Wednesday, 27 August 2014



Easily my favourite film of FrightFest 2014, Nacho Vigalondo's audacious hi-tech real-time thriller is also one of the best films of the year so far and it's a pity there doesn't seem to be a UK release on the horizon. One hopes, because for the most part it's gripping as hell, visually stylish despite being shot entirely through webcams, cellphones and security cameras, and horrifying in its suggestions of what a determined individual can do with computers. Granted, it does take its foot off the gas in the last twenty minutes or so, losing tension rather than cranking it up even more, but even so it's a treat. Oh, and it's all done in one single shot.

Not really, of course. Technically, Open Windows is one unblinking stare at the laptop display of webmaster Elijah Wood, in town to interview top movie star Sasha Grey for his fansite. He's suddenly contacted online by Neil Maskell and informed the interview is cancelled - but he can still obtain lots of juicy information by installing a few tools to hack into her cellphone and access all her conversations, such as the imminent meeting with her agent in a hotel room. But things get complicated when the agent spots him, and Wood ends up forced to take physical action...

Much of the first hour or more, with Vigalondo's camera roaming over the various displays on Wood's desktop, makes for a dazzling extended split-screen sequence that overshadows even vintage Brian De Palma, not least because the multiple viewpoints technique doesn't just last for a couple of minutes like the setpieces in Blow Out or Sisters, but just keeps going throughout the whole film. He even manages to include a car chase! It's a pity that the film feels the need to put in extra plot twists that diffuse the excitement towards the end, bringing into question who Wood and Maskell really are, and raising the stakes far above the apparently pointless harassment of a hot movie star, because for my money it was already exciting enough at that level.

Sure, the technology on display is far-fetched. Seeing through concrete walls? Where are the popups telling Wood that he can't open this link until he installs a software upgrade? Or the "Buffering: 17%" messages? How come his internet connection never goes down or his laptop battery doesn't run out at an inopportune moment? But that doesn't matter: it's all a dramatic device to tell the story, no more representative of reality than the absurd forensic technogubbins you see every week on CSI. And for at least 80% of Open Windows it works brilliantly. I want to see it again.




Let's get this one out of the way fairly quickly: this year's FrightFest had one of the strongest lineups in years but as in everything in life, there's invariably someone letting the side down. I know you can't get a coconut every time, but this one doesn't even know what coconuts look like, let alone where they are or how to pretend to aim roughly in their general direction. A one-joke movie whose entire script meeting consisted of bolting the words "zombie" and "beavers" together, it's obviously not any good, it knows it's not any good, it doesn't care that it's not very good, so why even bother moaning about it?

Three hot young girls go off to a remote cabin by the lake for some time away from their hunky menfolk after one of them was photographed cheating. But it's not long after the guys turn up that the local beaver population, contaminated by carelessly lost toxic waste, turn into flesh-eating undead Zombeavers, felling trees to block the only roads, biting through the phone lines, attacking our despicable ensemble...

So why bother moaning about it? Because it's lazy, stupid, shoddy (whether the shoddiness is a deliberate stab at wannabe cult status is hardly the point) and full of people so fundamentally unlikable that I signed up to Team Beaver about 15 minutes in. More work has gone into the end title song, a faux-Sinatra big band number that essentially recaps the relative highlights of the previous 70 miserable minutes. But then composers Al and Jon Kaplan (who incidentally seemed to be channelling the peerless Jerry Goldsmith in their score for Zombeavers) have been doing movie parodies in show tune form for years; it's just a shame that you have to wait for the end credits to start rolling for any actual wit. The rest of the movie is barely Asylum level trash.


Thursday, 21 August 2014



Maybe it's just me being old fashioned and traditionalist, but I'm not entirely convinced by the idea of crowdfunding films. I am absolutely okay with it when it comes to people trying to get low budget horror movies off the ground, or very tiny small scale projects, but I honestly don't think this method of financing should be used for proper Hollywood movies with recognisable names involved. By all means use it as a method to get on the ladder, but it shouldn't be the ladder, and once you're up there you're in a position to raise the cash a proper way: you make the movie, I pay to see it.

Veronica Mars was a TV show that ran from 2004 to 2006, which I never saw and have no real interest in digging out. Apparently it was popular enough to suggest a film version might be on the cards, yet it wasn't popular enough for a big Hollywood studio to stump up the frankly pocket change budget (estimated $6m on the IMDb). So they got the money together with a Kickstarter campaign and the result is a perfectly decent piece of throwaway fluff that's certainly enjoyable enough while it's on but two days later you'll struggle to remember much about it. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is on the point of finally getting out of her impossibly glamorous Californian backwater hellhole and making it in New York as a hotshot lawyer (cue a brief cameo by Jamie Lee Curtis) after some years as a private investigator. But then she hears that one of her high school friends has been murdered, and her ex boyfriend arrested...

Well it's all right, an amusing and insubstantial way of passing a couple of hours fairly painlessly. In the league of recent teen detective movies it's certainly better than Miley Cyrus' equally disposable So Undercover. The cast (most of whom reprise their roles from the TV show) are mostly pretty and hunksome, there's a smattering of funny one liners, and it's all quite jolly and trivial and everything works out nicely in the end. Forgive me, but that's really the meat and drink of Hollywood studio blandness, so you'd have thought they'd have leapt at it for the equivalent of coins dropped down the back of Joel Silver's sofa. If I were a rich Hollywood studio, I probably would have done. But I'm not: I'm just an ordinary punter on the other end of the industry and that's where I intend to stay.





First off, you're asking for trouble by calling any action movie Drive Hard, or indeed Anything Hard, because it invites inevitable comparison with Die Hard and unless you are at the very very top of your game you are not going to come out of that comparison well. Second off, for crying out loud please spend some of your budget of grading your film to actually look a bit like film. It doesn't have to look like 2001 or Lawrence Of Arabia, just so long as it doesn't look like an episode of Neighbours. I know it's all shot on digital these days but the raw unprocessed video image just gives the overwhelming impression of a cheap TV movie, and if I wanted television I'd watch television.

Third off, in the name of sanity either do something slightly different, or do the same old thing well enough for an audience to not mind the repetition. Drive Hard is two parts Getaway, two parts Vehicle 19, one smidgen Midnight Run and no parts any good at all. Thomas Jane is the former racing champion turned ordinary suburban driving instructor, now giving lessons to visiting American John Cusack; suddenly Cusack robs the safe of an investment bank run by an international crime syndicate, turning Jane into his accessory-cum-hostage and triggering a chase between them, the Feds, corrupt coppers and the Mob....

It's mostly boring, the comedy stuff isn't funny (relying on the old standards like annoying children and foul-mouthed octogenarians), the action sequences are considerably less exciting than they should be, with a car and biker gang chase that's frankly less Drive Hard and more Driving Miss Daisy, and both the characters are frankly tiresome. That it's directed by Australian exploitation veteran Brian Trenchard-Smith is the biggest surprise on view, because frankly he should know better. In retrospect maybe I should have known better as well.


Monday, 11 August 2014



Back in 2012 we had The Purge, a perfectly decent if entirely unoriginal home invasion thriller which suffered from a central conceit - that for 12 hours every year all crime is legal - which made absolutely no sense. In any movie future that seeks to be taken seriously (unlike the silliness of an Aeon Flux, say) there needs to be some believable progression from the present, and the idea of switching the emergency services off for twelve hours so the surviving populace can feel better about themselves through indiscriminate murder doesn't stand up. Suddenly for one night it's okay to firebomb an orphanage or a maternity ward? Now, we have a sequel in which that central idea of Cull Yourself Happy still doesn't make any sense and still isn't satisfactorily explained, but at least it does go into other areas rather than merely replicating the original.

While the first Purge was a home invasion film, The Purge: Anarchy is an old-fashioned urban action thriller that brings to mind the kind of schlocky eighties exploitation nonsense (Bronx Warriors, for example) that came out in the wake of Escape From New York: a group of civilians have to make their way across a city swarming with gangs of murderous psychopaths, many of whom are in outlandish costume and makeup for no immediately obvious reason. On that one night in March when crime is not just ignored but actively encouraged by Government, four innocent potential victims find themselves stuck outside and must survive until daybreak, helped only by an embittered police officer (Frank Grillo) with vengeance on his mind...

The first twenty minutes or so are absolutely terrible because the only thing they can achieve is to remind you just how boneheadedly stupid the central idea is. However, once the sun goes down and the purging kicks off it becomes an enjoyably tough and violent action movie - as with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Sabotage, perhaps too tough for the 15 certificate it's been given by the BBFC. It's also helped by some vicious satirical humour, with a gathering of odious millionaires effectively restarting the slave trade by literally buying poor people off the streets so they can murder them in cold blood.

While the first film was essentially about the privileged One Per Cent actually having to get their hands dirty, this is about the poor and huddled masses at the other end of the stick. One hopes that a further instalment - if there is one - will actually try and provide a plausible explanation as to how the Purge originated as a positive act of social cleansing, rather than an illogical plot device for an action franchise that in all honesty doesn't really need it anyway. Not a great film, but it is entertaining enough when it gets going.




It's been a while since I watched either of the first two films in this action franchise, but as far as I can remember it goes something like this. Along with the fantastically violent Bloodsport, the first Kickboxer was probably Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout film, in which he underwent extensive training for the climactic tournament sequence where he spectacularly beat the tar out of someone or other in the final reel. In Kickboxer 2, Van Damme didn’t actually show up, as his character was dead (and briefly played by Emmanuel Kervyn, the genius auteur behind the Belgian splatter epic Rabid Grannies and apparently nothing else), so his brother, played by Sasha Mitchell off Dallas, went out for revenge (probably) and became world champion.

Kickboxer III: The Art Of War sees the return of Sasha Mitchell, this time in Rio to take part in a charity kickboxing exhibition and tournament. By chance he takes under his wing an allegedly cute orphan and his cuter older sister; the sister is promptly kidnapped by the fight promoter for white slavery purposes. Can Mitchell defend his world title, rescue the girl and sort out the villains?

The numerous fight scenes are certainly violent enough to at least temporarily distract attention from the fact that the plot is a load of old twine and the villain’s actions make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why does he train Mitchell so hard when the idea is to persuade him to lose the fight? What kickboxing technique is enhanced by being dragged helplessly behind a speedboat? And what kind of moron knowingly and deliberately abducts a friend of the world kickboxing champion anyway? Still, none of that really matters as every five minutes or so Mitchell gets to repeatedly punch someone in the face and/or throw them through a window and/or fire a submachine gun at them, and they’re really the only decent bits of the film. I suppose I’d better see Kickboxer 4 sometime.




Nico Mastorakis is probably best known for Island Of Death, the spectacularly sleazy and thoroughly revolting movie which ended up on the video nasties list where, frankly, it can stay as far as I'm concerned. After that attention grabbing debut, Mastorakis churned out a number of routine thrillers, horror movies and general nonsense, mostly ranging from the poor (Blind Date) to the very poor (The Zero Boys) via the silly but fun (Hired To Kill), so possibly the best film he made is actually this pacy and enjoyable action movie with decent stuntwork, a reliable cast of B-movie stalwarts, all laced with references to old westerns (though it's a pity the Westerns idea didn't extend to a twangy soundtrack rather than the early Hans Zimmer synths.)

Despite those nods, Nightmare At Noon is more of a cross between a zombie movie and an ecologically aware thriller like Graham Baker's Impulse. Mysterious (and possibly foreign) albino Brion James unleashes a luminous green toxin into the water supply to see what happens to the small Utah town downriver. But he's reckoned without vacationing showbiz lawyer Wings Hauser, ex-cop turned drifter Bo Hopkins, and local Sheriff George Kennedy, as the toxin turns the townspeople into unreasoning, green-skinned homicidal maniacs...

It's the kind of no-nonsense B-movie that got shunted off on to video way back in the late 1980s; fortunately it's also the kind of no-nonsense B-movie that gives B-movies a good name. The cast are all good value; George Kennedy is a legend anyway, although his physical reaction as the toxin starts to take effect does rather give the impression that he shouldn't have had the fish (it also doesn't help that this was made just before he went full comedy in The Naked Gun). But, with some decently staged action sequences outweighing the faintly comical look of a town full of incredible hulks, Nightmare At Noon is a perfectly decent discovery, and another reminder that there are minor forgotten treasures to be unearthed from the 1980s.




Even allowing for the fact that what I know about humour wouldn't fill the back of a stamp even if you typed it in really large letters, it's probably still fair to say that only the best humour is timeless. Real comic genius lasts forever, and there's a very good reason why we don't laugh at Old Mother Riley any more. (Opinion is divided as to whether we laughed at Old Mother Riley even then; that said, a lot of people seem to be laughing at Mrs Brown's Boys which is essentially the same thing with added comedy swearing.) The Marx Brothers at their best are still funny, and A Night At The Opera will doubtless last until the end of time; meanwhile, any random episode of On The Buses or George And Mildred now just looks baffling.

The Ritz Brothers were a very poor man's Marx Brothers indulging in backchat, slapstick and pulling faces, and it's frankly difficult to tell whether The Gorilla was a suitable vehicle for their talents: were they good performers trapped in a terrible film or terrible performers trapped in a terrible film? When Bela Lugosi is getting more laughs from his sinister butler role than the above-the-title comedy troupe, something's gone horribly wrong but it's hard to say exactly what. The Ritzes play gurning halfwitted detectives called in to protect a millionaire (Lionel Atwill) after death threats from of a mysterious serial killer: cue lots of shrieking, running hysterically from room to room, and pulling faces.

By 1939, Hollywood was putting out proper films like Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach and The Wizard Of Oz, so to see a major studio like 20th Century Fox putting out a creaky stage farce as primitive and shoddy as this is quite a surprise. It is of course absolute rubbish which has probably only survived this long by apparently falling into the public domain, since no modern distributor with all their pegs in the right holes would ever consider stumping up the money to release this. I shall not be attempting to track down any other films starring the Ritz Brothers, because I'm already fifty and there's always housework to do.




Nothing to do with Peter Svatek's Sci-Fighters, this is probably the stupidest and most idiotic attempt to fuse the martial arts genre with the multilevel beat-em-up video game, through the medium of very badly thought out virtual reality. Featuring the dazzling fighting talents of about a dozen top martial arts champions, along with the equally dazzling acting talents of precisely nobody (including Cynthia Rothrock and Don "The Dragon" Wilson), it's a film in which absolutely nothing works at all.

Sci-Fighter is a fantastically detailed VR kung-fu game originally conceived as a training simulator for top cops, but its inventor decides to give it to his moody grandson as a birthday present. Unfortunately the kid gets stuck inside the game, and his dad (Don "The Dragon" Wilson) has to go into the game himself and win every level in order to rescue the kid, or be trapped in there forever with him as a sentient computer virus is corrupting the game around them...

It's absolute rubbish, in which the rules of the game are not just incomprehensible but contradictory, to the extent that Wilson even has a dream sequence within the game - and even that's not the stupidest thing on show. Why do they let the machine run down precious battery power when the plug is lying within about six inches of the wall socket? Why does the games inventor not have a set of cheat codes to deactivate all the fighters throughout the game? And why is Cynthia Rothrock (who I generally like but is sadly past her prime here) depicted in the game as well as in reality, and then not given any serious ass-kicking to do? Even the fight scenes, which are usually the saving grace of terrible martial arts films, don’t have any real impact. Pretty worthless.




Many years ago, before I developed much of an interest in, and indeed obsession with, film, I used to actually buy and read books, believe it or not. I distinctly remember obtaining the first two or three of a series of tacky pulp paperbacks called The Survivalist, detailing the adventures of a top CIA agent and weapons specialist trying to survive and keep his family together in a United States blasted apart in a nuclear war and Soviet invasion. Even then, even I could tell that this was imbecilic flagwaving shooty nonsense, and I gave up reading them very quickly. But then a movie showed up under the same title, and appeared to tell exactly the same story in exactly the same shooty way.

In the event, Jack Tillman: The Survivalist turns out not to be based on that series of novels, although it might as well be as it ploughs much the same furrow. Tough Texan construction man Steve Railsback has to travel north to find his son after a nuclear bomb goes off in Russia and, for no particularly convincing reason, the entire American system of government collapses in the space of about 10 minutes. Travel is forbidden, finances frozen, the National Guard are out on the streets and the previously civilised population swiftly turn into homicidal maniacs. The more immediate danger, however, is loonie National Guardsman Marjoe Gortner seizing the opportunity to pursue his decades-long feud with Railsback....

It desperately wants to be Mad Max, but frankly it lacks the raw visceral excitement, with the one major chase scene apparently taking place well within the speed limit and, rather than the dazzling vehicular mayhem we have come to demand from post-Apocalypse cinema, we only get as few people falling off their motorbikes as they can possibly get away with. Indeed the whole film is cheap and unspectacular, looking more like a bog standard TV-movie than a proper film. Maybe if it had been allowed to be considerably nastier and crazier and more sadistic, it might have been more fun. As it is, it's pretty mediocre stuff.


Wednesday, 6 August 2014



In a week that's featured so many rentals that were mediocre at best and borderline unwatchable at worst - The Ganzfeld Possession, Amphibious, Bloody Homecoming, Creep Van, The Rig, 13 Eerie - the idea that a film from the Syfy Channel and The Asylum isn't the worst film of the batch is by itself enough to shake one's faith in consensus reality. Sure, occasionally they can throw up the occasional insanity like their take on Sherlock Holmes, but most of the time they're pumping out stupid mockbusters with Microsoft Paint-level effects work and/or wannabe cult trash featuring CGI sharks in increasingly unlikely situations. (A reboot of the Astaire and Rogers musicals of the 1930s featuring two hammerheads is surely only months away.) But the idea that they can actually make something that's not only hands down the best film of the week, but is a perfectly watchable and enjoyable horror movie, is the kind of life-altering perspective-changer that makes absolutely no sense at all. It's like Al Adamson winning Best Picture.

Incredibly, Zombie Night is a solid, entertaining entry in the overcrowded cinema of the undead which stays serious throughout and doens't bother with easy laughs or silliness. It doesn't do much devastatingly new - for no given reason the dead come back to life and crawl out of their graves and start biting people, and a handful of the living try and avoid being zombified - but it does it with enough grue to earn an 18 certificate, and is helped by a solid cast of 1980s stars (Anthony Michael Hall, Daryl Hannah, Alan Ruck) and occasional nods to Lucio Fulci, City Of The Living Dead in particular.

John Gulager clearly knows what he's doing with a horror B-movie, even if the Feast sequels and Piranha 3DD weren't very good. Still, it's actually nice to find a disposable zombie movie that isn't much interested in being anything more than a disposable zombie movie. The zombs don't represent anything political or social, it's not an allegory for Cuba or the rich/poor divide or Facebook; they're just flesh-eating ghouls. Taken as a collaboration between The Asylum and the Syfy Channel, it's a shocking revelation (which also shows how utterly terrible they are most of the time). Taken on the level of an unpretentious and unironic gory zombie film, it's nowhere near a masterpiece but it's certainly worth the rental outlay.





A cheap, cheerless and indifferently written, directed and performed DTV slasher comedy of no great merit, mostly veering between dull and silly, made very slightly interesting by some graphic gore. Full marks for doing the splattery money shots with practical effects rather than dodgy CGI, but even with all the blood and grue it's still unremakable video sludge. As for the comedy: well, I didn't laugh once.

The basic idea of Creep Van is a homicidal maniac killing people with a customised van: slamming heads with the sliding door, cutting someone in half with the superpowered electric windows, filling the airbag with spikes. Loser Campbell has a dead-end job at a car wash who sees the van is for sale, but then the van's owner starts targeting him and his friends, colleagues and whoever else shows up....

Lloyd Kaufman has a cameo as a dissatisfied customer (along with the score composer Dennis Dreith) and Creep Van certainly has that Troma aura of shoddy incompetence which supposedly doesn't matter if there's ugly sex or a revolting gore effect every so often. It's not as full-on bad taste as Troma's most famous product like The Toxic Avenger and Class Of Nuke 'Em High - the two main reasons why I refuse to watch Troma films any more - but it's got that same lousy atmosphere along with the attitude that actual film-making technique isn't really important.




Maybe it's down to a shift in international releases of Eurogarbage movies, or maybe it was just me not paying attention, but I'd kind of forgotten about Bruno Mattei after his uncredited work filling in for Lucio Fulci on the endearingly rubbish Zombi 3 (released on British DVD as Zombie Flesh Eaters 2). That was back in 1988 but since then he put out another 26 films until his death in 2007, according to his IMDb listing - and none of them look to have had any UK distribution. This squalid and absurd porn-based thriller from 2003 certainly didn't, not because it's terrible - although it really isn't any good - but because the BBFC would most likely have sent the print back with a note advising them to sod off and stop wasting everyone's time.

Snuff Trap certainly gets off to an eye-opening start with a violent porn shoot consisting mainly of a masked psychopath repeatedly punching one bound naked woman in the face before murdering her co-star on camera. The gang at the heart of the extreme snuff porn circuit settle on their next star/victim and abduct her off the streets, either not knowing or not caring that her father is a senior politician. But her mother will go to any lengths, no matter how degrading or repulsive, to get her back from the clutches of the legendarily evil porn auteur known as Dr Hades....

It borrows from Paul Schrader's Hardcore and blatantly from Joel Schumacher's 8mm - even cribbing chunks of dialogue. Oddly, the grubbiness feels enhanced by the shooting on video rather than 35mm celluloid, since it's highly unlikely that in 2003 any actual snuff porn (if it really existed) would be shot on anything other than tape. The film veers from Paris to Amsterdam to Hamburg for no apparent reason except to get some location filming done, it makes no sense, the villains are ludicrous and the ending (with mother and daughter chained up and ready to be killed on video for the benefit of who, exactly?) is laughable. The sordid sleaziness kind of works, but it's still a stupid and unpleasant film.


Saturday, 2 August 2014



Really? Again? Honestly, I have absolutely nothing against generic teen slasher movies: back in the heyday of VHS rentals I enjoyed, to varying degrees, many a production line horror movie like My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, or Rosemary's Killer, or many a second-stringer like Happy Birthday To Me or He Knows You're Alone. Even the Friday The 13ths and the Halloweens, before sequel boredom set in. They didn't have to be wildly original or stylishly directed; just competently nailed together with a degree of panache or craft. Sure, they weren't all great - Terror Train, Hell Night and Graduation Day are particularly terrible - but so long as they lined up an attractive young cast and bumped them off in inventive and splattery ways, it didn't matter that much. Sadly, those movies were all thirty years ago or more, and the next generation of bog-standard teen slashers shows every sign of the genre's inbreeding: exactly the same, but a bit uglier and a lot stupider.

Bloody Homecoming isn't so much a throwback to the 80s teen slasher movie as a photocopy: a straight-down-the-middle high school killfest which goes out of its way to ensure that any potentially fresh ideas are mercilessly stomped underfoot like cockroaches. Even the music score is as close to Halloween as the lawyers will let it. Who is the maniac in the firefighter's uniform slaughtering the kids at Winston High three years after the accidental fiery death of the champion quarterback and rapey Men's Rights scumbag? The dead boy's Sheriff father, still angry about what happened? The pervy principal lusting after his barely legal students? The creepy simpleton janitor (who's also a part-time volunteer fireman)? Who could it be, and who will survive the Homecoming Dance?

It's commendable that the film extends a surprising level of acceptance and respect to the openly gay student. Other than that it's the usual round of bitchy backtalk, gratuitous shower scenes, drinking, sex, and running screaming from the maniac: not just nothing you haven't seen before, but nothing you haven't seen before at any point in the last three decades. By all means do throwbacks - the entire grindhouse movement is basically modern filmmakers riffing nostalgically on the movie experiences of their youth. But there's a galaxy of difference between riffing on those movies and simply xeroxing them - and not even xeroxing them in an interesting way.