Wednesday, 15 September 2021

AFTERIMAGES

CONTAINS SPOILERS, NERDY ASPECT RATIO TALK AND A PALPABLE SENSE OF RELIEF

Of the two biggest streaming services it's Amazon Prime who seem to go for quantity over quality. This is not to suggest that Netflix's pickups are always winners (Flying Monkeys got turned off after about ten minutes) but the ratio of good to bad to facepunchingly godawful skews towards the lower end of that spectrum when you're sometimes adding a dozen "new" horror films in a week. Which is why it's such a relief when a random pick off Prime turns out to be more than perfectly decent. Not a gamechanging masterpiece by any stretch, or a film that redefines the genre (how many of those come along in a year?) but still something that's more than worth your time and that exceeds expectations.

Five not-as-hateful-as-usual students in Singapore have a class holiday project to make a film the old-fashioned way, starting with a script. But when they find a complete reel of 16mm in the ashes the morning after jokingly sacrificing an old cine cameras an offering to their ancestors (part of Ghost Month tradition) and it proves to be a fully finished short film, they realise they can use this to kickstart their movie careers. But they need more, and burning up cardboard cameras magically grants them all the supernatural sting-in-the-tail material they need (in a nostalgic variety of formats). Until the last one...

A proper anthology film with the Amicus structure of a wraparound story linking all the episodes together (rather than the YouTube playlist approach of just stringing a bunch of shorts together one after the other like The ABCs Of Death and the insufferable The Field Guide To Evil), Afterimages is something of a treat. You could quibble that the full Scope format is redundant given that the 16mm and VHS sequences should be seen in the old Academy ratio of four by three and only the reel of 35mm (which the gang watch in a wonderfully huge cinema) is actually in 2.35. Against that, it's frequently beautifully shot, it manages the inevitable jump scares well, the special effects are impressive and it even manages to throw in the debate about piracy, torrenting and copyright ownership. Plus it does leave the way open for a sequel (though, seven years on, that hasn't materialised). Afterafterimages, perhaps? Absolutely worth hitting the Add To Watchlist button for this one.

****

THE RESORT

SPOILERS AND YEAH, WHATEVER

There's really very little to be said about The Resort that hasn't already been said about a hundred other straight-to-home-viewing horror quickies. Four idiot friends, two girls who look hot in bikinis and two eminently punchable dullards, decide to spend a birthday weekend traipsing round a remote Hawaiian island that's supposedly haunted by the Half-Face Girl (the allegedly vengeful spirit of a young girl who was something something the usual) and having a look inside Room 306, the epicentre of the supposed paranormal activity. Cue the dumbos being picked off one by one, a brief bit of graphic face-ripping, a little wrinkle in the timeline, the scary-faced ghost doing her Sadako impression yet again, a sort-of twist ending, 73 minutes and will that do?

No it won't. There's very little to be said about the film because there's nothing to be seen in the film: nothing original, nothing startling, nothing interesting, and as free of style as it is of content. Even the abandoned luxury resort hotel setting can't be arsed to put much effort in. On the most basic technical levels of filmmaking I guess it's competent, in that the camera is in focus and no-one fluffs their lines, but you feel kind of insulted that such a bare minimum is deemed good enough. Because it really isn't.

*

DRIVEN

SPOILERS AND STUFF (YES, IT'S GETTING MORE DIFFICULT TO THINK UP CLEVER SPOILER WARNINGS)

In the sense that it's "about" a guy on a quest to break a fourth-generation family curse by performing a ritual to banish demons, Driven does qualify as a horror film (and even ended up on a FrightFest Discovery Screen). But deep down, it's not, as the genre elements are very much in the background, behind a quirky two-handed character drama detailing the thawing antagonism between an amateur demon-hunter and the Uber driver he's hired for the night. He needs to gather certain items and perform a banishing ritual by summoning a Hero with a magic talisman, she's a wannabe standup forever practising her material in the car but never actually braving the local Open Mic circuit. Initially they grate on each other, but gradually they start to connect...

The elements of comedy aren't actually that surprising when you know that both director and writer/star are members of an improv troupe. In the end it's a light, amiable and amusing little trifle, barely leaving the inside of the car, with the demon curse stuff added it as though it's been suggested by a member of the audience. It won't suffice for the hard horror crowd more interested in the genre aspects than the character material. I quite enjoyed it, but it's unlikely I'll ever go back to it.

***

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

THE SWARM

BZZZZZZZ! CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Don't bother with this one if you're after a monster movie: the creature rampage doesn't start until nine and a half minutes from the end, including the credits. And it's not that spectacular when it does finally arrive. For all its faults, at least the Irwin Allen movie of the same name delivered on the carnage and chaos: this restrained French non-horror localises its swarm damage to a handful of people in an isolated rural environment.

Most of the time The Swarm (La Nuée) is actually a very ordinary and non-horrific French drama about a young widow trying to support her two children by running a small locust farm: breeding the insects before grinding them down to make animal feed. The resultant product is of variable quality, and she can't get a good price for it - until by chance she discovers a significant improvement if the locusts' diet is supplemented with blood: fresh or bottled, human or animal. At this point you'd start wondering just how far she's prepared to go to preserve her secret and maintain the quality of her product, but disappointingly the answer is "not very far".

Eventually we do get a tiny bit of swarming locust action, and impressive close-up shots of locusts are dropped in throughout. But the film finally livening up in the final quarter of the final reel doesn't really fit in with the previous hour and a half of awkward domestics as a Quiet But Serious Drama. Sure, it's perfectly well done, but it's seemingly designed to underwhelm, unless the family tensions stuff is what you want, in which case all the entomophobia material is surplus to requirements.

**

JOLT

CONTAINS GZZZZZZZZZT SPOILERS

That sound, of course, being the onomatopoeic equivalent of the sound of heavy voltage rattling through machinery. The electric shocks in this defiantly silly but perfectly watchable Friday night dumbo action movie are smaller, to the extent of barely being shocking at all, but there's still a good measure of no-think fun and crunchy violence to be had.

Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) has to wear a special electric vest and self-administer jolts of electricity every so often. She was born with a tendency to irrational and violent rage and now has to zap herself every time she's on the edge of hulking out and beating seven bells out of whoever's angering her: aggressive diners, unhelpful restaurant staff, manspreaders on the underground. She thinks she's found a solution: a budding romance with a potential boyfriend after a couple of blind dates - but then the only man she's ever connected with gets murdered and (in the face of apparent police apathy and incompetence) goes out for headcracking revenge...

Set in America though it looks a lot like London (and apparently shot in Portugal!), Jolt's primary asset is Beckinsale's hilarious take-no-shit attitude which gets you past some of the sillier moments. It's not a great B-movie, but it's a fairly entertaining one: Stanley Tucci is always good value and Susan Sarandon turns up briefly in the hopes of nudging forward a sequel (Jolt 2: Electric Boogaloo?). Don't expect a gamechanging masterpiece and you may well enjoy it.

***

SHADOW IN THE CLOUD

SPOILERS AT FOUR O'CLOCK! INCOMING!

You probably won't see a sillier, less plausible horror movie all year. The streaming services are stuffed to bursting with the boneheadedly ridiculous, but this one makes them all look like Mike Leigh. The first big plot reveal is utterly absurd but it's comfortably outdone in the "oh, really?" stakes by subsequent twists, but crucially it's not breathtakingly silly in a fun, popcorn way: it's just silly in a wearing, tiresome way that I just couldn't go along with. Instead it lost me early on and never got me back on side.

Shadow In The Cloud is also stuck with being two movies bolted together in a way that doesn't really work. The first has Chloe Grace Moretz as a British accented flight officer with a fake permit to board a routine cargo flight and a mysterious package that Must Not Be Opened (and when the contents are revealed you'll eyeroll like a row of Vegas slot machines), whereupon the big tough mansoldiers indulge in a tidal wave of misogynist masculinity so toxic it could kill a horse at twenty paces. Moretz is immediately locked in the gun turret - and so are we, with the obnoxious tirades broadcast over the intercom. Sadly, what this means is that the guys are barely seen and in several cases barely distinguishable so when she finally gets out there's no emotional connection because we don't know who any of them are beyond shouty and abusive.

The second movie harks back to the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone, with gribbley  gremlin monsters merrily dismantling the engines and clambering around on the wings - which was fun when William Shatner did it back in 1963 and even when John Lithgow reprised it in the 1983 film version. Shadown In The Cloud's monster stuff is a lot more enjoyable than the What's In The Package? and What Is She Really Up To? first act, but as it goes on it gets increasingly silly as Moretz has to start clambering around the outside of the plane mid-flight while Japanese fighters whizz around trying to shoot it down. And that's not the worst of it: one subsequent moment is so ludicrous I actually seriously considered switching it off and going for an early night.

So it's a mess. Whether that was down to extensive rewrites and re-rewrites of Max Landis' script (after a string of sexual assault allegations), to the point where it just didn't, indeed couldn't, function any more, we may never know and frankly it's hard to care that much either way. Too much of it is too far-fetched even by the standards of late-night what-the-hell horror nonsense, and all the potential trash pleasure of watching Chloe Grace Moretz kicking gribbley gremlin monster ass on a plummeting B-17 is ultimately lost in the wreckage somewhere. Frustrating at best, with Moretz and the monster design probably being the best things on show, but occasionally veering towards a complete waste of time.

**

Friday, 16 July 2021

THE EMPTY MAN

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND BAFFLEMENT

Some people - and by "some people" I mean some of Film Twitter - are wondering just what happened here. Why did this movie disappear from view, why did it wash up on the Disney+ streaming service, why didn't it get a proper decent release as befits a horror movie of its stature and ambition? Well, I'm no expert, obviously, but my guess is that the marketing department took one look at it and muttered "what the hell are we supposed to do with this?". In the end the promo boys have ignored the first and third acts and postered it as a bog-standard teen bogeyman movie which it absolutely isn't.

That second act, a perfectly ordinary creepypasta in which half a dozen bickering highschoolers perform the silly bottle-blowing ritual that supposedly summons the titular Empty Man, is actually over all too quickly. Grieving ex-cop James (James Badge Dale) gets involved when his neighbour's daughter, one of the gang, disappears leaving a cryptic message in blood on the bathroom mirror. So far, so comfortable: this is fairly familiar territory. But then the trail suddenly veers off to a bizarre, smiley-sinister cult called the Pontifex Institute (no apparent significance, but @Pontifex is the Twitter account for the Pope), a cabin in the woods and an old man in the hospital regularly visited by the cult's acolytes...

Sadly The Empty Man all adds up to not much and the overlong result (some two hours and twenty) is a huge disappointment. It's a shame because there's some good stuff in there, particularly in the opening sequences in Bhutan where one of a group of hikers falls down a crevasse and discovers a bizarre skeleton which is one of the genuinely creepiest-looking things I've seen since whatever the hell was in the bag in Possum. Strangely, the whole Bhutan section is over after twenty minutes and barely referred to again, leaving it as almost a standalone short, which is a pity because it's the most interesting section of the film. The odd and slightly disturbing behaviour of the cult members round the campfire is also very effective. These are isolated moments, true, but they are moments which work well.

One of the last films to come out with the famous 20th Century Fox searchlights at the start, The Empty Man has actually been around for a while and although it's a brand new arrival on the streaming platforms it's actually got a copyright date of 2018. Closer to the power of The Wicker Man than the mess of Slender Man (or the barely memorable The Bye Bye Man), it is undeniably fascinating. It's nice that it largely eschews modern horror's reliance on scaryface jumpcuts and crashing dischords on the soundtrack, going for the odd and uncomfortable and telling a much larger and potentially apocalyptic story - what's scarier than a church which  does actually has a God? But I could have done with a few more concessions to mainstream: for example, the film's name-checking French deconstruction philosopher Jacques Derrida, to whom some of the Pontifex Institute's membership questionnaire apparently refers, isn't even slightly explained by stodging through Derrida's word salad of a Wikipedia page.

Okay, maybe that's just me being a bit thick (and I should be the last to complain about word salads). But it doesn't take away from the sense of disappointment that crucially it's not that scary: I watched it alone in the dark from about 10.45pm onwards and then had an untroubled night's sleep, never once wanting to put the lights on. I did want to like it (obviously - why watch it otherwise?) but I was left with a profound sense of underwhelming meh and the marketing didn't help it. Others are finding more in the film than I did, and it might already have the makings of a cult movie (in all senses of the word "cult"), but it never connected with me.

**

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

WRONG TURN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

What, again? Incredibly, having wrung every last dollar out of a franchise which ended after the sixth entry was withdrawn over lawsuits and therefore quite clearly wasn't worth milking any further, the Wrong Turn concept has moved to another studio and started again. In brief, the six Wrong Turns were agreeably nasty, agreeably nasty and funny, meh, actually not too bad, very poor and spectacularly sleazy. Now there's a new one and it's very much more of the same: a few surprises, some graphic grue, but there's also an attempt (by the original's writer) to give some depth to the backwoods psychos while ladling out the nastiness at the same time.

Otherwise, it is the usual crew of idiotic hunks and spunky nubiles getting lost in the woods while hiking the Appalachian Trail: despite all the warnings the kids merrily wander off the trail and end up triggering booby traps and being dragged off by masked psychos. This time, rather than a mere trio of homicidal freaks, there's a whole community called The Federation, who've been living by their own rules and laws since 1859, and from whom the  local townsfolk maintain a discreet distance. But the teens have broken the Federation's laws and are sentenced to death, or worse... Meanwhile, the father of one of the girls (Matthew Modine) is driving out to the rescue but getting dissuaded at every turn...

Wrong Turn 2020 is actually the best since Joe Lynch's 2007 Wrong Turn 2: Dead End. It pulls a few interesting twists, such as the most achingly liberal of the group realising that the Federation exactly represents the rural socialist community project of his urban dreams, and it does a neat reversal with the most notable of the town rednecks. Against that, it is too long (a woodland slasher really doesn't need to be 110 minutes) and at least one of the heroes is a thundering bellend of the highest order so it's hard to feel too bad when he's brutally offed. In the end, it's not bad at all: perfectly alright for a Friday night rental though it would benefit from a substantial edit. Whether this incarnation will last for six movies or not, we'll just have to see.

***

PARADISE Z

CONTAINS PHWOOOAR AND SPOILERS

Yet another low-budget zombie flick and as unremarkable as a thousand others. This is only vaguely notable as the latest from Wych Kaosayananda, the director of the weirdly titled blam-blam knockabout (on which he styled himself as Kaos for no immediately obvious reason) Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever. It's also one of the smallest-scale zombie movies imaginable: just three speaking roles (and a couple of brief one-line bit parts), one location, and hardly anything happening for the first half hour with the zombs' incursion into the titular Paradise being very low-key and measured.

Because what Paradise Z actually is is the very softest of softcore skin movies, in which two attractive young women hole up in an abandoned resort hotel in Thailand during a zombie epidemic that oh so very gradually drifts towards them. They lounge around in bikinis, they dip in the pool, they take showers, they make love, they lounge around again. Which is all very pretty, but there are anything up to a dozen websites catering for that purpose that don't have any kind of plot or narrative to get in the way of the extended norkage. But the idyll can't last forever and gradually the undead break in, forcing the girls to fight or flight...

It's not very good, but it is only 80 minutes long and fairly painless. It's not atrocious enough to have you writing angry letters to the distributors (in this case it's streaming off Prime), but it's hardly worth the effort involved in clicking Add To Wishlist. If you're in a very, very tolerant mood it'll pass the time, but only just.

**

ARMY OF THE DEAD

VIVA LAS SPOILERAS!

Back in 2004, Zack Snyder did the unthinkable: firstly he remade George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, the greatest zombie movie of all time and a longstanding personal favourite, and secondly he made a decent fist of it. It's not as good as the original, sure, but as a straight-up nasty zombie movie that stuck with its 18 certificate and didn't wimp out for the teen market, it was good blood-drenched fun. Now Snyder has returned to the undead for the epic Army Of The Dead and frankly he can make as many of these as he likes because he's much more suited to zombies than superheroes.

Don't misunderstand: this isn't a masterpiece. It absolutely doesn't need to be a hundred and forty eight minutes long and could do with a serious trim. It doesn't have the heart or emotional punch of Train To Busan, which achieved so much more in half an hour less, and it doesn't give you much in the way of characters to care about. After a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, military badass-turned-burger flipper Dave Bautista is hired to assemble a team to break through the city's quarantine walls to remove millions from a casino vault. But there's more to the zombies than just the shambling undead and they'll need more than mere firepower to get through before the US military drop a nuclear bomb on it all...

Why the nuclear strike? Because it's the only way to be sure. What's really surprising about Army Of The Dead is that the chief reference point isn't a zombie movie anyway, but James Cameron's Aliens. Lines of dialogue like "you don't see them f***ing each other over" are too close to be coincidental, Garret Dillahunt's clearly treacherous "security man" is Carter Burke in all but name, and there's a climactic moment on a rooftop that's way over the line of respectful homage and actually detracted from the intended effect because of the obviousness of the moment. And it's a pity because there's a lot to admire in it and a lot to enjoy. This is a zombie movie that includes both varieties of cinema zombies: the slow shufflers and the fast leapers. It portrays some of them as thinking, communicating, planning, leading. It even posits the idea of zombie animals as well as humans, a curious omission from the bulk of zombie cinema thus far (although it's not massively surprising that there does exist a film called Zombie Shark).

If all you want is a bog-standard, 100% generic Las Vegas cheapo zombie movie, there's always the thunderously unremarkable Steve Niles' Remains. But Army Of The Dead is leagues ahead of that. Much of the film is a lot of fun, impressively mounted on a huge scale with a lot of CG and action sequences, even though many of them are an extended series of balletic slo-mo bullets to the undead heads. Characters are delineated enough that you could probably lose a goodly chunk of the early setup sequences, and there are agreeably grisly fates for some of the less sympathetic (and in one case downright despicable) members of the crew. On the other hand Tom Holkenborg's score adds absolutely nothing - the most memorable soundtrack cue is a Richard Cheese version of Viva Las Vegas over the opening credit sequence, and relistening to some of Holkenborg's music through YouTube was turned off pretty quickly - and the CGI does reach overload level on more than one occasion.

I've never been much of a fan of Zack Snyder's films. I liked Dawn Of The Dead and 300 but his superhero movies were terrible, and I've no interest in the Snyder Cut of a film that (whilst acknowledging the personal tragedy that led him to drop out) wasn't much good in the first place and which he's now extended to four hours, drained all the colour out and reconfigured to 4:3 to better fit a screen shape that hardly any of us are ever going to see it in. It's pretty empty, sure, but it's not as creepily sexualised as the even emptier Sucker Punch and it's not as tiresomely glum as Man Of Steel or Dawn Of Justice. But I enjoyed it a lot, I had a lot more fun with it than I was expecting and I wouldn't even be averse to watching it again. (Plus, there's always the hope that if Zack Snyder can confound expectations after a recent string of uninteresting films and come up with something better, maybe other similarly overblown but hollow directors like McG and Michael Bay can as well....?)

****

Friday, 11 June 2021

SCATHING

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND WHATEVER

More cheap slasher junk. There's not much you need to know about Scathing except that it's nasty, it's stupid, it makes not a shred of sense, it has a twist ending that also makes not a shred of sense, it's indifferently done and your life will not be even imperceptibly enriched by seeing it.

The basic thrust is that a young woman sneaks out late at night to be with her thicko boyfriend who, rather than take her to a club, a cinema or a restaurant like normal people would do, takes her to the back yard of an abandoned house, where they wander round for a bit looking in the barns. But in the morning the car won't start and when their friends arrive to help them, a masked maniac looms out of the barns and kills them, leaving the first couple apparently trapped in their car for three straight days without food, water or toilet facilities...Told in flashback during a police interview, it pulls a ludicrous twist in its last act by suggesting that everything up to that point had been complete manure and that our apparent heroine was actually the killer, despite the fact that two of the victims were big hunky blokes and she's one of those skinny petite types. (Also, if this is a police interview, why is she telling them her dream sequences?)

With its poor acting, gibberish plot and occasional bits of torture and gore (and strong hints of cannibalism), it does have the feel of backyard slasher junk of decades past, to the extent that it  might even bring back a little twinge of nostalgia for the video nasty era. Forty years ago this would definitely have been seized and would thus have earned itself a measure of must-see attention it simply doesn't warrant. These days it doesn't even have that. The more I think about it (which is not a good idea) the more I realise that even the blood and screaming was insufficient reward for stodging through the rest of it. It's worse than I remember, and I only saw it on Saturday.

*

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

BUNDY AND THE GREEN RIVER KILLER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND IT'S THAT MAN AGAIN

You might have seen an announcement recently that a new film about Ted Bundy, the serial murderer, rapist and all-round turd whom society has managed perfectly well without since they executed him, is in the works, and the general response to his news has not been entirely enthusiastic. Stop glorifying him: do we need yet another exhaustive analysis of the man who bludgeoned and butchered so many women that no-one even knows for sure how many there were or where the bodies are? Has Bundy not had enough moments in the sun yet? If "cancel culture" is an actual thing, how come it's used against people who tweeted about Donald Trump or Israel but it's not used against people who raped and murdered scores of women? And if you have to make Ted Bundy movies (which you absolutely don't), at least stop casting chiselled, good-looking hunky guys to play him.

I've (clearly) never had much truck with True Crime movies: especially the American obsession with actual serial killers like Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, whoever the Hillside Strangler was. Fictional ones, sure: bring it on, pass the popcorn. But real human beings suffered and died at these scumbags' hands and that's an uncomfortable source of entertainment - and let's face it, that's what these films are. This one centres on the Green River Killer, an individual who was new to me but who turns out to be of the same rancid ilk, and is slightly unusual in that it's a British film, specifically Welsh (though the exteriors were shot in the US). Depressingly, it's punishingly shoddy in all departments and borderline unwatchably poor throughout.

Uninspired by a true story, Bundy And The Green River Killer supposedly details the hunt for yet another serial killer after four bodies turn up in a small Washington town. Bundy himself is already on Death Row, for the Chi Omega murders (which we absolutely didn't need to see cheaply re-enacted at the start), and is consulted, Lecter-like, by an FBI profiler and the Green River lead investigator after the bodies keep turning up and they still have no leads. One of his ideas does lead to a possible suspect but there isn't enough evidence and he's soon free to kill again and again and again.... for twenty years in total while they wait for the necessary advances in DNA technology.

To be honest it's perhaps a mercy that we don't see more than one of his victims, the others left unnamed and unseen in a story that has no interest in them, partly because it would be tediously sadistic and partly because such moments would clash with the bland and frankly boring remainder of the film. The dialogue is tiresome, the performances are uninteresting, the look of the film is flat and cold and the music score (from a pre-composed library) does nothing to underline the alleged drama or the alleged characters. When the lead detective's wife complains that the 20 years he's spent working the case have wrecked his life, it would have been nice if there'd been scenes backing that up. It would also have been nice if they'd at least tried to age the characters through the decades beyond one laughable suggestion of greying hair, when all the film's time periods appear to have been shot in a fortnight. For a movie about a man who killed up to seventy people, it has no sense of pace, no sense of urgency, not the slightest sense of horror.

Auteur Andrew Jones has a lot of movies on his CV, churning out four or five titles a year like he's Jess Franco or something. They include the weak killer doll movie Robert (and three sequels, none of which are troubling my rental queue) and scripts for remakes of Night Of The Living Dead and Silent Night, Bloody Night (the latter of which is as ball-achingly substandard as this is), as well as horrors inspired by Jonestown and Charles Manson. There's nothing in there so far to suggest a horror icon in the making, and after this fifth-rate excuse for a soul-crushing bore I'm not going to dig any further.

*

MORTAL KOMBAT

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH

I've never been much of a video game player. I managed to make it through several demo levels of Doom, Heretic and Carmageddon with the cheat codes enabled (for me it's the equivalent of watching a foreign film with the subtitles on) and I used to enjoy aimlessly messing about in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City causing assorted vehicular destruction and randomly running over old ladies on the beach. But I'm not a gamer or a gamehead and I never put 50p in a martial arts arcade machine because I was only going to lose very quickly.

This is the third cinematic incarnation of the Mortal Kombat game to hit UK multiplex screens, and it's certainly the best so far, albeit against very weak competition. Neither the Paul WS Anderson film from 1995 nor the John R Leonetti "sequel" (Annihilation) two years later have been up for a rewatch in the last two decades as I didn't think they were more than passable. Every so often there's a massive fighting tournament between the evil Outworld and our own mortal Earthrealm; Outworld have won the last nine of these interdimensional thudathons and if they win this next one then they'll take over the Earth forever. (Whose rules are these?) Only a pitiful quartet of untrained humans can stop them, if they can discover their secret superpowers in time; meanwhile the Outworld team have decided to cheat by wiping out Earth's contenders before the tournament even starts...

The first thing to say about this new Mortal Kombat is that it's really violent and graphically gory in a way that had me wondering how the hell it went through the BBFC with a mere 15 certificate. Even acknowledging that it's all fantasy violence that can't be imitated or emulated by impressionable teenaged idiots without MMA training, it's surprising how much they've got away with. Today's splatter fans don't know they're born. In a highlight scene which in the 1980s would have been hacked out entirely and the remnants given an 18, a woman's head is  bloodily bisected by a buzzsaw hat. Don't even ask; suffice to say that not all the granted superpowers are cool and one poor sod missed out on laser eyes and lightning bolts and ended up with a magic hat.

This does all sound like absolute kobblers. But it's very colourful and mostly moves so quickly that you don't really notice either the extensive running time (110 minutes) or that it doesn't make a whole load of sense. There's plenty of bone-crunching combat scenes, CGI monsters, a pleasingly diverse assortment of characters showing that women can fight just as hard and as brutally as the men, and even double amputees with robot arms can take down demented extradimensional demons. It's not magnificent enough to suggest a renaissance in videogame adaptations, but as a simple minded action movie in which people lamp each other Mortal Kombat 2021 is more than enough fun. Babbling nonsense, but I rather enjoyed it as a violent, empty spectacle. These days, I'll settle for that.

***

Thursday, 27 May 2021

THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

THE SPOILERING

Well, it's a shame. I've really enjoyed the Conjureverse thus far - yes, even The Nun - but sad to say it feels like it's running out of steam now. Even as a straightforward Boo! machine with scary faces looming out of the half-light, this third Conjuring instalment feels very much by rote, very average, very straight-to-streaming, and if I'd had popcorn it would have remained defiantly unjolted. And last night I slept entirely untroubled in a totally dark room: a far cry from having the lights on all night after the first Insidious.

Things do get off to a lively start with a dining-table exorcism of a young boy (and a couple of shots of the priest arriving that don't so much echo The Exorcist as bellow it through a bullhorn at you) with much shouting, flying objects and impossible contortions and twisted limbs. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) believe the demon has gone. But it's soon clear that the demon has found another host and soon the curse will start again. Are there other cases that will lead them to the source? What's with the creepy animal skull under the house?

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn't as creepy and as scary as it should be given that it's supposedly inspired by a true account (which frankly I don't believe based on the evidence here) of demonic possession inspiring its cursed victims to murder and suicide - the latter subjected to an undetectable trim by the BBFC in order to avoid an 18 certificate. The voyages into The Further in the Insidious films were always the least frightening sequences and never as coldly effective as those in the real world, and it's a similar case here with scenes using the psychic connection that allows Lorraine to remotely journey into The Occultist's lair or telepathically witness an earlier murder. They're visually striking, but not actually scary; by contrast the most effective moment is a simple one where Lorraine Warren suddenly feels that she doesn't want to go into that basement. The discovery of the skull in the crawlspace works better because it's of this world rather than a psychic vision, and because it's a prime example of one of the bases of horror: something that doesn't belong.

It's also possibly less effective because - spoiler alert - they're not vanquishing demons or supernatural entities this time, but the twisted individual who summoned them, who as a mortal human being is physically vulnerable (unlike, say, the Annabelle doll which is briefly glimpsed in its sealed case). It still has nice moments, it's solidly put together, the period design (1981) is fine without drawing attention to itself, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it doesn't have nearly as much effect as it should have and it was no longer at the forefront of my mind by the time I'd crossed the cinema car park. And for a Conjuring movie, given the first two in particular and the spinoffs as well (even The Curse Of La Llorona, which was directed by this film's Michael Chaves), it's really not enough. It's watchable enough but disappointing considering its heritage.

***

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OH, THAT'S NASTY

It's been a long time. Streaming, DVDs and Blus are all very well but cinema will always be the best way to watch a film. The last time I actually stepped into a cinema was last October for a pre-Halloween retro screening of Carrie, and I've missed it. And it's nice that they're reopening with not just a horror film, but a new entry in one of my favourite horror brands. For some, the Saw series may be as synonymous with so-called torture porn as the Hostel movies (at least the first two; the third was terrible) but I always enjoyed the inventive kills, the ludicrously convoluted plotting and the occasionally revolting full-on gore, and I had more fun and got more laughs from the joke-free carnage and narrative insanity than I ever derived from overt comedies. Recently I binged the first seven Saw films on BluRay over a weekend and caught myself giggling on several occasions.

Like those who stubbornly insist that there are only three Die Hard movies, I didn't really count Jigsaw as a proper Saw film despite the presence of Tobin Bell as Jigsaw himself, who of course got killed at the end of Saw III but whose spectre hung around the next five episodes through restagings of scenes from earlier films, video and audio recordings, backstory and flashbacks. Bell doesn't make an appearance this time out except as a photograph in a case file as the motley crew of city homicide cops attempt to track down a new Jigsaw copycat who's apparently taking down dirty and corrupt cops. Hotheaded detective Zeke (Chris Rock, who is [1] also an executive producer and [2] terrible) commands no loyalty from his squad of dodgy officers, even as Jigsaw Mark II seems to be picking them off one by one....

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw starts promisingly with a bad cop challenged to rip his own lying tongue out before a subway train smashes into him, but stalls quickly with Rock apparently inserting chunks of standup routines that would have been ill-advised if standup Chris Rock wasn't an executive producer (one of the great things about the Saw movies was the lack of jokes about Forrest Gump and cheating wives). And then it launches into a welter of old-fashioned cop-on-the-edge, my-dad-was-a-cop, I-don't-want-a-rookie-partner, you're-too-close-to-the-case histrionic shouting matches that in a sane world would have ended with give-me-your-gun-and-your-badge. While the killer's motivation makes a measure of sense, the logistics don't: how did they get all that equipment together? (John Kramer was a mechanical engineer and wealthy with it, which is not the case here.) How did they know that Cop A would do this and Cop B wouldn't do that? Why do the cops not notice that one of their own team hasn't reported in to work today? And what's with the jet-powered glass-throwing machine that launches shards of beer bottles across the room for no apparent reason?

Certainly the film earns it's dazzling blood-red 18 certificate (I dread the day a Saw movie wimps out with a popcorn-friendly 15) with its agreeably high quota of ripping grue: tongues ripped out, skin ripped off, fingers ripped from their sockets, and Darren Lynn Bousman handles the torture stuff as well as any of the previous films did (three of which were his, and fellow Saw sequel helmers Kevin Greutert and David Hackl get named in the end credits crawl). And there's a nice warm glow of familiarity about the final putting-the-pieces-together montage with another version of Charlie Clouser's terrific theme. Social comment, something the series only occasionally approached, is there with a timely theme of police brutality, corruption and accountability. But the truth about it is that Spiral: From The Book Of Saw isn't really a Saw movie, it's closer to a Se7en movie in which mismatched cops track down a serial murderer with a meticulously structured masterplan and a grand social agenda of punishment that's also specifically personal to the cops involved. That's not a bad thing, and there was talk at the time of a sequel to Se7en, called Ei8ht, which would have actually been appropriate in this case.

Bottom line: if you can get past Chris Rock's tiresome wisecracking, the cliched and cardboard cutout cop characters who mostly deserve it, and the strange sense of Samuel L Jackson being in it too much (because he's a huge stellar presence that overwhelms everyone and everything else) and at the same time not enough (because he's always enormously watchable), there is plenty of grisly fun to be had, and if you're just after the physical horror then there's still enough screaming and mutilation to satisfy. It's not one of the best entries, and after Saw 7 the series had probably run its course, but I enjoyed it. And it was just the kind of movie I wanted to see on cinema's long-overdue return. That said, enough now.

***