Tuesday, 28 February 2017

SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II

CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS, IF YOU THINK THAT MATTERS

On a scale of nought to ten, exactly how surprising is it that a film called Sorority House Massacre II isn't the greatest assemblage of celluloid to ever get slung through a projector? It's barely registering at all on my personal Richter Scale of Astonishment: you'll be telling me next that cheese sandwiches have cheese in them. It's surprisingly difficult to cobble together any kind of vaguely semi-interesting review of a film which you have literally seen a hundred times before, and the occasional knowing wink to how lame and uninspired the movie is doesn't rally give you anything to work with. Unrelated to the first Sorority House Massacre (a more or less passable though forgettable entry in the direct-to-video teenslash subgenre), it's just flatly rehashing ideas from scores of earlier films, so maybe I should just cut and paste from old reviews of Blood Rage, Offerings, Slaughterhouse, Night Screams, Graduation Day....

Five annoyingly perky college girls buy up an old ruin to renovate and convert into a sorority house. They got the place cheap because (cue flashbacks and exposition from the creepy neighbour) five years ago the owner went on an axe rampage, and it's stood empty ever since. Having found a ouija board, they decide (at night, on the site of a massacre, during a storm) to hold a midnight seance and call up the spirit of the killer, because of course you do. Frankly this indicates a level of staggering idiocy you'd be shocked to find in a banana, or more likely a level of sheer bloodless laziness from a screenwriter who literally cannot be bothered. Did I mention that the girls all have a topless scene, and they spend the last two thirds of the movie running around in their underwear?

Meanwhile a hardboiled cop with nothing better to do (like, you know, solving crimes) decides to go and interview the sole survivor of the five years ago, and she works as a stripper, because of course she does. Remember, we haven't seen any norks for at least eight minutes now and it's absolutely vital to the narrative that we watch her entire performance as well as half of the next one (a brief appearance by the late porn star Savannah). Yes, dear, they're very nice, now put them away. Back at the spooky old mansion, the girlies are being picked off one by one....

The first kill moment is actually quite decently done, because at that point we're not sure what to expect: ghost, possession, or homicidal maniac creepy neighbour. But that's it. The rest of the film is just counting out the five idiots running around in their skimpies and screaming. Honestly, it's like feminism never happened. It's entirely bland, entirely unsurprising, and indifferently put together by people who don't care that much about quality, aimed at an audience who don't care that much about quality either. So long as we get to watch some young women in their pants. Your auteur is Jim (Scream Queen Hot Tub Party) Wynorski, who wrote and shot it in seven days. It shows.

*

Sunday, 19 February 2017

MY BLOODY BANJO

TWANGGGG!!!!!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS

It's always awkward when a film comes along that you ultimately don't like very much and you know the writer-director. How do you confess this without being insulting - or at least coming across as insulting? Do you try and intimate that the problems are with you rather than the film or with him? Do you straight up lie and say you thought it was marvellous? Do you focus on minor issues or trivial items like knowing the locations or spotting the influences and references? As one who's never been great at social interaction at the best of times, it's even more of a minefield than usual and now you've been given huge tin boots to go stomping across it.

Pelzer Arbuckle has always been bullied and persecuted: at school the only thing that got him through was his imaginary friend Ronnie, but people died as a result. Now in some unspecified office role at a paper distribution firm, he's still picked on and humiliated on a daily basis by bosses and co-workers, ramped up even more after an eye-watering sexual accident that Google informs me is a genuine thing. Not to go into details here but I'm not touching the damn thing ever again; all I can say is thank heavens for the Delete History option. Following the death of the one work colleague who wasn't a colossal bastard to him (Laurence R Harvey), Pelzer realises that maybe conjuring up Ronnie once more is his only remaining option....

An entirely British stab at Revenge Of The Wimp horror, My Bloody Banjo (originally just titled Banjo) may be set in the town of Henenlotter, but it's the Frank Henenlotter of the more uncomfortably sexual Bad Biology than the grindhouse grime of Basket Case, and in any case the tone is much more aligned to Troma films, none of which I've ever liked even a little bit. The Toxic Avenger, Tromeo And Juliet and Class Of Nuke 'Em High (and various sequels) I've always felt were mean-spirited, shoddily put together and revelling in the worst of puerile bad taste; Lloyd Kaufman (who has a brief cameo as a doctor, named after his Toxic Avenger directing alias) talks a good movie but has yet to direct even a tolerable one.

Sadly that's the tone of My Bloody Banjo: abortion jokes, HIV jokes, wildly overpitched performances, excessive gore. Now I'm certainly not against tacky splatter movies, and some of my all-time favourites could never be described as subtle, but the trouble is that this movie is very much all on one note, and there's very little in the way of light and shade. It doesn't give you any respite from the horrors of Pelzer's constant suffering, until the final turning of the worm where good and bad alike are slaughtered and the worst of the villains do not suffer nearly enough (it also never explains why he even works there and even throws in better reasons why he doesn't need to). Some of the gore is impressive (there's a nifty chainsaw-head interface, and kudos for the truly uncomfortable banjo incident itself, one of the most effective look-away moments in years), and Ronnie himself is kind of fun, but I could have done with a little respite from the horribleness.

**

Friday, 17 February 2017

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

XONTAINX XPOILERX

It's now fifteen years since the first XXX movie, and twelve years since it sputtered to a close with the Diesel-free follow-up. How many Vin Diesel franchises are there that you'd have expected to die off after the frankly underwhelming second one in which Mr Diesel didn't show up? (Fast And Furious doesn't really count - that didn't really pick up until Part 4 AND he was only in the teaser of Part 3, which actually takes place between Parts 6 and 7 anyway.) And it doesn't look like they've spent the intervening years fine-tuning the concept for a triumphant blockbuster return; rather it looks like they've simply sat down with any number of Mission Impossibles and other assorted globetrotting knockabouts, then hired a particularly excitable fourteen-year-old boy to knit them together.

That would explain why the film's line of demented action sequences include a motorbike chase through the jungle onto the beach and then into the sea, where the bike sprouts skis! And Vin Diesel and Donnie Yen chase each other through the surf! It would explain the oh-no-not-again MacGuffin of yet another whizzy computer gizmo, this time one that can send satellites plummeting to Earth. And it would also explain why the film is heaving with numerous hot chicks mercilessly objectified under the camera's pubescent gaze. Even the bespectacled techie nerd is an only slightly dressed-down Miss October. In anonymous retirement in the Dominican Republic, Xander Cage (Diesel) is brought back into the XXX program to retrieve a terrifying electronic plot device that has been audaciously stolen from American Intelligence but Must Not Fall Into The Wrong Hands. Assembling his own team of specialist mavericks and lunatics (in favour of hardass, dumbass Marines), Cage tracks down the team who stole the toy in the first place...

Of course it doesn't make a whole lot of sense: if not-in-it-enough Samuel L Jackson has been convinced Diesel's extreme sports maniac is still alive (despite being killed off and replaced by the slightly cheaper Ice Cube in The Next Level), how come it takes new boss Toni Collette absolutely no time to track him down? How does Diesel expect to go undercover on a tropical island full of rogue agents when he's got the XXX agency logo tattooed on the back of his neck? And how can the studio expect to make a stand against video piracy when Xander's first big action scene is a dizzying hillside descent so he can patch his slum town into the premium sports channels?

Still, despite the stupidity, of which it's not just fully aware but out-and-out proud, XXX: Return Of Xander Cage is perfectly adequate blockbuster action fare, and while it may not have the gripping suspense of the best of the Mission Impossible movies or the A-list class of the best of James Bond, it'll more than suffice in the (temporary?) absence of those franchises. Frankly I'm more excited about another Fast And Furious instalment, but while we're waiting, this will more than fill the gap.

***

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

FIFTY SHADES DARKER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS OUCH PHWOOOOAR

Here we go again.... The middle section of the Fifty Shades Trilogy really is more of the same: bigger, raunchier, sillier, softer. While the original film was little more than a Pretty Woman poor-girl-rich-boy romance with tasteful lighting and music choices to dilute the depravities we weren't really shown anyway, Part Two ups the frank nudity factor (at last there's some meat to go with the cheese) but descends into so much absurdity and terrible dialogue that you expect the theme from Dynasty or Falcon Crest to erupt at half a dozen particularly gigglesome moments. Maybe it's unfair for me to pick holes in the Fifty Shades movies given that, like the Twilights or the Star Wars prequels, I'm not the target audience. This isn't a blokey film about bonking, it's a girlie film about lurve; a sweet and sentimental fairytale, albeit one in which Prince Charming likes to tie Cinderella to the bedpost and spank her with a table tennis bat. It's Beauty And The Beast, except he's ugly on the inside and America's Next Top Adonis on the outside.

Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) may have walked away from multi-billionaire Christian at the end of the first movie, but he can't let go: pining for her in his cavernous penthouse and plotting to win her back (apparently by shelling out money left and right in the belief this will impress her). His sexual hangups are all down to his backstory of abuse and mother issues, but he's trying to put it all behind him for Anastasia, even if it's just with apparently fantastic regular sex rather than cable ties and whips. But he's too controlling, too stifling - he buys the publishing house where she has her dream job, he won't let her go to New York for work because he's jealous of her boss (of course, it's fine for him to go off on business trips). Even when it looks like they're finally together and he pops the question, Kim Basinger is lurking around trying to break them up....

Fifty Shades Darker is a very silly episode of a very silly soap opera with dialogue George Lucas would have rolled his eyes at, and sex scenes that are franker than you'd expect at a multiplex these days, where an 18 certificate suddenly stands out amidst the 12A blandness. It's fairly painless and it looks nice, Danny Elfman has the soft strings going, and it's too silly to be either boring or offensive. Sure, you might want to read it as a film about emasculation - Christian Grey is giving up that very part of him that makes him what he is at the behest of a woman who's giving up very little in return, just as he was the one giving up control in the first film, the tagline of which was "Lose Control" - in which she's in charge, not the dominant sadist. It's still not very good though.

**

Thursday, 9 February 2017

RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER

CONTAINS SPOILERS, AS IF YOU'RE THAT BOTHERED BY THEM IN PART SIX OF A VIDEOGAME FRANCHISE

Well, they've generally been kind of fun, the Resident Evil films, and there's not many franchises that have kept up this level of "bonkers but enjoyable". Sure, some have been better than others - I've never been that fussed about the second one (Apocalyse) but liked the third (Extinction) a lot better, perhaps for the visuals Russell Mulcahy brought to it. The ongoing antics of skimpily-dressed ass-kicking genetic clone Alice and the baffling corporate decisions of the Umbrella Corporation have brought much pleasure over the last fifteen years and six films, but perhaps it's now time to draw it to a close with one final blast of nonsensical zombie mayhem.

Very little of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter has much in the way of logic behind it. The Umbrella Corporation (whose incompetence with bio-weapon containment led to nothing less than a zombie apocalypse) is no longer a business but a religious crusade led by Very Mad Scientist Isaacs (Iain Glen) to wipe out humanity and start again with his cryogenically preserved super-race. Alice (Milla Jovovich) has forty-eight hours to get back into The Hive underneath Raccoon City and unleash an anti-virus that will deactivate the zombies and save what's left of humanity. But Umbrella are waiting for her and the gang of survivors...

How is this anti-virus is supposed to work across the world when Alice is already down to the last few minutes of her countdown? How come The Hive's defences are so easily bypassed? (Okay, it's not exactly a walk round Sainsburys but they left the giant slammy doors wide open and unmanned, for goodness' sake.) If mad Dr Isaacs doesn't want the anti-virus unleashed, why does he carry it around in an easily smashed vial and not stick it in a concrete safe with a forty nine hour time lock on it? Why is there an Umbrella spy in the group of survivors - what's in it for them? In between wondering about all that, you might ask why Paul WS Anderson has made a film large chunks of which seem to revolve around people beating his wife (Jovovich) up.

Still, there's fun to be had with the zombie hordes and the non-stop action, Iain Glen is agreeably over the top, it doesn't waste much time and the numerous chase, fight, monster and kaboom scenes are satisfyingly crunchy and violent. And at least it does end properly without the sense that it's all just leading to a To Be Continued caption: this is a natural conclusion without the vital loose ends that require a further instalment to take care of. Maybe it's not going out on a high, but if this is the end then this could be the one franchise that doesn't keep trundling on for two films longer than it needs to. Blu-Ray boxset for Christmas, perhaps...

***

THE JEKYLL AND HYDE PORTFOLIO

CONTAINS SPOILERSSSZZZZZZZZZZZ

It's easy to throw that "Worst film ever!" line around. That latest thing with Seth Rogen and/or Adam Sandler and/or Jennifer Aniston and/or Will Ferrell may be absolutely terrible, but it'll have some technical sheen to it that at least means it's in focus and the dialogue is audible. There's a lot further to fall: through the headbanging idiocy of Transformers and the like, anything with Danny Dyer, most of the cheerless British Sex Comedy genre, shonky 50s drive-in horrors from Edward D Wood Jr, Old Mother Riley films, a thousand public domain quickies from the dawn of the sound era. Sure, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men is lousy, but how many Al Adamson movies have you seen?

Beyond all that - stupidity, incompetence, artlessness, ugly people with their clothes off - there's still the ultimate crime of boredom. The very least a film should try and do is stop you from falling asleep at seven o'clock in the evening, and there are a few that can't even manage that. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Jekyll And Hyde Portfolio, a wretched slasher nudie from 1981 in which a mad killer is on the loose at some sort of home for wayward girls in drab woodland. Most of the ladies get their kit off, there's the occasional badly staged murder, a lot of blather, and a severed head. Meanwhile one of the tutors is having a high old time dissecting live frogs in macroscopic detail (for real, so a BBFC certificate seems unlikely). Or maybe I dreamed it all...

Eventually the murderer is unmasked as someone or other, and after just two days I can't recall who it was or why they were doing it: it's already faded from memory because the film somehow bypasses your conscious mind entirely and aims for the unexplored recesses of the subconscious, emerging as just disconnected fragments that make no more (and no sense) than when they were strung together as a hopeless excuse for a narrative. On a technical level it's astonishingly shoddy, none of the cast can act even slightly (granted, none of them were hired for their dramatic abilities and nobody went to see it for the high-calibre thesping), and the pacing is all over the place as whatever slasher mystery might be afoot keeps getting put on hold for yet another lumpen sex scene or another lingering look at what a frog's innards look like. Entirely sarcastic gratitude to Vinegar Syndrome for restoring it to its original lack of glory and Amazon for charging me no money to watch it.

*

Saturday, 4 February 2017

31

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD REASON

In news that is likely to surprise absolutely nobody who hasn't been living in a cave on the dark side of Neptune for the last twenty years, Rob Zombie has a new movie out and it's terrible. I know, who'd have imagined? Blowing an idiot-shaped hole in my New Year's Resolution to steer clear of obviously rubbish films, it's left me scrabbling furiously around for some kind of defence against the charge of adding the damned, damnable thing to my rental queue in the first place: Malcolm McDowell usually delivers the goods, it played on FrightFest's main screen last year, Mr Zombie's last film The Lords Of Salem was almost competent in parts....

Whatever: those aren't defences, they're just excuses. Rob Zombie's brief flirtation with the idea of being mildly interesting was clearly a one-night stand and not the start of a long term relationship as with the meaninglessly-titled 31 he's scurried back to his usual territory of Crazy Mad Things That Happen For Absolutely No Good Reason. A random assortment of travelling carnival workers is ambushed on the road: they wind up locked in an abandoned industrial plant and have twelve hours to survive the parade of colourful Crazy Mad whackos sent in by Gamesmasters Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson, wearing Carry On Don't Lose Your Head aristo wigs and white facepaint For Absolutely No Good Reason. (Quite how they even know what's going on, given that it's 1976 and there don't appear to be any cameras down there, is anyone's guess.)

So every reel or so a crazy mad maniac with a stupid name (Doom Head, Sex Head, Psycho Head) and a chainsaw or an axe shows up and our supposed heroes have to man up and kill in order to survive. In the event, they do, and as wimpy civilians they prevail against what are supposed to be top of the line mad killers - particularly the ultimate Doom Head who may wield a mean fireaxe but so loves the sound of his own prattling that he literally filibusters his own rampage by talking over the twelve hour final whistle, the absolute idiot. The big splatter setpiece of two simultaneous attacks with chainsaws is rendered incoherent in the editing suite, to the extent that I genuinely thought different characters had got killed. (Apparently they had to shoot that whole sequence in just eight hours, but that's not a defence, just an excuse.)

Why are there naked women wandering around? Why is the opening sequence in black and white? Why is it even called 31? Absolutely No Good Reason. I've no idea and Zombie has no idea either. He's more interested in shrieking riffs on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (why else have a crazy mad gas station attendant near the start?) together with an indulgence of gratuitous grindhouse excess, a recipe that frankly got boring halfway through House Of 1000 Corpses and has never really gone away. The Devil's Rejects was intolerable garbage, Halloween was only vaguely interesting when he was pretending to be John Carpenter and Halloween II didn't even have that. And this is just more of the same: bleak, nihilistic, violent and, for all the blood and shrieking, crashingly, crushingly dull. Not unexpected, given his track record, but it raises the question of why I bothered to watch it. Answer: For Absolutely No Good Reason.

*