Friday, 22 May 2015

WACKO

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND NO SURPRISES

It's inevitable that any successful formula will be [1] ripped off and [2] parodied, invariably without much in the way of glory. There have always been spoofs and the Wayans certainly didn't invent chortling horror knockabout with Scary Movie. Twenty years earlier we were getting lame comedy versions of the horror genre: Student Bodies, Saturday The 14th, and this attempt to do for campus slashers what Airplane! did for disaster movies. It doesn't work, unsurprisingly: it's not as good as the first Scary Movie or the first ten minutes of Scary Movie 2, but it's certainly down there in the slough of unfunniness of Scary Movie 3 onwards. It's not that there aren't any jokes - there certainly are, by the score, but hardly any of them raise anything more than a knowing smirk.

Wacko tries to replicate Airplane!'s trick of hiring proper actors to play everything straight-faced and seriously rather than getting comedians to mug and gurn: they've got Joe Don Baker, Stella Stevens and the mighty George Kennedy (who of course would later follow Leslie Nielsen into the Naked Gun series). On the thirteenth anniversary of the infamous Lawnmower Killings, the maniac escapes from the local mental hospital and looks set to start another rampage at the Halloween Pumpkin Prom at Alfred Hitchcock High School, Angry cop Joe Don Baker (who hasn't slept in thirteen years) is out to stop him; Stevens and Kennedy are the parents of the most likely target, the sister of one of the victims thirteen years ago....

It's really not very good: I know I don't have much of a sense of humour but even so I was surprised how much I didn't laugh. It's not that I didn't see and understand the jokes, I just didn't find them funny enough. There are meaningless nods to The Exorcist, Psycho and The Omen, which are more like acknowledgements of those films' existence than actual gags, frequent use of the Alfred Hitchcock TV theme music (Funeral March Of A Marionette), Andrew Dice Clay basically playing The Fonz, middle-aged Kennedy perving over his nubile daughter. and a plot that doesn't actually make any sense though it probably doesn't matter. It's not actively offensive in terms of bad taste, but that's literally all it's got going for it.

*

Sunday, 17 May 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

Coming out of this film, there was only one word that immediately summed up my primary reaction. It's not a word I use very often about films, but the entirety of the English lexicon has no other conjunction of two syllables that fully do justice to what I'd watched. Mad Max: Fury Road is awesome. Literally awesome. Not metaphorically awesome, not awesome in a "cool!" or "wicked!" sense, but genuinely awesome, genuinely inspiring a feeling of awe. Two hours of full-on, copper-bottomed, all-stops-out, balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, death-or-glory, brain-annihilating superawesomeness that redefines and reinvents the very idea of action cinema. This isn't just what cinema was invented for, it's what your eyes were invented for.

It's unclear where Fury Road falls in the timeline of the previous three films: it's all set in the future anyway so it could well take place two days after Beyond Thunderdome. Max Rockatansky (now played by Tom Hardy) is still wandering the wastelands of the Australian deserts seeking redemption and a vestige of humanity: he's captured by the whooping War Boys and taken to the Citadel to be used as a blood bank to keep the soldiers going. Meanwhile, close-cropped one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals a War Rig - an enormous tanker full of precious gasoline to head for her childhood home, "The Green Place", where there might be a better future. But she's also taken the wives of the Citadel's tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and he wants them back...

That's pretty much it for plot. Mad Max: Fury Road runs for two hours and if you took out the fights, chases and action sequences you would have maybe twenty minutes left. Such a high ratio of action to talk would normally be unthinkable, but George Miller is clearly not interested in following any established formula. And that ratio would be intolerable if the ninety-plus minutes of action were not of the highest calibre - but they are. They're clear, distinct, and show the whole picture rather than jagged close-ups from shaking cameras, yet at the same time they're right in the thick of the action and not standing back observing from a distance. Brilliantly structured and put together, Fury Road's chases are monumental set-pieces of mayhem and crashes and explosions that go on for reels at a time without a pause for breath or reflection, yet Miller makes sure at all times that we know exactly where each vehicle is and who's in it. (Props also for doing most of it with actual real vehicles smashing into each other and not relying on CGI except as a cleanup tool.) A director like Michael Bay would have micro-edited these sequences into an incoherent frenzy of near-subliminal nonsense. Or think back to the pre-credits chase of Quantum Of Solace where the action is cut together so fast that's impossible on first viewing to even tell which car James Bond is driving!

If that's not enough....the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Miller and DP John Seale have rendered everything in scorchingly bright colours, transforming the endless desert (actually Namibia) into a surreal, storm-strewn alien hellscape. Junkie XL's music score isn't up there with the originals' scores by Brian (Not That One) May or even Maurice Jarre, but competes with all the engines and clanging metal through sheer volume and wins through by actually being more musically interesting than expected. Design is fantastic, whether the wild costumes or the heavily customised vehicles such as a family saloon converted to run on caterpillar tracks (one of the cars definitely recalls the spiky VW from The Cars That Ate Paris). Some have whined pathetically about how Max almost seems reduced to a supporting character in his own movie, as the focus is at most split equally between Max and badass kickass Furiosa and they don't want to see Man playing second banana to mere Woman, but they're Cro-Magnon peabrains.

But at the heart of Mad Mad: Fury Road is a vision of a future world gone absolutely insane where mankind has devolved beyond barbarism to screaming, howling madness, and that world is brilliantly realised. If cinema is a drug then this is a pure unfiltered straight into the brain: a magnificent, delirious blast of screaming and explosions that just keeps going. I want to see it again. I need to see it again. It is awesome.

*****

Thursday, 23 April 2015

FAST & FURIOUS 7

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE GEARBOX

Straight-up confession: I like the Fast And Furious movies. Granted it took a couple of episodes to find its formula of idiotically fast cars smashing into things and cartoonish blokes lamping one another with spanners while hot bikini chicks whoop from the sidelines, but once the franchise mutated from colourful but empty car chase exploitation to a fusion of Ocean's Eleven, Mission: Impossible and Top Gear, it just got bigger, better, noisier, sillier and crazier. And this latest episode is more of the same: much, much more. Perhaps to the extent that they nudge the plausibility barrier a couple of times, even given the parameters of the Looney Tunes world they inhabit (Vin Diesel walks away unscratched from not one, not two, but three brutal crashes that would have left The Terminator in pieces), but for the sheer amount of screeching tyre mayhem and full-on asskicking it's probably the best dose of adrenalin and testosterone you've seen since the last one, and you won't see better until the next one.

Fast & Furious 7 kicks off with the mystery villain from FF6's post-credits sting with top British assassin Shaw (Jason Statham) looking to exact revenge for his brother. First off was Han (Sung Kang), whose Tokyo death scene actually occurred halfway through the third film despite him being in the next three. Then a bomb nearly takes out the core threesome - Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster - but it's only when shadowy government man Kurt Russell turns up and promises them access to a revolutionary new hacking system called God's Eye that they get a chance at taking the fight to Shaw....In order to obtain God's Eye they first have to rescue the genius computer hacker who designed it - from an armoured bus travelling through impregnable and inaccessible mountain roads in the Caucasus Mountains. Then they have to retrieve the hard drive from a Saudi billionaire in a skyscraper penthouse, and it's only at that point that they can use the system to track down Shaw. But it doesn't work out, and Shaw manages to get the device for himself....

That's when the movie makes its big misstep, as Diesel decides to lure Shaw to a final showdown on the streets of Los Angeles, one of the most populous cities on Earth. Surely it would have been more sensible, and no less cinematically exciting, to head out of town into the deserts where the roads go on for miles without a civilian population of collateral casualties in waiting? I know exploding buildings and hair's breadth car stunts look great on screen, and the film's final half hour of cars and helicopters and missiles and grenades and huge guns and facepunching mayhem is brilliantly realised, but it just makes no sense to put thousands of average "real people" at such a pointless risk, especially when you remember how desperate the team were to avoid civilian carnage during the previous film's tank chase.

For most of the time it's a fun, noisy, blisteringly destructive blast and the car action is suitably demented. It's nice to see that Paul Walker, who tragically died halfway through production, is paid appropriate and sincere tribute at the end, in a sign off which lets the series continue naturally without the character (and as this instalment has taken a billion dollars already there's no sane reason why they wouldn't do another two at the very least). Frankly, bring it on: Fast & Furious 7 was one of my most eagerly awaited cinema trips of the year and it truly was worth the wait. I want to see it again.

****

Sunday, 29 March 2015

ASSASSIN / WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY

****ING CONTAINS ****ING SPOILERS

A brace of recent British gangster movies here, suggesting an apparently enduring love for old school East End crime bosses wot dressed smart and loved their mum and didn't do no harm to them wot didn't deserve it, hanging out with colourfully dubious underworld figures like Mickey The Stoat and Harry The Hammer and keeping the bottom of the canal well stocked with the bodies of them wot mysteriously disappeared recently after a disagreement. The spectres of Ron and Reg still loom over this niche of the British Film Industry, who are apparently nowhere near completing their mission to promote a pair of terrifying sociopaths, who would happily nail you to a billiard table for want of anything better to do on a Thursday night, as role models for the next generation of cheerful Cockernee villains wot won't do you no harm if you don't cross them, sunshine.

Both films feature brothers who are aging London crime bosses: Assassin actually has them played by Gary and Martin Kemp, real-life brothers and stars of The Krays. They've mostly gone straight these days but apparently there are still occasions when people need rubbing out and Danny Dyer is their in-house hit man. Unknowingly, he makes the mistake of falling for the cokehead daughter of his last hit and, when she starts digging into her father's unlikely and convenient sudden death, Dyer is assigned to dispose of her as well. But he runs off with her instead to start a new life with her....

There's a semi-decent thriller lurking within Assassin, but JK Amalou (Hard Men, Deviation) is not the man to find it and Danny Dyer is absolutely not the actor to bring the character to life. Granted it's a better film than, say, Basement or Run For Your Wife, but pretty much every film ever made up to and including the collected works of Ted V Mikels is better than Basement or Run For Your Wife. On the flipside, it's scarcely a better piece of work than Dead Man Running or Vendetta or Blood Shot or Doghouse or Outlaw: it is just more of the same and not well enough done to raise any interest. File under Only If It's Raining, Your Netflix Account Has Failed And It's Literally The Only DVD On Cash Converter's Shelf.

We Still Kill The Old Way has a more despairing attitude, contrasting the old-fashioned villainy of the Kray Twins Archer Brothers with the incoherent and brutish misogyny and thuggery of teenage drugs gangs running amok through the East End. When ex-crime boss Steven Berkoff is kicked to death in an alley for disrupting a gang rape, his brother (Ian Ogilvy) flies in from his Spanish hideaway to find out exactly what happened and, teaming up with his old crew, deal with the miserable little scrotes responsible, while maybe rekindling a romance with Lysette Anthony and crossing swords with the ineptitude of the Old Bill (here represented by Alison Doody)....

It may be weighed down by industrial-level swearing and a raft of younger characters so thoroughly hateful they make the Waffen SS look like the Von Trapps (with or without the singing), but to my surprise I kind of enjoyed it. I didn't adore it and I don't want to see it again, but just as the film concerns itself with the old gangsters being (relatively) better than the new breed, so the veteran cast display the charm and watchability that the youngsters simply don't possess. Most audaciously, the film doesn't just end with the possibility of a sequel but actually posits itself as an unofficial followup to The Italian Job, as our "heroes" wax nostalgic about that bullion job they pulled in Turin all those years ago. Frankly, given the choice I'd rather have a second helping of this than Assassin, because at least there's the sense that the cast are having some fun with it whereas Assassin is mostly glum. But I'd sooner the British Film Industry found better role models and hero figures than lowlifes, murderers and foul-mouthed scum.

**
***

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

LEPRECHAUN: ORIGINS

O'SPOILERS

Just what's going on at Lionsgate? First they make a perfectly enjoyable if entirely unnecessary sequel to See No Evil, of all the titles in their back catalogue, and now they're rebooting what's probably the most desperately silly horror franchise outside of Charles Band's quadrilogy about homicidal biscuits. How are they picking their projects? Throwing darts at an old copy of Fangoria? The Leprechaun series has been dormant for over a decade anyway and I gave up on it after the fourth one: after increasingly tiresome adventures in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and a load of old pants set in space for no good reason, even I couldn't be bothered with a blaxpo Lep In Da Hood followup. But someone obviously thinks there's mileage, or at least money, in the Leprechaun branding and have reimagined the little feller for a whole new generation.

What they've done is to toss out everything about Leprechaun: the rhyming dialogue, the elaborately jokey death scenes and the silly comedy, and they've also removed all of Lep's Oirishness: no more giant buckles on the shoes or big green hat, and no-one say "begorrah". Now he's more of a monstrous feral beast, barely glimpsed but resembling the alien creature from Xtro. Instead they've cranked up the gore and nastiness, turning it into a proper yukky horror movie in the process which is frankly their only good decision. A quartet of American students holidaying in Ireland are lured into a cabin in the woods, where they're easy prey for the Leprechaun whose gold was stolen by the townsfolk centuries ago, and the locals have been repaying the money ever since. But these tourists are going to be the ones to fight back....

Leprechaun: Origins (which incidentally isn't an origins story) is a co-production with the WWE wrestling organisation, but why? The Lep himself is played by wrestling star Dylan Postl, who fights under the name Hornswoggle, but he doesn't actually get to do very much and is mostly seen in distorted close shots with little movement. They could have put former Environment Secretary John Selwyn Gummer in that costume and the result wouldn't have been significantly different. So why have they bothered?

As a straight horror movie it's pleasantly gruesome - an axe in the face is the look-away highlight - and in all honesty I'm more partial to that than the daft blarney and knockabout from the Warwick Davis series. But it still isn't anything you haven't seen before in a score of other DTV slashkill movies in which oversexed teens run around screaming while being chased by a monster. It's a more than decent Leprechaun movie, but it's a very average horror film.

**

Saturday, 21 March 2015

RAZE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH

Since Saw, we've seen quite a number of films in which a group of people are stuck in a bunker somewhere and are forced to endure horrible things or hurt one another in order to survive. It's a setup that's featured in films as disparate as Vile, the Cube series, Hunger (not the Fassbender/McQueen one), the astonishingly rubbish Bane, and even the thundering idiocy of the Japanese Death Tube, not counting the actual Saw sequels themselves. In such company, this fairly monotonous but agreeably bloody thudfest acquits itself reasonably well.

In the meaninglessly-titled Raze, Zoe Bell wakes up in an underground bunker and is forced to take part in an elimination contest of one-on-one unarmed combat to the death with a series of other captive women. If they don't comply, the shadowy cult that abducted them will kill members of their families. The organisation behind it is led by one-time Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn and Doug Jones, probably more familiar as non-human characters in Guillermo Del Toro films but here just a pencil moustache away from Baltimore's finest, John Waters. Why? Well, it's supposedly something to do with maenads, ill-defined female figures from Greek mythology (why not Roman, given the gladiatorial arena setting?) but it mostly looks like a gathering of obnoxious rich bastards watching terrified young women beating each other to death for the joyous, life-affirming spectacle of it.

The fight scenes themselves are brutally violent (no wimping out for a 15 certificate here!) and certainly painful to watch, but there comes a point where you want something more from a film than attractive women punching each other in the face. Character isn't particularly deep: there's the shy mousy one who you'll feel sad for when she gets killed, the shouty bitchy one who you'll feel happy for when she gets killed, and you know Zoe Bell's going to win all her fights because it's Zoe Bell. The film is also saddled with one of those downbeat endings which is presumably supposed to compound the helpless horror of the movie but actually leaves you unsatisfied because it's entirely unnecessary. Still, it's sadistically bloody and does the job if you want to watch girls murdering each other for nebulous reasons, but doesn't that make you one of the millionaire scumbags at the cocktail party upstairs?

**

DEVIL'S TOWER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND ENOUGH

Movie nerds are a tolerant lot, generally. We'll watch pretty much anything by anyone from anywhere, we embrace the niche oddities, we seek out the weird, and we won't be put off by critics telling us it's not any good. But goodwill and tolerance are not inexhaustible and eventually it's time to yell out of the windows that we're mad as hell and we're not going to watch this crap any more. Sooner or later a crisis point is reached and you start to wonder what the hell you're doing with your time.

Devil's Tower is a miserable zero-budget slab of  amateur night tedium in which a handful of deeply hateful people encounter supernatural forces in a tower block. The ghost of a former resident, whose death went unnoticed for four years, takes people over via their TV sets and turns them into zombies for no particular purpose. A newly homeless girl (Roxanne Pallett, for whom this presumably looked like a step upwards from 135 episodes of sex-and-cowshit soap Emmerdale) and an American squatter/burglar (Jason Mewes) team up when Mewes' asshole best friend goes missing; he's far from the first to disappear or die brutally in mysterious circumstances....

In terms of basic professional standards of film-making competence, Devil's Tower is not a film. It's barely a video. Ungraded digital photography gives it the look of a mid-range camcorder production, it's badly written, badly acted, badly directed and badly assembled, everyone onscreen is despicable and the story makes no sense at all. There is absolutely no reason for Jason Mewes to be in it, unless he's been actively seeking a project that's worse than The Watermen. (Mercifully, he doesn't get his ballsack out this time.) It's visually quite ugly - the sex scenes have the look and feel of homemade porn and that's the artistic ambience of the entire enterprise - and if you'd been told this was an afterschool project made by people who'd never seen a camera before, let alone a horror film, it wouldn't surprise you. Certainly I'm struggling with the idea that anyone involved is any kind of professional.

Presumably they are: it's produced by Dominic Burns, who's already got a track record in terrible movies (serving in various capacities on films as wholly without a shred of merit as Strippers Vs Werewolves, Cut and UFO) that have managed to secure UK distribution. And that's the problem: making a movie has never been so easy and cheap, and it's now possible to get any old rubbish released. There isn't even the most rudimentary level of quality control, anyone to say "hang on, guys, this really isn't good enough". Well, why bother when there's enough of an audience out there who'll watch absolutely anything? That the makers clearly assume Devil's Tower is of an acceptable standard for public viewing I frankly find insulting as a horror fan, as a film nerd and as a human being. Go away.

*

Saturday, 7 March 2015

NINJA APOCALYPSE

CONTAINS NINJAS AND SPOILERS

Say what you like about Ninja Apocalypse, but you have to admit at the very least it does have ninjas and it does have an apocalypse: a full-on nuclear annihilation within the first minute of the film. It also has fraternal conflict, hot chicks, throwing stars, zombies, shape-shifters, jealousy, lunkheads, levitation, terrible CGI and such awesomely idiotic dialogue you can't believe the screenwriter cashed the cheque with a straight face, so you won't be shortchanged in the wild incident department. It's almost a pity, though scarcely a huge surprise, that the film isn't very good.

Years after the Bomb went off, California's scattered communities have apparently adopted the ancient Ninja code of honour. Apparently tired of the disparate clans fighting each other, Grand Master Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa calls the various leaders together for a peace summit in a 100-storey bunker. But he's assassinated, apparently by Cage, Leader of the Lost Clan (Christian Oliver), who immediately protests his innocence even though everyone saw him do it. Every other clan sets out to wipe out our heroes - but who is the real mystery villain? And what unspeakable horrors are waiting for the Lost Clan leaders on the 100th floor?

Everyone's got superpowers, whether it's psychokinesis, lightning bolts or creating weapons out of thin air, but only for limited periods as they need to recharge themselves. Which makes it particularly annoying when they mainly waste those powers beating each other up rather than the legions of other, more colourful ninjas. (Let's ignore the fact that the ability to movie objects through mind power or conjure energy bolts out of the air doesn't make you a ninja, it makes you a sorceror.) This isn't just twaddle, it's badly acted and badly written twaddle with poor CGI blood spurts: obviously any movie calling itself Ninja Apocalypse is hardly an intellectual piece, but there's no dishonour in aiming high and missing. It's when you aim low and still miss that you've got problems. Still, some of the fighting is agreeably crunchy and it's very silly, and it's over and done in 80 minutes or so. It's not abysmal, being not being abysmal really isn't enough.

*

IRON WOLF

CONTAINS ZE SPOILERS

We've had moon Nazis, monster Nazis, vampire Nazis, ghost Nazis, zombie Nazis, underwater zombie Nazis - it was only a matter of time before we had werewolf Nazis. (I'm not counting their appearance in An American Werewolf In London as it's only a dream sequence.) More specifically, in this instance it's just the one werewolf Nazi, big and hairy but complete with a swastika armband. Sadly, any potential is thrown away in a tiresome and indifferent splatter movie in which tedious young idiots get bloodily slaughtered.

The best joke in Iron Wolf isn't even in the film, it's the groansome "Howl Hitler" tagline on the front of the DVD box. It's 1945 and German experiments into creating the ultimate weapon are abandoned at the moment of triumph when the victorious Russians arrive, leaving the beast locked in the bunker. Nearly seventy years later, a prize collection of bickering teenage dimwits arrive to clear the place up for a punk band's reunion gig, and inevitably the door is opened....

Part of the problem is clearly that it's a German film full of German actors playing German characters, but speaking in German-accented English in order to avoid the need for subtitles and to hopefully crack the international market for Nazi monster mashups. But it damages the film because everyone is clearly speaking their second language and neither the writing nor the acting survives the translation. That's not to suggest it would have been any good in its native tongue: all the characters are bellowing idiots interested mainly in beer and sex (why anyone would think an abandoned Nazi research facility that's been derelict for seventy years would be a fabulous place to get laid is beyond me) and frankly it's a relief to see some of them go.

There's one slightly interesting idea, mostly tossed aside, that the beast has somehow been trained to recognise Nazi symbols and uniforms, and therefore the best way to survive would be to dress up in full Nazi regalia. Otherwise it's just a string of grisly death scenes (prosthetics and gloop rather than CGI) for our bonehead heroes, capped with the now-inevitable setup for a sequel. Doubtless the studios are still ironing out the backstories for the shark Nazis, yeti Nazis and unicorn Nazis.

*

Thursday, 5 March 2015

REC 4: APOCALYPSE

[*CONTAINS /~$ SOME _SPOILERS# <]

It's been a strange old franchise. Directed jointly by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero, the first two [Rec] movies were both found footage, and more or less got away with the gimmick just before we started getting fed up with it (along with the English-language remake Quarantine, which did absolutely nothing new with the idea). Then the third one, which Paco Plaza directed solo, did the smart thing and ditched the shaky video look in favour of proper widescreen filmmaking, and was a lot more fun as a result. Now comes Balaguero's own fourquel, which is a more than perfectly decent splattery .... Of The Dead, returning to a classic formula in which contagious flesh-eating zombies chase squabbling humans around a confined space.

It's actually surprising zombie movies haven't done this before: put everyone on a ship at sea and quarantine everyone with five hundred miles of empty ocean. We're on a freighter full of scientists looking for a retrovirus cure for the zombie/possession infection that first hit the Barcelona apartment block and then a wedding party in the earlier films. Inevitably tempers are fraying between the ship's crew, the doctors and the uninfected human survivors, and everyone's acting irrationally given the seriousness of the situation, so it's inevitable that a test subject will get loose and start a new infection....

Technically, of course, [Rec] 4: Apocalypse is actually titled [●REC]4 on screen, but that's kind of awkward to keep typing, and besides, the English subtitle is a numberless Rec: Apocalypse. If it's not as much gleefully romping fun as [Rec] 3, it's still enjoyably bloody, more than grisly enough for its 18 certificate, and if this is to be the last of the saga then it's going out to at least the standard it came in with.There's little in the way of humour and levity beyond the radio/tech guy's crush on TV reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco reprising her role from the first two entries), but there are enough zombie comedies out there already so it's nice to find one that stays grim almost in the Romero tradition (particularly Day Of The Dead). The boneheaded stupidity of some of the characters annoyed me, but mostly I had a good time with it.

***

THE SEASONING HOUSE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND HORRIBLENESS

Bizarre it may be, but I'm perfectly happy to watch scenes of brutal axe murders and sadistic torture in a horror movie, be it a cheery old slasher or a Saw sequel, yet I'm acutely uncomfortable with scenes of rape and sexual violence. It doesn't feel right in films that are ostensibly entertainments; it feels a step too far in the savagery. And that's my problem with Paul Hyett's The Seasoning House: it may have things to say and awareness to raise about the appalling abuses meted out in war zones, but the second half clearly marks the film as an exploitation movie. Like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left (originals or remakes), it's almost like two movies in one: a grim drama about appalling sexual violence and rape, segueing into a cheerily violent punch-the-air revenge thriller.

Somewhere in the Balkans in 1996, young girls are rounded up and imprisoned in a private brothel catering to the most depraved excesses of the battle-hardened military: they're permanently chained to their beds and kept hooked on heroin, the better to suffer their repeated abuses. Because of a facial blemish, mute Angel (Rosie Day) escapes this fate; instead she works the house, feeding and cleaning the prisoners. But when the men (led by the ever reliable Sean Pertwee) who kidnapped her in the first place and murdered her family show up again expecting to be serviced, Angel fights back, using the crawlspaces and air vents in the crumbling mansion to get past them, kill them off and perhaps escape....

That's the point at which it morphs into a straightforward exploitation thriller, and also the point at which it starts to fall apart. That a terrified, inexperienced slip of a girl is somehow able to outwit a squad of highly trained, heavily armed scumbags seems even more unlikely than the climax of every Friday The 13th film in which the maniac is thwarted by someone smaller, weaker and more scared, especially in what starts out as a seriously intended film with a firm basis in real events rather than a popcorn slasher movie.

The BBFC's 18 certificate for the film states that it "contains strong bloody violence and scenes of sexual violence", and it most certainly lives up to that description. That they go on to point out that the rape scenes have been passed without problem as they are "aversive and unerotic" seems to me to miss the point, though - they may not be intended as erotica, but what are they for? I'm still not convinced, having now seen the film twice, that we need to see them at such length and in such detail; the point is made very clearly and very quickly.

On a technical level, though, The Seasoning House (the opening film at FrightFest 2012) is superbly put together, well played by a convincing cast. The production design is terrific and gives no hint of being shot in Uxbridge rather than on location in the actual Balkans. The second, more popcorn half of the film works better than the grim, oppressive first half (although Pertwee's final fate does rather depend on him being an idiot when he quite plainly isn't). It's not a likeable film, and for a lot of the time it's not an entertaining one either, but it's undeniably well made and pulls off some effectively shocking moments.

***

BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's really nice, once in a while, to get a film through the post you've never heard of, never seen a frame of, never even come across in a reference book. That's how the 1970 film Blind Woman's Curse (aka The Tattooed Swordswoman) caught me completely by surprise, so I was able to see it with absolutely no preconceptions and no baggage. Opening the envelope, it could be absolutely anything.

In the event, it's a highly enjoyable Japanese period mashup of horror, swordplay, knockabout comedy, melodrama and outright strangeness, a mixture that works much better than you might expect. Leader of the Tachibana gang Akemi (Meiko Kaji, future cult star of the Female Scorpion series) leads an attack on a rival clan which not only leaves many people dead but crucially one woman blinded. Years later, the Tachibana clan is under threat not just from a mysterious assassin and a demented hunchback, but from a turf war with another group organised by a third gang seeking to wipe both rivals out and take over the territory completely. To start with, the newly released Akemi doesn't want to get involved, but eventually she has little choice....

Some of this is broadly comedic: one of the gang leaders has terrible personal hygiene and doesn't wear any trousers, preferring the loincloth for no immediately obvious reason except laughs. Some of it is viscerally bloody: the skin with the Tachibana's dragon tattoos is ripped off their dead bodies. And some scenes are just visually gorgeous, such as the opening title sequence: a gang fight shot in driving rain with excessive Shogun Assassin arcs of spurting blood. In fact the whole movie is terrific to look at, a marked contrast to the ungraded digital murk of today. One curiosity is the one-frame appearance of a narrow band of colour at the bottom of the image, which looks to be the top of the next frame of film, every time there's a cut. If that sounds like a distraction, it isn't: rather, it just reminds you once more that you're watching what was once celluloid film, and not an mp3 file.

If the climax, in which Akemi and the mysterious assassin finally face off against each other, proves a disappointing resolution, it scarcely matters with so much other incident going on. There's also the occasional appearance of a black cat (which may or may not be supernatural), some slapstick with a severed head, torture by drowning, moderate nudity, knife-throwing and sentimental romance. Blind Woman's Curse is a mixture of pretty much anything and everything, and somehow it works: it's fast, funny, violent and, at a mere 85 minutes it's never close to boring. I enjoyed it a lot.

****