Friday, 30 March 2012

URBAN EXPLORERS

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SUBTITLES

The second half of last year brought me not one but two movies in which halfwits stumble aimlessly around in the dark somewhere under Moscow: After... and Moscow Zero. Neither of them were any good at all - intolerable and astonishingly stupid - but they did feature the concept of the Urban Explorer, someone who likes to sneak round man-made structures like decommissioned power stations, abandoned metro networks and secret bunkers. Frankly, arsing about in shafts and tunnels isn't really my sort of thing: give me a comfy sofa and some bourbons any day. Still, it should theoretically have made for an unusual and interesting locale for some decent horror movies.

Urban Explorers is certainly the best of the sub-genre I've seen so far: it's a long way from being a great horror movie but it delivers the grue perfectly well. In a fairly thin plot, four idiots arrive in Berlin in order to look round some old Nazi bunkers; on the way back their guide tumbles down a shaft and breaks his leg. Two of the girls head back to raise the alarm and fetch help: eventually a man does turn up, but is he what he claims to be? Obviously not - there wouldn't be a film if he was. Meanwhile, what's happened to the two girls?

I missed this one at last year's Frightfest for some reason - most likely seeing something else in the other screen - but was told that it had inadvertently played without the English subtitles, so scenes where the dialogue was mainly German were rendered incomprehensible. A pity, because it's actually a pretty decent stab at mixing the urbex phenomenon with the excessive nastiness of torture porn, as people are sadistically brutalised as part of some deranged nostalgia for the days of the East-West divide.

Perhaps the film it's closest to is Christopher Smith's Creep which seems to have a bad rep but which I rather enjoyed. Urban Explorers isn't a great film: it's nicely enough made and efficiently put together, and has a few nicely horrible look-away moments although yet again you never get to care about any of the victims. A decent enough rental.

***

Fair enough:

Thursday, 29 March 2012

DRACULA 3000: INFINITE DARKNESS

SPOILERS 2012

For some reason this rubbishy SF/horror quickie had slipped past me in the stampede of a thousand other rubbishy SF/horror quickies. It's only because it was included in an article about space-set horror movies on the Den Of Geek site that I realised I'd overlooked it, and added it to my rentals queue immediately, overlooking their advice that it was "extremely bad". After all, I love spaceship movies and space station movies; whether they're big studio movies like Alien and Event Horizon or B-movies like Galaxy Of Terror or Inseminoid (and when is someone going to give Titan Find a proper release?). And while I can take or leave vampires, which I feel are tediously overused screen monsters that haven't been scary for decades, I have to confess it's hard to resist a South African co-production about vampires on a spaceship which has Coolio and Udo Kier in the cast. What's the worst that can happen? How bad can it be? Answer: pretty damned bad. More than pretty bad, actually; excruciatingly terrible. Dull, nonsensical, cheap, idiotic, irritating, stupid and pointless.

Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness (though only Dracula 3000 on the DVD box) takes names and references from Bram Stoker and lobs them into the script like it has some sort of a clue what it's talking about. It's the year 3000 and an independent salvage team led by Captain Van Helsing (!) docks with a ship named the Demeter that's supposedly been missing for the last fifty years. Inside they find no crew, but a cargo bay full of coffins filled with sand, and Dracula himself, under the name Count Orlock - voyaging from the planet Transylvania (in the Carpathia system), heading for Earth but picking off the salvagers one by one. Fortunately one of the salvagers is an undercover cyborg....

This is a movie that supposes that they'll still play pool with wooden cues in a thousand years' time, as well as watching VHS videos on a 4:3 screen, to judge from the props in the recreation room where the bulk of the so-called action takes place. It assumes in a thousand years' time black guys will still be calling each other "homie", and it assumes that young men's sole ambitions will still be to have as much sex as possible and get as stoned as possible. Apparently drugs are legal in the year 3000 but the crucifix is banned, which suggests the Conservatives have been out of office for a while. Even though mankind can invent cyborgs absolutely indistinguishable from rotten actors, we are still apparently stuck with wheelchairs and spectacles. One of the women (Erika Eleniak) embodies her second-in-command status by wearing a skimpy vest; mysteriously, Captain Caspar Van Dien doesn't do the sensible thing and shoot the two bickering and insubordinate dunces played by Tiny Lister and Coolio. Udo Kier only appears on the Demeter's video log in scenes that must have taken anything up to half an hour to shoot.

The whole thing feels like something Fred Olen Ray would have thrown together over a wet weekend back in the late 80s for a quick paycheck; in places it also feels weirdly like a long episode of Red Dwarf except with swearing and absolutely no jokes, right down to the vampirised Coolio who looks to be wearing the Cat's spare teeth. And the film boasts the most astoundingly stupid ending of all time: worse than "it was all a dream" or "he was dead all along", suggesting the makers needed to wrap everything up by five o'clock despite having the last 30 pages of gibbering cretinacy still to shoot. Auteur Darrell James Roodt did a couple of watchable action movies back in the 90s: To The Death and Dangerous Ground, the latter pairing Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley, and a fairly dull but competent safari horror called Prey; this isn't anywhere near watchable or competent. It's more than "extremely bad" as Den Of Geek claimed; it's absolutely insulting. Infinite Darkness? Infinite Bilge, more like.

*

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

CONTAINS AS LITTLE IN THE WAY OF SPOILERS AS I CAN POSSIBLY GET AWAY WITH

Because in truth, the less you know the better. Even the poster artwork, which depicts the titular log cabin as some kind of giant Rubik Cube, doesn't represent what's actually behind it, and to find out in advance is like watching an Agatha Christie movie but looking it up on Wikipedia first to find out who's the killer. Go in as cold as possible. Don't even watch the trailer (a practice I've followed for about 20 years now without regret). And if, having seen the film, you then go onto Twitter or Facebook or your own review blog and blurt out what's really going on, you're a dick plain and very simple.

The Cabin In The Woods starts off in unpromising fashion with the by now almost rote template of the modern teen horror movie in which a camper van full of the requisite assortment of archetypal young people go off for a dirty weekend so far into the middle of nowhere that it doesn't even show up on their satnav. Then there's about fifteen minutes of typical teen horror movie blather before they all go down into the cellar in the time honoured manner. But intercut with all this overly familiar direct-to-rental stodge we have two middle-aged blokes in some kind of windowless control centre, and that's where it suddenly veers off into something completely unexpected. And after that...

Go and see it. Find out for yourself. Obviously the title evokes Sam Raimi's dazzling The Evil Dead and there are indeed echoes. But the last hour justifies this: it may employ the stock characters and generic setting that smack of Friday The 13th, The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but it's doing it for a very good reason. It's using these old tropes as the springboard for something far deeper, far more interesting and far more frightening. And it's also as viscerally as exciting as any of the best full-on horror movies, with a final half hour plus of genuinely eye-boggling and gory mayhem that surely pushes the BBFC's 15 rating to borderline 18. (Incidentally, don't be put off by the advertised fact that the director wrote Cloverfield - an okay movie, but still lumbered with the found footage technique where it's badly shot by idiots who have no reason for filming it in the first place. This is a proper film, not a pretend one.)

This is a smart film - smarter than you first think - that understands horror on a deeper cultural level than, say, Scream (which is essentially a slasher movie in which people quote Halloween at each other). I thought The Cabin In The Woods was absolutely terrific and I'd happily blither on for ten paragraphs about how clever, subversive and surprising it is. But I genuinely don't want to spoil it by citing "the scene where X does Y" or "the bit where A is killed by the Z". I might as well just transcribe the screenplay and be done with it. And even the moments and aspects I didn't really care for, such as some of the character details, have a valid reason for being there. If only the bottom half of the genre industry had a fraction of the wit or imagination or even the technical skill on display, it wouldn't be such a chore being a horror movie fan.

Here's how much I enjoyed it: I want to see it again. If (as I am) you're fed up with the endless run of store-brand Horror Movie photocopies that stake a claim to genre cooldom by casting Robert Englund or Brad Dourif as a shifty college professor for two scenes, or namecheck better filmmakers by having characters named Sheriff Romero and Doctor Hooper, then The Cabin In The Woods is refreshing proof that genre cinema can still be funny, intelligent and surprising. It has a kicker of a third act and an even bigger kicker of an ending, and weaves unexpected and elaborate variations on a simple and familiar theme. Go and see it, because if you don't, they'll just go back to remaking old slasher movies. It's a joy.

*****

Saturday, 24 March 2012

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SENSE OF A WASTED OPPORTUNITY

There's every indication that the legend that is Sir Christopher Lee could have been a brilliant cinema Sherlock and this movie might have been a half-decent stab at the great detective. But it doesn't turn out that way. It's not just that it's pretty grim to look at (black and white never hurt the Rathbones) and nobody's having any fun, or the pacing is off throughout and they've again turned Dr Watson (Thorley Walters) into an incompetent old buffer in the Nigel Bruce tradition - he's supposed to be a doctor from the British Army, not an buffoonish mad uncle. The principal problem is that it's a German film shot silently and dubbed afterwards, but neither Lee or Walters were available to revoice themselves.

Sherlock Holmes And The Deadly Necklace ends up leagues below all but the shabbiest of the Rathbones. And it boasts a particularly rubbish title, in that the necklace in question isn't deadly. It's actually Cleopatra's necklace and Professor Moriarty (mispronouced throughout as "Moriarrity") will kill to acquire it, starting with the archaeologists who dug it up. Holmes is on the case of exposing Moriarrity as a villain anyway, hanging round the docks dressed as a sailor with an eyepatch. But can Holmes retrieve the necklace and prove his theory once and for all?

There are some neat bits of deduction, but not really enough of them, and you only get hints of the duel of wits between the master detective and the master criminal. The big problem remains the English language dub which loses the gloriously rich dark Lee tones, and the dubbing artiste hasn't even made a stab at emulating them: there's every indication that a terrific Holmes has literally been reduced to a shadow. Lee looks great in the part but as soon as he speaks he's saddled with the standard transatlantic sound of a thousand old spaghetti Westerns and kung fu movies. Worse, whenever Holmes is in disguise the dubious dubber has elected to give him the voice of Louis Spence, a choice so completely at odds with the sight of Christopher Lee that it suggests the dubber never saw the footage he was revoicing. It kills the movie stone dead and destroys whatever virtues it might have had. Co-directed by Terence Fisher in 1962.

**

You can buy the DVD here:

Friday, 23 March 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Confession: I have not read any of Suzanne Collins books, probably because they're classified as Young Adult rather than Flabby Old Git. Nor have I watched any of the trailers or read any of the promo bumf: I'm increasingly of the belief that the less you know the better. It's a tactic that paid off with John Carter and it's a great shame it hasn't paid off here. Because for a hundred million dollars (estimated, according to the IMDb) this should have been a whole lot better than it turned out. Despite some nifty moments and some nice ideas and visuals, it doesn't really hang together.

We're asked to believe that some time in the future, the Government demands that two teenagers are selected annually by lottery from each of the twelve districts of the country that rebelled and rose up some 75 years previously. They are taken to the absurdly wealthy and luxurious capital city, trained rigorously and then let loose in a forest to fight to the death on live television; the last man (or woman) standing is the winner. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her selected sister; she and the village's bakery boy Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) enter the insane world of The Hunger Games: looking for sponsorship, eating and living obscenely well, training to kill....

Obviously it's always good to see Donald Sutherland (as the President) and Woody Harrelson (as a former champion) doing their thing; Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci get to wear some hilariously weird costumes and hairpieces. They mainly show up in the Capital City sequences and they're really the most fun and the most interesting; the forest sequences end up looking like a thousand other movies shot in the forests. Sadly, the fight scenes look terrible: the hand-held videography reduces everything to an indistinct blur and it's impossible to tell what you're looking at. Possibly those sequences are the ones trimmed on the BBFC's advice because Lionsgate wanted a 12A certificate; the loss of seven seconds to avoid a 15 doesn't make any difference and you can't tell where the edits have been made.

The idea of kids forced to kill each other off obviously harks back to Battle Royale, and the randomly selected participants in a live snuff TV show brings to mind Series 7: The Contenders (an interesting film which an elderly couple walked out of when I saw it in the old Warner, now Vue, in Cambridge). But the rationale behind such a show didn't make any sense in either of those movies and it doesn't make sense here. How did these circumstances arise? The presence of numerous Imperial Roman names in the character list - Claudius, Caesar, Seneca etc - suggests a parallel with the gladiatorial deathmatch, but the Roman gladiators weren't 14-year-old girls. Next question: how big are these once rebellious but now mercilessly oppressed districts? District 12 doesn't appear to be much larger than a village.

And who's making money off this show? One can understand the decadent and vacuous elite watching it, but even the impoverished peasantry in Districts 12 and 11 are tuning in; they certainly don't appear able to afford to pay to see it, so presumably it's free. But we don't see any advertising either so how is it funded? Then there's Peeta's special survival skill: painting himself to look like a tree, applying incredibly detailed camouflage to his own body. Not sure that's much use unless you've got the time to do it without up to 23 sword-wielding teenagers chasing you through the woods trying to kill you. And since we're asking: is it even real? The organisers are able to create CGI trees, firestorms and giant mythical beasts and drop them into the arena whenever the contestants wander too far or they need to spice the action up, but if it's all a virtual simulation then how can the teenagers be killed?

I guess you're not supposed to ask. Or these things might all be explained in the novels. But, crucially, they're not explained in the movie. Maybe it'll be made clearer in the sequels, if they happen (apparently it depends on the box-office take for this one). Whether they get a franchise out of The Hunger Games or not, this first instalment raises too many questions and doesn't answer enough of them to be satisfying. And at around two and a half hours, it takes a very long time to not answer them. I really wanted to like The Hunger Games and sadly it didn't work. (Nothing to do with the hooting idiot somewhere at the back of the cinema who liked to whistle and whoop at inappropriate moments.)

**

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

THE ASSASSIN NEXT DOOR

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

Psssst! Wanna look at the pretty ladies being smacked around? Punched in the stomach, punched in the face? And when they're on the ground, kicked in the gut? Or shot at, or knifed? See the bruises! See the blood! Hear the crack of knuckle on cheek! Seriously, if that's the kind of thing you enjoy (and if it is then you should probably leave the house right now and throw yourself under the first available wildebeest stampede) there's plenty of thug-on-lady fisticuffs on offer in this dispiritingly ugly thriller from Israel. Sadly, the deeply unpleasant violence is the most effective thing in the movie. It's not sadistic in a Hostel or Saw kind of a way, it's sadistic in a casual punch-to-the-face kind of a way, and it works because of the raw video look that gives everything the feel of grubby camcorder pornography: it doesn't look like a proper film.

The Assassin Next Door is Galia (Olga Kurylenko), trafficked into Israel from the Ukraine and forced to become a killer, carrying out occasional hits and constantly promised the return of her passport so she can get back to her family. She befriends Elinor, the battered wife in the apartment next door, and the two of them plan their escape from the hideous male-dominated squalor of their present lives. But will Elinor's odious brute of a husband reform when he finds out she's pregnant? And can Galia get her passport and money from her thuggish gangmasters?

That a movie depicts hideous violence obviously doesn't mean it's endorsing or condoning it; The Assassin Next Door isn't in favour of wife beating and murder any more than Friday The 13th is in favour of killing teenagers with an axe. Still, the violence is surprisingly upsetting and unsettling: shorn of the gloss of 35mm and lush lighting, it has a disturbing realism about it. But the bulk of the movie - the friendship between the two women - could perhaps have used a little gloss. Maybe ungraded and unfiltered digital video is the natural successor to 16mm, but it makes it a very difficult film to like.

It's also misrepresented by its advertising. The DVD artwork (at least for the Western world) makes it look more of a shoot-em-up gun movie and it really isn't - Galia's kills are cold and brutal and no fun, and while Kurylenko is probably best known as a Bond girl (it wasn't her fault that Quantum Of Solace was such a mess) the few action sequences are way, way below 007 standards. This is more of a low-budget indie drama about the developing relationship between two abused and victimised women, which is fine but obviously more difficult to market commercially. But don't try and sell it to me as the action movie it isn't. (Incidentally, if you accept the IMDb's word for things, director Danny Lerner is not the same Danny Lerner who directed the mighty Shark In Venice.)

**

Bang!

Monday, 19 March 2012

THE RAVEN

QUOTH THE RAVEN, "CONTAINS SOME MAJOR SPOILERS"

"It's not awful" is pretty much the best that can be said about this ambitious but unsuccessful stab at bringing Edgar Allan Poe to wider attention by dumping him in the middle of a copycat serial killer spree. Oddly it doesn't ever raise the idea of fictional horror triggering genuine horror, being content mainly to name-check a lot of Poe stories and stir them into an unlikely and frankly pretty dreary slasher caper. I didn't spot The Black Cat, but I don't doubt that it's in there somewhere, along with The Masque Of The Red Death, The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar and The Pit And The Pendulum.

Ostensibly telling of Poe's last few days before his death at the age of 40, The Raven stars John Cusack as Poe, depicted as a penniless and frankly boorish alcoholic with no writing left in him, and dragged into the police investigation of a pair of locked-room killings inspired by Poe's story The Murders In The Rue Morgue. Then Poe's literary nemesis is spectacularly bisected in a re-enactment of The Pit And The Pendulum (which feels more like a re-enactment of the opening of Saw V). But who is the Poe-inspired maniac? And when he abducts Poe's beloved Emily (Alice Eve) and buries her alive, can Poe find her in time and unmask the killer?

It's all pretty far-fetched and implausible - for example that Emily's father (Brendan Gleeson) is going ahead with his masked ball and in effect take the role of Red Death's Prospero, something which is beyond the killer's control. What the movie really needed was to go completely bonkers in the stylisation and violence in the best Tenebrae tradition - after all, Argento did his own Poe-pourri with his "adaptation" of The Black Cat in the underrated Two Evil Eyes - but sadly it all remains rather staid and stolid. It's nicely enough done and it has plenty of atmosphere, but it's too restrained, apart from the Pendulum sequence which is the only point at which the film roars into life. It's not awful, but to be honest, you're much better served by banging Red Death, Tomb Of Ligeia and so on to the top of your rental queues.

**

Saturday, 17 March 2012

THE DEVIL INSIDE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WAKE ME WHEN IT'S OVER

I usually have a bit of a problem with devil-based films. The Exorcist has a certain power that leaves me feeling very uncomfortable and I don't want to see it ever again, for all its qualities (though nothing like the original novel, which I found myself unable to be in the same room as, and eventually had to throw it away). Similarly, when THAT SCENE in Exorcist III rolls around I just cannae take it any more. Never mind body horror, torture porn, teen slashers or shopping malls full of zombies, devil-based movies are my weak spot. Even something like The Exorcism Of Emily Rose unsettled me to the point of sleeping with a light on all night in the next room, despite the familiar faces in the cast. This is also the most probable explanation for my finding the frankly nonsensical The Rite more than a little chilling.

Yet here is a movie which not only taps that precise vein but is shot in the dreaded found-footage style where it's all real and there are no special effects and everything's true. So how come it doesn't work for a second? How come it's about as scary as a slice of Battenberg? How come the one effective jump moment in the entire film is a cheap "Boo!", a false scare that's basically a thin variant on the creaky old "cat suddenly leaps into frame" gag? Devils and demons are supposed to be among our deepest primal fears and this movie should have left me shaken and unnerved. Instead, for all the shock blasphemy and the perfectly convincing make-up and effects work, it just sits on the screen as ineffective as a rude joke in a language you don't speak. It's ugly to look at, poorly lit and shot (by definition and by design), it's thoroughly implausible and, impossibly, it isn't ever scary. How can this be?

The Devil Inside begins with a caption stating that "The Vatican has not endorsed the production of this film", which means absolutely nothing: the Kylie Minogue Appreciation Society probably hasn't endorsed it either. We then get a montage of "TV news reports" and "police crime scene videos" detailing the bloody slaughter of two priests and a nun while attempting to exorcise a demon from ordinary mother Maria Rossi. Some years later, she's been transferred to a clinic for the criminally insane in Rome, and her daughter Isabella wants to make a documentary about her fears that she may go that way as well. Once in Rome, she and her ever-present cameraman team up with a pair of priests and trainee exorcists who do a little under-the-counter vigilante exorcism on the quiet (if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, maybe you can hire The E-Team....): they get to witness and film the exorcism of a young girl and then proceed to try the same procedure on Maria Rossi, given that she shows all the classic signs of being possessed. But this doesn't go as planned and there's the suggestion that the demon, or whatever, is actually able to leap from host to host....

The Devil Inside doesn't work as a story because there are too many questions that the film doesn't bother to answer, not the least of which is why she's been shipped over to Italy in the first place, given that they've just put her into a clinic the same as the one back in America. Nor is it satisfactorily established precisely what all this "documentary" footage is supposed to achieve. Nor why the clinic permitted them to set up a load of cameras to film Maria's second exorcism, nor how the cameraman managed to keep "actual suicide footage" from the police when the police were there at the time. And it doesn't work as a film because director William Brent Bell can't sort out the two key issues of found-footage, namely [1] who's doing the filming, and [2] why. There are scenes in which there are obviously two cameras present as there are seamless edits over dialogue, but we know there's only one. Who edited all this footage together? If you're going to include the making of the film as part of the narrative, you have to include a reason for it. How many found-footage movies are going to forget or ignore this?

As a result, it's annoying because it doesn't add up (because the director hasn't thought things through) and, since the film's reality is so often unsustainable, we don't believe any of it. Perversely, if they'd stopped dicking around with the obviously fake reality and actually made a proper film, it would have been far more effective because the audience wouldn't have been distracted by the failure of technique. The Rite is better, despite it being a film that looks like a film. William Brent Bell's desperate pretence at reality detracts from his naturally potent source material to the extent that it's just boring. Impossibly, but it's just boring.

*

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

THIS MEANS WAR

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND PLEASE MAKE THE BAD MAN STOP

Confession: maybe I'm entirely alone in this, but I rather enjoyed Terminator Salvation. Big, loud, full of giant robots smashing everything up, it was dumb entertainment in precisely the way that the imbecilic Transformers movies weren't, despite having a far superior legacy to live up to. Even though I have no love whatsoever for the Charlie's Angels movies, which were just annoyingly stupid, I wasn't prepared to write the idiotically-styled McG off as a worthless sub-Michael Bay hack because of that Terminator film. But I am now. McG's latest is an abysmal piece of hackwork: an unromantic, non-comedic and thrill-free romantic comedy thriller which couldn't have been any more of a pathetic failure if it had had Danny Dyer in it. If it had had Pol Pot in it.

Briefly, This Means War concerns two swaggering bellends fighting for the affections of a gurgling simpleton. Tom Hardy and Chris Pine are best friends, top secret agents and dick-waving Neanderthals who both end up dating Reese Witherspoon, a halfwit who works with consumer focus groups. Rather than one or other of them bow out - it's not as if they're ugly and overweight nerds who couldn't pull someone if they put their so-called minds to it - they each unleash the formidable might of their respective CIA squads to bug her house, tap her phones and maintain surveillance on her at all times, without her noticing even when they're hiding in her kitchen while she's in there. While Witherspoon uses her product comparison skills to try and decide which of these despicable little boys she likes better, Angela Bassett struts around reminding them about Heinrich (Til Schweiger), the renegade German terrorist seeking revenge for the first-act death of his brother in a rooftop shootout, and he duly turns up and abducts Witherspoon for a brief car chase.

It's like an extended variation on the tiresome middle bit of True Lies where Schwarzenegger uses the apparently limitless resources of the American Defence Department to sort out issues in his personal life, but expanded to nearly all the running time and bookended with a couple of frankly indifferent action sequences to start and finish. Nor do you care which of these immature puddles of primordial ooze finally gets off with someone too dim to ever wonder why and how everything she says is magically brought to life a few days later. Frankly none of these people should be allowed to mate.

McG is back at a status of sub-Bay worthless hack; that Terminator movie was clearly just a lucky fluke. This is a thoroughly horrible and depressing film: it's dull and stupid and so full of obnoxious idiots you end up on Heinrich's side. There are no laughs, there's no wit, no charm, no grace or subtlety. Maybe audiences just don't want those attributes these days: they just want to stare at the pretty people while things going boom. And Michael Bay and McG (real name Joseph McGinty Nichol) will oblige with empty spectacle and noisy idiocy, get unjustifiably wealthy off the back of it while having the audacity to call themselves "film-makers", and will do it again. And again. What a wonderful world.

*

Monday, 12 March 2012

INCONFESSABLE ORGIES OF EMMANUELLE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND A SENSE OF GRINDING DULLNESS

Hurrah! It's that dirty old man again! It's been precisely 148 days since I last saw a Jess Franco film - his gibberish version of Venus In Furs - and this softcore shagathon from 1982 is well down to his usual abysmal standards of borderline technical competence and morally questionable artistic expression. Not to put it too mildly, it's a near-unwatchable series of indifferently shot couplings (though, strangely, no orgies) with an emphasis on cunnilingus and a gynaecological fascination with ladies' bits that suggests Franco should have been wearing rubber surgical gloves while filming them.

Insofar as a string of ugly humpings can be dignified with the concept of a plot, Inconfessable Orgies Of Emmanuelle concerns the titular Emmanuelle (variously describes as English and French but speaking Spanish throughout) on a new honeymoon with her frequently cuckolded but forgiving husband Andreas. He's apparently a high ranking diplomat but still happy to shag his wife on the floor of a wax museum filled with laughable approximations of Hollywood icon lookalikes (if the dialogue hadn't named them as Minnelli and Bogart you wouldn't know). They then go to a disco complete with a live sex floor show, where Emmanuelle gets drunk and has a lesbian fling on the stage with a cabaret dancer named Maria whose entire schtick is to strip to her suspenders and sway about like she's trying to maintain her balance on the deck of the Woolwich Ferry. Andreas is understandably peeved about this and walks out; Emmanuelle then has another lesbian session with a middle-aged friend named Carmen. Meanwhile Maria gets off with Tony, a rich businessman and our sexist oaf of a narrator.

Emmanuelle and Andreas want to get back together, but then she's violently raped by two sweaty thugs who haven't shown up before and don't show up again, and the incident is never mentioned. Instead Emmanuelle gets off with Maria, and then later with Tony in what he describes as "how a Spaniard really makes love" and which takes about seventeen seconds. Never mind using your man to time a soft-boiled egg, you couldn't use Tony to time a hand grenade. Eventually Tony and Maria get off with each other while Emmanuelle and Andreas reconcile in the next room and the whole tiresome menage-a-cinq stops.

Almost all of this takes place against a dreary background score that suggests someone has bought a £24.99 Bontempi out of the Argos clearance sale but hasn't figured out how to switch the automatic rhythm tracks off. No matter how often and for how long the participants disrobe and stick their flabby bums in the air, no matter how often Franco performs his signature directorial technique of zooming in and out of pubes, the droning, tuneless music never stops. Not that the music's at fault, of course: you could back this with anything from the 1812 Overture to the Blake's Seven theme and it wouldn't make a scrap of difference. You're still stuck there watching largely unattractive people having softcore sex with each other at crippling length. Presumably it doesn't count as porn, because it's shot on widescreen film rather than on VHS and you don't actually see anything. But porn's ultimately all it is, and it's as colossally tiresome as the dullest porn you've ever seen. Nice scenery though.

*

Sunday, 11 March 2012

SCREAM OF THE BANSHEE

EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!

Hopes weren't astronomically high for this low-budget monster horror: it's from the After Dark stable, whose track record has frankly been iffy at best. Husk, Prowl, 51, Seconds Apart, Fertile Ground.... none of them surprising, startling or more than functional. They do the job, they pass 90 minutes relatively painlessly but that's about all. And the Syfy logo doesn't inspire much confidence either. Then, when you're less than thirty seconds into the movie and they've spelled Lance Henriksen's name wrong, you start to wonder where the quality control guy's wandered off to. He's the biggest name on the movie and you can't even IMDb him to check whether it's Henriksen or Henrikson? Unless you've got the brains of a clump of bindweed, you should know this anyway. And don't tell me it's a typo, because the E and the O are some way apart on the keyboard. What are you going to do when you're working for Alejandro Jodorowsky or Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck?

Basic ignorance of how to correctly spell cast members' names aside, Scream Of The Banshee is another entirely perfunctory, unremarkable bit of horror nonsense in which some idiots, tasked with archiving the contents of a college basement, chance upon a mysterious box from 12th century Ireland: they open it and are promptly terrorised by - guess what? - a banshee. Their only hope looks to be former professor Lance Henriksen, now retired to a country mansion filled with bits of shop window dummies, and uploading blogs full of incoherent apocalyptic rantings onto his website....

There's really very little in this movie to trouble horror fans or gorehounds. The banshee hag itself is revoltingly ugly, and thrown towards the camera every so often to make you jump (or at least wake up), and there's some sloshing of blood about the place, mainly over professor Lauren Holly's cute but troubled and wayward daughter. And it's always good to see Lance Henriksen, even briefly and even in absolute twaddle. But that's really all it's got going for it. The plot doesn't make any sense - if they knew this thing was so dangerous, why didn't they dispose of it in a more permanent way like sealing it in concrete and chucking it into the middle of the sea, rather than just hiding it behind a flimsy false wall and writing Henriksen's name on it, then sending directions to where it can be found along with the key that will open it? Nor does it help to have half the banshee's attacks happening as some kind of hallucinations or dreams. Isolated moments aside, this really isn't worth the effort.

**

Aaaargh!

Friday, 9 March 2012

JOHN CARTER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

The year's first blockbuster: a reported budget of around a quarter of a billion dollars (if you believe the film's IMDb box office page), over two hours long, a truly epic feel about it, crammed with dazzling effects and bizarre alien creatures, with a little bit of emotional and character stuff sprinkled on top, but not enough to detract from the gosh-wow action and adventure, the thrilling action sequences and the monsters. Yet while I enjoyed it just as much as the original Star Wars all those years ago - it's a film in precisely that vein of old-fashioned pulp nonsense - it never really took flight as I'd hoped: for all the technical splendour it doesn't come to glorious life as much as it should. Partly that's due to a hero who's surprisingly charmless for most of the running time, and partly due to a screenplay that threatens to topple into parody at several moments. It's one of those movies that has dialogue of the "My name is Zibok Amraka, Great Nordollo of Vardon" variety delivered with a straight face, and dares you not to giggle.

John Carter is a disillusioned cavalry officer in the American Civil War: no longer concerned with his country or his army following the loss of his wife and child, now only interested in a cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But after a chance encounter with an alien, Carter finds himself lost on the surface of another planet: Mars, known to the inhabitants as Barsoom. He is immediately taken captive by the Tharks, a tribe of tall green creatures with four arms, but impresses them with his ability to leap hundreds of feet in the air (thanks to the different gravitational pull), a skill which comes in useful when flying warships full of humanoids turn up: in the ensuing battle he rescues Princess Dejah Thoris, daughter of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of the City Of Helium. But Dejah has been betrothed to the evil Sab Than, Prince of the City Of Zodanga, and Matai Shang, leader of the Threns, has a fiendish plan for the wedding ceremony....

Neatly, the action is framed with Carter's subsequent death in America and his nephew, one Edgar Rice Burroughs, reading the story in his journals. How faithful this film adaptation is to the original stories I don't know, although a little poking around on Wikipedia suggests it's pretty close. It's perhaps not surprising that the film occasionally reminds you of Avatar, Dune, Star Wars or Flash Gordon - those stories took some inspiration from the John Carter stories. The Tharks are not so dissimilar to the Na'avi from Avatar (admittedly they're a different colour and have more arms and tusks, but facially they're not that distant), and when they first show up there's a brief but horrible moment when you suddenly realise you could be on a planet full of Jar Jar Binkses. On an unrelated note, why the bible quote? What's "My right arms offend me, I shall cut them off!" doing in there?

It is a fair bit of fun: technically it's fantastic with perfectly rendered CGI battles and monsters and cityscapes, and the Michael Giacchino score is rousing and effective (it may actually be his best to date). I opted for 2D rather than the converted 3D option - it was shot in 2D and put through the computer afterwards - and yet again there's nothing in there that screams for the extra dimension. It doesn't need it and the 2D version rattles along perfectly well. But Taylor Kitsch is a peculiarly bland and forgettable lead: I'd no idea who he was and barely a couple of hours after seeing it I'm struggling to think what he looks like without finding a photograph on line. More fun is to be had with the more familiar supports: Ciaran Hinds (the third film I've seen him in this year), Mark Strong, Dominic West.

It could perhaps do with a trim - it's 132 minutes and feels long, particularly in the Earth sections where the film takes too long getting Carter to Mars in the first place - and it could certainly do with a more likable hero. Carter isn't a particularly appealing character for most of the time, a man who isn't interested in the mind-boggling wonders of Mars or the struggles of its oppressed peoples; he just wants to go home so he can dig up some gold and be rich and miserable. But it's still an enjoyable and entertaining fantasy romp with an eye for the truly epic and it avoids so many of the present rash of annoyances with fantasy movies: the fast-shutter photography that eliminates motion blur, thumping synth music, editing everything into an incoherent and incomprehensible mess. In that regard it has a solid, old-fashioned feel about it that's infinitely preferable to the gibberish of the Conan The Barbarian remake, say. Maybe it's not worth two hundred and fifty million dollars - think about that cost when you next walk past the Help The Aged or Dr Barnado's shops - but it's certainly worth the ticket price. For all its flaws, it's pretty damn good. Go see it before they take the 2D prints away.

****

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

CITY UNDER SIEGE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND YET AGAIN CAN'T THEY GET THE DAMNED TITLE RIGHT?

If you pick up the DVD artwork for this nonsensical Hong Kong basherama you'll surely notice the title appears to be Assassin: City Under Siege but the word Assassin doesn't appear on the screen at any point. Why change it? There seem to be two reasons for it, neither of them particularly convincing. Firstly, they wanted to avoid it being confused with Police Academy 6: City Under Siege - but who can't tell the difference between an Asian martial arts fantasy and a knuckleheaded cop farce? Secondly, City Under Siege is not a wildly exciting title, and not a very accurate one either as the threat is within the city - but putting Assassin in front is even more inaccurate as there aren't any assassins in the movie. Frankly they might as well have called Abbott And Costello: City Under Siege because they aren't in it either.

City Under Siege starts off in Malaysia at the end of the Second World War where a mad scientist is conducting experiments with a mutation gas that turns people into superstrong monsters. Years later, some lunkheads from a travelling circus ransack the underground lab looking for gold, but they inadvertently release the same gas and are transformed into monsters - and only the wannabe knife-thrower, similarly affected but able to control his powers, and a TV reporter (Shu Qi), can stop them from thoroughly trashing Hong Kong.... Also involved are a couple of (near-married) agents who specialise in this kind of case and who can take on the mutants without superpowers of their own....

It's all a bit X-Men, all a bit Chronicle: absolute twaddle but rather good knockabout fun and generally very likable. The director is Benny Chan who really knows how to put thumping action sequences together - Jackie Chan in New Police Story, the cracking Invisible Target, or Connected (a vastly superior remake, with superb car stunts, of the okay Kim Basinger movie Cellular). To be honest City Under Siege isn't as much fun as those movies: the fantasy element means there's much more in the way of CGI and special effects which rather get in the way of extended scenes of people lamping each other, and I'm not a huge fan of wirework, preferring movies where the cast basically obey the law of gravity. But it's well assembled, entertaining nonsense.

***

Available:

Monday, 5 March 2012

WITCHBOARD

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND MEMORIES OF A HAPPIER TIME

Every so often it's nice to go back and revisit a film you've pretty much forgotten. Sometimes they're better than you remember: maybe you weren't really in the mood that day. And sometimes they're worse: you might have a nostalgic attachment to them but here and now the magic has gone. In this instance I do remember rather enjoying it, but that was twenty four years ago, when it was shown at about four o'clock in the morning at the first Shock Around The Clock at the beloved Scala Cinema: it was the eighth film on the bill after A Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Street Trash and an early cut of Hellraiser. Under those circumstances my initial judgement might have been a little on the wonky side. In addition, I was not as familiar with horror B-movies as I am now: admittedly I'm still a long long way from expert status but in 1987 I was barely entry level novice. I had little ability to tell good from bad and this cheapo ouija board nonsense was rather fun - so I thought.

Even seeing Witchboard again on rental VHS a couple of years later, it seemed okay but having left it to mature for nearly a quarter of a century has frankly done it no favours: the big hair, tight trousers, pastel decor and 80s rock soundtrack have dated it badly. A young wife-to-be (Tawny Kitaen) becomes addicted to using a ouija board to communicate with what appears to be an initially kindly spirit of a 10-year-old boy named David. But the spirit turns malevolent and violent - her fiance's workmate is killed in a mysterious accident on a building site, and when her ex brings a wacky medium in to exorcise the spirit things only get worse....

At least they pronounce ouija as wee-ja rather than wee-gee. But there's little to commend Witchboard these days: the dialogue is awful and clunky and the serious character moments are almost funny, though it's neat how they turn the snarky ex-boyfriend into secondary hero material when you'd expect such a bog-standard horror movie to leave him as demon fodder. The best bits feature Kathleen Wilhoite's comedy spiritualist role, but the rest of it is pretty bland stuff and doesn't even deliver on the gore; it was only a 15 certificate back in the Ferman years, and that was when you'd probably get a 15 for saying "bum". One of those films that's less interesting than working out why it seemed so much better all those years ago. Nostalgia for the horrendous mid-80s fashions aside, there's not much.

**

HOSTEL PART III

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH

I know it's fashionable to sneer at the so-called torture porn genre. Certainly in the snootier circles of broadsheets and late-night arts review programmes you'll never hear a good word said about the Saws and Hostels, and even within horror fandom I don't think there's a massive love for them. Well, I don't actually have a problem with torture porn films; I just have a problem with bad torture porn films. I rather like the Saws - yes, they're empty and they don't mean anything other than shrieking and sadistic gore, but they're stupid and funny and every instalment's variations on its predecessors' themes, and the impenetrably convoluted back-story makes them more interesting than films that are essentially just remakes of the original (such as the Friday The 13ths). Similarly, I do have a fondness for Eli Roth's two Hostel movies: they're actually well made movies that deliver on their promise.

Hostel Part III, however, is basically a fan fiction film: it has that "based on characters created by" credit at the start that means the idea has been farmed out to other hands, and it marks the sort of quality downturn you'd get if Eon sold off the Bond franchise and ITV picked it up. And not only is it a Hostel fan film, it's a Hangover fan film. Four buddies get together for a stag weekend in Vegas and become the prey for the Nevada branch of the Elite Hunting Club (something of a misnomer as they don't really do much hunting; presumably they wanted to call it the Elite Dismemberment Club but the name was taken): they and a couple of top escort girls are captured, due to be placed into a sealed room and butchered in front of a live studio audience of rich bastards gambling on how long they take to die.

You could make the argument that the makers are suggesting audience complicity: we rented a Hostel movie to watch half a dozen sadistically gory death scenes, so in what way are we horror audiences different from the sickos who pay to watch people die at the EHC? To which I say "Phooey!" We rented a horror movie, we didn't pay thousands to actually watch someone brutally murdered. We know the difference between fantasy and reality. Additionally: for torturers they're not very good at it. Like self-proclaimed great lovers, there's a lot of build-up that this is going to be a special and momentous - but it's a damp squib, nothing new and over very quickly. I know stuff all about torturing people but even I, incredibly squeamish and with a conscience, could probably take a good half hour taking one of these EHC douchebags apart.

There's a sense that "this sort of thing" cheapens horror cinema, that it's gratuitously sadistic with no entertainment value and no cultural value, that it's just plain sick and that it's boring. I don't agree: there's nothing wrong with "this sort of thing" when it's done well and I maintain that the first two Hostels were nicely made and shot and delivered the yuck and screaming in an unexpected manner. A nice opening scene that cleverly subverts your expectations apart, this is a pretty uninteresting movie: flatly made, nowhere near vicious enough (even though it's an 18 certificate) and you really don't care about any of the characters - you may not want to see them die horribly but you don't particularly want to see them live either. Whether or not Hostel Part III gives horror movies a bad name, it certainly gives Hostel movies a bad name.

*

This sort of thing:

Thursday, 1 March 2012

XTRO

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WEIRDNESS

Armed with the poster line Not All Extra-Terrestrials Are Friendly (with the initial E and T coloured bright red), this cheap British weirdie showed up in the wake of Spielberg's ET as well as Ridley Scott's original Alien and frankly doesn't come close to either. But it's got a bizarre, almost endearing charm about it, despite not making a huge amount of sense and boasting some spectacularly awful acting and writing. It's as if it's been made by people who've never seen a horror movie, or indeed any kind of movie, before.

Three years ago, husband and father Sam (Philip Sayer) disappeared abruptly when a giant spaceship scooped him up in broad daylight. Now, the Xtro has returned - as a pile of sludge which transforms into a backwards-limbed space monster. First it kills two people on a country road, then it impregnates a woman in a cottage, who immediately gives messy birth to a full-grown Sam (who chews through his own umbilical cord). Sam heads to London to find his young son, who has never stopped believing in the alien abductors, and give him psychokinetic powers with which he can bring his toys to life. And to spearhead some kind of extra-terrestrial invasion by turning naughty au pair Maryam D'Abo into an alien egg machine in the bathroom.

Memorably odd moments include a giant Action Man toy bayoneting an old biddy under a sofa (Anna Wing, later to graduate to the relative sanity of EastEnders), future Bond girl D'Abo in two nude scenes, the sudden and unexplained appearance of a panther in the top-floor apartment and the weird climax in which baffled mum Rachel (Bernice Stegers) returns home and finds a fridge full of green gloop and translucent alien eggs. (The alternative ending, in which Stegers is confronted by a brood of alien children murmuring "Mummy" at her, wasn't on the DVD release I watched, but is on YouTube and is arguably more sinister.) Sadly the back-limbed monster is only seen briefly, which is a shame as it's a simple but unsettling effect - a bloke bent over backwards in a rubber costume with the face on the back of the head.

It's directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, who also wrote and performed an electronic score for the film that in truth I rather like (plenty of early 80s synth buzzes and bleeps) and it's a pity there's been no CD release. Davenport made a couple of name-only sequels which have nothing to do with the events of Xtro: Xtro 2 has scientists accidentally unleashing monsters in an underground bunker, Xtro 3 has soldiers on an island fighting an alien creature; as well as a terrible horror video called Haunted Echoes. Xtro is pretty terrible, but it's got a strange wonky charm about it that makes it just about interesting enough to get by. Be warned that it contains a small evil clown.

**

Xtraordinary:

SEXTETTE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND THE SENSATION OF HAVING BEEN HIT REPEATEDLY OVER THE HEAD WITH A CHAIR

How bad can it be? What's the worst that can happen? It's undeniably true that life can be unshrinkingly horrible and ghastly, laden with misery, despair and oppression. People can be bastards. Switch on the news and it's an endless parade of squalid greed, violence and evil. Real life stinks; as good a reason as you'll need to escape the drudgery for an evening with a DVD filled with happiness and pretty people. When it comes to movies, though, there's generally a limit to how bad things can get: there'll usually be a basic level of professionalism (not always, thanks to the rise of decent quality budget camcorders and the popularity of the found footage genre), and it'll usually be over in less than two hours. But occasionally you stumble over a movie that looks to have been made in a parallel universe where everyone is mental.

Sextette is a movie of such stupefying, slack-bowelled wrongness that couldn't be much wronger if it included some obese nudists tying kittens to anvils and firing them into the Thames from a trebuchet to a reggae soundtrack. An all-star gerontophiliac sex farce full of clumping one-liners that aren't just pre-war but pre-talkies would be staggering enough, but one in which Timothy Dalton serenades his new bride with Neil Sedaka's Love Will Keep Us Together? That's already pushed the whatthe****ometer into the danger zone and we're only a reel into the damned thing. And that isn't the worst of it. Dalton was 33 at the time, and his love interest was a mere 84 - the love interest in question is Mae West. It's like watching a remake of The Stud except the hunky Oliver Tobias has been replaced by Wilfrid Brambell at his most decrepit.

Newlyweds Dalton and West, a landed British diplomat and a legendary Hollywood sex siren respectively, check into the bridal suite at a swanky London hotel to be confronted with a frankly insane level of media interest and TV commentary, even down to having American news crews broadcasting live from the lobby. Over the course of the wedding night, several of her ex-husbands turn up, including Tony Curtis (doing Standard Comedy Russian as the Soviet delegate at an international conference), George Hamilton (doing Standard Comedy Mafioso as a thuggish gangster) and Ringo Starr (doing Standard Comedy Film Director as an auteur trying to shoot a screen test with Peter Liapis, who would later show up as the star of Ghoulies). There's also the hunt for West's cassette tape of memoirs that's gone missing and which contains incendiary material that perhaps shouldn't be broadcast....

Cue genuinely creepy scenes of an 84-year-old Mae hanging out with bodybuilders and athletes, Dalton merrily misunderstanding the word "gay", Dom De Luise as Mae's manager performing the Beatles' Honey Pie (complete with a tapdance on top of a piano), George Raft for twelve seconds, Dalton on a trampoline and Mae uttering her thudding one-liners from the 1930s (including "when I'm good I'm very good but when I'm bad I'm better" and "is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"). Everything is so misconceived, misjudged and mistimed: a vulgar mix of show tunes (performed by people who really shouldn't sing), badly delivered dirty jokes, famous faces (Walter Pidgeon and Alice Cooper also show up) and a lead performance from someone who doesn't get a single close-up lest we see she's wearing enough makeup to pebbledash a three-bedroom house.

None of this nightmarish atrocity works in the cold cynical light of the 21st century and I can't believe it worked in 1977. Or even in the original stage play which West wrote in 1960 (and even back then she was entitled to free eye checks and a bus pass). Under the opening credits there's a shot of the old Plaza in Lower Regent Street (now the Apollo Piccadilly and a Tesco Express) screening Airport 77; a film which is considerably funnier but less of a disaster. Much of the time, principally during the musical numbers (with a few exceptions, I can't abide musicals anyway, and I honestly didn't realise this even was a musical) and my primary conscious responses were to stare in disbelief at the screen and wonder "in Heaven's name stop it!" and "what the hell were you thinking?" over and over again. It's horrible beyond words and reason, it almost physically hurts to watch it, and I may need to go and cleanse my soul with some crystal meth and bestial pornography. Horrible.

*