Friday, October 31, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Cabin in the Woods

I’m not sure what the strangest element of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is: its fusion of two aesthetically different narratives, its batshit crazy last quarter of an hour, the sight of Chris Hemsworth – at pretty much the same point in his career that he beefed up like a motherfucker for ‘Thor’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ – playing an expendable college jock, or the fact that a script by Joss Whedon, to whom the uber-budgeted ‘Avengers’ had just been trusted, was happily handed over to a novice director. 

To Drew Goddard’s credit, though, he turns in a proficient piece of work. True, there’s nothing going on here that’s particularly groundbreaking from a directorial point of view, but there doesn’t have to be. The pleasures of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ lie in the audience’s familiarity with genre tropes.

The film kicks off with a cryptic bit of narrative between Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), employees of an unidentified corporation which seems to operate like any other twenty-first century corporation with all of the office politics, casual cynicism, douchebag colleagues, inter-departmental rivalry and general all-round wankerish behaviour that said workplace environment suggests. It soon becomes clear, though, that Sitterson and Hadley’s behaviour – running a book on the outcome of their commission, drinking at work, using the IT system for frankly voyeuristic purposes – masks a desperation that is only contextualised when the nature of the business and the identity of the client is revealed.

Whedon and Goddard’s script is a masterpiece of lacunae: they know exactly how much detail to reveal vis-à-vis Sitterson and Hadley’s responsibilities, and in doing so sketch them in as fully formed characters rather than shadowy eminences grises. The script’s courtesies also extend to the five teenagers who head off for a weekend at the titular retreat in the film’s main narrative strand. The quintet comprises athletic hunky type Curt (Hemsworth) and his flirtatious airhead girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), studious nice guy Holden (Jesse Williams), sensible girl next door type Dana (Kristen Connolly) and comic relief stoner Marty (Fran Kranz). And, yes, they all conform to those very same stereotypes. But the screenplay and a cluster of likeable performances gel to raise them above mere cliché.

Having said that, cliché is important to ‘The Cabin in the Woods’. Cliché is the fuel that kicks its plot mechanics into overdrive. And this is where I’m swiftly going to curtail the review, because the film works best if you’ve absolutely no idea where it’s headed. The interplay between the two narrative strands suggests a satire on reality TV à la Marc Evans’s ‘My Little Eye’, but Whedon and Goddard play their hand quite spectacularly and to entirely different effect during the last reel.

The cast embrace the material exuberantly, Hemsworth and Williams keeping it deadpan, Kranz having a hell of a lot of fun as the pothead whose recreational habit ends up being a plot device in and of itself, Jenkins and Whitford playing off each in fine style, and Connolly proving an immensely resilient and likeable final girl. The effects work is good, all lo-fi ‘Evil Dead’ style makeup in the first half, followed by an extravaganza of fan boy homages towards the end. The very last shot is a punchline too far, but by this point there’s no real mileage in carping. By this point, twists and turns and piss-takes (the J-horror send-up is a joy to behold) and a ‘Paul’-style last minute celebrity cameo have given ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ everything it needs to prove itself as the ideal beer-and-pizza movie for the post-modern smartarse generation. Plus, as Mrs F advocates, the Hemsworth is mighty fine.

This is The Agitation of the Mind’s fifth annual 13 For Halloween signing off on a note of unapologetic homoeroticism. Happy Halloween, folks. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Warm Bodies

Fellas, you know what it’s like. You meet this girl. She’s amazing. Bright, sassy, never beaten with the ugly stick. You overcome your natural shyness and try not to be the clumsy fuck you’ve always been. Despite all potential to the opposite, there seems to be some spark. You feel like all your birthdays and Christmases have come at once. There’s just one little problem. Her dad hates you. Not doesn’t like. Not regards you suspiciously. Outright hates. Maybe it’s because you’ve got long hair, or your car is clapped out death trap. Maybe it’s your taste in music. Maybe it’s the simple fact that there’s not a man on the face of this earth whom he considers good enough for his golden-haired princess.

Fellas, spare a thought for R (Nicholas Hoult). Not only is he naturally shy, inordinately clumsy and deeply smitten with Julie (Teresa Palmer), he’s also a zombie. Julie’s father, Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich) is the leader of a small enclave of human survivors post-zombie apocalypse. And he hates zombies the way your average Ukip candidate hates foreigners.

R and Julie (geddit?) meet after Julie takes part in a scavenging party into zombie territory to bring back supplies. The exact mechanics of their meeting is: Julie’s boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) shoots R, upon which R kills him and eats his brain. Consumption of said cerebrum allows him access to Perry’s memories, rendering him a little more human and even more deeply in love with Julie. If a million film reviewers hadn’t already beaten me to it, this is where I’d roll out the “zom rom com” tag.

Adapted from Isaac Marion’s cleverly constructed novel, Jonathan Levine’s film is a warm, wryly amusing (rather than laugh out loud funny) horror comedy that explores a couple of nifty ideas, plays reasonably faithfully by its own set of rules, and boasts better chemistry between the leads than the central concept would give you any reason to expect.

Like Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’, ‘Warm Bodies’ has its zombies aimlessly inhabiting locations they dimly remember from life. A mall in Romero’s film, an airport here. What ‘Warm Bodies’ does with the material that lifts it above mere copyism, is use the bland familiarity of the setting to depict a sort of zombie society. These are zombies who still move around in social groups, rather than as a shuffling and collectively hungry mass. R has a best friend, M (Rob Corddry), whom he meets at the airport bar. They have “conversations” in which grunts and sighs almost become words. R’s voiceover recalls the days when the airport was a hive of activity and people communicated and interacted (cut to a flashback of a concourse full of people using mobile devices and studiously ignoring each other).

The film’s other original concept is its two stages of zombification: those, like R and M, who are still semi-human; and the Boneys, cadaverous banshee-like creatures who are as much a threat to the early-stage zombies as they are to the human survivors. With Colonel Grigio (and thank you to Levine’s script for cutting out the tedious wine jokes that clog the middle section of the novel) basically doing the right thing by the survivors in his charge, never mind that it interferes with his daughter’s romantic idyll, the Boneys become the villains by default.

Levine keeps these concepts bubbling away in the background while he concentrates on the relationship between R and Julie. And with R barely able to put a sentence together (thank Gawd for the voiceover, otherwise we’d have no point of empathy with the dude), there’s no mawkish sentimentality going on. Instead, R’s courtship of his beloved is largely a comedy of errors. A comedy of errors, that is, which morphs into tense cat and mouse game as circumstances send R into the survivors’ compound. This section of the film points up the zombie society idea, with the survivors essentially giving or following orders and no real social structure evident beyond that. The zombies at the airport might not have the vocabulary (though Levine cheats a little by having their ability to vocalise develop almost miraculously whenever the script requires it), they seem the chummier bunch. The humans might still be … well … human, but R and his mates are soulful.

Monday, October 27, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: The Host

Bong Joon-ho’s Korean box office triumph ‘The Host’ is, in many ways, a god-damn frickin’ awesome monster movie. Not least because of its monster. That might sound like a disingenuous statement, but let’s be honest here: how many monster movies are crucially let down by their monster? How many monster movies function most effectively when the monster remains in the dark, only for the tension to dissipate the moment said beastie is revealed? ‘The Host’ teases us with shadowy glimpses of its monster for the first, oh, ten minutes – its form hinted at by dark shapes under water – then magnificently and unapologetically hoists it onto dry land in an extended and genuinely bowel-loosening sequence where it erupts from a river and lays waste to everything in sight. Up to this point, Joon-ho’s film demonstrates a mastery of economical storytelling, sketching out protagonists and familial tensions and almost immediately sending its scaly antagonist crashing in amongst them.

Ah, but beware the film that delivers up the best of itself with one hour fifty minutes still to unspool.

Here’s the basic premise: old-timer Hee-bong (Byun Hee-bong) runs a riverbank fast food stall, aided by his dimwitted and clumsy son Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) and Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-Sung). Hee-bong’s other son is an unemployed college graduate, Nam-il (Park Hae-il). His daughter Nam-joo (Bae Doona) is an Olympic-standard archer who, as the film opens, defaults to bronze medal due to her habit of hesitating at the crucial moment. When the creature terrorizes the riverbank, only Gang-du is on hand to save Hyun-seo, but he trips at a crucial moment and, disorientated, grabs what he thinks is his daughter’s hand; by the time he realises he’s saved a complete stranger (albeit to her actual father’s gratitude), the creature has carried Hyun-seo off to its lair.

Gang-du has already been established as an imbecile, inveterately clumsy and a total failure. As the film progresses, virtually his every attempt to do something heroic (during the initial attack, he is one of only two people who attempt a fight back against the monster) not only backfires but sometimes costs an innocent life. The old saw about not being able to do right for doing wrong seems like a punchline the gods have written with Gang-du’s entire life being the set up.

‘The Host’, ladies and gentlemen, is comedy-horror. Horror of the most fetid and tactile variety. Comedy of cruellest hue. I’ve seen mean-spirited exploitation shockers that have put their characters through more charitable narratives than ‘The Host’. Seriously: ‘The House on the Edge of the Park’ is ‘Jackanory’ compared to this motherfucker.

You see, it’s not just Gang-du who is incompetent: Hee-bong is ripped off by a gang of tricksters who promise a means of rescuing his granddaughter; Nam-joo’s would-be iconic face-off against the monster is bluntly curtailed (same reason she got the bronze instead of the gold); Nam-il’s attempts to succeed where Gang-du has failed are thwarted at virtually every turn; Hee-bong’s moment of old-school heroism ends in abject failure; and even Hyun-seo’s make-do survivalism in the monster’s lair works its way to a subversive conclusion. I repeat: this is meant to be a comedy.

And not only is the comedy often sociopathically unfunny, it’s inconsistent. The failings and thwartings of Hee-bong’s brood suddenly morph into focused teamwork and slo-mo iconography which feel more like a sop to the audience-battering of the previous two hours than anything arrived at by narrative honesty. Moreover, a subplot which seems to be gearing up towards a shattering commentary on the tendency of political showboating to make things worse, not to mention the exacerbation resulting from American military intervention, is swiftly curtailed in favour of an effects-heavy finale.

It’s easy to overlook the faults of ‘The Host’ because its monster is so effective. Synthesizing the scaly hugeness of Godzilla, the double-mouthed razor-toothed gynaephobia of H.R. Giger’s ‘Alien’, and a weird, high-tensile, tail-like protuberance by which it can swing across the underside of bridges. Every time it appears onscreen, the effect is both hypnotic and slightly repellent. Whatever the film’s failings, ‘The Host’ can parade its monster as one of the greatest cinema has given us.

The failings, though, are in its human element. The satire chickens out, deflecting away from American interventionism and taking cheap shots at, for the most part, a mentally subnormal and patently scared individual. The narrative rewards hard-won heroism with cynical punchlines. The film spends two hours putting characters and audience alike through the wringer, continually promising them a specific denouement then pulling the rug; playing God with outcomes; and finally bowing out on an ending that it hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Cronos

Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) – a character whose name screams “religious subtext” – is a sixty-something antiques dealer and carer to his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). One day he finds a device in the statue of an angel; said object – the Cronos device of the title – looks like a snuff box designed by the Cenobites. It releases arm-like needles which clamp around his hand and penetrate his skin. The Cronos device, Jesus learns, contains a lot of clockwork and a very old insect (it’s been around since 1536); the insect produces a secretion which rejuvenates the blood, but at a price.

Reclusive millionaire Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) knows all about the price: he’s a rich man and he’s prepared to go to any lengths to get his hands on the Cronos device. Unlike Jesus, however, Dieter owns the instruction manual and is cognisant of the very strict rules around its use. He dispatches his thuggish nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to recover it by any means.

All Jesus knows about the device is that it leaves him feeling (and looking) younger. Vitality and sexual appetite reappear. He also finds himself hankering for blood. When he refuses to give over the Cronos device to Dieter and Angel, despite his shop being trashed as a warning, Angel steps up the campaign of victimisation and gives Jesus a beating. Same outcome: Jesus won’t play ball. Angel stages a car accident and leaves Jesus for dead. (And you have no idea how weird it is glancing back at that last sentence, particularly if you ignore the context.)

Hands up everyone who’s guessed he’ll come back from the dead? Hands up everyone who’s twigged that the very small and serious Aurora will welcome him back, totally unfreaked-out by his condition, and assist in his endeavours? Hands up everyone who’s intuited that said endeavours involve some unfinished business between Jesus and the de la Guardias?

‘Cronos’ adheres so doggedly to its three act structure – Jesus’s obsession with the Cronos device, ending in his “death”; Jesus as vampire, struggling to cope with being undead; Jesus vs the de la Guardias – that its hour an a half running time doesn’t leave adequate space to explore any of the ideas or issues that each of these stages deal with. Barely has Jesus’s dependence on the device been established, at the trade off of age-reversal for a taste for blood, than he’s Angel de la Guardia’s hands and there’s been no attempt to explore the cost to his essential dignity of being revitalised. A scene in a men’s room where he’s just beginning to struggle with blood-lust and is effectively prepared to debase himself in order to get his fix is curtailed bluntly and viciously and any further exploration of the theme goes with it.

Act two fares better, and there are several subtle touches (particularly the backwards-worn funeral suit) that neatly suggest that being undead is ultimate dignity. Likewise, there’s a lovely moment where the now fully-vampiric Jesus seeks shelter with his granddaughter. Intuiting that sunlight negatively affects him, Aurora hides him in a big wooden trunk formerly used to store her playthings. The innocence of childhood in the toybox as makeshift coffin. There’s a similarly effective moment where Aurora hides the Cronos device in a teddy bear, which she offers to Jesus as much as something to hug for comfort as a hiding place for the vessel of his addiction.

Sadly, all such grace notes go out of the window for the finale. Ideas about addiction, immortality, obsession and religion quickly follow. A film that had the potential to be the thinking audience’s horror movie – and in a scattering of brief moments almost gets a toehold – finally comes down on the side of safe genre tropes and keeps its villains to the fore (director Guillermo del Toro, in his feature debut, seems half in love with Angel, a character who alternately snarls at peoples and beats them up) and loses focus on its fascinating, flawed, sad and sympathetic protagonist.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Children of the Damned

Anton M. Leader’s ‘Children of the Damned’ continues the rigorous science vs. brute force debate established in Wolf Rilla’s ‘Village of the Damned’, but in all other respects this is a sequel that utterly up-ends its predecessor.

One plays out against the quaint cottages and open fields of its rural setting, the other in the cramped and sunless streets of London. One confines its drama to country houses and spic-and-span cottages, the other to grimy bedsits and abandoned buildings. One has a pragmatic retired professor as its protagonist, the other a younger impassioned psychoanalyst. One has a group of almost identical children, the other children of different nationalities. One implies that these children are the progeny of something alien, the other that they were virgin births.

And, crucially, one casts its otherworldly children firmly as villains, the other as misunderstood innocents.

Perhaps ‘Children of the Damned’ is best approached not as a sequel but a flipside or a reinterpretation. The film starts in media res with six children – variously Chinese, Nigerian, Russian, Indian, American and English – brought together for study by a UNESCO committee on child development. Tom Llewellyn (Ian Hendry) and David Neville (Alan Badel), respectively a psychologist and a geneticist, are researching the background to the English lad, Paul (Clive Powell). Their access is hampered by his mother who is hysterical and adamant that she has no business having a son since no man has ever touched her. Tom and David, in something of a sweeping generalisation, correlate her profession as photographer’s model with licentiousness and initially disbelieve her story.

Later, following an unfortunately (and mildly suspicious) road accident, Paul enters the care of his sympathetic aunt, Susan (Barbara Ferris). The children, swiftly cohering into a telepathic unit, employ mind control over Susan to assist them take shelter in a disused church. So far, so ‘Village of the Damned’. But it soon becomes apparent that Paul and his comrades are only using their mental powers when threatened, and that their coercion of Susan is merely a temporary requirement and they mean her no harm. While still crossing a certain line in terms of social norms, their behaviour is far removed from the show of force that the children of Midwich delighted in reiterating in the first movie.

A crucial narrative development has Tom initially convince the children to leave the church and report to their nations’ embassies. The callous political brinkmanship of the adult world immediately becomes apparent: their ambassadors welcome them delightedly, keen to remodel them as weapons. Telekinetics prized for their use in some potential psychic war. It can only be speculated how much inspiration ‘Children of the Damned’ had on ‘Scanners’. As with ‘Village of the Damned’, there’s a sense of the film as pre-Cronenberg Cronenberg. If anything, Cronenberg’s visceral disgust at the human condition and his major theme of God as an absent landlord is even stronger in ‘Children of the Damned’.

Naturally, the children respond to threat by using their powers against it and, several dead ambassadors later, they’re back at the church. The house of God as social realist Alamo. Yes, that’s a distinction worth emphasizing: if ‘Village’ uses its sleepy rural setting as an effective counterpoint to its fantastical concepts, then ‘Children’ is sci-fi dystopia as kitchen sink drama.

‘Children of the Damned’ uses a broader canvas and asks thornier questions than ‘Village’. It’s 15 minutes longer yet spans a shorter timeline and contains arguably less incident. It lacks the precise craftsmanship of Wolf Rilla’s direction while John Briley’s script takes longer to debate its big themes than Stirling Silliphant’s. Together, they complement, offset and challenge each other. ‘Village’ is arguably the more superbly crafted work, ‘Children’ the more intellectually satisfying.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Village of the Damned

John Wyndham’s particular genius was for welding gnarly sci-fi concepts to an ineffably English worldview. And nowhere was this more fully expressed than in the rural setting of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’.

By a strange quirk, Englishness in cinema is often more accurately rendered by filmmakers of other nationalities: Joseph Losey (American: ‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’), Alberto Cavalcanti (Brazilian: ‘Went the Day Well?’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’), or the quintessential Englishness of Michael Powell as filtered through the Hungarian émigré sensibility (‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’).

‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ was filmed as ‘Village of the Damned’, adapted by American screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and helmed by German director Wolf Rilla. The result is a perfect depiction of stereotypical English stoicism, resilience and pragmatism, skewed just enough by a foreign perspective to emerge as something genuinely unsettling.

The film starts with everyone in the village of Midwich falling unconscious simultaneously. With the confident dexterity of a cardsharp knowing he’s got your attention from the outset, Rilla deals out images of prostrate bodies in the middle of narrow lanes, sinks overflowing, irons burning through clothes, an LP catching on a phonogram, the same note playing over and over, a tractor trundling in circles, its driver slumped over the wheel. Cosy, comfortable, English settings and images – but creepily subverted.

Next up, a self-contained sequence where the military establish a cordon around Midwich and attempt ingress, first with a caged bird, then with a human volunteer. Rilla builds tension with the steady accretion of detail, playing off the by-the-book stiff-upper-lip rationale of the top brass against the slow dawning realisation that something is very wrong.

When Midwich re-awakes and the strange forcefield that seems to have cloaked the village disappears, the film makes its one concession to prudery and elides the mass pregnancy of all female citizens of child-bearing age (speculations on xenogenesis, i.e. impregnation by an alien entity, inform the novel) into a quick sequence of visits to the village’s increasingly harassed and befuddled doctor. The film then deals out another quick series of elisions, depicting the group of disconcerting similar children first preternaturally gifted infants and then as mini-adults, far more advanced in years than their age allows for. They go everywhere en masse. Their manner is aloof. There isn’t a trace of emotion in their behaviour.

Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), father to one of these uber-children, begins a study of them, keeping in close contact with his brother-in-law (Michael Gwynn) who was one of the military personnel in the opening scenes. Zellaby blags his way onto a British Intelligence think tank and a fraught series of discussions hammer through the speculative discourses of Wyndham’s novel with an economy that does Silliphant proud as a writer. The upshot is, basically, that Zellaby wants to learn from the children in order to understand them, while the military, concerned about similar phenomena in isolated areas across the globe, do what military types in movies of any genre do best and starting figuring out the best way of destroying the problem.

The science vs. brute force dialogue is stamped across the film’s tense 77-minute running time, and Rilla milks the stand-off for all it’s worth, Zellaby desperately securing a facility in which to study the children before gradually realising that the dynamic is actually the other way round, and that his benefaction might count for nothing when their use for him is exhausted.

‘Village of the Damned’ simmers with the threat of violence, either against the children or, increasingly, by them. Their telekinetic disposal of a grief-crazed shotgun-wielding villager, whose brother’s death they’d earlier caused, is all the nastier to watch because of the sense of complete detachment. In the best scenes, Rilla simply observes the children and the result is like watching a Cronenberg film made a decade and a half before Cronenberg got started.

In some aspects ‘Village of the Damned’ is dated, and – putting it tactfully – not all of the performances are of Sanders’s calibre, but it remains an intelligent, suspenseful chiller that sets out to challenge and unnerve and does so with clinical efficiency.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: John Dies at the End

I’ve never read David Wong’s novel, or its just-as-wonderfully-titled sequel ‘This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It’, but I have it on good authority that it’s a madcap romp through multifarious horror genre tropes that manages to be deadpan sarcastic even as its narrative becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Perfect fit for Don Coscarelli, then.

And indeed Coscarelli delivers a film of such no-budget demented inventiveness that it makes his earlier ‘Bubba Ho Tep’ look as staid and austere as your average Strindberg play.

Opening with the old perceptional hook of whether an axe that beheaded someone and subsequently has its handle and then its blade replaced can be displayed as the same axe – only using a neo-Nazi zombie and some weird otherworldly kind of slug creature by way of illustration – ‘John Dies at the End’ continues in equally discursive fashion as David (Chase Williamson) narrates to seedy journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) the events which led to him and eponymous best bud John (Rob Mayes) damn near brokering the end of the world.

To say what ensues is a shaggy dog story is to make the hitherto shaggiest of dogs look virtual bald by comparison. David, possessed of a number of preternatural abilities including telepathy, precognition and astral projection, spends a decent chunk of the running time recapping how he and John found themselves working as … well … I would say ghostbusters, but Vengler and co would have to spend a lot of time on Cheech and Chong’s couch in order to approximate anything like David and John’s approach to the craft. 

Long story short, it’s exposure to a drug nicknamed “soy sauce” – a narcotic that’s more H.P. Lovecraft than ‘Breaking Bad’ – that imbues them with their abilities. During their misadventures, David ends up babysitting a labrador that belongs to his crush, the winsome Amy (Fabianne Therese), and what the drug does to the dog would make the judges at Crufts doubt their sanity. This established, we segue into the real story of David and John’s race against the clock to uncover the truth behind a spate mysterious deaths and the existence of a oddball cult who worship a Cthulu-like entity, all the while evading the psychotic interventions of a Bible-bashing detective.

It’s a story that encompasses a meat demon, a womanising televangelist, a church full of half naked people wearing freaky masks, a Rastafarian psychic who knows the date the first nuclear missile will land on America (and still has a chuckle about it), a decidedly literal case of phantom limb syndrome, the worst garage band ever to get their hands on an amplifier, a cartoon in which human sacrifices are made to giant spiders, and the most juvenile visual joke about a doorknob ever committed to film.

Oh, and there’s a deus ex machina involving a pick-up truck and the aforesaid dog. In fact, the dog is nothing short of heroic. The dog is called Bark Lee, he plays himself, and his performance is magnificent.

Working with a budget that didn’t cast its shadow quite as far as million, Coscarelli delivers a solidly-made film with acceptable effects, good cinematography and a cluster of likeable performances. Giamatti, who seems to be coasting of late, has a hell of a lot of fun; Mayes and Williamson are absolutely spot-on and play off each other beautifully, and Clancy Brown is terrific as televangelist Marconi.

‘John Dies at the End’ is utterly bonkers. It defies any real critical framework in terms of appraisal, firing off wild scattershot broadsides at genre, convention and audience expectation – beginning with the title and even ricocheting through the end credits. It’s a film that’s rated WTF and best viewed in SuperSpliffVision. It’d take an utter dullard not to get ecstatically and crazily lost in its labyrinth of absurdities.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: The Thing (2011)

There’s an awkwardness to Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s ‘The Thing’ that is immediately discernible from its title, which suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s bona fide classic (in my humble opinion, still the greatest horror movie ever made), which is in itself a remake of Howard Hawks’s ‘The Thing from Another World’, and all of them to a greater or lesser degree inspired by John W Campbell Jr’s novella ‘Who Goes There?’ 

But ‘The Thing’ (2011 version) – hereinafter referred to as ‘TT11’ to prevent repetitive strain injury – is actually a prequel. Only it adheres very explicitly to Carpenter’s film … except when it retro-engineers itself to fill in the lacunae … only the lacunae are there in Carpenter’s film to provide a visceral undertone of irony. Let’s face it: the trip to the ruined Norwegian base gives us just enough clues to realise that what happened there is just about to kick off at the American base.

And therein lies the problem. If ‘The Thing’ is about how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Americans, then a prequel must necessarily depict how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians in almost exactly the same manner. No, wait, backtrack a minute: a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians and one very attractive American.

‘TT11’ starts with palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) recruited by prissy scientist Dr Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to fly out to the Norwegian base at a moment’s notice to give her professional opinion on something rather unclassifiable that they’ve just retrieved from the ice; and before you can say “obvious sop to US audiences” the winsome Ms Winstead is acting as a surrogate for the audience as her oddly-vowelled paymasters release the aforementioned alien being from its frosty hibernation and … well, you’ve seen the vastly superior Carpenter film, so you know the rest.

It’s astounding how obsessively ‘TT11’ clings to ‘The Thing’, right down to the big “let’s use a blood test to determine who’s infected” sequence. Granted, ‘TT11’ contrives a way to make the blood test not viable, and the alternative at least suggests a smidgin of originality, but the scene pays off so routinely that it squanders the opportunity to do something different and surprising with the material.

Perhaps the only truly interesting thing ‘TT11’ does is at the very end. With Kate posited as final girl from the outset, the film ends on a note that initially seems like just another sop to its predominantly homeland audience. Except that it communicates a single, devious implication that works its way into your consciousness a few minutes after the end credits have rolled. A decent touch, but too little too late. Ultimately, ‘TT11’ is reasonably well-made film, rich in attention to detail, that has no reason whatsoever to exist.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Toy Story of Terror

Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are passing the time during a cross-country drive. The trunk of a car can be a dark and claustrophobic place so they distract themselves by watching a horror movie on a laptop. Which is kind of like an ophidiophobe chilling out with ‘Snakes on a Plane’. And it doesn’t help that Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) – who really ought to be called Mr Smartypants – keeps talking over the film, giving a running commentary on horror movie tropes and how the narrative plays out. When a flat tyre strands them at a dreary and, more to the point, isolated motel, Mr Pricklepants is in his element, confidently predicting that before too much longer the group will be split up and “picked off one by one”.

Confidently and accurately.

‘Toy Story of Terror’ may only be a short, but it’s as rich in ideas, inventiveness and entertainment as any of its feature-length brethren. While presenting a mildly scary tale for kids, the litany of horror genre lore and specific movie references that it throws out ensure its no less entertaining for adults. Indeed, the unforced panache with which its homages are staged – be it a shower curtain placed centrally in a tense cat-and-mouse scene or Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) declaring “I’ll be right back” – is a delight. It even teases the knowing adult audience with the possibility of Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) as final girl.

Speaking of whom, the film neatly keys into its predecessors, relying on Jessie’s backstory from ‘Toy Story 2’ to generate tension: her claustrophobia when she’s accidentally locked in a tool box in an early scene foreshadows her requirement to be sealed in a box during the denouement when she has to … Ah, but that would be telling. Moreover, the solidarity of the toys holding hands as they slide inexorably towards the furnace at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is subverted as the group are split up during the genuinely tense middle section. Likewise, a sequence of captivity and attempted escape also echoes that instalment.

How scary is it? Well, there’s nothing that reaches the clammy heights of the furnace set-piece, or even the evil playhouse that is Sid’s bedroom in ‘Toy Story’. Nor is there anything as squirmily tense as the airport sequence in ‘Toy Story 2’. But as a comedy-horror, it works brilliantly. It works because, like the absolute best of Pixar, it’s been made with care and wit and attention to detail. Director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote it with Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, understand the horror genre; they know when to spoof and when to scare.

Am I making it sound like ‘Toy Story Does Scream’? Then so be it, but with the caveat that ‘Toy Story of Terror’ is funnier, cleverer and more sophisticated than ‘Scream’ – and, at 21 minutes, mercifully shorter.

Friday, October 10, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Blood: the Last Vampire

Chris Nahon’s visceral pop art opus sets itself the challenge of melding a ‘Kwaidan’-style backstory of a peaceful villager’s transformation into a vampire hunter with a 1970s set main plot that mixes tradition, militarism and a Japanese/American culture clash melee of frenetic and hyper-stylized action.

Wait a minute, what the fuck am I talking about? ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is a hopeless bit of nonsense about a hot Japanese girl in a sailor suit who despatches vampires with a bloody big sword.

Or, only slightly expanded from the above synopsis, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is about Saya (Gianna Jun), a three-hundred year old vampire killer (the longevity is due to the fact that she’s a vampire herself) who looks like she’s still in high school. Which is the perfect cover for her handler Michael Harrison (Liam Cunningham) to send her to a military academy on a US base in Toyko in the early 70s. Here she joins forces with the base commander’s rebellious daughter Alice (Allison Miller) while the shadowy organisation she works for – the Council – tears itself apart in a miasma of intrigue and treachery. Meanwhile, Saya’s centuries old nemesis, a demon named Onigen, waits in the wings.

The plot is at once stupidly simple and nonsensically overcomplicated, with the machinations of the Council ramped up to almost court-of-the-Borgias intensity for no other reason than to effect a Saya-goes-on-the-run plot point. The stakes are either world-shatteringly important or non-existent, depending on what scene you’re watching and how many proscribed substances you imbibed prior to watching the film.

What it all boils down to, though, is the entertainment value in watching a schoolgirl with a sword take down legions of the undead. Yet even with so basic an aesthetic driving it, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ falters. Jun certainly looks the part and she has a thousand yard stare that could make the entire cast of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ think twice about it, but her facility in the action sequences is painfully limited, and the more extended an intricate the action gets, the more desperate the editing techniques to disguise it. There’s so much of that speed-up-slow-down-speed-up nonsense that you’d swear you were watching a Guy Ritchie film on crack. Elsewhere, a scene where Onigen morphs from human form to demon and leads Saya on a rain-swept roof chase, the latter crashing through neon signs in pursuit, should have been edge-of-the-seat awesome … except that the neon sign looks like it was done in crayon by a five-year-old with no hand-eye co-ordination and Onigen resembles nothing more than a morbidly deformed wine gum.

The 1970s setting is completely arbitrary, the period evocation never convinces and the music cues are all over the place. A title card telling us we’re on an American base in 1970 is immediately superseded by a shot of some kids grooving in a corridor to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (a big hit in 1964 that didn’t enter the charts again until Emmylou Harris covered it in 1978). The performances are uniformly turgid with even, sad to say, Liam Cunningham phoning it in. The action, as noted above, is ruined by the way it’s edited, and the gouts of CGI blood which accompany every swing of Saya’s sword look less like blood than pencilled-in motion capture of a carton of Ribena exploding.

All in all, it’s utterly dreadful, but dreadful in a way that’s strangely compelling. It’s a car-crash of a movie – mangled, broken, almost unrecognisable as an example of the form. You know you should show some common decency and look away but … you … just … can’t.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Scream, Blacula, Scream

Whereas ‘Blacula’ is a surprisingly faithful, if not adaptation, then reconsideration of Bram Stoker’s novel, ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ jettisons any connection with the source material. And the result is a mixed bag. 

With cursed nobleman and reluctant bloodsucker Mamuwalde (William Marshall) decomposing at the end of the first film courtesy of a self-inflicted vampire/sunlight interface, director Bob Kelljan and no less than three scripters turn to voodoo to resurrect him. The film begins with a dying voodoo matriarch choosing diligent apprentice Lisa (Pam Grier) as her successor over her hot-tempered son Willis (Richard Lawson). Willis responds by acquiring Mamuwalde’s bones, intent on conjuring the vampire as a servant who will do his bidding and help secure what he sees as his rightful heritage. Predictably, this plan goes tits up and it’s Willis who finds himself in servitude to Mamuwalde.

In short order, Mamuwalde puts together a small army of the undead, attends a swinging party hosted by ex-cop and antiques collector Carter (John Mitchell) and meets Lisa. Looking at some African pieces that Carter is curating for a university, Mamuwalde recognises some jewellery that belonged to his long-dead wife Nuva. As with the first film, it is Mamuwalde’s romantic nostalgia for his lost love that humanises him but instead of seeking a surrogate, here he enlists Lisa’s help to lift the curse.

However, nothing in life (or in blaxploitation/horror crossovers) goes to plan, and Carter’s still-on-the-force colleague Lieutenant Dunlop (Michael Conrad) finds himself investigating several suspicious deaths, all with the same MO: puncture marks on the skin, and complete exsanguination. Misreading the face-palmingly obvious clues, he correlates the puncture marks with snakebites and snakes with voodoo and lays a strip for Willis’s pad. And thus the race against time for Lisa to complete the ritual before Dunlop and his boys lay siege.

Except that “race against time” suggests an urgency that ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ just doesn’t have. The rivalry for the heirdom of the voodoo clan establishes tension in the pre-credits scene, but Mamuwalde’s immediate dominance of Willis curtails that particular plot thread. Dunlop’s investigation, which counterpoints the main story, is so plodding and shambolic he makes Columbo look like Dirty Harry. And as for said main plot - Mamuwalde’s courtship of Lisa to release him from his curse – there is little dramatic or romantic dynamic in play. Consequently, much of the film consists of unconnected scenes lurching disjointedly towards a fairly small-scale denouement.

On the plus side, Marshall is every bit as commanding as he was in the original and his contemptuous disposal of a couple of jive-ass pimps is a moment to savour. Grier, too, is always worth watching, even though the script gives her a grand total of two pro-active moments, neither of which happen till the last ten minutes. The absolute best element of film, though, is the way it filters voodoo through vampire mythology and manages to play what is frankly a bonkers conceit with utter straight-faced bravado.

‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ is to be applauded for not simply repeating its predecessor’s one-off concept of taking a timeless classic and putting a specific cultural spin on it; for instead striving towards a narrative and a direction that an entirely its own. Even if it doesn’t quite hold together as tightly ‘Blacula’, it gathers up a small collection of interesting ideas and runs pell-mell with them, even if some of them get dropped along the way.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Blacula

Blending the horror and blaxploitation genres, and saddled with a title that seems to promise dumbass spoofery plus VAT, William Crain’s ‘Blacula’ actually emerges as a thoughtful and surprisingly faithful transportation of Stoker’s original from 1780s Transylavania to 1970s Los Angeles. Indeed, Crain opens his film at Castle Dracula in the last years of the eighteenth century as the aristocratic Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) petition Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to support their campaign against slavery. Dracula quickly shows his true colours (dude’s all for enslavement and subjugation) and punishes his guests for their liberal agenda by turning Mamuwalde into a vampire only to lock him in a coffin to deny him his bloodlust, and locking Luva in a crypt with said sealed sarcophagus until she expires of natural causes.

So far so cynical. Not a hint of comedy or satire. The animated opening credits sequence suggests otherwise, however, and some low-brow humour threads its way through the next sequence as the narrative jumps forward two centuries and a pair of camp antiques dealers visit Castle Dracula, on the market following a downturn in the estate’s fortunes, and cart off everything they can get their hands on, including the still-padlocked coffin containing the undead Mamuwalde. As soon as the action shifts to American soil, though, a more sombre tone predominates. Mamuwalde, seemingly nonplussed by the passage of two hundred years and entirely at home in streets bathed in neon and bustling with automotive transport to a soundtrack of R&B, swiftly notches up his first few victims.

The LAPD demonstrate a lack of concern at the pile-up of bodies, largely on account of their ethnicity. So it’s left to socially motivated coroner Dr Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) to make the connections – exsanguination; bite marks; corpses mysteriously disappearing from morgues – and try to cajole jaded homicide dick Lt Peters (Gordon Pinsent) into taking the case more seriously. But things are about to get closer to home than Thomas imagined when his wife Michelle (Denise Nicholas)’s younger sister Tina (McGee again), the spitting image of the long-dead Nuva, attracts Mamuwalde’s attention.

‘Blacula’ boasts a brisk narrative that unfolds as both a gothic romance (the undead nobleman’s grand quest for his lost love) and a police procedural (Thomas – the film’s Helsing stand-in – and Peters working together to track down the vampire). Crain flips between the two strands with ease, maintaining both tension and a shadowy sense of inevitability. Although the script hardly gifts anyone with memorable dialogue, and the performances are generally adequate to the material and no more than that, ‘Blacula’ benefits immeasurably from its two leads. Marshall brings a dignity and gravitas to Mamuwalde that I really wasn’t expecting in a film with such a bad pun as a title (it says something that, apart from Dracula’s pre-credits curse on him, the character is steadfastly referred to as Mamuwalde throughout; the name “Blacula” is spoken maybe twice). Rasulala, too, has immense screen presence and grittily stripped down acting style reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The ladies of the cast fare less well, but that’s more to do with underdeveloped roles. McGee is a sympathetic presence and Nicholas, in her debut film appearance, makes an impression.

The balance between Mamuwalde as tragic figure and Mamuwalde as dangerous villain is the fulcrum on which the success of the film depends – and Crain as director and Marshall as performer achieve the balancing act with aplomb. The subterranean finale creates an extraordinary dynamic between these aspects of the character, leading to a final scene that’s iconic and poignant and maybe even a tad Nietzschean.

‘Blacula’ had been on my radar for a while without my actually knowing much about the film. I approached it expecting B-movie tomfoolery and came away impressed by a thoughtful and entertaining piece of craftsmanship.

Friday, October 03, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Apollo 18

The found footage genre has one essential flaw. I don’t know if there’s a collective or cultural description for it, but let’s go ahead and make one. Let’s call it Just Drop The Fucking Camera And Run You Doofus Syndrome.

Prime example of JDTCARYDS: ‘Cloverfield’. Big monster stomps all over hipster party – drop the camera and run, you doofus. Guy touting camera sees girl he likes in a state of emotional distress – drop the camera and go be a gentleman, you doofus. Guy touting camera happily goes strolling through military installation – not one rifle butt to the head or instruction to drop the camera ensues.

All damn found footage movies suffer from JDTCARYDS, even when it’s popped on a tripod and left to record ghostly goings-on overnight, a la ‘Paranormal Activity’, although in this example it’s more a case of Just Quit With The Home Movies And Go Sleep In Another Room You Doofus Syndrome.

All damn found footage movies … except one. Because how about if the camera was built into your spacesuit and you were running anyway?

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Apollo 18’. Granted, it has a concept that sounds like barrel-scraping of highest (or should that be lowest?) order: hey guys, no-one’s made a found-footage movie in space yet! How cheap can we build an egg-carton lunar module? But at a taut 84 minutes and boasting a genuinely imaginative approach to the sub-genre, it emerges as a claustrophobically tense piece of work.

Writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo López-Gallego get things right from the outset by wearing their influences like badges of honour: this ain’t ‘Blair Witch’ in space; this taps into a more primal and visceral stratum of fear. ‘Apollo 18’ is about isolation, about claustrophobia, about not knowing who to trust, about the terrifying realisation that there will be no rescue party, no escape route, no-one to help you. ‘Apollo 18’ taps into the same strand of horror that informed ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’, and it’s clear that the creative team behind it knew exactly what they were doing.

The film starts in typical found footage style with a seemingly disconnected stringing-together of grainy clips: the astronauts in training for their mission, to-camera vox-pops, home movie footage of families and barbecues. What’s impressive is how quickly small scraps of information cohere into subtle characterisation. Likewise, standard mockumentary tropes suddenly give way to a fully-formed narrative where the stakes are about as high as they get. Miller and López-Gallego sneak things up on the viewer with such legerdemain and Swiss-watch precision that ‘Apollo 18’ is a joy to watch even while it’s scaring the crap out of you. (Although it would be remiss of me, as a reviewer, not to mention that the plot lurches into some pretty melodramatic territory for no other reason than to set up a rather needless twist.)

That said, because of how cleverly and subtly it’s done, I’m loathe to discuss the mechanics of plot. There are some movies you just don’t want to spoil, even moderately, for the viewer who hasn’t yet acquainted themself. Let’s just say that ‘Apollo 18’ plays its hand simply by having an object in the corner of the screen – an object that shouldn’t have any business with mobility – moving very slightly for a fraction of a second. It should be silly; it’s actually terrifying. The film quickly seals the deal with a set-piece involving the descent into a crevasse – the whole thing lit by intermittent flashes of light – that becomes a symphony of half-glimpsed horrors.

From just south of its halfway mark onwards, ‘Apollo 18’ starts ratcheting up the tension and doesn’t give its characters a moment to draw breath until the grimly inevitable denouement. It does a similar job on the audience.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bigger, better, more! Shorter, fewer, less!

It’s been barren on Agitation recently, but this time I have a bona fide excuse. A couple of weeks ago I suffered a flare-up of an impinged nerve that I had treated earlier this year. It affected my right shoulder, arm and hand. Painkillers had minimal effect. Fortunately, I had an “open appointment” with the physiotherapist. The pain reached its worst over the weekend and I’ve barely slept in the last 72 hours as a result. Formulating thoughts in order to structure a film review seemed like Sisyphus getting the boulder to the top of the mountain. Typing wasn’t an option. Even now, having seen the physio earlier today and commenced a treatment plan, I’m typing this hunt-and-peck stylee and it’s damned bloody frustrating!

I had two 13 For Halloween reviews in the bag before the flare-up and these will appear in the next few days. Thereafter, 13 For Halloween will continue as planned (my friend and fellow horror fanatic Debbie cherrypicked her DVD collection to provide me with some cracking material) but reviews will be shorter than usual while physio continues. Much as 13 For Halloween and the Winter of Discontent are my favourite seasons on the blog, getting myself back in shape and pain-free takes precedence.