Saturday, 31 December 2011


Wasn't 2011 a ghastly year for movies? There were plenty of candidates for the Worst List: it's honestly been difficult narrowing it down to a mere ten titles. Many of the potentials were merely mediocre rather than outright objectionable or imbecilic, though, and the final selections are films I've really hated, or films I've been massively disappointed by, rather than ones I've merely not liked very much. The list is slightly skewed to start with: there aren't any romantic comedies or digimations on there as I don't go and see them (not being a professional salaried film reviewer for whom Adam Sandler films are part of the job); these are films I went to see wanting to like them, rather than ones I knew in advance (or strongly suspected) were likely to stink.

As with the Best Of 2011 list, the film must have received a regular commercial UK cinema release in 2011 (as listed on Launching Films), so the tiresome A Horrible Way To Die and the atrocious Inbred don't qualify as they only had festival screenings and didn't show up at local Odeons, Vues or Cineworlds. Thank goodness.

Anyway, the list:

Sneaking under the wire at year's end comes this entirely pointless English language restaging of the perfectly good Swedish original. There's nothing in it that's half as impressive or interesting this time around, and it's mainly notable for being yet another duff Daniel Craig movie, the third of the year after the nonsensical Cowboys And Aliens and the tiresome Dream House. A crashing disappointment, particularly coming from David Fincher who really should be better than this.

They didn't have Schwarzenegger or Milius, Von Sydow, James Earl Jones or Sandahl Bergman, a Basil Poledouris score or an Oliver Stone script. What did they have? Marcus Nispel, some muscled bloke with bigger hooters than the female lead, and converted 3D. Awful.

Heavily fetishised jailbait fantasies for the undiscriminating pervert (the bit where someone says schoolgirl Emily Browning is actually 20 years old is basically "start your engines, boys"). None of it makes a blind bit of sense, the whole thing is CGId into oblivion and the absurdly inappropriate 12A suggests the BBFC are giving these ratings away in packets of cornflakes.

Hammer are nominally back, but this is a Hammer movie in the way that Police Academy 6 is a Warner Brothers movie, i.e. not really. It's a crashingly dull and ordinary thriller in which the psycho is blatantly obvious (there being only four significant speaking roles, it's scarcely a mystery worthy of Miss Marple), nothing much happens and Sir Christopher Lee has a couple of scenes (including yet another deathbed exit).

Another chance for dirty old men to pleasure themselves over Emily Browning in the dark, but this one is Art, so that's okay. Pretentious and tedious "erotica" that's basically porn with dull talking bits in between. Look: if you want porn, go watch some porn. We won't think any less of you than we do already.

A prequel detailing the early hauntings when the heroines of the first two movies were terrorised as children (but not explaining why they'd forgotten all about it by the time they were adults). Incredibly dull, stupid, completely unscary and can we please stop with this lame found-footage gimmick now, please? It doesn't work and it's visually ugly.

I missed this at FrightFest so only caught up with it on DVD and for a while I genuinely thought it was going to suddenly top the year's list. It's a stupid, tiresome and thoroughly obnoxious piece of mean-spirited sadism; it's incredibly boring and entirely unbelievable, and the debate about whether it's misogynistic simply isn't worth having. My overriding question is what the hell was the point of this film? It's horrible.

Oh, for God's sake.

2. APOLLO 18
Nope, apparently we can't ditch the lame found-footage gimmick yet. Yes, they've gone to a lot of effort to make it all look like 16mm and videotape of the period, but it would have been easier, quicker, probably cheaper and certainly less visually annoying to actually make a film, rather than feebly pretending they haven't. Stop it.

Not counting midnight shows where I've fallen asleep and have missed great chunks of the action, I've only ever walked out of one film (Zombie Women Of Satan). This tedious and diseased parade of cheap atrocities and sub-Troma taboo-busting would most probably have been the second if I'd been on an aisle seat. Genuinely the vilest and most misanthropic film I've seen in years. Yet everyone else - literally everyone else - loved it, and I don't think I'll ever understand that.

There were plenty of other below-par offerings on show: Justice, Abduction, Dream House, Immortals, The Green Hornet, 30 Minutes Or Less, Wake Wood, Cowboys And Aliens (it really wasn't Daniel Craig's year), Attack The Block, the Fright Night remake: all of which should have been far better.


Wasn't 2011 a terrific year for movies? Certainly it's been better than the previous year: looking back at my Best Of 2010 list there were a few films that probably didn't deserve to be there, but they ended up there simply by way of there not being enough competition. Happily, 2011 has produced a sterling set of titles, and not only am I generally satisfied with my final choices but I'm annoyed that some perfectly decent titles haven't made the cut.

On the subject of last year's list, there was of course one glaring omission: the original Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That was because I'd seen it back in 2009 so I forgot about it when compiling. No such oversight this year: I've used the UK release schedules as a guide so even if I saw the film in 2010 it counts to this year's lists if it's had a general - or even limited - theatrical release in 2010 rather than festival screenings. (Sadly, The Artist isn't going to be available to include in the list due to the distributors not releasing it out of the West End until the start of 2012.)

Not that I'm anywhere near qualified enough to detect themes, but if there has been a theme this year that I've particularly welcomed, I'd suggest that it's films harking back to earlier eras of film: two of my top three all refer back to earlier styles of film-making, openly celebrating the actual technique of making movies in days long gone. Here's hoping people can actually learn from this: not just to celebrate the days of better film making, but to actually make better films.

Enough prattle. The list:

A solid, well-crafted and creepy ghost story in the best British tradition, although with an occasional feel of an episode of The X-Files, The Awakening boasts a strong female lead (Rebecca Hall), a nicely conveyed period setting and several damn good scares and jumpy moments. Maybe it loses it slightly towards the end with a too implausible extra twist, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. More please.

I'm not much of a comicbook superhero fan. Nor am I colossally interested in the ongoing Avengers uberproject in which a whole bunch of absurdly costumed weirdos face off against each other. But Thor was such unexpected fun: visually terrific in the Asgard scenes, and Thor himself was an interesting and likable enough hero. Lord Sir Kenneth Shakespeare Of Branagh may have been an unlikely choice to direct (it's a bit like hiring Stanley Kubrick to direct The Dukes Of Hazzard), but it's paid off.

This was on many lists for last year because of festival screenings but it didn't actually come to commercial cinemas until January 2011, so there. Everyone loved it, and I certainly liked it a lot: it's a weirdo psychological horror movie with a ballet setting and that lovely sense while watching it that you haven't got the faintest clue where the hell it's going. I somehow still wish I'd liked it more, and probably need to see it again.

This emotionally raw and powerful love story knocked me sideways when shown at the 2010 Frightfest, to the extent that I couldn't bear to go back in for the next movie (The Last Exorcist), and had to go for a long walk to let it sink in. Shocking, brutally violent, and yet ultimately quite moving; nowhere near enough people saw it.

Sometimes the public get it right and support a movie that justifies it. In 2010 it was Inception, in 2011 it was this incredibly miserable and grimy spy drama entirely bereft of helicopter chases, kickass explosions and anyone under 50: espionage as an abstract game of imaginary chess where you didn't know which pieces were whose. And it makes no concession to the audience: pay attention or you're lost. Oh, and the cast is breathtaking.

It's from the certified nutjob director of Visitor Q and Ichi The Killer, but this superbly paced and gorgeously photographed samurai action movie almost makes it worthwhile putting up with the usual incoherent Takashi Miike gibberish. Culminates in an apparently endless village battle that leaves just about everyone dead, but just as gripping is the first act's political exposition and plot machinations. Marvellous.

Watching this absorbing Spanish thriller (produced by Guillermo Del Toro) I was suddenly thrust back to the Scala Cinema more than twenty years ago, watching vintage Argento gialli. Genuinely exciting and beautifully done. Why can't we Brits make genre films as good as this? Why aren't we even trying?

An absolutely charming movie that may be all over the place, veering wildly between moving drama, knockabout comedy, kiddie fantasy, action - but finally hangs a hard right turn out of nowhere into the joys of the very birth of cinema with the strange and surreal fantasies of Georges Melies. And it's probably the best showcase yet for intelligently used 3D in mainstream cinema (although the case for 3D has yet to be indisputably made).

The most genuinely scary time I've had in a cinema for years: from the creators of the gory but unscary Saw franchise and the increasingly tiresome and unscary Paranormal Activity series comes an entirely bloodless and truly frightening haunted house movie. Granted that it drops the ball in the third act, but it works not just while it's screening but days later when you're alone in the flat, late at night and it squirrels back into your mind. Utterly brilliant.

1. SUPER 8
Joyous, joyful and thrilling kids' action/SF movie that's not just a near-perfect recreation of the late 1970s (I don't give a toss that this song or that toy wasn't actually there until 1980 - it's still in the spirit of the era) but the idea of kids making movies for the sheer fun of it. I'd love for children to come out of Super 8 inspired to grab the nearest camera and start shooting. Beautiful, exciting, a near perfect kids' movie and a damn good summer blockbuster. (And if you're carping about the lens flares - get over it.)

Honourable Mentions to some films that bubbled under but didn't quite make the cut. In no particular order: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Rango, Fast Five (shut up!), Red State, Drive, The Skin I Live In, I Saw The Devil, Confessions, A Lonely Place To Die and True Grit. And to be honest, that list alone would have made an acceptable Top Ten.

Friday, 30 December 2011



A big old house at night. Obscene phone calls. An unseen maniac killing sorority girls. The camera taking on the killer's POV. A shifty and suspicious boyfriend. Useless police officers. A familiar cult movie actor in an authority role. "The calls are coming from inside the house!" A nuisance cat. A creepy attic, a creepy cellar. Twist ending where the horror isn't really over. How many times have these join-the-dots ingredients come up in every cheap slasher movie ever made? Admittedly part of the fun of slasher movies is enjoying the tropes of a Halloween, as much as seeing them wittily subverted in a Scream. Fine, but they weren't tropes to start with: this pioneering Canadian slasher came four years before Halloween, five before When A Stranger Calls and six before Friday The 13th. More than those movies, this is the one with a greater claim to inventing the cliches in the first place.

Yet first doesn't always mean best, and it's curious that Bob Clark's 1974 slasher Black Christmas doesn't actually work anywhere near as well as some of the films that came after it, specifically the big franchise-starters Halloween and Friday The 13th. Certainly it has incident and it kicks off with the dirty phone calls right from the start (very dirty - the handful of C-words is probably why the film still retains its 18 certificate after more than thirty years), but once it graduates to killing its sorority girls rather than making obscene noises at them, it settles into something that now seems painfully obvious and predictable unless you actually saw it back in 1974. Suspicion is cast firmly and early on Olivia Hussey's ridiculously creepy boyfriend Keir Dullea, yet it couldn't possibly be him and there's no motivation given. But who else could it be?

Frustratingly, the film elects not to reveal its antagonist, simply letting the end credits run over the sound of the ringing telephone. Personally I feel that's a copout, like Agatha Christie ending a novel before Poirot gets round to his ten-minute deconstruction and unmasks the villain. Whether it's because the idea of an unknown murderer is more horrific than a known one, or because Clark and writer Roy Moore believe it doesn't really matter, it leaves the movie without a tidy and satisfying conclusion.

I know it's heresy but I probably prefer the 2006 remake, partly on the grounds that there's more in the way of upfront gore (this original version is pretty restrained in the ketchup department) but partly because they do actually bother to identify the killer. The slick and bloody but empty Glen Morgan version may not be much of a film overall (it's an enjoyable popcorn slasher rather than a work of actual quality) but I have a soft spot for it. But I can't get enthused about Bob Clark's original: it's okay, and it's good to see Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea and John Saxon (I've never been a fan of Margot Kidder, though), but it's really no more than okay.


Monday, 26 December 2011



Why, deep down, didn't we suspect this all along? Why did we have our hopes up for this revisitation over all the others? What had this got going for it that The Thing, Fright Night, Let Me In, Conan The Barbarian and all the other recent remakes didn't have? Well, it had Steven Zaillan scripting from a highly regarded source, it had a sterling cast including Daniel Craig, Steven Berkoff, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson, and of course it had David Fincher directing. Even ignoring the fact that outside of the Bonds (and even there he's only scored 50 per cent) Daniel Craig has an uncanny and unerring ability for picking duff projects (see Dream House and Cowboys And Aliens), how could this possibly go wrong?

Easily. Though The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo tells, frequently word for word, the same story as the Niels Arden Oplev version - crusading but disgraced journalist investigates the murder of a young girl forty years previously, aided by the angry, punk-haired computer hacker of the title, and in the process uncovers long-buried family secrets, corruption and sheer cold evil - it brings absolutely nothing to the table but the star names and English language dialogue (and the latter you could have as an English dub on the original's DVD release anyway). If you've seen the original, David Fincher's film holds few surprises, but even if you haven't, I genuinely believe it won't grab your interest.

It's as if they're really not trying. Oh, it looks great: it's drained of colour and light with the permanent snow, much of it takes place at night, everyone's dressed in drab colours and driving black cars. And I'll confess a liking for the modern Swedish architecture (mainly Stellan Skarsgard's hilltop house - if I win the lottery that's the kind of place I'll have). But it's dramatically uninteresting - neither Craig nor Rooney Mara are any kind of substitute for Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace at bringing their characters to life, and even the hideous rape sequence doesn't have the raw power of the original's. (If they didn't want to be compared to an earlier film, they shouldn't have made another version of it, and they certainly shouldn't have made an inferior version of it.)

There's also the language question: why is everyone speaking English when it's taking place in Sweden, the newspaper signs are all in Swedish and magazine covers are in Swedish? Granted it's a dramatic device as old as theatre - Hamlet doesn't have to be performed in Danish - but why are the TV news and the press cuttings in English? There's even an absurd moment when they spell a sign out - "S...N...that's a K.... Carpentry!" And why is no-one but Rooney Mara putting on some sort of accent? (Okay, they probably didn't want it to sound like a Muppets convention where everyone's come as the Swedish Chef.) It's an inconsistency that could easily have been avoided by just putting everything in English.

Matters aren't helped by the sound mix rendering chunks of the dialogue unintelligible (although that may have been the 35mm print or my local's audio system at fault), and by the Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score that's been indiscriminately ladled over the movie like custard - but ladled over roast beef rather than an apple crumble. How can a director who's worked with proper musical composers like Howard Shore, Elliot Goldenthal and David Shire possibly have signed off on this ambient soundscape of droning and plinky-plonk noises? (The album release covers three CDs and frankly you might as well listen to your fridge defrosting.)

So ultimately we've ended up with a nothing movie: an A-list director, a heavyweight cast, some fabulous set design - but it simply never hangs together the way it should - and the way it did a few years ago (and presumably in the book as well). It isn't different enough from the earlier film to make it much more than a translation rather than a film in its own right. Niels Arden Oplev's film was terrifically entertaining and gripping, and this just isn't in the same league. Most importantly, from the director of Se7en and Zodiac - and even Panic Room and Alien 3, which I believe is massively underrated - it's a crashing, crushing disappointment. (Sadly, it looks like a remake of the next of the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is in development for 2013, although it doesn't appear on Fincher, Craig or Mara's IMDb pages.)


Friday, 16 December 2011



Kids ruin everything. More precisely, teenagers ruin everything. Specifically, the teenage demographic in multiplex cinema and film-making has put the tin hat on the concept of adult (as in grown-up rather than porny) entertainment. With the overwhelming majority of films released targeted at people under 25, intelligence and wit and cleverness will always be outnumbered by vulgarity and rude words and tits. It's no longer adult in the sense that it's aimed at adults, it's merely adult in the sense that it's not for kids. The 15 certificate doesn't signify anything beyond the unsuitability for 12-year-olds, and perversely, the endless references to knobs and tits and miscellaneous sexual weirdness is childish rather than mature. It's significant that the critical quote emblazoned on the front of the DVD box, claiming it to be The Funniest Movie Of the Year, is from Nuts magazine.

In days of old, when knights were bold, there was the handsome Prince Fabious (James Franco), forever on noble quests to slay wizards and cyclops; and his idle brother Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride), concerned only with sex and loafing around enjoying himself. But Fabious' virginal simpleton bride Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is abducted before the wedding by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), and the two brothers and their companions must rescue her before the eclipse of the two moons that will mark the conception of a dragon with which Leezar will rule the world (or something). Also along for the ride is vengeful Natalie Portman, but might there be a traitor in their midst?

Essentially Your Highness is Carry On Questing. Or Onan The Barbarian. Or Monty Python And The Holy Krull. Or indeed Hawk The Stoner (the word Highness having a double meaning, haha). But what it's most reminiscent of is The Black Adder: the first series where Edmund was a cowardly, obnoxious idiot (McBride even has a hapless sidekick accompanying him), and for all the period detail and generous budget (by BBC standards), it wasn't massively funny. On one level this movie is amiable knockabout nonsense with good production values, some decent effects (albeit mostly CGI) and an all-star cast that also includes Charles Dance, Damian Lewis and Toby Jones. But the steady flow of sweary gags about willies, bums, tits, bestiality and wanking gets tiresome after a while. Nor is it explained why almost everyone is putting on an English accent when - bearing in mind the eclipse of the two moons - the movie isn't even set on this planet.

Much of the movie was clearly improvised - see the extras on the DVD - by just leaving the camera running while the principals make up a dozen slight variations of the scene, and then picking the dirtiest version and not the funniest. McBride makes for a charmless lead - granted, on one level the character is supposed to be charmless, but surely the hero should not be so charmless that you genuinely don't want to spend any time looking at him? The same problem beset McBride and director David Gordon Green's earlier, generally terrible, Pineapple Express. Here we also get a lot of casual F-bombs as well which don't sit well against the medieval setting but they've have been put in because it's supposedly funny. Clearly they were having a ball making it but it just doesn't translate.


Verily, forsooth, penis:

Thursday, 15 December 2011



Maybe I'm the only one left, but I still watch Woody Allen movies in the hope of agreeable, civilised, cultured entertainment with a brain and with a sense of humour that doesn't rely on poo, knobs or crass sexism and stereotypes. Perhaps it's not entirely fair to suggest he hasn't made a genuinely terrific movie for about 20 years - I've missed some of them, and some haven't even been released to the UK - but even the best of his more recent ones certainly aren't up there with Annie Hall or Love And Death. (And that said, even some of the classic "early funny ones" aren't as good as everyone makes out: I honestly struggled with Everything You Always..... and even Sleeper.)

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is a loose assemblage of vignettes chronicling the various relationships of two London couples: elderly Anthony Hopkins who has a midlife crisis and ditches his slightly dotty wife Gemma Jones for prostitute/actress/gold-digger Lucy Punch, and Naomi Watts (Hopkins and Jones' daughter): attracted to her married boss Antonio Banderas but herself married to struggling writer and general tool Josh Brolin - who is in turn attracted to Freida Pinto, the musicology student next door. Pinto is in turn already engaged to a diplomat, Watts wants a family, and Jones is falling into spiritualism courtesy of dodgy medium Pauline Collins.

It would be marvellous if it had all ended with custard pies or a fight at a wedding. But it doesn't really end at all: it just stops abruptly with a voiceover to the effect of "and there we must leave them", so even if you were passingly intrigued by these people and their non-hilarious situations, there's no sense of resolution. And it doesn't have one single joke in it. It doesn't even have any jokes that don't work - jokes which you know are jokes but which aren't funny: not only are there no laughs, but there are no failed laughs. Nor are there any particularly interesting characters you want to spend any time with: aside from a pleasing turn of fate for the odious Brolin it's hard to care about any of these mewling, self-absorbed individuals and their self-inflicted problems. So in addition to not working as a comedy, it doesn't work as a character drama and for a Woody Allen movie that's not good enough. You don't expect car chases or Martian invaders in an Allen film but you do expect character and/or comedy and/or drama.

Maybe it's London's fault. I haven't seen Scoop or Match Point (Scoop wasn't even released in this country although it did creep out on BBC2 one night) but Cassandra's Dream was a similarly unsatisfying and humourless stodge; before this he did Vicky Cristina Barcelona which was mildly amusing (although no real laughs) and since You Will Meet... we had the rather charming (but still far from hilarious) Midnight In Paris. And his next one's set in Rome. But the last funny one - the last one with actual hahaha oneliners in it - was Whatever Works (which nobody but me seemed to like very much), a film set in Allen's New York. Possibly as a result of the home turf, Whatever Works has 26 entries on its Memorable Quotes page on the IMDb. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger has just one which is, to paraphrase Arthur Dent, "obviously some strange usage of the word Memorable that I wasn't previously aware of." (Genuinely, I looked at it not three minutes ago and can't remember it.)

It's also an odd mixture of accents as Hopkins does Hopkins, Punch does Chav, Banderas does Spanish, Brolin does American, Watts puts on English (but uses the American pronunciation of "imbecile" to rhyme with "whistle" rather than "Lucille"). Obviously it's always good to see Sir Anthony, and it's pleasantly surprising to see people like Philip Glenister, Lynda Baron, Anna Friel, Meera Syal and Ewen Bremner turning up for tiny roles. But it just isn't any fun and you're left wondering what the point of the exercise was. Allen is now 76 and he really doesn't need to make a film or two every year, especially if it's just for the sake of it. It is a civilised, cultured film, and you can believe in these people; you're just not that bothered what happens to them.


You Will Buy:

Tuesday, 6 December 2011



Yet another desecration of an acknowledged and accepted classic, another heretical exhumation from the vaults in an ill-advised quest to recapture the magic that was fatally doomed from the start. Time after time they've blundered into the most familiar territory and completely missed the point. Whether it's Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or second-tier minor horrors like Friday the 13th, The Stepfather or My Bloody Valentine, they've failed repeatedly and spectacularly - and if you're setting the bar as low as Prom Night, why even bother? If they can't even raise more than a "whatever" response from mean-spirited exploitationers like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left, how can they ever hope to achieve anything with a film that people actually love? (Sole exception to this would be Zack Snyder's version of Dawn Of The Dead is fine, which is some achievement given that Romero's original is the greatest film ever made.

This all-new The Thing is, technically, a prequel in that it details the events at the Norwegian base (prior to the lone dog escaping to the American outpost at the start of Carpenter's film), although it's practically a remake as it attempts to restage many of its highlights. Tracing a mysterious signal, three of the Norwegians fall down a crevasse and discover a craft, and subsequently a creature frozen in the ice. Once they've flown in top paleontologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Columbia University, they set about thawing The Thing out - until it bursts loose and starts doing exactly what it would later do at the American base: masquerading as one (or possibly more) of the humans and then turning into a surreally squishy monster when it's found out. Gradually the cast are whittled down (mostly set on fire) until a climactic "face" off within the Alienesque confines of the alien craft....

John Carpenter's The Thing is a bleak, shocking, endlessly rewatchable and visually stunning SF/horror movie with eye-popping effects, a perfect Morricone soundtrack, a taut and suspenseful script and a terrific cast of character actors. Matthijs Van Heijninger Jr's The Thing differs in only nine respects. In making a prequel, they've stymied themselves by negating any suspense or excitement: we know pretty much how it will end and that most if not all the cast will die horribly. This doesn't just mean we don't care who's really The Thing, it means we don't - we can't - care who lives or dies. But even though several members of Carpenter's cast weren't immediately sympathetic or likable, you were still gripped throughout. Here, both the structure and the indistinguishable nature of the roster of characters mean it's impossible to get involved.

More damagingly, far too many of the Thing effects are computer generated and frankly they look it. Because they're just ones and zeros on a hard drive that have been cut and pasted into the shots, they don't scare and they don't revolt; despite some interesting imagery it's impossible to be scared of something that so clearly does not exist. More crucially, many of those CG effects simply aren't very good and to be honest they might as well be a hand-drawn cartoon for all the effect they have (at one point they were on the level of the incoherent Japanese zombie movies Junk and Wild Zero which were about ten years ago). Surely the whole point of The Thing is that it's indistinguishable from reality, but too often it's painfully obvious what's real and what isn't. Marco Beltrami's score occasionally has echoes of Ennio Morricone's doom-laden score for the 1982 version, but too often resorts to his standard crash-bang horror movie style he's been working in pretty much constantly since the first Scream. Which is okay, but unfortunately the contrast is highlighted by the inclusion of Morricone's end title music at the end.

It is clear that they've tried to make a movie that harks back to the 82 version. It's got a pleasantly old-fashioned grainy look, it's frequently lit and shot in a similar style, and they not only run the main credits in the same typeface  but they even kick off with the older version of Universal's logo (although for some reason they include the copyright date for the more recent one in the closing crawl). But the CGI kills it, the largely interchangeable and identically bearded cast mean you lose track of who's dead or alive (Mary Elizabeth Winstead excepted, because she's the only one who looks any different to everyone else) and none of it is a fraction as enjoyable, scary, surprising, funny, weird or interesting as Carpenter's film.

[Continual reference to the earlier film, rather than viewing it on its own terms, is entirely fair. If they didn't want the comparison with John Carpenter's film, they shouldn't have made a prequel to it.]


Monday, 5 December 2011



Early on in this 1980s slasher movie, the fantastically sleazy Joe Spinell is seen sitting in his New York taxicab reading Issue 38 of Starburst magazine; page 42 of which contains a report on the making of this very same film, and page 43 consists of a full colour photograph of Caroline Munro in costume and on the set! Horror films about horror films are less of a tightrope and more of a tripwire. Unless you're incredibly sure-footed and you know exactly what you're doing (in other words, unless you're Wes Craven) the odds decree that you're almost certain to tumble into a black hole of injokey self-referential hogwash: too often it can end up as an exercise in showing off how many movies you can quote in 90 minutes (see the worthless Hack! as an example).

Fanatic, originally released on UK video as The Last Horror Film (and nothing to do with The Last Horror Movie or Die! Die! My Darling!), is an oddly fascinating, though not entirely successful attempt at film-within-film-within-film from 1982: shot largely at the Cannes Film Festival the previous year (without permits), written in two weeks, supposedly part-improvised and, to judge from the Making Of reports from Cannes that ran in Starburst around the time, a completely different beast from the original conception. Created as a response to audience demand for the horrible Maniac (a film I can still find little love for), it told of top horror actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro) being stalked around Cannes by New York cabbie and delusional loser Vinny (Joe Spinell). Her husband, her producer (and ex), her director, an agent are all murdered, all receiving handwritten notes warning them "You have made your last horror film".

There's little doubt that most of the movie (and indeed the title Fanatic) is setting up Vinny as the maniac: a repulsive loner obsessed with horror movies and with pathetic delusions of being a great filmmaker who's going to Cannes to direct "Jana Bates" in his Dracula film - which is clearly not going to happen. (Nor, in honesty, is "Jana Bates" ever going to snatch a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival away from the likes of Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, as we see the Jury's ballot cards being completed!) Yet towards the end it pulls a plot twist that changes everything: it's too absurd but it does allow for a sweeter ending. And perhaps more importantly, it doesn't lay the blame for real-life violence with horror geeks as it originally did; while it continually juxtaposes news broadcasts of terrorist bombings and assassination attempts on Reagan and the Pope with coverage of horror movies and press conferences (where "Jana Bates" is asked about the conflation of real and fictional violence), it finally twists that round and decides that the killer is emphatically NOT confusing movie horrors with genuine ones.

The Cannes footage itself is fantastic: everywhere you see posters, billboards and cinema hoardings for Evil Under The Sun (a far more genteel example of the murder genre), For Your Eyes Only, Zulawski's Possession and even Cannibal Holocaust showing at a tatty backstreet screening room. There's a pleasingly geeky coincidence to be found: the film for which Jana Bates is being honoured is called Scream, and there's a huge promotional billboard for a movie entitled Stab (the name of the slasher movies within Wes Craven's Scream series), although that turned out to be a pre-production title for the Scheider-Streep thriller Still Of The Night.

Fanatic (and, to add to the title confusion, not THE Fanatic as it appears on the UK DVD box) is pretty shoddily put together, there's some ropey acting, and several scenes don't make any sense, but it's engaging, there are a few decent scenes and memorable moments, particularly Jana being chased by Vinny down the spiral staircase of the Hotel Martinez and through a crowd who all applaud it as a clever publicity stunt for some crazy horror movie. I don't know that it's a better film than Maniac on a technical level; it's certainly a less repellent one and I'd rather have this than the promised Maniac 2 (abandoned when Spinell died at just 52). Or, worse, the supposedly upcoming Maniac remake with - of all people - Elijah Wood! For the behind-the-scenes guerilla footage of Cannes '81, and for Munro and Spinell, it's worth a look, although the British DVD is pretty shabby with indifferent picture quality (very poor in night scenes, or when everything's suffused in red or blue) and presented in 4:3. Still, oddly enjoyable.


Saturday, 3 December 2011



The third of Cannon Films' triumvirate of regular action stars, after Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff was the least of the three, both in terms of acting skills and martial arts mastery. While Norris was a bona fide world karate champion and Bronson was an effortless screen presence and a highly experienced actor, Dudikoff wasn't any of these things - he's a former model and martial arts student but he really isn't an actor at all. However, he has accumulated 54 acting credits on the IMDb page, including an episode of Dallas, a bit part in Tron, Enter The Ninja and three of the American Ninja series of low-grade kickabouts. Happily, he isn't required to act in this typical Cannon meat-headed nonsense which interestingly predates John Woo's Hard Target.

Avenging Force apparently originated as a sequel to Invasion USA of all things but Chuck Norris couldn't do it, so they gave it to Dudikoff instead. Despite being 14 years younger than Norris, he's nominally playing the same part and, having retired from the CIA Very Special Forces to New Orleans to look after his young sister, he finds himself dragged back when his best friend Steve James, running for Senator, is the target for a murder attempt by a secretive group of racist millionaire whackjobs known as Pentangle (presumably unrelated to the British folk band of the same name). In addition to sending out incompetent minions to botch absurdly public assassinations, the leaders of Pentangle like to dress up as historical warriors and hunt men to their deaths in their private swamp. Once they get a sniff of Dudikoff's skills, they foolishly decide to use him for their next Most Dangerous Game....

Despite having plenty of biff-kerpow headkicking fight sequences, Avenging Force isn't particularly good: it's as if they scaled the whole project down once they realised they couldn't have Chuck Norris for it. The final action sequence is pretty good, as Dudikoff takes on the lunatics from Pentangle in a swamp during a torrential rainstorm, and some of the stuntwork is sufficiently dangerous-looking (particularly in a burning house); John P Ryan has fun as the head of the organisation, getting to spew obnoxious racist bile left and right, and it's surprising in that the villains kill off a couple of children, which is surely even more of a taboo than killing puppies. But much of it is still formulaic, predictable and unstylish to look at, and it never overcomes the George Lazenby-shaped hole where a charismatic leading man should be. Dedicated fans of low-rent karate actioners should get their money's worth, but everybody else....



Thursday, 1 December 2011



This is an interesting film, but it's not what it's been billed as, at least on the cinema websites. Cineworld claim it's a "haunting psychological thriller" but while it may be psychological, it's not a thriller and it's not haunting; and according to them it "blends heartfelt domestic drama with disaster movie spectacle", which is again only half right. Fine: Cineworld need to put bums on seats and billing the film as "a bleak psychological character piece ..... that blends heartfelt domestic drama with a man possibly succumbing to delusions and/or an inherited mental condition with the occasional jumpy bit" isn't going to sell them much popcorn and nachos. This certainly isn't a horror film, despite the approaching Apocalypse; it's a character drama focusing on a man's mental disintegration.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as Curtis, an ordinary small-town family guy with a blue-collar job and a loving family: out of nowhere he starts having dreams of an apocalyptic storm. But are they genuine visions of an imminent Armageddon - visions which become more vivid as the film progresses, with people or creatures of some unknown and unseen kind snatching his child away - or merely the early signs of schizophrenia, the same condition that wrecked his mother's life at about the same age? Curtis doesn't want to take any chances and doubles the size of the family's tornado shelter - but what will it cost him (and not just financially)? And are his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his deaf daughter in more danger from him and his obsessions than from this mythical storm, that might just be one of the regular twisters that affect that part of the country? Or is it all in his head?

It's a very low-key movie, it's very believable and it certainly feels like an authentic portrait of that world and those characters, and it has a pleasantly chilling ending that wraps the film up very neatly. I'm also glad that the apocalypse wasn't presented in religious terms. But it's far too long at a scratch over two hours, and it badly needs trimming in the sags between the dramatic peaks. Take Shelter has been critically lauded, perhaps too much (it's not "an American Masterpiece"!) and it won one of the Fipresci Prizes in Cannes from the International Federation Of Film Critics, but while I admired the film in places, I found it a bit of a slog in places. It's definitely overlong, and too downbeat and humourless, but at least partially successful as a drama and the more I think about it the more I like it.