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Index to stuff commented on



Zombie Holocaust
Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Ju-On: The Curse / Ju-On: the Curse 2
Bubba Ho-tep
Ju-On: The Grudge
The Ape Man
Revolt of the Zombies
Ghost Ship (1952)
The Entity
13 Gantry Row
The Changeling
Exorcist: The Beginning
The Invisible Ghost
The Story of Ricky
13 Ghosts (1960)

House of the Dead
Shock Waves
They Came Back (Les Revenants)
Zombie Honeymoon
Dracula 3000
The Uncanny
Premonition (Yogen)
Dead Birds
The Asphyx
Haunted (1995)
The Darkling
Lisa and the Devil
The Black Cat
Cursed (Japanese)

More reviews

Cursed [aka 'Chô' kowai hanashi A: yami no karasu] (Japanese, 2004) -- dir. Yoshihiro Hoshino

Welcome to the Mitsuya Mart!

Re-titled Cursed for international release, this J-Horror entry is so deliciously bizarre, idiosyncratic and creepily humorous, it makes an effective addition to the already odd Asian ghost-story sub-genre. While no upper echelon spook classic, the film works in its own terms, despite rough patches.

For a start it looks pretty good. Though low budget and filmed on digital video, it doesn’t significantly suffer from these drawbacks – not unless you are irrevocably wedded to slick Hollywood production values. If you aren’t, you might find that its video origins give the film’s interior shots (in particular) a sort of starkly lit garishness that accentuates the sense of exposure and threat pervading events. Though its oddball combination of bizarre humour and horror can seem somewhat jaggedly melded together at times, the result has a definite manic attraction all its own. Its unsettlingly alien qualities add to the overall effect.

Cursed is set in and around an inner-city suburban convenience store, the Mitsuya Mart. This is a less-than-convenient convenience store, in that the owners are certifiably mad, and the Mart’s ambiance and reputation are such that local residents never shop there. Only those from out-of-town, or those who haven’t been paying attention, risk popping in to pick up some emergency supplies. To do so is to court death. If your purchases add up to 666 yen or 999 yen or even 699 yen, it is likely that you’ll be tracked to your apartment by a huge sledgehammer-wielding maniac, attacked psychically and emotionally while bathing or preparing dinner, haunted by a parker-wearing phantom, hit by a bus, or otherwise visited by spectral, and dangerous, scraps of weird-shit metaphysical spookiness. So if your purchases fortuitously add up to 820 yen, resist the temptation to buy a counter treat as you stand ready before the cash register, or else you’ll find that the total will hit 999 after all – and then you’re done for.

The loose, anecdotal visitations that make up much of the film were apparently taken from a book series popular in Japan. As such, Cursed relates to what is becoming a popular Asian sub-sub-genre – the ghost movie based around a series of anecdotal scare moments. Ju-on: Grudge fits into this mould, though the Pang Bros’ Eye 10 and Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan offer more direct examples: films of an anthology nature, with sometimes tenuous (or non-existent) arcing linkages. This anecdotal approach can work rather effectively for ghost stories, as that is essentially what they are, even when given a more directly plot-structured framework; the approach harks back to the ghost story’s origin – the "Did you hear about…?" mode of "campfire" folktale – and gains a sort of resonance from that association.

Meanwhile, and most importantly, the stark atmosphere is insidiously unnerving, the moments of haunting satisfyingly creepy, the acting good, and the framing moments strong. Young newcomer Hiroko Sato, as the resiliently cheerful part-time check-out chick, manages to drag viewer sympathies into the story and to provide an anchor for identification. Not any easy task. Though the film does provide some "explanation" for the spooky occurrences, it in no way connects the dots in regards to the exact nature of individual events – because, essentially, they represent disparate hauntings brought together conceptually under the wide embrace of the cursed Mart. As in much Japanese horror, "explanation" is not the point – "Don’t look for meaning," one character advises. "There is none." But the film needed a focus, and Ms Sato provides it.

The Japanese title translates as something along the lines of "The Most Horrible Story 'A': Crows of Darkness", which in itself encapsulates much about the film’s tone. "Crows of Darkness" would have been a much better title for the US release. This would have avoided the tendency for the film to be confused with the higher profile werewolf movie Cursed directed by Wes Craven, which was released about the same time – and sounds much less boringly generic.

18 December 2005

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This section is designed as a place where I can add quick comment, short reviews, random thoughts and observations on films and TV related stuff, as well as books perhaps ... on an ongoing basis. You'll probably note a certain lack of objective restraint at times. Sorry.

The Black Cat (US, 1934) -- dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
Featuring stellar and subtly nuanced performances by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat is a stylish, marvellously effective horror film that creates a dark, oppressive metaphor for the corrupting influence of past iniquities. Ulmer was a fascinating director -- never feted within Hollywood and mainly confined to low-budget genre flicks, he nevertheless managed to produce this classic of horror, Detour (one of the great film noirs) and a slew of flawed but intriguing cheapies, such as The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier, made back-to-back in 1960 over a two-week period. In The Black Cat, he creates such an atmosphere of claustrophobic intensity and perverse evil that the film managed to get itself banned in various regions, despite the fact that the violence generally remains off screen and implication rules. The film contains a wealth of perversities: hints of necrophilia, references to mass slaughter (Poelzig's house is built of the site of a wartime massacre), a flaying, the corpses of ex-wives suspended in death in a basement "museum", murder, Satanism, and an air of obsessive and simmering revenge. What's more, inspired as it was by the real-life "black magician" Aleistair Crowley, its credentials would not have gone down well in polite society. Then there's the wonderfully "modernist" set design and the strange appearance of Karloff's world-weary devil-worshipper, Hjalmar Poelzig. Even his vengeful enemy, Dr Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), with his "morbid fear of cats", supplies little by way of heroic virtue, seeming to be motivated by a death wish as strong as Poelzig's. Death is everywhere in fact, offering more than a hint of post-war malaise. It is a moral death that afflicts them both; they are undead ghosts playing out the final act of a long-running emotional conflict. Says Poelzig to Werdegast: "Are we not both the living dead? And now you come playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death..." What this all adds up to is a treat for horror fans that is comparable to nothing else in the history of the genre.

22 November 2005

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Lisa and the Devil (Italy, 1973) [aka Lisa e il diavolo] -- dir. Mario Bava
Lisa and the Devil is a film that has been much abused. At the time of its first release, The Exorcist was making a killing at the box-office, so of course a surreal and lyrical film with "Devil" in the title wasn't going to make it to the screen without studio interference. In this case the interference was considerable. Bava's morbidly beautiful masterwork was totally re-edited, new footage of now "standard" demonic possession was added, and it was re-named The House of Exorcism. Bye-bye lyricism. Bye-bye artistic integrity.

The original film is arguably a career high from a man who made a number of horror masterpieces. It contains no demonic possession, no head-spinning, no echo-chambered bass voices, no levitation, no green-pea spewing, no "Don't break my balls, priest!" retorts. Lisa and the Devil does not, in fact, concern itself with demons or exorcisms at all; it is a poetic ghost story, where Telly Savalas' humorous butler/devil is a claimer of the dead, a sort of grim reaper, apparently causing past events to replay in order to ensnare the living. Visiting tourist Lisa (Elke Sommers) is part of a bus tour examining an ancient fresco in an Italian town square; she becomes fascinated by an image depicting the Devil carrying off the souls of the dead, but is enticed out of the bustling square by music, which, it turns out, is produced by a music box complete with revolving dolls -- the most prominent of which is a skeletal Death figure. The dance-of-death box is owned by a strange man who looks a lot like the Devil depicted in the fresco. Lisa flees, but suddenly the town is deserted and she is lost -- and eventually ends up taking refuge in a lavish mansion where the inhabitants play out an elaborate history of love, betrayal and death, engaging in their own dance of death. Lisa is the spitting image of Elena, who was at the centre of the passions being re-enacted. Soon there is violent death and terror... and all are lost in events that have clearly already happened and are now happening again -- or are still happening.

The film contains many scenes of visual poetry; one that is particularly memorable depicts the son of the household having sex with Lisa, who is drugged and comatose, in a bed that contains the decayed corpse of Elena and is surrounded by obscuring gauze, mouldy cake and rampant vegetation. Implications of necrophilia and incest abound, and bloody murder splashes gouts of red across the film's lush colour scheme. Confusion between large doll-figures (carted around by the devilish butler) and their human counterparts, an atmosphere of increasing decay, and images of vast and shadowy emptiness give the whole thing an air of temporal confusion that is thoroughly unique.

21 November 2005

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Tormented (US, 1960) -- dir. Bert I. Gordon
Films are a product, and a victim, of their time and circumstances, some more markedly than others. But this doesn't mean they can't be enjoyed and appreciated. Tormented is a noirish ghost flick by exploitation cheapie director Bert I. Gordon, who is better known for his movies about big things -- his best probably being The Amazing Colossal Man. The thing about Gordon is this: he didn't have much money, had a limited technical repetoire, and was prone to doing the obvious, directorially. But his films often have aspirations to better things and show hints of what those better things might be.

Tormented is a good example. It is a small film that makes the best of a beach/island/lighthouse setting, in which environment a supernatural love-cum-revenge tale plays out to reasonably good effect, all things considered. Richard Carlson stars as jazz pianist Tom Stewart, who is visited on the eve of his wedding by his lounge-singer ex-lover with threats of exposure. "No one will have you except me," she threatens. When she accidentally falls off a derelict lighthouse, he deliberately avoids saving her, but is subsequently riddled by guilt. Is it simply guilt that evokes a subjective ghostly presence? Well, not entirely. Others do smell her perfume, and objects (such as a wedding ring) disappear, a recording of the ex singing "Tormented" refuses to be silenced, her footprints appear in the sand. Yet there remains an ambiguity about the whole thing that allows us to experience the haunting as a metaphor for Stewart's emotional state without feeling as though we are being manipulated too much.

Some of the scenes and effects are hokey, no doubt about that. Some things would be better half-seen -- the singer's disembodied head, for example, is hard to take seriously; and her footprints actually appearing alongside those of Stewart and his fiancé as they walk along the beach would have worked better as a static manifestation -- being there when he looks but not actually appearing. But other scenes carry considerable impact: the first appearance of the ghost as a diaphanous windblown figure hovering in the air outside the lighthouse railings; the singer's body rescued from the sea and becoming seaweed in Stewart's arms; flowers and bouquets wilting as an invisible presence makes its way down the aisle in response to the minister's ritual appeal for those who "object" to the marriage to speak up. The ending is both grim and effective. Driven to murder by the need to cover up his guilt (or by the taunting of the ghost), and even contemplating killing the young sister of his bride (because she witnessed the deed), Stewart falls to his death thanks to the same faulty railing that brought about his ex-lover's earlier demise and a sudden "in-your-face" appearance of the ghost. On a benighted beach, watched by the wedding crowd, divers drag a body out of the sea -- but it is the ex-lover's. They then drag out Stewart's corpse; as they dump him on the sand next to the ex-lover, her arm falls across him in a possessive embrace -- and she is seen to be wearing the missing wedding ring.

Yes, the film does show its age, its time (especially in some of the rather strained "hip" dialogue) and its budgetary limitations, but it is an entertaining B-film anyway and resonates with the power of an effectively, if a bit shakily, realised metaphor.

18 November 2005

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The Darkling (US, 2000) -- dir. Po-Chih Leong
This is another example of low-budget TV filmmaking that, to my mind at least, thoroughly justifies the medium as offering opportunities for small and quirky projects. Of necessity eschewing spectacle and complex SFX, The Darkling proves to be an intimate, intelligent parable exploring desperation, the desire for "wealth, happiness and fame" and the associations we are willing to make in order to achieve our ends. Using the always fascinating world of the collector as a central metaphor, the film successfully creates its own dark atmosphere and generates enough suspense, albeit low-level, to keep any willing viewer involved. The fallen, djinn-like cherub that is the Darkling is a shadowy, ambiguous and creepy creation, effectively encapsulating the darker possibilities of the film's world; its depiction here is effective if limited by the production's low budget -- but it works nevertheless. The actors are serviceable to good, with F. Murray Abraham as a stand-out, though Aidan Gillen does a fine, low-key job in the role of the main protagonist. With a carefully constructed script, good direction and an earnest technical sincerity, The Darkling is the sort of low-budget film that would not get made if the cinema box-office were the only criteria governing such things. The film was never one that was going to be welcomed, enjoyed or even tolerated by everyone, and nor was it going to be of great significance within the genre. But it has an integrity of its own and I for one am glad it had a chance to be made. (The other benefit for the film collector, of course, is that, being utterly insignificant in terms of industry profile, the film was released to DVD very cheaply, despite an excellent transfer and good general presentation.)

18 November 2005

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Haunted (UK/US, 1995) -- dir. Lewis Gilbert
The effectiveness of this ghost movie based on the novel Haunted by James Herbert derives in part from the fact that it draws on a pre-eminent literary tradition (specifically that of the English ghost tale, full of class-conscious social politics and a strong sense of history), while maintaining a modern sensibility. With its period setting, and in particular the iconic aristocratic personalities inhabiting Edbrook, an imposing English manor house, it combines Old Dark (and Haunted) House imagery with effective dramatics to draw us in and keep us on the back foot right until its turnabout ending. The Mariell siblings are played effectively by Kate Beckinsale, Anthony Andrews and Alex Lowe, and represent a classically eccentric bunch -- upper-class, ostentatiously "clever", self-indulgent and thoroughly spoiled, so much so that an unhealthy and insidious undercurrent becomes apparent right from their introduction. Aidan Quinn's troubled, but sceptical, academic, Prof. David Ash -- invited to Edbrook in order to dispel nanny Anna Massey's fear of the ghost(s) that supposedly haunt the place -- brings an appropriate mix of knowing objectivity and vulnerability to the scenario, harbouring as he does much lingering guilt over the childhood death of his sister. This, of course, allows for the introduction of the sort of ambiguity that works so well in ghost stories: Are unnatural occurrences at the house a function of his own unresolved emotional traumas, garnished with a fair measure of sexual confusion generated by Christina Mariell (whose naked indifference to social conventions seems both stimulating and sinister)? Or is there more to it? Of course there is more to it, and the viewer knows this, but the ambiguity effectively moderates our responses and, given a bit of artistic suspension, encourages us to become absorbed by the possibilities. That this 1995 supernatural drama plays a similar endgame to the 2001 film The Others should not surprise us; that particular trope has been around for some time. However, it's a measure of this film's success - and the success of The Others for that matter - that we allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised at the end, instead of ignorantly dismissing it as derivative.

18 November 2005

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The Asphyx (UK/US, 1973) -- dir. Peter Newbrook

Made by new company Glendale at a time when the Hammer crew were resorting to increased levels of sex and violence to combat escalating box-office competition, The Asphyx seems staid and traditional, despite its intriguing premise. Though based on an interesting scenario, the film exhibits lazy writing and a reluctance to develop the implications of its concept through to some logical conclusion. The 2.33:1 aspect ratio and shadowy visuals suggest an opulence of imagination that doesn't transfer over to the story itself, and one can't help coming away from the film with a feeling that its main character -- an aristocratic scientist obsessed with death and thwarting its hold over humanity -- would have been better depicted by someone with the experience and horror-film savvy of contemporary Peter Cushing. Cushing's performance would have suggested greater complexity and conviction, and would have brought an appropriate manic poignancy to the role. Robert Stephens is servicable enough, but he never quite manages to make his character's motivations totally convincing. And his ornate contrivances to place himself, his daughter and her fiance near to death seem based more on a desire for dramatic spectacle than on the need to come up with a logical, and safe, mechanism derived from necessity.

With its framing device (albeit ill-used), its period setting, its original scenario and effective cinematography, the film does go some way toward forging its elements into a dark parable of grief and obsession (and it is certainly creepy in those moments when the Asphyx -- the spirit of death -- manifests in Cunningham's light and shrieks in protest at its entrapment). But in the end it falls short in many areas, most notably failing to give credibility to its incredible events. Ultimately, there are too many contrived actions and undeveloped implications for the film to succeed in coalescing into a dramatic whole.

16 November 2005

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FeardotCom (UK/Germany/Luxembourg/US, 2002) -- dir. William Malone

The basic critical response to this horror film, from professionals and general public alike, is fairly consistent: they all hate it. I only discovered this after I watched it and then looked around for some intelligent critical discussion. But there wasn't much of that out there -- just sarcastic dismissal, often at considerable length. Some reviews do attempt to explain why it is so bad, mostly by referring to it as being (a) derivative of Ringu and its US remake, and (b) narratively inept and incoherent. Personally, however, I had seen it as taking a slightly different approach to themes made popular by The Ring, and had no trouble "understanding" what was going on in the film. So the fact that so many saw it as intolerably derivative and "making no sense whatsoever" came as a surprise. Even Roger Ebert, who takes a tolerant approach to the film -- one determined by his appreciation of its excellent visual stylings -- considers the plot to be incoherent. Others simply have contempt and disdain for it as "bad filmmaking": bad acting, bad dialogue, bad direction. Loathing is almost universal.

Without a doubt the film avoids spelling out its narrative semantics in so many words. Nor is the plot transparently obvious. But I would contend that the through-line is there and that as a whole the story hangs together. Occurrences within the film can be explained and it seems resistent to logical querying only to the extent that most ghost films remain a few steps beyond the rational. That it suggests Ringu is certain; that it was deliberately trying to steal from that film is less certain. The director has apparently claimed that he hadn't seen Ringu (or The Ring) when he made it. Even if he's being deliberately forgetful, those elements that suggest Ringu have quite a wide-ranging currency and the basic thrust of the film takes it to different imaginative places anyway. The mix even seemed rather original to me. Moreover, I thought the acting was OK, if not inspired (in particular, the romantic chemistry between the two leads is all but non-existent), the script was fine (if a little obtuse at times and a little messy at others), and the direction was inventive. The film is not perfect, but does display technical competence and in the end offers decent entertainment value.

Here's my take on the story. The Doctor (Stephen Rea) is a psycho bent on acting out his obsession with mortality, killing his victims online via webcam according to his own rules and as a comment on humanity's essentially voyeuristic fascination with death and suffering. One victim -- the Doctor's "favourite" -- returns as a ghost, but tied to the internet, through which her suffering had been broadcast; now she is bent on revenge. A website that offers images of her suffering is the means by which she can manifest, the fears of those who go there and buy into the morality of such a site giving her the psychic means to gain entry into the world. Why does she appear to victims as a child? Perhaps because it is to memories of herself as a child that she is most connected. At any rate, the bizarre killings (which reflect the victims' deepest fears and must therefore be seen as subjective in nature) lead to investigation by a policeman (Stephen Dorff) and a health inspector (Natascha McElhone), and thus, eventually, guide these two protagonists to the Doctor's current lair. It is important to note that the deadly feardotcom website is not the same as the Doctor's website, the URL of which is changed after each killing. Where did the feardotcom site come from? Who knows? As a distillation of the ghost girl's suffering, presumably she created it herself, supernaturally. Why does she take it out on innocent viewers? Well, that's what vengeful ghosts do, and in this case she only attacks those who enter the site knowing it is about torture and death. As such, they are not innocent at all, on one level. At the climax, Detective Reilly, dying from the Doctor's attack, brings the feardotcom site up on the Doctor's screens precisely in order to allow the ghost girl to manifest and gain her ultimate revenge -- on the one who was responsible for her death. She does so in an appropriate manner.

Sure, there are still unanswered questions, though not at the level of the main storyline. So why do so many viewers fail to appreciate what went on? Who knows? Certainly the film suggests Japanese horror such as Ringu in its refusal to fully rationalise its ghostly goings-on -- but it does create its own "rules" and pretty much sticks to them. It also offers a fairly intricate narrative structure, with lots of interweaving of incidents and images without verbal backup to carry the meaning. Perhaps it does these things to an extent unjustified by its emotional content and hence makes unreasonable demands on the viewer's tolerance. Perhaps its characters simply aren't strong enough to make the average viewer willing to struggle with its cinematic obscurities; in other words, it doesn't foster suspension of disbelief. Many viewers are simply bored. For whatever reason most seem more inclined to nitpick than to surrender to the film's story, pointing up supposed inconsistencies and illogical behaviour that, in other flicks, would simply be ignored. That, too, is a failing, I guess.

Still, I think it has value as a ghost film, paddling in the waters springing from Ringu's well and offering a variant take on its themes.

16 November 2005

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Gargoyles (US, 1972) -- dir. Bill L. Norton

Rubbersuit monsters aren't confined to Japanese daikaiju eiga [giant monster films]. This early '70s made-for-TV monster flick sports a host of them, with makeup courtesy of soon-to-be-SFX-superstar Stan Winston (who would get involved in John Carpenter's makeup extravaganza The Thing in 1982 and would subsequently be responsible for creature effects in 1987's Predator). The gargoyles are varied in form, well-constructed, and both sinister and cute; moreover, they show themselves rather good at destroying buildings with their bare claws, lurking among rocks and desert scrub, and leaping on passing riders. Though the suits suffer from "knee-wrinkle" and in a couple of shots the zipper is visible, the designs are so effective I'm inclined to be forgiving. After all, such things are traditional. What matters is that the film transcends its low-budget made-for-TV origins, managing to be entertaining and, at times, creepy.

For what it is, then, Gargoyles is a enjoyable film, with enough that is memorable to give it staying power. Yes, it looks like a TV movie, being unable to open out as widely, plot-wise, as it should, lacking the right level of gore, and veering away from sexual undercurrents that are there but unduly muted. There is something about the pacing of dialogue scenes that says "telly drama", too. But director Norton does particularly well during certain key scenes (the early attack on the hero's car, the destruction of Uncle Willie's shed, the siege of the motel room) and the actors are mostly good -- from Cornel Wilde as the briefly sceptical popular anthropologist, Jennifer Salt as his revealing-halter-top-clad daughter, Grayson Hall as the perpetually tippling landlady, Scott Glenn as dirtbike rider-turned-good-samaritan (in the manner of Steve McQueen in The Blob), and Bernie Casey as the deep-voiced lead gargoyle, evoking both Tim Curry's Satan in Legend and the Creeper from the recent Jeepers Creepers. I particularly enjoyed Woody Cambliss' Uncle Willie, the roadside weird-shit man. They all worked effectively, even when the dialogue became a bit loose and the dramatic pace faltered.

The settings, too, are a positive asset. Filmed in the Carlsbad caverns and New Mexico, the splendid rock formations and contrasting desert openness give the film real class. What is lacking is a bit of arcane stylishness in lighting and general approach. The cathedral-like rock formations offered the director a wonderful opportunity to evoke the sort of gothic grandeur we associate with traditional stone gargoyles. Over all, the film's gargoyles are too well lit -- and too often we see them upright, simply standing or running around. I kept imagining the camera catching them on the top of cliffs, leaning from ledges, hunched and looming over the human characters the way gargoyle statuary looms over visitors to Notre Dame cathedral and similar religious edifices. We should have been given glimpses of them swathed in shadows, barely animate, like ill-lit, benighted statues come to ambiguous life. But it didn't happen. Despite the good bits, this stylistic lack of imagination made the film seem undercooked. It is undoubtedly an enjoyable cult monster flick, but it could have been a classic.

In this current frenzy of remakes, usually of classics that don't need to be remade, Gargoyles represents just the kind of flick that would be a natural. Some atmospheric CGI gargoyles would go down very well, despite the appeal of the original costumes.

20 October 2005

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Possessed (US, 2000) -- dir. Steven E. de Souza

In the late 1970s, demonic possession films became a standard of the horror genre after the extraordinary box-office success of Friedkin's The Exorcist. Most of the direct rip-offs were, of course, only lukewarm regurgitations of that film -- and where filmmakers deviated from the formula, the result tended to be audience disinterest and critical scorn. Boorman's Exorcist 2: The Heretic, for example, is undoubtedly a flawed film, but not the disaster most critics make out. What it is is wildly idiosyncratic and divergent in approach and thematics, and this rather bemused and disappointed punters.

The urge to replicate The Exorcist faded somewhat as the years went by, though comparable demon flicks continued to be made, and the influence of the patriarchal granddaddy of possession films lingers. Possessed, made in 2000 for TV, does not try to remake The Exorcist as such, but there are, inevitably, similarities. Supposedly based on the same "real-life" incident that inspired The Exorcist, the film sticks more closely to that historical event than its predecessor did. Hence, it is set in the late 1940s-early 1950s, offering an effective period feel through both set design and character attitudes; moreover, the Reagan character has reverted to being a boy; and the ending becomes less morally apocalyptic. Naturally de Souca felt the need to cinematise events, upping the ante visually, and this brings in some Exorcist-esque effects, but Possessed remains nicely low-key in its use of horror clichés and the result is a surprisingly good, and effectively dramatic, film. Though low budget, it manages to generate decent suspense and to work some good shocks, with the possessed boy mouthing hair-raising language that I imagine was expurgated for network showing. Timothy Dalton is the film's biggest asset, however. His performance as the tormented and despairing priest totally transcends the cliché and carries us over the budget-driven low-points, supported by a script that is generally well-constructed and has its own integrity. I particularly enjoyed the priest's scorn, directed toward the spitting, hissing, spinning demon at the climax, where he says derisively: "This is evil?"

18 October 2005

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Dead Birds (US, 2004) -- dir. Alex Turner

With a good cast, an imaginatively appealing historical setting, a terrific haunted mansion (complete with eerie surrounding cornfield), an intriguingly Lovecraftian central idea, and the availability of sets hired cheaply in the wake of Tim Burton's Big Fish, this Civil War demonic ghost story has a lot going for it, especially in the light of its meagre budget. Director Turner shows himself to have promise and Dead Birds, his first feature, comes over as a visually interesting, occasionally scary -- though inconsistent and under-developed -- horror film.

Visually Dead Birds works a treat, with individual scenes that are extremely well handled. Yet I found it all a little too familiar, even the "revolutionary" use of its Civil War setting (which was there to provide texture rather than substance). The film kept reminding me of other films. Even the excellent "scarecrow" moment, where a displaced comrade is found to be stuffed with straw, resonates from a better film, Scarecrows, about a bunch of robbers who, coincidentally, hold up in an old house surrounded by haunted cornfields and scarecrows -- and gradually get picked off by the vengeful demonic inhabitants.

The real problem, however, came from the character arcing. The opening bank robbery (our introduction to people we are about to spend 90 minutes with) is ill-considered and gratuitous. We are supposed to care about their fate as the film unfolds, but they are a bunch of unsympathetic bastards from the start -- even Nicki Aycox's nurse, who violently slaughters a bank teller for no purpose other than to provide opportunity for a passing gag. Subsequent attempts to induce empathy are tainted by this macho beginning, which sets the tone of our emotional responses, and is way more violent, emotionless and bloody than the rest of the film put together. The "hero" agonising over accidentally killing a kid doesn't carry much conviction either, given he'd just shot some poor old bugger (and others) in the bank for no very good reason. From that point on, I just didn't care what happened to the gang. If the robbery had simply "gone wrong", resulting in deaths caused by panic, the scene would have worked fine ... and would still have had sufficient moral ambiguity to carry the rest of the plot. But the writer and director were apparently going for "hard-edged violence" and confrontation rather than narrative/character effectiveness. The result was a weakening of the overall effect.

That said, Dead Birds offers lots of atmospheric brooding and a good central idea, even if it isn't developed with any great imagination. There are many quietly suspenseful scenes (though few creepy moments). In a film this slow moving, there needs to be enough imaginative input to carry us through, and the slow pace should add to our unease rather than diffuse it. Moments of ghostly visitation provide quite a jolt, however -- and the "flashback"/nightmare vision in the third act is a near-masterpiece of well-selected imagery and effective editing.

I guess this sounds pretty much like I didn't care for the film at all. I did, in fact, up to a point; I simply thought it could/should have been much better. I was left with the impression (confirmed by the "making of..." docu on the DVD) that the writer (Simon Barrett) was not quite on top of things and allowed himself to be bullied by a director with great potential but who in this case didn't really know what story he really wanted to tell.

3 October 2005

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Premonition [aka Yogen] (Japan, 2004) -- dir. Norio Tsuruta

Made as part of the J-Horror Theater series (no. 2), Yogen is a wonderfully imaginative and powerful film, with moving central performances by its two principals, Hiroshi Mikami (as Hideki Satomi, as college teacher) and Noriko Sakai (as Satomi's wife Ayaka, a researcher at the same college), and an original storyline only vaguely suggestive of Ringu. Yogen is based on the manga series Kyôfu shinbun [or Newspaper of Terror] created by Jirô Tsunoda. Its central image is of a dark and crowded page of newsprint, which flaps out of the sky or otherwise makes an appearance, in order to reveal a news item concerned with violent death to come. What this knowledge does to the characters to whom the premonition is given is the central driving force of the story.

With several shocking moments -- all superbly executed -- and many disturbing images, Yogen weaves an intriguing and profound tale of personal destiny and its interaction with the destiny of others. There's not much that is predictable about this film and, unlike the horror films we are more familiar with, it seems as interested in involving your thought processes as in scaring you. Conspicuously lacking in gorehound violence, it uses deepening implication to disturb, along with the odd visual frisson. In the end, it is the characters that provide the narrative with its momentum, rather than the unravelling imagery of the premise (as good as the imagery is). The film's ending, to my mind, is perfect.

23 August 2005

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The Uncanny (UK/Canada, 1977) -- dir. Denis Héroux

According to the OED, the term "uncanny" means "untrustworthy or inspiring uneasiness by reason of a supernatural element; uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar; mysteriously suggestive of evil or danger". It literally means "unknowable", I believe. Given the suggestive nature of that, any film with the word as its title should be unsettling and creepy at the very least. Well, this one isn't, even though it wants to be. It's a feline horror anthology starring Peter Cushing, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasance, Samantha Eggar and others and is second-rate, if not absolutely terrible. Only really worth it for Cushing's brief linking bits and Pleasance (who spoofs himself and the film industry in his segment, as does Eggar). The main problem is that the cats aren't filmed with any degree of spookiness, apart from the occasional cattish inscrutability. It's all too upfront. Héroux couldn't even manage the old Cat-Leaps-Out-of-the-Cupboard trick to get a scare. Most of the time the cats involved look confused, slightly nervous or indifferent, rather than vicious and manipulative, appearing to want to be elsewhere. A bit like the actors, especially Milland who comes over as bored and impatient. One day someone will do a good cat horror film, extending the eeriness created by the cat in Ju-On: the Curse to the length of a feature.

I did like the opening credit sequence, though, with all its paintings of cats.

23 August 2005

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Dracula 3000 (Germany/South Africa, 2004) -- dir. Darrell Roodt

How could they possibly go wrong? The most ancient and famous of vampires turns up on a derelict spaceship being salvaged by a typical bunch of misfits -- and then goes into predatory mode. Very Alien, sure, but it should be at least entertaining. The DVD cover looks very cool -- a complex Giger-esque vampire, teeth bared.

Well, they did go wrong. Very wrong. The film is abysmal. It has some decent low-budget production values, but the script, acting and direction are shockingly bad. Okay, some of the actors make a brave attempt (and their names will be withheld in consideration of possible future careers). But most of their characters are awful, often annoying. Nothing much happens that couldn't have been written by an indifferent monkey with something else on its mind. And the ending...

I'm sure the production meeting that discussed it went something like this:

Director to writer (sounding somewhere between bored and desperate): How are we going to end this thing?
Writer: Beats me. Does anyone care by this stage?
Director: Oh, come on, we HAVE to have an ending.
Writer: OK, but first we need some sex between the Crew Member Who's Blonde and Wears An Impractical Low-cut Tanktop, and the Totally Obnoxious Testosterone-Driven Bully.
Director: That wouldn't make sense, would it? She hates him.
Writer: Does it have to make sense? Look, she's an ex sex-bot who's acting as an undercover drug agent. That's the Big Revelation, right? Clever.
Director: It's a rip-off of "Alien".
Writer: It's a homage. But it was clever then and it's still clever now. Besides, the robot in "Alien" wasn't a sex-bot. Sex-bots are even cleverer.
Director: OK, OK. Whatever.
Writer: So if she's an ex sex-bot, she'll have sex with anyone, even a Stupid Mindless Hunk That She Hates. Women are like that. Especially if they're sex-bots.
Director: But we can't have a sex scene. Erika only agreed to do the role if it didn't include her being naked.
Writer: But she's been in Playboy. I thought that's why we got her.
Director: She wanted to Get Serious.
Writer: Really? Okay, never mind. I've got it covered. They don't actually get to have sex! Leaves the audience with a lot of Unfulfilled Sexual Tension, see? Very popular.
Director: Still doesn't give us an ending.
Writer: Well, while the audience is distracted by the possibility that something interesting might be going to happen -- after all, they've wanted to see Erika nude the whole way through the picture -- we'll blow up the ship.
Director: What? Why? We haven't set that up. It doesn't make sense.
Writer: Sure it does. We've got Udo Kier on contract. He'd blow up a ship. Everyone knows that.
Director: But even if he would, why just at that moment?
Writer: Because we want to end the picture. Why else?
Director: That's terrible.
Writer: Hey, it's an ending, You can't deny that. And a tough one. Everyone dies. Very arthouse.
Director: No audience'll buy it.
Writer: Sure they will. They couldn't give a rat's arse about any of the characters anyway. In fact, they hate them all and by this time just want the damn movie to end.
Director: We might as well have a Space Volcano that erupts suddenly and kills everyone.
Writer: Hmmm, not bad. Sort of cross-genre homage to ... something I've forgotten. Very postmodern. Let's do it.
Director: Forget it. We've only got twenty bucks left. Can't afford to build a volcano. We'll stick with blowing up the ship. The SFX department'll like that. He hates that ship.
Writer: Cool. I'll write it into the script.
Director: I didn't know there was a script. Who took my copy?

I sold the DVD immediately after watching it.

17 August 2005

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Zombie Honeymoon (US, 2004) – dir. David Gebroe

Though its title suggests something comedic, if not farcical, Zombie Honeymoon is in fact an often moving meditation on the dilemma of finding that the one you love has become something increasingly hard to relate to. Denise and Danny have just married and are deliriously happy and deliriously in love. While honeymooning, Danny is assaulted (rather grossly) by a zombie that lurches out of the sea. Danny dies, but ten minutes later is back, apparently normal. But all is not as it seems.  Not only did Danny die, he is still dead – has become one of the cannibalistic living dead, in fact – and proceeds to chow down on random visitors to their house, compulsively and, afterwards, with genuine regret. What is Denise to do? She loves him, but he keeps eating their friends.

While the film has its grimly humorous moments, the narrative isn’t handled as farce. Denise’s emotional dilemma is treated seriously and the carefully modulated performance of Tracey Coogan successfully carries a heavy emotional load. The cannibalistic scenes are gross and bloody, in the tradition of Romero’s living dead movies, but the end result is a sort of black-tinged pathos that is both profound and metaphorically resonant. As he becomes more and more zombie-like, visibly rotting and swapping the power of speech for a pained wheezing groan, we can’t help but sympathise with Denise’s desperate confusion. The image of her sitting in their bedroom watching a cooking show on TV, turning up the volume to muffle the hideous sound of Danny eating a policeman, is wrenching, outrageous, and infinitely sad.

The director deserves recognition for his great achievement. Managing to bring together traditional Romeroesque zombie tropes with those of a tragic romantic drama is not something to be taken lightly.

29 July 2005

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They Came Back [aka Les Revenants] (France, 2004) – dir. Robin Campillo

A re-envisaging of the zombie film that incorporates Haitian zombie ambiance into the dominant Romero scenario, Les Revenants is very nearly a classic, in the end suffering somewhat from its own determined emotional distance and the lack of narrative conviction in its ending.

Beginning with a superbly unsettling scene of hundreds of the dead returning to life en masse through the gates of a cemetery, Les Revenants seeks to explore attitudes to death and loss through a narrative involving the reintegration of the dead back into society. These zombies are not decayed, flesh-eating monsters; they are whole, undamaged, clean and filled with zen-like calm. They can talk and to all intents and purposes appear to be as they were before death took them – better perhaps, as whatever disease or accident was responsible for their death has left no scars. Slowly they remember their past; yet slowly, too, they appear to their families and friends as more and more distant and alienated. Finally it is clear that all they have is memory; they have no initiative, no awareness of the future. They are removed from ordinary life, like faded photographs (a conceit reinforced through the use of flat lighting and predominantly white clothing). Dead, they existed only in the past. Returned from death, they exist in the present but remember the past. But being alive means existing in the past, present and future. Therefore, however they might appear, they are not alive. In fact they are like corporeal ghosts, physical phantoms haunting the living. As a metaphor for failing to let go, the concept works beautifully and the exploration of it, particularly in the relationship between a young woman (Géraldine Pailhas, in an excellent and finely nuanced performance) and her dead husband (Jonathan Zaccaï), is movingly handled.

Many moments within the film are quietly chilling and unsettling, redolent with an incongruous but numinous terror, and the emotions displayed are wonderfully complex, as families find that their own responses to the return of loved ones are not as unambiguous as they might have hoped.  

But Campillo seems to be so intent on maintaining a non-exploitative horror tone throughout that he trips up the narrative and makes the film’s progress as flat and “removed” as the zombies themselves. His one attempt at “action” is ill-conceived and pointless, as he tries to push the film toward some sort of climax. The zombies’ acts of sabotage seem unnecessary, both within the plot and thematically; if the sabotage was intended as a distraction to allow the dead to “escape”, the real effect is just the opposite. And the reaction of the authorities, though suggestive of the end of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, begs way too many questions as regards the director’s avowed attempt to keep the film within the bounds of the real; is it conceivable that the authorities could destroy the dead like this, on such a flimsy pretext, without provoking massive protest and even civil action? I don’t think so. It wouldn’t matter except that these things – the sabotage and the attack on the dead – seem so out of place that we are forced to question them. Throughout the film Campillo and his characters resolutely fail to ask the obvious questions or express a natural curiosity as to how the dead can return and what the experience of death was like for them. I neither want nor expect an answer to these questions and the lack of questioning can be accepted within the context of a parable. But the sabotage and its consequence demand explanation, and when we don’t get it, or even a hint of what it might be for, it causes us to start questioning more widely.

For me a more effective ending, and one that arises more naturally from the first two acts, would have been for the zombies to simply disappear, gradually and without fuss fading into shadows, as both they and their loved ones realise that the dead simply don’t belong, and can never be re-integrated into their old lives. This makes sense thematically (and metaphorically), whereas Campillo’s existing ending remains unsatisfying and incongruous.

It’s a pity. There is great beauty and a profound pathos in this film, undercut at the end by confused methodologies.

29 July 2005

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Shock Waves (US, 1977) -- dir. Ken Weiderhorn

As aquatic Nazi zombie movies go, Shock Waves is a classic. Made by Ken Wiederhorn, otherwise renown in the genre for the not-very-memorable Return of the Living Dead II, it is an enjoyable low-budget zombie flick that has become something of a cult favourite over the years, and provokes its fair share of chills. Set near and in the midst of a semi-tropical island marshland (complete with decaying colonial mansion), it is atmospheric and often suspenseful -- and only falls down in being somewhat narratively underdeveloped. Visually, despite its rather dark and indistinct appearance, it is a delight. Even the film's dirty graininess can be extraordinarily effective, as in the rise of the ghost ship, which, no longer on the ocean floor, bears down on the protagonists' boat during a weird and unsettling storm at sea.

The cast includes veterans Peter Cushing (looking typically gaunt and authoritative as an ex-Nazi commander), John Carradine (looking typically gaunt and haggard as a hire-boat captain), Brooke Adams and Luke Halpin. They all do a good-to-servicable job. Even better are the Nazi zombies, members of an elite "not-quite dead and not-quite alive" SS death corps, whose transport was scuttled (by their non-undead commander) at the end of the War when their existence had become problematic, and who have now returned to do what ex-mass murderers and psychopaths do when they've been resurrected as zombies: kill without rhyme or reason. Memorable scenes of SS zombies lying just beneath the surface of ponds and rivulets or prowling the off-shore ocean beds in jackboots, black goggles and decaying skin are alone worth the price of admission. As befits their elite corps status, these zombies stalk confidently through the mangroves and kick in doors with aplomb -- though they're also not averse to standing half visible in the mangrove shadows and simply watching. Such moments linger in the mind.

The film does feel under-written, however -- not in terms of existing dialogue, but as regards narrative content. Cushing's character, superbly realised by the horror maestro, is underused. In fact, I would have liked the story to concentrate more on Cushing's aging SS commander, who has exiled himself here on the periphery of the Death Corps graveyard in nostalgic guilt or fear, rather than on the doomed victims who have wandered into this piece of resurrected history and are now forced to relinquish their tenuous hold on life. Unfortunately the commander's fate remains somehat off-hand -- though the film ends with a melancholy and chilling fatalism that is both redolent of the period and strangely haunting.

15 July 2005

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House of the Dead (Canada/US/Germany, 2003) -- dir. Uwe Boll [aka House of the Dead: Le jeu ne fait que commencer]

The tagline of this zombie light-weight reads: "The dead walk... you run". Not quite accurate. Though this post-Millennial zombie flick references Romero's Living Dead classics as an inspiration, the zombies actually run, leap and utilise assorted weaponry in a way totally alien to the Romero dead. The real inspiration behind the film, in fact, is the Sega game of the same name, and the House of the Dead references the game constantly, not simply on a Sega banner decorating the stage at "the rave party of the century" but by continually inter-cutting the game's actual graphics into the action. This -- and the unending, ultra-stylised, Matrix-esque fighting -- are the two single most annoying things about it. Together they manage to effectively undermine whatever audience involvement the film might have achieved.

This is a pity. True, the situation and basic plotting are totally unoriginal. Indeed when I read the synopsis -- horny young groovers go to weird island for a rave and end up being chased and killed by zombies -- I was tempted not to bother. Though there is slightly more to the plot (a bit of interesting back-story), the "more" is so token it doesn't make much difference to the overall effect. Vacuous characters get killed by zombies. That's it. Admittedly there is a hell of a lot of running around. And stylised fighting. Did I mention the stylised fighting? A lot of it is in slo-mo, utilising a tedious 360-degree sweeping motion centred around whatever character is being thus heroically re-envisaged -- a technique that was stolen from umpteen more effective Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts films, not to mention The Matrix. (Come to think of it, the Japanese zombie/yakuza epic Versus had to be a stylistic inspiration for this film; it stole from The Matrix, too, but rather more creatively.) But how is it that a bunch of boneheaded twenty-somethings, who can barely remember their own names and spend a lot of their time drinking and fumbling at various items of clothing, suddenly prove to be superhuman kickboxers, kung fu fighters and experts in both modern and ancient weaponry? That was the real mystery, not where the zombies came from.

The "pity" aspect mentioned above arises from the fact that the actual cinematography looks clear and professional (though not the directorial decisions relating to it), the setting is wonderfully picturesque, one or two of the actors are OK (Jurgen Prochnow in a stereotypical role and Ona Grauer, whose character at least appears to have a few brain cells), the design work is good and the zombie make-up occasionally effective. Then they go and spoil it by being too damn hip and thoughtless for their own good.

The only sign that this is a post-Millennial zombie film is the metal/techno/hip-hop soundtrack and the slo-mo bullet POV stuff. In storyline it's bad Romero ... no, it's post-bad Romero, being more like one of those 1980s Italian Romero rip-off flicks, like Zombie Holocaust: sexploitation, bloody zombie action, experiments in longevity by mad scientist (or in this case long-dead de-frocked medieval priest). In short, nothing new, technically competent with good-looking cinematography and design work, terrible directorial decision-making, dumb flat-line story, a script full of bad dialogue and logic flaws, and lots of gory zombie action.

30 June 2005

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13 Ghosts (US, 1960) -- dir. William Castle

While watching this "gimmick" horror film from legendary cinema showman William Castle, it occurred to me that 13 Ghosts needs to be considered as working in a different genre to other horror films. There's little point in watching it as an ordinary horror film, that is, as an artistic experience wherein disbelief is suspended and the appropriate emotions are provoked in you by the immediacy of the on-screen drama and the power of its atmospherics. Instead, 13 Ghosts stresses its own artificiality, glorying in its status as a piece of celluloid gimmickry and forever reminding you that it's all a thrill ride. Most horror films have an element of the "thrill ride" mentality about them, but Castle makes it his film's reson d'être. The experience of being in the theatre and screaming your head off with your mates while playing hide-and-seek with the "ghosts" is what it's all about.

Famously, 13 Ghosts was shot in Illusion-O, a dubious technique invented by Castle that allows an audience to see or not see the onscreen ghosts as they wish. A cardboard viewer with separate blue- and red-tinted lenses was supplied at the door. Are you brave? Then look through the red part of the viewer to see the ghosts, Castle explains. If not, look through the blue part and the ghosts will disappear. Of course, you can see the ghosts even without the viewer, but nevertheless the illusion of having an option was a clever marketing stratagem and, no doubt, involving for the original audience of spook-show enthusiasts. The trouble is, though the film is mostly in black-and-white, the screen is tinted whenever the ghosts are about to do their thing and a sign appears at the bottom saying "USE VIEWER". When the ghosts have gone you are admonished to stop using the viewer. As a result of all this signposting, there's little tension, no unanticipated scares and a continual reminder that the whole thing is a fake. Castle's beginning monologue, with its corny if endearing visual gags, simply adds to the feeling of artificiality.

Of course, you could always watch the TV version that is purely in black-and-white, without Castle or the tinting, but where's the fun in that? The idea behind the film's scenario might have had potential -- the past owner of the house having collected ghosts and our brave all-American family, having inherited the place, now need to deal with them, using special glasses that make the spooks visible. But Castle doesn't develop the concept much at all (just as he never develops the idea of the mysterious 13th ghost), and both the staging of the ghost scenes and the weak climax are too theatrical to generate anything by way of chills -- unless you're willing to play Castle's "peek-a-boo" game and consciously pretend.

The current DVD re-issue offers a nice clear print (of both versions). Though the glasses are said to be supplied and aren't, you can always make your own in order to play along with the gimmickry of it all. Might be fun in a group.

Just don't expect to be engaged by the drama itself.

27 June 2005

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The Story of Ricky (HK, 1991) aka Riki-Oh, Lai wong (original title), King of Strength (literal translation of HK title) -- dir. Ngai Kai Lam

1980s Italian zombie movies (see Burial Ground and Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters). Raimi's Evil Dead. Jackson's Bad Taste and Brain Dead (Dead Alive in the US). Gordon's Re-Animator, From Beyond and (interestingly) Fortress. Still with me? Add a big helping of Shaw Brothers kung fu martial arts. Also the Sonny Chiba bone-cruncher, The Streetfighter. Mix well.

If the above stew settles nicely in your stomach rather than compelling you to reach for a bucket, then you might be interested in Lai wong (Story of Ricky). Just out on Region 4 Hong Kong Legends DVD (uncut Collector's Edition), it actually lives up to its cover blurb (except for the bit about The Matrix... no relation there, folks), offering a non-stop pageant of head-splitting, gut-slicing, blood-splattering, eye-gouging, limb-removing and body-mincing -- all in the name of good clean down-and-dirty action entertainment.

Based on a rather violent Japanese manga, Lai wong places its supernaturally strong hero, Riki-Oh, in an alternative-reality, futuristic (2001), corporatised prison, where he must slice heads apart with his bare hands just to survive (and to stand up for The Right). As has been proven in the past, it's a good scenario for a film of this kind -- claustrophobic and otherworldly, open to psychopathic behaviour, rampant self-interest and aggressive violence. Once it's established that the hero is ethically driven and a decent bloke, then the audience can readily give in to his sense of battered injustice and its manifestation in the form of gorily comicbook fights.

Of particular interest is the way that fantasy elements are introduced without the need for rationalisation or undue embarrassment. This film takes the implicit unreality of action films and ramps it up several notches. Riki is super-strong and has been from birth. Yeah, OK. He's an Asian Hercules. He can pound his fist through a gut or a prison wall or steel bars with a single blow. Cool, eh? He can have the muscles of his arm sliced open and heal the injury, mid-fight, by tying the tendons back together with his other hand and his teeth. Can't everyone? Razorblades through the cheek. Spike through palm. Spear through leg. Lay it all on him and he can still fight. Of course he can. A big bugger of an opponent can reach into his own abdomen, haul out his intestines and use them to strangle Riki. He's certainly got guts, as the spectators remark. Elephant gun cartridges can be shot into someone and cause them to blow up like a balloon before exploding. Sure, happens all the time around here. The warden suddenly turns into a huge ogrous monster for the final conflict, in order to put the rebellious Riki in his place. What? Really? OK, I can live with that -- aren't all action film bad-guys monsters at heart? One thing's for sure -- anyone who rents this film expecting a Jackie Chan clone are in for one hell of a surprise!

For sheer in-your-face violence and fantastical gore, you have to give director Ngai Kai Lam his due. But while it's undoubtedly bloody and a little confronting for your granny, it's not overly realistic and is so extreme as to veer into parody, much the way Brain Dead and Evil Dead did. So is it a horror comedy like those films? Well, yes, though its overt origins in the martial arts/action film tradition give it a pseudo reality that those films never courted -- and hey [said in an ironic tone] who could deny the reality of action films? (Note: Riki actor Siu-Wong Fan does his own stunts and is adept at most martial arts, or so he says in the rather interesting interview included on the DVD. So that aspect is real!)

Basically, Lai wong does what it set out to do, and does it with gusto -- despite the rather rubbery look of most of the body-dismemberment SFX. For a viewer, liking it or not liking it will definitely come down to a matter of taste. But be sure to watch the subtitled version. You wouldn't want the irrelevant unreality of the dubbing to distract you from the much more relevant unreality of the gore and violence itself.

Another note: This was apparently the first HK film to receive a R-rating for violence rather than sex.

25 May 2005

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The Invisible Ghost (US, 1941) -- dir. Joseph H. Lewis

There's no literal ghost in this film, invisible or otherwise. But there is a phantom haunting Charles Kessler (Bela Lugosi). Though provoked by an imagined ghost (that of his missing and amnesiac wife, returning now as a rain-drenched face at his window or benighted spectre on his lawn), the real ghost remains invisible to everyone else; it is the unresolved emotion that manifests in Kessler as a mindless, homicidal rage.

This film -- the first of Lugosi's el cheapo horror flicks for Monogram in the 1940s -- offers up a badly worked-out scenario, but it is atmospheric and provides strangely fascinating entertainment on a B-grade level. Lugosi plays his part with considerable dignity and is effective in a sinister (when homicidal) but sympathetic role. The tragedy is his, despite the corpses of strangled victims that litter his house. Good light-and-shade photography, decent acting and imaginative direction create many memorable images, giving the impression that it was only lack of a decent budget that prevented the narrative from being developed in a way more dramatically feasible than was managed in the available space. If the story could have expanded beyond the house, many of the logical absurdities and shallow melodramatics of the plot would have been minimised.

But despite everything the film does work as a sort of metaphor -- an absurdist poem that plays liberties with naturalistic expectation. The version I watched on Flashback DVD was sepia in tone rather than clear black-and-white. Whether this reflects the original or not, this quality actually served to give the tale the resonance of a recollected nightmare.

23 May 2005

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Exorcist: The Beginning (US, 2004) -- dir. Renny Harlin

Over-reaction is a tradition among fans and critics. I came to Harlin's much-maligned prequel to the 1973 classic with very low expectations. His career has not been all that stunning (though to be frank I don't think it's been all that bad either: Die Hard 2 (1990) was a pretty good action movie -- as was the generally under-rated The Long Kiss Goodbye (1996); I've always enjoyed Prison (1988) for what it was -- and what it was was a gaudy comicbook horror flick, just like his Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), which wasn't the best of the series but worked on the level of B-grade visual posturing; and his other recent horror/action blockbuster, Deep Blue Sea (1999), had its moments -- though it gave me a headache, I recall, and that didn't put me in a particularly receptive critical mood. None of these were great films by any stretch of the imagination, but they were above-average exploitation movies, which is what Hollywood seems to go for post-Jaws). Harlin's strength has been in action and the exploitation of genre tropes. So when he inherited The Exorcist prequel from Paul Schrader, under circumstances guaranteed to set everyone against him, it looked a little like we were in for a typical non-horror action-film riff on the horror classic. This seemed particularly likely when it was revealed that Schrader's version was felt by studio execs to lack the right clichés [not their words] to satisfy the "target audience" (of 14-year-old boys, presumably).

And the initial response was predictable: critical scorn, fannish loathing, rampant dismissiveness.

Expecting it to be awful, I waited to see the film on DVD rather than at a cinema and long after bucket-loads of abuse had been directed at it. Well, in the event I didn't find it to be awful, despite the scorn. Nor was it simply an action film -- nor a teen body-count slasher re-cast, for that matter. Of course, it also wasn't original or subtly horrific. But it wasn't dreadful. Like Prison and Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, it was a fairly typical B-grade exploitation film, only this time for the 2000s -- that is, expensive and with high production values and plenty of CGI, yet still essentially exploitative. That's OK. I enjoyed it for all that. It had some excellent visual design and offered darker, claustrophobic aspects to balance the box-office appeal of occasionally unnecessary blockbuster spectacle. The actors worked hard at giving their characterisations depth. The archeological aspect was imaginatively exploited, too, and made the film feel less typical. (Maybe that was a problem; like Exorcist 2, opening the scenario out to include more exotic locales created an ambiance significantly different to the suburban mundanity of the original Exorcist's setting -- a difference that did not allow its extreme demonic imagery to gain power by playing out against a contrasting and familiar background.) At any rate, the film's narrative developed efficiently and played out with enough drama to keep me interested, even though it wasn't exactly my ideal of an Exorcist prequel.

From what I've read (and from my opinions regarding the displaced director), Schrader's version might be more powerful, less stereotypical, and more character-focused. Will it be more horrific? Not according to the studio execs -- though that may reflect their definition of "horror" rather than its actual emotional impact. Who knows? Perhaps his film will seem more like a worthy extension of the original. It's rather unique that we'll get a chance to decide for ourselves.

But whatever Schader has produced, Harlin's effort, taken separately, felt like a enjoyable exploitation horror flick, with high-ish production values, effective if rushed characterisation, and some muted thematic impact. To totally reject it on the basis of what it isn't would be, in my opinion, an over-reaction.

11 May 2005

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The Changeling (US, 1980) -- dir. Peter Medak

Clearly conceived as a high-quality supernatural thriller -- with a prestigious cast that includes George C. Scott and Melvyn Douglas and a director whose background is in stage adaptations -- The Changeling comes over as an effective haunted house film, with an intriguing mystery gradually unravelled by Scott's grief-damaged composer and enough chilling moments to satisfy the viewer's expectations of numinous terror. It is, however, dramatic rather than genre exploitative, and for me at least more often provoked feelings of sorrow than of terror.

Particularly effective, however, is the role of sound in creating its most chilling moments, especially appropriate given the fact that Scott's protagonist is a composer seeking relief from his own tragedies and a renewal of inspiration in the Seattle mansion that stands at the centre of events. Thumpings, peripheral noises, even the small sound of a bouncing ball are used to great effect. The set, too, is impressive, built, I believe, at great expense and dealt with rather decisively at the end. Its stairways and passages take on a sinister character of their own that allows us to feel something of the characters' growing dread.

But the film works, too, as many ghost stories do, in terms of a mystery to be solved, as the past -- forced into frightful action by resentment, loneliness and a great sense of injustice -- struggles to find resolution through the main character's vulnerability.

2 May 2005

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13 Gantry Row (Aust, 1998) -- dir. Catherine Millar

Decent acting and effective dialogue, a carefully measured pace, and a setting that (for Australians anyway) gives the film a certain familiarly picturesque interest serve to obscure the somewhat unoriginal nature of this haunted house drama. Rebecca Gibney and John Adam play Julie and Peter, a yuppie couple who buy an old house in an exclusive street (in the Harbour-front Rocks area of Sydney), with the intention of renovating it into a liveable state, even though it means putting themselves seriously into debt. As they struggle to make the house over, sinister forces from the past arise to thwart their attempts at re-creation. It is, above all things, an upper middle-class nightmare.

As Stephen King has pointed out in regards to The Amityville Horror (in Danse Macabre, his book on horror fiction and its meanings), much power can be gained by appealing to an audience's fear of financial vulnerability and ruin. Ghosts are implicitly about death, but in horror fiction fear of death is often part of a much wider concern -- fear of change and loss of control over ordinary life and the expectations we have of it. In 13 Gantry Row, these fears are admirably captured with an occasionally unnerving intensity.

To the film's credit, the emphasis remains on the couple, their new/old house itself becoming a metaphor for the tensions that can simmer beneath the surface of even the most apparently stable relationship, sparked into life by hidden currents in the world and in themselves. The rising tensions are effectively imaged as a watery stain that crawls upwards on the wall, becoming more and more human-shaped as time passes and the couple's frustrations mount. In its creepier moments, 13 Gantry Row captures the metaphorical nature of the ghost story very well, and this saves the film from appearing too mundane. Though made for television, it generally manages to evoke an expansiveness (both visually and thematically) that is cinematic in feel, and its clunkier moments -- such as the opening sequence with its dark and somewhat skewed Hammeresque tone -- are not frequent. Big effects are generally bypassed, however, in favour of dramatic tension (which might lead some viewers to complain that the film lacks action).

Overall, 13 Gantry Row is a good, though minor, effort, with a climax that doesn't flinch from the unpleasant, if predictable, end made inevitable by the narrative's dramatic thrust.

2 May 2005

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The Entity (US, 1981) -- dir. Sidney J. Furie

Good production values and a brave performance by Barbara Hersey as an ordinary woman under attack from an unrationalised, and invisible, male force can't hide the fact that The Entity never coalesces into an effectively structured narrative. Written by Frank De Felitta and based on his own novel, it proports to be an account of a real incident. As such, it holds some intrinsic interest, but neither De Felitta's script nor Furie's direction give it a strong artistic form, structurally or metaphorically.

It is undoubtedly effective in its depiction of the central character's lonely struggle to maintain her sanity in the face of supernatural rape and psychological disbelief; but what does it all amount to? Perhaps it doesn't need to amount to anything -- many of the best and scariest ghost stories resolutely defy "explanation". Yet the climax, which doesn't rid Carla Moran of her invisible attacker, needs at least to offer her a way out of the emotional bind she's in -- or to totally and ironically destroy her -- in order to give the film some overall impact. That it is supposed to have offered the former resolution is conveyed through a final moment of defiance when the door of Carla's house slams shut, symbolically closing her in after the spirit has supposedly been dispelled -- yet then she walks up to it, pulls it open again and walks away. Presumably, her new spirit of defiance -- her refusal to be a mere victim -- gives her power over the entity, whatever its purpose. Fine, but where did this sudden defiance come from? The process didn't convince me -- and it leads to nothing except a postscript note that tells us that, in fact, the attacks will continue, if intermittently and with less intensity. This may be "what happened", but film (and fiction) isn't reality.

A lengthy argument between rational psychologist Ron Silver and psychic researcher Jacqueline Brookes -- the possibility that the attacks are some sort of externalisation of Carla's own psyche -- is the basis of a secondary, though significant, theme. This is at times engaging; but the whole thing takes up too much screen time, slowing the pace and simply making us impatient with psychologist Sneiderman, especially as there is never any doubt in the viewer's mind that Carla's attacker is real. There's no blurring between the objective world and Carla's subjective experience of it; if there'd been more doubt, our engagement with the film would have been the stronger for it, allowing the viewer to directly experience Carla's dilemma.

In its way, this is a powerful film -- and somewhat prurient scenes of Carla's naked body under invisible assault are undoubtedly disturbing -- but in the end I felt a sense of lost potential and wanted the filmmakers to drop even more of the supposed real-life elements than they did.

28 April 2005

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Ghost Ship (UK, 1952) -- dir. Vernon Sewell poster

Not all ghost movies/stories are scary, or are meant to be. This low-budget pre-Hammer British effort has few scares and even lacks a genuine "ghostly" atmosphere. Conceptually it seems to be aimed at establishing a rationalist approach to supernatural phenomena -- something the great Nigel Kneale did in the terrifyingly spooky, and intelligent, telemovie, The Stone Tape (1972), and in Quatermass and the Pit, for that matter. But Ghost Ship doesn't go for thrills or chills. It is almost documentary in its visual tone and anecdotal in its dramatic structure.

The story concerns a couple who, against the advice of their dockyard agent, buy a reputedly haunted steam yacht. Superstitious ship hands quit, visitors smell phantom cigar smoke in the galley, and then the sceptical husband (designated as recently arrived from America, no doubt to justify his resistance to belief in ghosts) sees the ghostly smoker manifest in the engine room. This prompts him to agree, albeit reluctantly, to the presence of a psychic investigator, who in turn brings in a medium. Via a flashback, the real story of What Happened is revealed and, predictably, it involves a love triangle and murder. The narrative ends with revelation, not with action. Those familiar with these things will pick the final "twist" before it happens, but it's neat enough anyway.

The film is quiet, low-key and (so it seems to me) reasonably entertaining, though its failure to create any sense of urgency or danger beyond the possibility of financial loss for the yacht's purchasers will alienate many modern viewers. But the talky script (typical of the stage-driven scripts of British cinema at that time) is competent and the cast (especially an array of character actors in secondary roles) appealing. The leads are Dermot Walsh and Hazel Court, the latter better known for the Hammer films The Curse of Frankenstein and The Man Who Could Cheat Death, as well as some of Corman's later Poe-inspired films, especially Masque of the Red Death and The Premature Burial. Here she is competent, but isn't required to display a very broad range of emotions.

More interesting is Hugh Burden who has the pivotal role of the imported psychic investigator. Burden is one of those faces you recognise from bit parts in umpteen Brit movies and TV shows, but whom you can't quite place. He was in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, I believe. Here, he is given an undramatic but central task -- to explain the supernatural -- which he does in a mini-lecture utlising a variety of tuning forks!

Really, this isn't a significant ghost movie, or even a significant movie. But it does what it does rather nicely -- and though you'll probably be left contemplating all the neat spooky stuff director Sewell didn't inject into proceedings and sighing over lost possibilities, the film is worth a look as an example of a type of ghost story -- one very common in pre-20th century literature: more anecdote than plot.

Note 1: Director Vernon Sewell would later be responsible for the interesting but flawed (and minor) horror film Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), as well as Blood Beast Terror (1968) and Burke and Hare (1971). I detect a pattern.

Note 2: I was intrigued to note the Internet Movie Database's claim that Steve Beck's Ghost Ship (2002) was a remake of this film. If true, you can readily see how its undramatic scenario was effectively recast -- and appreciate the 2002 film even more as a result.

14 April 2005

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Revolt of the Zombies (US, 1936) -- dir. Victor Halperin

"An army of the undead rebel in a frenzy of destruction"

At 63 minutes, Halperin's follow-up to his own classic White Zombie did manage to told my attention, despite its poor reputation. Any longer, however, and all those critical reviews that describe it as "boring" and "uninteresting" might have been more justified. The film is admittedly low-budget and very much a B-film of its period – a mere footnote in the history of the zombie film, alas – but it is not without interest. A young Dean Jagger, playing Armond Longue, WW1 vet and archeologist, struggles to overcome his own jealousy and the attendant ethical dilemmas that arise from sudden attainment of mystical power – the secret of dominating the will of others in order to turn them into zombie slaves. The romantic triangle that sees Jagger's Longue turn from sympathetic protagonist to viciously jealous antagonist gives a hint of White Zombiesque thematics (enforced acquiescence does not make for true love), using Bela Lugosi's hypnotic eyes from that film to symbolise the imposition of zombie-creating mind-control. Though not all that well realised, there is a sombre resonance to the film's scenario of emotional weakness given the power to overcome, thanks in part to its dark atmosphere of stagey romanticism and political threat. Early scenes of Cambodian zombie soldiers striding implacably toward allied lines, unaffected by bullets and bombs, and the suggestion that here lies the value of the zombification secret – military conquest – gives the film an effective political undercurrent, against which Jagger's emotional bitterness and subsequent use of the secret for his own ends can be seen as a commentary on the limitations of fascist power.

Well, perhaps. It's there by implication anyway, if less deliberate in actuality. In short, I suppose this isn't a particularly good film, but it has a certain charm – enhanced, I thought, by the cheap yet effectively exotic archaeological structures in and against which the story plays out. Like Hitchcock (who used the technique deliberately at times when he didn't have to), I have an artistic fondness for back-projection.

I should note that the zombies do revolt at the end, but only once Longue's mind-control has been loosened and they are not, therefore, zombies any more -- and hence they never really become an "army of the undead". There is never any sense that these zombies are dead at all, in fact, despite the one battlefield scene. They are simply controlled, will-less. Very much a pre-Romero view of the living dead. The DVD transfer, from RBC Entertainment, hasn't been cleaned up but has good black-and-white contrast and offers a generally decent image, ageing scratches notwithstanding.

4 April 2005

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Zombie Holocaust (1980, Italian) -- dir. Marino Girolami [Frank Martin]

This infamous video nasty -- an archetypal '80s Italian cannibal/zombie cross-over gore fest -- has just been released, like Burial Ground, by Umbrella DVD (R4): uncut, widescreen and in its full-colour glory. Previously known in a re-cut, rather butchered version under the title Dr Butcher, MD (standing for "Medical Deviant"), it is not as much a revelation as some other zombie films have been once released from the restraints of 1980s censorship and poor-quality VHS. Sure, the widescreen is a vast improvement over pan-and-scan claustrophobia, the gore is uninhibited and the clear image makes it look less cheap-jack. But that doesn't make it good. For zombie flick fans, it's a necessary purchase, of course, and it remains entertaining (for what it is) throughout. However, it suffers from some poor dubbing/dialogue, dodgy scripting, and direction that fails to take you by the throat at any point, giving the pacing a lackadaisical quality and producing odd dramatic transitions. Mere extremes of gore don't have as much impact as they once did, and though the scenario should be involving (jungle trek, cannibal incursions, desperate situations, mad surgeon with zombies), it is all somehow rather contrived and undynamic. Even the not-infrequent sight of lead beauty Alexandra Delli Colli nude fails to raise the film much above the average.

This is a 90-minute version of the film, however -- the longest I've come across -- so presumably that means we see more of Alexandra and more gore overall.

The DVD includes a strange interview with make-up/special-effect artist Maurizio Trani, in which he finally admits that he's never actually seen the film and hence is unsure whether or not it's any good. Certainly his zombie make-up didn't impress me much -- too much latex and little relationship between the decomposed faces and curiously unaffected arms, chests and legs. There is a much more informative interview with Roy Frumkes, who directed some additional zombie scenes that were cut into the Dr Butcher version (in order to get the zombies going earlier, as in the original they don't get munching until the final act). He shows us interesting footage from a film that never got completed -- Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out -- the source of the imported undead scenes. A real curiosity.

1 February 2005

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Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell (1968, Japanese) [aka Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro] -- dir. Hajime Sato

An interesting, if uneven, old-school Japanese horror film.

The opening sequence (with terrific model SFX of a commercial plane flying through blood-red clouds, suicidal bird life, unusually lucid character development, background threats of terrorism, etc. leading to a crash) is very powerful indeed, creating an insidious sense of impending doom. The atmosphere of doom closing in and the increasing paranoia develops well -- though the 'message' (an indictment of human stupidity and the perils of war) is driven home a tad too insistently and without much finesse. The story-telling itself, however, works well, with some effective menace coming from Hideo Ko both as a terrorist/assassin and then as an alien puppet... weird guy. The effect of the blob-like alien going into and out of the scar on his forehead is simple but quite chilling. And then there's the apocalyptic ending -- reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers ....

The whole thing is rather like a Japanese take on a Mario Bava film. It has something of the heavy Italianate imagery and ponderous sense of dark forces at work that characterises the Bava school of supernatural drama.

In short, darkly creepy and gothic.

1 November 2004

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Junk (aka Shiryô-gari) -- dir. Atsushi Muroga (1999, Japanese)

No doubt about it. Even with a relatively low budget, Japanese horror films such as this one have an abundance of style.

Junk is a zombie film in the post-Romero, faux-Gordon tradition, and as such it's a hoot. What it adds to the sub-genre is some good Japanese actors (along with a few mediocre Western ones), exciting action sequences, a Yakuza/crime overlay and a few unexpected and engaging ideas that lift the film above the norm. If you're familiar with zombie-film traditions, you'll recognise elements from Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Fulci's Zombie and others -- even Return of the Living Dead 3. Not to mention its Pulp Fiction ambiance.

But the film's ancestry doesn't matter too much because it mixes up the acquired elements with style and rapidly takes on an integrity of its own. Junk mightn't break much by way of new ground, but we are given an engaging, often thrilling cannibal-living-dead rollercoaster ride. If you like that particular zombie tradition, you should enjoy this modern Japanese foray into the genre. Sure, some of the splatter effects aren't any better (and are in some cases marginally worse) than those in 1980s Italian zombie films such as Burial Ground, but overall the result is classier.

27 October 2004

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) -- dir. Rouben Mamoulian

Robert Louis Stevenson's novel is, I believe, the single most filmed novel in history. That's what they say anyway. Certainly there have been many examples, some of them more "inspired by" than "based on", but nevertheless telling the same story (such as the excellent Hammer variant Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde).

Mamoulian's version is regarded as a classic. It hasn't been an easy one to track down (apparently at one time it was believed "lost", owing to an attempt at cinemacide undertaken by the distributors of Spencer Tracy's 1941 version). But it turned up on a recent Warner Bros DVD double (along with Tracy's version and, I'm delighted to say, the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Jekyll and Hare"). I was amazed and enthralled. Yes, it is the best film version of the novel that I have seen. And yes, it is still an extremely effective piece of cinema, even after all these years. Thoughtful. Complex. Powerful.

Fredric Marsh's performance is a pleasure to watch (and won him an Oscar). Though occasionally a tad "broad", it is subtle and energetic as well, striving for a wonderful continuity between Jekyll and his alter ego, Hyde, while ensuring that you don't think of Hyde as being the same man. (In fact, it is hard to think of Hyde as being played by Marsh at all!) Nor is this a stock characterisation: Marsh doesn't make Jekyll dull and staid and Hyde inhumanly monstrous. Both are real characters, with roles governed by the dynamics of the script. And Hyde's scene with the prostitute Ivy, in which he brutalises her, mentally and physically, is stunning in its intensity.

Interestingly, Mamoulian's interpretation of the story is sexual (Hyde displays Jekyll's obvious desires, unrestrained by either social expectation or morality). But Mamoulian doesn't set up a cliched dichotomy between some coldly beautiful and morally domineering Murial (Rose Hobart) and a sexually provocative, wanton Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). Hobart's Murial is witty and warm, if restrained by her father's social puritanism -- she is self-possessed and full of as much life as Jekyll. Hopkin's Ivy is warmly erotic and gives too freely of herself, but she is never looked upon as "evil". Sex here is the issue, sure, but it is not condemned. It is a human need, that's all. It's how we handle it that counts. And Jekyll handles it badly.

I should add that the first transformation scene (in particular) is quite amazing, especially for the time. No dissolves, no CGI, just Marsh's acting and some tricks of light and make-up.

For an excellent cinematic analysis of the film, see Caligari's Children by S.S. Prawer.

18 October 2004

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Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2 (2000) -- dir. Takashi Shimizu

Though the feature film Ju-On: the Grudge clearly gained from a bigger budget, non-video film stock and its creator's greater experience with the subject matter, these telemovie (or direct-to-video) precusors are certainly worth chasing up if you are a fan of the aforementioned film. They are more-of-the-same, but as "the same" is so damn good and so essentially creepy, why miss out? Using the same technique as the feature -- dividing the film into "chapters" centering around various characters who enter the haunted house that originated the "ju-on" of the title -- Ju-On: The Curse and its sequel (though a bit less so) resonate numinous dread, a terror rife with a sense of fatefulness and dark with transcendent significance. Sure, it is a fear that is conveyed even more powerfully in the subsequent feature film, but what we gain from these precursors is a knowledge of how the "grudge" arose, and a greater understanding of the mechanism that drives it. Again the characters are well-drawn and we become involved with them quickly and easily. The imagery is wonderfully unsettling, and though a few of the major manifestations are less effective because less subtle and more unambiguously presented (particularly in Part 2), they are undeniably powerful. Again the sound effects play a major role (you'll view your cats with increased suspicion), and the technique of spiraling toward central plot information, though less well developed here, is similarly effective. Like the feature film to come, these telemovies work on our deep fear of mortality and the sour passions that can taint it.

One warning, though: Ju-On: the Curse contains one particular scene of fetal murder that is very disturbing indeed, even though most of the details are merely implied. It's hard to imagine this moment being aired on normal commercial television.

Note: Ju-On: The Curse 2 repeats a significant portion of Ju-On: The Curse before breaking off into new areas. Taken as a separate entity, the sequel does justify the repetition, though some may feel cheated. However, I suspect that viewers might be better off letting time pass between watching the first and plunging into the second.

6 September 2004

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Bubba Ho-tep (2002) -- dir. Don Coscarelli

Bubba Ho-tep (an unlikely film based on Joe R. Lansdale's unlikely and excellently weird short story) is a pure joy. A comedy, but not really. Actually a powerful meditation of aging. Bruce Campbell's Geriatric Elvis is never a caricature, but a genuine piece of dramatic acting. Campbell is brilliant here. The film definitely shows that you don't need a big budget to succeed, just a smart script, great actors, a few decent ideas, and commitment. Maybe it isn't "the greatest of movies" (as it was reproved for not being by one critic I came across), but it's certainly the greatest "redemptive Elvis mummy movie" (as Campbell calls it) ever made!

1 September 2004

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Virus (1980) -- dir. Kinji Fukasaku

Virus is the International version of Kinji Fukasaku's Fukkatsu no hi. The DVD version I watched was a cheap transfer, pan-and-scan version running 108 minutes -- from a film that in its original form is reportedly 155 minutes long. So what has been removed?

Actually, it was pretty obvious what was missing: the main character was clearly supposed to be Yoshizumi, the Japanese geologist (Masao Kusakari), but his back story (which is thematically important) and his developing relationship with the female lead (Olivia Hussey) were both missing, as was his vital last-act 4-year trek across a deserted US and beyond, searching for a way back to the few remaining survivors of humanity. So, all the Japanese stuff was cut out (46-odd minutes of it!), leaving the film as decimated as the world it depicts.

But even given all that, it was clear to me that this was a major film -- beautifully shot and directed, ambitious and complex. And astonishingly bleak. What was amazing was that it even got made -- bringing together a huge international cast (including Glenn Ford, Chuck Connors, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughan and Sonny Chiba of Street Fighter fame), with lots of on-location shoots, real submarines, many different settings, etc., under the creative charge of a Japanese director (famed for the old SF flick The Green Slime and the recent smash hit, Battle Royale). So why was the film ignored? Most critics just say, "Another late '70s disaster movie" and leave it at that.

Yet even this cut-back, faded print turned out to be a much-better-than-average disaster movie. I really enjoyed it, was moved and affected by it and, as I say, could easily discern the brilliance that lies behind it. Add in the remaining 46 minutes (which would make sense of the personal relationships and various thematic elements, including the dramatic coherence of the last act) and a nice widescreen print and you'd have one of the great end-of-the-world films.

31 August 2004

IMDB link

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Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) -- dir. Takashi Shimizu

Until I accidentally stumbled upon a cinema viewing of Ringu [The Ring] some while ago, I'd been harbouring a lingering grudge toward what I thought horror cinema had become -- tired, stale, uninventive, unable to chill. But to my delight I realised that the genre hadn't taken to stumbling about like a creatively challenged zombie; it had just gone elsewhere to grow new talons and to scare the hell out of audiences that don't feel a need for the obvious. Many others had already realised this, of course -- they just hadn't told me.

Ju-On is another great Japanese horror film, one that, like Ringu and the brilliant Kairo, made me shudder while watching it and haunted me afterwards with its quiet, unsettling imagery. It is beautifully made and beautiful to look at -- full of atmospheric shadow and light, quickly drawn characters (though not inane or uninteresting, to this viewer at least) and haunted spaces, all of them intertwined with delicacy and a nice maliciousness, in a soundscape that still lingers in my bones.

It's an unusual film structurally, too, being more a series of moments than a straight-ahead thriller. That's not to say (as some reviews I've read have maintained) that there is minimal or even no plot, and hence that it is dull. Rather the narration spirals through manifestations of the titular supernatural grudge, creating a plot-line that weaves a grim tapestry spanning past, present and future. You have to pay attention, of course. And you have to absorb it in three dimensions, as it were, not just lineally. If you don't expect a conventional ghost story, it will work for you, I suspect. That it didn't work for many critics tells me more about the critics than it does about the film.

This is one film that insists on further viewings, which alone suggests it is not as simplistic as some would have me believe. I want to explore the weird temporal logic of its visions of mortal terror -- the grudge that can become an destructive force.

19 August 2004

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The Ape Man (1943) -- dir. William Beaudine

This is one of Bela Lugosi's Z-grade horror quickies, and it's the sort of film that helps explain why Bela's career as a horror star stalled while Boris Karloff's, despite ups and downs, didn't end in total embarrassment (in fact, it ended in Targets, which was one of his best). This film is clearly a rip-off of Karloff's simian cheapie from 1940, The Ape, which in fact works quite well and doesn't leave Boris looking like a chump. Bela's attempts to mimic a mad-scientist-turned-ape are just awful, rather like watching your dad make a complete ass of himself at your 15th birthday party by doing his impersonation of John Wayne in front of your friends. He's a bit embarrassing! And so is the film! It starts out with some OK banter from a bunch of journos led by Wallace Ford and its main redeeming feature is the fairly standard screwball-comedic relationship between Ford's journo and the new chick photographer, played by Louis Currie. Apart from that, there is only the cheese factor to keep you watching -- and admittedly it's quite high. I guess I wasn't bored, but I wasn't impressed either.

And what was with the weird guy who's seen lurking around comically staring through windows, etc. through the whole thing, only to reveal at the end that "I’m the author of the story. Screwy idea, wasn’t it?" Very odd. Who on earth thought it'd be a good idea to remind the audience they're idiots for watching this crap?

15 July 2004

Postscript: R. Graeme Cameron, a correspondent from the excellent MonsterFighters discussion group, was good enough to give a lengthy response to the above mini-review. He maintains that the film is at least a bit of a hoot and has some nice things to say about Lugosi. So click here to read his mini-defence.

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