Friday, 21 August 2015



Incredibly, this is the sixth horror film from Blumhouse Productions to get a UK cinema release this year (the seventh if you count the silly psychothriller The Boy Next Door). Even more incredibly, this has not been a case of quantity over quality: while the found-footage ones have been predictably tiresome (and there's another one coming up in a few weeks with M Night Shyamalan's The Visit) the "normal" movies have generally been pretty good. I liked The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Insidious: Chapter 3, and I didn't even hate Unfriended as much I'd expected. And they're just the ones for 2015 - go back just a few years and you've got surprising, interesting films like The Lords Of Salem, Dark Skies and The Green Inferno.

The track record of "actually not bad at all" continues with the sequel to one of 2013's best genre items and one of my favourites of that year's FrightFest: Sinister, which bizarrely seemed to earn as many plaudits for Ethan Hawke's legendary choices of knitwear as it did for actually being a terrifically scary horror film. Since that film ended with the family being killed at the behest of the ghoul Bughuul, Sinister 2, the action switches to James Ransome as Ex-Deputy So & So (that's the character's name in the end credits), now working as a private investigator and tracking the demonic chain. The trail takes him to an abandoned church next to a young mother (Shannyn Sossaman) and her two sons fleeing her violent millionaire husband. But Bughuul's troupe of ghost children is once more working to persuade the sons to commit murder and capture it on home cine film....

As modern horrors go, Sinister 2 is perfectly okay. It might not be doing anything hugely original, but it's still performing its familiar routine very effectively. The film is agreeably creepy in the sequences where Ransome is creeping round the abandoned church or the appearances of the spectral children, there are plenty of well-timed Boo! moments and, perhaps perversely, the murder scenes shot on grainy cine stock look a lot more unpleasant than they would on clean HD digital. This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but like a lot of these post-Insidious films it's hit upon a workable formula which made me jump at all the right moments even though I know that technique of jump shocks and loud orchestral stingers is probably getting a little wearing now.

Against that, the figure of Bughuul himself (itself?) is seen too clearly and generally isn't as well used as he was in the first film, so he's a less frightening presence. The film also does something which I've never been happy with in movies (or indeed in real life), which is having children swearing, including the single use of "very strong language" as noted by the BBFC. Sinister 2 is hardly essential, but for fans of what's been dubbed the "quiet quiet quiet BANG" school of Friday night multiplex horror it more than does the job.


Monday, 17 August 2015



There are films that annoy you or offend you, films you don't think are any good or films you just plain don't like. There are films that are dull, stupid or obnoxious, films that make no sense, films that are technically shoddy or badly put together. And there are a few films that you want to switch off after twenty minutes, cancel your LoveFilm and Netflix accounts, and maybe throw your DVD player in a canal. Very rarely does a film tick all those boxes. This week's blindfolded three-point-turn in the Found Footage cul-de-sac honestly left me wondering whether I want to watch films any more.

It's Halloween 2013 and five halfwit friends travel to an island off the Sligo coast for a weekend of hanging out in an abandoned youth hostel, smoking weed and getting drunk. They hold a seance for fun, but they then find they can't banish whatever it is they've called forth....Cue lots of running around, shrieking and yelling incoherently into a poor quality camcorder microphone, all captured on video cameras waving all over the place to the point of making the film genuinely unwatchable: to avoid being sick you have to focus on something fixed nearby, like one of the little lights on the DVD player, and try to look at the frenetic uncontrolled action in your peripheral vision.

It's not just that Invoked's cast of five are so thoroughly unlikeable and stupid that they [1] take loads of drugs and get drunk, [2] hold a seance on an island which they already know that local legend claims is haunted, [3] takes loads more drugs and get drunk again the following night, then [4] pay a visit to the local graveyard on Halloween night itself, while [5] never bothering to check back the footage they've just shot when they claim they've seen something scary. It's not just that it makes no sense: if there's no power, how are the security cameras working and how are our heroes recharging their cameras (given that they're doing the usual found footage thing of filming absolutely everything, no matter how banal, mundane or unremarkable)? It's not just that the film trots out the exact same cliches and tropes that even the most dedicated admirers of the form must be getting fed up with by now - deliberately bad camerawork, unexplained edits, captions laughably claiming that it's real, endless shots of running feet, hand-held photography inducing motion sickness.

Sure, there have always been idiots in horror movies (though these ones make the cast of The Gallows look like Nobel laureates), and a great many thoroughly enjoyable horror films have been less than technically impressive and riddled with chasms of illogic. And I know I've been whining on and on for several years now about found footage. But even with the most charitable attitude I can muster, I am honestly struggling to remember a film I have enjoyed or admired less than Invoked. From more than thirty years of watching more than eight thousand films (including a year doing media studies, for what that's worth) I cannot recall a more wretched, miserable viewing experience, one that so efficiently made The Blair Witch Project look like Suspiria and made Al Adamson look like Alfred Hitchcock. I longed for Al Adamson, I yearned for Jess Franco. A bad story badly told, Invoked is surely a line in the sand beyond which it's physically impossible to step. Not exaggerating, not being facetious: I could have wept.


Monday, 10 August 2015



More late 1980s slasher knockabout in which a bunch of dim teenagers and assorted other idiots get bloodily offed by a hulking maniac. This one doesn't appear to have earned very much in the way of cult status, which perhaps isn't that surprising (given that it's hardly a classic) but it's agreeably nasty enough to make you wonder why it isn't more famous. Maybe the slasher cycle was ebbing by that point (even the Friday The 13th series had more or less given up by then), and the world's censor boards were reducing the splatter to the point where it wasn't worth the effort.

Indeed, when Slaughterhouse first went to the BBFC for a VHS certificate back in 1989, it had over two and a half minutes lopped out, and oddly enough none of those cuts are in the film's credits sequence in which pigs are killed, disembowelled and processed to the accompaniment of a magnificently inappropriate big band track with shrieking brass and rocking timpani. (Following this, you may well never want to eat another hot dog again.) The barking mad owner of a rundown slaughterhouse in a meat-based small town consistently refuses to sell out to a bigger, more efficient but poorer quality meat processing firm, despite fair offers; instead allowing his morbidly obese son to kill them off. Meanwhile a gang of young idiots, relatively unconcerned about the disappearance of two of their close friends, are looking for a spooky location in which to shoot a horror video....

It's trashy, nasty and gleefully unpleasant enough to make a decent Friday night's retro entertainment, even if every single character behaves like an absolute imbecile: it's so dazzlingly obvious to anyone with an IQ higher than that of a pork pie that wandering round the disused slaughterhouse is a Massively Bad Idea that it's hard to sympathise too much when Buddy looms out of nowhere and casually offs them. It has a lighter tone than something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with numerous pig-related jokes (the local radio station is K-FAT, the town is holding its annual Pig Out festival, the abattoir owner is named Mr Bacon) and ends up as rather grisly fun. And that opening titles music is insanely catchy.




Depressingly ordinary thriller which could hardly be any more by-the-numbers if it just consisted of Idris Elba counting things. There's no sense of mystery going on in the film except how everyone - studios, cinemas - thought this would be worth a theatrical release, even a brief one. Don't misunderstand: I generally enjoy violent psychopath thrillers and I'm all in favour of them playing provincial Cineworlds and Odeons, if only as an alternative to the current obsession with colourful superhero nonsense, but there are limits.

Because all the time you're watching No Good Deed, you're constantly thinking there has to be something more going on, some imminent revelation or plot twist. Surely there has to be some other reason for convicted killer Idris Elba to escape from his prison van than his parole application being rejected because of his anger management issues? Is he actually out to unmask the real killer whose crimes he went to jail for and thereby prove his innocence? It can't be that Idris Elba is just playing a violent, misogynistic, "malignant narcissist" sociopath who beats one woman to death and then systematically victimises another woman (Taraji P Henson) and her two children in their own home?

The whole thing is riddled with contrivance: it just happens that there's a massive storm which gives Henson a reason to let Elba into the house in the first place, it just happens that a falling branch smashes a window which conveniently distracts Elba from having to answer awkward questions, it just happens that someone rings a dropped mobile at precisely the right moment which handily sorts out the film's final act. No Good Deed is well mounted and looks good, but it's entirely unremarkable and the only surprise to be had is that there are no surprises to be had, unless you're likely to be shocked by the number 17 coming after number 16.


Saturday, 1 August 2015



Yes, I know. Of course it's my own fault and I really can't blame anyone else. A SyFy Channel film made by The Asylum: what the hell was I thinking? There's no excuse for adding this kind of junk to the rental queue: it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into. SyFy and The Asylum make movies no-one else would dare: not because everyone else is too scared to try, but because SyFy and The Asylum are the only ones with low enough standards. It's like sticking pins under your thumbnail to see if it hurts as much as it did the last time. At least watching terrible films doesn't involve the loss of blood or mopping up afterwards.

But there's a particular difference with Sharknado as, unlike most terrible movies, has somehow broken through the mere mediocrity barrier and approached the level of Cultural Phenomenon thanks, apparently, to social media. Suddenly it's good to be so-bad-it's-good: it's a point of pride that the acting, writing, directing and special effects are as sub-par as they can be. If audiences are prepared to hand over their hard-earned banknotes for movies aiming as low as Megafault and Legion Of The Dead and Snakes On A Train, why bother aiming any higher? Take the money and don't do anything silly like make a competent film by accident.

No idea is stupid enough for these people, and Sharknado's breathtakingly stupid high concept is that a freak hurricane sucks a load of Pacific coastal sharks into a series of huge waterspouts and dumps them inland where they thrash about in the flash floods and torrential downpour, and eat people. Following the storm's initial attack on the Santa Monica pier and the destruction of his waterfront bar, the knowingly-named Fin and his friends head inland to make sure his estranged family are safe as it literally rains sharks even in hill-top mansions: sharks that leap through windows, fly out of storm drains and launch themselves out of the water at people climbing ropes. Can our band of bickering heroes kill the sharks and, perhaps more importantly, deactivate the giant twisters ripping through city blocks and residential areas (and arguably creating far more carnage and destruction than the sharks)?

Obviously it's absolute barrel-bottom rubbish: dazzlingly stupid and atrociously put together, with terrible CG effects that would shame the latter years of classic Doctor Who and the lowest daytime soap level of writing and directing and acting and whatever. But you pretty much knew that going in - that's why you went in in the first place. Nobody with all their pegs in the right holes rents something called Sharknado actually expecting a halfway decent movie, and SyFy and The Asylum are not about to knowingly confound expectations. Granted, some bad movies may be hugely enjoyable (I love Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, for example), but that doesn't actually make them good films. They aren't enjoyable because of their badness, but in spite of it. You can't deliberately manufacture so-bad-it's-good (assuming such a thing exists, which I personally don't accept: good and bad exist on a spectrum and not a loop, and there's clearly no such thing as so-good-it's-awful) any more than you can deliberately manufacture a cult movie, as Troma have spent several decades demonstrating.

Comparisons with the likes of old Roger Corman and Ed Wood movies miss the point: those people believed in and cared about what they were doing whereas SyFy and The Asylum clearly don't. They're too in on their own joke and don't care whether it's laughing with or laughing at them, so long as they're laughing because obviously they can't be taken seriously. The joke isn't on Sharknado or its rotten script, laboriously shoehorning in blatant references to Jaws and Twister: we may think we're mocking the film's abysmal standards but really the joke is on us. The Asylum's genius lies in the idea that we mere humans believe we're having fun with the dumb shark movies, but they're laughing at us: poking the viewer with a poo-covered stick and watching them dance. See how they cheerfully devour whatever slop we put in front of them. Go on, poke them with another Sharknado! And another! Depressing garbage.




I've been something of a fan of giallo movies since a season of Dario Argento films at the much-missed Scala in 1987. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and (in particular) Tenebrae were thrilling to discover and over the years I've tried to catch as many other examples as I reasonably can. Sometimes it doesn't work out (Death Laid An Egg is too weird and experimental for me) and sometimes it's an unheralded little gem like Death Walks On High Heels. Every so often another one surfaces but this time it really isn't one of the greats.

The Sister Of Ursula is definitely one of the more sleazy and sex-obsessed, to the extent that I actually stopped watching and looked out of the window instead, every time the film slammed into yet another extended nude scene. (You could tell when the sex bits were going to start because the soundtrack kept launching into the same miserable bit of softcore sax muzak.) Two Austrian sisters, one of whom is screechingly neurotic as well as slightly telepathic, turn up at an Italian hotel where there's an unhealthy trade in drugs going on, and the next thing you know everyone's getting naked and there's a masked maniac on the loose murdering people with a dildo.

The nude and humping sequences are mostly pretty dull, but what's worse is that they get in the way of a serviceable murder mystery; that said, if you cut the skin scenes out the film would be over in half the time. It doesn't really matter who the mad killer is or why they're doing it; this is less a giallo than a frankly tiresome porno with enough bits of plot to almost convince you it's a real movie. Frankly I was only interested in it while it was being a nasty little giallo but got very bored with it every time it reverted to staring fixedly at boobs and bums. Which, unfortunately, was far too often. As nudie giallo movies go, Strip Nude For Your Killer is a much better watch.




Context is everything. When this played at FrightFest in 2013, I really didn’t care for it at all: in fact it was one of my least favourites of the festival that year. Watching it again on a review disc, over a year later, I’m now seeing it in isolation rather than surrounded by dozens of more easily labelled horror films, and in that context I’m finding it plays slightly better. But it’s still a film I fundamentally don’t like very much.

I don’t think Dark Tourist is a horror film except within the genre’s (and the festival’s) broadest possible scope: the press blurb suggests it’s in the tradition of Taxi Driver, in that it is a remorseless character drama, a very dark psychological study of a deeply disturbed mind. But it really isn’t in Taxi Driver’s league. Jim (Michael Cudlitz) is a night security guard at a Yonkers factory. He is also, ghoulishly, a grief tourist (the original, and much better, title of the film was The Grief Tourist): he spends his holiday time visiting the sites of serial killings and mass murders. On this occasion he has chosen 1960s Californian arsonist and spree killer Carl Marznap, driving out to the derelict remains of his childhood home, the abandoned juvenile detention facility where his murderous anger was fuelled, and the church he burned to the ground with the congregation locked inside it. But Jim also has dark secrets of his own...

These dark secrets lead to a sexual sequence with the prostitute next door which to be honest I could have done without, but this is in service of the big plot twist of Jim’s nature which frankly doesn’t need to be there except as a plot twist. There is already enough character drama in Jim’s macabre fascination with the life stories of serial killers, and his visions of and interactions with the ghost of Carl Marznap (Pruitt Taylor Vince), as well as his awkward romance with a lonely widowed waitress (Melanie Griffith). The third act revelation that [SPOILER ALERT] Jim is a serial killer himself means the film has a measure of graphic violence towards the end, but it feels unnecessary.

As a psychological drama about a man with a very strange hobby and his difficulties interacting with other people (he seems to find it easier talking with the ghosts, making you wonder if he’s always haunted on these quests), Dark Tourist is not without interest, and I certainly don’t think you can fault the acting. Even then, I think the film could have done with lightening up a little as it’s a pretty grim trudge to somewhere you don’t particularly want to go. Overall I still don’t like the film very much, but it’s certainly not as bleak and unlikeably downbeat as it felt the first time around.




The Japanese gore movie - as distinct from the chilling horrors of The Ring and The Grudge, or the unhinged madness of many of Takashi Miike's films - has long been a FrightFest staple. Splattery epics like Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl and Alien Vs Ninja have cheerfully smothered the screen in gore, severed limbs and giant spurting fountains of blood; and Dead Sushi (a late night screening at FrightFest 2012) continues the tradition.

There is a particularly memorable line of dialogue in Joe Dante's Piranha, when a waiter has to inform his boss "It's the fish, sir: they're eating the guests." Which pretty well encapsulates the plot of Dead Sushi: mutated killer zombie sushi is unleashed by a ranting vagrant (for reasons of plot contrivance that are frankly too ludicrous to detail here) on a struggling inn that's currently hosting a corporate sushi banquet. Only the handyman and a waitress (who, in another happy plot contrivance, just happens to be the runaway daughter of Japan's foremost sushi chef), with the assistance of a small piece of mutated heroic egg sushi, can stop the flesh-eating sashimi from escaping into the outside world and unleashing fishpocalypse upon mankind....

You can fill in the blanks from there: the fearless overacting and mugging, ridiculous dialogue, unconvincing monster effects (the CGI is pretty awful but the prosthetic and make-up effects are okay), some martial arts, a bit of perving, and buckets of gore. Serious analysis of the plot, or even merely mentioning that it's a phenomenally silly film, seems almost beside the point for a film where even "being any good" wasn't on anyone's list of priorities. Yet, that said, Dead Sushi does end up as actually rather sweet and funny and good-natured. For all the blood and death it's far too ludicrous to be even remotely offensive, even in its more excessive moments. Rather, it's surprisingly good fun on a mindless knockabout level, and the silliness steadily escalates to the point where it's impossible to take a single frame of it at all seriously. But why would you? It's about killer sushi, for goodness' sake!

A glance at his IMDb page confirms that director Noboru Iguchi has been churning out this sort of gory twaddle for some years now: Machine Girl is probably the best known of them (along with the awful F Is For Fart segment of The ABCs Of Death), though I'm now mildly intrigued as to what Zombie Ass: Toilet Of The Dead is all about. By any critical yardstick Dead Sushi isn't very good, but against other Japanese gore comedies it's a decent enough entertainment.




First off, note the title as it appears on screen. Regardless of what it might say on the packaging or the posters, or even the original short story, it's actually Pit And The Pendulum, not The Pit.... Roger Corman's 1961 adaptation (or more accurately, expansion) of the Edgar Allan Poe story is probably the best entry in his Poe cycle: I've always liked it more than the usual favourites The Masque Of The Red Death and The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and I was never as much of a fan of the more comedic ones like The Raven. Plus it has the magnificent and irreplaceable Vincent Price giving it the Full Thesp, which is always a joy to watch.

Like The Tomb Of Ligeia and House Of Usher, Pit And The Pendulum centres on Price as a tormented, terrified man living in a gloomy old mansion haunted (both him and the mansion) by past horrors. In this instance Nicholas Medina's (Price) beloved wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) has died suddenly; her brother Francis (John Kerr) turns up to find out exactly what happened, and sets in motion a series of events which might be supernatural, or which might be down to Nicholas's refusal to accept her death. But what really happened to her? Was she buried alive? And what is their morbid fascination with the torture chamber left over from the Medina family's Inquisition days?

Inevitably, of course, Francis has to face The Pendulum: one of the most instantly recognisable torture devices which has turned up in everything from one of the Saw sequels to Dario Argento's gloriously bonkers half of Two Evil Eyes but it's probably at its best here as Price cranks up the glorious hamming. The film has always looked great with wonderful castle sets full of secret passages and cobwebs (even though half the scenery is repainted from The Fall Of The House Of Usher), but now it's on Blu it looks even better and richer.

As for the extra features, it's now reaching the point where you feel Arrow should be releasing pretty much everything. This time out there are two commentaries, one from Corman himself and one from Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, another retrospective Making Of (including the great Barbara Steele) and a curious extra sequence shot afterwards to bunk up the 81-minute running time for television screenings. Plus you also get An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe, a TV special from 1970 in which Vincent Price spectacularly performs a selection of classic Poe tales as monologues, including The Pit And The Pendulum! Honestly, what more could you ask for? It's this sort of bonus material that upgrades a terrific presentation of a pretty good film from a strong recommendation to a near-essential purchase.