Tuesday, 28 April 2020

THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU / DIE ONTWAKING

SPOILERS / SPOILERS

One of the joys about the streaming services is that you never know what you're going to find beyond the Top Trending titles; as with movies in general it's often worth the dig beyond the main attractions. Of the two main suppliers, Amazon Prime and Netflix, the latter probably wins out simply because Prime has a far larger selection and it's far more difficult to wade through of an evening (and of the potentially interesting titles, many on Prime are of poor picture quality and a lot are even worse than that, so curating a decent watch-list on there is a full day's work). That's not to say that everything on Netflix is better - their big new release Coffee & Kareem is absolutely terrible - but they don't seem to pick up any old sludge the way Prime apparently do.

Of these two serial killer thrillers, The Plagues Of Breslau (Plagi Breslau) more rewarded the hunt, marred principally by Netflix automatically picking the English dub when I needed the subs on for captions and newspaper headlines, and inevitably the two didn't entirely match (it wasn't until afterwards that I found I could have watched it in Polish language). Beginning with the discovery of a fresh corpse in a cowhide that had shrunk in the sunlight and suffocated the occupant, it becomes apparent that someone is re-enacting Frederick The Great's week of purging the city of its degenerates, plunderers and oppressors back in the 18th century, using suitable and terrifically grisly medieval punishments....

It doesn't flinch from the gory details (it's lucky to have a 15 certificate) and maintains a dark, humourless tone throughout, with its abrasive, take-no-crap detective battered by personal demons (her fiance was killed by a drunk driver who dodged punishment) as much as professional ones. Surrounding characters are more cartoonish: the glamorous TV journalist openly filming the bloody carnage, the perpetually tipsy prosecutor. Halfway through the film reveals the killer's identity and switches, Se7en-like, from a whodunnit to a why, with a couple of nice plot twists and a satisfying motive.

It's a lot better than Die Ontwaking (which Googles as The Awakening although according to the IMDb it doesn't appear to be known by that title), a cheaper and less gruesome South African variation on the serial killer theme. This reveals its killer pretty much from the start: a creepy middle-aged shopkeeper specialising in African adornments and bric-a-brac (ritual masks and, bizarrely because they're not even remotely African, shrunken heads), but his motivation in removing his victims' tattoos remains unclear. I'm normally a sucker for African and Africa-based movies but this is fairly unremarkable and makes very little sense; the sole point of interest is that the sexist dickhead cop is played by one Gerard Rudolf, a familiar name to those of us who made it to the end of Adam Mason's much-walked-out-of Dust back at FrightFest in 2001...

***
**

Friday, 10 April 2020

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS GLUG GLUG GLUG

An in-name-only sequel that has nothing to do with the Mandy Moore movie from 2017 (except for naming the high school after Matthew Modine), this is a bog-standard sharks vs teenies horror that just about plays its mid-ranking cards well enough, but is stuck with a quartet of entirely uninteresting characters who stray into annoying and stupid so often that most of the time you're actually on the side of the sharks.

Four squealing nubiles (two of whom are unhappy stepsisters and the other two so undefined they barely register as life forms, let alone named characters) decide not to go shark-watching from a glass-hulled boat and instead take off into the Mexican jungle where one of them knows of a secret underwater entrance to a submerged Mayan temple. Inevitably (because they're all dumb as a bag of lemons) they split up, scream, knock priceless thousand-year-old archaeological treasures over, get lost, get stuck in narrow crevices, run out of air and get endlessly and repeatedly menaced by sharks. Will they manage to find an alternative route out, or will they suffocate and/or get eaten in the unexplored and unmapped catacombs?

Three quarters or so of 47 Meters Down: Uncaged takes place underwater and the photography is terrific, and a couple of the shark appearances are nicely effective. And at least it doesn't have a "really?!?!?" climactic plot swerve the way the first instalment did. But it's just hard to care when everyone is this thick - they don't use a guide line, they don't inform anyone where they are and where they're going - and it's sometimes hard to tell which girl is which behind the masks. The film does liven up considerably in its closing stretch when it finally starts shedding some blood, and starts racking up some suspense in the process, but it's too late in the running time. Final thought: the first film at least spelled Metres correctly; this has the "wrong" American spelling which means those of us with movie title OCD are going to have catalogue them in reverse order (and split them up entirely when someone makes a film called The 47 Methuselahs or something).

**

Sunday, 15 March 2020

THE HUNT

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND BAFFLEMENT

It's always nice when films try and do something a little different. I mean, I don't mind movies that dance familiar steps if they're danced well enough, but there is mileage to be gained from a new idea, or just an unexpected variation on the old one. Sadly, it does still have to make sense and in the case of this film's specific reversal on a very old and well-known theme, it doesn't actually hang together once you think about it.

The very old melody being played in The Hunt goes all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game and The Hounds Of Zaroff - rich bastards target poor slobs for sport, peasant rather than pheasant. A miscellaneous gathering of apparent randoms wake up in woodland and are almost immediately machine-gunned from a bunker further up the hill - but why? Turns out that this time the concept is given a political spin: it's left vs right, yeehaw rednecks vs wet lefty liberals, Reps vs Dems (though the parties and major figures are never actually named). Inevitably, the few survivors quickly realise they're going to have to man up very quickly...

The reversal, and the film's main problem, is that the predators are the smug lefty types and the victims are the rightwingers, which puts you in the position of rooting against the woker-than-woke and for the Magahatters. If one has to go back to that famous bit of Nietzsche - "he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster" - in the process of slaughtering a handful of "deplorables" the supposed nice guys actually end up as even more reprehensibly evil than their prey; throwing away the moral high ground by stooping to their level with a sneering "see how YOU like it". (Even then, the film cops out when it comes to actually having an overtly pro-Trump victor.)

The other reason I wrestled at length with the movie was that I wasn't sure how much of it was supposed to be a comedy. And I think I've concluded that it is substantially conceived as satirical, with most of the lefties portrayed as an insufferably right-on bunch of sitcom handwringing liberals worrying about misgendering, cultural appropriation and the high sugar content of soda, which only reminded me of that recent Tracey Ullman "Woke Support Group" sketch. That comedic tone sits strangely with the graphic eyeballs-and-entrails gore as well as the political aspects, making us wonder how seriously we're supposed to be taking this, and whether the makers know how seriously we're supposed to be taking this.

On the plus side, the early stages set up a few likely potential survivors before gleefully splattering them, leaving us unsure who to empathise with, and the final confrontation between the Last Woman Standing (Betty Gilpin) and the Number One Villain (Hilary Swank) is pleasingly vicious and violent. Postponed from its original release last August because of yet more mass shootings, it carries a bit of controversy with it but in the end it's absolutely nothing to get excited about, even while watching it. John Woo's Hard Target managed it all, social comment as well as crunchy violence, so much better.

**

Monday, 9 March 2020

3 FROM HELL

CONTAINS SPOILERS, VULGARITY AND MODERATE DESPAIR

Is it really surprising that 3 From Hell is an intolerable bore? The third part in Rob Zombie's trilogy after the tedious House Of 1000 Corpses and the crushingly repugnant The Devil's Rejects turns out to just more of the same: a Mom's Basement Manson wank fantasy that, at fifty five years old, Zombie really should have grown out of my now. It's every bit as obnoxious as the first two - possibly made slightly worse by the fact that Zombie has clearly realised he's got nothing else to do but get the band back together Ten Years Later to just dance the same steps again, to relive the past glories that weren't glorious then and certainly aren't now.

3 From Hell's main riff is on Mickey and Mallory Knox as the Natural Born Arseholes end up in jail having miraculously all survived the bullet frenzy at the end of Rejects. Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) escapes and, with the help of a previously unmentioned brother Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (Richard Brake), plan to spring Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and go back to doing what they usually do - meaningless slaughter of pretty much everyone they meet.

Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) is only in it briefly because Haig was too ill to do the whole film - you could wonder why most of the Family are named after Groucho Marx characters when the new brother Coltrane sounds like a yuppie dickhead from a mid-80s Bratpack comedy, but that would suggest a level of interest that the film doesn't justify. Zombie's weird belief that these worthless vermin are cool, exciting and funny characters whose adventures make for cool, exciting and funny movies (despite the evidence to the contrary in the first two films) remains unfounded. They're not folk heroes, they're not rebels, they're not colourfully crazy, they're not fascinating in any way and the less time I have to spend with them, the better.

So why bite into the rotting apple again? Zombie's other, non-Firefly movies have largely been terrible - 31 is awful, Halloween II is awful, Halloween is mostly awful except for the bits where he's pretending to be John Carpenter - and it's not as if the third part in the trilogy was going to suddenly skew into different and more rewarding territory. But there's always the possibility, there's always the hope. Lurking in the shrieking, nihilistic nonsense of Zombie's back catalogue is The Lords Of Salem which isn't great but it is different, odd and suggests that he might be capable of something better. 3 From Hell, however, suggests more clearly that he isn't, and most likely never will be again. Garbage throughout.

*

Saturday, 7 March 2020

DARK ENCOUNTER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND CONFESSIONS

I admit it: way back in the mists of time, I used to have a passing interest in UFOs. I wasn't an obsessive or anything, but I did feel it was at least possible that Earth had been, and still was, visited by beings from other worlds for reasons utterly unfathomable to mere humans. This was around the time of the alleged alien autopsy video, Mulder and Scully, and the tinfoil hat brigade building huge Geocities websites to expose all the Area 51 conspiracies and decode the crop circles that always appeared about an hour after closing time. We even had a talk from the bloke from the Ministry Of Defence once night. The Truth Was Out There. Except that it wasn't: once you've sat watching slow-motion replays of wobbly night-vision footage of green blobs hovering somewhere over Mexico City, and overheard a couple of earnest Trekkies theorising that the reason the blobs disappeared into the sub-VHS murk was because the alien ships had activated their cloaking devices, it suddenly all seemed very silly. I never went back.

Still, I'm a sucker for a good alien movie: not so much the full-on CGI destructo porn of something like Battle: Los Angeles or Independence Day, more the mysterious presence in the woods like Fire In The Sky. Dark Encounter happily plays more on that smaller scale: individuals rather than continents. Exactly a year after an eight-year-old girl vanished without trace, her family are assailed by a series of bright lights, noises, objects moving, electrical disturbances and creatures Not Of This Earth in the basement - and half the family similarly vanishing. Were these creatures involved in the child's disappearance? Is there a reason for this latest visitation?

Set in Pennsylvania but shot in Yorkshire with a mostly British cast playing American, Dark Encounter's central setpiece is a terrific extended home (rather than planetary) invasion sequence for which writer-director Carl Strathie breaks out the huge beams of fiery orange and icy blue lights shining through curtains and blinds, giving the whole thing the feel of the similar sequences in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This is easily the best scene in the movie and there are moments when it definitely hits that Spielbergian sense of awe (it's a pity the score isn't up to John Williams though), but the trouble is that the rest of the movie isn't that interesting. Moreover, the reasons for the mysterious beings' presence and interference is just plain nonsense: if they've gone to all this trouble for this, why not for all other instances? If they're so wise and benevolent, why do they terrorise people with bright lights and abductions? (This last question could also be asked of Close Encounters, of course.)

Result: the more you think about it the less sense it makes - was it a dream? Were they really aliens? One whizzy special effects moment (similar to the final shot of Men In Black) and the superb siege/invasion sequence aside, the film doesn't really hang together well enough, you don't really care and by the end you're just bemused by the silliness. The good doesn't entirely outweigh the not so good, but at its best it's interesting and thrilling enough to scrape through.

***

Saturday, 22 February 2020

THE GALLOWS: ACT II

HELLO, HELLO, HERE WE ARE AGAIN, SPOILERS

Again, again, again. And not just because it's a sequel - we were all saying "again, again, again" to the first one because even then the most diehard admirers of the form were getting fed up with the overfamiliar tropes of the found footage style being dragged out again, again, again and The Gallows added nothing to the menu fifteen years after the first wave of sub-Blair Witch cheapies. A further four years on and the format finally seems to be on the wane (at least to judge from the Sainsbury's racks which at one time were heaving with the damnable things): this ditches the dullards-filming-themselves idea after the opening sequence and opts for "normal" filmmaking.

But the reason we're still saying "again, again, again" in spite of the abandonment of first-person camcorder wobblivision, is that The Gallows: Act II falls squarely in that modern school of fairly light horror, ticking off a whole different set of boxes on a no-longer new and exciting checklist. Much of it has the feel of Happy Death Day, Truth Or Dare, Countdown or Friend Request, though the film it feels most similar to is actually the not-any-good Slender Man: youngsters summon up a ghost after finding stuff online and bad stuff happens. In this instance the ghostly hangman is summoned by reading from a play which was cursed following the accidental death of an actor on the titular gallows (and which was being unwisely restaged in the first film)...

So this one doesn't do anything new or startling, but it does go through the paces pretty competently and far better than the previous one. There are several extended scenes of can't-look-must-look creepiness in which something might be lurking in the darkness, under those sheets, in that closet... which are well staged with the jolts nicely timed in the relative quiet and darkness (though it does prompt the usual question about why people don't turn the lights on in their own homes). And it does at least try and expand its mythology rather than simply repeat the existing plot with new victims, including one returning character from before. Neither terrible nor great, it does its familiar thing decently enough on the multiplex popcorn-jumper level (and works acceptably well on home viewing in a darkened room) and is far from the worst thing you'll ever see.

***

Saturday, 15 February 2020

WRONG TURN VI: LAST RESORT

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OH, THAT'S GOING TO HURT

Yes, they made a sixth one. If it generally seems to be unavailable or unreleased, that's because it was withdrawn after a court case over the unaccountable use of an onscreen photograph of a genuine missing person from County Wexford (sadly, she was subsequently found dead), and presumably 20th Century Fox just decided to let the movie, and the series, quietly disappear rather than re-edit and reissue (the UK DVD I saw does include the offending photograph). Wrong Turn was never in the front rank of horror franchises anyway and they probably guessed that it had run its course and no-one would really care that much if Wrong Turn 7 and 8 never showed up. In fact the series had oscillated wildly in quality: the original was a grimly nasty Texas Chain Saw Massacre cousin mainly notably for Eliza Dushku's tight vest; Joe Lynch's sequel was equally nasty but funny as well, and Declan O'Brien's followup was actually a bit rubbish and I don't understand why I gave it three stars at the time. O'Brien then returned for Part 4, a surprisingly decent prequel, and stayed on for the cheap and dull Part 5 (with Doug Bradley) which really should have wound the thing up.

In the event Wrong Turn VI: Last Resort is a perfectly decent if mean-spirited and occasionally very nasty slasher with a high body count and a lot of sleazy depravity, as pretty much every female character except the old biddy near the start gets naked. Failed Wall Street investor Danny thinks his luck has changed when he inherits a massive spa hotel deep in the West Virginia woodlands: his girlfriend Katie and their assorted friends (whose money Danny lost in his brief banking career) seem right behind him. But One Eye, Saw Tooth and Three Finger are out there in the woods as well, merrily killing stray bikers and sheriffs...

Incest, cannibalism, dismemberment and decapitation ensue, with the dubious kill highlight probably being the classic firehose-up-the-rectum routine. It's glum and not much fun outside of the gore scenes; some plot strands are left hanging (such as the pervy webcam left in the bedroom in the hope of recording some hot porn action), and Danny has no real reason not to just sell the place and pay off his debts rather than trying to run it himself - the alleged connections to the family he never knew never feels like enough justification. Still, you get a healthy string of vicious death scenes and some horrendous bad taste; certainly not enough to make it a lost classic but there are sufficient grossouts and bad taste laughs for a Friday night; I enjoyed it more than I expected.

***

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

LEPRECHAUN RETURNS

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, NOT THAT IT MATTERS

Following the lead of the 2018 Halloween, which positioned itself as a Forty Years Later sequel to the original Carpenter film and pretended all those sequels with Danielle Harris and Busta Rhymes never happened, this latest instalment of the not-even-a-good-idea-at-the-time horror comedy franchise is actually Leprechaun 2, rewriting genre history to get rid of Leprechaun In The Hood and Leprechaun In Vegas and Leprechaun Goes To Sainsburys. For whatever reason, they couldn't get Jennifer Aniston back, so the film reduces her character to a post-mortem voiceover by somebody else and focusses instead on her daughter going back to the same old house Twenty Five Years Later for very flimsy reasons.

Except it's not the same old house: it's now being put together as a green, carbon-neutral eco-project by local students, with solar panels, a well, goats and specially designed gardens. Unfortunately, said students are the usual teen horror mixture of hateful halfwitted hotties and despicable sex-and-beer fratboy morons, leaving you on the side of the newly resurrected Leprechaun (now played by Linden Porco instead of Warwick Davis who has apparently backed away from horror films now) as he hacks his way through them, nowhere near swiftly enough, looking for his gold...

But despite all the welcome lashings of gore and gloop, and effects work that looks more physical that digital, Leprechaun Returns really isn't very good. The Oirish rhyming couplets gimmick only goes so far, all the characters are either tiresome or actively unpleasant, and the film seems to fall into that horror comedy chasm between graphically horrible and verbally stupid: there seems to be very little cleverness or wit involved. I gave up on the original series ten minutes into the first Hood, and while 2014's Leprechaun: Origins is a substantial step up from Leprechaun 4: In Space, this is several steps further down and absolutely not worth watching. Shot in South Africa.

*

Sunday, 9 February 2020

UNDERWATER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Glug, glug, glug... These things always go in cycles so it's hardly surprising that sooner or later someone would resurrect the marine base horror movie: just like Alien except on the sea bed instead of outer space. They could just as easily have been set in moonbases or space cargo freighters: bickering crews, lots of corridors and airlocks, clunky protective suits and flashing warning signs. But the fact is if you're old enough to remember James Cameron's The Abyss, you can probably remember the knockoffs floating in its wake, the most notable being Leviathan and Deep Star Six and thirty years later we really haven't moved on very much.

Underwater is pure monster hokum: seven miles down at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, following some violent unspecified quake, the hull integrity drops to a worrying 70% on a massive gas drilling rig, and a handful of survivors have to make their way across the sea bed, in near-total darkness and with limited oxygen, to another station hopefully equipped with escape pods. But they are not alone down there, and that wasn't a natural earthquake...

Kristen Stewart has close-cropped hair and wears glasses because she's an engineer, but she also gets to wander round in her pants because it's essentially the Ripley role from Alien and we all remember Sigourney Weaver's last-reel strip to her frankly ridiculously tiny skimpies. (Hilariously, the given reason for everyone going down to their undies is that their legs won't fit in the massive pressure suits.) Sadly Underwater doesn't have the depth (sorry) or the complexity of Alien: it's a simple A-to-B trek while avoiding the numerous gribbley monsters and the one absolutely massive gribbley monster, which is allegedly something out of HP Lovecraft.

It looks nice (Bojan Bazelli's photography is terrific), except for the overly if justifiably murky exteriors, but what's really surprising is that there's nothing very surprising about it. It plays pretty much as you'd expect as you're watching it and it doesn't do anything out of its very limited comfort zone. It's also a little difficult to accept the seriousness of the blueprints flashing on screen under the opening credits when they don't even spell "buoyancy" correctly. Still, I have a soft spot for SF base movies, whether Martian or marine, and even when they're not doing anything that startling I'm happy enough when the familiar paces are walked through with reasonable efficiency. But sadly Underwater doesn't have very much more to offer than efficiency.

**

Thursday, 6 February 2020

THE GRUDGE

CONTAINS SPOILERS YET AGAIN

Again. Never has the line "this is never going to end" been more pointed. This is now the fourth Grudge film in English, never mind the Japanese Ju-On originals (and the Ring/Grudge crossover Sadako Vs Kayako), and there seems less chance of stopping filmmakers returning to the totally scorched earth of Grudge movies than stopping the unstoppable hauntings themselves.

Actually, this latest stab isn't too bad, and gains some points for ambition even if it doesn't entirely succeed. For a start, it's better than the first two English-language films (which original director Takaski Shimizu helmed, under the production hand of Sam Raimi) and certainly better than the dull third one which went straight to video anyway. It looks great, with a solid cast of grownups playing grownups and no teenage halfwits with their shirts off, and the timeline flits back-and-forth between three separate hauntings in the same Pennsylvania house - a house so notoriously evil that the lead investigator (Demian Bichir) won't even set foot inside it when a horribly mangled body is found in a car wreck... Is 44 Reyburn Drive actually possessed by the now overly familiar Ju-On ghosts from the Tokyo-set prologue?

Much of The Grudge 2020 takes place in the dark, with several people wandering round the house in the middle of the night and mysteriously not switching the lights on. Lin Shaye turns up, which is always good news: post-Insidious she's as much a talisman of the B-horror as Robert Englund or Lance Henriksen (and when is someone going to put all three of them in the same film?). Maybe it's because I saw it at about eleven o'clock at night in my local Vue (and then had to walk home to my dark and empty flat) that I found myself looking away from the screen several times so I didn't see the scary faces that lurched, almost randomly, out of the background behind single mother and rookie cop Andrea Riseborough.

It's not great: after all, it is a Grudge movie and the franchise has already established that the ghosts cannot be stopped, so it is just another series of agreeably messy deaths from a permanent and undefeatable menace, peppered with the expected occasional Boo! popcorn jolts. It's clearly trying to be something a little bit better than that, and trying to do something interesting with a frankly knackered horror idea, with its non-chronological structure and attempts at an atmosphere of morbid dread. It's perfectly decent on its reboot-of-a-remake level of unoriginality, and I quite enjoyed it enough even through the mist of seen-this-all-before.

***

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

THE TURNING

CONTAINS SPOILERS, THOUGH IT'S AN OLD ENOUGH AND FAMILIAR ENOUGH STORY, YOU REALLY SHOULD KNOW IT BY NOW

Go watch The Innocents by Jack Clayton instead. That's the best advice one can give regarding this absolute botch job of Henry James' The Turn Of The Screw: track down the 1961 version that's infinitely scarier, infinitely creepier, impeccably crafted and shot: when I saw it a few years ago it genuinely had me hiding behind my sofa. (Hell, track down Michael Winner's trashy prequel The Nightcomers.) By comparison this latest remake is nonsensical, dull, annoying uninteresting throughout and has not one but two endings, neither of which work and neither of which make any rational sense. It's a pity because there are moments when it almost looks like it might be trying to turn into something better, but then messes it up and turns into something substantially worse. Throw in a loathsome brat for whom no amount of blunt force trauma with a chair leg would be considered unreasonable, and 2020 is off to a spectacularly poor start.

Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is the new governess hired to tutor young Flora in a colossal old mansion on a remote Maine estate about the size of Shropshire. Initially things don't go too well, with spooky mannequins, strange noises in the night and a frosty housekeeper making it clear that Kate is not wholly welcome. Nevertheless, she perseveres, until Flora's Damien-in-training older brother Miles turns up unexpectedly. But what happened to the previous governess? Or the live-in riding teacher (???) Peter Quint? Is the house haunted?

The Turning makes you jump a few times with Boo! scares and spiders, but any second division footballer can do that. The wandering around in the dark and the antics of the insufferable Miles quickly get very wearing, and the final stretch abandons its ending and dissolves into incomprehensible nonsense that might be supernatural or might all be in Kate's increasingly hysterical mind, assuming that you still care at this point. (The reason why she returns to the house, having decided to quit, is just silly.) The sudden, abrupt arrival of the closing credits almost suggests a proper ending was never shot and the released version is cobbled together from whatever footage was available. Either way, The Turning is an afternoon thoroughly wasted. Go watch The Innocents by Jack Clayton instead.

*