Friday, 30 September 2011

NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS

CONTAINS TITS SPOILERS

A does-what-it-says-in-the-tin offering that's exactly what you think it is and is precisely as awful as you fear it'll be: cynical trash sniggering over its "adult" (as in rude) content like a 12-year-old with a copy of Razzle. I'm not averse to screen nudity - as the old line goes, "if it's essential to the plot", and there's certainly a place for it in art and entertainment. But in the best of them - Basic Instinct, Dressed To Kill - there's more to the film than just the nipple count and the thrusting bums. Well, this is not the best of them. This isn't even Basic Instinct 2. Nor is it much of a faux-grindhouse movie: it's more of a mean-spirited morass of sex and violence in the manner of Bitch Slap and Hell Ride; sweaty, ugly lowlifes ruthlessly abusing the meek and innocent. To which the only "adult" (as in mature) response is "grow up".

The principal nude nun in Nude Nuns With Big Guns (and I don't discount the possibility of a thudding pun related to Big 'Uns) is Sister Sarah, sucked into the drugs industry by the Mother Superior and various high-ups in the local Catholic Church: turned into a junkie prostitute at a strip club-cum-brothel, she vows revenge and sets about exterminating the priests and bishops involved (one of whom appears to be attempting the vocal inflections of Christopher Walken for no particularly good reason). In panic, the Church call upon the Los Muertos biker gang, a gathering of phenomenally repulsive individuals operating out of a gas station in the desert....

This is rubbish. And it's not even entertaining in an undemanding Friday night tits-and-gore rental kind of a way. For all the nudity and lesbian couplings, for all the gunfire, rape and sleaze, it's actually pretty dull and tiresome. If you must make wannabe-grindhouse garbage movies, there's no rule that says they can't have some level of quality in them. Like Machete or Hobo With A Shotgun, something that might make an amusing spoof trailer doesn't necessarily translate to a feature-length film (Machete kind of got away with it; Hobo empathically didn't.)

And again: if you want to watch naked women, then buy some porn. This is porn for people who don't really want to watch porn, so they watch this kind of thing because it's a proper film with a proper story and proper characters and there are a few bits where they've got their clothes on. Absolutely not worth the time and money, or indeed the effort expended in pressing the Play button.

*

ABDUCTION

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND INACCURATE DEFINITIONS

The misdefining of words occurs twice with regard to this tween action thriller. Not just the intergalactic inaccuracy of the title: the film contains chases, fights, shootouts, martial arts, explosions, foreign spies, teen romance, anger management counselling and baseball, but there's no abduction and no-one is abducted. Secondly, Taylor Lautner is not an actor, whatever it might say on his IMDb page or his passport. He's an actor in the sense that he stands there and says and does whatever's in the script, but he's not an actor in the sense that he does any acting or can actually act. In the Twilight movies, he's there to add some smouldering animal meat to the simpering damprot of the Edward/Bella relationship, and he's performing pretty much the same function here - looking hunky and muscled and occasionally taking his shirt off, although not turning into a werewolf.

Abduction has Lautner playing an apparently ordinary high-school kid who, while researching missing children for a sociology class project, chances upon his own childhood photograph on a missing persons website: and before you can say "shameless plot contrivance", sinister men in suits turn up, murder his parents (who weren't really his parents), and blow up his house for no good reason. Who is he really, and what does he have that the CIA and a cabal of foreign agents both want? He has to go on the run with his cute neighbour, aided occasionally by psychiatrist Sigourney Weaver (who disappears for most of the movie), to solve the mystery, come to terms with his paternal abandonment issues, and look hunky and muscled with his shirt off.

Presumably they knew early on that Lautner had the character expression skills of a chair leg, so they drafted in real actors for the supporting roles: they could do the acting while Lautner got on with the "looking hunky and muscled" stuff. This was a mistake: putting Lautner in the same room as Jason Isaacs, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello and Sigourney Weaver merely punches up the contrast between the people who can act and the star who can't. If they'd cast it entirely with people from daytime soaps and pornography, Lautner wouldn't look so out of place. And if the object was distraction - to surround him with explosions and fights and chase sequences so you don't notice the gaping hole at the centre where a leading man should be - it doesn't come off because most of the action stuff is fatally underpowered (the train fight excepted: I thought that was quite well done).

The distraction technique worked in Eagle Eye, where they shoehorned Shia La Boeuf into an idiotic action movie but at least delivered the goods with the pyrotechnics and stunt sequences. But it doesn't work here. The plot's nonsense, the action scenes generally lack impact and the star is a blank - hardly surprising that Abduction is pretty horrendous stuff. As a middle-aged straight guy, I might not be the target audience - teenage girls who think Robert Pattinson is a bit drippy and prefer the smouldering biceps of the other bloke - but surely even they deserve something of more substance than this? Bizarrely, it's directed by John Singleton, one of the significant voices in the "New Black Cinema" of the 1990s with films like Boyz N The Hood - but now doing anonymous studio fodder like 2 Fast 2 Furious and this tween twaddle. Shame.

**

Thursday, 29 September 2011

51

CONTAINS SPOILERS

The After Dark stable of DTV horror quickies takes a slightly surprising turn for the better here. Recently we've had a string of uninteresting and unremarkable, and indeed missable, films: Fertile Ground, Prowl, Husk, Seconds Apart, and while this new entry is in no way any kind of unsurpassable masterwork, it's still significantly better than the norm and also more fun. Sure it's unoriginal - it cribs blatantly from Alien, Aliens and The Thing as well as the geekier episodes of The X-Files - but it's done with enough energy and wit to get over the silliness, the cheapness, and the shameless copying.

51 obviously refers to Area 51, the chunk of Nevada where the US military supposedly keeps crashed alien spacecraft along with the aliens themselves. To "prove" there's nothing to these conspiracies, the government "agrees" to let a few members of the press into the base and the legendary Hangar 18, and show them enough mind-blowing technology to keep them and the public satisfied. But there ARE aliens on the base and, by unhappy coincidence, they're choosing this same day to make their escape....

Pleasingly, the monster sequences have mainly been done with prosthetics and men in suits (admittedly not brilliant ones - Patient Zero is basically a veined body stocking) rather than duff CGI and, even though they're clearly not working with a huge budget, the effects are generally decent enough. The characters are mainly worth cheering for and nicely sketched it, and there's a layer of humour (including a neat gag about Ronald Reagan). In the second half, it does settle for scenes of idiots and military badasses hunting monsters in dark, underground corridors, and the finale does lack the desired oomph as the film runs out of steam. But as a definatly silly Friday night monster B-movie it's a decent enough rental. Directed by Jason Connery.

***

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

8839251 CONTAINS 2046816 3518319 SPOILERS 7730165

Now that the summer's over, and the schools have gone back, perhaps cinemas can tear themselves away with occasionally amusing but hollow distractions and put on some movies that demand your attention throughout. Like last year's Inception, if you duck out of this wonderfully bleak and downbeat espionage drama - emphatically not a thriller - for a wee and/or more nachos, you will lose the entire thread of the story. Even if you don't, you have to pay attention as there's a lot that's unspoken and you have to fill in some of the blanks yourself: I didn't move throughout the entire running time and I missed some key plot material in the final stretch of the movie. Go before it starts.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a whodunnit where it doesn't really matter who the villain is - the Russian mole at the heart of the British Intelligence outfit of the early 1970s could be any one of its top brass quartet of Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and David Dencik. After retirement and the death of Control (John Hurt), George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is reluctantly dragged back into "The Circus" when asked to uncover the traitor, entirely unofficially, and with only MI6 agent Benedict Cumberbatch and retired police offiver Roger Lloyd-Pack to assist. Much of the mystery centres around Czechoslovakia - not just the disastrous attempt to bring in a high-ranking Soviet official but a subsequent incident where a relatively junior British agent goes off on his own to bring someone else in - but what really happened? Who's the new source of Russian intelligence so eagerly seized upon by The Circus as a bargaining chip to get in with the Americans? Double bluff? Triple bluff?

Its greatest achievement, aside from showcasing some fantastic acting talent (there's also Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Tom Hardy and Simon McBurney), is probably capturing the mood and look of that time and that Cold War world and mentality. The glasses, the suits, the smoking, the cars, the decor, the endless game of chess between Britain and Russia. It's a drab, glum world: it even feels drab and glum compared to something like The Ipcress File, let alone the comic strip antics of Bond and Bourne. There are no speedboat chases, no space lasers, nothing blows up, and no-one's having any fun. But despite the lack of laughs and gosh-wow adrenaline rush moments, I really enjoyed it: I enjoyed being immersed in a world of deceit and obfuscation, even if it did get the better of me in places. Beautifully shot, thoroughly absorbing, and a movie of this calibre every month or so would not go amiss.

****

Monday, 26 September 2011

KILLER ELITE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU JUST SAID THAT

There's a certain moment that comes along in movies from time to time that's guaranteed to have me wincing. Not any kind of violence (although I still look away in Saw III when someone pulps their own ankle with a toilet cistern) but the use of hideously clunky lines of dialogue. Lines that land on the screen with a wet thud such as "You remind me of myself when I was your age" as uttered, probably at gunpoint, by Alec Baldwin in Pearl Harbour, or "Yo' momma" by Halle Berry in Die Another Day: iffy movies anyway but not helped by "ouch" one-liners. Well, early on in this knuckleheaded macho nonsense, in an unnecessary effort to big up Jason Statham, the phrase "This guy's your worst nightmare" gets an outing. And they're so proud this that some time later they use it again. Ouch, ouch.

Despite the title, Killer Elite has nothing to do with Sam Peckinpah's 1975 action movie The Killer Elite, but is "inspired" instead from a 1993 non-fiction book by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Jason Statham is a retired Special Ops type, done with assassinations after almost killing a child and now living in a remote area of Australia - but he's brought reluctantly back into action when his mentor and friend Robert De Niro is held hostage by an exiled tribal leader in Oman wanting revenge against the SAS operatives who killed three of his sons and instructing hardman Jason Statham to take them out. But equally hardman Clive Owen, on behalf of the powerful secret organisation of ex-military types known as The Feather Men, is on the trail....

Odd to see De Niro in a simplistic thudfest like this - curiously, this is the second De Niro movie involving someone falsely claiming to be ex-SAS (after Ronin, and let's just hope he knows how to pronounce Hereford now); Statham does the usual Statham thing which is usually watchable and Clive Owen has fun as what is basically the villain role as he's protecting the dodgy ex-SAS murderers. It's far too long, and it has absolutely nothing for the women to do - there's only one female speaking part of a significance and she's not in it for most of the film - but as a Blokes' Saturday Night Action Movie with fights and chases and shootouts and swearing and grunting, it's perfectly entertaining.

***

Sunday, 25 September 2011

HEADHUNTER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND GET ON WITH IT

Nothing to do with the upcoming Norwegian thriller Headhunters (which is supposed to be rather good), nor the genuinely mind-boggling Kannibal which is shortly to be foisted upon a largely unprepared UK populace under the title of Headhunter; this is a rather stupid late 80s horror/cop quickie which really isn't very good but it musters up just about enough energy and silly grue to carry it over the atrocious writing and spectacularly annoying characters, not least of which is the star turn from the hero of the rubbish Jake Speed (remember that one?).

Much of Headhunter takes place in Miami but it actually kicks off in Nigeria where a ritual sacrifice appears to unleash some kind of shapeshifting demon thingy that derives its power from ripping people's heads off. Cut to Florida where a similar ceremony again unleashes the same thing that's tracking down those who fled its appearance in Nigeria: cops Kay Lenz and Wayne Crawford (the latter suffering a spectacularly aggressive marital breakdown which is frankly all that he deserves as he's an idiot) are on the case as headless corpses keep turning up, including their chief suspect. But as it's a shapeshifter that can take the appearance of anyone, how will they know when it comes for them?

Too much time in the opening third is spent with charmless ignoramus Crawford and his collapsing marriage to June Chadwick; not enough spent on the horror element which takes too long to kick in. There's not a vast amount of gore - it's only a 15 - but the effects at least prosthetic and optical rather than unconvincing CGI, and it's fair enough entertainment when it does get going. But too often it goes back to the tiresome station full of cops (including Steve Kanaly out of Dallas!), all of whom are dongs and dimwits and none of whom are even slightly interesting. Kay Lenz and the occasional effective moment aside, this really isn't worth your time.

**

Saturday, 24 September 2011

THE LEGEND OF HARROW WOODS

MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS, ALTHOUGH I'M NOT SURE WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED

Richard Driscoll is back. First off he made The Comic, which generated such an ugly mood at the Splatterfest in February 1990 that it was slowclapped at three o'clock in the morning, and another film which he'd only produced, a serial killer movie inspired by Dennis Nielsen entitled The Cold Light Of Day, was hastily dropped from the running order and replaced with Evil Dead II to mollify a disgruntled audience. Rumour had it at the time that Driscoll was escorted out of the Scala Cinema for his own safety. Years later, there was Kannibal, an unfathomably bonkers piece of outright trash that was a combination of dull lesbian softcore, incompetent police procedural and Sir Anthony Hopkins impressions. (It looks to have gone to the BBFC again recently under the title of Head Hunter, and despite its incoherence I urge you to rent it as soon as it's released because you genuinely will not believe your eyes.)

And now here's The Legend Of Harrow Woods, a random assemblage of atrocious acting, star cameos, dodgy CGI effects and people wandering around in the woods in the dark. A group of friends who call themselves The Internetter's Birthday Club (not only making up words but misplacing the apostrophe) have a tradition of celebrating their birthdays by going out and investigating paranormal activities, and broadcasting their footage online; and this year they're looking into Harrow Woods, not only the site of a witch who cursed the land as she was burned at the stake but also the last known location of a horror writer and his family, who mysteriously disappeared a few years ago in the same cabin in the woods. But the psychic traces of the past horrors are still there....

While the principal characters, who stumble around the drab woodlands uttering dialogue that I refuse to believe was scripted by a grown adult, are played by people who simply can't act, the supporting cast in the flashback sequences is filled out with a surprising array of talent. Norman Wisdom turns up as a toilet attendant for one scene, which is then repeated verbatim except that Wisdom has been replaced by Rik Mayall. No explanation is given for this. Robin Askwith, no less, is the horror writer's brother who's possibly having a long-term affair with his wife. Eileen Daly is in it as a psychic. One of the Internetter gang is Jason Donovan and the writer-director-auteur-genius himself shows up as the legendary horror writer under a pseudonym. Most intriguingly is the presence of Christopher Walken (!!!!!!) who despite prominent billing is not actually in the movie at all; it's just his voice reciting Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, sometimes over a rhythm track that threatens on occasion to turn into a rap.

The lack of any kind of competent script and several performances that don't warrant the term "performance" (and indeed barely justify the words "speaking out loud") from the rightfully unknown main cast aren't all that's wrong - they've decided to release it in red/green 3D despite the fact that most of the action takes place at night and all the flashbacks are in sepia, and despite the fact that red/green 3D simply doesn't work. You don't get decent separation of the two images and everything turns brown. Nor does 3D work terribly well when you're playing with the speed settings within the shot - a technique known as ramping, where bits of the shot speed up or slow down. (The DVD has both 2D and 3D versions; I only watched the 2D.) And it's presumably got its 18 for the nudity in the flashbacks as there's little onscreen violence apart from some below feeble CGI blood splatter and a brief double breast impalement.

Bizarrely, it's one of the few horror movies where one of the dunderheaded corpses-to-be doesn't wave a mobile in the air and bleat that they can't get a signal. Why? Well, it appears that chunks of this were actually shot back in 2001, and more in 2008. It's also unclear how this connects with Evil Calls, for which the IMDb lists the same cast and characters, but which doesn't appear to have been released, or Back2Hell, which would appear to be a sequel but has an even more unlikely star cast (Sylvester McCoy, Patrick Bergin, Bai Ling, Lysette Anthony, Colin Baker, Oliver Tobias) as well as several recurring from this one. Maybe it'll all make sense when viewed as a giant entity. Or maybe, and more likely, it won't because Driscoll simply isn't capable of making even halfway watchable films. This is rubbish: it isn't even fun rubbish, it's pretentious, dull, it looks like a fifth-form student film, it's hopelessly inadequate on all fronts and despite the star turns is worthless, wretched and depressing. If you rent it, more fool you and I have no sympathy for you.

*

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

CONFESSIONS FROM A HOLIDAY CAMP

CONTAINS BIG ONES. SPOILERS, I MEAN.

There are numerous mysteries at the heart of this entry in the already mystifying subgenre of British sex comedies. Firstly, how on Earth did writer Christopher Wood get from here to not one but two James Bond films (The Spy Who Loved Me, regarded by many as one of the best, and Moonraker, which isn't but which I do have a fondness for)? It's like being hired to adapt The Godfather on the basis of a couple of episodes of On The Buses. Secondly, how on Earth did Robin Askwith get to be any kind of sex symbol? Granted they were presumably looking for someone unlikely, but with all due respect, surely not THAT unlikely. Thirdly, who let it get this far? This is the fourth of the Confessions saga - after Window Cleaner, Pop Performer and Driving Instructor. (Apparently there would have been more, but the Adventures Of... series picked up where Confessions left off.)

Confessions From A Holiday Camp does, admittedly, do precisely what it says on the tin: the (mainly) sexual antics of the staff and guests at a British seaside holiday camp. Timothy (Askwith) and his mate Sidney (Anthony Booth - and I bet these movies don't get discussed much over the Booth/Blair Christmas dinner) are the entertainment managers, loafing and skiving and generally messing around, until the camp is taken over by former prison warder John Junkin who starts straightening things out. Desperate to keep their cushy jobs, Timothy and Sidney come up with the idea of a beauty contest, but none of the contestants seem to be able to keep their hands off poor Timmy....

Essentially this is nothing more than Carry On Butlins - Anthony Booth's character is actually Sidney Noggett which is a typical Sid James name from the Talbot Rothwell years. By this time the actual Carry Ons had all but ceased after deteriorating rapidly and the ruder, nuder sex comedies with the likes of the legendary Mary Millington, Suzy Mandel and Fiona Richmond were gaining popularity. It's got enough full nudity and softcore coupling to still get it an 18 certificate, and a sprinkling of familiar TV favourites that don't get their clothes off (Bill Maynard, Liz Fraser). But it isn't funny: in all honesty the funniest thing about the film is Lance Percival's comedy homosexual.

It's a product of its time: you could do mincing camp in 1977 but you couldn't do it now. Nor could you include the character of Blackbird, the sole black character in the movie (intriguingly, dubbed by Miriam Margolyes) and the source of now-dubious lines about jungle rhythms and racial tension. I wouldn't say it was homophobic or racist since there's clearly no malice or hatred involved; whatever society's attitudes might be now, they were different back in the seventies. Things change.

Was it funny in 1977? I didn't see it then - I'd guess not very, since most people were presumably there for the plentiful tit and bum action and weren't expecting anything other than the most basic of slapstick and single entendres. Nor, despite the naked women littering the screen, is it particularly sexy (especially when it cuts to Robin Askwith pulling faces). It certainly raises nothing more than .... (wait for it) .... the occasional smirk. If you're going to put nudity into a movie within a narrative context, that context does need to be much better than this. And without the context, it's just porn, and that's even less interesting. The theme song is performed by The Wurzels.

*

QUARANTINE 2: TERMINAL

DOORS TO MANUEL. CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

First there was the Spanish original [Rec], which was one of the better found footage movies on the grounds that there was a decent reason for someone to be filming all this stuff, and then [Rec] 2, which again worked well enough. Then they remade the original [Rec] as Quarantine, not so much shot for shot as pixel for pixel, on the grounds that American audiences were not only so thick they couldn't master the complexities of reading the subtitles, but they needed a poster that gave away the final image of the movie. It was okay, but if you've seen [Rec] you've effectively seen Quarantine as it was exactly the same film. While they're busy continuing the Spanish-language series with [Rec] 3 and [Rec] 4, we now have a sequel to the remake which is NOT a remake of the sequel, in the same way that Rob Zombie's Halloween II has nothing to do with Rick Rosenthal's Halloween II.

And now we have Quarantine 2: Terminal, which mercifully ditches the increasingly wearisome found footage technique and adopts the more traditional techniques of editing and photography that you expect from a proper film (though, curiously, no music score). The Doomsday Virus thing from the first movie(s) gets loose on an aeroplane in mid-flight and starts infecting people, turning them into slavering zombies. Forced to land when the first victim goes royally berserk, the remaining passengers and crew can't get into the terminal itself and, find themselves sealed up in one of the cargo hangars as the disease control people seek to contain the outbreak....

Occasionally it does lapse back into the POV style with the acquisition of thermal goggles but generally speaking it's made as a proper film since there's no reason within the narrative for any of this to be constantly recorded. Eventually it just becomes a standard zombie movie with the dwindling survivors running around the dark hangar and having to kill one another to stay alive. Much of this is frankly pretty mundane and very difficult to get excited about, no better or worse than dozens of other DTV quickies although it does set itself up nicely for a Quarantine 3.

Even as airborne horror goes - surprisingly a pretty thin subgenre - it's undistinguished; the pinnacle is probably the Twilight Zone story Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (William Shatner or John Lithgow) or the 1970s TV-movie The Horror At 37,000 Feet, coincidentally also with Shatner. Quarantine 2 is entirely functional and unremarkable but never gets off the ground, and while the move away from faux-reportage is to be encouraged, it still needs to be better than this.

**

Upright positions:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

DEATH SCREAMS

CONTAINS SPOILERS - MAYBE, I'M NOT SURE

Horror fans of a certain generation tend to be nostalgic for movies that perhaps aren't the very best. No-one up to and including the people who actually made them would suggest that Friday The 13th Part II, Happy Birthday To Me or The House By The Cemetery are neglected Works Of Art that were cheated at the world's Academies, but many would take grungy splatter and slasher B-movies any day over the A-list productions we're supposed to like and admire. But even with drive-in slasher ripoffs there are good and bad, and while it's fun to reminisce about films like Rosemary's Killer, it's no fun with the underachieving rubbish like this pitiful 1981 obscurity starring no-one you've ever heard of in which hardly anything happens.

There's really not much point in going through the plot of Death Screams - a homicidal maniac butchers a couple of teens making out by the train tracks. Forty minutes later, after a slab of uninterrupted blathery soap opera that would make a Crossroads fan weep in boredom, someone gets shot with an arrow. More teens then gather by the river to make out, before heading off to the cemetery to smoke, drink and tell ghost stories. Eventually the mad killer turns up, decapitates some idiot in a car and runs around with a machete before being revealed as someone or other. Apparently he saw some tits when he was a kid and therefore grew up with an urge to kill people.

The gore is minimal and what there is isn't massively well done; the characters are all dull and there isn't even a total scumbag to get angry about (and to get pleased about when he/she gets murdered), and some of the performances are so poor you can't believe they're actors rather than people randomly pulled off the street. The killer's motivation is frankly rubbish, two thirds of the movie take place in badly lit pitch darkness, and it plays out against a monumentally inappropriate score that's partly generic synth drones and partly a brass/funk orchestra playing sub-Kojak cop show grooves. Keep up the nostalgia for early eighties slasher movies by all means, but not for this dross.

*

NOTE: I've subsequently been informed that the Vipco release of Death Screams has the reels in the wrong order! This may well mean that if presented correctly, Death Screams is a fairly decent little slasher flick and worth another star or two. However, tough. This is the edit they've released and if Vipco have ballsed it up that's their problem. I can only review what's in front of me. Even if the reels were switched back, there'd still be the rotten music, shoddy acting and absence of gore (for an 18 certificate film) to contend with.

Friday, 16 September 2011

AFTER...

CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS BECAUSE I DON'T SEE WHY I SHOULD BE ALONE WITH THE MISERY, YOU UTTER UTTER BASTARDS

Less than two weeks after they sent me the tiresome Moscow Zero, in which a bunch of idiots bumble aimlessly around in the dark somewhere under Moscow, they now send me this piss-poor excuse for an apology for a turd of a so-called horror movie, in which three idiots bumble aimlessly around in the dark somewhere under Moscow, but badly told, incompetently shot and without even the frankly variable talents of Vincent Gallo and Val Kilmer to try (and fail) to prop it up and turn it into something approaching a basic level of professionalism.

In After..., Nate, Addy and Jay are urban explorers: thrill-seekers breaking into the world's most dangerous man-made structures (abandoned factories, power stations, bunkers etc) and base jumping off the roof, then uploading their shouldercam footage to the internet. Their next adventure is a quest for Stalin's secret metro system and Ivan The Terrible's torture dungeons, located somewhere under Moscow and handily just down the track from the city's equivalent of the Northern Line. But it's not long before things go wrong. Nate starts seeing things: the body of his and Addy's missing/dead daughter (like many things, it's not made clear) being buried by a literally faceless man, one of the child's drawings in a pile of newspapers. And then there's radiation, jeeps full of soldiers massacring homeless people, and everyone's put on a train which doesn't appear to be stopping anywhere - and Jay and Addy suddenly fritz out of existence in bursts of static. What's going on?

The Big Twist - that Nate is actually dead and his past and alternate life choices are just playing out in his subconscious in the split second before his death - is not only Jacob's Ladder all over again (amongst others) but illogical in that it's predicting the detail of a trip to Moscow he died before taking. Fine - you can prove any amount of plot chasms with enough waffle about near death experiences. What absolutely isn't fine, though, is the style of the piece - it's hyper-edited so every shot lasts a maximum of about 0.75 of a second, every shot is either hand-held or shoulder-mounted (so extremely wobbly), and pretty much every shot is suffused in red or green light that suggests nothing more than David L Cunningham watched Suspiria a couple of times and thought "I can do that". Well, surprise surprise: he can't.

With that, and a penchant for shooting closeups through a fish eye lens that gives everyone a nose the size of the Horn Of Africa, the inevitable response is the same kind of queasy feeling that goes with the words "shouldn't have had the fish". And that's watching it on a 37" home screen. Project this at even a medium sized Cineworld and you'll be knee deep in bile and semi-digested fries by the end of the second reel. Put it on at the Odeon Leicester Square or Waterloo IMAX and the resultant projectile vomiting will be violent enough to affect the Earth's orbit.

Really: how the hell did this get picked up for release? This is from Optimum: a proper distribution company (now Studio Canal), putting out proper A-list films to nationwide cinemas as well as digging out interesting and unusual movies from the world's vaults. Not some backstreet Del Trotter outfit slinging out any old crap they can get their hands on. Why did no-one say something along the lines of "I'm sorry, Mr Cunningham, but your film simply isn't good enough to be distributed in the UK. You clearly haven't the first idea how to direct and you really need to sit down and watch a shedload of movies to figure out how they're actually put together." Why, in short, didn't someone stop it?

Instead, probably out of pity, they've bought the rights to his genuinely nauseous little "film", which promptly gets released to the British public like a botulism outbreak, and David L Cunningham, who has the shameless and barefaced gall to take a co-writing and directing credit on this worthless and insulting waste of time and shelf space, gets a proper director job on a proper film with proper actors (The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, which has people like Christopher Eccleston, Ian McShane and Wendy Crewson in it). Truly there ain't no justice. It's not merely that everyone should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, it's that they should be rounded up and beaten with sticks until they swear, and sign in blood, never to go near a camera again.

It's got the production values of gonzo gangbang pornography, and to even put your name to amateur-night incompetence of this nature suggests a monstrous ego or that you simply don't give a damn about your audience. This really is unbearable and just because genre fans can be quite tolerant when it comes to dodgy acting and directing doesn't mean we'll watch any fetid sludge you throw at us. Paying customers have a right to a basic level of professional competence if nothing else, and we are monumentally short-changed here.

*

Thursday, 15 September 2011

RED WATER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SENSE OF DEJA VU

Hang on a moment, haven't we been here before? Haven't we "done" CGI shark movies? We've already plodded through Shark Attack and Shark Attack 2 and Shark Attack 3 and Shark In Venice - there can't be much mileage left in indifferently animated shark attacks. Yet they still keep making them. Presumably the shark is the pre-programmed demo creature that comes bundled free with the effects software; if they want a giraffe or a komodo dragon or a coelacanth they've got to buy the upgrades. (Maybe the shockingly unconvincing octopus in Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus was coded by a five-year-old, it certainly looks like it.)

Red Water is a wet TV-movie in which oil prospectors (in a wildlife reserve) set off an underwater explosion that releases a bull shark into the river, which promptly heads off and eats some bit-part players. Near-bankrupt charter captain and former oil worker Lou Diamond Phillips reluctantly teams up with his ex (Kristy Swanson!) and an oil company rep to trek out to the rig to monitor its impact on the local wildlife. Also upriver are some dumb crooks (including Coolio!) looking for $5m of stolen loot and generally getting in the way. And there's also the shark....

It's dull, it's desperately unoriginal, and the CGI shark effects are so lame that it might as well be a glove puppet - you really did see better effects work in Blake's Seven and the latter years of vintage Doctor Who. And it isn't even decent to look at (made in South Africa doubling for Louisiana - and why was that deemed to be cheaper than just filming it in Louisiana?). It's a thoroughly uninteresting one-star experience all the way. Watch Jaws instead. Hell, watch Jaws 4 instead.

*

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

3D SEX & ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY

CONTAINS SOME MAJOR SPOILERS AND BLIMEY, CHARLIE, DON'T POINT THAT THING AT ME, IT MIGHT GO OFF

So it's come to this. We've found the level at last. The pinnacle of three-dimensional cinema isn't the finely rendered world-building of Avatar, the giant robot smashy spectacle of Transformers 3 or the constant jabbing of sharp and pointy things in the likes of My Bloody Valentine. No, it's tits. Not only can you get a load of the norks on that, guvnor, you can practically reach out and touch them. Hurrah for technology. Previously, if you wanted to see a woman's rack in three dimensions, you needed access to an actual woman. However, the movie's not exclusively about tits. It's a completely unhinged sexual melodrama about orgies, androgynes, concubines, infidelity, rape, divorce, castration, chastity and penis transplants, cunningly designed as a searing emotional dissection of sexual inadequacy within the marital relationship.

3D Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy concerns a young scholar, Wei Yangsheng (the names from the IMDb appear to be spelled differently in the film's subtitles) who cannot satisfy his beloved bride Tie Yuxiang due to a premature ejaculation and a half-inch knob. He attends the hedonistic anything-goes court of the evil Prince Of Ning in the hope of discovering better lovemaking techniques, and strikes a bargain with the Elder Of Bliss, a woman with a five-foot penis wrapped round her thigh and a disconcertingly deep voice (as if James Earl Jones had dubbed Princess Leia instead of Vader). S/he will teach him how to be a great lover - but first he needs a penis transplant performed by two comedy halfwits in a shack. But there's a darker side to things: in addition to Yangsheng's best friend's seething resentment at not marrying Yuxiang himself, the Prince Of Ning is seeking an elaborate and excessive vengeance against the hapless Yangsheng and the innocent Yuxiang, just because he once referred to the prince as a scumbag in a private conversation with a monk....

Much of it is rather fun in a revoltingly trashy bad taste kind of a way (particularly all the penis stuff - and there's a lot of penis stuff in the movie); you will certainly get your £6 worth, with naked girls writhing away throughout, and much in the way of terrifying overacting and maniacal "Bwahahaha!" cackling. And it's sumptuous to look at, set in the same traditional Old China as the bulk of all those Shaw Brothers movies but far more richly photographed. Sadly, the movie slips up considerably when it resorts to the more hideous sexual violence - two scenes have been cut or trimmed on the BBFC's instruction: to remove the non-consensual elements of the first and to defuse the eroticism of violent sex in the second. Frankly the cuts - even though they total nearly three minutes - don't harm the film and the points (such as they are) are still made clear in the narrative.

The CGI gore is pretty terrible and again makes you wish it was just done with prosthetics, and the subtitling shows the same gloriously shaky grasp of English that we enjoyed so much in the golden era of sub-John Woo heroic bloodshed movies. Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is rubbish, with a nonsense plot and an underlying message (true love doesn't require sex) that doesn't really sit well with the constant thrusting and moaning and boobs and huge knobs all over the place. As porn, it does gets slightly wearing after a while, to the point of "put them away, darling, I think we've seen enough for now". It's a mess, it's overblown, illogical and doesn't know when to stop, but I'd be lying if I claimed I didn't rather enjoy it as a mad melodrama.

***

Next year, in the privacy of your own home:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

THE BEYOND

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND MY EYES!!! MY EYES!!!! AAAARGH!!!!!

Yup, eyes. Much as we might might wince at it and (appropriately enough) look away, there's a special masochistic thrill in watching a bit of eyeball violence. Sharp things in the eyes (Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dead And Buried, Un Chien Andalou) or a straightforward thumb gouging: it's surprising how effective an attack on one of the human body's most vulnerable areas can be. And this movie has lots of eyeball violence. In fact pretty much the entire cast lose their eyesight at some point, whether it's burned out by acid, poked out by a ten-inch nail through the back of the skull or eaten away by spiders. The only person who doesn't lose their sight would appear to be the one who's blind to start with, and she just gets her throat ripped out by her dog.

Not that Lucio Fulci's The Beyond is merely concerned with showcasing the most cinematically awesome ways you can go blind, but it IS a theme. Back in the twenties, an artist was murdered by a lynch mob - crucified as a warlock, whipped with chains, blinded with lime and walled up in the basement of a Louisiana hotel. In the eighties, the now-derelict hotel is inherited by Catriona MacColl but it's not long before bad things start to happen - a decorator falls off the scaffolding, the plumber meets a bad end trying to stop the flooding in the extensive basement, an architect falls off a ladder and has his face eaten away by tarantulas. It's all got something to do with Room 36 - the artist/warlock's old room - and the mysterious occult tome The Book Of Eibon. The hotel is built over one of the Seven Gates Of Hell; can MacColl and doctor David Warbeck escape the zombie horde?

The Beyond is absolute nonsense - nothing makes sense, people are killed off for no good reason beyond ghoulish spectacle, and some of the English translation dialogue is almost literally unspeakable (and when I saw it projected a few weeks ago, the subject of much derisive laughter). Yet curiously it works as a horror movie for precisely the same reasons: a dreamlike lack of logic and an atmosphere of unreality. Not to mention the insanely explicit gore sequences that got the film banned as a video nasty back in 1984 and heavily cut for many years afterwards, although like many of the nasties it's fully rehabilitated now and available complete and uncut from a score of online dealers and high street retailers.

It's probably the best of Fulci's quartet of legendary gore movies: City Of The Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery both have annoying whiny kids that get on your nerves after a short while, although Cemetery is arguably a better story (I'll confess I haven't seen it in many years), and Zombie Flesh Eaters has too much dull stuff between the censor baiting highlights (the splinter scene is a showstopper). Digitally projected on a big screen, complete and pristine, The Beyond looks great, and sounds great with its doomladen Fabio Frizzi score. The silliness and some of that dialogue, inducing more spasms of horror than the cheerful eye-gouging, do count against it. But it's magnificently mad and it's unlike pretty much anything else.

****

Beyond belief:

Monday, 12 September 2011

MOSCOW ZERO

C0NTAINS S0ME SP0ILERS

Zero is right, frankly. Zero is all it's worth. I can't actually give it zero stars, though: it's a scale of one to five and it gets one just for turning up. Mutiny On The Buses got one star and we all know how poo that was. If this film consisted of nothing but three hours of a nude Seth Rogen setting fire to kittens in slow motion it would get one star. To a reggae soundtrack. And as grim as that sounds, it might still have been slightly more fun than this dreary multi-ethnic DTV plod through the dark.

In Moscow Zero, Rade Serbedzija has gone missing while exploring the hidden catacombs under Moscow; Vincent Gallo and Joaquim De Almeida go down to look for him, having been pointed in the right direction by Joss Ackland and given permission by Val Kilmer! Because somewhere down there are the Gates Of Hell (and oh, how we could do with Lucio Fulci in prime crumbly zombie mode to liven things up) along with invisible demons. Or ghosts. Or schoolgirls. Cue about forty-three hours of people wandering around in tunnels and finding each other, losing each other, solving puzzles and looking for the Gates Of Hell.

Quite why anyone would want to find the Gates Of Hell in the first place is anyone's guess. If they actually exist, and you know where they are, the smart thing to do would be to seal them shut with about thirty tons of steel-reinforced concrete. Instead we get a bunch of people stumbling aimlessly about in badly photographed caverns and underground churches, and going round in circles while Val Kilmer waits for the right moment to block the catacombs off forever. (Why wasn't that done centuries ago?) This is utter nonsense and more crucially it's absolutely no fun; it's a slow and unexciting movie, most of which takes place in the dark so unless you're watching it with the lights off you can't even see anything. Very poor.

*

Less than zero:

Monday, 5 September 2011

CHAIN LETTER

0-0-0-0- CONTAINS SPOILERS -0-0-0-0

Yet another dim dumb teen slasher movie which shows no sign of logic, plausibility or common sense, but displays every sign that the makers have sat and watched every instalment of Saw and Final Destination and thought "we can do that". Well, it turns out you can't as the end result is by turns dull, stupid and sadistically unpleasant - a charge you could level at a hundred perfectly serviceable teen slashers - but it never combines to an even faintly satisfying whole.

The Chain Letter of urban legend (pass it on to five other people for good luck) is now a threatening email: forward it to five other people or you will die horrible. And anyone who ignores or deletes it does indeed die gory and painfully. Who could be behind it? Detectives Keith David and Betsy Russell plod along ineffectually through the crime scenes but their only clue would appear to be the numbers stamped on the metal chains found at the scene of each splattery death. Then there's the clearly suspicious college media lecturer played by Brad Dourif in an inspiried moment of casting that can have gone no further than "we need a creepy old guy - is Brad Dourif busy?"

The casting of Betsy Russell from five of the Saw movies isn't the only clue to the movie's origins: while most of the kills are down to your basic generic homicidal maniac, one victim does pass in a blatantly Jigsaw-inspired trap in a typically Sawesque meat packing plant. Elsewhere there are slashed tendons, an engine block dropped on someone's head and a particularly vicious opener involving someone chained between two cars. The gore is upfront (it's an 18) and it looks far better than the usual CGI splatter: either the computer effects capability has improved dramatically (unlikely) or they went for prosthetics because they're better.

But it's another one of those films where the mad killer is entirely omniscient and knows precisely when the victim is going to be in the exact position required: the attack via a skylight demands that the doomed teen idiot walk underneath it at some point, otherwise it rather leaves the hook-wielding killer standing on the roof all night like a dick. There's also the unlikely streak of paranoid technophobia: we're all tracked by our phones and Blackberrys and emails and credit cards etc, but who's using all this information and why? Sadly, the cautionary message is shackled - literally - to a dumb slasher flick mainly concerned with gruesome kill shots.

All the teens are pretty but bland and colourless and have no personality to them so the only appeal left is the splattery gore scenes. Granted, it's put together reasonably well on a technical level but ultimately it's just not any good and frankly that's not acceptable. We should expect, we should demand, better than this. The rental shelves and queues are already heaving with horror films that aren't any good and there's no virtue in just adding to the oceans of sludge genre fans already have to contend with. Even nonsensical thicko bodycount quickies should - and can - be better than this.

*

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A LONELY PLACE TO DIE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND THE SLIGHT TWANG OF STRETCHED CREDIBILITIES

The closing film of this year's Frightfest was not a horror movie, although it does have a horrible idea at the centre of it: vivisepulture. Rather, it's an outdoors action thriller with some painful physical violence that unfortunately gets more unlikely as it goes on. But so what? You Only Live Twice, Star Wars and Re-Animator are wildly unlikely to start with; that doesn't mean they can't be fun and entertaining and well made movies. And this IS a fun and entertaining and extremely well made movie with only a couple of "hang on a moment" moments to distract.

A Lonely Place To Die actually boasts a very simple setup, with a group of friends gathering together to climb a peak in the Scottish highlands: while traversing the woodlands they suddenly hear a voice, and find an airpipe in the ground. Someone has buried an eight-foot box under the remotest area of wilderness imaginable and placed an eight-year-old girl inside it. Who? Why? They rescue the child but then find armed gunmen - professionals - tracking them with high-powered rifles. They want the girl back and will do anything to get her....

It makes for an exciting thriller with several scenes of people either hanging off mountains or falling off mountains, Melissa George in skintight mountaineering trousers and plummeting through the rapids. Credibility is stretched a little here: as one who'd no more go orienteering than I would set myself on fire, I don't really know the chances of serious injury after some of these falls: I'm surprised they're able to walk or even move afterwards (specifically Melissa George's high tumble, and a man's long roll down a hill clutching the terrified child). But that's nitpicking, really. In the real world, John McClane wouldn't have survived more than 40 minutes of Die Hard and James Bond would have been dead by the second reel of Goldfinger. A Lonely Place To Die isn't reality, it's a movie, and it's a cracking action thriller that's well worth seeing.

****

INBRED

SPOILERS DOWN T' TROUSERS

Much as I despised Hobo With A Shotgun as one of most repulsive and borderline walkout-worthy films in years, it's a shock to find a movie - again programmed at FrightFest - that's actually even more of a trial to sit through. Nominally it's a bad taste gorefest but it's really just a tiresome parade of thoroughly dislikeable characters, inept gore effects, poor acting and with no real point beyond insulting the intelligence of the viewer. For all the wannabe League Of Gentlemen rural weirdness, Alex Chandon's "film" isn't funny - there's not one single flicker of a smile from start to finish - and for all the emphasis on extreme violence it isn't even slightly shocking or upsetting. It's actually rather pathetic.

Inbred has four young offenders on some kind of ill-advised rehabilitation programme somewhere in the wilds of Yorkshire, with their ineffectual "hey, kids" supervisors. But it's not long before the offenders revert to type and behave like repugnant dicks, and the locals are revealed not just as eccentric, but malformed homicidal imbeciles (thanks, presumably, to centuries of inbreeding), and they don't take kindly to strangers, like, sithee. Who will survive, what will be left of them, and will anybody give a damn?

Not really. None of them are worth any interest or attention, and here's a measure of just how much I really didn't care. Halfway through the indifferent Vile, one of the nastier characters is punched square in her face and there was a round of applause. During Inbred, I couldn't even raise one tiny nod of approval when the most repugnant of the four young troublemakers suffered a brutal, protracted and humiliating death. Even when the arse-scrapings of humanity were being spectacularly exterminated, I still couldn't rouse a shred of interest. All the kill sequences are achieved with astonishingly poor CGI - the standard you might expect have expected from the likes of Asylum and Syfy about ten years ago - so there isn't even any decent grossout.

Throughout the film I was equal parts bored and annoyed. But I was also left feeling insulted: the makers clearly feel that any old rubbish will satisfy because it's a horror movie in a horror festival - it doesn't matter about character or performance or writing if there's some nasty-minded violence in there, and it doesn't even matter if it's done badly because they'll watch anything. Well, thanks for underestimating. Look, I love a flat-out gore movie as much as anything or anyone, but gore by itself isn't enough. The best flat-out gore movies still have heart and wit and character, and Inbred doesn't have any of that. It's shameful, it's absolutely, unforgivably abysmal and it's one of the very worst of the last few years.

*

SENNENTUNTSCHI: CURSE OF THE ALPS

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

Switzerland's first horror film, apparently: a dark, grim (if not Grimm) and tragic imagining of a Swiss mountain legend which more or less pulls it off but is occasionally a little too complicated with its time line, with the result that you're sometimes unsure exactly when the flashbacks within the flashbacks are actually occurring and you might lose the thread.

Sennentuntschi: Curse Of The Alps tells of the legend of Sennentuntschi: a woman created by lonely mountain farmers out of straw and rags who came to life (with the Devil's intervention) but took her revenge on them when used and abused as their sex slave. Years later, a body is found at the bottom of the mountain and this reopens the local police investigation into what happened up there all those years ago, though the rest of the townspeople would rather forget the incidents ever took place and refuse shelter to the mute Sennentuntschi (Roxane Mesquida, apparently carving out a career in oddball genre movies: she's also in Kaboom, Rubber and Sheitan), even demanding she be burned as a witch. But what secrets are still kept by the most prominent members of the community?

It's long - perhaps too long at 110 minutes or thereabouts - and generally it's pretty good: it's ravishingly shot, it's engrossing, upsetting and occasionally surprisingly graphic in its nudity and sex scenes (I'm wondering if this is the first even semi-mainstream genre movie to include a scene of double penetration, and I can't think of any others). But I genuinely got lost with the timeline several times as it appeared some events were happening at the same time but then clearly weren't. Ultimately Sennentuntschi isn't entirely successful, but it's terrific to look at and holds the attention well. Worth a look as something different and unusual.

***

DEADHEADS

NOT THAT IT MATTERS MUCH, BUT A FEW SPOILERS

It might well be that the zombie movie is all but exhausted as there's not a lot more that you can do with them. They've stumbled aimlessly about, they've shuffled remorselessly, they've run, they've climbed the walls. They've rebelled, they've been domesticated, they've used tools. But this is probably the first movie in which the Romero-descended screen zombie has talked - not just with its own kind (as in Wasting Away - there the living couldn't understand it any more than the dead could understand the living) but with ordinary humans - and has not wanted to eat anyone.

The Deadheads are Mike and Brent (Michael McKiddy and Ross Kidder): a couple of guys who wake up in the woods during what appears to be the zompocalypse: the dead are up and ripping people to pieces. But these two guys are dead - victims of a US military experimental something-or-other. They're still thinking and talking - and decomposing. All Mike wants to do is explain to his ex how he feels about her, and to tell her how and why he died, so the two of them and a tame genuine zombie named Cheese hit the road to find her. But the military is on their trail as well....

Horror comedy is a pretty difficult thing to pull off and the number of movies that have managed it is not high - the most famous is probably An American Werewolf In London. Many think they're making it as horror comedies by spoofing horror films (the Scary Movie series) or being ironic about them (the Scream series), but little or no nerdy injokery in Deadheads unless Brent's surname Guthrie is intended to reference Guthrie The Loonie in The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, which is perhaps unlikely.

For all the jokes and bursts of zombie action, Deadheads doesn't make it as a horror comedy because it isn't really a horror movie: aside from the opening zombie attacks it's much more of a wisecracking romantic comedy/road movie that just happens to have undead characters in principal roles. And as a comedy it does score well: most of the characters are nice and normal (zombiedom notwithstanding) and you don't mind spending time with them, and the result is a charming and enjoyable little film. It's not Shaun of the Dead, and it's not Dance Of The Dead (which I really liked) but it's still nicely done and rather sweet: more "ahhhh" than "aaaargh".

***

Saturday, 3 September 2011

APOLLO 18

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A SPOILER

The dreaded found footage subgenre of obvious bullcrap boldly goes into outer space in this unutterable balderdash that's pretty much equal parts dull, annoying and cretinous to a degree that would shame the intellect of a soup spoon. Not only is found footage a long-exhausted film making technique, but it's also a subgenre so restrictive that the question "what do you plan to bring to this project?" can only be answered with the words "Nothing whatsoever". For all the tricky editing on display in this film, its entire existence rests on the notion that it's actually genuine, when it so patently isn't any such thing. Enough. If you can't make films properly, don't make it badly and bleat that it's real. We're not that stupid.

The genius idea behind Apollo 18 is that after the lunar expeditions we know about, there was one extra top-secret one, to investigate claims that the Russians had been there as well. But it turns out there's something else up there: something hostile. With a multitude of television and video cameras and motion detectors, as well as 16mm cine cameras and hours of Kodachrome stock, the two astronauts set out on the surface to find whatever it is. But If there was a second Russian cosmonaut, where is he? And if there was only one, then who - or what killed him? What if it's a life form? What if it's contagious?

Certainly they've gone to great lengths to make it all look real: interspersing the actors' scenes with genuine NASA footage, shooting everything on 16mm and clunky early-70s tape (or processing everything to look like it) in a variety of aspect ratios. But as with all found footage movies, it's a particularly desperate lie: we know that Pirates Of The Caribbean is just as much of a fiction but crucially it's not pretending to be genuine. Here it's as patently, blatantly a work of fiction but really trying hard to look genuine long after it's been rumbled. It's pathetic and the hair-in-the-gate, the scratchy, grainy film stock, and the absence of a music score doesn't make it a whit more realistic. Nor does Bob Weinstein standing up and saying "we didn't shoot anything, we found it!" That's not just a flat out lie, it's not even a plausible lie and it makes Weinstein look like an utter dick for thinking we'll swallow this crap.

It's also a failure it terms of basic logic. If this film was actually a genuine collage of the footage shot by the crew, then how did it end up back on Earth? Was there another mission to retrieve the rolls of exposed film from the abandoned American lander? If so that rather defeats the film's "There's a reason we never went back to the moon" tagline. And similarly, how did NASA obtain the film from the orbiter? Maybe we sent robots or something. I don't suppose it's worth pointing out that several moments on the moon clearly show objects falling at a rate commensurate with Earth gravity: about 9.81, the sort of figure you'd associate with Vancouver, where it was actually shot.

There's no reason why Apollo 18 couldn't have been made as a proper, regular movie with proper edits and effects and music, like most films are. Not only would it have been honest about its fictitious origins but as an all-too-rare SF/horror romp, it might well have been good fun. Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego has made proper films before - King Of The Hill is a fair enough wandering-round-in-the-woods thriller - and there's no reason why he couldn't have done the same here. Instead we get the chaotic and jumpy images, the indistinct dialogue, the tedious Paranormal Inactivity video shots of nothing happening, and a stupid ending that invalidates the whole film's very existence. Utterly abysmal, and possibly one of the worst films of the year.

*

THE CALLER

SPOILERS MAJOR CONTAINS

There's a certain joy in unearthing a film that's below the radar and finding it to be a little gem, It's your discovery and it falls to you to ensure it's better known. While everyone else was going "meh" over the blockbusters that were hyped to the brink of death before they'd even finished shooting them (hello, Spiderman) or yet more utterly anonymous slasher/torture nonsense, you were off in smaller screens checking out something else you'd never heard of and the gamble paid off. It certainly does with this twisty murder-over-the-years number.

The Caller has Mary (Rachelle Lefevre) fleeing an abusive and violent ex-husband and relocating to Puerto Rico to start a new life. But barely has she moved into the apartment than she starts receiving telephone calls asking for a guy named Bobby, and the woman on the other end won't take Mary's denials seriously. Especially when the caller, a lonely woman named Rose, appears to be calling from the 1970s. Is she a ghost? Is she a time traveller? But when she breaks contact with Rose, Mary's reality becomes physically altered and people start disappearing - and indeed appear to have never even existed....

The despicable ex is perhaps too much of a stereotypical wife-beating bastard: there's no nuance to the character beyond "This Is The Guy We Hate", but that doesn't matter too much. The film's a neat and ingenious, if slightly Doctor Who-ish tangle of paradoxes that more or less works itself out correctly (though I didn't really get the severed finger bit) and rustles up a lot of tension in the film's final confrontation between Mary and Rose - the latter nothing but a voice on the telephone for most of the movie. I really enjoyed it - one of my favourites of this year's FrightFest - but you do need to pay attention to what happens when. Well worth tracking down.

****

Friday, 2 September 2011

KILL LIST

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND THAT SAME SENSE OF DISAPPOINTMENT AGAIN

The hype that's come with this new British horror/thriller/drama is frankly absurd. Look at the poster quotes: "One of the best British thrillers in years", "A gut-wrenching chiller", plenty of four and five star ratings. Now, I'll happily admit that opinions are subjective and personal, but really, honestly, this film is absolutely nowhere near as impressive as made out. It's not a bad film, but it's scarcely a classic and I seriously can't imagine (hey, like I'm any kind of authority on these things) it lasting in the public consciousness more than couple of years.

It starts with Jay (Neil Maskell), ex-military and now hired assassin, lured back into the hitman game with the promise of good money and simple hits: he clearly loves his wife (MyAnna Buring) and young son but needs to provide for them so takes the Kill List. The first target for him and his ex-army colleague and partner is The Priest, which goes pretty simply. But the second, known as The Librarian, is a curator of illegal and violent child pornography and that's when Jay goes "off list" - finding and executing the man behind the trade in this material. And the third - the MP - is when it all comes crashing down as the film suddenly changes gears into the apparent world of pagan cults and sacrifices....

So for much of the time it's like a British version of A Serbian Film (in terms of structure but mercifully not the extreme sexual imagery) that plays like an upmarket Danny Dyer movie in which Jay shouts and rants and kills people, and then in the last reels it suddenly becomes The Wicker Man. It's an odd mix and it doesn't really come off; the gear-change is too abrupt and the final moments don't really seem to make any sense. That's a shame, because up to that point I was finding it reasonably engrossing and involving. Don't believe the hype: it's good, but it's quite definitely not great.

***

SINT

BEVAT BESCHRIJVING VAN DE DRAAIEN VAN HET PERCEEL (CONTAINS DESCRIPTION OF PLOT TWISTS)

Santa Claus: what a bastard. About this time last year we had Rare Exports, the Finnish anti-Yuletide horror movie in which Santa was an absolute bastard who'd been encased in a glacier for thousands of years. Before that, you probably have to go back to the brace of rubbish 80s Santa slashers: Don't Open Till Christmas (rubbish) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (also rubbish). Now here's the Netherlands entry in the "season of illwill" genre: here the local equivalent of Santa is an absolute bastard who shows up every time there's a full moon on December 5 (every 36 years or so, apparently) and slaughters people.

Sint (Saint) is concerned with the legend of St Niklas, a homicidal bishop and his evil zombie acolytes, the Black Peters. 36 years ago, a kid called Goert was the sole survivor of one of Niklas' attacks: now he's a cop ridiculed as a hysteric for his warnings that it will happen again, tonight. Inevitably Niklas does appear and the carnage starts. But can Goert even find Niklas and the Black Peters, as everyone in town is dressing up in those costumes for the traditional December 5 festivities?

Dick Maas has made some terrific and enjoyable little movies in the past - Amsterdamned, The Lift, and its American reworking Down. And Sint is certainly not a bad film by any stretch - it's perfectly well done and sufficiently entertaining, and the dreaded Niklas is an imposing looking bogeyman figure. But for some reason it's a tad underwhelming and I was a little uncomfortable with the number of children who got killed over the course of the movie for no adequate reason (in the sense that they weren't rescued from the clutches of the Black Peters and thus perished in the final conflict). A Christmas movie in which kids die?!? There are some wonderful moments in the movie but ultimately it's only a qualified success.

***

THE INNKEEPERS

CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS AND CREEPY CREEPY

Hurrah! Easily the best film on show at this year's Frightfest, this is a lovingly fashioned horror movie made in the traditional manner - subtle, intelligent, leisurely based, impeccably crafted and very creepy - rather than the frenetic noise and stupidity of the last four hundred teensplat offerings. And another winner from Ti West: it's not quite up there with the wonderfully retro House Of The Devil but it's still a thoroughly involving and genuinely spooky piece of work. (Admittedly I didn't care for The Roost at all and I think we can all agree that Cabin Fever 2 was just a mess.)

The Innkeepers are actually the two bored staff members at the long-standing Yankee Pedlar Inn, about to close permanently. Over the hotel's last weekend, in between playing idiot pranks on each other, surfing the web for porn and generally goofing around, they're slightly interested in solving the old mystery of the inn's ghost - whether the place is indeed haunted by the spirit of a former resident. Might there be something in the cellar? What's with the old man who's just checked in? Or the one-time TV star (Kelly McGillis)?

Really, the less you know the better about the specifics of the plot, the better: this is one of those films it's best to let sneak up on you. It also has a nice light touch - the two aren't really serious ghostbusters and spend as much time bickering and messing about as they do looking for the ghost. This doesn't put you through the wringer nearly as much as Insidious, but it's still yet another depressing instance of 1970s pastiche cinema's ability to be better, more enjoyable and more effective than today's technically shiny but soulless genre movies.

Slowburning chillers are usually more rewarding as horror movies than hyperactive orgies of just flinging horrible stuff at the lens. The Innkeepers takes its time, it's not interested in lobbing shocks and gore at you simply because it's been twelve minutes since the last one - it'll scare you in its own good time. But when it does, it does it very well. My favourite Frightfest screening of the year and, while it's not the best movie of the year, it's certainly one of the top horror films.

****

THE DIVIDE

CONTAINS NOT VERY MUCH IN THE WAY OF SPOILERS AFTER THE OPENING SEQUENCE

I guess it's always dangerous beginning your movie with a nuclear apocalypse and the sudden violent destruction of Western civilisation: you run the risk of peaking too early dramatically. Xavier Gans' film opens with the bombs going off and the city being obliterated - where do you go from there? It's a bit like Face/Off which has an opening action sequence that most directors would be happy to have as the climax of the film, but Woo puts it in the opening reels (although he still manages to pump the excitement later on).

The Divide isn't concerned with Armageddon itself, though - that's literally something that happens outside. Instead the film focuses on the handful of residents of an apartment block who manage to get into the basement before the building collapses on their head. Inevitably, all that anger, fear and aggression in a confined space with no immediate escape route leads to higher tension and factions forming as to who's in charge, how long the rations will last, how long they need to stay down there. And how long before they turn on each other and kill each other to further their own prospects for survival? Or, how long before they just go insane?

It's a beautifully shot and lit film - all but a few minutes of the film take place in the extensive basement and storage space of a large apartment block - and it's a compelling and sometimes uncomfortable picture of just how far people will go under . It's got a strong cast: Michael Biehn, Rosanna Arquette, Courtney B Vance and an almost theatrical feel to it - could it be adapted for the stage? The principal flaw is that it does frequently descend into scenes of unlikeable alpha males squaring off by bellowing obscenities at each other in a confined space, and after a while that's neither entertaining nor dramatically interesting. And it is too long at 110 minutes in the company of increasingly unpleasant individuals. Nice ending though.

***

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A DESPERATE ATTEMPT NOT TO SWEAR

Do you remember when you got your first camcorder? On those first few tapes you tend to have a usable shooting ratio of about twenty thousand to one - you end up with endless hours of blurs and blobs and static shots of sod all, playing with the autofocus, zooming in and out of faces. You realise you can stand 500 feet away from people and still film them in merciless closeup, you discover nice little visuals like street lights out of focus. And out of those endless hours there'll be a few nice shots, arrived at purely by chance, that are worth keeping. Well, as far as a visual aesthetic is concerned, Adam Wingard's film is like that.

A Horrible Way To Die is unremittingly terrible and so incompetently put together that I genuinely needed to check the synopsis in the programme to be clear what the hell was going on. A serial killer - one of those absurdly charismatic types who inspire cults of pathetic devotees in spite of the fact that he's a mass murderer - escapes from jail and heads straight for his ex whose testimony put him away in the first place. She's a recovering alcoholic who's finally met a new man with whom there's a chance of a fresh start, but can it be that simple?

There's nothing particularly wrong with that setup: it covers the basics perfectly well. Good guy, homicidal maniac on the run, pretty girl oblivious to her impending doom, some sort of twist at the end. It's the execution that's so wretched. Much of the camerawork is hopelessly amateurish - light blobs all over the place for swathes of time, the poor focus frequently reducing the underlit image to an indiscernible brown murk. Is that the girl? Is it a horse? The south side of Kilimanjaro? What the hell am I supposed to be looking at here? Nor, frankly, could I raise any interest in the characters - the apparently intended victim and her new boyfriend especially are monumentally tiresome and endless scenes of bleatings at AA meetings do not make compelling drama. It's a dull film, it's visually abominable and 95 minutes have rarely felt so much like a fortnight.

*

(The worst part is, I chose this film over the Adam Green / Joe Lynch portmanteau Chillerama in the other screen, which would have at least had a couple of decent bum jokes and maybe some tits.)

THE DEVIL'S BUSINESS

CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS

An extremely lower-than-lower-than-microbudget horror drama, this is an ideal lesson in making a genre film on almost no money. One location, four speaking roles, no stunts, no effects, no chase sequences, no exploding helicopters, no big stars. Keep it tight, keep it taut, keep it simmering. In this instance the end result doesn't work perfectly - in the absence of action there's a lot of talk, particularly in the first third - but it still must surely be an invaluable How-To guide for serious aspiring film makers (rather than fanboy idiots) with limited resources.

The Devil's Business has a simple setup: two hit men waiting for their target to return home. One older, more experienced, cynical and controlled, the other younger, fidgety and impatient for some action. After a lengthy monologue about the spookiest thing the older killer has ever seen, the intended victim has still not arrived but things start to go wrong, specifically the discovery of something very nasty in the outhouse.... Who exactly is this man they've been sent to kill?

It's a very talky film, very dialogue heavy in the opening act, particularly the monologue which cheerfully ignores the "show, don't tell" maxim and just has a single take of Billy Clarke relating the story. But two men in a room talking isn't particularly cinematic - it's radio or theatre - and they only manage to pull it off because it's well written and compelling. But I really do believe they needed some more oomph: they needed to raise the level at the climax as it is a touch underwhelming, and that's a pity as the characters are nicely drawn. I just wanted to like it more than I ultimately did.

***

FRIGHT NIGHT

CONTAINS SPOILERS, UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE ORIGINAL

Again, as with Conan, why bother? What are the new boys bringing to the table? And the answer, yet again, appears to be not very much beyond a few bigger star names, four-letter words and shiny happy 3D. They haven't improved the story, the characters or the vampire effects, all of which were fine in Tom Holland's original which didn't have the questionable benefits of whizzy CGI or shiny glasses. Far from it: it's a watchable enough and just about tolerable ride but it does nothing that hadn't been done better 26 years ago. As a remake it has the validity of Rupert Wainwright's The Fog.

The plot of Fright Night is pretty much unchanged: ordinary kid Charley (Anton Yelchin) comes to realise his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. Once his best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has been turned it's up to him to save his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and mum (Toni Colette). And his only ally is louche Vegas magician and alleged vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant blatantly channeling Russell Brand) whose first instincts are to drink heavily and run away....

That the film even manages to reach the level of "okay" is some kind of achievement. It has none of the charm or style of the original: the main characters are dull, colourless and provide no reason why we should be interested in them. And Tennant's Peter Vincent is, for most of the time, an arrogant, foul-mouthed and egotistical knob. The 3D is entirely redundant and scenes shot in unlit houses at dusk might as well be audio only because even without the glasses you can barely make out what's on the screen. It's entirely unremarkable and a disappointment even given that expectations weren't high. Really, how difficult is it to muck up Fright Night?

**