Tuesday, 21 March 2017

New Films Round Up #8 - Reviews of Daylight's End (USA 2016), Dead Story (USA 2016), Before I Wake (USA 2016), XX (USA 2016), Capture Kill Release (Canada 2017) and Bloodrunners (USA 2017)

Daylight's End (USA 2016: Dir William Kaufman) There's nothing particularly new in this post plague zombie shoot 'em up, but William Kaufman's back catalogue of action movie directing credits ensures that, if not original, this is a well staged, exciting horror movie.

A slim story sees outsider Rourke (Johnny Strong, who's also responsible for the pulse pounding soundtrack) saving the life of Samantha on the lawless streets of Texas. Not only are there plague infected folk to worry about (the fast moving kind) but bands of human renegades to cope with too. Sam takes Rourke, and a strange traumatized girl called Annabelle back to the camp - an abandoned police station - that she shares with a rag-tag collection of human survivors. Rourke's willingness to go it alone clashes with the overall group leader Frank, (Lance Henricksen, still a commanding presence), but the arrival of the infected inside their complex forces the group to unite to defend themselves.

Because this is set in the south, as you'd expect everybody is handy with a firearm, and the resultant gunplay is extensive and relentless - the number of the cast who choose to kill themselves rather than become infected also suggests a rather Republican state of mind. Kaufman gives his infected some vampire like attributes - death by sunlight and the ability to 'turn' people rather than randomly bite them - which renders them more interesting than the average zombie horde. And while, with the exception of Henricksen and Chelsea Edmundson as Sam, characterisation is paper thin, this is a low budget film which knows what it's doing and is all the more effective for it.

Dead Story (USA 2016: Dir Suneel Tripuraneni) So here's a game you can play at home. Which modern supernatural movie has its ghost appear on screen the quickest after the start of the film? The vengeful spirit in Dead Story must be a strong contender - you can see her on the cover, looking all Sadako from-Ringu-like (or Samara if you're watching the US remake) with long floppy hair obscuring her face - popping up a mere 1 minute and 16 seconds into the movie. Could we have a winner? Maybe you know of a spook who makes its appearance even quicker? Do write and tell me, but I'd be surprised.

And that's probably the most interesting thing going on in Indian-born director Suneel Tripuraneni's debut feature.

Anne and Harold Harris, who despite their names are probably only in their 20s, move into a 'dream home' - actually it turns out that any home would do as long as it was many miles from Harold's domineering mother. Predictably the couple have no idea that the house they've moved into was the scene of a number of mysterious murders in the past, even though it had stood empty for five years before their occupation. Harold works in the city, leaving Anne, a photographer, at home during the day, taking shots of tree stumps and gradually discovering that the house may have a third occupant who lives part of the time in the upstairs closet. Anne's visions of the spirit begin unhinge her mind, and soon enough mother-in-law is on the scene to add to the young woman's anxiety.

This is pretty bad stuff. Because of the immediate spook exposure and the very early signs of Anne's bonkersness, there is little left to unveil for the next hour and a quarter, so it's just a repetition of similar scenes featuring a ghost glimpsed in corners, some screaming and a disbelieving husband. Dead Story is only partly enlivened by the arrival of the wicked mum-in-law Martha (overacted by Sheril Rodgers, who also took 'wardrobe' credit on the movie). Ho hum. 

Before I Wake (USA 2016: Dir Mike Flanagan) Director Flanagan continues his string of well made, entertaining if family friendly fright flicks with a keen eye for characterisation over spectacle, in this occasionally over syrupy offering.

A young boy, Cody, is fostered by Jessie and Mark, a couple still grieving for the death of their own son Sean in an accident at home. Cody is a special child, with the ability to conjure up realistic images for others while sleeping, beginning with a room filled with butterflies which entrances the young foster couple. When Cody catches sight of photographs of Sean it's not long before Jessie and Mark's dead son is appearing to them. But there's also something inherently evil conjured up by the child, which threatens everyone in the house.

Rather similar to the classic Twilight Zone episode 'It's a Good Life' - where a child uses his mind to isolate his home town from the rest of the universe - Before I Wake hinges on the believability of all three central characters. Luckily Kate Bosworth as Jessie, Thomas Jane as Mark and particularly Jacob Tremblay as Cody deliver good, understated performances. the effects work for the most part is subtle and unsettling, and there are some eerie touches around Cody's inability to properly conjure faces. Where the film falls down is the need to have a consciously evil protagonist, the by now obligatory 'onion skin' backstory, and a saccharine redemptive ending. Pity, as the opening half hour managed to be genuinely unsettling. It's worth a watch and Flanagan is a very good director, but a lot more could have been done with the material on offer.

XX (USA 2017: Dir Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent and Jovanka Vuckovic) The modern-day portmanteau movie, as I have commented elsewhere, is enjoying a renaissance these days because of the rise in popularity of the short film. Having mentioned that, just like the quality of full length features, there are short films and short films. XX contains four shorts with little in common except for the fact that they were all directed by women, with women as the central characters. There's a linking device of short animated interludes by Sofia Carillo, clearly influenced by early Svankmajer, which don't actually link to anything, but are nice to look at.

About half of XX is watchable, with the last two stories being much stronger than the first two. Opener 'The Box' is a rather pithy segment, with a family succumbing to (I think) cannibalistic urges after their little boy gets way too curious on a subway train; the less than serious 'The Birthday Party' features a suburban woman who doesn't let her husband's death get in the way of a good celebration, and 'Don't Fall' sees a group of hikers encountering an ancient evil in the desert. The most effective of the four stories is the last: 'Her Only Living Son' is the story of a woman who realises that her son, quite possibly the quintessence of evil, has the entire town at his mercy and must be stopped. Unlike the other stories it's subtly played, and understands that, like the best short stories, the audience needs enough to be able to fill in the plot blanks but not too much that they can't let their imaginations do some work.

Overall I was rather underwhelmed by XX - it suffers from the usual portmanteau problem - none of the segments on their own is that great and together the film is not equal to the sum of its for the most part insubstantial elements.

Capture Kill Release (Canada 2017: Dir Nick McAnulty and Brian Allan Stewart) Just when you thought that the found footage (or first person filming) genre had backed itself into a corner, along comes Nick McAnulty and Brian Allan Stewart’s terrifying Capture Kill Release to make you think again.

The film has a simple premise: Jen and her boyfriend Farhang plan to kill someone and film themselves doing it. But there’s so much more to this film than is suggested by that description. To start with, the matter of factness and overall playful nature of the couple – we see them shopping in a hardware shop for tools to do the deed and dismember the corpse afterwards – brings to mind the great killer couples of the screen in films like The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and Natural Born Killers (1994). For once the almost obligatory dialogue exchange in a FF flick – “Why are you filming all the time?” “Because I have to document everything” makes a whole lot of sense. It IS important for the couple to record the preparations for and the process of killing their victim. We know very little about Jen and Farhang but we can only suggest that this act is the latest in a long line of (unseen) incidents. Then there’s the couple themselves. Initially it looks like both of them are equally into carrying out the act, but as the film progresses it’s clear that Farhang is hopelessly in love with Jen and it is she who is the decidedly bonkers brains behind this, with Farhang as the increasingly unwilling accomplice.

As the character Jen Jennifer Fraser is a marvel. There’s some clever stuff where we’re shown Jen as a little girl in a seemingly loving environment (the footage is actually Fraser as a child) and are left to wonder exactly how Jennifer the monster came to be. Certainly this is a person who would kill a cat to practise the act of taking a life and then calmly lie to the owner who comes looking for it that she’d never seen it.  I’d say that’s a big 10 in the Psychopath test! Farhang Ghajar as, er, Farhang, has the difficult role of underplaying to emphasise Jen’s craziness, looking increasingly confused as she oscillates between cute and crazy – he does this very well. Without spoiling things, Jen and Farhang do get to kill someone (with all the gory details – the body disposal details in Joe D’Amato’s 1979 Beyond the Darkness have nothing on this), but predictably events take a sickening turn.

Capture Kill Release is believable and shocking – I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the movie, and its images replay in the mind long after the camera has stopped filming. Strong stuff.

Bloodrunners (USA 2017: Dir Dan Lantz) Dan Lantz is a cheapo director whose latest film - budgeted at $180,000 - seems to be his biggest production yet, which says a lot about his previous work. Set in the 1930s during the Prohibition era (an ambitious feat given the resources available), Bloodrunners stars ICE-T as Chesterfield, a speakeasy club owner whose up front activities mask the usual bootlegging and prostitution rackets, but with a side order of vampirism. And yep, you're right, that ain't claret in them claret bottles, no sir.

Corrupt cop Jack Malone, who fought in the first World War, suffers from PTSD and somehow passed the medical for the police force. He's now more used to shaking down establishments for protection money, but at Chesterfield's he's bitten off more than he can chew. Not only are the club employees being picked off one by one to join the undead, but Jack realises that the vampire responsible is a phantom from his past.

Although cheap Bloodrunners is cheerfully done, and while it takes a while to get going, with lots of subplots that threaten to strangle interest, it becomes quite fun when Malone and the vampires get to it. There's some good use of authentic locations and some nifty CGI (ICE-T was even green screened in his own garage, but still manages to convey menace - what a guy!). The cast are all gleefully up for it, and I really liked Jack Hoffman as drunken preacher Luther, who provides one or two laugh out loud moments. Slight but slick, Bloodrunners is undemanding but a fun watch, if you can get over the rather meandering first half hour.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The films of Anna Biller - Notes from an introduction to The Love Witch screened on 14 March 2017 at East Dulwich Picturehouse

Anna Biller
Tonight’s film The Love Witch was directed by US film maker Anna Biller and I can quite honestly guarantee that you’ll have never have seen anything quite like it. Unless you’ve seen any of Biller’s other films, that is.

Biller was born to a Hawaiian mother, Sumiko, who grew up on a coffee plantation and maintained an air of glamour from an early age, strongly influenced by the films she saw at the local movie house. Sumiko met Anna’s father, Lee Biller, at the University of Hawaii where he was studying art. I wish I could show you photos of the couple – they were an incredible looking pair.

As newly marrieds they lived a life of dreams but the reality was poverty. They moved to Los Angeles where Lee taught art classes and Sumiko worked in a restaurant. She later became earned a living as a ‘hostess’, with clients including Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra. Sumiko was a self-taught fashion designer with an air for the beautiful and strange. Her designs became the toast of Los Angeles and she eventually opened a fashion store in West Hollywood called ‘Inside Sumiko & Ephemera’ – this was 1967, so you can probably imagine the types of clothes on offer. Frequent clients to the Sumiko store included Diana Ross and Raquel Welch.

A lot of what powers Biller’s cinema is informed by this rather bohemian upbringing. As a child she was clearly surrounded by glamour, witnessing a parade of beautiful women using sex appeal to derive power, but in turn they were being ruled by more powerful men who presumably held on to the finances. These experiences arguably shaped the theories of feminism and high style which have dominated her work since her first steps into making movies.

And those steps were over 22 years ago now, lest people think that Biller is new to the game. Her first film was Three Examples of Myself as Queen in 1994, a half hour anthology film described as ‘a colourful musical fantasy inspired by old Hollywood musicals.’ 1998’s The Fairy Ballet was a short film extract from a planned feature length musical film which in the end didn’t get made.

2001 saw two films from Biller. The first, The Hypnotist, was a tribute to old Hollywood Technicolor melodramas in which a weird German doctor uses hypnotism, seduction, and criminality to get the better of a trio of spoiled wealthy siblings. In the same year she also made A Visit from the Incubus, a horror/western/musical. Most of these films were shot on 16mm film (Biller detests video and digital formats) and were written, directed and designed by her – she also wrote the scores, sang and acted in them. A true auteur in every sense of the word, if you enjoy The Love Witch it’s well worth paying a little money to see them on Vimeo.

Biller switched to 35mm for her first feature length movie Viva in 2007. This film, which incidentally features her mother Sumiko (credited as ‘Japanese Mae West’) and includes paintings by her father, is described by Biller on her own website as “a cult freak-out retro 1970's spectacle, about Barbi, a bored housewife who gets sucked into the sexual revolution. She quickly learns a lot more than she wanted to about the different kinds of scenes going on in the wild '70's, including nudist camps, the hippie scene, orgies, bisexuality, sadism, drugs, and bohemia. Viva looks like a lost film from the late '60s, even down to the campy and self-assured performances, the big lighting, the plethora of negligées, and the delirious assortment of Salvation Army ashtrays, lamps, fabrics, and bric-a-brac. Whether you're looking for naked people dancing, alcoholic swingers, stylish sex scenes, a sea of polyester, Hammond organ jams, glitzy show numbers, white horses, blondes in the bathtub, gay hairdressers, or psychedelic animation, Viva has it all!”

Now that’s self –publicity! Although it's interesting that Biller uses the word ‘camp’ in her description, as it’s a word that she now hates (and I should know, I used it in a piece on her and she took great exception to it on Twitter – but that’s another story).

Viva is best described as the bridge between Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 movie about the porn industry, Boogie Nights, and the outrageous Hollywood-for-10-cents short films of George Kuchar like Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) and 1963's Pussy on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s extremely detailed, decidedly overlong, but the attention to detail, for which Biller clearly prides herself, is jaw dropping.

So on to The Love Witch, which screens tonight.  It’s the story of Elaine, who has moved to California away from her ex-husband. She’s in town to make a new start and to find a new man. But the way she plans to snare a guy is via witchcraft. I’ll say no more except that things don’t exactly go to plan.

The witchcraft popularity explosion in the 1970s, from which Biller takes her thematic cue in this film, was cinematically handled very differently in the US to here in the UK. The UK has always been determined to see the seedy side of the dark arts in features like Malcolm Leigh’s semi documentary Legend of the Witches, a 1970 film which on release found itself booked in for an extensive run in the private cinemas of Soho, and Derek Ford’s 1971 secretaries–as–witches–on their-lunch-hour expose Secret Rites. I can also remember in the 1970s a magazine called ‘Witchcraft’ monthly that used to languish in the top shelf of my local newsagents.

In the US the concept was handled in a more adult, and certainly more stylish and confident way, and Biller has acknowledged the influence of some of these films on The Love Witch – films like Hollingsworth Morse’s 1972 movie Daughters of Satan and George Romero’s flick Season of the Witch from the same year – not forgetting the long running TV supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows which held America in its rather bonkers thrall between 1966 and 1971, all of which mixed the dark arts with suburban settings; perfect source material for the director’s west coast Wiccan communities, although in interviews she has also acknowledged the influence of European directors like Carl Dreyer, Joseph Losey and Luis Bunuel.

All of Biller’s directorial and style quirks are present and correct in The Love Witch. Again sumptuously shot on 35mm by David Mullen (who had worked with Biller before on The Hypnotist sixteen years earlier), it utilises the Californian locations of Eureka and Pasadena to create a timeless vibe that’s initially comforting but with a level of unease that gradually begins to permeate the movie. A film that Biller also referenced for this creeping of unease was Bryan Forbes’ 1975 film The Stepford Wives

But welcome back from Mars if you haven’t heard just how good this film looks. Though the timescale is not specific, there’s a definite 1970s vibe to the movie, recalling the golden age of US TV movies of the week (although in style it reaches back further to the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchock’s ‘golden age’ movies like Marnie, Vertigo and The Birds).

But as someone who’s seen the film a couple of times already, I’d make a plea on behalf of the director to look beyond the giddy colour schemes, the amazing soft furnishings (most of which Biller made herself, along with the costumes and some of the music) and the overall look of the thing. Because that’s what the director wants you to do, and it’s hard, but there’s some serious stuff going on under the surface here – serious questions about male and female power and sexuality, and the male – and female – gaze.

I’ll let Anna Biller have the last word her art. She writes:

“In my work I try to combine pure cinema with authentic experience… I am trying to do something most unusual: to create “proper” art films masquerading as popular films. So while I am quoting genres, I am using them not as pastiche, but to create a sense of aesthetic arrest and to insert a female point of view.”

Enjoy the film.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island (USA 2017: Dir Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

Perhaps learning some lessons from Gareth Edwards' meandering, ruminative reboot of Godzilla back in 2014, Jordan Vogt-Roberts seems almost afraid to apply the brakes to his Indiana Jones/Apocalypse Now re-imagining of the Kong legend. It's in no way a deep film despite all the US 20th century historical and military allusions, but it's a very entertaining ride.

After a prologue, introducing the now mountainous Kong to the audience almost immediately - and to give you an idea of size, if the original Kong from 1933 scaled the Empire State Building, this one is more likely to leapfrog over it - we're quickly given the setup. It's 1973 and newly slimmed down John Goodman is Bill Randa, a government agent with a sideline in bonkers conspiracy theories, a bit like a more grizzled Fox Mulder. Randa persuades the Government to let him travel to Skull Island, ostensibly to study the geophysical layout, recruiting a crack team to accompany him, including a British Special Captain, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and helicopter ace Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson). Yes the stars are indeed out for this one. Along for the ride is a leftie photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who, perhaps to mock the year in which it's set, is introduced with the old "I-thought-you-were-a-man-because of your-name" line, which you know means she's going to get all feisty in the final reel.

The team helicopter through the the treacherous micro-climate surrounding Skull Island, with Randa revealing his real mission; to flush Kong out of hiding by detonating some terrain disturbing explosives. This is more successful than hoped, giving us our first full look at the beast as he reprises his 1933 Empire State Building routine and mashes up most of the incoming choppers.

The survivors of the attack (including of course all of the aforementioned stars) re-assemble in two separate groups and begin a trek north through the jungle. Their only hope of escape is to rendezvous with the supply team who will be stationed to pick the party up in three days time. Along the way the survivors encounter various Skull Island fauna, Kong (of course), and also the spirited figure of Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly in the film's only semi comic performance), a missing presumed dead pilot who crashed on the island back in 1944.

Kong: Skull Island is refreshingly not that interested in taking itself too seriously (the fate of Edwards' Godzilla and many similar recent YA targeted films of that ilk) despite the shedloads of money spent on it and the star cast. Interestingly there are so many stars that no one person really gets the opportunity to grandstand, with the exception of Reilly's turn as Marlow. His character name is just one of a number of overt references to Conrad's novella 'Heart of Darkness' (as well as Hiddleston's character's surname, Marlow is the central narrator of Conrad's story) and the film inspired by the text, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 epic Apocalypse Now, which litter the movie, at least in its early stages; one almost expects images of the choppers flying to the island, for example, to be accompanied by Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' on the soundtrack.

Coupled with the historic setting of the film (the end of the Vietnam war being a backdrop, again linking it to Coppola's film) these more serious elements could have bogged the movie down, but the whole thing is handled so deftly that they, along with the lost tribe of island natives who pop up, and the menagerie of beasts on display, are just different elements in a film which thrives on, and is successful precisely because of its grab bag of thematic treats.

Kong: Skull Island is a feast for the eyes. The island locations (Hawaii and Vietnam, apparently - so is our beast a Viet Kong? Sorry couldn't resist) are sumptuous, CGI and real locations seamlessly matched. Kong of course looks fantastic, although we've been spoilt by similarly expert simian CGI artistry recently, courtesy of the 'Planet of the Apes' reboot movies. One isn't invited to feel too sorry for him (although a moment when he has Brie Larson in his gigantic paw - a nod both to the original film and John Guillermin's 1976 remake) is a rare moment of reflection in an otherwise pretty gung ho film. The rest of Kong's island mates are a rip roaring bunch of critters too, and some old school shock moments add an extra layer of fun to scenes where the humans stalked by 'just-exactly-what-IS-that?' beasts.

Here's a two hour classy B movie movie that knows exactly what its doing, never flags, and thus doesn't give you the chance to step out of the picture and cynically question why you're watching it. However after sitting through the end titles waiting for that post credits scene it did occur to me that if the director had taken the Toho route and just had a guy in a suit playing Kong, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of salary costs.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Poundland Lucky Dip Part 2: Reviews of World War Dead - Return of the Fallen aka Clash of the Dead (UK 2015), Ghost Boat aka Alarmed (USA 2014), Bunnyman Resurrection aka The Bunnyman Massacre (USA 2012), Forest of The Living Dead aka The Forest (USA 2011), Stitchface aka Stitch (USA 2013) and The Watcher aka Disciples (USA 2014)

Readers will be aware that I occasionally hoover up the horror related offerings from the shelves of Poundland on the off chance that there might be a gem for a £1. This particular haul of six spine tingling (ahem) movies comes courtesy of PL in Worthing, West Sussex. I've realised that in grabbing titles at random like this I'm hoping for some video Madeleine moment, recapturing some of the thrill that I used to get renting horror movies from my local VHS emporium back in the day. So what did I get for my £5.40?

World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen aka Clash of the Dead (UK 2015: Dir Freddie Hutton-Mills, Bart Ruspoli) Second time round for this one for me, and I have to confess to a sneaking regard for the film despite its silliness. It helps that directors Hutton-Mills and Ruspoli know how to put a film together - there are a number of nice flourishes, and some unexpectedly good acting and photography, which elevate this Found Footage movie above the average.

A group of documentary filmmakers, led by the ambitious if slightly unscrupulous Marcus (Ray Eastenders Panthaki), travel to the Somme in France to make a film about the infamous WW1 battle. Marcus has been known to embellish his previous work in the pursuit of ratings, so the crew suspect he might be up to his old tricks when they fish a long dead corpse out of the lake, complete with strange occult amulet which they liberate from the body. But there's nothing fake about the dead, flesh hungry Germans who rise from the grave, triggered by the discovery and theft of the amulet. The team must take refuge in the Somme's still existent trench system, outwit the rampaging zombies and somehow look for a way to return to the crew van.

OK it's a pretty stupid concept, and as most of the zombie attacks take place under cover of darkness it's pretty hard to work out what's going on. But the cast give it all they've got and. although it's not particularly scary, some tension is generated in the undead onslaught, helped by Peter Allinson's ominous score, which sounds like it's strayed in from a much bigger budgeted movie. Hutton-Mills and Ruspoli don't overexpose the zombies to scrutiny, and the initial glimpses of them are well done. There is the predictable amount of running around screaming, and the logic of filming is largely cast to the wind at the climax, but nevertheless this is entertaining stuff.

Ghost Boat aka Alarmed (USA 2014: Dir Mat Lofgren) First time director Lofgren bites off more than he can chew with this time shift 'ghost' story. Now I know that however baffling a movie seems to be, behind it there's a logical plot and a storyboarded approach to putting the thing together. So when a movie seems to make no sense, I'm generally willing to believe that it's probably because I just don't 'get it.' But there are some exceptions. Step forward Ghost Boat as exhibit A, m'Lud.

In the movie's prologue young Samantha has just been exonerated from the charge of murdering her entire family, and while justifiably relieved she has been psych evaluated, so there's clearly something not quite right. Five years later she takes a pleasure trip on her dead dad's boat with various friends and her estranged bloke (and, unbeknownst to her, the spirits of the murdered family). Sam and her ex wind up alone on the craft, which then exerts a powerful will on our heroine, locking her in its cabin and asking her to self mutilate - fingers, hand, larynx (!) - via messages on the intercom. Still reading? While her ex slowly dies outside, denied food and drinking water, every day Sam damages herself a bit more, although when she wakes up the following morning the dismembered bits seem to have re-attached themselves. What's going on? I honestly haven't a clue. Oh, and who's the sinister looking guy in the speedboat who motors by every day?

I wish I could tell you that the denouement nicely brings together the various bonkers strands of Ghost Boat, but I'd be lying. The director would probably tell you that the movie's all about friendship, love and trust. He'd be full of it. Nice boat though.

The Bunnyman Resurrection aka The Bunnyman Massacre (USA 2012: Dir Carl Lindbergh) Quite why this film title includes the word 'resurrection' is explained by the fact that this is a sequel to Carl Lindbergh's 2011 movie Bunnyman. This would explain why the film starts rather abruptly with no backstory as to why a couple of country killers, one of whom wears the adult bunny suit of the title, would be slicing and dicing their way through the backwoods of mid west America. And having watched this rather laboured hour and forty minutes of violence without context, I have no desire to seek out the first film, or the projected third which mercifully has sat in post production for the last few years.

Although purportedly based on a true story of a 1970 serial killer The Bunnyman Resurrection seems quite happy to make like a sleazy 1980s gorefest, only with the unwelcome modern addition of CGI blood spurts. I was reminded of a less competent Wolf Creek and at times - and specifically in the girl barrel rolling sequence - the anarchic antics of the rednecks in Herschell Gordon Lewis's 1964 'classic' Two Thousand Maniacs. Only a lot less fun.

But even the golden age of 1980s slashers featured at least one - final - girl who showed some resourcefulness in dealing with the various assailants that Hollywood threw at womenfolk in that decade. The victims in The Bunnyman Resurrection seem, without exception, almost kitten-like in the acceptance of their fate - this may serve to focus attention on the killers, but ruins any cinematic tension. Director Carl Lindbergh has said in interviews that he wanted to do something a little different in the horror genre, but suited to his own taste - however this is an unpleasant, relentless film with no real style or narrative drive. Just a load of people being killed off quite cheaply, and slowly.

Forest of The Living Dead aka The Forest (USA 2011: Dir Shan Serafin) Five years before Jason Zada gave us The Forest (which, confusingly, is the alternative name for this movie) here we are with another trip into Japan's Suicide Forest on the track of an avenging spirit, a location which also inspired Gus van Sant's 2015 film Sea of Trees.

I love low budget films that aren't afraid to chuck everything in. Forest of the Living Dead gives us Japanese travelogue, a fashion photography backdrop, police procedural, Mission Impossible style computer hacking, night vision scenes, ghostly visions, rubbish gore...the lot!

The woman on the DVD cover is sadly only barely glimpsed, but there's so much more going on (sometimes confusingly so) that she isn't missed. We're introduced to a group of models on location in Japan, here for a fashion shoot with Joachim Phoenix-a-like Jason. Jason has not long broken up with Ariana, who took her own life as a result. He's now shacked up with Nichole, who goes awol one night and ends up in Fiji hacking off a girl's hand. A clue on the victim's body leads Jason and a nosy detective to the Aokigahara 'Suicide' forest where it seems that Ariana has been possessed and is hell bent on killing as many people as possible to revenge her spurning by Jason.

I really loved this film, mainly because first time director Serafin didn't care that he had little budget ($2,300,00 apparently, although that sounds like quite a lot - I suspect most of it went on plane tickets) and just went ahead and made the movie he wanted to. It fairly zips along (there's a ghost in the first three minutes!) and just when you thought it might get a bit boring Michael Madsen turns up as a police chief, and does his usual afternoon's work looking pissed off. The cast might be fairly generic but I did like one of the models, foul mouthed Valerie (Christina Myhr) who has a great way with a profanity.

So 90p well spent. Oh and best credit is an audio one - Alec Chapman, who provides 'Howls of the Dead.' Whooooooo!

Stitchface aka Stitch (USA 2013: Dir Ajai) Continuing in the grand tradition of film distributors renaming films to entrap potential viewers into thinking they're getting something they're not, the addition of the word 'face' to this movie's original title suggests a serial killer flick, but nothing could be further from the truth. Stitchface is a wildly ambitious but wholly unsuccessful headscratcher by first time director Ajai (of whom little is known).

Edward Furlong - an actor whose roles following his debut as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day back in 1991 have been a little on the ragged side - plays Marsden, who with his wife Serafina (Shawna Waldron, doyenne of cheap films) escapes to the desert, where a friend is to perform a healing ritual to help them get over the tragedy of the loss of their daughter in a car accident. But the ritual has the opposite effect. Add in some very soap opera-y plot machinations and a load of random images, some of which are to be fair quite startling, recalling Ken Russell at his bonkers best - Altered States or Lair of the White Worm say - and you have one weird and at times incoherent movie. The 'stitch' of the title refers to huge welts that suddenly and unaccountably appear on the actor's faces and bodies, crudely sewn up, with the characters seemingly feeling little pain, only bewilderment. There's a resolution of sorts towards the end which does nothing to explain most of the oddness on display over the previous hour and a bit. It would have been good to have had a director's commentary for this one just to satisfy my curiosity as to whether Ajai really was making it all up as he went along.

The Watcher aka Disciples (USA 2104: Dir Joe Hollow) My Poundshop haul spectacularly nosedives for the last offering of this batch. And what a shame, as the cast list is an exploitation fan's wet dream! Angus (Phantasm) Scrimm, Linnea (Creepozoids) Quigley, Debbie (Tromeo and Juliet) Rochon and of course Tony (Candyman) Todd. All in one movie. Correction, all in one dull, plodding, confusing movie. It's like director Joe Hollow got hold of an entire genre TV series and crammed all the various storylines into a one hour and a half movie.

Plot wise I don't even know where to start. Basically a number of demons serve a bad guy called Asmodeus. Some Italian woman turns up looking for a priest; there's a young couple called 'mother' and 'father' who are really old but never age, and some other woman looking for a chain on a beach. Linnea Quigley's a psychic in old lady makeup - she looks insane. I zoned out so many times that this summary is a pretty accurate representation of how I experienced the story.

The Watcher is pitiful. Only the horror 'veterans' give anything like a decent performances but they all have paycheck eyes so that's not saying much. There's quite a bit of nudity, lots of body ink and some clumsy gore. If that sounds like your sort of thing let me know and I'll tell you how to get to Worthing.

Until next time....

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Chamber (UK 2016: Dir Ben Parker) plus interview with the director

Films set entirely in one location are always risky ventures, in terms of audience attention, drama and sheer credibility (Andrew Martin’s 2015 movie Capsule, I’m looking at you) – The Chamber’s action takes place within the confines of a micro submarine. One tiny space. Several overwrought characters. Let the mayhem commence.

A three person US team board a small submersible craft positioned just off North Korea and commandeer the vessel, asking the Swedish captain, level headed Mats, to take them down into the depths, with a view to identifying and possibly recovering a sunken vessel as part of a top secret mission. Predictably things go wrong and the craft ends up trapped and leaking water. The US team have the additional problem that the boat from which they’ve been despatched has been taken over by the North Koreans and all radio contact lost. Who will and how will they survive?

I really wasn’t sure about The Chamber at first. It kept reminding me of other movies – some of Johannes Roberts’ sprang to mind – and I didn’t think there would be enough to sustain my interest. But the film won me over with the strength of the acting alone - the script's not the star here. As the leader of the US team, UK actress Charlotte Salt is extremely effective, her struggles to maintain command (and retain her American accent) in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds extremely believable.

Credit also to James McCardle in the ‘I’m-going-to-do-it-my-way' role, a character we’ve seen in a million disaster movies previously. In fact the whole thing felt like the final reel of such a film where, after all the destruction has taken place, a small band of survivors must strategise to achieve their escape. Only there’s no carnage or smashed buildings in The Chamber. Just four people in a vessel smaller than my box room trying to hold it together.

The sense of increasing panic and claustrophobia is very accurately depicted, and the ensemble playing ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels - there's no redemptive third act here either. It's a film of some power, despite its meagre resources. 

Perhaps The Chamber's only drawback is the rather dirgey score by ‘Manic Street Preachers' lead singer James Dean Bradfield, providing his first movie soundtrack. I’m sure they were pleased to have him on board – the film was made in Wales by a Welsh production company, so he was perhaps an obvious choice – but I confess that it took me out of the flick on occasion. But it's a very small gripe in an otherwise outstanding movie.

Charlotte Salt - overcoming the odds
This is writer and director Ben Parker’s first feature, so I took the opportunity to talk to him about The Chamber:

DEoL: Ben, this is your debut feature, and you chose quite a bold set up with the tiny submersible setup and a small cast. I thought it was quite risky at first, although I ended up loving the film. Why this choice for your first movie?

BP: I liked it for that exact reason - it's a bold set up. I'd written a number of screenplays, ranging in budgets and had always felt this would need a certain amount to get it done. After the short film, Shifter, which the producers I worked with on, that showed me how much could be achieved with a smaller budget. We looked at The Chamber and thought, 'yeah, it's bold and challenging to do on a budget less than a million but let's do it.' Those aspects that seem challenging and difficult, ultimately (hopefully) make it more interesting to the audience and certainly more interesting for me do work on.

One of the things I especially liked about this film, as my debut (although only realising this after the film was made), was that the process of making it was raw and hands on and not too reliant on CG. My heroes growing up were people like Carpenter, Scorsese, James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, all these guys that graduated from the school of Roger Corman. To aim high on a smaller budget, to me, felt very much like the school of Corman. Solving creative problems in a practical way, on set, with a small amount of money and a lot of ingenuity. I loved that.

DEoL: The acting is uniformly great - how long did it take you to cast, and how 'method' did you get the actors to be when auditioning? Did you get them to shut themselves in small spaces?

BP: Casting was vital. We had a fantastic casting director in Kirsty Kinnear and she and I looked at a number of people. Casting is always going to be difficult as a first time director. People didn't know me or what I could do, but the short films helped. It also helped, I think, that I had written the script, actors could see, on the page, what I was going for. When we met with actors, there were discussions about the things they'd be expected to 'endure'. But they all read the script. I don't think you can read that and think 'Oh, I'm sure the water and claustrophobia will be added in post.' They knew it was going to be gruelling and tough. It was part of the deal. I made sure I asked if they could swim and didn't have a problem with small spaces (and they were all probably a lot better than I was on that count). But ultimately, you can't workshop, or audition the situation until it gets to the real deal on set. When you've been cooped up in that small sub and the water comes flooding in... it's really only in that moment you're going to test your mettle. And not just the cast but the crew too. We all were put to our limits of endurance but we were all there for each other too. It was a lovely family to be part of.

DEoL: One of the things that's noticeable is that it all feel like it could have been shot in a single take. How long was the shoot, and how well did the actors cope with the confined set?

Ben Parker
BP: Man, I would've died if it was a single take. But I hear what you're saying. I think, in script form, the majority of the film could've been one very long scene, but we were cautious about this. We wanted to keep the tension, keep the action going for as long as possible, but you have to have breathers for the audience. Watching the fantastic Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (which I think is actually all one take), you can see that, even in this, you have to give the audience moments to be able to breathe and take a beat. We used a little bit of humour to break the tension sometimes and a couple of time jumps to allow things to calm. But yeah, a lot of it is full tilt boogie into the pressure cooker.

This was how we filmed it also. We did it all in 22 days and, for the majority, filmed the film in chronological order, which allowed the cast to really get into character. As the tensions fray and the water comes in, the cast were able to feed off that vibe for real. But again, all the crew were in the same situation - small space, water, tension. It was a hell of a feat to pull off in such a small space of time and I give credit to the producers and our great crew for getting things done. Special credit should go to the Director of Photography, Ben Pritchard. He developed new and unique ways of getting us camera movement, angles and just the coverage we needed in a very small amount of time. Honestly, without his own personal ingenuity on camera setups, we definitely would've gone over schedule.

DEoL: When preparing to shoot, did you have to make lots of compromises between, say, your initial vision and what came out on screen?

BP: We didn't. Which I find amazing. I think it's partly down to the fact that on writing the script, I knew it was going to be contained and stay within the confines of the submarine. And then partly down to the great producers, Paul Higgins and Jen Handorf. These guys ensured that I got what I needed to get the script to screen. Even a helicopter, which I felt sure was going to get cut. From my perspective as writer to director, I think there were a couple of things that I changed when we got into that space and into the water. Just in terms of shots not being the best they could be on set. I see that as a good thing though. If you're being too precious, you're not going to see the possible better scenario that could present if you have a little creative play with shots, scenes...even the action.

DEoL: People from Wales are presumably delighted to see films made in their country. What do you think they'll make of this one as it feels 'transatlantic' and could have been made anywhere?

BP: Obviously, a film mostly set inside a submarine, yes, could be filmed anywhere. But really, this film couldn't have been made outside of the great crew and locations we got with Wales. The short turnaround time and the fantastic production was down to the support we got from people like Film Wales and the Welsh crew. And even James Dean Bradfield is Welsh. Had we not been in Wales, James might have never read the script and the film would've been robbed of an amazing score. Working with James on the music was a dream come true and I can't wait to get my hands on the LP of the score.

Thanks for answering these Ben and good luck with the film!

A version of this review and interview originally appeared on the website www.bloodyflicks.co.uk 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Sadistic Guitars - the Wild, Wild Films of Arch Hall Jr

Arch Hall Jr
There can't be many young stars who can attribute their cinematic career to a father's mid life crisis. But Arch Hall Jr could easily make that claim. His dad, Arch Hall Snr, was a genuine old school South Dakota cowboy, who moved to Hollywood and got employment pulling horse riding stunts in 1930s westerns. Hall pere gave it all up for family reasons and subsequently drifted into various jobs and business start ups across the US, never really shaking off the movie bug. In the late 1950s, perhaps frustrated by the daily grind and with his head full of ideas for motion pictures, movie making became the itch he had to scratch; so Hall Sr decided to go for broke and make some films of his own, setting up the Fairway company. He looked around for a star and there in front of him was his own son, mop topped Arch Hall Jr. Hall fils hadn't really considered acting before - his eyes were more set on a rock 'n' roll career - but his parents' constant relocation across America saw him receive a fractured education and perhaps develop a certain restlessness. One thing led to another and Hall Jr got the opportunity to combine both music and acting. And over the course of the next six years father and son found each other at opposite ends of the camera, making a string of independent self produced movies that have been unfairly maligned over the years (as so often happens when independent movies are compared with the output of the big bucks majors) and are worthy of re-evaluation - well, most of them.
The Choppers (1959/1962)
Filmed in 1959, with Hall Sr as producer and his son as lead, the duo's first film is the story of a group of car strippers evading the law and living for kicks out in California. It was the last film directed by veteran Leigh Jason, who had started off making shorts as early as 1928. Ostensibly shot on the cheap (the interiors were filmed in the producer's offices), the film ended up costing over $150,000, most of which you can't see on screen because the sums were incurred due to Hall Sr's inexperience in producing motion pictures.

The then 15 year old Hall Jr plays Jack 'Cruiser' Bryan; the cruising is done in a classy Model T borrowed for the film. Bryan's the member of the gang who always seems to avoid the dirty work of stealing the stuff off the cars. The strippers' antics frustrate both the police and local insurance companies, and it can't be long before they're outwitted by the authorities. There's a strong moral streak to the movie, provided by ace reporter Jim Bradford (Hall Sr), whose voice over narration leaves the audience in no doubt that what these boys are doing is a bad scene - and a violent shoot out at the end confirms it. Hall Jr gets three toe tapping songs on the soundtrack, without on this occasion singing to camera; 'Monkey in My Hatband', 'Konga Joe' and 'Up the Creek.' It's a reasonably competent but not earth shattering addition to the 'juvenile delinquent' genre which had held sway in movie houses throughout the 1950s but had pretty much blown itself out by the time The Choppers was made (and certainly by the time it was actually exhibited three years later in 1962). Keeping it all afloat are some great character turns, particularly Roger Corman regular Bruno VeSota as Moose McGill, the truculent scrapyard owner who fences the boys' thefts and then turns on them.

Eegah (1962)
Eegah is probably the best known of the Halls' movies, largely thanks (or not) to the film being elevated to '50 worst movies of all time' status back in 1978 (along with Last Year in Marienbad, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Omen - pretty good company!) courtesy of cultural commentator turned Republican campaigner Michael Medved. Sure, Eegah has a lot of problems as a film. This is probably largely down to Arch Hall Sr who directed the movie (under the name Nicholas Merriwether, while also starring in it under another name, William Watters). If The Choppers was a Hall Sr vanity project, Eegah is even more so, but as director he clearly doesn't understand any of the basic rules about making a watchable movie. When the two films were double billed together in 1961 it may have been a commercial move for Hall Sr, but it was one that would invite audiences to compare the two films, only one of which was made by a competent director

Eegah is pretty much a rerun of the King Kong story - prehistoric creature (7' 2" Richard Kiel, although voiced by Hall Sr) 'Eegah' - so named because that's the sound he makes most often - is located in the desert by adventurer Robert Miller, his thirtysomething daughter Roxy and her teenage boyfriend Tom Nelson (Hall Jr). Eegah gets a crush on Roxy and follows her out of the desert and into downtown Palm Springs, California, where once again beauty, with the help of the local cops, kills the beast. Kiel's formidable height, resplendent in caveman outfit, is the highlight of the film. Everything else is downhill, including Hall Jr, who is insipid throughout, and his songs: two of them, 'Vicky' (which would also turn up in the pair's next film, Wild Guitar, but actually sung to a Vickie, unlike this movie where he bizarrely sings it to Roxy) and 'Valerie' were actually written by dad - like square! Later on in the movie we're treated to a poolside rendition of the vaguely horror themed rocker 'Brownville Road' where our Arch is backed by his then band, the Archers. Eegah is way too long, agonisingly slow, but we do at least have some scenes where Kiel strikes up a guttural conversation with his mummified relatives - he's the last caveman left alive, seemingly kept going by sulphur water and the quest for the love of a good woman.  

Wild Guitar (1962)
Perhaps learning the lessons of Eegah for his next movie Hall Sr retreated to producing and writing duties, handing over the directing reins for Wild Guitar to one Ray Dennis Steckler, soon to emerge as the man who gave the world the infamously titled The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies !!? a couple of years later. Steckler's trademark goofy style - quirky Three Stooges-esque characters, zany camera flourishes - are somewhat out of place in this pretty straightforward rags to riches story of wannabe rock 'n' roll star Bud Eagle (Hall Jr, natch) manipulated by record boss Mike McCauley (Hall Sr) who sees dollar signs in Eagle's eyes.

Steckler's wiry form - credited as Cash Flagg for the first time - pops up as McCauley's henchman Steak, and Milwaukee born former Olympic ice skater Nancy Czar (she gets to strut her rather amazing talents in the rink at one point) is Hall Jr's love interest Vickie, kickstarting Eagle's rise to fame when she gets him a gig on a TV show on which she's a dancer. Spotted by McCauley, the entrepreneur boosts Eagle to the top of the charts. But the manipulated singer, separated from his Vickie, remains unhappy if successful. This one's packed full of Hall Jr's brand of rock n' roll lite tunes like 'Twist Fever,' and the cynical story of artistic exploitation surely emanates from Hall Sr's experiences in the shark infested world of movie promotion.

The Sadist (1963)
Hall Jr's only decent acting credit thus far had been the mean if workshy Jack Bryan in The Choppers, so it's with some relief to see him throwing himself into a totally mean part as Charles A Tibbs in the James Landis directed The Sadist. This is one extraordinary film, a happy accident of a committed director, talented cinematographer (Vilmos Close Encounters of the Third Kind Zsigmond's first feature) and a well coaxed bananas performance from Hall Jr, who wisely leaves the gee-tar at home.

The Sadist's story is loosely based on real life 1950s boy/girl thrill killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate (a duo that would inspire films like Terence Malick's 1973 movie Badlands and Oliver Stone's 1994 Natural Born Killers). Tibbs and girlfriend Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning in a child/woman performance foreshadowing Jill Banner as Virginia Merrye in Jack Hill's Spider Baby shot a year later) are young killers who happen to be at a car breakers yard at the same time as three people arrive looking for parts for their broken down car. The action doesn't movie from this one location and is all the tenser for it. Tibbs and Bradshaw toy with the three strangers, Ed, Carl and Doris, eventually shooting one of them; Charles and Judy are wanted for the deaths of a number innocent people, gleefully getting their kicks from torture and mayhem. Hall Jr's performance is truly unsettling, a leering keening youth making the most of his 6'2" frame, a killer without remorse or intellect, whose cat and mouse games with his victims extends to a Harry Callaghaneseque "How many bullets do you think I have in my gun?" routine. Although set in one location, the backdrop of the arid San Fernando valley, into which a barefoot Doris (the Ann-Marget like Helen Hovey, Hall Jr's cousin in real life) runs screaming towards the end of the film, provides a bleak landscape for the nihilistic action, made more expansive through Zsigmond's evocative black and white photography. A superb film, quite rightly celebrated by director Joe Dante as "one of the best low-budget pictures of the 1960s."

The Nasty Rabbit (1964)
Anyone wondering where The Sadist's director went next, and why his career never really took off, would do well to gaze upon, and then quickly move past The Nasty Rabbit, or to give it its original title 'Spies-a-Go-Go.' Hall Jr has said in interviews that he honestly thought The Sadist would have broken him into proper movie circles, so imagine his disgust at being cast as homely singer Britt Hunter. Actually you don't need to imagine - you can see it written all over Hall Jr's face as he sleepwalks his way through his very few lines, while Arch and his band cut a rug with such forgettable numbers as 'The Robot Waltz.'

The story, if you insist, revolves around a Russian secret agent who comes to the US posing as a cowboy, armed with a rabbit carrying a deadly poison which is set to annihilate the western world. Cue a whole bunch of secret agents dressed as stereotypes of their countries - Japanese dressed as a sniper, Mexican with sombrero, Nazi German etc - all out to thwart the Russian mission - including Hall Jr who is a rock 'n' rolling secret agent! Oh yes, and dad this time gets two roles - Russian head honcho Marshall Malout, and US military bigwig Malcolm McKinley.

The jumping off point for the action is those wacky TV shows and movies of the 1960s, with plenty of sped up footage, ker-azy slapstick, a smattering of 'rat fink' references (the in phrase of 1964 - in fact Landis would go on to make a film with that same title a year later), and a wise cracking bunny. It's about as dire as it sounds, with a couple of laughs along the way, and some uncredited appearances from Richard 'Eegah' Kiel and László Kovács (who wisely gave up acting after this and turned to a very successful career as cinematographer). But viewing the finished product the director and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond must have felt that The Sadist was a lifetime away.

Deadwood'76 (1965)

Landis made one final movie with Hall Sr (who also produced) and with Arch Hall Jr in front of the camera, before pretty much disappearing from sight. Deadwood '76 is a rather downbeat western, filmed in Hall Sr's home state of South Dakota and with participation from the local Sioux Indian Council.

Hall Jr plays Billy May, a cowboy whose mother was killed and father assumed missing in action during the Civil War. Hooking up with passing cat farmer (really!) Tennessee Thompson (western regular Jack Lester) the pair arrive in Deadwood, where Billy is mistaken for Billy the Kid. Rumours abound in town that Wild Bill Hickok (Richard Forbidden Planet Dix) is soon to pay a visit, and the more entrepreneurial members of Deadwood sense money to be made from a shootout - luckily May's a dab had with a six shooter. Add in a subplot involving May falling in love with a girl from the local Indian tribe, the re-appearance of May's dad (played of course by Hall Sr) hoping to start a second Civil War in partnership with the aggrieved Sioux, and a very downbeat ending which sees Hall Jr hanged for killing a child in self defence, and you have one rather depressing film. With its musings on the value of life, a recurring and mournful narrative song written by Hall Jr (but sung by Star Trek actor Rex Holman), and the mountainous South Dakota backdrop impressively photographed once again by Vilmos Zsigmond, this is a much classier swansong for Hall father and son than might have been believed from their previous outing, and a fitting end to Hall Sr's career, bringing him back to the western genre in which he had his first taste of moviemaking thirty years previously.

Arch Hall Sr
So what happened afterwards?

According to Hall Jr, Deadwood '76 nearly bankrupted his father - the Fairway dream was over.  Towards the end of filming Arch Jr got his first taste of flying via a family friend, and became hooked. No more rock 'n' roll dreams or fantasies of being a movie star, Hall Jr went on to realise his real dream - commercial pilot - which he made a decent living out of until his retirement. He returned to movie acting, after a gap of nearly fifty years, when he was cast in a 2014 horror short Lamb Feed, directed by newcomer Michael S. Rodriguez, who was obviously a fan.

For Hall Sr an interesting postscript is that, following Deadwood '76, he was offered a plum job by Warner Brothers, who saw in him the potential to turn out movies on the cheap, but he turned it down. The job would have seen an end to the family's financial woes, and his refusal was devastating for the family. Hall Sr divorced, became estranged from his son, and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1978. Arch Jr arranged for the body to be moved from California back to South Dakota, where he was buried alongside his mother and father and many prominent Sioux Indians from the State.