Saturday, 27 October 2018

DOWN AMONG THE Z MEN

CONTAINS NOTHING, NOT EVEN SPOILERS

Terrible cheapo British comedy from the early 1950s in which Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine and Spike Milligan arse about to surprisingly little effect, with the end result being 70 minutes of sludge that's on a comedic and cinematic par with Old Mother Riley. Who knows whether it would have anywhere near half watchable if more than three and sixpence ha'penny had been spent on it, if they'd taken more than a fortnight to shoot it, or if Milligan and other Goon writers had been involved in the script?

Insofar as anything Goon-related is plot-driven, Down Among The Z Men has Secombe as an imbecile shop assistant who accidentally gets hold of mad scientist Bentine's secret formula for something or other: they both end up at an army barracks run by Sellers with Milligan as idiot Private Eccles. A couple of crooks and a glamorous MI5 agent are on the trail of the formula. Every so often a shapely dance troupe show up and do a routine, and Sellers and Bentine both do comedy skits at a barracks concert (because....?).

In case it wasn't clear, it's not very good. Secombe and, strangely, Sellers are mostly playing straight while Milligan and wild-wigged Bentine go the other way with silly walks and silly voices, and the musical interludes don't get in the way only because there's nothing for them to get in the way of. The comic highlight is probably Secombe throwing a dead badger at a sentry.

*

Sunday, 21 October 2018

HALLOWEEN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Let's get the suspense out of the way very quickly and state that this all-new Halloween is a disappointment. I mean, it's obviously not as bad as Rob Zombie's two stabs at the Myers mythos, because few things are, and it's better than Halloween 4 and the really terrible one with Coolio in it (I'll reserve judgement on how it stacks up against Halloween 6 because I haven't seen it since the VHS years), but it's certainly not "up there" with the first direct sequel Halloween II or the surprisingly decent Halloween 5. But then this is a film that goes back to the end of John Carpenter's original and pretends that every Halloween film we've seen since didn't happen: despite the simple Halloween title it's technically Halloween 2A, following an alternative timeline in which Michael Myers was immediately carted off back to the institution and has stayed there ever since. Until now...

Now Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, who's never going to escape these films) is a recluse living behind electric gates and security cameras with a secret basement full of shotguns. Inevitably, forty years to the day after the original movie's rampage, Michael engineers a bus crash while being transferred to a new hospital for plot contrivance purposes, and heads back to his old slashing ground of Haddonfield on Halloween night, messily slaughtering a whole bunch of incidental characters on the way. These include a couple of garage workers and two women in their homes, none of whom we know, for no good reason beyond grisly money shots. There's also a pair of supremely idiotic true crime researchers (who I frankly couldn't wait to see the back of) who arguably started the whole thing off in an irresponsible attempt to break Michael's silence by retrieving his battered old Shatner mask - and that's before he gets within stabbing distance of the three generations of Strode: Laurie, her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).

Cue that instantly recognisable 5/4 theme music - Carpenter's principal onscreen contribution to the film and as much of a musical signature as Harry Manfredini's shrieky strings sound for the Friday The 13th movies. Also cue the carved pumpkins, skeleton decorations, trick-or-treaters, disposable babysitters, and way too much dumb teenage boy/girl stodge I honestly didn't care about at all because Jamie Lee Curtis' embittered, twisted, basket-case survivor of 1978 is a much more interesting character with a deeper, sadder history, sadly sidelined for too long in favour of the youngsters.

Obviously there's no Donald Pleasence figure this time: Dr Loomis is mentioned a few times but Michael's new doctor (Haluk Bilginer), who has somehow had a 20-year career studying him despite not getting a single word out of him, turns out to be utterly demented himself and closer in amorality to Malcolm McDowell's version of Loomis in the Rob Zombie films. But it's hardly necessary to bring a new monster onto the pitch when Michael Myers is no longer the scary bogeyman/boogeyman figure of seasonal bedtime stories but an indiscriminate mass-murdering sociopath butchering everyone he encounters for no reason. I was never a massive fan of the original Halloween anyway: back in the 80s I was always on Team Jason because they were more overtly cruel and vicious whereas Halloween was almost sedate in its near-bloodless restraint: it was a teen slasher movie you could watch with your parents because it had no swearing, very discreet sexual naughtiness and minimal gore. Not now: heads are twisted and smashed, necks are slashed and broken, blood flows freely - and yet to surprisingly little effect beyond easy Boo! and Yuk! moments.

But, but, but.... back in the day we enjoyed My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler and Prom Night and all those other cheesy old slashers without caring about the characters or wayward plot logic: what did they do right that Halloween 2018 does wrong? Well, maybe there should be more to a Halloween movie than a cheesy old slasher, seeing as Halloween 1978 was the one that kicked it all off in the first place, and particularly with Carpenter and Curtis involved (and Nick Castle as The Shape). Maybe it's an annoyance at the reboot structure that dismisses all the other films as never having existed and changes the ending from the first film, yet still includes a credit acknowledgement for the masks from the standalone Halloween III: Season Of The Witch. Maybe it's less a nostalgia for the cheesy 80s slashers themselves and more a nostalgia for the me that saw them at the time, nostalgia which I obviously can't feel for the new film. If this hadn't been an official Halloween movie but Generic Slasher #724 perhaps I'd have liked it more. I could also do without callbacks to earlier movies, specifically a reversal of a moment from Halloween 1978 which is undone in the new timeline anyway (you can get away with callbacks in something like the Scream series because that's what they're about; Halloween isn't).

It's not terrible: it's solid, well-mounted and assembled, it looks great and and it does have some nice flourishes, such as a bit of business with motion-sensitive floodlights and Michael ghosting up out of the darkness. Judy Greer has a terrific moment towards the end, and Jamie Lee Curtis is great, of course. And it's nice to see Will Patton in anything. But there are so many holes: it just happens that Michael's being transferred precisely on the fortieth Halloween anniversary AND he's able to get his old mask back AND Allyson just happens to lose her phone (in the most ludicrous way possible) at a key moment AND Laurie's woodland fortress only appears to be fenced from one side (separately, Allyson and Michael both manage to get to the front door unimpeded). I didn't mind it, and I certainly don't object to it (I have no issue with sequels and remakes and reboots in principle and I don't regard any movie as a sacred text which shall not be interfered with), but I just don't feel anything towards it.

**

Friday, 19 October 2018

BLOOD THEATRE

EXIT PURSUED BY A SPOILER WARNING

More unwatchable horror garbage dug out of the vaults of yesteryear for no good reason. After the soul-crushing tedium of Manos: The Hands Of Fate had set a new baseline by which lousy movies could be judged, my very next streaming selection had me struggling to gauge whether that baseline could already be lowered. The result is a movie that's leaving me struggling to maintain even slight enthusiasm for genre movies: not just cheesy exploitation trash from the Z-list but mainstream, professionally produced offerings from people who know what the hell they're doing.

To be honest I wouldn't have bothered with Blood Theatre (kudos for at least not spelling it Theater) in the first place had it been set anywhere other than a cinema, but for all its relevance it might as well have been set in a spanner factory. The Spotlite multiplex chain have acquired their latest location: a former stage theatre closed after numerous mysterious deaths, and anyone who has subsequently attempted to reopen the place has died soon after. Nevertheless, a small crew are assigned to get the place ready for opening....

Performances are atrocious even by cheap horror movie standards (hell, they're atrocious by primary school nativity play standards): even Mary Woronov can do nothing interesting with it. The kill scenes are astonishingly badly staged and have no impact, the characters are uniformly hateful, there's nowhere near enough gore, and the stabs at comedy just die on the screen. Auteur Rick Sloane (who went on to the giddy heights of no less than six Vice Academy movies) inserts footage from his early short consisting of fake trailers for such joke titles as Chainsaw Chicks and Clown Whores Of Hollywood, but that gag footage looks indistinguishable from Blood Theatre itself: cheap, stupid, shoddily made and with more than a flavour of Troma about it. (Worse, it reminds you how immeasurably better the fake trailer idea was when Tarantino and chums did it in Grindhouse.)

So what was gained? Another horror obscurity ticked off, another director added to the list of filmmakers I never want to hear from again, another hour and a half that would have been less of a waste if I'd spent the time ripping my toenails out with pliers or ingesting half a pound of crack cocaine. Maybe, though, this is the kind of bargain basement crap I actually need to wean myself off cheap horror movies: completism means you have to see everything and I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's just not worth the effort any more. Blood Theatre certainly isn't: I hate myself for watching it, I hate Rick Sloane for making it and I hate my TV screen for showing it to me.

*

Saturday, 13 October 2018

MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS?

Okay, okay. So I rail against absolutely lousy movies for page after page, month after month, and then I voluntarily spend my afternoon sitting through something that's been regularly cited as one of the worst films of all time. It's currently sitting at #3 on the IMDb's bottom rated list and pretty much the best thing that anyone has ever said about it is that it does actually exist. Nobody seems to have a good word to say for it and let me state right now that I'm not going to buck the trend here: it's utterly worthless and a chore to sit through even at a mere 70 minutes or so, it has absolutely no cultural value or artistic merit and is one of the only films ever made that would probably be improved by the Rifftrax or MST3K treatment.

The awfulness of the semi-legendary Manos: The Hands Of Fate is not the Troma awfulness of cynical audience pandering or wallowing in puerile bad taste, but the amateur Ed Wood awfulness of technical shoddiness and an almost awesome level of incompetence. At the same time it has none of the innocent, endearing charm of the best known so-called Golden Turkeys such as Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space: there are no laughs to be had even in the disputed realm of so-bad-it's-good. Manos' terribleness is beyond such things: other films are made by those who just don't care, this is made by those who just don't know what the hell they're doing. Yet you can see that somewhere in the back of it is a halfway decent idea that could - maybe - have been made into something worthy of the second slot on a drive-in double-bill had different hands, hearts and minds been involved. Even half a century ago.

A vacationing family lost in the desert and having to spend the night in an isolated shack belonging to some kind of immortal sorcerer and his harem but run by his simpleton servant Torgo, could be the basis for some kind of watchable throwaway trash. But Harold P Warren, writer, director and male lead, has no more clue about how to go about making a film than I have about building a yacht or writing a cookery book. Acting, script, editing, music, photography and direction are all on the rock-bottom lowest level imaginable: a level beyond underachievement. Grotty, humourless and endlessly dull, it's a less rewarding hour and a bit than even the dreariest of Ted V Mikels, Al Adamson or the mighty Jess Franco: it doesn't even have cheesy sex scenes, dumb sub-Lewis gore effects or a brief cameo by a one-time genre icon like Lon Chaney or John Carradine to leaven the crushing, suffocating boredom. Dialogue is repeated, there are endless silences between lines, the score is dramatically inappropriate and dreary as hell, one of the actors (????) actually looks into the camera, many sound effects are missing (it was shot without synch sound) and the actor playing Torgo was off his nipples on LSD for the whole shoot.

So, seventy minutes and a good mood were lost, but what was gained? A lower benchmark against which badfilm can be judged? A personal best endurance challenge? The knowledge that the next effort by [insert name of wretched actor or director here] will be a breeze in comparison? Manos is complete and utter and total and absolute rubbish, obviously, but the worst kind of rubbish: it isn't even fun. It looks and feels like someone's home movie, because that's mainly what it is (the result of a bet with Stirling Silliphant that Warren could make a film, which on a purely technical level Warren won). It has no heart to it and no life to it: you could point and laugh at it but it's honestly not worth the effort. Some damn fool has made a Fifty Years Later sequel which somehow looks even worse, and has even cast the original's little girl; personally I'm waiting for a major studio remake. Might Michael Bay care to have a bash?

*

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

FEVER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS ©

The biggest surprise about this drab and frankly unremarkable post-outbreak drama isn't anything actually on screen except in the credits, where its auteur Hendrick Faller has apparently copyrighted his own name. Literally: there's a © after his surname. Why? Is there another filmmaker called Hendrick Faller and this one has decided to somehow stop the other from using his own name in the credits? Can he claim tax back on copyrighted items? Was it a botched attempt at an ironic smiley? Or was it just a typo by the data entry guy as he input everyone's names into the titles generator? I'll confess here and now that the mystery of the rogue © kept me more interested than the movie itself.

A micro-scale UK/France drama set in France, Fever (originally known as Mountain Fever even though there's not much mountain in it) concerns a young British man holing up in his parents' house to hopefully sit out an unspecified outbreak (rather than head for the rescue station in Lyon). He and a young Ukrainian woman are then trapped in the house, under siege by two aggressive, largely unseen French guys, but will they leave them (or just him) alone when they get what they want?

Much more a drama than the thriller promised on the artwork box, this is a glum and downbeat film, silent and miserable, in which none of the characters want to communicate or connect any more than they absolutely have to for the purposes of survival. Like its unspectacular apocalypse, there's no joy to be had from it: reduced to eating cold tinned food and shivering alone in the dark, it's an armageddon that's really not worth surviving. Difficult to see where the audience appeal might lie; all I can say is that it eluded me.

®

Monday, 8 October 2018

THE NIGHT OF THE VIRGIN

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND COME ON, GUYS

I'm slowly coming round to the idea that film reviewing (as opposed to film criticism or film analysis) isn't really about the film but about Me: how I respond to it, whether I laugh or scream or cry, how it makes me feel. Reviews are an expression of a personal reaction to the films and so are at least partly about the reviewer. Is it just me? Am I alone in this? Am I just getting old? Why does everyone or no-one else find this funny or scary or moving or profound or arousing? I have sat on sofas with people watching the same DVD on the same screen at the same time and they've laughed consistently and I haven't cracked a smile - how is that possible? Because we're all different. Most films aren't perfect because they're not aimed at the unique you and so don't chime absolutely with you and your life and your world, but if enough of them come close then it's still worth the effort in looking, in wading through the sludge.

But sometimes you have to ask out loud: is it just Me? Or is the movie objectively, factually, empirically, unarguably terrible? Watching (or more exactly staring slack-jawed at) the Spanish badtasteathon The Night Of The Virgin left me wondering not just why I don't get the joke, not just whether the joke was worth the telling, but whether I should even bother with listening to any jokes at all ever again: are their standards too low or are mine too high? This is a revolting film, tirelessly mining the seamiest seams of grossout tastelessness for very little reward. Gloopy bodily fluids have their place (The Fly), and I'm a fan of a well-crafted knob gag as much as the next man, but there has to be something more going on underneath the puking and shrieking.

December 31st: shy and socially gauche Nico isn't having any joy picking up a hot babe to see the New Year in with: they're either stoned or vomitously drunk. Until he's spotted by an older woman who takes him back to her filthy, cockroach-ridden apartment for what he mistakenly assumes is going to be a night of red hot passion. Unfortunately he's been specially selected as part of a plot to bring a Nepalese goddess into the world; meanwhile, the woman's boyfriend is outside shouting and threatening....

If, early on, there are trace memories of films like After Hours, in which a regular zero guy has his life shaken apart when he encounters utter barking lunatics, they're pretty quickly dispelled once the vomit and semen and menstrual blood are brought into play and the film turns into turned-up-to-eleven shrieking hysteria and stays there for most of the running time (the birthing scene itself, graphic in an entirely unwarranted way, goes on for absolutely ages, as though they'd looked at Isballe Adjani's freakouts in Possession and decided to go further). But at some point, probably quite early on, I started to get fed up with it. I started finding it wearing, I started to find it dull, and I wasn't finding it entertaining in any way.

A grinding, unenjoyable bore, this is just wallowing in the sewer, grubby and repugnant on a level somehow lower than the cartoonishly stupid Troma movies: anything up to twenty minutes of screaming and genitalia could have been lopped out, if only to get the damned thing over quicker because there's no way lowbrow sex and gore movies should be 110 minutes long. Maybe it's an age thing. Maybe the film is aimed at a new breed of horror fans in their twenties, not crumbly oldsters in their fifties given to muttering at bus stops about how much better things were in their day with their Jasons and Freddys, and the worst you could get was a rubbish Howling sequel. After The Night Of The Virgin, I would have killed to see a rubbish Howling sequel, even the Marsupials one with Dame Edna Everage in it. Twice.

*

Monday, 1 October 2018

VICTOR CROWLEY

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Well, it's a crashing, crushing disappointment. Shot in secret, the fourth and quite possibly not final (if the by now obligatory mid-credits sting is anything to go by) instalment in Adam Green's Hatchet series is sadly the least of them: a bloody but entirely uninvolving slasher boasting a thoroughly hateful raft of characters, a level of callousness that extends to at least four deaths that have nothing to do with slasher icon Victor Crowley, excessively vicious kill shots played for grossout laughs, and actual comedy that straight up doesn't work. It's a crying shame, it was one I was particularly looking forward to and yet at times, particularly in the first twenty minutes of sitcom bickering, I was seriously considering switching the DVD off.

Like the best slashers, plot is not the main attraction. For the most ludicrous of reasons, a bunch of shallow, self-obsessed idiots end up running around the Louisiana swamps in the middle of the night yet again. There's a film crew wanting to make a fake trailer for a slasher movie based on the Victor Crowley myth, along with their idiot guide; there's the sole survivor of the previous movie dragged back for a TV programme by the promise of big money, along with the idiot crew. By the most ludicrous of chances, Victor Crowley turns up again and works his way through them while they bicker endlessly about whether to stay in their crashed charter jet or make a run for the boat...

The first Hatchet worked because it was the 80s retro-styled slasher movie we'd always wanted since the 80s themselves but couldn't get because they stopped making them, many of them were terrible, and censor boards around the world cut out the juiciest bits. It was gleefully disreputable fun, it was cheerfully nasty, and it made a point of being done with practical gore effects rather than painting them in on the computer afterwards. The second was weaker, in part because they tried to top the original's splat quotient. And the third one (which Adam Green didn't direct) was generally pretty good and wrapped up what was then the trilogy perfectly well. But this time the head-stomping, limb-lopping and entrail-spilling is pushed so far that it ends up as the kind of excess you used to see in insane Japanese splatter movies like Tokyo Gore Police or Shogun Assassin.

Adam Green's best film so far remains (the co-directed) Spiral, which was far more subtle, emotionally engaging and better told. More, bigger, nastier, bloodier, isn't necessarily better. Nor is cruder: a scene involving a set of male genitals just sits there on the screen, as inert as the offending objects themselves (it's apparently there to redress the genre's historical predilection for female flesh rather than male, right?). Certainly the gore highlights are done with panache and enthusiasm, but there's too much of it: it's no longer enough to just stick a machete in someone's skull the way Jason used to do. I actually felt uncomfortable at the level of bodily destruction, in the way that bits of the later Saw movies looked like crime scene photos; set against the jokey trash-talk dialogue, it's an odd mix that doesn't gel. I was really hoping for a good time with Victor Crowley (Hatchet 4 doesn't appear on the screen at any point, whatever the DVD box art says) but it does feel that, like so many other horror series, it had already reached its natural end point and didn't have anywhere else to go. Occasional fun moments aside, it's disappointing.

**

HIM

CONTAINS SPOI...ZZZZZZZZ

There's little to really say about this poverty-stricken lump of nothing, except that everyone involved needs to be quietly dissuaded from ever doing anything like this again, possibly augmented by the mother of all slaps. Technically indifferent to a level far below competent, let alone professional, let alone vaguely interesting, cataclysmically nay catatonically dull, and very poorly acted (performances are barely on the level of "stand there and say this"), it makes no sense, has no scares, has no laughs, and occasionally wanders off into irrelevant scenes that feel like they were pasted in from another, equally terrible, project entirely.

Him kicks off with a businessman who sold his soul to the devil in return for success in the warehousing business, because Satan presumably needed some storage space, but he loses everything when he refuses to sacrifice a virgin. Years later his abandoned warehouse is believed to be haunted, and half a dozen imbeciles decide to spend the night there looking for paranormal activity, even though they hadn't bothered to bring cameras, monitors or recorders (strangely, this is one cheapo wandering-around-in-the-dark exercise that would actually be better as a found footage film). Satan manifests as a clown and a disfigured little girl, because he's clearly got nothing better to do these days than hang around an empty warehouse in the middle of the night scaring dullards with creepy dolls.

When a film isn't the best morons-in-a-warehouse horror film of the week and the only other morons-in-a-warehouse horror film of the week is the underachieving Sweatshop, it's probably time to stop. At the very least, it's time to stop clicking the Watch Now button on every morons-in-a-warehouse horror film that seeps onto the streaming services. Dross.

*