Saturday, 30 April 2011

Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (Uwe Boll, 2010) DVD Review

Full review can be found at flickfeast: Bloodrayne: The Third Reich

The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981) Blu Ray Mini-Review

The dead rise again in Lucio Fulci's terrifying The Beyond (1981)

Continuity and narrative coherency were never top priorities for gialli auteurs such as Dario Argento (Deep Red, 1975) and Lucio Fulci, the latter of which directed this slick n' scary fright flick. The plot is complete hogwash and mostly feels like a collection of scenes from other films - there's a bit of Night Of The Living Dead (Romero, 1968), a bit of The Innocents (Clayton, 1961) and topped off with a sprinkling of Wait Until Dark (Young, 1967). There's even a reference to Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955). So it's a zombie movie and haunted house picture all rolled into one gooey exploitation package, featuring enough exploding eye shots to quench the bloodthirst of even the most cynical horror fan. Indeed, The Beyond may be a largely incoherent photo album of horror history, but it is an incredibly beautiful, stylish and effective one - and the scariest film I've seen in a long time.

What's really remarkable is, despite how overfamiliar everything is, The Beyond actually feels like its own film. It has a peculiar atmosphere which flits between menacing and ethereal; the mist which surrounds the Seven Doors Hotel lends the location a foreboding quality not unseen in other horror movies, but there's also a sense of otherworldliness - as if what lurks outside in the haze isn't of this world. It's genuinely creepy and unnerving, and it's to Fulci's credit that his film has quite a unique feel when it's resting pretty heavily on genre tropes. The gore is, as always, the highlight. One scene in particular had me gripping the edge of my seat with terror and it's the source of much derision from even fans of the film. It's the spider scene. As I said in my Arachnid (Sholder, 2001) review, even a paper-mâché tarantula would give me the creeps, so the oversized mechanical puppets on offer here definitely had the desired effect. There are plenty of real spiders too though, and Fulci gets right in for close-ups as they rip apart bloody flesh in a scene that will be sure to give me nightmares for months now. It's a protracted sequence of horror which makes full use of the arachnids spindly legs and stop-motion-style movement... they gives me chills.

The acting is wooden, as per usual for this kind of flick, but Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck are still likable and engaging leads. What keeps the film moving are the set-pieces, which are genuinely exciting, unrelentingly paced and often terrifying, served brilliantly by practical effects genuis Gianetto DiRossi. The photography by Sergio Salvati is stunning and looks beautiful on remastered Blu Ray, which has crystal clear detail and sharpness. You won't remember anything of the plot (if you can even get a hold on it) but for wall-to-wall action and scares The Beyond is pretty hard to beat. The ending tries a little too hard to be solemn and downbeat, coming off a little misplaced, but for 85 minutes this is a rollercoaster ride I can't wait to revisit and a new addition to my long list of favorite horror movies...

The Shortlist: 5 Best Movie Fights

Full feature can be found at MultiMediaMouth: 5 Best Movie Fights

The Screening Room: Episode 9

You can listen to my appearance on the official MultiMediaMouth podcast here: The Screening Room Episode 9

Monday, 25 April 2011

Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) Review

Banished by the gods... Chris Hemsworth and Anthony Hopkins in Thor (2011)

In 1989 Kenneth Branagh made his directorial debut with Henry V, one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations of all time. 22 years later and he's indirectly made another one, except that the thundering familial conflict of Thor has come from the pages of Marvel, rather than those of the Bard. I've said it once and I'll say it again: this is Shakespeare with hammers, and it's wonderful. Thor has zero pretensions of grandeur but plenty of grand spectacle - from the stunning shots of swirling galaxies to the epic action set-pieces that ravage its planets, this is a picture of cosmic scope and surprising richness. Which isn't to say there aren't flaws; with centuries of Norse mythology and decades of Marvel background to condense into 110 minutes, as well as crowbarring the character into the upcoming Avengers (Whedon, 2012), there was concern that the film would both collapse under the weight of exposition and leave no room for its own story. Obviously some character development suffers, especially the Earth-bound relationships, but frankly Branagh and co. have done a tremendous job...

A brief pre-credits sequence in the New Mexico desert introduces us to three scientists - Jane (Natalie Portman), Erik (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). They chase a storm carrying Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and for the next thirty minutes we're transported to Asgard to find out how he got there. We find out that the people of Asgard (one of the nine realms) have previously been engaged in war with a race of Frost Giants, and after a ceremonial debacle Thor upsets the peaceful balance, unleashing war once again. King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes him to Earth, where he leaves behind his friends and brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And from there it gets more complex and spoiler laden...

One of Branagh's most remarkable achievements with Thor is the balancing of tone. Asgard is a towering, almost celestial utopia; the rainbow runways and golden interiors lending it a sense of wealth, majesty and power that dwarfs Earth and makes it look timid and bland in comparison. But Earth also has its own merits - here Branagh moves away from the operatic musings of his beloved Bard and formulates something a little more generic, but no less engaging. Here he balances action, romance and humour with a deftness of touch that we haven't seen in a superhero movie since Spider-Man 2 (Raimi, 2004). An early scene sees Thor in hospital about to be administered with painkillers. In typical fish-out-of-water fashion he misinterprets the situation and bellows "You dare attack the son of Odin?" It's a funny line but really Hemsworth's delivery gets the laugh. The Australian actor has surprising comic chops and is far from the log-headed hunk I'd suspected him of being. He convinces in the action scenes too, hammering through swathes of enemies as if they were nothing. There's a lot of (top quality) CGI in the film but what impresses most is his physicality - not just his 6'3" presence in the frame but in the way he holds himself over the other actors, radiating pride and strength. He's not the best actor in the world but you certainly buy him as Thor, and I was surprised by his genuinely sweet chemistry with Portman.

The shifts Branagh makes between godly conflict, broad comedy and all-out action is the winning aspect of the film but his direction and visualization of Asgard is also impressive. Epic tracking shots of the landscape are awe-inspiring and the scenes where Thor travels between planets provide a stunning light show recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968). This is fantasy of the most striking order and certainly the most ambitious film Marvel have put out since taking control of their own studio. I'm somewhat annoyed at having seen the film in 3D, which reduced the brightness and size of the image. The glasses are a real pain and I still feel the hole in my pocket caused by this ridiculous fad. I can only imagine what the film looks like in 2D and I'll be sure to see it again that way - it'll look even better, I suspect, and I'll fully appreciate the artistry that Branagh has brought to the tale.

The action sequences are frequent and varied. They're all essentially god-on-god fights but there's something different at stake every time - the brawls move between planets and each has an emotional anchor that involves the viewer at a deeper level than just ogling supernatural smash-em-ups. At first Thor fights with arrogance but by the finale he is fighting for love, and the final showdown with Loki is truly thrilling. I certainly can't think of another superhero flick with so much diversity in the action, and it's all scored by regular Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle, who has composed some great music for the film.

All in all I was impressed by Thor, a film I wasn't particularly looking forward to or expecting anything from. It's a visually spectacular work, and one with ripe, over-chewed dialogue delivered by some excellent actors (Hopkins eats the scenery for all he's worth). I was entertained from beginning to end and on a technical level at the very least this is the blockbuster to beat at the cinema this summer. But what really surprised me was the fact that Thor has three-dimensional characters I could care for (Loki is a surprisingly layered and tragic villain, and Hiddleston gives him depth) and an actual plot that was involving. It's actually a superhero movie I'd like to see a sequel for, but not before I see this one again... in 2D this time.

The Screening Room: Episode 8

You can listen to my appearance on the official MultiMediaMouth podcast here: The Screening Room Episode 8

Sunday, 24 April 2011

I Saw The Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2010) Review

Revenge is a dish best served cold in the excellent I Saw The Devil (2010)

Kim Ji-woon is, for my money, the most exciting filmmaker working in action cinema today. Not because he's pushing boundaries per se, or pioneering ideas within the art form. But his brand of action cinema feels refreshingly pure, visceral and stylish; from the balletic gunfights of A Bittersweet Life (2005) to the epic revisionist stylings of The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), he's marked himself out as a versatile and inventive filmmaker, aware that thrills are elicited from what's happening within the frame rather than shaky camerawork and choppy editing; that is an artificial action. His camera is frenzied but always feels controlled, choosing unique angles to shoot the action from, which lend the gunfights an incredible perspective.

Many US critics have been sniffy about I Saw The Devil, with the San Francisco Chronicle dubbing it "torture porn", which I think demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the film and its moral code, or lack of one thereof. It's true that this is Ji-woon's most indulgent work - scenes of tendon chopping and cheek piercing are certainly unflinchingly graphic, and I couldn't recommend the film for viewers with a weak stomach. But within the context of the film - which has a bleak, semi-nihilist worldview - the violence is effective and disturbingly sparse. There's a terrific scene where serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), after being badly beaten in a fight with scarred cop Kim (Byung-hun Lee) (Kyung has killed his girlfriend), is hitchhiking on the street. A car pulls up and Kyung gets in. Tension rises as it appears something is off kilter... the driver glances to the man in the back seat, who begins to draw a knife from his pocket. Kyung predicts their move and in a stunning 360° shot stabs his assailants several dozen times. The car crashes and the two men lie dead. It's revealed that they sere serial killers too, as Kyung looks in the boot of the car and finds two bodies. It's a fascinating move, for Ji-woon to portray this as a hopeless land inhabited entirely by killers - there are hardly any side characters, and even those who appear innocent are anything but. Kyung hides away at the house of a friend during the latter stages of the film... despite appearing normal he's a serial butcherer too, and has a girl chained up in his basement. To be honest, if the violence weren't unremittingly brutal it would do a disservice to the stark cityscape Ji-woon creates for his killers.

The film places an interesting dynamic on revenge movie cliché. You know how it goes: the line between good and bad becomes blurred and it's unclear whether the ethics of the good guy are any different to those of the criminal he's chasing - in the pursuit of a killer his moral compass has ducked south. But what's interesting about I Saw The Devil is the way in which it turns that dynamic into a kind of addiction; the characters engage in a series of violent games escalating in severity, but they're initiated by the 'good' guy. The chemical propulsion to kill also exists in the psyche of Kim, and Ji-woon makes a conscious decision not to have us spend any real time with him before that mindset is triggered. The question arises: how much did it take? How do you test the nature of a man, and truly know his goodness? Was Kim a nice person? Maybe Kyung-chul was a good man once - certainly the film acknowledges him as a psychopath, and a mentally unhinged individual, but there's also a sadness and a humanity to this monster; a feeling of remorse and hurt. He just wants to be getting on with his killing, and escape the loneliness that surrounds him (which isn't to say I'm excusing or exonerating him of his actions).

The real problem with the film lies in the way Ji-woon tackles these ideas. He seems more concerned with the choreography of the violence than the psychology behind it, and there's no real depth to the sadistic sport cop and killer inflict upon each other. The film plays out in large stretches of silence and certainly the emphasis is on the faces of the men, which are like blueprints for pain and suffering. I'm not saying there's no depth to the film, because the latter half makes for quite fascinating viewing. Kyung soon welcomes the conflict ("this is fun") and there's a sense of both men gaining some perverse, sadomasochism-in-extremis pleasure from their games. When Kyung embraces the dark side of his opponent he becomes obsessed with winning - it's not so much that the line between good and evil has been crossed, but the line between two evils has been redrawn. We're always on Kim's side but the question is: at what cost?

But as with all of Ji-woon's cinema the true emphasis is on action, and it's exhilarating in this picture, frequently injected with oil black humour such as the scene where a killer has his hand pinned to a table by a screwdriver - he tries to pull it out but the handle falls off. Between moments of savage violence the look painted across his face is hopelessly funny. Kyung-chul dispatches his victims in an isolated greenhouse and a fight set-piece in that location is thrillingly executed; inventive camerawork and restrained editing combine for a sequence which is genuinely nail biting. There's a kinetic energy to Ji-woon's cinema which can't really be matched and the fights in I Saw The Devil are really gripping - and a torture scene in a hospital made me wince in horror. But crucially there are consequences to the violence and the final shot is hauntingly ambiguous; revenge may have been served, but now what's left? Now that the penchant for violence has been unlocked in Kim, where can this path possibly lead him? The ending appears clearcut, but like most things in Ji-woon's revenge fantasy, it's anything but...

I Saw The Devil is released in UK cinemas on April 29th.

Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) DVD Review

My review of Pasolini's Mamma Roma can now be found at 24FPS.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Open Road (Michael Meredith, 2009)

Full review can be found at FlickFeast: The Open Road

The Open Road is released on DVD on April 25th.

In Focus: Deception And Distraction In The Informant! (2009)

Full feature can be found at New Empress: The Informant!

The Shortlist: 8 Realistic Movie Couples

Full feature can be found at MultiMediaMouth: 8 Realistic Movie Couples

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Diary Of An Unknown Soldier (Peter Watkins, 1959) / The Forgotten Faces (Peter Watkins, 1961) Blu Ray Mini-Reviews

These short films are the extras on the BFI Flipside release of Peter Watkins' Privilege (1967), which will be reviewed in the near future...

Diary Of An Unknown Soldier (Watkins, 1959)
A moving portrait of WWI from a first-person viewpoint, this anti-militarist short has some starkly poetic images of a war-ridden landscape and a frank, cynical narration (by Watkins himself, 24 at the time) from the perspective of a young soldier about to embark upon the front line (perhaps a precursor to Stuart Cooper's Overlord, 1975). He nervously glances around his waiting post detailing the character of each man in his squad, questioning the morals of one gruff looking chap who seems to revel in the violence, and says he won't be content until he runs three Germans through with his bayonet. The best moment in the film actually comes at the end where the narrator spots a captured German prisoner sat eating soup. Our protagonist notes how normal the prisoner looks, no different to the men of questionable ethic he's fighting beside. It's just a different uniform. This may be a slightly naïve view, but I support Watkins' humanism and empathy towards the soldiers. The film also serves as a document of the fear experienced by a solider approaching the frontline; when you're so numb you can't even feel the abrasive fabric on the strap to your backpack. When every crunching footstep of a soldier passing by brings the reality of war ever closer. The brief scene of conflict in the film is just a frenzy of violence; the camera moves in a slightly disorienting fashion between fallen soldiers and their weapons. All this for a little bit of earth, our narrator says. All that bloodshed just to reclaim some soil. Again, a naïve and perhaps basic viewpoint given the wider context of war, but also a true one to the individual who, in the next few seconds, knows he's going to lose his life and never see home again...

The Forgotten Faces (Watkins, 1961)
Hungary, 1956; oppressed students are fighting back against their communist government and the bloodshed has rolled into the streets. Young boys carry grenades and cower in fear as soldiers patrol with rifles, killing the men and women only four or five years their senior; perhaps an older brother, or a sister? Watkins is best known for his mock documentaries The War Game (1965) and Culloden (1964), both of which shoot fictional content as if it were being seen through the eyes of a modern news crew. The films have such intense realism and stark bleakness that in fact many do think of them as being documentary - The War Game even won an Oscar in that category, and got itself banned in Britain. This short has the same quality as those films, taking the form of newsreel footage. There's a rousing revolutionary speech, an assault on an ambulance and the execution of military forces, but the most shocking and vital moment comes at the end when our narrator (Frank Hickey) proposes the importance of the individual human life in conflict. He takes the wider picture - two strongly opposing sides both of which think they are right - but then shows us faces that have previously appeared in the film, including a doctor, journalist and young siblings. Executed, missing or deported seems to be their fate, and the war-ravaged souls looks pensively into the camera searching for an escape, or perhaps even an answer. Some of them will have fallen without a grave; some of them hanged, or even burned. One young boy was shot in the back while struggling to throw a grenade. His friends laughed. One of the final shots in the film is of a soldier holding a flag. He is holding it not high with pride but low with defeat, and the flag has a hole through the middle, much like the country it represents...

Monday, 18 April 2011

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: Das Indische Grabmal (1959) DVD Review

The adventure continues in Fritz Lang's epic masterpiece Das Indische Grabmal (1959)

Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959) ends on a cliffhanger which sees our doomed lovers Harald (Paul Hubschmid) and Seetha (Debra Paget) stranded in the desert and hopelessly reaching for each others touch... a sandstorm is brewing and the Maharajah's horsemen are fast on their trail. After recapping the events of the first film Das Indische Grabmal picks up exactly where we left off. A group of travellers discover the couple and find their hearts still beating. Taken to the travellers village to recover Harald and Seetha think they have escaped, but a traitor alerts the horsemen to their location. Back at the Maharajah's palace Harald's sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann) and his business partner Walter (Claus Holm) become suspicious of his whereabouts after they're told he's on a tiger hunt. They begin digging for information just as Harald is supposedly killed in a conflict with the horsemen...

There's very little to say for Das Indische Grabmal that hasn't already been said in my review of Der Tiger - they are a complete vision after all, split into two parts. The architecture is stunning, the Technicolour landscapes opulent and absorbing, the melodrama pitch-perfect and the adventure unrelenting. This is true spectacle cinema, and the second half is just as accomplished as the first. The religious aspects are more present in this entry though. While running from the horsemen Harald and Seetha duck for cover in an abandoned cave. Within its walls is a monument of the god Shiva, to which Seetha makes an offering and prays for safety. At that moment a spider descends from the foot of the cave and begins to weave its web. Just as in the classic bible story a web is weaved over the entrance to the cave and the horsemen move past it, concluding that nobody could have got inside without breaking the delicate silk. It's a peculiar little sequence, possibly a miracle but more suggestive of an actual spiritual presence in the film. Does Lang's epic embrace god? It's hard to say, but the scene is certainly exciting.

It's also a surprisingly provocative work, with an early fight sequence finding blood dripping from Harald's sword as he dispatches several of the Maharajah's men. Later in the film Seetha dances in front of the temple goddess in order to be judged, and she does so in jewelry encrusted underwear which reveals more flesh than I can ever remember seeing onscreen in this period - and the dance is titillating to say the least. It's quite a beautiful set-piece though. The temple, softly shaded in pastel-like greens and blues, with incense forming a delicate mist around the towering goddess statue, is one of the most impressive environments in the entire epic, and Lang's camera freely explores the choreography of Seetha's dance. Richard Angst returns as DoP for this picture and does a great job of capturing the beauty of India. As I said in my review of Der Tiger, on its own Das Indische Grabmal isn't quite a perfect work, but when paired together they're a masterpiece.

The Disc/Extras
Once again the image is pretty amazing, with colour being served especially well by the remaster. On the disc there's another interesting commentary by David Kalat, and another French trailer, this time retitled Le Tombeau Hindou. The accompanying booklet features a 20-page essay by Tom Gunning called 'The Indian Tomb Of The Dinosaur Of Eschnapur', and it argues both for the kitsch, campish value of the epic but also the way this masterpiece fits into Lang's oeuvre, taking in the themes of doomed lovers and architecture, and referencing films from Die Nibelungen (1924) to You Only Live Once (1937). It's a very fair essay and very well argued. The film is certainly more than just lush colours, and Gunning makes a compelling and intellectual argument for its reappraisal. There are also some fascinating interview excerpts with Lang in which he discusses the Indian Epic, working in America coming back to the post-WWII Germany he had come to hate. Alongside testimonials by Paul Hubschmid, Richard Angst and Helmut Nentwig there are also some stunning black and white photographs. Basically, an essential purchase.

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic: Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959) DVD Review

The beautiful dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) in Fritz Lang's Der Tiger von Eschnapur (1959)

Fritz Lang's Indian Epic is a two-part spectacular being released by Masters of Cinema on April 18th. Based on Thea von Harbou's novel 'Das Indische Grabmal' (previously filmed in 1921 by Joe May) the Indian Epic signaled Lang's return to Germany after an extensive period in Hollywood. He had lived in India for a number of years previously and decided to make his next-to-last films (The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse, 1960, was his final work) there. The films were conceived and produced as a singular vision; one story split into two, intended to be viewed over two nights. In 1960 US distributors edited the two films down into one feature (running 94 minutes) and called it The Tiger Of Bengal (1960), much to Lang's disappointment. Here the films are returned to their glory and released on two separate discs to be watched over two nights. Although I am reviewing them separately in regards to the way Lang wanted them to be viewed, the two films do constitute one singular 200-minute work. The majestic Indian Epic...

One of the recurrently impressive features of Fritz Lang's cinema is his eye for architecture. Recall the Art Deco cityscape in Metropolis (1927), a towering utopia of authoritarian corruption, or the medieval landscape in his astonishing fantasy work Die Nibelungen (1924). And think of the attention to detail in Metropolis especially - the carved statues, epic staircases and Moloch machines. Der Tiger von Eschnapur is every bit as impressive as those past and future worlds, and its rich colour palette marks it as Lang's most striking and evocative work (establishing shots of the Maharajah's Lake Palace are breathtaking). There are other similarities between Der Tiger and Metropolis too - not least in the labyrinth-like caverns under the city which hold unwanted citizens, kept secret by the wealthy empire above; in Metropolis they are workers, here they are lepers. There are also religious similarities and interests. The massive tower at the center of Metropolis is called The New Tower Of Babel, of course referencing the story of the origin of language in the Book Of Genesis. Religion is more prominent, as opposed to subtextual, in Der Tiger though - the Maharaja and his people pray to a statue of their god and no foreigners can be allowed into temple.

But this is a film which deserves to be judged by its own merits. Opulent, palatial and in the classical mould of spectacle cinema, Der Tiger is a ravishing melodrama of romance and adventure. It has just about everything you could want from a cinematic epic but manages to sidestep all of the problems that usually associate themselves with four-hour extraordinaries. There is more than enough plot to support the extended running time and the film moves at a firecracker pace; barely a minute goes by without bubbling emotion or grand set-pieces, including two tiger fights (it matters little that real tigers are replaced by models and men in suits for close-ups). Although there's plenty of exposition the film never really flags up its plot points and it all unfolds quite naturally. The plot never feels too contrived either, and not once does it fall into false sentiment or saccharine condescension. Sure, some of the dialogue is ripe ("I shall bury my love in that tomb") but that's what you want from this kind of cinema - sweeping majesty and hearts worn on sleeves. The cinematography by Richard Angst is also stunning and perfectly captures the exaggerated feeling of the piece, in terms of painterly composition recalling the grand Technicolour landscape in Fleming's Gone With The Wind (1939), itself a melodrama which informs emotion through design.

There are minor problems, the most significant of which is the puzzle of why everyone is speaking in German, but that never really gets in the way. What really matters, as with all of these kinds of films, is the spectacle. Packed with romance, action and humour, Der Tiger also features some solid performances, especially from Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid, and is an all-round success. I never thought I'd see another Lang film which beat the magnificent Metropolis, one of my all-time favorite films. On it's own terms Der Tiger isn't quite that good, but paired with Das Indische Grabmal it's even better...

The Disc/Extras
The film, presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, looks stunning. The remaster has next to no grain and really serves Angst's photography; the lush colour palette is completely absorbing. And on a 5.1 Surround Sound System the score by Michel Michelet sounds amazing, perhaps clearer than it has ever been. The disc for Der Tiger holds the most extras, the best of which is an audio commentary by film scholar David Kalat, which is an interesting and entertaining essay on the film. Also included is a 21-minute documentary filmed in Germany in 2005 featuring all new interviews with producer Artur Brauner (who at one point refers to Debra Paget as being "more erotic than Marilyn Monroe") and actress Sabine Bethmann, who plays Harald's sister Irene. This documentary also highlights the mastery of the set designers, who built the tiger pit at a studio in Germany. You'd never know. Alongside the original French trailer, where the film is referred to as 'Le Tigre De Bengale', there is some brief 8mm footage shot by Bethmann on location in 1958. An interesting look into the real India and what the cast/crew got up to on days off, it's an amusing little document and rounds off the first disc nicely. As with all MoC releases there is also an accompanying booklet, which will be discussed in more detail in the review for Das Indische Grabmal.

The Screening Room: Episode 7

Due to technical difficulties this weeks installment was split into two halves, but you can listen to my appearance on the MultiMediaMouth film podcast here:
Armadillo / War Movies: http://tinyurl.com/3qo79fu
Scream Franchise / SCRE4M: http://tinyurl.com/3c3m9t4

Fantastic Factory #4. Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt (Paco Plaza, 2004) DVD Review

19th Century horror gets a lame revisit in the werewolf movie Romasanta (2004)

Along with the seven wonders of the world, Julian Sands getting work is one of those exceptional miracles that just blows my mind. How does he do it? How does this wooden, witless charisma vacuum continue to get cast in even the shoddiest of B-movies? It's not just that he struggles with dialogue, it's that he can't even seem to master English as a first language. Romasanta is the sort of B-movie that he's now (thankfully) been restricted to - a bland and bloodless werewolf flick that brings nothing new of interest to the horror sub-genre and plods along with little excitement. It's a significant step down for Fantastic Factory and a disappointment from director Plaza, who in 2007 put out the excellent [Rec]. It's just a glossy and shamelessly derivative film; lazy and boring.

The film obviously owes a huge debut to Christophe Gans' excellent historical horror Brotherhood Of The Wolf (2001), in terms of basic plot, stylistic 'flourishes' and even some costume design. The DoP for this picture is Javier Salmones and he gives it much slicker tones than any of the other Factory films, which are decidedly grimier and more in touch with their exploitation/fleapit roots. Romasanta just looks too clean and lacks any of the grit and gusto that a film like this really needs - for one there's just not enough blood and head lopping. The compositions are nice, sure, if a little drab, and the film is well framed, but the entire production has an incredibly pale aesthetic that dulls environments which should be exciting. There's colour in the film, but it's not absorbing. There's shadow in the film, but it's not scary. It's set in a series of rundown 19th Century villages, surrounded by dark, dense forests where the beast supposedly lies. The film should have atmosphere, and a sense of lycan lunacy. I think Yuzna must have been having a nap through the production of this one, because it has none of those things. It attempts to be more of character study, get into the psyche of the wolfman and examine how such a killer would be treated in a court of law at the time. But 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) with fur this isn't. It's a Universal horror with ideas way above its station and it falls over itself trying to present them. It's a dreadfully dull film, and I just wanted to sleep through most of it.

I mean, I don't even have anything to say about it. I could rip on Julian Sands a bit more (frankly his own performances are his greatest parody) and talk about how boring it is, but that in turn would be boring for you to read. The film lacks any kind of pace and feels like it's been (shoddily) scripted from the Werewolf 101 manual, which it even seems to have skimmed the CliffsNotes version of. I wanted to like this movie - honestly I did. But it's just nothing. It's painfully rubbish to the point of reminding me of an Asylum knock-off, and that's never a good thing (although their version of Sherlock Holmes, Rachel Goldenberg, 2010, is a delightfully silly steampunk romp). It's such a shame too, because I can wholeheartedly recommend the rest of the Fantastic Factory Presents... Box Set. Perhaps if you invited some mates over, warmed up the popcorn and just prepared yourself for an absolute stinker you might get some joy from Romasanta, but that's honestly the only way...

The Disc/Extras
Another new release, only seven years old, so the image and sound are perfectly fine. Accompanying the reversible sleeve artwork and poster is another mini-essay by Calum Waddell, this time entitled 'Sex, Sun And Sinful Celluloid'. It's basically a small document on the Spanish horror industry and is much more interesting and entertaining than watching Romasanta. This is actually the most extras packed disc in the set, which is a shame. The main feature (21-minutes) sees Yuzna talking about the genesis and production of Romasanta. Given that the film is quite dull, so is the feature. There's some wider context about Factory as well though, and that's quite good. The rest are shorter but quite solid features: 'Special Effects'; 'Composing Romasanta'; 'Deleted Scenes' and 'Making Romasanta', alongside which lies the original trailer. Good package, rubbish film.

Fantastic Factory #3. Faust: Love Of The Damned (Brian Yuzna, 2000) DVD Review

The devil has his way in Faust: Love Of The Damned (2000)

There's an awesome scene in Faust: Love Of The Damned where a stop-motion skeleton, deformed into the shape of a spider, attacks our helpless protagonist John Jaspers (Mark Frost), who has been buried alive. Among maggots and screaming flames, heavy metal music scoring the scene, Jaspers sheathes the Wolverine-like claws given to him by the devil M (Andrew Divoff) and obliterates its skull into dust. Ridiculous? Yes, but tonnes of fun too. Brian Yuzna's Mephistophelean revenge fantasy is packed to the brim with graphic sex and violence; sometimes in the same scene. It's one of those horror movies which just goes hell for leather and indulges in some of the freakiest, most explicit shit you've ever seen - from heart eating to head ripping, this flick has it all. Some steamy shower sex and bountiful vixens of Satan don't hurt matters either...

Perhaps my opening paragraph has oversold the film somewhat. Viewers familiar with recent movements in French and Asian horror cinema - movies such as Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) and Ichi The Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) for example - won't find anything too extreme here. And perhaps even those who have seen Society (Yuzna, 1989) won't be too surprised by the content, given the fleshy finale of that wicked satire. But it was the unrelenting nature of the violence, the cynicism and brutality of it, as well as Yuzna's stylish indulgence in the bloodletting, that really surprised me about Faust. Even in the absurd Beyond Re-Animator (2003) he's a director of relative restraint, but the opening to this film sees severed bodies and decapitated heads rolling all over the place... he's shot his creative wad by the halfway point, basically. I don't have a problem with this personally, as I enjoy amped-up ultra-violence, but those less well versed in horror cinema should approach Yuzna's film with caution. It has a disenchanted and savage worldview, and for some that may be problematic. For me the film only has two central problems: a lack of character, and some unintentional campiness.

It's a B-movie, sure, and therefore neither scripting or seriousness are top priorities, and the former element isn't going to be perfect. The aim of the film is to be crude, salacious, gory and cruel, and if you can just kick back to that then Faust has a lot to offer. Case in point? A scene where M inflates the tits and ass of one of his whores, comically leaving her as a pile of slimy sex organs on his marble floor. Gross and absurdist, it teeters on the edge of misogyny but is just obscure and silly enough to keep you on its side. That being said, it is the point where many viewers - probably those not well acquainted with horror cinema - will turn off. The effects (by Screaming Mad George) are great, and it's gleefully absurdist. I should also say at this point that Faust is a very well made film, with frequently impressive camerawork and some genuinely interesting editing, especially in the action sequences; they have a free-form quality, jaggedly moving to the rhythm of the violence like a series of mini jump cuts. But here's how the two main problems factor in...

John Jaspers isn't a particularly likable character, and Frost presents him as a gurning emoticon who jumps between feelings at the flick of a switch, and with zero believability. There's just no reason to root for him, because he's such a hyperactive moron with seemingly no capacity for any emotion resembling anything on Earth. Some scenes require him to cry so he squints his eyes hard and deforms his mouth. It's really quite... disconcerting. Horror movies need to make you care about the characters on some level, even if it's a shallow one, like being attracted to the scantily clad last girl standing in a cheap slasher flick. It doesn't matter that you're only in it for her breasts - at least on some level you're invested in her surviving, and engaged in the horror. I just didn't care a single iota about Jaspers, and was more concerned with Frost getting some acting lessons or preferably just going back to his own planet, wherever that may be.

But then there's the campiness, and this criticism doesn't require a film studies degree or analysis classes. It's a simple matter of tone. When your movie at one point basically melts the vagina of a female character you should also be wary of the misty flashback sequences, candlelit romance and S&M-style devil costumes. It just feels a little uneven, though it did start to sit more comfortably with me towards the fire and brimstone finale. So, in summation: if you like your horror movies lewd, rowdy and lashed with ultra-violence then Faust: Love Of The Damned may well be your flesh-filled fantasy - severed limbs and luscious babes (hello Monica Van Campen) await you. But anyone who is at all concerned with story, character or tonal consistency should probably be wary of Yuzna's most outlandish work... on a moral level, even for trashy horror, it can seem kinda dodgy. If I seem a little on-the-fence with this review then allow me to clear that up: I really liked the debauched, auteurist sick-fest that was Faust, because I'm that kind of gorehound - having said that, I did want more story and better actors. I guess I just want people to approach the film with cation. And in listing the content non-horror fans will take issue with I know I've provided horror geeks with a dozen reasons to see it. And so they should, because it's a lot of fun.

The Disc/Extras
Another pretty recent movie, so the image is sharp and the sound well preserved. As per usual we have reversible sleeve artwork on the DVD, a poster and another booklet by entertainment author Calum Waddell, this time entitled 'Brian Yuzna: Maestro Of Mayhem'. In this mini essay he profiles Yuzna as an auteur and makes a particularly interesting case for Return Of The Living Dead III (1993) as a "feel bad horror epic". Alongside the trailer there are two documentaries on the disc. The first is called 'Director Of The Damned: Brian Yuzna, Faust And The Fantastic Factory'. In it Yuzna talks about how Fantastic Factory came to be, his ambitions for the label and his thoughts on the finished product of Faust. It's pretty interesting to hear him discuss the industry and why me moved to Spain for the projects, but at 26-minutes it's a bit of an overextended feature. The second documentary is called 'The Pain In Spain: A History Of Horror In Hot Weather', and it's a surprisingly dull look at the Spanish horror industry, although it does shed light on some awesome looking ghost/zombie movies, including Tomb Of The Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio, 1971) which could turn out to be a hidden treasure. For that it's worth a viewing.

Fantastic Factory #2. Beyond Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 2003) DVD Review

It's a scream... comedy and horror mix in Brian Yuzna's sequel Beyond Re-Animator (2003)

The original Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985), produced by Brian Yuzna, is one of my all-time favorite horror films - a delectably twisted fantasy, it's a devilishly perfect fusion of the madcap and the macabre; gleefully silly and bathed in blood. This second sequel (after Bride Of Re-Animator, Yuzna, 1990) went straight to DVD and although it can't hold a candle to the original it's still a somewhat underrated slice of gooey trash cinema. Jeffrey Combs returns as Dr. Herbert West, the classic megalomaniac scientist who originates in H.P. Lovecraft's 1922 short Herbert West - Re-Animator. The above image is from the opening to Yuzna's film and provides one of its zaniest highlights. There's a skimpily dressed blonde alone in a house and two kids are camping out in the backyard. The kids are examining a sheep eyeball when a flash of lightning alerts them to a presence outside. They wander into the house and the camera pans down to reveal large muddy footsteps on the porch. Somebody else is in the house. That somebody turns out to be the bedraggled zombie in the picture above. With half his jaw and one arm missing he kills the girl and reaches for a drink of milk - his slimy, bloody tongue lapping up the liquid. Soon the cops burst in, shoot the zombie (head popping is a plus here) and arrest West. 13 years later and he's still in prison...

One of the boys from the tent, Howard Phillips (Jason Barry), has grown up to be a doctor and now finds himself at the prison where West is serving his sentence. Together they begin plotting a new reanimation process and Howard begins to fall in love with journalist Laura Olney (Elsa Pataky). I'll give you three guesses as to what happens, but you'll only need one of them...

There are two central problems with Beyond Re-Animator. In terms of basic plot it's a complete rehash of the first film, and therefore every 'twist' can be mapped out from the off. One of the best aspects of the original is its wild unpredictability, and there's none of that here. But secondly, and perhaps most damningly, is the fact that it's just not that much fun. It's brilliantly paced, sure, and the idea is interesting - turn the prison into a riotous madhouse by unleashing a horde of prisoners against a handful of zombies. It should be brimming with dark comedy and gloopy bloodbaths but it just treads a careful road and feels very, well... stale. When there are severed reanimated criminals and half man/half rat mutants running around a SWAT-infested prison, currently burning to the ground, your movie really ought to be a blast, but I felt like I was going through the motions watching Beyond Re-Animator. And it's because the film doesn't really have anything to add to Lovecraft's characters and universe; it's just more of the same. Scenarios escalating in silliness ensure that you're never bored but it just lacks any wit, ingenuity or brio. Stuart Gordon's ethos was to throw everything at the screen but the kitchen sink, and then throw that in for good measure. His sets were swimming in red syrup and rubbery intestines, and he treated the action with a wink 'n' smile toward the audience. Yuzna throws an awful lot at the screen too, but you get the feeling that the idea of indulging in gloopy organs came before an actual story, and that's a big problem.

But perhaps a better way of looking at Beyond Re-Animator is not as an expansion of Lovecraft's universe but as a standalone carnival of horrors; instead of a haunted house movie, it's an undead prison movie. By the time the end credits roll and we're treated to an epilogue of a rat fighting a severed cock we're firmly within the realm of Yuzna and the Factory. And no, it still can't touch the depraved majesty of Gordon's masterwork, but maybe a Yuzna carnival is no bad thing and we should just mark this one up as an unrelentingly interesting failure. It has a few moments of brilliance (the junkie prisoner who OD's on Nano-Plasmic Energy) and the special makeup effects by Screaming Mad George are terrific. It could have been so much more, but given the scathingly bad reviews I'd read beforehand Beyond Re-Animator actually had a lot more to offer than I was expecting...

The Disc/Extras
The film is only eight years old so it still looks pretty sharp. Standard reversible DVD art and poster apply and we're also treated to another booklet, again by Calum Waddell, this time entitled 'World Of Lovecraft'. The main attraction there is a frank and entertaining interview with Jeffrey Combs on the Re-Animator legacy. On the disc we have an interesting audio commentary with director/producer Yuzna, and a 49-minute documentary on the Re-Animator legacy called 'All In The Head', which reveals some pretty interesting conceptual ideas for future Re-Animator movies. Also included is the original trailer. A solid little package for such a derided movie and the few fans it has will be delighted with its treatment.

Fantastic Factory #1. Arachnid (Jack Sholder, 2001) DVD Review

Mutant spiders attack in the underrated B-classic Arachnid (2001)

Arachnid is the first film up for review in the Fantastic Factory Presents... Collection, distributed by Arrow Video on April 18th.

As a severe arachnophobic it's really not hard to scare me with spiders. Seriously, my fear is so irrationally great that even a paper-mâché tarantula would give me the creeps. Just the shape of them... the way they crawl... it gets under my skin. So you may think that watching a movie about mutated spiders wouldn't top my priorities list, but this was actually my second viewing of the underrated Factory flick. I first saw Arachnid on VHS about seven years ago and it scared the hell outta me; I had nightmares for months. This was before I knew about Brian Yuzna, Steve Johnson and Jack Sholder, and the legacies they had been involved with. This was long before I became a horror fanatic and sought the unique thrill that only the best of the genre can provide. So it was with interest, excitement and trepidation that I revisited Arachnid, now repackaged for release as part of the Fantastic Factory Presents... Collection, being distributed by the extraordinary Arrow Video company. And it's with great joy that I get to report how well the film holds up to memory, although I admit to having forgotten the prologue where a gooey extraterrestrial, encased in a transparent orb, leads an innocent navy pilot to his death. That was... odd.

Jack Sholder is a smart B-movie director who really understands genre convention and knows how to direct schlocky material. Arachnid may not be perfect, but it is an exciting and efficient creature feature which ranks way above the likes of Spiders (Jones, 2000) and Eight Legged Freaks (Elkayem, 2002), the latter a pretty romping monster homage itself. The reason it stands way above these titles is because it has a small budget and a passionate crew - it understands that horror comes from the heart, not studio checklists concocted from box office formula. Too much mainstream horror is stuck in the realm of the familiar, but old-school shock-meisters like Sholder (who directed the way underrated Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, 1985) know how to get their audience excited with practical, gooey effects and OTT action. Attractive leads don't hurt either, but Chris Potter and Alex Reid actually have some solid acting chops too. Okay, so it's not like watching Pacino and Streep fight off arachnids, but they both have considerable screen presence and chemistry. Potter is your typical slack-jawed hero, but he also has a softer side and you buy into him as both the clichéd tough guy and the vulnerable leader. Reid is really terrific - a master of wounded sarcasm, she shows emotional depth behind her guarded one-liners and kicks serious ass in the finale. I really warmed to her and found her endearing. A true action heroine, it's a shame she didn't become a bigger star. Ravil Isyanov is also fun as the nerdy spider expert Henry Capri.

There is a bit of lame CGI but this is 99% the work of master prosthetic/animatronics designer Steve Johnson, who also created special makeup effects for Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983), Big Trouble In Little China (Carpenter, 1986) and Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988). So yeah, he has pedigree and then some, and his work on this feature is outstanding - the spiders look spindly and gruesome, slime dripping from their pincers (darn mutations) as they tower above the puny humans. One terrific dream sequence sees a man transforming into a spider, with the camera stylishly zooming out as the eight legs rip out of his back, and a close-up on his face reveals the multi-eyed beast bursting from his rubbery face. It's awesome, and a sad reminder of the state we've got to with modern effects. The main monster is less scary in close-up than it is darting through the dense jungles (the film was shot in Spain and Mexico), but it's still a spine-chilling sight when chomping on the remains of a doctor or soldier. And of course, as with all great horror movies, sometimes you're rooting for the spider!

It has problems, sure, but this short 'n' slick thrill ride is sure to please genre fans, and the score by Francesc Gener is one of those forgotten gems that horror/sci-fi cinema produces so often but always get overlooked (also see Jerry Goldsmith's work on Leviathan, George P. Cosmatos, 1989). Plot holes don't really matter - the whole alien thing is never explored or even mentioned again but most viewers will have forgotten about it by the cavern-set finale, which features an awesome impaling. The script boasts far more character development than you'd expect, with a genuine sense of character history developing throughout the picture. Our protagonists aren't just cardboard cutouts for dispatching, which is nice to see. Arachnid is a movie made with love and care; a movie made not for money but for audiences. Predictable it may be, but seven years on from my first viewing this B-grade creature feature still has the goods and puts most other entires in its sub-genre to shame. Looks like I'll be having nightmares tonight...

The Disc/Extras
The film is only ten years old so it still looks pretty sharp. The image is clear and DoP Carlos González's work on the lush jungle environments is well served. The extras are brief but solid. As always with Arrow the DVD sleeve has reversible cover art and there's a poster included in the box, along with a mini-booklet featuring an essay by entertainment critic Calum Waddell, entitled 'Spider Man'. It's basically a profile on Jack Sholder which presents him as a genre auteur, a claim I would heartily back up. On the disc you have a customary theatrical trailer but also two documentaries. The first is called 'King Of The Spiders' and it's a 20-minute retrospective with producer Brian Yuzna. He does discuss how the film came together but talks more about the Fantastic Factory label and horror distribution. Horror fans will be well versed in everything he flags up but it's interesting nonetheless, and those less acquainted with the real-life horror of movie distribution will learn a lot. The second documentary is entitled 'Creature Comforts' and it's the highlight of the disc. In this 26-minute interview effects man Steve Johnson talks about his entire career and the prosthetic/animatronics business through the 80s and 90s, and its death in the 00s, as well as revealing, quite emotionally, why he retired from the industry. It's a frank and insightful piece from one of the true masters of practical effects, and horror fans really owe themselves a purchase of Arachnid just for this.

Loose Cannons (Ferzan Ozpetek, 2010) DVD Review

Full review can be found at Flickfeast, here.

Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961) DVD Review

My review of Olmi's masterpiece can be found at 24FPS.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Scream 4 (Wes Craven, 2011) Review

Emma Roberts is one of the new additions to Wes Craven's slasher sequel Scream 4 (2011)

Scream 4 is a post-modern attack on post-modernism; an academic article cloaked as a slasher sequel. From the slyly winking triple-whammy of the prologue to some genuinely surprising third act plot twists, this is a tech-savvy essay on the culture of reboots, remakes and sequels. Well aware of its cash-grabbing potential, Scream 4 is as deeply in love with horror lore as the franchise has ever been and is also hip to another simple fact: horror, like pop, will eat itself. It's a recyclable genre which apes old concepts in the hope of creating new ones, and that's how it's been for the last forty years. The kids in the original Scream (Craven, 1996) had seen A Nightmare On Elm Street (Craven, 1984). The kids in Scream 4 have seen Scream, and that's exactly how it should be... they are the Facebook generation, and they're getting bored ("I hate all that torture porn shit.")

So yes, Scream 4 is better than we had any right to expect; the best installment in the series since the wicked original and a solid way to kick off the summer season. When I walked into the cinema this evening I was greeted by an usher dressed as Ghostface. When I was seated - it was a full house - the trailer rolled for Insidious, the new film from Saw (2004) creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Everyone talked over it but as soon as the main feature began a revered silence fell over the room. "Do you like scary movies?" somebody shouted from the back. Apart from boos, sighs, screams and "ohhh's" that was the last sound I heard before the end credits. I was among horror fans, and that's a wonderful feeling...

With Kevin Williamson back on scripting duties (his absence is probably the sole reason Scream 3, Craven, 2000, sucks) this is a smart, cineliterate bloodbath with plenty of awesome set-pieces. One late scene sees gorehound Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) asked to name a horror remake in order to save her friend. "Halloween, Texas Chainsaw, Dawn Of The Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Amytiville Horror, Black Christmas, House Of Wax, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine!" It's an amusingly scathing attack on the way Hollywood has been lazily cashing in on the groundbreaking work done by horror auteurs in the 70s, but it also does a good job of serving the characters - Kirby is a proper horror geek, much like Craven's audience. The setups are pretty inventive too, and make great use of our technological age. A three-way phone conversation leads to confusion as to the whereabouts of the killer in one of the first murder scenes, and as Craven slickly moves his camera between two opposing houses - the characters can see each other through windows - we are excited not because of the unpredictability of the scene, but by how it's being played. Every cliché is intentional - the filmmakers satirized them fifteen years ago after all; it's not as if they've forgotten how this works - but they are all given 21st Century twists. One set-piece at a barn party relies on hidden cameras and webcams, and it's a darkly clever delight.

The new cast are all great, especially Panettiere and Rory Culkin as fellow horror geek Charlie, who runs the school Cinema Club (where a great genre poking scene takes place). But it's most interesting to catch up with old characters and see how they're dealing with this new media obsessed age. Sidney (Neve Campbell) is given sadly little to do, but does run away with the best line in the entire film ("Rule number one of remakes: don't fuck with the original.") So we're left with the ever reliable teaming of Courtney Cox and David Arquette as Gale Weathers and Dewey Riley respectively. As the murders escalate in frequency and silliness Gale describes the situation as "meta." "What does that mean?" Dewey asks. "I don't know" she replies. Well I know what it means Gale, and it's what makes your movie so great. Bound to be misunderstood, Scream 4 is hardly the classic the original is but it is a smart, funny and loyal horror flick, and a surprisingly entertaining treat.