Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Nosferatu: the Vampyre (1979)



Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell a house to the reclusive Count Dracula, despite the manifold warnings of the locals that the Count and his castle are bad, bad news.  When the unnerving, rat-toothed Count becomes besotted with an image of Harker's wife (who has been inexplicably re-named Lucy, instead of Mina), old Jonathon starts to regret his pigheadedness ... for death now draws close to his home and family.

If you search online for reviews of this remake of the 1922 classic Nosferatu, you'll find glowing accounts from multiple sources, including the late Roger Ebert.

I have no idea why.

Yes, the film is visually quite striking at times.  But artfully shot landscapes and re-mixes of the clever imagery of the original film do not make a good movie.  Not by themselves, anyway.

Perhaps the film works better in German.  It was filmed in both that language and in English, and given the heritage of the actors and writers it's entirely possible that the acting and the script both suffered in translation.  Certainly I hope that it did, because in English they're both at a community theatre levels.  When you're making a sombre horror film and the dialogue feels like a retread of Monty Python's Cheese Shop sketch, something has gone wrong.

Ironically, this is a remake of a silent film that I suspect would itself work better as a silent movie.  Mute all the dialogue and add a few text interstitials, and the film would at least be a treat for the eyes without being an assault on the ears.

Or you could just watch F W Murnau's original film, instead.  That's what I'd do.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Ruins (2008)



If you're a horror movie fan, you can skip this review: just go get yourself a copy of The Ruins and have a good time.

For the rest of you, I'll try to convince you it's worth your time to see.

Four American tourists befriend a young German man while on holiday in Mexico.  He tells them that the next morning he is travelling to a remote Mayan ruin to collect his brother, who previously went there with a lady archaeologist.  With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the foursome agree to accompany him to see the ruin.

Given that this is a horror movie, you can be sure that the trip doesn't end up being an especially jolly one, but I'll refrain from going into any more details about the plot, because I think that the film does a very good job of slowly unfurling the true threat, and to just state the details baldly would not do it justice.

I will, however, take some time to praise the film-makers.  They've done very good work here.  This is by no means a "big budget" film (it cost about $8 million) but it's technically very proficient and you never feel like you're watching a cheap movie.  In particular the casting team has done a great job.  All the core group of actors deliver solid performances, and it is no surprise to see that they've generally gone on to bigger (though not necessarily better) things.

About the only complaint I might make of this film is that once it hits the end game, it feels like it rushes through things just a little.  But when the worst thing you can say about a movie is "gee, I wish they'd given the last couple of scenes a few minutes more to breathe, so they were as effective as the earlier parts" ... well, it speaks pretty well of the film as a whole, I think.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

A Killing Strain (2010)



A group of strangers shelter in an isolated farm house as the zombie apocalypse begins.  Can they work together to survive or will the rivalries and disagreements between them prove even more dangerous than the horde of flesh-eating undead outside?

If you've ever seen Night of the Living Dead you're probably thinking "gee, that sounds familiar".  And it should, because in the expansive realm of low budget zombie flicks, A Killing Strain's primary claim for distinction is the extent to which it borrows from the film that defined the genre.  Not that this movie is like Romero's masterpiece in all ways, of course.  It has a confirmed cause for the zombie outbreak, for instance, which the older film avoided.

Oh, and A Killing Strain is also different from Night of the Living Dead in that it's terrible.  The acting's mostly bad, for one thing, though to be fair to the cast it's hard to imagine anyone making some of the scenes in this script work.  For instance, there's an awkward conversation about fried coke that goes on for several minutes.   It's a scene that would land with a thud even if much of the performance wasn't stilted and uncomfortable.

Just in case bad acting and scripting wasn't enough, though, you can be sure this film also delivers bad action choreography and effects work.  It's nothing if not consistent in being of poor quality.

The world is full of low budget zombie films, presumably because it's comparatively easy to make them.  There's a very good chance I'll see at least a couple more in the course of this month, in fact.  I can only hope that if I do, they offer something at least a little more interesting than this film does.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)



The conclusion to 2012's Resident Evil: Retribution had the heroes teaming up with their former arch-nemesis Albert Wesker for a final stand against the mutant zombie horde that has overrun the planet.  I'm not sure what writer/director Paul Anderson originally planned to do with that scenario, but I suspect that the delays in making this film - it was originally intended for 2014 release, and instead only just snuck into the 2016 season - probably changed them significantly.

We start here with another account of the "T virus", which caused a zombie outbreak and the collapse of civilisation; and with the news that the apparent "last stand" was a trap.  The only survivor - other than the villainous Wesker - is Alice (Milla Jovovich, returning to punch and shoot zombies for a sixth and presumably final time).

After being chased by monsters for a while, Alice stumbles into another big dump of exposition that justifies all the rest of the being-chased-by-monsters she'll do in the rest of the film.  Humanity's last remnants will be destroyed in 24 hours, and only Alice can save them.  How, you ask?  Why, by penetrating to the heart of the evil Umbrella Corporation and releasing an anti-virus that destroys the T-virus, and anything infected by it.

Which includes Alice herself.  Tough break.

If you've ever seen a Resident Evil film before, there's absolutely nothing to surprise you here.  It's the sixth instalment in the franchise and it's very much in the footsteps of those that have come before it.  Alice teams up with a bunch of other folks, and they tangle with monsters until almost none of them are left, and then she faces off with scenery-chewing bad guys.

So yes, it's pure formula.  But - for me at least - it's a fun formula.  If you like the idea of monster-action, you could well have a good time.

(The first movie is still by far the best in the series, though)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

American Mary (2012)



Mary Mason is a gifted medical student, but one whose considerable financial difficulties are putting her future at risk.  When she applies for work at a massage parlour that promises "no sex required", the interview unexpectedly spirals into an opportunity to do a little off the books medical treatment, and from there into the world of black market body modification.

Mary's not looking to make a career of such illicit work, just using it to pay the bills while she finishes her training for a legitimate career, but her plans change after she is sexually assaulted by the surgeons who are training her.  The underworld contacts she's made help her "disappear" the primary culprit, who becomes her unwilling 'guinea pig' for practicing new procedures (can't say I feel any sympathy for him, really), and she launches a new career catering to those who can't get the surgery they want through legal medical channels.

Of course, a surgeon can't disappear without someone taking notice, and Mary's breaking all kinds of laws with her new occupation, so this isn't exactly a safe or stable career she's chosen.  Can she stay ahead of anyone who might wish her ill, or will she end up, so to speak, on the cutting room floor?

I've seen other reviews describe American Mary as nausea-inducing, but I honestly didn't find it that confronting.  Still, there are some surgical scenes, and several minor characters with real life body modifications such as tongue splitting, which I guess may make some folks uncomfortable.

More problematic for me was the plot, which was rather fractured and disjointed, with various sequences that kind of came and went independently of each other, and a romance subplot that just kind of existed, without much establishment or resolution to it.  I feel like the script needed a good bit more work before it would really have been ready to shoot.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Shallows (2016)



When her mother dies of cancer, med student Nancy Adams takes a break from her studies to travel the world.  One of Nancy's key objectives is to locate and surf at an isolated beach that her mother visited in the early stages of being pregnant with Nancy.

At first, the beach seems to be everything Nancy hoped it to be, but when she follows a pod of dolphins out into deeper water, things go awry.  There's an injured whale here, and - perhaps attracted by the injured animal - there's also a great white shark lurking beneath the waves.

Luck allows Nancy to survive the shark's first attack, but she's now trapped hundreds of metres from the safety of the shore, and the great white clearly intends to finish the job.  The shark has all the physical advantages in this situation, of course, so Nancy will have to rely on her wits to survive ...

The first half hour of The Shallows is excellent, with some lovely underwater photography and a growing sense of tension and menace.  Things remain quite strong through the middle as well, once the shark makes it attack.  Sure, it seems very unlikely that a great white would bother spending hours stalking a single woman when there's an injured whale right there, but if you're willing to overlook that - and the film does ultimately offer a figleaf justification for the beast's obsession with eating our heroine - then it's got lots of decent set pieces.

In the last 30 minutes alas, the scenario does start to collapse under the growing weight of its own implausibility.  There were a couple of moments where I laughed out loud at developments: something that very much breaks the tension and I am sure was not intended.

If movies-that-make-you-jittery are your thing, then this is certainly worth seeing for the first hour, at the very least.  For the rest, well, just don't think about it too much.  Though it did occur to me afterward that if you treat this film as a sequel to Deep Blue Sea, with this killer shark being an escapee from that movie, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense.  For certain definitions of sense, anyway!

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Swamp Devil (2008)



A girl is murdered in some woods, and then seventeen years later, a teenage woman is also killed.  Not longer after this, Melanie Blaime receives a call telling her that her father - whom she coincidentally hasn't seen in about seventeen years - is dying, and asking her to return to her old hometown to see him.

Daddy Blaime isn't actually dying, though: instead he's the prime suspect for the more recent murder, even though the evidence against him seems to amount to "he says there's a monster in the swamp so he must be crazy".  Of course, being the kind of movie this is, it's no spoiler to say that Pops is right on the money about the monster thing.

Making genuinely scary movies is actually a pretty tough thing to do well, which is why a lot of horror films don't bother to try.  Check out the later entries in just about any slasher franchise, for instance, and the overall tone is likely to be more pitched at shocks and thrills than building any real atmosphere or tension - to the point where it's debatable if they are horror films at all.

Swamp Devil is similarly bereft of any real scares, not least because the monster encounters are staged more as action sequences than anything else, but I think its claim to being a horror film is pretty sound, nonetheless, as it hits a lot of tried and true 'vengeful spirit' story beats.  I also give it points for not dragging out the mystery too long, allowing it to get down to monster antics around the halfway point of the film.

The restrictions imposed by its made-for-TV budget mean that Swamp Devil is probably only worthwhile for hard core horror film aficionados.  That's something of a shame, though, as there's the kernal of a decent film in here, and I could certainly see myself raiding the basic plotline for use in a Halloween roleplaying game.