Sunday, 18 September 2016

MONOLITH

CONTAINS VERY MINOR SPOILERS

Sometimes it's the simplest ideas that can make for the most gripping movies, and sometimes the best variation on a familiar theme is a straightforward reversal - in this instance locked out rather than locked in. Monolith isn't any kind of gamechanger but as a lean, stripped-down thriller with a minimal cast (only one major speaking role, a toddler and a handful of walkons and Skype conversations) it's solid and entertaining with a dash of comment about terrible parenting.

Because Sandra (Katrina Bowden) is truly an awful mother: mislaying her kid at a gas station when easily distracted by a fan of her vapid popstar past, constantly giving the boy a dumb videogame to keep him amused and quiet rather than try and engage with him. She smokes in front of him (and is also willing to indulge in some soft drugs) and cheerfully admits to being a homewrecker, yet is hypocritically furious that the husband she stole might be playing away again. So it's somewhat satisfying dramatically when the kid inadvertently locks her out of her super-secure, ultra-safe SUV, the computer-controlled Monolith. With the car in Vault Mode lockdown, the desert temperatures turning it into a potential furnace and her son too young to understand how to open the car from inside, can Sandra "man up" to her maternal responsibilities and figure a way to get the doors open and rescue her steadily dehydrating child? While contending with the local feral wildlife a lack of water?

Sure there are a few holes in the logic - for one thing, the unaccountable lack of any other traffic on a satnav-directed diversion from the road to a major city. But it's a simple, economical setup, it doesn't waste any time at all (a running time of just 83 minutes), and Bowden makes for a flawed but attractive lead forced to make serious grownup decisions for probably the first time in her life. And even though I have absolutely no use for it on my daily commute to the wastelands of Milton Keynes, I kind of want a Monolith for myself. Well worth a look.

****

MOST LIKELY TO DIE

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

A group of late-20s smugheads get together for a 10-years-later high school reunion, so they can angst over their wretched failures and bad life choices, follow through on their adolescent crushes, and reminisce nostalgically over the anonymous classmate they routinely humiliated until they wrecked his life. Meanwhile a masked killer in a graduation robe is viciously offing them one by one in the manner of their hilarious "Most Likely To...." captions from their class yearbook. Who could it possibly be? Answers on a postcard if [a] you work out who the killer is before the denouement, and [b] you actually care.

There are a few nice moments in Most Likely To Die, it's certainly violent enough, and the 10-years-later idea means the potential meat courses have a (tiny) bit of history and depth to them, rather than the usual cardboard teenagers. But it's still impossible to give that much of a hoot about them, and the film degenerates into the traditional scenes of squabbling halfwits running around a big house and screaming, the traditional ludicrous unmasking, and the traditional final twist ending that might (but probably won't) lead to a sequel. Oddly, Anthony DiBlasi's film has bypassed UK cinemas (well, maybe not that oddly) and DVD, and has simply popped up unannounced on Netflix. Cast includes Jake Busey for a couple of scenes leching over the girls, and timewasting bandwidth squanderer Perez Hilton, so annoying you'd honestly rather have Paris instead.

**

Monday, 12 September 2016

DANCE WITH DEATH

CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS

There is something irresistibly sleazy about a slasher movie centred around a strip club. It's the ideal combination of sadistic violence and tacky nudity, with impoverished young ladies gyrating half naked even as a mystery killer bloodily picks them off. That the acting, writing, plot and directing are all functioning on the lowest possible level feels kind of irrelevant so long as there is a either an extended sequence of naked jiggling about or vicious knife murders every 15 minutes or so, and the script makes a decent fist of hiding the murderer's identity.

So it's pretty obvious that Dance With Death is rubbish. Co-written by Katt Shea Ruben, the film has newspaper reporter Kelly (Barbara Alyn Woods) going undercover as an exotic/erotic dancer at a seedy club where the performers are being picked off one by one. Who could the maniac be? Charmless club owner Martin Mull? The creepy weirdo who always sits right up against the stage? What about Kelly's editor? Meanwhile, undercover cop Maxwell Caulfield is there all the time, spectacularly failing to find the killer...

Even by the standards of low rent exploitation trash, this really isn't any good at all: functional as a grubby time waster but hardly a long lost classic of the genre. Yet again this has bypassed UK distribution entirely, instead finding a home as a murky looking YouTube upload. Completists may get a few chuckles out of it, but for anyone else it's really not worth the effort. Includes a brief and fully clad supporting role for Lisa Kudrow.

*

Thursday, 1 September 2016

NIGHT SCREAMS

CONTAINS SPOILERS, WHICH IS MORE SURPRISING THAN ANYTHING IN NIGHT SCREAMS

Yet another 80s slasher obscurity crawls miserably through my YouTube connection. The spectacularly unexcitingly named Allen Plone can't be accused of making a film in which nothing happens: this one has a house full of partying teen football jocks and cheerleaders (who cumulatively could barely outthink a Jaffa Cake), two vicious criminals who have escaped from prison and hidden in the same house's wine cellar, a blatantly obvious mystery killer released from the nuthouse as they're no longer considered dangerous, four pre-credit kills (two of them in footage taken from Graduation Day) that are so badly edited together it looks like two of them are being watched on TV by the other two, and a dance routine.

Sadly, for all the incident Plone has packed in, Night Screams (an utterly generic title that could be applied to pretty much every single teenkill epic of the period) is pretty rubbish. It's impossible to care whether lunkhead quarterback David is going to cop off with this or that girl, or whether he's going to take up the scholarship or not. It's also curious that the movie's main killer takes a hell of a long time to bump off half a dozen high school cretins when there are a couple of convincts hiding in the basement who had earlier killed four people in a diner in as many minutes.

This is yet another of those movies that has no current UK distribution: like so many films, it's fallen down the back of the post-VHS, pre-DVD sofa and in all honesty there's no particular reason why this one should ever be rescued from the murky wastelands of YouTube, It's never actually boring and it's certainly not the worst teen slasher movie you've ever seen, but that is literally all it's got going for it.

*

RED CHRISTMAS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

At first glance this would appear to be a pretty standard horror comedy in which a long-buried secret resurfaces to rip apart a dysfunctional family and leave everyone bloodily killed. However, it's much more problematic than that: some frankly mysterious narrative choices take the film into Troma bad taste territory, and the film's moral/political message sits awkwardly with the cheery splatter and bickering family sitcom.

Beginning with TV news footage after an attack on an abortion clinic by pro-life extremists, Red Christmas sees kindly matriarch Dee Wallace gathering her brood together for the holiday season before she sells the house and sets off on a long-dreamed tour of Europe, to the shock of her supposedly adult offspring. They include a son with Down Syndrome, a heavily pregnant daughter and a starchy Christian married to a pervy vicar. Just as they're about to unwrap their gifts, a masked and robed stranger appears on the doorstep claiming to be previously unheard-of brother Cletus - and when they throw him out, he returns for senselessly bloody vengeance on the mother who has abandoned him twice...

The use of Down Syndrome as a cheap plot device is tasteless and ill-advised: aside from the fact that it forces the non-Down actor playing Cletus to adopt the vocal mannerisms (Jerry is played by award-winning Down Dyndrome actor Gerard Odwyer), his big unmasking reveals him as a pathetic bug-eyed grotesque that frankly looks like a John Buechler make-up job from a 1980s Empire Pictures release. The pervy vicar (peeking at a sex act in the toilet, pleasuring himself in the wardrobe) is the source of easy comedy, and the contrast between the two older sisters (one easy-going, drinking and indulging in herbal weed, the other preachy and bitter through frustration over her childlessness) could have been enjoyable, but the viciousness of the kills and the appalling bad taste turn the movie into something that doesn't seem to know what it's supposed to be. Moments amuse, but it leaves a sour taste.

**

FRANCESCA

EH? WHAT? CONTAINS SPOILERS

There are many reasons why this thing is called Film Yellow - I actually like yellow as a colour, and it kind of sounds good - but the main one is that I do like a bit of giallo. Not just the biggest hits from the major players (Bava, Argento), but relatively lesser items like The Fifth Cord or Strip Nude For Your Killer. However, much as I enjoy them, I can't help feeling that it's only weird movie obsessives like me, and connoisseurs of the cinema backwaters, who have any real interest in such things, and thus I wonder precisely who else this painstaking Eurothriller tribute act is aimed at.

Sadly Francesca, an Argentinian giallo homage set in Rome, and screened in German for no apparent reason, seems more interested in nodding at the genre's tropes than actually doing anything new or interesting: it takes a fairly average giallo plot in which various individuals are being bumped off by a mysterious killer who has themed his/her crusade around The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, not Neil Hannon), and a couple of detectives investigate (with, it has to be said, a curious lack of fire and energy). What, if anything, does it have to do with the opening sequence of a little girl stabbing a baby? Or Tchaikovsky's Francesca Di Rimini?

Appropriating older styles can work brilliantly: Ti West's The House Of The Devil genuinely looks like a lost classic from the Golden Age of American TV Movies, and Anna Biller's The Love Witch is a pin-sharp recreation of 1960s Technicolour froth. On the other hand, grindhouse tribute acts can wear out their fake retro appeal very quickly with post-production effects like scratches and faded colour on what is clearly a digital "print". But loving nostalgia by itself really isn't enough and it doesn't really click here (if nothing else, The House Of The Devil and The Love Witch were fun, and Francesca is oddly glum).

Luciano Onetti has certainly gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to make his film look like it was shot in 1971: the film has the colour scheme down pat (drab and bleak, unlike Cattet and Forzani's giallo exercises Amer and The Strange Colour Of Your Body's Tears which pump up the vivid colour and style at the expense of everything else), shots of the peculiarly ubiquitous J&B whisky bottle, and it's overlaid with Onetti's own score that could well be one of Ennio Morricone's dissonant jazz soundtracks of the period (the early Argentos, for example). But to what end? Those unfamiliar with giallo would be better off starting with, say, Blood And Black Lace and Tenebrae and exploring from there, while those of us who've bought Death Laid An Egg and Don't Torture A Duckling on import DVDs already know the genre's peculiarities - hell, that's why we love them. It's a pity that the pacing is so slow, so even a slim 80-minute running time drags alarmingly and it never really grips. A strangely pointless but not uninteresting oddity.

**