Wednesday, 30 October 2013



When I say that I never really liked Michael Armstrong's 1970 sleaze and torture romp, that's not necessarily a snipe at the film itself. In truth I don't really like any of the films in that weird witchfinding subgenre: I think Mark Of The Devil is actually better than both Jess Franco's The Bloody Judge and Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (and I know that not admiring the latter is an act of heresy punishable by being made to watch Al Adamson films back to back for a month), but there's still so much about it that's unsettling, unpleasant and frankly just plain weird. And it's not just that the film's VHS release back in the nineties was cut by a whopping four and a half minutes by the BBFC, whereas FrightFest's screening was the fully uncut version with all the gore and depravity intact.

Supposedly the film is based on three actual documented cases of religious zealots and/or deranged perverts victimising ordinary members of the community with charges of Satanism. Herbert Lom is the chief witchfinder brought in to a small Austrian town to deal with the rash of patently ludicrous allegations of witchcraft which are entirely bogus but leading to the needless deaths of innocent women. While his apprentice and pupil Udo Kier seeks a higher burden of proof, Lom would sooner condemn the blameless than make the Church look less than infallible. But Kier's new-found love has just been arrested on a charge of devil worship by the current witchfinder Reggie Nalder...

What's the message of the movie? Impotence turns you homicidal? The Church was/is a handy cover for sadistic maniacs and clueless idiots to abuse innocent people? Torture is bad? Torture is good? Torture makes for great entertainment? Frankly I think the film is having far too good a time putting the lipsmacking horrors on cheery display, horrors from which I had to look away a few times. The most famous of the grisly moneyshots us probably a woman's tongue being ripped out, but there's whippings, sexual violence, beheadings, Chinese water torture, The Rack.... Like the first hour of I Spit On Your Grave, the film seems to be enjoying the violence a little too much for any condemnation to be entirely plausible, and any movie that issues promotional vomit bags cannot be said to be taking the subject entirely seriously.

Matters aren't helped by a music score which is dominated by a syrupy love theme of the Cannibal Holocaust school (though predating that film's underscoring of raw visceral horror with dramatically inappropriate lift musak by a decade); however it's a piece that's needledropped in several times throughout the film and will stick in the mind for days afterwards. Nothing will shift it. So it's certainly not a film I like, but it's not a genre I particularly admire anyway; still, it's probably the best of its kind (maybe I do need to revisit Witchfinder General, though I doubt I'll ever go back to The Bloody Judge). And I'm certainly in no hurry to try and track down the same producer and co-writer's Mark Of The Devil Part 2.


Friday, 25 October 2013



Another entirely functional but thoroughly unremarkable suspense thriller that echoes stuff we've seen before, adding very little new to the mix but putting it all together well enough. It spends a lot of time laboriously manoeuvring its small cast in position, but then it sadly doesn't give them very much to do once they're set up. Which is a pity.

It's coming up to Christmas and three employees of Starkweather Finance (handy marketing hint: don't give your investment company the same name as a notorious serial murderer; it sends completely the wrong message) leave the party and end up at a deserted shopping mall car park so one of them can get some cash from the ATM to buy pizzas on the way home. For reasons of plot contrivance they all end up in the cash machine booth but then they notice a mysterious hooded figure watching them from outside: scared, they decide to wait it out but then he sabotages their car, while attempting to break into the booth from behind. Who is he? What does he want? Meanwhile the three bicker, argue, huddle for warmth (the sign on the mall says it's -6 Fahrenheit, which equates to -21 Celsius and thus strikes me as way too low) and try and think of ways to escape....

So it's a bit like Phone Booth, it's a bit like Frozen, and the lack of rationale or motivation for the unknown maniac doesn't work.  (The tagline on the DVD box, "Your Money Or Your Life", bears no relation to the film whatsoever.) You can get away with a faceless, unknowable evil in a horror movie (the whole point of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that Leatherface and the family are entirely beyond reason), but a thriller needs more. One assumes his goal is robbery of the cash machines and these bozos have just interrupted him, but he doesn't appear to have come prepared. Furthermore, all the night's terrors could have been avoided if they hadn't parked a hundred yards away from the ATM booth - why didn't they stop right outside the door? Further unconvincing plot contrivances include none of them having a mobile on them AND that the car doors don't lock properly, and none of these factors are within the killer's control.

Still, it more or less gets by: it's only 80 minutes long (not counting the 10 minutes end crawl which breaks off a couple of times for a montage of the maniac's collection of blueprints, sketches, photos, Googlemaps printouts and diagrams for what is presumably his next target) so it's fairly painless and doesn't drag too much. Miles from essential viewing, but still a fair distance from being terrible.


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Sunday, 20 October 2013



And the faux-grindhouse schtick still hobbles along: movies deliberately and styled to look utterly terrible while missing the point completely. If Machete and its sequel are films that look (and indeed are) too good to be part of the genre they're celebrating even at its best, this is merely a pin-sharp copy of the thoroughly terrible flipside: a painfully accurate reproduction of a barely watchable piece of zero-budget garbage. The only question is whether director Richard Griffin is a superbly talented filmmaker who has spent months, maybe years, toiling ceaselessly away at making his movie look shoddy, fourth-rate and amateurish, or whether he is genuinely incompetent and this is actually the best film he could ever possibly make. Frankly the jury is out on that one.

Insofar as The Disco Exorcist has any kind of a plot beyond an endless succession of ugly sex scenes, nondescript disco dances and occasional crass globs of gore, it concerns a long-haired lothario who dumps his present squeeze when a porn star arrives on the scene. But his ex is a witch and she promptly puts a hex on them which leads to several bloody deaths. Only the cleaner at the disco, a failed exorcist (and, for no reason beyond a gratuitous attempt at bad taste humour, a paedophile), can save them....

Again, it hardly seems worth the effort to point out that The Disco Exorcist is wretched rubbish: it's designed that way. The whole film has been given that scratchy effect to make it look like a knackered 16mm film print, a gimmick that even Tarantino and Rodriguez' grindhouse tributes drop after a couple of minutes because even they know that it gets annoying after a while (unless you're genuinely watching a 40-year-old print that's been regularly screened); the dialogue is terrible, the comedy isn't close to even mildly amusing, the acting is barely a step up from speaking out loud, and it has the grubby, ugly look of vintage porn loops. But what's the point of that? Why the hell would anyone deliberately set out to make a film that's visually revolting, atrociously performed and astonishingly boring? Never mind what it does for cinema or movies, what can it possibly do for your career to make a film with production values so non-existent it makes Two Thousand Maniacs look like Avatar?

It's simply not the case that making a movie in the seventies style means it has to look, or be, terrible. Ti West's House Of The Devil is an evocation of that age so immaculately detailed you'd swear it was a genuine product of the age, from the jeans and hairstyles down to the font of the credits, but it doesn't need to bother with the print damage effect or the rubbish non-acting. Quality will shine through anyway - I first saw Taxi Driver in a bleached and battered print in such terrible condition Martin Scorsese's director credit never actually appeared, but it's such a stunning film the jumps and colour imbalances simply didn't matter - and the lack of quality is dizzyingly visible underneath the post-production grain effect. The Disco Exorcist is tedious, tiresome and without any kind of merit, and the misapplied retro stylings can't disguise the pointlessness of the whole worthless enterprise. Whether the genius in charge is a hopeless idiot, or just very good at pretending to be a hopeless idiot, scarcely matters. Distressingly for humanity, there appears to be a sequel in the works.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013



Given that the world wasn't exactly crying out for a sequel to an expansion of a fake trailer stuck in the middle of an unsuccessful and largely unseen homage to a niche subgenre that's been out of vogue for several decades, it's odd to see that Robert Rodriguez's film not only continues to hammer cheerfully away at the long-defunct grindhouse concept, but to actively promise an even more ridiculous third instalment (Machete Kills Again...In Space, which is the only part of the film with the scratchy celluloid look to it), while still not getting it right. Still, it's approximately eight billion times better than the similarly derived Hobo With A Shotgun.

Machete Kills (which I personally feel should have an exclamation mark after it) once again sees Danny Trejo as ex-Federale Machete, assigned by the President (Charlie Sheen under his real name of Carlos Estevez) to prevent a Mexican revolutionary lunatic from firing a missile into Washington DC. In this he's variously helped and hindered by his CIA contact Amber Heard, his old comrades from the Mexican immigrant network (Michelle Rodriguez, Tom Savini) and a contract killer with a string of Mission Impossible masks (Cuba Gooding Jr, Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga). But the real villain turns out to be weapons manufacturer Mel Gibson plotting nothing less than the mass extinction of humanity....

Look, I don't mind that Machete Kills is essentially a James Bond film with outlandish villains (Gibson's scheme is essentially conflating The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker), unfeasibly glamorous women, daft gadgets and big action scenes. It's enjoyably sleazy, very silly and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a good measure of fun with it. The problem is that it isn't a proper grindhouse movie: the production values are far too high, the special effects and photography are far too good. Real grindhouse movies are like Don't Go In The House or Paulie: Day Of A Rapist or Unhinged: grotty, cheap, ugly and dull, and they'd more than likely have gratuitous nudity and grubby sex scenes as well. (For the record, Machete Kills' boob count is zero.)

But while it's technically too good for the grindhouse and drive-in trash genre (just as Planet Terror and the first Machete were), at the same time it isn't anywhere near good enough to cut it as a "proper" film. The story is nonsense and the gags ludicrous (Machete kills one guy by ripping his intestines out and tossing them into the whirring blades of a helicopter), and it's too in-on-the-joke which puts it closer to the likes of the Scary Movie franchise - yes, it's rubbish, but we know it's rubbish and it's supposed to be rubbish, why would you take it seriously? It's a Machete sequel, for goodness' sake! On that level, it's fun, probably more fun than the first one (which I haven't revisited), but brilliant it ain't, and grindhouse it ain't.


Monday, 14 October 2013



You would think a movie originally called Alien Uprising and boasting Jean-Claude Van Damme in the cast would be a terrific piece of Saturday night SF hokum in which JCVD kicked aliens repeatedly in the head for ninety minutes and then everything blew up. It's the very definition of a perfect movie concept: any producer with all his pegs in the right holes would be throwing high-denomination banknotes at you after two sentences of your pitch. It Could Not Possibly Fail. Well, except it has.

What eventually emerged from the wreckage is now called UFO, and it's a cataclysmic ballsup of almost unbelievable dimensions: a stupid, tedious and cheap saga full of obnoxious, badly acted cretins, with Jean-Claude showing up over an hour into proceedings for a few scenes in a farmhouse. Our nominal heroes are a trio of loathsome ex-squaddies led by Sean Brosnan (son of), bellowing, fighting and picking up disposable chicks in nightclubs. They wake up one morning and find the electricity's gone off, and huge Emmerichian spaceships turn up apparently out of nowhere and hover silently over the city. Society immediately falls apart, huge purple alien probes peer through the windows, and everyone eventually runs off to Jean-Claude's farmhouse to have some backstory explained to them - yes, the legendary action star of Hard Target, Double Impact and Sudden Death has now been relegated to spouting the exposition before one token fight.

The aliens turn up again, one of the humans is revealed to be an alien in disguise, some of the gang get killed and one of the blokes suddenly decides to rape his dead mate's fiancee in an unnecessary plot device that achieves nothing but ugliness in a film that's already testing the patience. Pretty much everything is botched: it's visually boring, the music score is unlistenable and doesn't support the drama (what drama?), the movie grinds to a halt while Julian Glover babbles as a philosophising petrol station attendant, none of the characters are worth a wet shit, and for not one single moment is it even in the same postcode as interesting, exciting or thrilling.

There are two posters on view for Airborne, writer-director-actor-producer Dominic Burns's previous film which in all fairness was okay. But he also made the near-unwatchable one-take piece of garbage Cut, under the pseudonym of Alexander Williams for no apparent reason. (He's also in the worthless Strippers Vs Werewolves.) The spectacularly unspectacular UFO might be (slightly) more of a proper film with slightly better production values, but with characters so intolerably hateful as to have you rooting for the aliens from the start, no actual alien-punching from start to finish, the still considerable talents of Van Damme thrown away and a stupid twist ending, it's still a hell of a long way from professional enough to warrant a rental. UFO? Yes, and U can F O as well.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013



"Which is the best of the Friday The 13th series?" is a question for which I don't have a consistent response. Obviously the original has a claim, as it was the first one which came out of nowhere and set the template rather than followed it. I always used to like Part 2, though a recent rewatch proved slightly disappointing. Part 3 is probably best seen in its 3D theatrical incarnation, as the constant poking of sharp objects into the camera lens looks a little silly on home video. And though no-one else seems to like it (no doubt due to Jason not actually being in it) I have a soft spot for Part 5, though that's most likely because it was my first Friday The 13th in a cinema, and I was the only person in there, and not because it's actually a great film.

For some unaccountable reason I didn't bother to see Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter at my local cinema, when it turned up on a great double bill with My Bloody Valentine, and I eventually saw both films on their VHS releases. This is actually Part 4 in the series (though Part 4 doesn't appear on the film itself), and is certainly one of the better episodes, partly due to its slavish adherence to the recipe and partly due to its insistence on slaughtering almost everyone in the movie, even a passing hitchhiker who doesn't even get any dialogue. Jason Voorhees is now officially dead from the end of Part 3 and is carted off to the morgue, where he promptly comes back to life, kills the morgue attendant and his idiot girlfriend, then heads back to the woods where a bunch of partying teens have pitched up for the usual tedious shenanigans.

Clever, innovative and unexpected it certainly isn't, but it's perfectly well put together thanks to director Joseph Zito knowing exactly what he's doing (he also made the terrific campus slasher Rosemary's Killer), and Harry Manfredini's shrieky-stabby score is again as much of a musical signature as John Carpenter's remorseless Halloween theme but much more musically exciting. Toss in the inevitable T&A, a now-legendary Crispin Glover dance sequence, and enough of Tom Savini's splattery death effects to justify the 18 certificate (though perhaps too much for the ratings boards and not enough to keep the fanboys happy) and you've got a perfectly adequate slasher movie. It's nothing better than perfectly adequate, but it's never boring, it does its job and doesn't waste much time about it.