Tuesday 16 June 2020

Films from FrightFest #9: Reviews of Porno (USA 2019), The Ascent aka Stairs (UK 2019) NEW WAVE OF THE BRITISH FANTASTIC FILM 2020, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (USA 2019), The Deeper You Dig (USA 2019), True Fiction (Canada 2019) and Why Don't You Just Die? (Russia 2018)

Porno (USA 2019: Dir Keola Racela) Set in a bible belt suburban cinema, Racela's feature debut has nods to anything from Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985) to 1993's Last Action Hero. Set in 1992, Mr Pike, the theatre's religious boss, promises his staff that they can watch any movie they want at the end of the week after the cinema closes - it's a tough choice between the Pauly Shore flick Encino Man (which most know as California Man) and Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own - tough choice for the team.

Said team are made up of a group of Christian students: Abe (Evan Daves), Todd (Larry Saperstein), newly appointed assistant manager Chastity aka Chaz (Jillian Mueller) and Ricky (Glenn Stott). They may be devout but they have human urges, witnessed in the first scene we see Todd and Ricky spying on a couple having sex. Completing the group is manic projectionist 'heavy metal' Jeff (Robbie Tann), who has renounced smoking in return for loving God.

An interloper in the auditorium causes the staff to give chase and they end up in a previously undiscovered basement screen, where they come across an old canister of film, title-less but marked with a strange symbol. When Jeff reluctantly threads the film, what appears on screen looks like an art movie with an Italian horror soundtrack (or "European titty movie" as the projectionist describes it). The central character is a gorgeous young woman (Katelyn Pearce) who, at the climax of the ritual in which she participates on screen, manifests in the cinema; for she is a succubus, conjured by magic, and she is hellbent on phallic destruction.

Porno is an enjoyable mess of a movie. The succubus's seduction of the innocent gives rise to some interesting character revelations, and while the film is light on gore, there's one scene that will have the men in the audience crossing their legs (this one certainly did). The title suggests something stronger than is actually shown, but the mix of sex and religion is still salacious enough to raise the odd eyebrow. But the staff are a likeable bunch and even if I didn't really get much of a sense of threat from Ms Pearce, I wanted them to escape with all their bits intact.

The Ascent aka Stairs (UK 2019: Dir Tom Paton) In Eastern Europe a crack British Special Ops team called ‘The Hell Bastards’ are on a mission; to kill the members of an outpost battalion and any prisoners, gather up all the information held in the camp, and get out. They achieve this, but only after one of the team – Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler, also in Paton’s last film, Black Site) - is reluctantly forced by fanatical squad leader Will Stanton (Shane Ward) to kill the battalion’s lone live captive, an ethereal woman who it is later learned is named ‘The Prophet of Death’; before she is executed she tells the group “Don’t go down!” which at the time means nothing to them.

Back at HQ for their debrief, the six members of the squad attempt to access the lift to the top floor office, but it’s out of order. So they have to take the stairs. But after walking up innumerable flights, with no sight of the floor they need to reach, they realise something is dreadfully wrong. One of their group descends to a lower floor, just as the Prophet of Death’s final words are remembered, and lets out a scream.

Seeking exit from the floor they’re on, the group go through a door which is actually a portal back to the same outpost battalion; confused, they repeat their mission but end up on the same set of stairs. The team realise that they are stuck in a time loop, and that the only way to break it is to ensure that the Prophet of Death, whose blood drenched spirit haunts them relentlessly, does not die. Which should be easy, right? But things are way more complex than that.

As you’ll have gathered from the synopsis, The Ascent takes elements from any number of ‘time on repeat’ movies where the repetition of events gives breathing space for those stuck within them to refine their actions on each cycle (think 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow and even 1993’s Groundhog Day). But Paton plays this one for the action, not the characterisation, and so little is learned about the members of the squad as they replay the mission, although we’re left in no doubt about the sheer physicality of what they’re going through, and the cliché ‘war is futile’ takes on a new meaning.

For a film on a slim budget – the two settings are a dressed field and a flight of stairs – The Ascent remains remarkably diverting. It’s brilliantly edited, and the reference by one of the team to Back to the Future 2 shows the awareness of cinematic subtext which curiously aids the enjoyment of the film. A little shorter would have been good, but that’s a minor quibble: I think this is probably Paton’s best yet.

This review first appeared on the Bloody Flicks website.

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (USA 2019: Dir David Gregory) This is an infinitely more fulfilling documentary than Gregory's assessment of Dan Curtis, Master of Dark Shadows, which also played at FrightFest 2019. I think this is partly due to the diverse characters surrounding the late Mr Adamson being such interesting people, and also the rubbernecking lure of the schlock director's horrific demise.

In some ways Al Adamson's filmmaking story matches that of Ray Dennis Steckler, whose career I covered here and here (hey he even used future award winning cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond on his early pictures, as did Steckler). He never saw himself as a bigshot and was happy to make films which pleased the audience, often giving the stars of tomorrow an early break and providing much needed work to those that Hollywood had forgotten.

Adamson comes across as a generally well liked but idiosyncratic guy who realised, after his first dream of being a dancer in musicals failed because he basically couldn't dance, that what he really wanted to do was make movies. The sheer incoherence of many of his 32 features, which kicked off with the largely ignored 1960 western Half Way to Hell, is explained by an extended look at a film which started off as one thing and then became something else: Echo of Terror was a thriller starring singer turned actress Tacey Robbins, which morphed into Psycho-A-Go-Go after he decided to include some dancers, then Blood of Ghastly Horror with the addition of the Frankenstein monster, Dracula and veteran horror actor John Carradine (with all but a few scenes from Echo of Terror now excised). The director's unrequited obsession with his leading ladies is also documented (although Regina Carroll, who first appeared in BoGH, became his wife), as was his delight at anybody who would work with him without being paid, and his brief association with Charles Manson (so was Adamson depicted in Tarantino's Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood?)

The documentary takes a darker turn with the arrival on the scene of builder Fred Fulford, who moved into Adamson's ranch house to help redesign it and ended up living the director's life then killing him following an argument about money, and burying him under two feet of concrete in an area created by a hastily removed Jacuzzi. The rather predictable headlines of the time - that Adamson had suffered a fate straight out of the plot of one of his movies - was pretty cruel, and masked the fact that although the director had been painted as something of an oddball, nearly all of his films had made money and he was, by all accounts, a fairly wealthy man. While Adamson the man is not exactly brought back to life by his friends' accounts - most of the interviewees being industry men not given to letting their guard down - it's great to see so much love and respect given to someone whose movies have, until recently, been relegated to the cinematic dumpster.

The Deeper You Dig (USA 2019: Dir John Adams, Toby Poser) The opening credits proclaim that this is a production by The Adams family, and you better believe it. Married couple Adams and Poser wrote, directed, filmed and starred in this intense little oddity, Adams wrote the discordant soundtrack and their daughter Zelda is in it too. The perfect setup to allow for future film projects in a time of lockdown, then.

Poser is single mum Ivy, who lives deep in the snowy Catskills in upstate New York (actually Adams and Poser's home) with her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams). They have an unusual relationship: Ivy is a once successful medium who has lost her psychic mojo and now fleeces clients to keep the cash rolling in: Echo is an independent 14 year old, who lives a fairly free life, including taking her sled out alone at night. Elsewhere in town Kurt (Adams) is in a bar, and after a few drinks drives home. On the road he hits Echo, out on her sled. She's not dead but Kurt, instead of taking her to a hospital, kills her, takes her home and unceremoniously dumps her body in a bath, which is located in an abandoned property which he's slowly doing up. But Kurt remains troubled, not least because he's visited by Echo's ghost, but also feels that he hasn't hidden the body sufficiently (he first transfers it from the bathtub to a shallow grave in the woods).

Meanwhile Ivy, who is investigating Echo's disappearance, tries to reconnect with her psychic abilities; she's fairly sure that Echo is dead but wants to find out who's responsible. Little does she know that Kurt, who she gets to know as a result of those investigations, is the murderer.

The Deeper You Dig is not without problems. Towards the end things get very muddled, and the visual abstractions hint at a cinematic vision not quite matched by resources. But for the most part this intimate ghost story excels at the things it doesn't front and centre: the economic gloom in which the characters live their lives, and the fact that a small community can remain so distant from each other, underscore the more fantastical elements of the story. “All of our movies are about broken Americans, [they’re] not trying [to] get fixed, but just get by as good as they can,” commented Adams in a recent interview. And there's some striking imagery here too (the poster hints at one of them, which reminded me of some of the shots in Jordan Graham's 2019 movie Sator). All of the Adams family deliver powerful, understated performances, even if their motivations at times seem a little confused. Very good though and I'm keen to see more of their work.

True Fiction (Canada 2019: Dir Braden Croft) True Fiction is one of those movies that plot wise can't be described in any detail, suffice to mention that it's one twist after another, which I confess started to bore me after a while.

Its the story of Lea Michelle lookalike Avery Malone (Sara Garcia), a young writer who secures an interview for her dream job; personal assistant to her favourite writer Caleb Conrad (John Cassini). The role requires her to live in at his reclusive snowbound hideaway and, well, help him seek inspiration. Conrad is an author who feels that his best years are behind him and needs a certain inspiration to get his writing mojo back again.

And, through a series of tests, librarian Malone will be his muse, as she helps him by delving in to what makes her scared; having to offer up her mobile at the door should have been a giveaway. She's hooked up to a lie detector and asked if she's ever murdered anyone; "yes," she answers, immediately correcting herself. Later she's strapped into what can only be described as a gimp suit and subjected to sensory deprivation experiments; makes a change from dealing with overdue fees I suppose.

But Malone starts to question everything she sees and hears; Conrad has never been seen in public. So how does she know it's really the author she's with? Certainly his signature doesn't seem to match the one in the signed copy of one of his books that she holds onto almost talismanically. And Malone discovers that there wasn't much of a shortlist for the job - she was chosen."You're prone to paranoia, suspicion and doubt," Conrad tells her, which makes her the perfect candidate for his games.

True Fiction at times feels like borderline t*rture porn, and while she's often feisty, watching Malone go through it for the 'pleasure' of an older man feels a little unnecessary. But the biggest issue was that I struggled to see the point of the thing, and the succession of twists and turns in the last third felt contrived and ultimately unsatisfying. Not my thing really.

Why Don't You Just Die? (Russia 2018: Dir Kirill Sokolov) Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) comes to visit the parents of his girlfriend Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) carrying a hammer instead of the usual bunch of flowers. Inside there's no Olya but there is mum and dad, the appalling Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev) and his timid wife Tasha (Elena Shevchenko). Andrey's a cop and loves how that makes people nervous, but even he's a little rattled when Matvey tries to kill him, a struggle which sees half the apartment wrecked, and a shotgun blast which dislodges a shower of banknotes from a stolen stash. It's a brilliant combination of gore and slapstick, with a plundered Sergio Leone soundtrack as a musical backdrop, and it's one of the finest pre credit sequences I've seen for quite some time.

The rest of the movie doesn't quite match that opening, but as Why Don't You Die? unfolds enjoyably and quirkily, in a well told network of interconnecting stories that gradually reveal what's going on, with 'chapters' named after the key players. Most of the 'action' takes place in Andrey and Tasha's now ruined apartment, into which Andrey's work colleague and friend Yevgenich (Michael Gor) arrives to help his mate out with his human dilemmas; the pair's back story, involving the need for Yevgenich to get some ready cash to fund his wife's cancer treatment, is yet another narrative thread running through the film.

This is fast and frantic stuff, more amusing than laugh out loud funny (although some exposition regarding handcuff technology made me smile) and there's a Coen-esque feel to the thing, full of odd characters that are not without charm despite their flaws. Why Don't You Just Die? is at its heart a story of a dysfunctional family, but it's smart and well done, even if it does drag a bit towards the end, mainly down to its limited setup, rather than its persistent energy.

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