the remainder (i.e. the bulk) of that film taking place in 1955. ‘The Nun’ is set entirely in 1952: indeed the entire film takes place over two days. Which kind of makes ‘The Nun’ episode 1.5 in the ‘Conjuring’ multiverse.
This distinction is wholly irrelevant.
James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ was a pretty fucking great haunted house movie that proved he can be an astoundingly good director the moment you cut him loose from the fuck-awfulness of frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell’s scripts. ‘The Conjuring’ spawned two prequels: ‘Annabelle’, which was borderline terrible, and ‘Annabelle Creation’ which was damned good on a level almost equal to ‘The Conjuring’.
‘The Conjuring 2’ wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor but remains a rock solid and occasionally inspired haunted house movie with a cluster of good performances and a commitment to a grimly realistic urban aesthetic.
These distinctions are utterly relevant.
To put it simply: ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Conjuring 2’, ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Annabelle Creation’ all take place within a post-war 35 year span, all are set in recognisable western locations (three of them in either urban or rural America, one partly in America and mainly in the economically strangled England of the late 70s), all are relatively realistic in their set-ups (i.e. they establish normal characters leading normal lives against unremarkable backgrounds) prior to the intrusion of the supernatural, and all of them are populated by characters who make logical and understandable decisions (in both of the ‘Conjuring’ films, the homeowners only take so much supernatural shit before they get the fuck out of their respective properties).
‘The Nun’ bucks the trend in every respect. It’s set in Romania. Its depiction of Romania is as if a Val Newton b&w chiller got jiggy with Michel Soavi’s ‘The Church’ and Lucio Fulci was called away from a screening of Powell & Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcissus’ to be the godfather. Its main characters are basically a Vatican hired gun and a yet-to-take-her-vows sister who has visions from God. The supernatural doesn’t need to intrude because it’s been strutting all over the screen waving its big Satanic dick in the audience’s face from the start, and Vatican McGuyver and Sister Plot Device abandon any semblance of logical decision making the moment they arrive at the spooky old convent, a modus operandi that achieves its apogee when they descend into the bowels of the edifice to confront an ancient and all-powerful evil and decide that the best way to defeat it is by splitting up and allowing the bad shit to feed off their respective vulnerabilities. Which is kind of like the Ghostbusters ditching the equipment, blindfolding themselves, and stumbling towards Mr Stay Puft and the Slimer clad in t-shirts emblazoned with ‘ALL GHOSTS ARE BASTARDS’ and making the wanker sign instead of the sign of the cross. Also, there’s some total bollocks about the blood of Christ that Dan fucking Brown would have been embarrassed to come up with.
Ladies and gentlemen: ‘The Nun’.
The film opens in full-on gothic style with two nuns – a stern mother superior type and a hot chick who looks more like a Victoria’s Secret model than a bride of Christ – facing up to some demonic something under the convent. The mother superior type is dragged into the stygian darkness by an unseen force. The hot chick flees back to her cell, but said something pursues her. Terrified, she loops a rope around her neck and pitches herself from a high window.
Cut to: Vatican City. Vatican McGuyver, a.k.a. Father Burke (Demián Bichir) attends a meeting at the Vatican. The other attendees include Cardinal Conroy (David Horovitch) and Bishop Pasquale (Michael Smiley) and they all speak wid Oirish accents and mayk wid da t’ousand yahrd stares and the audience would be forgiven if they expected the lot of them to cut loose with the effing and blinding like this was a ‘Boondock Saints’ spin-off. Hey, Fadder Burke, dis nun fokken trew herself out a winduh ‘n’ dat’s a mortal fokken sin sae fokk yersen off ta Rahmaynyah ‘n’ if ’tis the Divvel, kick his fokken ahrse. ‘N’ whoile yer about it, tek Sister Not Confirmed Yet wid yer on account of shhhh that’d be tellin’.
If the Catholic Church ever bankrolled an ecclesiastical reboot of ‘Mission: Impossible’, this would be the pre-credits sequence of the pilot episode.
So we swiftly find ourselves in Romania as Burke and yet-to-be-Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga). They team up with Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) – so named because he’s French-Canadian – who undertakes to drive them out to the convent. Weird shit ensues. That’s weird shit as in … well, I did the whole Val Newton-Michel Soavi-Powell & Pressburger-Lucio Fulci comparison a few paragraphs ago, and if that isn’t enough to indicate how bat-shit crazy ‘The Nun’ is, then I might as well throw in the towel and quit writing film reviews.
In some respects, it’s check-list stuff: Gateway to hell? Tick. Priest haunted by an exorcism that went terribly wrong? Tick. Visions of dead kid from aforementioned exorcism? Tick. Fog-wreathed graveyards? Tick. Premature burial? Tick. Fuckloads of crosses at wonky angles? Tick. Massively unsubtle music cues? Tick. Over-reliance on jump scares? Tick. Jaw-droppingly over-the-top supernatural smackdown involving a demon and the actual blood of Christ? Tick. Cynical coda that ties a supporting character in to the original ‘Conjuring’? Tick.
I’d be tempted to say that it’s filmmaking by committee, except that the committee in question must have been binge-watching 1970s and ’80s Italian horror movies and doing large quantities of hallucinogenics. You can level a lot of justifiable criticism at ‘The Nun’ – and you’d have to look elsewhere for someone to argue its case as one of the better entries in the ‘Conjuring’ cycle – but one thing you could never accuse it of being is dull.
Monday, October 29, 2018
The ‘Conjuring’ universe – because a group of interconnected films can’t be a series or a franchise anymore, oh no, it’s got to be a fucking universe – has, to date, notched up five entries of which, arguably, there has only been one real dud. That dud was John R. Leonetti’s ‘Annabelle’, and when I wrote about it for the twelfth entry in 2016’s 12 For Halloween, I concluded: “Remarkably, it made a fuckton of money at the box office – over $250 million from a budget $6.5 million – making ‘Annabelle 2’ an inevitability. David F Sandberg, whose feature-length debut ‘Lights Out’ did a similar cleaning up at the box office number, is attached to direct. Whether a narrative or psychological hook can be found that makes the Annabelle doll scary – pace the lifeless ventriloquist’s dummy in ‘Magic’, still the best scary doll film – remains to be seen, but the director trade-up is to be welcomed.”
I was right.
That Sandberg, on the evidence of the splendidly creepy ‘Lights Out’, would make a better film than Leonetti was a given. That it would be this good was something I didn’t see coming. Let’s face it: the odds were stacked against him. The Annabelle doll provides a moderately spooky pre-credits sequence to the original ‘Conjuring’ but there was little enough there to suggest an entire 90-minute prequel was required to fill in the backstory. And has there ever been a prequel that wasn’t an exercise in redundancy? Prequels are what happens when studios flog there cash cows so hard that there’s no mileage after in fucking sequels, for Christ’s sake! ‘Annabelle: Creation’ looked set to be a nakedly shameless exercise in milking it. How nakedly shameless? It’s a prequel to the fucking prequel! That’s how nakedly shameless.
And yet … and yet …
‘Annabelle’ fails because … well, it fails on many many levels, but principally it fails because of the nastily cynical Manson-like cult murders upon which it hangs its narrative hook – an aesthetic decision that’s made worse by the fact that it then goes on to rip off ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ for all it’s worth (‘Rosemary’s Baby’ director Roman Polanski’s then partner Sharon Tate was brutally slaughtered by Manson’s followers) – and because it can’t even be bothered to do anything challenging or remotely useful with the material, instead aiming low with the tiredest set of genre tropes imaginable. Moreover, there’s sweet f.a. in ‘Annabelle’ to suggest that an earlier chapter was required to set up the events that it portrays.
‘Annabelle: Creation’, against the odds, manages not only to bring a new provenance to the Annabelle mythology – an infinitely more effective and memorable one than in Leonetti’s film, too – but emerges as a very different beast aesthetically. Dialling back the setting to the 40s and 50s, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ feels different to the other episodes in the ‘Conjuring’, ahem, universe. Those films, grounded in the 70s, explored first a rural American haunted house, then a grimy English haunted house – no rambling gothic mansion for ‘The Conjuring 2’: instead a glum council house allotted to an underprivileged single parent family. ‘Annabelle: Creations’ returns to the American setting, but this time a dustbowl, dirt farm evocation of Nowheresville USA, all creaking front porches, shadowy barns, rusty pick up trucks and the glaring pitiless sun beating down on it all. Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography owes more to the western than the horror film in the exteriors, which is not to say that he doesn’t know how to manipulate negative space and play with focus and visually misdirect the audience in order to make the scare scenes that much more effective. He does indeed, and one of the chief pleasures of the film is how beautifully Alexandre’s visual sense gels with Sandberg’s mastery of slow burn tension and precision timing. For all that ‘Annabelle: Creation’ was doubtless conceived as a dollar-bottom-line profit-spewer, for all that it’s a prequel to a motherloving prequel, the craftsmanship on display is to be marvelled at.
Kudos, also, to the cast. Anthony la Paglia does his best work in ages as a grieving toymaker who, in the aftermath of his daughter’s death (depicted in a shocking blunt pre-credits sequence that has zilch to do with the supernatural), opens his rambling old house to a group of orphaned girls under the charge of idealistic nun Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman). Miranda Otto, as the reclusive matriarch, creates spiky but just-about-sympathetic character where she could easily have gone for the tragic, melodramatic Mrs Rochester type that the script wants to edge her towards; she’s better in this than anywhere else in her filmography. Talitha Eliana Bateman and Lulu Wilson, as fast friends sorely tested by supernatural malevolence, turn in the kind of work that would count as career bests from plenty of seasoned performers three or four times their age.
Narratively, things are kept simple. For a good chunk of the running time, little attempt is made to explain the happenings that centre around the Annabelle doll: weird shit just happens and man that’s all she wrote. And that’s all ‘Annabelle: Creation’ really needs to do in order to work: take a creepy old house and fill it with creepy unexplained happenings. That Sandberg is smart enough to build up the tension slowly but inexorably, and that his creative team get just about every durn thing right in terms of staging and production design, is just the cherry on the cake.
That he finally brings everything to the boil in an 18-minute set piece that plays the viewer’s nervous system like a piano concerto – a dark, Mephistophelean one, perhaps by Liszt – is where ‘Annabelle: Creation’ makes the leap from very good genre flick to bona fide great horror movie. That he follows this with two audacious flash-forwards to link up with that terrible opening to ‘Annabelle’ – does so without pissing all over everything he’d achieved in the preceding hour and three quarters – is quite the achievement.
Saturday, October 27, 2018
How to rate 1986 in terms of horror movie? On the plus side, it gave us standouts ‘The Fly’, ‘The Hitcher’ and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’, as well as the guilty pleasures of ‘Witchboard’, ‘Slaughter High’ and ‘The Wraith’. But it was also the year of ‘Killer Workout’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Poltergeist II: The Other Side’, ‘Neon Maniacs’ and ‘Spookies’.
It was a year in which the stalk ‘n’ slash genre yawned with tiredness and sequels marinated in their own redundancy: in addition to the ‘Poltergeist’ follow-up, there was ‘Psycho III’ and ‘Demons 2’, while ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ forewent the grainy, grimy, gruelling aesthetic of its predecessor and decided to be a comedy instead.
It was the year that gave us ‘Troll’ (which, four years later, would spawn an all-but unrelated sequel destined to be regarded as one of the absolute worst films ever made*) and cult trash-fests ‘Chopping Mall’ and ‘Class of Nuke ’Em High’.
It was an odd year for the horror fan and if said horror fan wanted to examine a film into which that oddness seems to have been distilled, they could do a lot worse than take a look at Fred Walton’s ‘April Fool’s Day’. It was Walton’s second feature film after ‘When a Stranger Calls’, made almost a decade earlier, and he went on to do very little else of interest; it has no big names in the cast; and its budget was a little over $5million. (When the film was remade, 22 years later, with Scout Taylor-Compton in the lead, the budget was still $5million!) For comparison, ‘Chopping Mall’ cost $800,000, and ‘Witchboard’ and ‘Slaughter High’ $2million apiece, while ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ – arguably 1986’s most critically acclaimed horror film – cost just $111,000. And I’m damned if I know what that $5million gave ‘April Fool’s Day’: apart from Charles Minsky’s often gorgeous widescreen cinematography (who I doubt was pulling down mega-bucks for what was only his second gig)**, it pretty much conforms to the production values of most films of its ilk, i.e. single location, cast of unknowns, and make-up work that is actually pretty shoddy; moreover, there are no special effects to speak of, no explosions, no car chases, no helicopter shots, nothing that would have been especially costly to stage. Boat hire: one ferry, one speedboat. Vehicle hire: couple of cars, pick-up truck. Snake wrangler. Swimming cozzie.
Wherever the money went, then, this is what we get in terms of audience satisfaction: an attractive young cast (even if most of the characters are douchebags), some nice rural location work, a script that trades almost solely in rug-pulls, bloodless death scenes (in fact, death scenes that are often cut away from at the crucial moment), very few extended set-pieces and little tension generated by those that do at least attempt to remember that the whole project is supposed to be a tense horror flick, and absolutely zero nudity. If this were a Winter of Discontent pick, it would have ticked none of the boxes.
Still, we’re a little more forgiving in the 13 For Halloween stable, so let’s take a paragraph or two to dwell on the incidental pleasures of ‘April Fool’s Day’. First, though, a quick plot synopsis:
The hilariously named Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) lives in an ancestral pile on an island accessible only by boat – she stands to inherit the property on her 21st birthday – to which she invites a group of friends for the weekend. The party includes the bookish Nan (Leah Pinsent), the vampish Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) and her wiseass boyfriend Chaz (Clayton Rohner), girl-next-door Kit (Amy Steel) and her underachieving boyfriend Rob (Ken Olandt), and prissy ambitious type Harvey (Jay Baker). On the ferry over to chez Muffy, a bad-taste prank ends in a deckhand sustaining a gruesome injury and a pall settles over the weekend before the celebrations have even begun. Nonetheless, Muffy hosts an elaborate dinner party and proposes a toast to friendship – a toast that ends with a prank of her own, albeit a more good-natured one.
That night, as the various guests take to their rooms, they experience further pranks, some genuinely funny (Kit and Rob trying to turn off the lights in their room: the off switch for one light triggers another to snap on), others darker (the tape of a baby crying in Nan’s room, something that has an unpleasant connotation for her). The next morning, Muffy’s behaviour alters: gone, the gregarious hostess; in her place, a strange, edgy young woman who could almost be a different person. Then one of the guests goes missing …
The first thing ‘April Fool’s Day’ does is effect a nice balance between the expected tropes of the genre and a satirical sense of humour in its approach to the material. The cast, all in on it (and what “it” is, I’m honour bound to keep shtum), play wittily off each other and know just how far to go in terms of tipping the audience a wink. Secondly, it takes the prank-gone-wrong scenario that was already a staple of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre courtesy of everything from ‘The Dorm that Dripped Blood’ (1982) to ‘Slaughter High’ (released the same year as ‘April Fool’s Day’) and has fun using the concept not as a set-up but a series of variations on a theme. Thirdly, it monkeys with the audience’s expectations in a way that stalk ‘n’ slash films rarely do: usually, there’s a red herring or two, but ultimately the business at hand is less about whodunit than how bloodily they did it and who the final girl will be. ‘April Fool’s Day’, on the other hand, positively embraces the whodunit playbook (Muffy’s palatial pad is described as being like “something out of Agatha Christie”), even if it does so purely to set up its final rug-pull.
Ah, yes. The ending. The thing that I can’t tell you about without going full speed ahead for Spoiler Island. Let’s just say that the clue’s in the title. Whether it works for you or not is, I suspect, entirely dependent on the mood you’re in. I watched the film this afternoon, indoors and warm while rain beat against the window and the wind howled; I sank a pink of the Old Crafty Hen while I watched it. My general mood was a sense of oneness with the world and everything in it, and I enjoyed the cheekiness of the ending. Had I been in a more critical mood – or a grumpier mood – I could well have hated the ending. Most critics won’t admit to that degree of subjectivity, would rather you believe that they uphold a rigid set of objective perameters. Movies like ‘April Fool’s Day’ poke fun at such fallacies.
*Let’s review that motherfucker for Winter of Discontent, shall we?
**Minsky went on the lens several dozen films as well as directing for film and TV. In addition to ‘April Fool’s Day’, his CV includes ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’ and ‘Mother’s Day’. He’s obviously the go to guy for films based on calendar dates.
Thursday, October 25, 2018
What does it take to elevate a piece of genre boilerplate – or, in the case of tonight’s offering, a piece of teenie genre boilerplate – from an undemanding watch over a couple of glasses of wine to something that gets its very own review on The Agitation of the Mind?
Is it the way in which all the familiar tropes are laid out with the care and enjoyment of one who clearly loves the genre but hasn’t necessarily distinguished himself within it? (Step forward John R Leonetti of ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’, ‘The Butterfly Effect 2’ and ‘Annabelle’ not-quite-fame.)
Is it the winning performance by a leading lady who gives her all and in doing so transcends a script chicaned with twists and turns that you can see coming like an aircraft carrier on a duckpond? (Step forward Joey King, who at the age of 19 has more acting credits to her name than most septuagenarians who have been in the business all their lives. Though, granted, most septuagenarians don’t have ‘Ramona and Beezus’ and ‘The Kissing Booth’ on their CVs.)
Or is it because it’s closing in on All Hallow’s Eve and your humble blogger needs to bash out the last few 13 For Halloween reviews pronto pronto?
A little bit of column A, a little of column B and a little bit of column C, as it turns out.
‘Wish Upon’ starts with a prepubescent Clare Shannon (Raegan Revord) go cycling off down a suburban street with a distinctly Haddenfield vibe, under the watchful eye of her mother Johanna (Elisabeth Rohm). Johanna’s just dumped a suspicious looking package in a bin and withdraws wearily into the house. By the time Clare reaches the end of the street and pedals back, Johanna has taken herself off to an upstairs room, thrown a rope over a ceiling beam and goodnight Vienna.
Fast forward a decade or so and Clare (King) is the unpopular white trash girl at the kind of high school that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be in ‘Carrie’ or ‘Clueless’. Her best, indeed only, friends are June (Shannon Purser) and Meredith (Sydney Park) who are also outcasts (seemingly based on hair colour and skin colour respectively). Clare’s frustrated musician father Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) makes a living foraging for scrap metal or resaleable items from peoples’ trash, kind of like a less phlegmy Albert Steptoe and HOLY FUCK, WHEN DID RYAN PHILLIPPE START PLAYING DAD ROLES? CHRIST ALMIGHTY, THAT MAKES ME FEEL OLD! Oh, and there's Sherilyn Fenn, the va-va-voom sex symbol of my adolescence, playing the kindly middle-aged neighbour, so just pass me my free fucking bus pass already.
I SAID Clare’s dad is a scrap merchant and one day he brings home a puzzle box for her that’s covered in Chinese ideograms. Long story short, the box grants her seven wishes. Small print: blood price required for wishes one to six, the owner’s soul in return for the seventh. And guess what, the blood prices are always paid by those closest to the owner.
So what we have is a melange of ‘Hellraiser’ (box that releases something unpleasant), ‘The Box’ (you get a good deal, someone else gets a truly shit one) and ‘Final Destination’ (in the way that ‘Wish Upon’ sets up its death scenes, most transparently in a roadside wheel change intercut with some business in an elevator), with a little bit of ‘The Babadook’ (the puzzle box, like the pop-up book, seems impervious to getting chucked away) and ‘The Unborn’ (curse born of wartime trauma) thrown in for good measure. You’ll probably identify a couple of dozen other points of genre reference when you watch it.
So why should you watch it? Well, it’s Leonetti’s best film to date, and while I realise that’s not exactly saying much, it does at least point to the possibility of better things from him in a way that everything else on his filmography most definitely doesn’t. And it’s got an attractive young cast who engage with the material and don’t condescend to it, or the audience, in terms of their performances. Also, it doesn’t break its own rules like, say, ‘It Follows’ did. And it doesn’t allow its characters to dodge the inevitable. As much as a lightweight flick like ‘Wish Upon’ can be said to be about anything it’s about the price that has to be paid, never mind how shallow the pleasures that were taken along the way and how ultimately transient they were.
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Okay, there’s no two ways around this. For all that it was the pitch that persuaded Blumhouse Productions to sign the cheque, for all that it was high concept around which the script is constructed like a house of cards with the finest of Swiss watches at the heart of it, and for all that every frickin’ review of the film that’s ever been written or will ever be written immediately utilises it as an entry point to facilitate discussion, there’s no way I can tender my own review without reaching for that exact same pop-culture comparison.
‘Happy Death Day’ is the ‘Groundhog Day’ of the stalk ‘n’ slash genre.
Self-obsessed sorority sister Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes on her birthday in the dorm room of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a drunken bender; during the walk of not-quite-shame (nothing happened between them) back to her sorority house, a series of events that may or may not be important occur; on her return, she interacts spikily with roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) and sorority queen bitch Danielle (Rachel Matthews); as her day progresses, she meets married lover and university lecturer Charles (Gregory Butler), attends a house party, is menaced by a knife-wielding figure in a mask, and is viciously murdered. At which point she wakes in the dorm room of nice guy Carter; it’s her birthday.
When ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ used the ‘Groundhog Day’ formula in the context of a futuristic war story, it worked through small permutations in Cage (Tom Cruise)’s day from hell, making him jump through any number of (time) loops in his quest to make contact with Emily Blunt’s Angel of Verdun and therefore kickstart the non-timey-wimey* part of the plot. By comparison, the only part of Tree’s day that is set in stone is the walk from Carter’s room, and even then her response to the pre-ordained sequence of events changes as the film progresses, from ice-queen ignorance of the world around her, to carefree disregard (in the film’s funniest and most lurid moment), to interaction with those around her. Beyond this, Tree almost immediately begins making changes to the structure of her, using every bit of foreknowledge to firstly try to evade her death, then to solve it, and finally to fight back against it.
‘Groundhog Day’ had a clever script, ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ a not-as-clever-as-it-thought-it-was script. ‘Source Code’ and ‘Looper’, which play with similar conceits, have scripts that almost trip over themselves in their attempt to play in the ouroborus sandbox. ‘Happy Death Day’ has a script (by Scott Lobdell) that is pure joy. And if you think that describing the script of what, for all its sci-fi elements and its comedic moments, is essentially a slasher as “pure joy” is pushing it about, then all I can say is watch the thing and prepare to spend an hour and a half feeling like you want to stand up and applaud, while a big cheesy grin wipes itself across your face and unabashedly stays there.
As a slasher, ‘Happy Death Day’ is perfectly on point and a hell of a lot smarter than it needs to be. As a variation on the theme of ‘Groundhog Day’, ditto. As a comedy, ditto. As a character study (yes, really), ditto.
Which brings me to the other ace in the film’s hand: its leading lady. Jessica Rothe owns ‘Happy Death Day’ in the way that the then-unheard-of Kate Winslet owned ‘Heavenly Creatures’ or the then-unheard-of Emily Blunt owned ‘My Summer of Love’. “Star-making performance” is an overused old saw, but damned if it isn’t the perfect description of Rothe’s turn as Tree.
Christopher Landon’s direction is also spot on. He handles the comedy in refreshingly cynical fashion, gets his attractive cast playing off against each other in fine style (Modine and Matthews get some maliciously memorable moments of their own), and pulls out all the stops when it comes to the horror tropes. Tree’s first date with death – an Argento-esque set-up involving an underpass, a masked figure and a music box – is properly creepy, while elsewhere there’s some cat ‘n’ mouse in an underground parking garage and a desperate chase through hospital corridors.
Ultimately, everything ties together satisfyingly and seamlessly, with only one thing unresolved: why Tree got stuck in the time loop to begin with. A sequel, due out next year – and with director and principle cast returning – promises to explain why. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to.
*Sorry. ‘Doctor Who’ fan.
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Let’s get the one overriding criticism of ‘III’ out of the way. Let’s take a deep breath, boys and girls and creatures of darkness, and say it together:
‘III’ is not particularly original.
In fact, let’s double down on that, purely in the interests of clearing the decks of the one inescapable negative of tonight’s offering. Let’s take a deep breath, ladies and gentlemen and monsters under the bed, and say it together:
‘III’ is pretty fucking derivative.
‘III’ is a Russian film that is haunted by the grim landscapes and mindscapes of Tarkovsky, the disturbing dream-(il)logic of David Lynch and even a soupçon of Tarsem Singh’s ‘The Cell’ if ‘The Cell’ had genuinely been a descent into psychological nightmare and a not a boilerplate cop thriller.
(And while we’re getting things out of the way, it should be mentioned that this isn’t ‘Three – III’, the Kelly Brook on a desert island hand-shandy enabler from a decade or so ago. Y’know, just in case the Tarkovksy/Lynch/Singh comparison didn’t tip you off to that fact.)
‘III’ is set in a small town that doesn’t look like it’s changed much since medieval times apart from the provision of running water. Not that sanitation has done much for anybody’s life expectancy: a plague is cutting a swathe through the residents like 2017 through rock stars*. Sisters Ayia (Polina Davydova) and Mirra (Lyubov Ignatushko) are caring for their ailing mother when the film opens and receiving spiritual counsel from Father Herman (Evgeniy Gagarin). After her death, Mirra – already sceptical of Herman’s pious placations – turns away from the church, while Ayia draws closer to the priest. Mirra seems to fall prey to the contagion, but the escalating series of strange visions that Ayia begins to experience suggests that the real cause of her sister’s malaise might be something deeper and darker. A notebook Ayia finds in Herman’s possession indicates that his interest in the ultimate mystery goes a way beyond the teachings of the scripture and then some. When Herman admits that there’s a ritual he can perform which will take her into Mirra’s dream state – thuddingly obvious caveat: it might be a tad dangerous – Ayia accepts unhesitatingly.
This set-up, by the way, takes us to about the 45 minute mark in a film that runs just 1 hour 17 minutes. That’s another thing about ‘III’: it’s leisurely paced. Sure, even before director Pavel Khvaleev cuts loose with the ritual and the surreal sequence that it presages, ‘III’ delivers plenty of images that you’d swear had been reeled out of your worst nightmares by an unholy conflation of the Fisher King and the Sandman but it still takes its damn time, even as it’s weirding you the fuck out.
Equally visceral imagery is the order of the day once Herman conducts the ritual and Ayia descends into Mirra’s subconsciousness, only less fantastical, more brutally realistic. This is perhaps the most interesting thing the film does: become less dream-like once Ayia finds herself in what is essentially a dreamscape. Not that Khvaleev does much with the dichotomy, which is a shame as ‘III’ had the potential to be as cerebral as it is symbolic, as psychologically penetrating as it is imagistic. Instead, and literally just as the last seven or eight minutes are slipping through the sand-timer, he takes a sudden and jarring swerve with a big reveal that could have worked had there been a single fucking thing in the rest of the film that laid any groundwork for it.
All told, the derivative aspects, the leaden-footed pacing and the abrupt, narratively-unsupported ending should add up to a disappointing viewing experience for the horror fan. Yet ‘III’ avoids being entirely a disaster. Principally, it’s Igor Kiselev’s cinematography and the production design that save the day, though kudos are due to Davydova and Ignatushko. Surmounting a scrappy script that paints them as little more than ciphers, both women emerge with restrained, nuanced performances that linger in the mind as effectively as the imagery.
*Sorry, was that too soon?
Thursday, October 18, 2018
It takes confidence for a filmmaker to pitch a good two-thirds of their movie at a level that is just a little bit naff. It also takes confidence to tackle the portmanteau structure and find a framing device that isn’t hopelessly contrived. Ditto when it comes to expecting one’s audience to invest themselves in more than an hour of content which essentially seeds the clues for an extended coda that follows a rug-pull that some may find audacious and others an incitement to facepalm. It walks a very fine line, does ‘Ghost Stories’, and had it not been underpinned by so specific a commentary on guilt and sins of omission, it might well have fallen flat.
The portmanteau film is tricky to get right at the best of times, more so the horror portmanteau. Twenty or thirty minutes per story generally doesn’t offer much scope to establish character, develop tension or reconcile haunting with provenance while at the same time building towards a denouement. Inconsistency in tone is a pitfall, with even the greatest of creepy portmanteau films – Ealing Studio’s ‘Dead of Night’ – stumbling with the inclusion of a comedic tale.
Co-directors Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman structure ‘Ghost Stories’ around paranormal investigator Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman), introduced in mockumentary style (a device that’s quickly abandoned) as he unmasks a celebrity medium. Goodman is contacted by a parapsychologist who has been missing for years; said individual is actually living in a caravan park in a shitty British seaside town, which is a pretty good working definition of being missing when you come to think about it. The grouchy old cove gives Goodman the files on three cases he couldn’t solve and – three cases he is convinced are proof that the supernatural exists – and challenges Goodman to prove him wrong.
The first concerns a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse) working at a former asylum who encounters the ghost of a child; the second a teenager (Alex Lawther) who borrows his parents’ car (they don’t know he failed his test) and runs over something that isn’t human; and the third a businessman (Martin Freeman) who witnesses poltergeist activity in the nursery room prepared for his unborn child while his wife is hospitalised. If I’ve not bothered identifying these characters by name, that’s because the script doesn’t bother fleshing them out beyond casually racist working class dude, nervy teenage dude and stuck-up rich dude. They are painted in such broad strokes that Whitehouse and Freeman skate the border of parody in their performances; Lawther fares better, probably because he carries over some creepy baggage from ‘The End of the Fucking World’ and the ‘Black Mirror’ episode “Shut Up and Dance”.
Even as the individual stories play out, there’s an off-ness about them. Much is made of the night watchman’s racism, yet he’s avuncular in the advice he gives to a Polish colleague and he regains his faith after receiving counselling from a black priest. The three cases are described as having troubled the parapsychologist for his whole career, yet the nervy teenage dude is still patently a teenager when Goodman shows up at his door to reopen the case. His interview with the businessman just gets weirder and weirder until Dyson and Nyman execute the first of several rug pulls.
Numbers and symbols proliferate. The imagery becomes ever more jarring and the juxtapositions stranger. Then the film dials back the weirdness as everything comes together and the big reveal takes into the realms of decidedly non-supernatural horror. Horror that comes from urban realism. Horror that connects to an historical and specifically twentieth century evil.
There are screeds to be written about the last quarter of an hour or so of ‘Ghost Stories’ and there is much to be said about religion, guilt and the nature of sin. But that would entail going so far into spoiler territory as to lay the entire film bare and leave not a sliver of discovery or enjoyment (if that’s the right word) to the viewer coming to it anew. The viewer coming to it without any preconceptions, except that they might – just might – have their head comprehensively fucked with.
That’s “just might” as in “almost certainly” by the way.