Friday, 1 December 2017

VHS FOREVER? PSYCHOTRONIC PEOPLE

CONTAINS? SPOILERS

Remember VHS? I always get the sense that I came to the party slightly too late: by the time I got to rent my own movies the dreaded Video Recordings Act had already consigned a load of the most interesting movies to the furnaces and James "Scissorhands" Ferman and the BBFC (make up your own acronym) had embarked on the entirely irrational campaign of hacking junk movies to ribbons, ostensibly to make them suitable for adults but actually rendering them even less watchable than they already were by taking all the best bits out. By then the DPP had done their work and - sarcastic hurrah - removed Night Of The Bloody Apes, Alien Contamination and Unhinged from rental shops and off-licenses across the UK so we could all sleep easier.

The foaming-at-the-mouth insanity of the pre-cert days has already been covered, particularly in Jake West's marvellous Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape; this is more of a disorganised grab-bag of reminiscences from critics, journalists, tape dealers, distributors and the occasional stars and directors. Covering everything from first rentals, the Video Nasty list of 39 formally banned titles, the back room of the Psychotronic Video shop in a Camden basement (I remember buying a few titles there) and police raids on video collectors' homes through to the lousy picture quality, the collectible tapes under the tables at film fairs and lucky finds at car boot sales, it does at least recapture the spirit of the age and almost makes me want to dig out the VHS player from the spare room and put on one of my few remaining tapes on.

The bafflingly-titled VHS Forever? Psychotronic People also allows Caroline Munro to reminisce about the guerrilla film-making of The Last Horror Film at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival: always interesting, but out of place in a documentary that's nominally about the early days of VHS. No other film gets specifically discussed to that extent, not even the far more controversial Maniac. Sadly, it also allows sewage merchant Lloyd Kaufman to ramble nonsensically to camera as though he's on Just A Minute with the topic Incoherent Bullshit, throwing together the MPAA, the McCarthy blacklists and Mary Whitehouse (referred to as Mary Blowjob, presumably for reasons of comedy) in one facepalming rant. Incidentally: say what you like about Mary Whitehouse: she may have been as comprehensively wrong-headed as it's possible for a human to be, but at least she believed absolutely in what she was doing, which is more than you can say for any of Troma's artless sludge.

It's an interesting topic and an interesting era, on which I was on the distant fringes: I had boxes of pre-cert tapes but eventually gave them away when reality intruded and I realised I was probably never going to watch them ever again, so I gave almost all of them away. Many of them are available on DVD or BluRay, in better quality, uncut and in the correct ratio, and I'm not nostalgic enough for the Vertical Helical Scan format to fire up my old mint condition cassette of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue even though I have the Anchor Bay disc on the shelf. But the technical quality isn't that great: for a film that's shot (or at least copyrighted) in 2014, the 4:3 ratio suggests an attempt to emulate the look of full-screen video, and some external scenes are plagued by wind noise into the camera microphone. It's a pity, because I could listen to some of these guys (and it is mostly guys) talking about old trash movies for hours: Norman J Warren, Allan Bryce, David McGillivray, Graham Humphreys, Marc Morris, David Kerekes....Incredibly, Kim Newman is only in it for maybe two minutes cumulatively! Overall it's a fascinating subject in which I would normally immerse myself for days at a time - nerding about movies is What I Do given half a chance - but sadly it doesn't really come off.

**

JUSTICE LEAGUE

CONTAINS BAT-[S]POILERS

The whole Marvel/DC light/dark fun/misery debate has already been flogged well past the point of ever achieving a resolution: do you want it flip, comedic and colourful or do you want it bleak, gritty and nihilistic? Personally I'm happy with the crowd-pleasing antics of the Avengers gang and, while I'm not about to suggest that gibberish like Joel Schumacher's two Batflicks are better in any way to the Nolan films, I've never understood the appeal of grim, joyless films like Man Of Steel and Batman Vs Superman. Wonder Woman perked things up enormously, possibly because the grimy claws of Zack Snyder were nowhere in evidence, and possibly because, unlike endless reboots of Batman and Spider-Man, this was an origins story we'd not encountered before in cinema (did the Lynda Carter TV series include it?) so there was an element of freshness to it.

But the debate has been shunted back into life with Justice League, the fifth instalment of the DC glumpocalypse, because whatever the original intentions, it's actually ended up with its boots in both camps thanks to reshoots from Joss Whedon, director of two Marvel entries and a spin-off TV show. Despite the claim that he'd write direct in the same style as Snyder so there wouldn't be any obvious shifts in tone, there are scenes (particularly those featuring The Flash) which seem to be typed in a completely different font to the rest of the film. And it works. A bit. Some of the time, anyway. Not brilliantly: Superman is as thoroughly uninteresting as ever (at least since the first two Christopher Reeve movies) and the plot is the usual old CGI Armageddon nonsense, but it's almost entertaining enough in places to get by and most likely far more than Snyder's film would have been, had he not withdrawn for personal/family reasons.

An ancient world-destroying demon thing called Steppenwolf (no, really) is after three ancient boxes which, when brought together, will bring about the end of humanity and turn the planet into the Hellscape of his (its?) homeworld. One of these Mother Boxes (no, really) is guarded by the Amazons, another by the Atlanteans in Atlantis (no, really). Fortunately, Batman is putting a team together, with Wonder Woman, The Flash (who can move at incredibly high speed), Aquaman (water skills) and Cyborg (computers, electronics, data). But will they be enough? Or do they need to exhume Superman and jolt him back to life with the power of the third Mother Box?

It all ends, as these things must, with a welter of green-screen whizzbang in which various members of the gang take it in turns to punch Steppenwolf and his flying demon minion things while the surrounding landscape is terraformed around them. Which is all perfectly well done, if you like your retinas scorched and if you like not having half a clue what the hell's going on. But mass destruction and/or the imminent end of the world aren't a new thing any more: we saw all this in Man Of Steel and half the Avengers movies and the Transformers films and most Roland Emmerich films and Geostorm and it's all frankly getting a bit been there, done that, got the ticket stubs to prove it. I'm not enough of a comic-book aficionado to spot any significant narrative difference between the Mother Boxes and Marvel's Infinity Stones anyway, like the satellite weapons from assorted Bonds and XXX 3 and so on, it's the same tune played on a slightly different guitar. And raising the stakes to a global level means nothing if we don't care about anything except the gosh-wow visuals, and even with Whedon's friendlier, less doomladen input there's little in the way of Real Human Beings with whom we can find some shred of empathy and even less for the superheroes who are all invincible and can fly.

If this all sounds like I'm trying to work out exactly how I feel about the movie...well, I suppose I am. It's not Dawn Of Justice-level terrible, and it's not Suicide Squad-level pointless. It's not Man Of Steel-level glum and it's not Thor: Ragnarok-level bonkers. I've never been a fan of Superman anyway and here, saddled additionally with having Henry Cavill's moustache CGId out in the reshoots, he seems peculiarly comfortable with having brought back from death. This Batman is at least more engaging than the Christian Bale incarnation, but Wonder Woman and The Flash are still the most enjoyable and watchable of the squad.

At some point next year we're getting a solo Aquaman movie (though probably not one for Cyborg), as well as at least one more Justice League (set up in the inevitable post-credits teaser) because there's no point in the next five or ten years when these ongoing superhero smash-em-ups are going to stop. That's not necessarily a bad thing (though I still blanch at the idea of spending as obscene an amount of money as three hundred million dollars on one movie), but I just wish they were better. Instead they're okay. And okay at that price tag just isn't enough for some incidental pleasures and only two of the six lead characters. I wanted to like it (obviously: the idea of wanting to hate a movie is clearly insanity) but in the end it's a two- or three-star movie at very, very best, depending on how charitable you feel.

***

Saturday, 18 November 2017

BLOODSPORT II

OUCH CONTAINS OOF AARGH SPOILERS OW

Sometimes you don't want Art. Sometimes you don't want refined analyses of the human condition or insightful reflections on contemporary society. Sometimes it's Friday night and all you really want is ninety minutes of freakishly proportioned weirdos beating the stuffing out of each other in full skull-cracking stereo, with as little narrative, character or emotional content as possible. It doesn't have to be any good, it doesn't have to be brilliantly acted, so long as most of the people on screen get repeatedly kicked in the head and end up with compound fractures of every bone they have.

Bloodsport II is that movie, ticking off pretty much all of the requirements of the idiot martial arts sequel. Minimal plot: convicted thief Daniel Bernhardt is tutored in a Thai prison hellhole in the ways of spirituality and extreme violence by wise old James Hong (telling much of the story in flashback), and then proceeds through the early stages of the legendary Kumite competition by knocking seven bags of soot out of a succession of increasingly formidale maniacs. Fearsome adversary: his former prison guard, built like a completely invulnerable brick wall, who's quite obviously going to lose the Grand Final in the last few minutes. Totty: just one token female fighter in the Kumite and one potential girlfriend for our redeemed hero, because this isn't a film for blubby romantic mush.

It's not very good (it's certainly not up there with Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout original, with which this nominal sequel has very little connection beyond the Kumite itself), but it clearly wasn't supposed to be. So long as someone gets punched in the face every few minutes and everyone screams while delivering pulverising body blows to their opponent, it's done its job and everyone's happy. Except for the BBFC, who cut a whole second to remove the dreaded double-ear clap, thus clearly rendering the entire project a total waste of time.

**

EMMANUELLE IV

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IDIOCY EVEN BY MY STANDARDS

It is hardly an earth-shattering revelation that Emmanuelle IV is rubbish. Copious amounts of soft-focus humping in exotic locales while tinkly Euromuzak slop burbles away on the soundtrack, glamorous women (and men) getting their kit off and going at it like hammers, supremely idiotic dialogue that makes the Star Wars prequels sound like Aaron Sorkin's pithiest, plotting that would shame a daytime soap opera: a 33-years-on recount by the Academy Awards is not on the cards. What there is, perhaps all there is, is a sense of disappointment as the previous third entry in the saga, Goodbye Emmanuelle, was probably the best thus far.

Of course, noting that an Emmanuelle movie this far down the franchise has terrible acting and a lousy script is like suggesting the last Woody Allen was short on car chases and had very little social commentary about gun control. That's really not its job. Even so, the stupidometer rarely dips below ninety in Emmanuelle IV. This is the one in which either Sylvia Kristel or the producers decided that she was too old (at 32) to keep on getting her bum out and so has extensive plastic surgery to transform her into the younger, slimmer, fitter Mia Nygren. Confusingly, she also changes her name to Emmanuelle from Sylvia, suggesting this is an entirely unrelated entry in the series as she spends the first act playing herself as a magazine journalist. But she still has her old memories of her all-consuming love for Marc (Patrick Bauchau, not in any of the previous films) - obviously, because she hasn't had her mind wiped or her memory implanted: this isn't Total Recall or Blade Runner. If there's any dick in this movie it sure ain't Philip K.

So Emmanuelle mopes around Brazil recuperating from extensive surgery, having sex, watching other people having sex, blathering on and on about her voyage of sexual discovery in a manner that you might describe as navel gazing except it's not even her own navel any more. Eventually she goes back to Marc, thus rendering the whole adventure redundant, musing that their perfect love meant they were destined to be together forever, even though [1] that perfect love didn't stop her from humping miscellaneous Brazilian randoms and [2] it's less a matter of predestined cosmic fate than a matter of flying to Paris, sneaking into his office and making dinner reservations for the two of them.

The fact that it's utter drivel, however, shouldn't have stopped it from being a good time. At least the earlier entries had a measure of exotic glamour about them and that's mostly absent here: it's got little more in the way of gloss and style than one of Joe D'Amato's artless knockoffs. To judge from his IMDb page and a brief trawl round Google videos, director Francis Leroi is apparently a hardcore guy anyway (this is soft as wet blancmange), though he subsequently made several small-screen continuations featuring flashbacks to a younger Emmanuelle as told by Kristel to jetsetting businessman George Lazenby. There's absolutely nothing in Emmanuelle IV to suggest that further entries in the series would be a sufficiently rewarding evening's entertainment.

*

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is supposed to be the Adam Sandler film that it's okay to have on your DVD shelf. It's the one that doesn't feel out of place on the prestigious Criterion label, the one where you don't laugh because it's not a comedy, rather than one where you don't laugh because Sandler has the comedic value of blunt force trauma. It's the one where Sandler is annoying because he's supposed to be annoying, not one where he's supposed to be a lovable goofy manchild but just comes off as annoying. That's because it's an auteur piece by the apparently uncriticisable (it's a word) dahhling of the cravat-wielding cineaste set Paul Thomas Anderson.

I'm ambivalent about PTA: I loved Boogie Nights and half-liked There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, but absolutely hated The Master which everyone else in the world adored. Sadly, this is another one in the debit column: a deliberately weird and offputting non-romantic anti-comedy in which oddity salesman Sandler meets up with Emily Watson, co-worker with one of his (seven) sisters. He's a long-term loner with anger issues, he's buying huge stocks of supermarket desserts because of an airmiles offer, but he's also falling victim to a phone-sex scam operated by mattress mogul Philip Seynour Hoffmann...

Some of the current titans of mainstream American multiplex comedy - Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill - are more interesting (or at least less irritating) when they're playing lighter, more sophisticated comedy or actual straight drama: Melinda And Melinda, Steve Jobs, True Story. Thus far I've managed to dodge many of the Happy Gilmore-shaped bullets, because life's too short to keep hurting yourself like that, but in the case of Punch-Drunk Love it's not just him that seems to have been deliberately designed to be as odd and out of place as possible. From Jon Brion's intrusive score to Sandler's weirdly distracting bright blue suit, from the harmonium dumped at the side of the road (serving neither character nor narrative purposes, it's just something that happens) to the straight bits of comedy (unbreakable sink plungers which aren't) and violence (Sandler setting about a bunch of goons with a tyre iron), it's a film in which none of the pieces fit together, and quite deliberately.

What it does have in its favour is magnificent photography: even on Blu through a 37-inch TV, Anderson's regular DP Robert Elswit makes the celluloid soar with bold colours and it's an absolute validation of 35mm stock over cold dead digital. But I don't think the technicals of filmmaking are anywhere near enough to offset grating characters and score (including multiple uses of a song from the Popeye soundtrack, of all things) and narrative: it leaves you feeling uncomfortable and frustrated, and I don't get the logic in deliberate feelbad. I don't usually get Paul Thomas Anderson (give me Paul WS Anderson any day!), I certainly don't get Adam Sandler, and I absolutely don't get Punch-Drunk Love.

**

PRAY. / PRAY 2: THE WOODS / PRAY 3: THE STORM

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

Yes, there is a full stop in the title of the first film, but in truth some errant punctuation marks are the least of these movies' problems. In slasher movies with no slash and frankly insufficient stalk, performances barely this side of "speaking out loud", flat digital photography that is frequently too poorly lit to make anything out, montages of absolutely nothing that go nowhere and post-credits blooper reels, it's hard to care that much about the exact title in the opening credits beyond just noting it for the record.

Pray. is a bog-standard maniac-on-the-loose horror with Christian overtones (meaning there's no blood, sex or swearing) in which a young Christian woman is vaguely stalked by a psycho whose only noticeable characteristics are a chain tattoo and the inevitable plastic mask. She and some friends attend a Christian rock festival, and get to hang out with the band afterwards (absolutely nothing goes on) but later on there might be someone hiding in her room. That someone has already abducted one woman, and he might be watching her house the next day while she's out at Spirit Day. Eventually he gets to do his Michael Myers impression on her when she somehow gets locked into the local mall.

Pray. absolutely isn't any good at all: it drags at a mere 68 minutes and even then could have lost maybe twenty minutes of nothing much happening, including the entire Spirit Day sequence which is just video coverage of church activities. To its credit, the film does pull off one effective Boo! scare (well, it made me jump at least, even if it turns out to be a red herring), but it ends on a bizarre note in which The Lord appears to have performed a genuine miracle to help her escape, while leaving it unexplored as to why He put her in that position in the first place. As for the killer, he's left a nameless blank: we never find out what he wants, where he's from, or what the clearly significant chain tattoo represents.

Some of that is saved for Pray 2: The Woods, which has enough plot material for three films yet can't seem to satisfactorily fill one. The first film's abductee (cheekily named Laurie Curtis) finds herself in a woodland storage shed, from which she escapes and becomes a minor celebrity on the public access talk show circuit plugging her memoir. But the psycho, revealed as having gone mad after five years in prison for beating up his girlfriend (he didn't, she lied), is on her trail again, though failing to do much more than break into her house and then go on the run from the cops and FBI through the woods - the exact same woods where the first film's young Christian group are out on a camping and bible study trip. Meanwhile a trio of comedy cops, one with a false moustache and one wearing a shirt that boasts the production company logo, sit outside in a van, jabbering endlessly in scenes that must have been improvised because no actual human would ever have typed all this drivel out.

Furthering the unaccountable nods to Halloween (which also includes scary pumpkin faces in the dead slow opening credits) the maniac is listed as Shape in the cast list for both (and Tyler in the second). The first film also features a shop called Kruger's; it's a real store which is thanked in the end credits, and might have been picked less for that genre nod than the fact that Kruger is the surname of the editor/cinematographer/co-writer/co-producer. But as is so often the case, dropping a few names from classic horrors, even coincidentally, doesn't make up for a total absence of skill and style. Music is very badly used: both films' scores are culled from horror veteran Richard Band's soundtrack library service but they achieve no effect whatsoever.

Staggeringly, Pray 3: The Storm is almost decent. It's still not any good, it's saddled with terrible non-performances, bible quotes and prayers, and a songtrack full of faith-based soft rock numbers (from a band called Dutton) and it struggles to make it to the hour mark, but in the intervening years someone has clearly sat the auteurs down with a bunch of actual horror movies and shown them some simple suspense techniques they could adopt. A masked stalker, who may or may not be the same guy from the first two films, is on the trail of Laurie Curtis yet again, as she and her husband leave the kids at home with a couple of teenage videoblogger idiots. They spend most of the evening watching the first Pray. film on DVD and are too dumb to notice the wide open window right next to them.

Photography is leagues ahead of the first two instalments, possibly due to being designed for 3D (!) and, despite clearly being intended for home viewing, being framed in 2.35 widescreen. The film also manages some neat use of the security cameras in the Curtis house and doesn't overuse the night-vision cellphone gimmick in the manner of the worst of found footage. They also manage to slip in a Friday The 13th reference, and the completely useless stalker finally gets down to scaring the bejaysus out of a couple of airheads. But the lead cop's name badge has the actor's name on it, the husband wears a T-shirt advertising one of the director's earlier films, the TV news channel is actually called Faux News, and towards the end the film doesn't seem to know whether the power has been restored or not and therefore how dark things are supposed to be.

Inevitably, it has an open ending setting things up for a fourth instalment, but Pray 3 was made back in 2012 and there's no indication that the most bloodless horror franchise of all time is ripe for a continuation. All three films were directed by (Dr) Matt Mitchell, who also takes a substantial role as a pastor in the second one; he's also combined Pray. and Pray 2 to form Pray 2.5, which I haven't bothered to watch, even for the sake of my fast-fading completism. None of them are any good, but the third one is closest to "not terrible" and the closest to what the horror audience would generally recognise as a horror movie (let alone a good horror movie). Being of faith - faith of any stripe - doesn't get you a free pass for making terrible movies and it's only the third chunk of The Laurie Curtis Trilogy that picks up as a borderline entertaining horror, despite its legions of faults. Should you wish to, they're all on Amazon Prime.

*
*
**

Saturday, 11 November 2017

TERRIFIER

CONTAINS SPOILERS, HA HA HA

For some reason, we've lost all our bogeymen. The slasher icons from decades past aren't slashing any more: Freddy and Jason were both badly rebooted and both putative franchises came to a juddering halt (though they're trying Jason again), and the new Michael Myers managed two generally awful instalments before he was abandoned as well (although they're trying to resurrect him again as well). A disastrously recast Pinhead was last seen in a placeholder quickie so they could hold on to the remake rights, and Phantasm's Tall Man turned up in a belated and thoroughly underwhelming Part 5, meaning that Jigsaw's pretty much all we've got left now. So maybe it's time we stopped bringing the old scary guys back for an audience that just isn't interested in reboots, maybe we should create some new original scary guys for new original horrors.

Maybe. But Art The Clown isn't it. The implacable, silent and relentless killer from Terrifier (there's no definite article on screen) is certainly creepy and unsettling when he isn't murdering people, when he's just sitting in a diner, in full costume and make-up, staring at the young women he's decided will be his victims tonight. When they find themselves stranded with an inexplicable flat tyre, and one of them needs to use the loo in an apparently empty building, it's only a matter of time before Art picks them off along with anyone else in the vicinity...

Well, okay, but why? Freddy and Michael and Jason had their reasons and rationales, albeit flimsy ones (very flimsy for Jason, though not for Mrs Voorhees), and even second-string slashers from things like My Bloody Valentine and He Knows You're Alone (and a hundred other third- and fourth-stringers) targeted specific people for specific reasons. There's usually a basic backstory behind them (not always: part of the power of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the absence of any kind of context), from sexual obsession to revenge for playground pranks or past trauma. But there isn't any depth or dimension to Art The Clown. He's just butchering strangers for no reason, and if the victims aren't significant to him then why should they be significant to us?

Art's signature is wanton bloody excess, and the splatter highlight of Terrifier has one of the women strung up by her ankles and then bloodily bisected from crotch to throat. It's a needlessly violent kill, more for the prosthetics guys to showcase their talents than for any narrative value, but the end result is like one of Troma's old gore movies where gratuitous schlock was all they had to offer. Elsewhere, Art The Clown actually uses the lamest and laziest and least imaginative weapon of all: a handgun, which as far as I'm concerned is cheating for a wannabe slasher icon of the future.

Terrifier isn't awful: it has a sort of old-fashioned retro charm about it and it does deliver on the blood and gore. But it, and its visually striking villain, just doesn't have anything that might make you want to come back for seconds in a year's time.

**

Sunday, 5 November 2017

BEYOND SKYLINE

EH? REALLY? AND CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Of all the films released in 2010, Skyline was the one to which we needed a sequel? I can understand not doing a second helping of Green Zone or The Last Airbender or A Serbian Film, but was Skyline that much higher on the list of easily marketable properties that could be franchised out into a biennial sub-Independence Day monsterfest? There actually was a Skyline 2 pencilled in at one point back in 2012, but it's taken another five years for it to actually show up.

In the event, it's turned out surprisingly well, with a couple of decent names in the cast, a much wider canvas than the first film and much more of the aliens (and less of people bickering in a hotel suite and looking out of the window). Taking place mostly parallel with the first film, Beyond Skyline kicks off with Frank Grillo as a cop trapped in a subway train when the aliens turn up and suck all the humans up into their spaceships so they can either be impregnated with weird genetically spliced mutants and/or have their brains ripped out for the death robots. But sometimes those brains are still able to think for themselves and if they can take control of the motherships then maybe the Earth can be saved...

Much of the second half takes place in Cambodia where Iko Uwais turns up to do some (although not enough) martial arts stuff and a motley gang of survivors, including a fast-growing alien-human baby (shades of the fondly remembered V: The Final Battle), hole up under a temple and prepare to fight back. It's all absolute tosh, but it's pretty good fun with top-notch CG and green screen effects: if Skyline of all things is going to get a sequel then this is the way to go: sillier, bigger, more spectacular, and ending with the suggestion that any third instalment is going to be even bigger. Really the only false step is a set of bloopers at the end indicating just how reliant they were on green-screen; at least the outtakes at the end of a Jackie Chan film underline rather than undercut the reality by showing the stunt guys landing badly and fracturing their shins. Other than that, it's hugely entertaining pulp nonsense and I enjoyed it enormously.

****

Thursday, 2 November 2017

JIGSAW

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH THAT'S GOT TO HURT

The good news regarding this belated continuation of the much maligned mutilation saga is that, for the first time, you don't need to binge watch all the previous entries in a two-day marathon of screaming and dismemberment. I did, as usual, but found that ths usual homework was entirely unnecessary: this entry steers clear of endlessly restaging and reinterpreting events from previous films and dragging characters back for another appearance (pretty much everyone was killed off in the last one anyway); all you really need to know is that John Kramer is apparently back and instructing a further collection of deadbeats and lowlifes in the error of their ways, despite being conclusively very dead indeed at the end of Saw III and even more conclusively autopsied at the start of Saw IV.

The bad news is that I didn't wince once. That's not to suggest that Jigsaw is actually a heartwarming romp full of kittens and buttercups, but even on a fifth viewing I still grimace at Donnie Wahlberg's ankle smashing in Saw IV - more this time than the previous viewing - and by the high disgust standards of earlier movies (particularly the last one, which achieved crime scene photo levels of splattery verisimilitude) it's simply not in that look-away league. Still, there's more than enough ghoulish roadkill entertainment to be had: whirring saw blades, shotguns, acid injections, severed legs, and a final kill that's sadly CG silliness rather than physical shredded flesh.

It's doing all the things that the Saw series is noted for: sleight of hand with the timeline (they were doing this as far back as Saw II, and it took me a couple of runs to twig that the events of Saw III and Saw IV run concurrently), Charlie Clouser's industrial noise score (kudos for keeping the same musical voice throughout the series, which other franchises didn't bother with), a handful of red herring characters who might be the new killer, victims' characters and crimes efficiently sketched in, nods to the previous films, a complete lack of logic and sense (one might accept that John Kramer was wealthy and inventive enough to afford and construct all those traps, but can the same be said of the new holder of Jigsaw's mantle?), and a conclusion that suggests that in a year's time they, and we, will be doing the exact same thing.

That's not necessarily a bad thing: many other franchises have run out of steam a lot sooner than this, and some never had much steam to begin with. Saw has kept up the invention of new and visually impressive ways to rip the human body to pieces, it's responded to the demise of its central monster by constructing a hilariously convoluted set of backstories and flashbacks, and it's never had the good taste to look away when an eyeball's being skewered or yards of intestines are being sloshed around the floor. Best of all: none of the saga's horrors have been sexual: men and women have been victims, accomplices or both, but never because of their gender, and the driving forces behind Jigsaw and his cohorts have always been either philosophical and spiritual (albeit nonsensical), or borne out of straightforward vengeance.

Neither the best nor the worst of the saga, Jigsaw is a perhaps unnecessary stab at jumpstarting another five or six showcases for cheery torture and screaming: it feels more like a new start than a mere continuation or a retread: as if they know there's no more material to wring out of Tobin Bell's gamesmaster, and any further films could dispense with him entirely now a replacement, albeit a less charismatic one, has been anointed. Personally I'm okay with this: despite (or perhaps because of) their relentless grimness, their pretence at profundity and their eschewing of overt comedy they somehow end up as hilarious and impossible to take too seriously, and I'm more than happy to spend ninety minutes every Halloween watching people dismember and mutilate themselves for the most idiotic of reasons. Grisly fun.

***

Sunday, 8 October 2017

ESCAPE ROOM

NOT THAT IT MATTERS, BUT SPOILERS

Quite clearly, they're not trying any more. Quite clearly, they're not even pretending that a halfway decent movie was ever on the cards. Quite clearly, they just don't care about any semblance of quality or style, any semblance of interesting character or narrative. Quite clearly, so long as there's enough horror completists out there willing to watch absolutely anything with a bit of gore or a bit of violence and a couple of hot chicks, the job's as good as done and they don't need to bother doing anything better. When did audience standards slip so low that crap - there are few better words for it - like Escape Room was considered acceptable? When did people stop asking "is that really the best you (or I) can do?"

The phenomenon of the Escape Room is new to me (though a quick Google reveals that there's one not too far away from my town): a sealed environment in which a group of people have to solve a series of puzzles against the clock. In this particular instance Skeet Ulrich's escape room (called Deranged for no obvious reason) is somewhat enlivened by the presence of a mysterious Skull Box he's purchased from Sean Young's ephemera/junk shop: it contains a demon that possesses the struggling actor who's playing the sack-headed monster chained to the wall and proceeds to unspectacularly off the quartet of idiots who've just been locked in...

Why does the demon possesses the one person whose movement is restricted? Why, when it's finally clear what's going on, doesn't Ulrich at least reel back the chains from the outside? Why do the hapless idiots locked in the room waste so much time on very obvious clues? More damagingly, why do we yet again have to have a couple of horror nerds arguing endlessly about classic horror movies when their own film is not, and never had a chance of being, anywhere near that league? You haven't earned the right to casually namedrop You're Next and John Carpenter's The Thing unless your own film isn't even vaguely competent, and for all your obvious horror geekery it absolutely isn't here. Contains strobing.

*

Thursday, 5 October 2017

UNHINGED

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND... WHATEVER, I'M NOT SURE I CAN HONESTLY BE BOTHERED ANY MORE

The standard studio wisdom appears to be that you remake the great movies because they're the famous ones and it'll make lots of money; no-one expects them to be as good as the originals because they never are but people will still watch them, and modern audiences haven't seen the earlier versions anyway because no-one is interested in movies more than two years old. Personally I'd rather they remade the rubbish films instead because the bar is so low that a better film is pretty much guaranteed. Don't remake A Nightmare On Elm Street, remake Zoltan Hound Of Dracula where there's room for improvement and people will still watch it because clearly they'll watch anything.

The flaw in the plan is when they obligingly remake something utterly worthless and still make a steaming great Farage of things. For absolutely no good reason beyond its unwarranted inclusion on the Video Nasties list from the early eighties, they've chosen the festival of rampant mediocrity that is Unhinged. (Maybe a Bloody Moon remake is already in the works somewhere and the owners of Night Of The Bloody Apes wanted too much money.) In this they've not only chosen the dullest and most miserable load of old nothing, but have done it so badly that they've failed to clear a bar that Ant-Man would have trouble slithering under. Four annoying American girlies on a road trip to a wedding get lost in the wilds of England and have to spend a few days at a remote farmhouse; bad stuff happens.

The all-new Unhinged has nothing to commend it: a complete lack of visual flair (in fairness, the original was scarcely Hitchcock), performances somehow even less expressive than a Mind The Gap tannoy announcement, characters it's impossible to root for even when they're being chased around drab woodlands or being tortured in the woodshed by a mystery maniac. In the end, for all the fact that the original's writer-director Don Gronquist is credited on this one it's actually got very little to do plotwise with the 1982 film (the trailer bills it as a "remake of the 1983 video nasty classic", not only getting the year wrong but redefining the word "classic" to mean "thing") beyond the central premise of a car load of idiots stuck in a house with a killer. It's a premise that's scarcely innovative but even so, if you can't make anything better than this out of it you probably shouldn't even bother trying. In the end it just makes you wonder whether you actually need, or even want, to watch cheapo schlock horror movies any more.

*

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND SOMETHING I CAN'T QUITE PUT MY FINGER ON, OO-ER MISSUS

There's a scene in this second Kingsman movie, about which a lot has already been said: an attempt to top the alleged anal sex joke at the end of the first one with a perhaps overly graphic gag about fingering: specifically the digital insertion of a tracking device into a lady's crevices for dubious plot purposes. I'm not about to go in to bat defending this scene: it isn't at all necessary (can't she just swallow it?) and it isn't funny, any more than the bum-based payoff from the first film. But it is indicative of the film's attitude to women in general and its lack of any sense of shame or guilt over that attitude.

Still, there's plenty of fun to be had with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, kicking off with a dizzying fight and car chase through London between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and a rejected Kingsman trainee. Later that same evening, missiles streak out of nowhere and destroy the entire Kingsman organisation, from the tailor's shop to the country training base to Eggsy's own flat. The villainess is Poppy (Julianne Moore), multi-trillionaire drugs dealer scheming to get her products legalised by contaminating the drugs with a poison to which only she has the antidote. The only survivors of the Kingsman firm (just Egerton and Mark Strong) have to team up with their American equivalent, Statesman, run by Jeff Bridges with Halle Berry and Channing Tatum in support....

It's nonsense, obviously: Poppy specifically takes out Kingsman yet not only ignores Statesman but also mysteriously ignores the CIA, FBI, MI5, Interpol, and every other national and international intelligence in the world. It's also nonsense that they've managed to get the could-not-be-deader Galahad (Colin Firth) back to life with a bag of magic jelly, because he was the best thing about the first film and they've realised they made a mistake in killing him off. Worse, though, is the boysy, blokey attitude to women as sex objects, staying behind in the office or at home while The Men go off and have all the fun fighting and chasing and blowing things up and fingering hot chicks at a rock festival. Eggsy's princess girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom) is off screen most of the time, the American tech wizard (Halle Berry) never leaves the HQ, and fellow British agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets one solitary scene in her bedroom before being blown up, and the only woman of any significance is Julianne Moore's villain. It's the guys who do all the exciting stuff - even Sir Elton John, of all people, gets to kungfu a couple of disposable minions to a pulp. (It's been quite a year for rubbish celebrity cameos in blockbusters and this is every bit the equal of David Beckham and Paul McCartney except that there's a hell of a lot more of it this time around.)

And yet... as a rubbish popcorn action movie for unreconstructed blokey blokes it's kind of big stupid fun and it doesn't have the dead hand of psychological angst (a post-Bourne trend that's plagued rubbish popcorn action franchises for years, from Batman to Bond to Doctor Who) weighing it down by pretending it's Serious Drama. Things go bang, people get attacked by robot dogs, people get fed through a meat mincer, people get cut in half with laser bullwhips: the film knows exactly what it's doing and for whom it's doing it. I don't think it's as good as the first one: I could have done without the brasher American angle dominating the peculiarly British charm of the original, but its flaws certainly weren't enough to get me angry and I had enough knucklehead entertainment to carry me through the dodgy passages. That said, maybe enough is enough now and they should stop while they're slightly ahead.

***