Thursday, 30 April 2015

Deep Red (1975)



For my money, this film takes about twenty minutes too long to get out of first gear.  It's also not a movie that will hold your hand and spell out character motivations - you have to pay attention.  So the first hour is fairly challenging to get through.  Which is something of a shame, because once it does cut loose and start accelerating towards its climax, it really cuts loose, ultimately delivering an ending sequence of splatterpunk excess punctuated by one of the most audacious cinematic reveals I've ever seen.

So the short version of this review is that if you think you have the patience to keep paying attention through the opening act (which is a bit on the slow side) and the strong stomach needed for the violent scenes (which have Argento's trademark stylishly inventive gruesomeness), then you should check it out.  If you like your entertainment to get moving more quickly, or aren't comfortable with gore, then skip it.  Of course, that latter disclaimer applies for pretty much any Argento film.

And that - apart from a quick aside to mention that the film's got a really awesome soundtrack, so audiophiles might want to check that out - is pretty much all I need to say about whether or not you should see this film.  So the rest of this review is going to be a quick precis of the plot.

A jazz musician witnesses a gruesome murder.  He rushes to the victim's aid, but is too late to help.  Tormented by a feeling that there was something 'different' about the victim's apartment when he first rushed in to after the police have arrived, he begins his own investigation into the killing.  The path to the truth will of course be liberally strewn with red herrings, a few more violent deaths, and - as mentioned above - a truly memorable ending.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Bluebeard (1944)



In the original French folktale, Bluebeard is a nobleman who murders his wives.  In this adaptation, he is recast as an artist and puppeteer, and the women he murders are his muses: they're all women whose portrait he has painted.

The role of Bluebeard is played by John Carradine, who succeeds in bringing a menacing charm to the role.  He's suave and compelling, but just a little too intense.  It's a strong performance that goes a long way to explain why this film is something of a cult classic.  Certainly it's not due to the script.

So if you've got half a brain you've probably spotted the flaw in this Bluebeard's modus operandi.  Painting portraits of all your victims isn't exactly subtle.  Selling them, as he does - through an amoral art dealer who has some idea of his homicidal impulses - is downright stupid.  Sure enough, a police officer recognises a murdered women when he sees one of the portraits, and the authorities are soon on the trail of their killer.

That search will be complicated by the fact that their main lead - the art dealer - is less than cooperative.  It'll also be complicated by the fact that they're apparently not very good at their jobs.  The 'elite' agent they bring in from Paris goes to pieces when she comes face to face with Bluebeard (there are reasons for this, but still: elite agent), and ends up as his latest victim.

But eventually of course things are going to catch up with Bluebeard and he is ultimately confronted by his latest lady love: the only woman he has never wanted to paint.  He confesses his murders to her, and gives a long explanation that I suspect is supposed to make him a tragic and sympathetic figure.  Because you know, it's okay to murder women when you're only doing it because your first love broke your heart.

My eyes, they cannot stop rolling.

Carradine is certainly very good in this, but I do wish he'd been very good in a better movie.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)



Barring Freddy vs Jason, I've seen all the Friday the 13th films (including the attempted reboot from 2009).  It's an odd franchise: its iconic villain only arrives in the second film, adopts his trademark hockey mask in the third, and becomes a zombie in the sixth.  It's also a franchise which clearly charts the rise of the "slasher" genre - something it did a great deal to define - and the impact on the genre of the "moral panic" that subsequently set in.

Now, none of the films are really what you'd call "good movies", but some are definitely better than others.  Many horror fans point to Part IV as the best of the series, and I think if you want a movie that encapsulates what most people think of when they hear the term "slasher film" - lots of over-sexed teens getting naked and then gorily murdered - it's the place to go.

My favorite of the series, however - and the only one I own on DVD - is Part VII.  This film comes after the aforementioned "moral panic", and while it's not as bloodless or sexless as the immediately preceding film, it's relatively light on gory effects and even lighter on nudity.  Which may be while the typical (teenage, male) horror fan of the time tended to dismiss it as "Jason vs Carrie".

Carrie?  Oh yes indeed.  The people behind Part VII apparently decided that, since Jason had become undead in the previous film (finally giving an in-universe explanation for his astonishing toughness), they should give their final girl supernatural powers to compensate.

I'm really not spoiling anything by revealing which character is "the final girl", as the movie makes it transparently obvious from about five minutes in.  I will give the script this, though: while much of the cast is clearly there to be killed off, it does manage to create some uncertainty over the likely fate of the other significant characters.

Eventually though of course, the movie is going to come down to "Jason vs Carrie" (actually, her name is Tina), and for my money, this is where Part VII stands out from the rest of the series.  Tina's powers allow for a much more dynamic confrontation than is usual for this sort of film (which can usually be summed up as "final girl runs and hides until she is able to lure the killer into an impromptu trap of some kind").  The film has other merits as well: a likable lead character, a good soundtrack, and some fine make-up work.

I give Friday the 13th Part VII a qualified recommendation because I think that if you have any interest in horror movies - especially slashers - it is worth your time.  If horror movies aren't your thing though, it is not going to change your mind.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994)



This film begins with humanity working on two separate plans to counter Godzilla.  The first is Project "M", and boils down to the 97th iteration of "build a giant robot to fight him".

Specifically, a giant robotic Penguin.  Godzilla will never expect that.

The other plan is to tag Big G with a telepathic receiver and then use a psychic (the 90s Godzilla films sure do love their psychics) to control him.  The psychic in question is not all that comfortable with the plan, though.  She can sense that Godzilla has feelings "just like" humans.

Both plans are about to be rendered moot - though it will take the human characters a long, long time to admit that - by the arrival of a new, alien monster.  You see, in previous films, some of Godzilla's cells ended up space.  There, a scientist character explains to us, they were drawn into a black hole, expelled from a while hole, exposed to intense cosmic radiation, and then fused with a crystalline life-form to form SpaceGodzilla.

Godzilla Movie Scientists: they can come up with flights of fancy like the black hole white hole cosmic radiation crystals malarkey above, but they suck at naming things.

Anyway, SpaceGodzilla looks like a toothier, tuskier version of Big G with massive crystals growing out of his back.  He's got all of his earthly counterpart's powers (although his energy blast looks different), and in addition can fly and has a tractor beam.  How can such a beast possibly be stopped?

Obviously the answer is "By Godzilla and the Giant Penguin Robot working together", but the movie takes quite a while to get to that point.  To be fair, that's because it is working to show that the team-up is necessary.  We have to have the scene where SpaceGodzilla defeats Big G, and the scene where it defeats the giant robot, before we can have the scene where the humans (reluctantly) use the robot to help Godzilla.

The battle and destruction sequences of this film are obviously the selling point, and if you're a kaiju fan you'll probably like it.  The script is a bit unevenly paced though, and it is sorely lacking in human characters who aren't thoroughly irritating.  Check it out only if "guys in monster suits" movies are your thing.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Flesh Gordon (1974)



Obviously this is a parody of Flash Gordon.  Specifically a sex parody, which was apparently a bit of a thing in the mid-70s.  Ironically in this case the parody predates the official big screen adaptation, being based instead on the old black & white serials starring Buster Crabbe.

Now, I am not one of those people who makes sniffy comments about "Political correctness".  In fact, I tend to interpret such sniffiness to mean "I wish it was still okay to be prejudiced".  If you've read more than a few reviews on this blog, you've probably come across me complaining about sexism or racism at some point, whether it be the skeeviness of Revenge of the Nerds or the bigotry bingo of 300.

I bring this up because Flesh Gordon is what you might call a problematic movie in a lot of ways.  Its main female character exists purely to (1) get rescued, (2) get naked, or (3) get rescued while naked.  Its humour is deeply low-brow, invariably being silly, smutty or scatological in nature (and usually 2 of the 3).  It's the kind of film where the villain is "Wang the Perverted, Emperor of the Planet Porno" and the hero has a penis-shaped rocket ship.

On the other hand, it's also a film which bombards you with so many terrible puns, sight gags, non sequiturs and other goofiness that it's almost certainly going to surprise a laugh out of you at some point (many laughs, in my case).  And it's a film where (one uncomfortable scene with the amazons aside), even the cheapest laughs don't feel mean-spirited.  It may be a film packed with nudity and knob jokes, but it also has this unabashed energy that made me enjoy every minute.

You may watch this film and think it's puerile and stupid and sleazy - and frankly I would have a hard time disputing any of that - but I think there's a pretty good chance you'll find yourself enjoying it nonetheless.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Rise of the Shadow Warrior (2013)



This is one of those movies that I enjoyed, but which I think has a narrow enough spectrum of appeal that I can't really give it a recommendation.  So I'll begin with an important disclaimer.  If you're the kind of person who enjoys travelogue fantasy tales - you know, where a Mismatched Band of Adventurers roam from Ominously Named Landmark to Ominously Named Landmark in an attempt to Thwart An Ancient Evil - then you should upgrade this to a Qualified Recommendation at the very least.  It's got a decent script, a strong cast (especially for the low budget end of the cinematic spectrum), and solid special effects.  For someone who grew up in a time when ... well when drek like Sorceress was typical of a fantasy movie -


- this film (which has a couple of alternate titles, all of which seem to include the word Shadow) is pretty exciting.  It's not just much more competently made, it's also devoid of the tawdry titillation factor that tended to mar 80s fantasy, and you get the feeling the people who produced it really cared about the project.

This is not to say that it's a flawless film.  For one thing, the introduction of the three main characters are all a bit too similar in structure, which is particularly noticeable as they're done back to back.  For a second, part of the reason that an air of enthusiasm comes through in the film is the scenes that probably should have been cut, but that you get the sense the producers just couldn't bear to let go.  Then there are the moments where the script's clearing aiming to re-create certain iconic scenes of fantasy literature.  Finally, I have issues with the way it tends to undercut the main female character: it seems like every time she gets a moment to shine, the script pulls the rug out from under her.

On the whole though, I found more to like than to dislike.  The decision to make the heroes an elf, human and orc is a nice change from the staple fantasy trio of elf, human and dwarf (in fact, the only dwarf in the film is an irascible villain), and the actors playing them give them each a distinctive presence on screen.  While the prospective audience for a film like this is I think generally pretty narrow*, if you are  in that audience, you should check it out.


* unlike say the same company's Mythica: A Quest for Heroes, which I reviewed about a month ago: that's much more focused on developing the characters than this was, which I think broadens its appeal.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)



This silent film is the first feature-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novella (though it might perhaps be more accurate to say it is an adaptation of the 1887 stage production of the book).  It stars early screen icon John Barrymore - grandfather of Drew - and his performance is definitely the main reason to check it out.  He's fastidiously prim and proper in his early scenes as Jekyll, and gleefully repellent as Hyde.

There's also some good make-up work, as you might expect from such a production, and a quite nice sequence where a nightmarish spider-beast crawls over the sleeping Jekyll.  So it's not a film without some evocative moments.

Unfortunately, it's also a film with some pretty big flaws.  The first is the clumsiness of the narrative structure.  As you might expect of a silent film, a lot of the plot's forward movement is accomplished via use of text cards.  Which is fine in and of itself, but here they are poorly spaced and paced, sometimes coming in a hurried flurry that gallops things forward, and makes for a very disjointed feel.

Now admittedly this is an early film.  It's the oldest I've reviewed and clocks in at a mighty 95 years of age - to give some context, the release date of this film is 40 years closer to the American Civil War than it is to today - so it's perhaps not surprising that the narrative structure isn't too refined.  On the other hand, there's little excuse for the awfulness of the soundtrack, which burbles jauntily along regardless of the tone of the actual scene.  Dinner party?  Jaunty.  Hyde beats a child?  Jaunty.  A woman is told her father has been murdered?  Jaunty, jaunty, jaunty.

The third weakness of the film is Jekyll himself.  He's a supposedly good man, but apparently one of such weak convictions that he is swayed by the argument "You can only overcome temptation by indulging it".  Which is ... well, it's clearly nonsense.  Anyway, he wants to sample forbidden pleasures but fears for his soul, and so seeks a way to create an alter-ego for himself; one who will bear the sin of all the wicked things he does.  Which frankly, makes him a pretty terrible person.

(In the original novella by the by, Jekyll is a bad man with sordid vices - he creates Hyde as a way to indulge those vices without being found out and losing his standing in society.  So he's a terrible person, but at least we're not supposed to feel sorry for him.)

Plot-wise, you probably know the drill: Hyde proves stronger than his creator and begins to take over, threatening the discovery that the scoundrel has been Jekyll all along.  The film throws Jekyll a love interest that Hyde can menace, too.

I'm glad I've seen this, because it is an interesting piece of cinematic history (and Barrymore really is very good in the lead role), but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't as bit a film history wonk as I am.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)



When I was 9, I saw a preview of an upcoming SF movie that looked like the Most Awesomely Epic Thing of Awesome Epicness.  There was this train that was a sailing ship! And these awesome black motorbike things! And pew pew pew!  ALL the pews!

And of course in the manner of all 1983 SF films that were not Return of the Jedi, it vanished in the blink of an eye at the cinema, and despite renting a lot of dodgy 80s SF films in the hope of finding it, I never got to see it.

Until now.

I didn't realise what film this was when I bought it - it was more or less an impulse buy on the back of "Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald are in this?  Really?".  No, the presence of Krull in the pack was not a factor - I already have that on DVD.

Anyway, when I got to the rail ship scene and realised that my thirty year quest was over, I geeked out just a little.  And frankly, even though I wouldn't actually recommend the film to anyone but an trashy cinema tragic like myself, I definitely don't regret buying it.

The film begins with a space-going cruise ship being destroyed.  One escape pod successfully jettisons, and the three - attractive, female - occupants crash land on a rocky, arid planet where they are soon accosted by less than friendly natives.

Shortly thereafter, space rat Wolf - a cut rate Han Solo-light if ever there was one - intercepts a transmission offering a massive reward for rescuing the women.  "That's a lot of money.  Too much for just a lifeboat" he notes, in a plot point the movie promptly forgets about.

Arriving on the planet, Wolf (who is played by Strauss, of course) soon finds himself embroiled in a battle with the black-clad thugs who follow planetary warlord 'Overdog'.  Overdog's minions use their nifty jet-propelled hang gliders to capture the three women and so Wolf must pursue them over miles of hostile terrain.  Fortunately (perhaps) he soon picks up a guide to help him: the feisty-but-not-as-tough-as-she-pretends-to-be Niki (Ringwald).

Allow me to take a moment to be thankful that the movie appears to be pitching for a father-daughter relationship between Strauss and Molly Ringwald, rather than a romantic one, what with Ms Ringwald being 15 at the time.

The film has a very episodic structure.  Wolf and Niki bumble their way from set piece to set piece as they head toward their eventual showdown with Overdog, with the vast majority of their escapades being resolved in a few minutes and then never mentioned again.  It's quite reminiscent of the old Flash Gordon serials and similar fare, and I suspect that is far from unintentional.

I found this an eminently entertainingly bit of goofiness, but like I said: it's really for trash aficionados only.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla 2 (1993)



The title above is the one used for this film in the US.  It's problematic on two fronts.  First, because this is the third Mechagodzilla movie.  Second and more importantly, because the "2" implies that this is a sequel in some way, which it most definitely is not.

The original Japanese title omits that "2", which solves the above issues but creates some confusion since it leaves the film with exactly the same title as the 1974 film, and this is no more a remake of that film than it is a sequel.

With a less-than-friendly Godzilla still on the loose, the UN has established a 'Godzilla Countermeasures Centre', also known as 'G-Force'.  Anyone who grew up with Battle of the Planets is probably giggling about now.

G-Force's first attempt to combat Godzilla was a fast-moving, airborne unit named Garuda, but this lacked the firepower to get the job done, so instead they began construction of a massive war robot: Mechagodzilla.

So whereas in the original Mechagodzilla movies the robotic version of Big G was an alien plot to conquer the planet, it's now humanity's principal means of defence.  Like I said: definitely neither a sequel nor a re-make.  In any case, Mechagodzilla is based on 23rd century technology recovered from the time travellers in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah.  This is one of two references in this film to the earlier movie.  So I guess something decent eventually came out of that turkey: you see, this is a pretty fun film.

Absolutely crazy.  But pretty fun.

The film starts with the discovery of two prehistoric eggs of unusual size.  One has hatched, and will be revealed to have birthed Rodan, a pteranodon-kaiju, while the second is still intact.  Expecting that it is another mutant pteranodon, the human researchers take the second egg away, though not before witnessing a battle between Rodan in Big G that apparently ends in the former's death.

Once the humans have the egg back in Japan, they uncover a psychic emanation from some plant samples they found at the same site.  With the help of some telepathic children, they convert the psychic signal into a song, which causes the egg to hatch.

Yes, you read that right.  Trust me, this is halfway up the film's Insanometer.

Of course, as you may have guessed, what comes out of the egg is not a baby pteranodon, and the new arrival is both an opportunity and a danger to the humans who hold it.

After that?  Well, I'm not going to spoil the heights of crazy this movie intends to scale.  I think they're a part of its charm and should be discovered through personal experience.

This is a fun kaiju film with with lots of well-staged action scenes to break up the various bits of exposition.  If guys-in-rubber-suits movies are something you enjoy, check it out.



Saturday, 18 April 2015

500 Reviews

502 reviews, actually, at this point - the 500th was (perhaps a little sadly) King of the Zombies.

I'm not taking a break from posting or anything, but I did want to mark the achievement of this latest threshold.  So I ordered Frozen on DVD as a way of celebrating :)


Friday, 17 April 2015

Gymkata (1985)



Kurt Thomas won six medals - including two golds - at the 1979 World Gymnastics Championships, but was denied a chance for Olympic glory by the United States' boycott of the Moscow games in 1980.

I'm not sure if this film was developed as a vehicle for Thomas, or if the idea of a gymnast turned secret agent came first, and the casting came later.  But either way, it gave us what is effectively The Most Dangerous Game as a martial arts flick, with the gimmick that the martial arts hero bases his combat technique on his gymnastic training.

Gymkata's tagline is "The skill of Gymnastics.  The kill of Karate.", and for the first twenty minutes of the film it almost lives up to the wonderfully awful promise that conveys.  That part of the film covers three things:

  • the recruitment of his character, John Cabot ("Go to MadeUpistan and participate in a wacky blood sport for Uncle Sam!");
  • the training of Cabot (walking on your hands while you go up a flight of stairs is impressive, but I'm not sure how much call there is for that particular skill in the secret agent business, film-maker peeps);
  • the romance of Cabot (impressively perfunctory in that his love interest doesn't even get a line of dialogue before they're making out)
Unfortunately there comes a time when Cabot must actually go on his mission, and it is here that the movie falls apart.  I can sum up the rest of the film in three words: Cabot gets chased.

Cabot gets chased through towns.  Cabot gets chased through swamps.  Cabot gets chased through forests and villages.  Cabot gets chased alone.  Cabot gets chased with a friend.  Cabot gets chased on enemies on foot, on horseback, and in cars.  Cabot gets chased.

Now it is true that every now and again - generally when he finds some item of set decoration that looks suspiciously like parallel bars, a pommel horse, or other gymnastics equipment - Cabot will stop and fight.  And the fights ... well, the choreography is kind of obvious; they look too stilted and deliberate and they're often gimmicky for the sake of it ... but at least that choreography is something a little out of the ordinary.

Alas though, the interesting elements of the fight scenes and the goofiness of the opening act cannot make up for the tedium that is "Cabot gets chased".

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005)



The first Dungeons & Dragons movie was so catastrophically inept that the sort-of sequel could be a comparative triumph simply by being merely "not very good".  Which is exactly what it achieved.

We begin with a long and rather purple voice-over from Damodar, who is what passes for the antagonist of the piece.  We learn that he's searching for a magic doohickey that will Grant Him Great Power and also Relieve Him of the Terrible Curse of Undeath (you can hear the capital letters in the dialogue, trust me).  This is all fairly tedious and frankly we're going to have it expositioned at us a half-dozen times over the next eighty minutes so I wish they'd skipped it and done some radical like, oh, starting us with the protagonist.

Said protagonist is Sir Berek, a former knight and heroic adventurer, now retired.  Though high in the King's favour and blessed with a loving marriage to a beautiful woman, Berek's a bit glum about having to hang up his hero-ing boots.  If you suspect that the movie's about to give him a change to get back in the adventuring saddle, then have a gold star.

Berek and his wife become aware that Damodar has stolen a magical orb that sealed the prison of the terrible Dragon God Falazure.  Within a few days, Falazure will awaken and Bad Things will ensue.  Learning this comes at a cost, though, as Damodar magically afflicts Berek's wife with a curse that will slowly transform him into the same sort of undead creature he used to be.

It's thus up to Berek to assemble a motley crew of adventurers and uncover his own magic widget so that he can locate Damodar, recover the orb, and save both the kingdom and his wife.

There's nothing all that terrible, nor all that exciting, about the synopsis I just gave you, and "not all that terrible, nor all that exciting" is probably a good summation of the film, really.  It delivers a pretty standard fantasy adventure tale with pretty standard low budget effects and acting.  It does pepper things with various D&D-isms, so if you're a gaming geek like me there are a few amusing moments in seeing recognisable spells and magic items from the game being employed on-screen, but for the average viewer they'll sail by unnoticed.

At the end of the day I can't really recommend this unless you're a D&D tragic like me.  There are better fantasy films, and there are fantasy films that aren't better but are at least more ambitious (hello there, Krull).  If you really need a fantasy fix, I suggest you watch one of those, instead.  Or just fire up Game of Thrones like everyone else seems to be.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

King of the Zombies (1941)



This horror-comedy is undermined by two major flaws.

The first is that most of the quote comedy unquote is based around how cowardly, gullible or foolish the main African American character is.  While actor Mantan Moreland is clearly in on the joke - he made a career of such roles in the 30s and 40s - it's frankly not a very funny joke.  Not even his considerable on-screen charisma can prevent it from being cringe-inducing.

The second flaw is that the writer seems to think that being a comedy means you can just handwave plot points.  No, Mr Edmond Kelso, it does not.

We begin on an aircraft, somewhere in the Caribbean.  Low on fuel and unable to find their destination, the crew homes in on a strange radio transmission in a foreign language.  This allows them to crash-land on an island.  There they find a Doctor Sangre and his household.  Sangre claims to be an Austrian national who fled the country after his homeland was absorbed by Nazi Germany.

Nobody bothers to ask Sangre why an Austrian like himself would have a Spanish surname, but that's not one of the handwaved plot points I've mentioned.

Anyway, Sangre is of course an evil foreign spy, and in fact has a US Admiral tucked away in his cellar.  Which, given that this film predates US entry into World War 2 by seven months, goes to show that Hollywood could see which way the wind was blowing.

Unable to torture information out of the Admiral, Sangre does the only sensible thing and turns to hypnosis: he mesmerises an army of zombies and also attempts some sort of mind transference malarkey to learn what he wishes to know.  The hands, they begin waving.

Naturally the newcomers throw a crimp in the Doctor's plans.  He attempts to resolve this by hypnotising them into zombies, one by one, but in the second case his efforts don't work.  Why not?  Wavy hands!  Why doesn't the presumably experienced mesmerist notice his failure?  Wavy hands!  Why in the climactic battle can his hypnotised horde be overcome with what amounts to "Hey bro, we're bros, don't be murdering me"?  WAVY HANDS!

Skip.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Phenomena (1985)



This film should definitely not be confused with Phenomenon, which came out a decade later and appears to be come kind of dreadful, maudlin romance flick (I have no objection to romances in general, just maudlin ones).  This movie on the other hand, is Dario Argento at his most Argento.

The film begins with a young woman missing her bus.  The road seems pretty deserted, so she sets off in search of help, and is shortly thereafter decapitated.  It's an Argento film, after all.

Some months later, another young woman arrives at an academy in Switzerland while the police are speaking with an entomologist about a series of murders.  He's able to help identify how old a body is by the types of insects found upon it.  The new young woman, meanwhile, also expresses a great fondness for insects during the drive to her new school.

As it happens, all this bug-lovin' is plot-related.  It's also utterly, totally appropriate for the film as a whole, because this movie is certifiably bug nuts.

That nuttiness is by far the most compelling part of the film, but it also makes it hard to review because - even though I'm not actually recommending you see it, for reasons I will get to shortly - if you do see it, you really ought to have the benefit of going in unspoiled, so that you can get the full impact of the narrative insanity that unfolds.

Which just leaves us with the reasons you shouldn't see it.  They basically come down to the pacing - there's a reason the original US release of the film, in which it was retitled Creepers, had over 25 minutes of cuts - and a certain sense that at least some of the film's crazy arises from Argento (who wrote as well as directed) simply not bothering to try and come up with something more sensible or plausible.  There's a faint whiff of laziness to the lunacy.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)



While the post-reboot Godzilla franchise moved pretty quickly from "Gozilla vs humans" to kaiji on kaiju action, it didn't anthropomorphise Big G in the way the films of the 60s and 70s had done; nor did it move him into an unequivocally heroic, "protector of the planet" kind of role.  He remained aggressive and temperamental.  Which is how I like my giant radioactive dinosaurs.

I do wish, however, that he was being aggressive and temperamental in a better movie than this one.

Like the previous entry in the franchise, this film brings back a classic Godzilla foe.  We last saw Mothra back when Big G was still a bad guy, when the caterpillar/butterfly kaiju defended humanity.  She hasn't changed her spots in this film, standing as a protector of the Earth, but things will be complicated by the intervention of Battara, a "black Mothra" that, while also a protector of the planet, has a rather more dim view of humanity's effect on the globe.

And this is the film fails for me: far too much screen time is devoted to the tediously unfunny "comedy" that is the search for Mothra's egg, and then to the backstory of Mothra and Battra's eons-old struggle.  Godzilla ends up feeling like an extra in his own franchise, turning up first to inadvertently distract Battra from killing Mothra, and then again later to induce the two flying kaiju to put aside their differences in order to end his rampage.

The film does have some strong elements.  Battra's two designs (larval and adult) are both pretty cool - much cooler than Mothra's, in fact - and the various scenes of cities being devastated and monster vs human battling are well done (the monster on monster action is ... less impressive).

Ultimately though, unless you're a kaiju tragic, you can skip this one.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)



The TL;DR summary: if you like zombie movies, you should see Wyrmwood.  It's well acted and edited, tightly shot, and a lot of fun.

Want more details?  Read on.

A little over two years ago I backed this movie on Indiegogo.  And then I more or less forgot about it until my backer reward - a digital copy of the film - turned up about a week ago.

So Wyrmwood kicks off in media res, and then leaps back to recount the tale of how our protagonists have so far survived the zombie apocalypse.  This is an effective tool for getting some action on screen straight away and also for having the Mad Max-esque outfits make an early appearance.  Good call.

The scenario here appears to be a fairly standard zombie outbreak scenario, and the film focuses mostly on the immediate practicalities of that situation - survival, in other words - rather than detailed backstory about why it happened or tortured musings on what it means for the future of the world.  There's definitely more than a suggestion of some kind of larger story behind it all, but the film-makers wisely choose not to sacrifice momentum to exposition.  I wish that more zombie movies took this route (it is surprising more don't actually, given that the granddaddy of them all, Night of the Living Dead, eschewed any detailed explanations).  Instead we get plenty of action, a smattering of comedy, and the odd moment of pathos amidst all the brain-spattering zombie action.

As noted above, this a well made, fun movie.  The cast is great, the effects solid, and the story hangs together well (it's sometimes a bit goofy for the sake of it, but I can live with that when the plot holds up, which it does).  The action sequences are also solidly constructed, which I think is vital in a film of this nature.

The film isn't flawless of course.  I think the climactic confrontation is a little overlong and involves an antagonist I didn't care that much about, for intance.  Plus there's one serious case of Chekov's gun going unfired, which - given the "gun" in question - made me very sad.  But there's definitely a lot to like here if you are a fan of the genre, and I look forward to seeing more from the talented team behind it.


Post-Script: This film presented me with a problem, since I own a copy and I really wanted to review it but it's a digital download, not a DVD, which is kind of at odds with the name of this blog.  With the growing popularity of legal digital media this is going to become a bigger issue over time, so I decided I'm going to post this as a "bonus" weekend review.  In future though (unless there is a massive outcry from the three of you reading this) I'll just post digital reviews in my normal Monday-Friday schedule.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Murder Weapon (1989)



It takes real talent to make a movie about topless women this boring.

Now it's probably not actually supposed to be about topless women.  There are lots of murders for instance, and several scenes of the two women getting psychological counselling at some kind of "hospital".  I put that last word in quotes because those scenes mention the location in the dialogue, but have no actual sets: just a white or black backdrop and a desk between the two actors - which is another word that should probably have quotes around it.  But what any of these scenes are for or mean or indeed why people are being killed is never coherently explained.  Nor is why we should care.

I mean, sure, people being real-life murdered is something we should care about, but this is a movie not real life and you have to work a little to get the audience to give a hoot.  Especially when the victims are a bunch of douchey dudebros like these guys.

The script is a mess of flashbacks and dream sequences, to the point where it makes Highlander look well-structured, so I'm not going to attempt any kind of detailed synopsis, but a brief precis goes like this: two sisters are released from a psychiatric institution of some kind.  Why were they in the institution?  Possibly as a result of the murder in the opening ten minutes.  But who knows for sure.  This movie is not big on explaining things.  Things like why the sisters decide to celebrate their release by inviting all their ex-boyfriends over for a party.  No-one else, you understand.  Just their respective exes.  I'm sure that won't be uncomfortable at all.  Fortunately the discomfort will be temporary as someone starts murdering them.  Why - or in some cases, even how - is again not something the script concerns itself with.

This is a dreadful film.  And in this particular case not only it is dreadful but it appears to be a really lousy transfer from some other form of media: there's what looks like tracking problems with the image at one point, and then a five or ten second section of the film where there's just a blue screen and the text "SIDE A --> SIDE B".

Awful.  Oh three movie pack, at least we'll always have Nightmare Sisters.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)



Some versions of this film - and even the end credits of this one - substitute the word 'Head' for 'Brain' in the title.  Which is actually more accurate to the events of the movie, but somehow slightly less macabre-sounding.

Filmed in 1959, but not released for three years - that sort of delay is rarely a good sign - this is the tale of Doctor Bill Cortner, a brilliant but not exactly ethical surgeon who is experimenting with sophisticated techniques.  His ultimate goal is to allow the wholesale transplant of major limbs and organs.

Cortner's about to need all of his research, because his reckless driving leads to a terrible car accident.  He is thrown clear, unhurt, but his fiancee Jan is decapitated.  Through the magic of movie science, he is somehow able to carry her severed head to his destination and use a 'special formula' to preserve her life.

Jan's first words on recovering consciousness - presumably Cortner also made her artificial lungs or something so she could speak, though the movie doesn't say of course - are "Let me die."  This is hardly a positive sign, one might think, but the not-so-good Doctor has no intention of honouring the request.  Instead, he plans to find a new body for her and transplant her head onto it.  He's not too bothered about whether some other head is currently attached to that body, either.

So the bulk of the movie is given over to Cortner's search for a new body, which - entirely coincidentally, of course - requires the film to feature lots of attractive young women in skimpy outfits, as he canvasses burlesque shows, swimsuit competitions, and finally a figure model.  This is the principal protagonist of the film, mind you (clearly it would be inappropriate to call him the hero).

Of course, Jan's attitude toward the whole situation hasn't changed one iota, and while it may seem that there's not much she can do as a disembodied head, her strange circumstances may in fact have provided her with an unexpected power of her own ...

This is a cheap and rather insipidly sleazy bit of movie-making whose most sympathetic character is the figure model we meet near the end.  There's not much point in wasting your time with it.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Dragonslayer (1981)



This is a movie of many flaws, but as a kid I didn't give two hoots because it already had an awesome freakin' dragon.

How do I feel as an adult?  Well, to be honest, this is one of the few times when I think kid me might have been on to something.

Because look, Dragonslayer might have a very slow opening act, and comedy bits that aren't really all that funny, and a female lead who has to carry all the idiot balls, and a male lead who's not very likeable when you get down to it, but it also has Vermithrax Pejorative.  She could teach Peter Jackson's Smaug a thing or two, let me tell you.

There are other reasons to like the film than just the dragon (the awesome dragon).  I quite like the adversarial humans in the movie, for instance.  Sure they're callous and venal, but they're callous and venal in very believable ways.  You can see why they act as they do, beyond just "because they are the bad guys".  And there are some interesting things going on with the other secondary characters, too.  But really, it's all about Vermithrax.

The plot of the film is largely in the title, really: there's a dragon (an awesome dragon) and she needs to be slain.  She's not a terribly good neighbour you see, to the point where twice a year a female maiden (chosen by lottery) has to be sacrificed to appease her.  This is understandably not a popular situation among the people living nearby, and they thus appeal to the great sorcerer Ulrich for aid against the beast.

What they get instead, for various reasons, is his apprentice Galen (and yes, that is a very young Peter MacNicol of Ally McBeal and Numb3rs).  He's a bit full of himself, but his heart's more or less in the right place, so I'll try to forgive him that.

I'm not sure why there was a burst of ambitious live action fantasy films in the early 80s (this film, Krull, Clash of the Titans, even Flash Gordon, arguably).  It certainly wasn't their box office performance, I know that.  Whatever it was though, it made it a pretty good time to be a nerdy kid.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Killer Shrews (1959)



This movie was filmed back to back with the tiresome The Giant Gila Monster, which just goes to show that even incompetents can luck into making a decent film once in a while.  Or I guess - if you're feeling generous - that anyone can have a bad day.

Because despite its obvious cheapness - most notably in the action scenes where the 'giant killer shrews' are clearly dogs in stringy-looking costumes - this is actually a pretty well put together little movie.  If you're not the sort of person who enjoys a 'creature feature', it's not about to convert you to the oeuvre.  But if you are, it's a solid one.

Compared to some such flicks (Night of the Lepus, I am looking at you), this film even has the advantage of starting with an animal that - scaled way, way up - might come across as threatening.  I mean sure, real life shrews aren't very scary ... but they weigh at most 100 grams (3 ounces for you poor benighted Imperial measurement people), whereas these ones are the size of a Doberman.  Which would be scary enough in a creature that normally eats double its own weight in meat every day, but the movie also gives these guys a poisonous bite as an added bennie, because why not?

The plot is standard monster movie fare: genetic experiments in an isolated location lead to a group of people besieged together by the menace outside their doors, their tempers fraying as rivalries emerge and they try to survive.  It doesn't take long before we've already met the two-fisted hero, the woman he's going to fall for, his embittered rival and the mad scientist.  You could make a 'creature feature' bingo card for this flick and be a winner inside about ten minutes.

Low production values and derivative plot aside, what makes The Killer Shrews a watchable example of the genre is that the script gets things done with a minimum of fuss.  There's a plausible (even laudable) motive for mad scientist's experiments; a straight-forward explanation for why they can't simply flee or call in the authorities, and so on.  Even their final escape plan has a kind of pleasingly 'low-key' feel to it.

By no means a great film, but a solid one within its niche and worth checking out if you're a part of its market.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)



I think I have pretty reasonable expectations when it comes to kaiju films.  Give me monsters that don't look too goofy - preferably ones that actually look menacing, though that's what you might call a "stretch goal" - and a plot that (a) keeps moving at a decent pace and either (b) maintains some sense of verisimilitude within its own setting or (c) is bug nuts insane.

So I like Godzilla vs Hedorah, despite it being one of the most poorly received films in the series, because the monster (in it's final form at least) looks okay, and plot-wise it manages (a) and nails (c).

This film, alas, falls down hard on the plot-related requirements.  I'm also, to be honest, not a huge fan of King Ghidorah as a monster design.  I know he is something of an iconic bad guy for Big G, but he's never really done much for me.  I hear he may be in the next American Godzilla film, but they'll have twenty times the budget that Toho ever did, so maybe he'll actually look cool.

Where was I?  Oh yeah, the plot.  So basically a UFO appears above Japan.  It turns out to be a time machine from the 23rd century.  The crew have come back to 1992 to warn the Japanese government of an impending disaster - caused by Godzilla - that will render the islands uninhabitable.

Naturally, your "con job" senses should be tingling right about now.  The actual truth is that Japan is the only super-power of their time, due to its economic strength.  It owns the whole of South America and Africa, for instance.  These travellers are here to try and prevent that single power situation from eventuating, and keep all nations more or less equal.  Sounds like a laudable enough goal, if only they didn't plan to do it by preventing Godzilla from ever being created and then using their own monster to flatten Japan.

Why do these time travellers bother to tell the 20th century folks all this stuff, rather than just doing it?  I have no idea.  I also have no idea why they actually invite witnesses along, who of course promptly notice that something dodgy is going on and alert the authorities to the double-cross.

So of course now they have to get Godzilla back - which proves easy enough since not even being erased from the time stream can keep Big G down for long - so he can stop King Ghidorah.  And then they need some way to stop Godzilla.  All of which is going to take far, far longer than your patience is likely to last.

I haven't even mentioned the offensively awful WW2 sequence of the film, or the blatant Terminator 2 rip offs yet, but I think I've made it clear: avoid this film.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Nightmare Sisters (1988)



This is pretty much Revenge of the Nerds meets The Exorcist, except the protagonists are less jerky than those in Nerds.  Which from me is actually kind of a recommendation; hence the qualified one this movie is getting.  What we have here is an unashamedly trashy horror-comedy that manages to accomplish its core goal - to get three attractive women naked as often as possible - while maintaining a light-hearted air throughout.

It's far from perfect, of course.  It opens with a scene involving a fortune teller who is either an insulting caricature of an Indian swami, or supposed to be a charlatan doing an insulting caricature of an Indian swami.  I'm hopeful it's the latter, but if it was then I would expect us to see him 'break character' at some point, and he doesn't.

In any case, the fortune teller is not long for this world, as he accidentally contacts a demon.  His crystal ball subsequently ends up in the hands of a geeky female college student who collects all kind of random bric-a-brac.

The student and her two equally uncool friends plan a party and invite three nerdy boys to join them.  Inevitably, the party leads to a mock seance using the crystal ball, and the women end up possessed by the demon from the opening scene.  Oh, and hot and topless, of course.

The boys are unsurprisingly pretty thrilled by the over-sexed babes their dates have suddenly become, but they also realise that something is wrong and that (a) giving in to their baser instincts would be unsafe, and (b) they need to find some way to save the girls.  Shenanigans ensue, especially when the guys' jerky frat brothers turn up to spoil the party.

The plot of the film is wafer thin, of course, and some of the jokes are not as funny as they were meant to be, but it's easy enough to overlook these shortcomings in what proves to be a genially silly little skin-flick where the cast genuinely seem to be having fun.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)



This film should probably be titled The Fall of the Producer.  It was made by Samuel Bronston Productions (the company behind other "epics" such as El Cid), and its financial failure sent the company into bankruptcy and led to Samuel Bronston himself to be convicted of perjury.

Certainly, the title I suggest above would be more accurate than the one it bears.  As the movie itself admits in its first few minutes, the fall of the Roman Empire was a process, not an event.  The film covers the death of Marcus Aurelius and the reign of Commodus.  This is also the period covered by Ridley Scott's Gladiator.  The more recent film positions the death of Commodus as a new beginning for Rome, whereas this one identifies it as the beginning of the Empire's decline.  Obviously, these are very different theses, but the film's share several commonalities: they have similar plot points, for instance, and are similarly loose with the historical record.  They're also both rather too long: Fall of the Roman Empire beating out Gladiator's formidable 155 minutes by a full quarter hour.

The film begins in 180 AD, with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius campaigning against the Germanic tribes.  Aurelius summons his adopted son Livius and informs the younger man of his intention to name Livius his successor, rather than his actual son, Commodus.  This is because he wishes to reform the Empire, and believes that Livius is the best man for the job.  Gladiator has a similar conceit.  Historically speaking, there's no evidence that Aurelius intended anything but for Commodus to succeed him.  In fact, he would have had to quite explicitly nominate Commodus, as passing his rule to his actual (instead of adopted) son was a break from tradition.  Presumably both films do this so that when their main character goes up against Commodus, they do so as the "true" heir, rather than being rebels against the "lawful" Caesar.

Now it is certainly true that Commodus would go on to be an unpopular Emperor, though he ruled for 12 years - longer than either film suggests - and was assassinated rather than dying in individual gladiatorial combat with his challenger.  But I guess that doesn't make for such good drama.

However, a lack of historical accuracy would in itself not be enough for me to give this film a thumbs down.  Instead, it earns its 'not recommended' due to its squandering of an exceptional cast (seriously, look at the names on the DVD cover above) and its lethargic pace.  It is slow.  It takes over an hour for Marcus Aurelius to pop his clogs, for instance, and it is not until the last thirty minutes of the darn-near three hour movie that Livius finally mans up and opposes Commodus ... and even then he's not very good at it, ultimately winning only because his enemy has an idiot ball moment.  The film does try to justify the idiot ball, but you know what would be better than a justification?  No idiot ball.

Wasted potential.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Monster Maker (1944)



The villain of this film is kind of absurdly wicked.  In the course of the sixty minute run time, we will see him commit - or be told he has committed - the following crimes:
  • murdered a doctor and impersonated him
  • assorted acts of Creepy McStalker-ness
  • deliberately induced the disease acromegaly in his wife
  • deliberately induced the disease acromegaly in the father of a woman who looks like his now-deceased wife used to
  • attempted to blackmail said father into giving him riches and the hand of the daughter in marriage
  • attempted to blackmail the daughter into marrying him to save her father
  • attempted to murder his assistant by means of a gorilla (seriously, what is it with the gorillas, Poverty Row?  You're like the comic books with this stuff)

He's probably also kicked a puppy.  No such event is mentioned or shown on screen, but he seems the type.

You can probably piece together the plot from the above: wicked imposter guy (whose imposteriness is particularly egregious since it never actually seems to matter for the story) sees beautiful daughter, harasses her until her father tells him to back off, and then afflicts the father with the disease to get what he wants.  When his assistant protests, he tries to kill her.  Ultimately his plans are thwarted, he dies, and the film ends.

I was left feeling kind of creeped out by this movie, to be honest, and not in a good way. I think it is because the film spends more time with the villain than with any of the nominal heroes.  He comes across more like he's the film's protagonist than its antagonist, and that's ... well, you can see above why that's very icky.  I've seen other movies praise the "ugly edge" of the film, but I definitely don't share that sentiment.

A cheap and nasty little film.  Avoid.