Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Villmark 2 (2015)

aka Villmark Asylum

A group of workers and one young archivist under the leadership of Live (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are helicoptered to an empty old sanatorium and asylum deep in the deepest woods of Norway, which is indeed very deep if Norwegian horror films have taught me anything. They have only one weekend – much too short a time frame the oldest and crankiest among their number will not stop to complain until he is killed off (spoilers, I guess) – to mark the place for hazardous materials so that the wrecking crew that’s going to come in can wreck the place responsibly.

However, something’s very wrong at the place. It’s not just that the caretaker of the asylum – who has been living there for decades – doesn’t seem terribly cooperative and is indeed rather creepy, but there are noises and shapes all around that suggest there’s someone (or something?) else living there with him. Given that the team soon finds a man taking his last breaths hung up like a slasher movie victim after some sort of attack, one can’t help but suspect said someone or something is not friendly. So, as if the general tensions between the workers wasn’t enough, they are getting murdered in rather unpleasant ways one by one.

If you want, you can take the hints and Easter eggs in Pål Øie’s Villmark 2, made more than a decade after the film it is a sequel to, add them to the stuff you remember from the first one and come up with a pretty nice retcon of what actually happened in the first one, reassessing who killed whom and why there. Or you can ignore these things and have a perfectly nice asylum-set slasher on your hands. As far as handling the connections between sequels in a series of horror movies goes, that seems to be a rather neat way to go about things, suggesting a mythology more than constructing it. But then, I’m bound to prefer the more ambiguous method for this sort of thing that lets the audience do the work – or really, as much work as one wants to do – and leaves more space for a sequel to be a thing all its own.

Admittedly, “a thing all its own” is a bit of a curious description for Villmark 2, for where the first movie only used elements of the slasher and films about people cracking up in a cabin in the woods, this second outing hews much closer to typical genre standards, and not just because the empty sanatorium and/or asylum might be a place that’s even more overused by horror movies than a cabin in the woods. There are certainly more than just shades of the brilliant Session 9 in the film’s set-up, too, even though it moves in a more standard backwoods slasher direction from there. However, the film’s central location – the interior scenes where apparently shot in Hungary and not in Norway – is still often effectively creepy, Øie again demonstrating quite an ability to fill a place with a feeling of wrongness before much of anything happens.

On the plot side, the film often follows standard backwoods slasher structures, but Øie has a better grip on the possibilities of the formula than most directors still using it, developing  well-worn tropes effectively, as well as simply putting more effort into the characterisation of victims and their tormentors alike.

The film also recommends itself through a pleasant sense of the grotesque. Again, its basic ideas regarding the design and behaviour of the killers and what they do isn’t new, but there’s a sense for the telling detail when it comes to this aspect of the film that turns the things I’ve seen in a hundred movies effective again for this one. They also hang together, aesthetically and thematically, feeling like an organic – if aberrant – consequence of the film’s background.

I very much suspect that the way the film’s backstory taps into World War II and terrible human experiments following it has some strong resonance for a Norwegian audience – at least, it seems to be a motive repeating in what I’ve seen in Norwegian horror. Then again, I might just have seen exactly the films to make me come up with this theory.

Anyway, while I don’t think Villmark 2 is quite as strong as the first film, it is a fine film very much worth watching.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

SyFy vs. The Mynd: The Sandman (2017)

I miss SyFy Originals that aren’t about sharks. While I do appreciate the channel’s – sometimes even successful - attempts at making make proper SF shows now, there should always be room for cheesy little monster movies made in the right spirit. Unfortunately, the tiny number of non-shark movies they still produce have gone back down in entertainment as well as in production value, mostly lacking in spirit and quality.

Case in point is this thing directed and written by one Peter Sullivan, whose body of work seems particularly focussed on TV movies with the word “Christmas” in their titles. But let’s start with something positive here: the film’s fake search engine of choice is called “Querioo”, with the Q stylized as a search symbol/magnifying glass. You’d hope this sort of thing suggested a film made with a degree of care and love, but it surely doesn’t.

As a matter of fact, The Sandman, particularly its script, is a sad excuse for a movie. The plot – I’ll spare everyone a synopsis here – is badly stitched together out of elements of a handful of better movies – as well as  Firestarter – and moves all the speed of that particular snail who loses all the snail races. Adding insult to injury, the narrative only moves at all because all characters in here except for heroine Claire (Haylie Duff, having one up on the other grown-up actors by at least being awake) are cartoonish assholes and incompetents. Most of them are apparently working for the evil government conspiracy exclusively staffed by the guys and gals none of the proper government conspiracies wanted to hire. Then there’s Tobin Bell looking as if he’s about to fall asleep on his feet doing very little of interest.

I do appreciate the film’s attempt at escalating the concept of the idiot plot by turning it into that of the idiot arsehole plot on a theoretical level, but in practice, this doesn’t make the narrative any more interesting. Here’s the rub: I’m perfectly willing to watch unlikeable characters doing stupid shit but I do need said stupid shit – and perhaps the characters too – to be entertaining. The Sandman only ever reaches the stage of “badly ripped off”.

I could go on about the general crappiness of the acting, with psychic kid Shae Smolik being a mild exception, the extreme genericness of Sullivan’s direction, the fact that this is a film that doesn’t even attempt to motivate crap like Claire’s boyfriend’s attempted murder of a child properly, or the bad mood watching this got me into, but life is short, the film felt long, and nobody really needs to hear more about The Sandman than the word “avoid”.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Conjurer (2008)

After a stillbirth in the late stages of pregnancy, teacher Helen (Maxine Bahns) and her art photographer husband Shawn (Andrew Bowen) leave the Big City behind and move to the country. Helen’s self-declared rich-ass developer brother Frank (John Schneider) is going to build them a house somewhere in the deep south, and apparently make a handsome amount of bucks from the other houses he’s going to build on the property. For now, they move into an older house on the same property.

At first, the good country air is working wonders for Helen’s mental well-being, and even city boy Shawn seems to do very well indeed. Unfortunately, things soon take a turn for the unpleasant, when Shawn explores an empty old shack standing a hundred meters or so away from their house. He finds strange amulets with human teeth there, and cuts himself – a wound which will never heal and only get worse throughout the rest of the movie. Shawn starts hearing and seeing peculiar and disturbing things: mysterious lights at night in the shack, a crow that acts rather more sinister than these birds usually do, the shape of a woman staring at him.

Turns out there are tales about the shack reaching back to the end of the US Civil War basically everybody in the area knows. Apparently, it was home to a witch who didn’t take too kindly to anyone encroaching on her habitation. Further investigation provoked by increasing supernatural encounters for Shawn – Helen seems very much untouched by anything but the increasingly disturbed state of her husband’s mind – suggests a rather darker truth.

For a time, Clint Hutchison’s Conjurer is a very nice surprise. It may be cheap and look a bit like a TV movie – not a badly made TV movie, mind you – but it is also a more than decent attempt to make something like a US Southern folk horror film, a well of potential horror movie tales that still waits for more genre filmmakers to lower their buckets into. After all, as Conjurer in its own, pleasantly unspectacular, way demonstrates, there’s a whole, rich world of folk tales of conjure women, crow familiars and creepy little cabins to build your own movie mythology on; and if you want to say something about the world with your horror films, there’s this slavery thing you might have heard about, as well as the Jim Crow laws afterwards that would make a rather obvious entry point there which could also rather well be used in connection with Southern folk horror.

But even for a film like Conjurer that isn’t interested in the shadow of slavery, the use of a pseudo-folkloric background does wonders for its atmosphere, combining with the Georgia locations to create an actual sense of place – and that without the film ever trying to cart out the expected character clichés. Why, even the character mostly in tune with your typical movie yokel correctly believing in the supernatural isn’t drawn as crudely as all that, and so works very well as just a guy who believes in things he has learned to be true from his own experience, whereas the rest of the couple of locals we meet is just as unbelieving as anybody you’d meet anywhere else. Extra bonus points for the film not going overboard with the accents; there’s little that makes a film feel less taking place somewhere than attempts at really hammering it home.

This isn’t a film of big shocks or gore, but presents itself as a pretty traditional ghost story. Hutchison’s not really reaching great depths of horror there, either, yet the film has a general air of calm competence that simply works for what it does. Just because a film doesn’t really stare into the abyss doesn’t mean it is not delivering some pleasant chills, after all.

I am less satisfied with the climax of the plot, though, which goes for exactly the sort of double twist you’d expect and that really leaves the plot hanging in a rather dissatisfying way. I am usually a big fan of ambiguous and open endings in horror, but if a film is as straightforward as Conjurer is, it does demand an equally straightforward ending.

Nonetheless, given the relatively minor number of Southern folk horror movies, and the fact that the film works well for as long as its does, Conjurer is certainly worthy of more eyes – and kind words – than it seems to have gotten.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: They Can Be Slaughtered Like Any Beast

Devil (2010): Given that that I’m one of the few people who rather enjoyed director John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below, I was quite willing to give this one a chance despite it being tainted by a “story by M. Night Shyamalan” credit. Alas, while it’s slickly directed, this has a plot of utmost stupidity (did you know the devil likes to arrange elevators getting stuck so he can harvest the souls of sinners in them?), cartoon-level characters, and – in full Shyamalan form even though the man didn’t even write the damn script – at times plays like a propaganda movie for a particularly unhinged form of Christianity, where you can tell the devil is present because then toasts fall with the marmalade side down (seriously). And while that’s certainly good for a laugh or two, it’s not a basis for a film that quite obviously wants to be taken very very seriously indeed.

Dead Rising: Watchtower (2015): If you’re in the market for something that makes some of the Resident Evil movies look like art, this misbegotten, shot-in-Canada, videogame movie might be just the right thing for you. There are some moments of competent filmmaking here, and even some fun scenes, but mostly, this is one of those films that just can’t decide if it wants to play its zombies for laughs or for terror and certainly isn’t well-written enough to successfully do both at the same time. This is a film that just can’t decide if it wants to be knowingly silly or dramatic, and so ends up being neither.

Male lead Jesse Metcalfe is atrocious and the rest of the cast – despite Virginia Madsen and Dennis Haysbert earning their pay checks – isn’t much better. Add to that a tedious length of nearly two hours wasted on a plot that probably would have worked for seventy minutes, and you have exactly the crappy videogame zombie movie you expected going on.

In the Dark Half (2012): This on a very other hand is a wonderful exploration of sadness and loss through fairy mythology and folk rituals with subtle, often eerie direction by Alastair Siddons and a script by Lucy Catherine that’s so good, even its plot twist works, which it of course also does because it is actually part of what the film has to say and not just a stupid gimmick.

The acting by Jessica Barden, Tony Curran and Lyndsey Marshal is just as impressive, and the film as a whole just doesn’t get a more in-depth write-up all its own from me because it would mostly consist of me making the blogging version of cooing noises, as well as a few stifled sobs.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Don't Look In The Basement (1973)

aka The Forgotten

aka Death Ward #13

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

When psychiatric nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik, growing increasingly hysterical very prettily) arrives at the peculiar little clinic of Dr. Stephens (Michael Harvey), where no door is ever locked, and patients are treated in a manner as far away from traditional psychiatry as possible (with all the good yet also all the bad that implies), she doesn't suspect the awful truth the audience learned during the pre-credit sequence. Stephens has been axed by one of his patients, the axe-loving Judge Cameron (Gene Ross and his favourite fake axe), and the only nurse has been strangled for supposedly kidnapping a baby (that is in fact a doll) by another patient. It's the sort of thing that can happen when you give an axe to a man with violent tendencies so he can live them out hitting a poor innocent log, and a baby doll to a woman who thinks it's her baby.

The only remaining medical professional, Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick), has decided to get rid of the bodies, so that her little family can remain as if nothing had ever happened. How fortunate there's no missing persons bureau in Texas (or so I imagine).

Masters is not too keen on Charlotte's arrival, but after some back and forth, she decides to allow the nurse to stay. That's a decision Charlotte won't be all that happy about in the long run, for the streak of violence among the patients, once awakened, continues with a bit of murder and a smidgen of tongue cutting, and deteriorates further from that point. Why, you could even think at least some of the murders have a concrete reason besides madness.

But who is doing the killing - creepy manchild Danny (Jessie Kirby, reminding me of Steve Ditko's "The Creeper", among other nightmare-inducing things), orally fixated friendly manchild Sam (Bill McGhee, in a surprise turn where the person of colour is the least murderous character on screen), the judge, the nymphomaniac, the soldier (Hugh Feagin)? All of them together, or somebody else?

The Forgotten (as is the initial and least sexy sounding title of the film at hand) is the directorial debut of Texan local filmmaker S.F. (Science Fiction? San Francisco?) Brownrigg. Brownrigg, unlike many other director/producers of local independent horror actually managed to put out more than one film, and going by The Forgotten, that's a thing to be quite excited about. Even in this debut, Brownrigg proves himself a capable director, using the small number of locations available - the film basically takes place in and around one not very interesting mansion - and a love for close-ups and surprisingly sprightly camera-work and editing to produce a mood of increasing claustrophobia and tension. Sure, there are some moments that will seem amateurish compared to bigger productions (sometimes Brownrigg's love for close-ups goes a bit too far for example, the blocking of scenes is often just strange, and you can't turn a normal house into a clinic, not even one as weird as this one), but by and large, Brownrigg is in control of his material, and knows which techniques to use to achieve his aesthetic goals.

I very much love how Brownrigg's direction grows less and less "normal" and conservative the longer the film runs, clearly mirroring how increasingly unhinged the characters become.

These characters, though, may be the film's main problem for some. The way they are written and acted is hardly informed by any actual knowledge about mental illness. One might even find the movie's whole set-up and large parts of its execution and vibe utterly offensive. Personally, I've seldom found myself offended by the depiction of the mentally ill in horror films because I see the movies' various whackos and psychos as just as fictitious as vampires and werewolves. If you want to piss me off in this regard, show me I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK and its horrible romantization of the pain people with mental illnesses suffer from.

Anyhow, coming back to the film, Brownrigg has to work with a cast of amateur and semi-amateur actors, and if you've ever seen an amateur actor trying to play "mad", you probably know what to expect: a horde of people chewing scenery so hard and excitedly, it comes as a bit of a surprise there's still scenery left to chew after half an hour of the film is through. However, the actors' various ideas of how to go about their roles (from cackling, to shouting, to bug eyes, to menacing stares, to McGhee's awesome blissful calm and Kirby's "crazy clown in puberty" performance) come together in a way that may start out silly but becomes increasingly intense, the bad portrayals of "insanity" taking on the feel of more real insanity, as if all the cackling, shouting and gibbering would actually unhinge the actors and/or the audience. Come the film's grand (as much as the budget allows, of course) freak show finale, the performances have taken a turn towards the feverish, even the disturbing, and the film's tone turns from a 70s interpretation of the friendly hokeyness of a William Castle production towards something a little more nightmarish and (in)arguably creepy. One may very well argue the latter turn to be utterly typical of the more cynical mood of 70s horror cinema, even though Don't Look doesn't have quite as cruel an ending as one would expect of it following this theory.

While Brownrigg does escalate his movie's action further than older horror rules and regulations would have allowed, and certainly shows himself unafraid of a little blood and decapitations, there's also a sense of (rather black) humour surrounding the movie that reveals itself in knowing nods in the direction of the audience that are best exemplified by the film's lovely ending credits, which show the actor's names over stills of their characters' corpses (if available). It's the perfect mix of the brazenly exploitative, the funny, and the slightly disturbing - a perfect ending for a film like this if ever I've seen one.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

In short: Slumber (2017)

Doctor Alice Arnolds (Maggie Q) is working as a researcher and therapist in a sleep lab. She does have the appropriate childhood trauma to cause her interest in this kind of work, as mandated by movie law, for when they were children, her little brother jumped to his death while sleepwalking. Or really, as it will turn out when a family, the Morgans, come to her for help with a shared sleepwalking problem that finds all of them sleepwalking and doing creepy and potentially violent stuff, was killed by the demon known as the Nigh Hag.

For a while, Alice tries to keep to a scientific and medical view on the family’s problems, but as strange things are happening all around the Morgans, she is soon starting on a way that might cost her life or at least her career.

Jonathan Hopkins’s Slumber is a very entertaining entry in the sub-genre of sleep paralysis horror. It’s not the most carefully plotted film, and its monster design – once we get to see it – certainly isn’t very good at all, but there are quite a few things to recommend it. Firstly, it does contain at least three truly creepy scenes concentrating on what the night hag makes the Morgans do in their sleep, suggesting a shadow of abuse, self-mutilation and violence hanging over an apparently perfectly functional family, very much giving the impression of something praying on unconscious – or at least unspoken - psychological issues and tensions the supernatural is only bringing to the surface. Hopkins is also quite adept at staging dream sequences that feel like dreams, with strange and somewhat disturbing non-sequiturs, a talent that (surprise!) comes in very handy in a film about a dream demon.

Secondly, there’s a pretty fantastic scenery-chewing outing by Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as an elderly, drugged up, former night hag victim with a fascinating taste in clothing, and some neat eye-mutilation scars that turns a Joe Exposition role into pure, if absolutely grotesque, joy. Somehow, whatever it is McCoy is doing (having fun, it looks like, at the very least) doesn’t break a film full of earnest, competent performances by everyone else but enhances it considerably.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lake of the Dead (1958)

Original title: De dødes tjern

A group of friends – critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke, the actual writer of the novel this is based on), crime writer Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad, playing a character named like the pseudonym Bjerke used for the novel), Borge’s wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), psychologist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl), Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), and her fiancée Harald Gran (Georg Richter) – are making their way out into the boons of Norway to visit Liljan’s brother Bjørn (Per Lillo-Stenberg) in a forest cabin for a couple of weeks of rest and relaxation.

When they arrive, they can’t find Bjørn anywhere in or around the cabin. Some exploration suggests he has jumped into a nearby lake and died. A diary found by Bugge suggests the young man became fixated on a legend surrounding the lake. Apparently, one Tore Gråvik (Leif Sommerstad) first drowned his sister - with whom he was obsessed - and her lover and then himself in it, his ghost supposedly haunting the area ever since, occasionally luring people to a drowning death. The diary purports Bjørn has indeed seen the ghost – or dreamed of it, the borders between sleep and wakefulness having become rather blurry to the young man – and felt compelled to jump into the lake to confront the void; or drown in it.

So, this may be a relatively clear cut case of a mentally fragile man killing himself, as the local police think, but there are things that just don’t quite seem to fit this theory. And is grief the only reason why Liljan now feels the call of the lake too once night falls?

In its native Norway, Kåre Bergstrøm’s Lake of the Dead isn’t just one of the most well-loved horror movies of the country but tends to land very high on critics’ lists of the best Norwegian movie regardless of genre. Outside of the country, film is unfortunately barely known, even though it should at least make any lover of mysteries with fantastical elements, or fantastic cinema as a whole rather happy.

The film’s structure is very much that of a classic mystery, psychologist Bugge – the lead character of several crime novels by Bjerke – taking on the role of the main detective as seen through the eyes of the slightly bumbling Borge, suggesting the human mind is more important for the solving of crimes than physical evidence. Yet instead of using Bugge to expose the supernatural elements of the mystery as pure bogus, the film chooses ambivalence, having a (sort of) rational explanation but also suggesting it might not be the completely right one. One should also keep in mind that the “rational” explanation for some of the film’s occurrences is based on telepathic mind control, not exactly a thing which seems opposed to the sort of thinking that finds explanation in ghosts. This idea does of course also make Bugge something of an occult detective, perhaps not one using an electric pentacle fighting the Abnatural, but certainly not a debunker.

Interestingly enough, Bergstrøm contrasts Bugge’s at least sort of scientific and rational method with the ideas of Mørk, who is convinced of a more supernatural explanation (with a particular tension caused by him being played by the writer of the whole thing), but also with the purely worldly and criminalistic interpretation of the situation by Gran (as well as to a degree the worldly but simply wrong one of the police). The film never quite agrees with anyone completely, leaving the audience in a delicious state of ambivalence even after the narrative has run its course and never falling into the trap of making any of the characters apart from Borge an idiot.

So an entertaining and interesting supernatural (or not) mystery whose style reminds me of the kind of story you might have found in a US pulp like “Unknown” is guaranteed, but Bergstrøm also manages to create more than just a few delightful moments of strangeness and the weird. The scene in which Liljan is nearly sleepwalking into the lake is apparently particularly iconic in Norway – not surprising giving its uncanny mood created by shadows and lights – but my personal favourite is the dream (or is it?) about Bjørn’s encounter with Gråvik’s ghost that creates something very special out of noirish lighting, the claustrophobia of the woods (nature often feeling rather unnatural to us humans), a folkloric undertone, an eye for the telling detail that increases a situation’s creepiness (Gråvik’s wooden leg and the way he moves thanks to it are just brilliant), and a delicate feel of nightmare logic. This scene is exemplary for the film’s greatest strength, the intertwining of the rational and the irrational until it becomes to difficult to discern which is which.

That scenes like it are embedded in an intelligently constructed and well-paced mystery just makes Lake of the Dead all the more stunning. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Some thoughts about Deadpool (2016)

By now, even the geniuses over at Fox have realized the old comics wisdom that, to paraphrase some wise old writers (Archie Goodwin it was, I think), when making a superhero movie, you can make any kind of film around the fights and the superpowers as long as you have the fights and the superpowers. Well, at least some parts of Fox seem to have realized, the rest thought Fantastic Four was a good idea.

So now, we get an oh-so-hip, oh-so-mature cynical comedy around the fights, a film that mostly seems to have come about by its makers misunderstanding the heart in Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man as ironic posturing; which is useful, since posturing is the best Deadpool can do. There’s something unpleasantly puerile about a film whose only idea of subversion is to throw in lots of blood, decidedly less sex (because that’s much worse than the red stuff, obviously), many a joke I would have found funny when I was in puberty, and whose general approach to the specific dreams at the core of the superhero genre is a vague, pointless and joyless cynicism. Basically, the film’s a fifteen year old boy, and teenagers suck.

An extra degree of the tiresome is added by the never-ending fourth-wall-breaking jokes, which add a feeling of undeserved smugness to Deadpool’s other failings by giving the impression of a film that’s more interested in congratulating itself for how funny it is instead of actually being funny.

To add insult to injury, the super-powered action isn’t much cop either with all the ironic, fourth-wall-breaking posturing breaking up any possible flow, an overemphasis on slow-motion and stops that reminds me of one of those 90s US action movies that were so desperate to look like a John Woo movie but never did, and generally unimaginative set-ups for the action that fit how boring Ed Skrein’s Big Bad is.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Burglar (1957)

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) has a sensible thing going on with his tiny “organization” of crooks. But when they rob jewellery from a spiritualist, the potential riches open all the little rifts between members of the group up into abysses. In today’s parlance, Nat himself suffers under a form of PTSD, presented by the film in an excellent dream-memory sequence about his time in an orphanage, and how he escaped and was taken in by a very kind man, who also happened to be a professional burglar. He taught Nat all he knew about the business, and made the boy swear to watch out for his little daughter Gladden.

Since their dad is dead, Nat has been trying to be a replacement father to her (now grown up to be played by Jayne Mansfield), while using her to scoop out their targets. The problem is that Gladden doesn’t really see Nat as father or big brother anymore but has developed a pretty obsessive degree of lust for him; something he doesn’t at all reciprocate. Now that times are changing on them, and certainly not helped by the rest of the crew having crap of their own going on – one’s rapey and the other one is apparently born to run decades before Bruce Springsteen – their relationship will come to a decision point too.

As if that weren’t bad enough, someone else is rather interested in stealing the jewellery from the thieves.

Paul Wendkos’s The Burglar is a nice little heist movie of the sort more interested in the aftermath of the heist than the actual stealing of stuff, sharing some of the world view and some of the style of the noir, using the mandatory end for criminals in a 50s movie to express existentialist desperation. Despite the rules of the game, the film treats its broken characters – particularly Nat and Gladden – with exceptional compassion, suggesting their lives have been doomed from the start through the places they were born into in society. The film’s clearly not happy about this. Now, more crime movies of the time did this sort of thing than one would expect given the strictures of the production code, but there aren’t many films who’d have a policeman when asked how to label Nat’s corpse, simply state “victim”.

Of course, the script to The Burglar was written by great, at his own time pretty unsung, hero of noir crime writing David Goodis, so I probably should have expected the mix of compassion and ruthlessness carried by what to me always reads as a great sadness.

As a director, Wendkos – whose debut feature this was and who would go on to a long and storied career in movies and TV of the kind that suggests a journeyman who still treated his work with thought and respect  – intelligently goes from the classic noir style of scenes like Nat’s dream and the climax to the brightly lit, more direct sort of staging you’d find in a Phil Karlsson film of the era, depending on the mood of any given scene. The director also puts a lot of energy into giving his performers centre stage whenever the script demands it, not so much getting out of their way than enabling them – quite an achievement for a debut movie like this.

Speaking of the acting, a lot of it is in that very particular 50s early method style that to me always feels halfway between the stylized acting approach of the 40s (which is another kind of stylization than used in the 30s, but I digress) and the more organic acting styles of the 60s and 70s. For today’s taste, where actors not visibly emoting is often treated as the state of the art (comparable to the contemporary love of particularly bland writing styles in novels, if you ask me, but I’m clearly old), the performances might seem a bit stagey, a bit too earnestly big, but once you’ve gotten in the groove of this sort of thing, they actually make sense, presenting much more nuance than a viewer might at first realize.

Duryea was always great in the kind of role where he could show the fissures in the soul of the man’s man of the time, so the quality of his performance isn’t surprising, but there’s still a certain fearlessness from an actor doing this in an era when fragility just wasn’t what men showed (or were allowed to show).

Young Jayne Mansfield (before her short period of stardom) is good too, providing Gladden with the neediness of a young woman who never had much to begin with, and never had the opportunity to actually finish growing up, and now hangs on to the little she has with everything she’s got. The rest of the cast is great, too, with Martha Vickers giving nuance to what could have been an underwritten one-note character, and a handful of character actors really digging into the meat of the script.

The Burglar is a wonderful film all around, at once very typical of films of its time and daring to go a little further when nobody’s looking.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: See these incredible scenes before your unbelieving eyes!

November Criminals (2017): Sometimes, one really wonders why certain films don’t come together as well as they should. This one clearly has a decent enough budget, features a good cast with Ansel Elgort, Chloe Grace Moretz as well as Catherine Keener and David Strathairn in the unthankful parent roles, the script is written by well-known professionals, and Sacha Gervasi’s direction does not suggest a lack of talent. Still, what all the talent before and behind the camera adds up to is a film that seemingly can’t decide what kind of movie it is, what it is actually about, if it has a point, or what that point might be. There are a few intriguing, or at least interesting subjects broached, but the film never really hones in on one (or just a couple), instead wandering from one idea to the next with all the focus of a toddler distracted by the next shiny thing. There’s so much less substance in here than you’d expect, it becomes rather annoying right quick.

Hellstone (2016): In comparison, this little German microbudget horror movie about a guy stumbling through a patch of woods fighting off demons directed by Andreas Tom seems laser-focused. It is clearly inspired by spirit and body of the original Evil Dead (as is only right and proper) but does feature a couple or three ideas of its own. The film nicely concentrates on the things it’s got going for itself – a claustrophobic cabin (set), woods, one and a half actors who are decent, a handful of pretty great practical effects, and people behind the camera who do know what they are doing – using them with a complete lack of pretension but a degree of style and what feels like quite a bit of enthusiasm. It’s not the sort of film that’ll have anyone re-writing the history of horror, but it’s fun and suggests a degree of care from its makers; not something I’d say about many German microbudget films.

The Dark Tower (2017): But back to the bad stuff, or really, the completely puzzling stuff. I don’t understand why anyone would buy the rights to Stephen King’s Dark Tower cycle and then turn its first part into a painfully generic bit of YA fantasy in which the supposedly central Gunslinger Roland (a wasted Idris Elba) becomes a side-character in the yawn-inducing story of some kid (Tom Taylor) the film never bothers to give me any reason to care about discovering how very special he is.

Now, if it were a good YA movie, I’d still be puzzled but at least feel entertained, but standing between entertainment and me are a near complete lack of dramatic tension, the usual dependence on the Hero’s Journey trope even if it makes no sense in context, lackluster production design, a mechanically creaky script and Matthew McConaughey playing the villain Walter/The Man in Black as if he were the bad guy in a kid’s TV show.

Honestly, I have no idea what this is supposed to be, for whom it was made, or why anyone should watch it.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Past Misdeeds: No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It looks like a certain thing for a trio of would-be gangsters: grab the incredibly valuable jewellery of millionaire's daughter Miss "I don't need no stinking first name" Blandish (Linden Travers) while she and her fiancée are driving through dark country roads on the way to a roadhouse. As it goes with things that are certain, the robbery plan ends with a dead fiancée, two dead would-be kidnappers and Miss Blandish kidnapped by the last surviving gangster, a certain Bailey (Leslie Bradley). Oops.

Bailey drives his victim to a country shack, where he is planning on, well, shacking up for a while and doing Miss Blandish harm. Just when he is about to rape her, members of the Grisson gang, who learned of Bailey's plans and whereabouts by ways too complicated to explain, appear like a particularly inappropriate sort of cavalry. Their leader, Slim Grisson (Jack La Rue), decides to kill off Bailey and kidnap Miss Blandish (and her jewellery) for himself.

But a strange thing happens to the hardened gangster once his booty (human and monetary) is safely stashed away at the club he owns. Slim falls in love with his victim, even becoming willing to risk the wrath of his partner/boss Ma Grisson (Lilli Molnar) - who doesn't actually seem to be related to him - for said love. When Slim tells Miss Blandish to take her jewellery and just go on home, it turns out that he's not the only one who's in love here. Clearly, that sort of mutual feeling can not end well in a noir.

At the time the British noir No Orchids for Miss Blandish came out, it seems to have caused a minor scandal by flaunting British censorship rules towards filmic violence (and probably sex) enough to end the career of its director, the excellently named St. John Legh Clowes and its female lead Linden Travers. From my modern perspective, this, like a lot of things causing censors to foam at the mouth, seems more than just a bit overblown. Sure, conceptually the film's scenes of violence are a bit more directly visceral than was typical for its time, but Clowes’s execution of those scenes is so unconvincing, with fists that miss bellies by miles and bullets that are so clearly never shot no audience member (many of whom will have lived through various kinds of real violence during World War II, one presumes) can have been shocked by what's happening on screen.

I suspect that it's the sexual content that broke the film's neck anyhow, seeing as the amount of innuendo and the number of scenes where the film is basically stating "the characters are now going to have premarital sex while the camera's not looking" reminds of the raunchier Hollywood pre-code films I've seen.

But really, it's neither the sex nor the violence that makes No Orchids as interesting a film as it is, it's the peculiar way it goes about its business of being a British noir. Most of the British noirs I've seen were putting their efforts into taking the aesthetics and philosophy of the Hollywood noir and putting them into a decidedly British setting, with decidedly British characters and exploring decidedly British themes. It's none of that for No Orchids. Like the novels of James Hadley Chase (one of which this is based on), the film tries its damndest to pretend it is an American noir, setting its story in the USA yet still casting - apart from Jack La Rue's ersatz-Bogart and Walter Crisham's ersatz-Widmark - British actors for the roles.

This lets No Orchids take place in a particularly strange place - a USA where everyone tries for a different kind of badly done American accent to stiffly utter (often rather weird) dialogue full of off-key americanisms in, frequently while wearing clothes that are clearly supposed to be American-style, but actually look like the clothes people wear in classic gangster films as recreated by a mad tourist. This whole aspect of the movie has a highly alienating effect, putting a distance between a modern viewer and the film that makes emotional involvement near impossible. It's all much too artificial and strange to be immersive.

This effect is even further heightened by a script confusing and difficult to believe even by noir standards, and which oozes so much puppy-like excitement about aping all aspects of American noir it ever put its eyes on it's impossible to take it seriously at all. The film makes no attempt to make the sudden love between Slim and Miss believable even in the slightest, and instead puts them into scenes of bizarre domesticity that can't help but leave one with the feeling Clowes either had a very peculiar sense of humour and was trying to have the audience on, or is an alien only vaguely familiar with the idea and ideal of love. This sort of thing sure makes for an interesting film, but also left me giggling throughout the "dramatic" climax that - I think - is supposed to jerk a few tears.

So, by the standards of how a "good" film is supposed to be, No Orchids For Miss Blandish is pretty much a total loss. However, as a film that takes a by the time well-developed style of filmmaking and makes it weird through its own sheer wrong-headedness and an insistence on imitation as if it were a broken mirror, it's absolutely brilliant. As regular readers of this column and my blog know, there's not much I love better in a movie than the ability to present itself as part of a different world than the one I come from. No Orchids For Miss Blandish achieves that effect effortlessly, while also providing some very pretty pictures to look at (say what you will about Clowes's direction, but he sure knew how to do "pretty fake"), horrible musical numbers and "comic" interludes to be disturbed by, as well as psychosexual nonsense to shake one's head about.

For a film that is trying so hard to be like other films, No Orchids For Miss Blandish is very much only like itself.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

In short: Arrival (2016)

Warning: A minor degree of spoilers is inevitable in this case

Usually, I have little trouble to entangle a movie adaptation from a superior more thoughtful source and take it for what it is. No such luck for me with Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”. It’s too bad too, for I suspect if I could, I would find a little bit more to like about the film at hand.

Part of this difficulty certainly lies in the fact that the film’s first half or so is a more than decent movie version of the story, given a glossy Hollywood sheen through impressive camera work, special effects that recommend themselves by never pointing to themselves, and expectedly good acting by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Adams’s Louise’s first visit to the alien spaceship is a fantastic moment that demonstrates the wonder, the awe and the terror of an encounter with the utterly alien. Alas, the aliens become increasingly less alien the longer the film goes on and the further it moves away from Chiang’s novella. In the end, the film’s aliens are just another band of outer space big daddies who have come to wag their fingers at humanity and unify it by force instead of the much more ambiguous and truly alien aliens of the novella to whom we and our ways are as alien as they are to us.

Of course, if the film did otherwise, we couldn’t have a last half hour mostly consisting of lame, clichéd ticking clock scenarios and been there, done that plot events. Keeping with this dumbing down, Villeneuve (or Eric Heisserer’s script) also turns the story’s central philosophical conceit into a plot-practical way to see into the future that is infuriating in its simple-mindedness, falling into the usual trap of expecting a film to play well to the dumbest audience member a Hollywood filmmaker can imagine.

All this does add up to the perfectly respectable kind of science fiction film that can play well with the Academy Awards audience (see also the loathsome Gravity), the sort of film that pretends to be deep and emotional but mostly makes empty gestures to hide how cynically manipulative it is. Which is in general what the big mainstream film awards still prefer from their films, the last bunch of Academy Awards nominees and winners notwithstanding.

Now, I’m not at all against spectacle with a hint of heart as my love for the output of Marvel Studios should prove, but the way Arrival handles these things really sticks in my craw, the series of pretentious gestures that never become anything more than gestures that is the final act, hiding emptiness behind the still fantastic effects and production design and an increasingly schmaltzy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who could do so much better), adding up to very little but presented with the grandest gestures possible.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Norliss Tapes (1973)

Writer David Norliss (Roy Thinnes), tasked with writing a book debunking the supernatural, ceases all contact with his publisher. He seems to spend his time lounging around sweating, not buttoning his shirt a lot. When the publisher finally makes contact with Norliss, the writer rambles something about being in too deep and having dictated his book onto tape. It will explain everything, apparently. He’s certainly not going to do that himself, for he doesn’t appear to a meeting with said publisher and seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth now.

His publisher does find the titular tapes, though. What is on the first of them makes up most of the film. Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), the widow of apparently somewhat famous sculptor James Raymond Cort (Nick Dimitri) calls Norliss in for help in a rather mysterious case. Despite being quite dead, a blue-faced version of Cort with pretty frightening eyes leaves his sarcophagus in the family crypt to murder dogs – later people – and work on a final sculpture. Ellen thinks it has something to do with the occult circles her husband started moving in when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Ellen particularly suspects the sinister Madame Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee) and a ring she gave James to have something to do with her husband’s very eventful version of the afterlife.

Norliss isn’t the most sceptical of sceptics, so he’s soon the one trying to convince your typical incompetent local Sheriff (as is usually the case played by Claude Akins) of the truth of a blue zombie dude walking around, murdering people, and sculpting a pretty creepy looking demon sculpture.

Dan Curtis’s – this time around not only producing but also directing – NBC TV movie The Norliss Tapes was supposed to be the pilot for a series of Norliss adventures, but the network never did pick the series up in the end. Therefor, we never will learn why Norliss disappeared, but since this was made in the age of done-in-one TV stories, his disappearance is really more an atmospheric set-up for the film’s actual plot.

I have to admit I’m not terribly surprised by the series not having been picked up. In an age where pretty much only soap operas had continuing storylines as we understand them today, much of the rest of the TV show world really had to sell themselves on the pull of their central characters, and I don’t see Norliss making much of a mark in many viewers’ minds. While it is nice to have a main character who isn’t a walking, talking gimmick, Norliss seems rather lacking in personality of any kind. He’s somewhat cool and aloof, but not in a terribly interesting way, he dresses to suggest he’s a pretty successful writer – and that’s it. Which I don’t think is enough to carry a show.

Of course, having said that, Norliss’s only actual adventure is at least an entertaining bit of TV horror throughout, starting off as a well-constructed series of investigative interviews and becoming a bit more gruesome and horror movie-like as things continue. Curtis, while for my tastes not quite as good a director as the best examples of the trade he worked with, does manage some fine scenes, always trying for the more atmospheric shot in a medium easily falling into the blandly generic for budget and cost reason and often making excellent use of rain, darkness and shadow to create a mood of classicist creeps. There are some fine sets and locations too – I’m particularly partial to the tunnels under the crypt – as well as a good cast doing the expected good work. Though I would have wished the film had made better use of Dickinson, who nonetheless turns out to be a rather adept screamer.

The monster design is simple yet on the effective side. The blue skin is in practice much more convincing than it sounds on paper, and our undead’s eyes are indeed pleasantly creepy (and Curtis clearly knows this). Dimitri’s fine, increasingly less human snarling isn’t too bad, either.

I also appreciate that Curtis doesn’t just use an early 70s undead but throws in a whole bunch of occult stuff that escalates to a bonus monster and provides the whole affair with a pleasant pulpy flavour. So, while I never really warmed to Norliss as a character or an occult detective, the film he’s in is a fine use of 70 minutes of anyone’s time, I believe.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In short: Dark Woods (2003)

Original title: Villmark

TV producer Gunnar (Bjørn Floberg) is in the final stages of preparation for a reality TV show that’ll see its victims trying to survive out in the wild wild woods of Norway. Gunnar’s of the opinion that he can’t have the participants of his show do anything he wouldn’t do himself, so he packs up his crew of young guys and gals who mostly have never worked with him before for a weekend of definitely not fun in a hut somewhere far out in the woods, with the usual bagging of cell phones and other useful features of modernity to maintain isolation.

This being a Norwegian horror film, there’s also a lake in these woods, and as all Norwegian horror film lakes I have encountered, it is a creepy and threatening body of water. It certainly doesn’t become less so when the boys of the group find a female corpse in it, a discovery Gunnar decides nobody with a brain instead of a penis needs to know about until Sunday when they’re going back to civilization. The thing is, Gunnar doesn’t exactly smell of mental health, his tendency to dictatorial behaviour and sadism seems extreme even for a reality TV producer, and there’s clearly some shadow hanging over him – or more than one. That the group is soon encountering threatening and disturbing occurrences hardly needs mentioning, nor does the fact that there just might be someone or something out in these woods with a penchant for murder.

Pål Øie’s Dark Woods is apparently a minor classic of Norwegian horror, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The film’s gritty and grubby yet also controlled and stylish camera work milks the cabin and the excellently creepy woods for all they are worth, the shocks are well-constructed and often very cleverly staged, and the characters and their relationships are certainly portrayed with insight and care several levels above your usual slasher cabin full of meat.

In fact, the film is at its best whenever it exploits the spoken and unspoken tensions it creates between the characters to help escalate the outside threat. Much of what could be read as characters acting stupidly because it say so in the script in lesser films here plays out as the logical consequence of a handful of people bringing their problems and hang-ups into an enclosed space and really not turning out to be able to cope rationally with anything much.

Additionally, the plot is rather more complex than its final solution and plot twist show, containing another layer of hints and ambiguous facts that will make the chain of past events much less random than they appear. It is very much to the film’s honour that it is satisfied for its audience to either see this further layer or not.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

You know the drill: the Orient Express, the murder of a rather unpleasant chap (this time around also played by a rather unpleasant chap), one genius Belgian detective of taste, style and the facial hair of nightmares, and a trainload of suspects given by a cast of great actors.

To start, a double disclosure: Firstly, I am not a great lover of the works of Agatha Christie, or rather, I’m not terribly fond of so-called “Golden Age” (as with many genres, the actual good stuff came after the Golden Age for me) mysteries as a whole – with exceptions of course. Frankly, I often don’t enjoy the emotionless, game-like quality of this particular genre; I also can’t give a flying fart if Lord Suckbottoms was murdered by the butler or his nephew. Secondly, I am not the greatest fan of this version of the Orient Express’s director/Poirot Kenneth Brannagh either. He’s certainly a very talented man, but to me, he too often seems to use much of his talent to demonstrate how talented he is, which is the sort of approach that’ll sometimes make even a genius look like a hack.

However, I actually think Brannagh has his tendency for excess in general and excessive vanity specifically well under control for this film, using his considerable powers for much better things than self-aggrandization. As a matter of fact, the consistency with which Brannagh – in both of his roles for the production - makes good, intelligent, and interesting choices throughout is it what makes this a rather inspired mystery film. From time to time, mostly in the early parts of the film, Brannagh’s direction does get a wee bit showy, but that’s mostly an attempt to keep a film that mostly consists of one dialogue scene after the other gripping to an audience without putting all of the work on the shoulders of the actors alone. Kon Ichikawa did this sort of thing better in his movies about Kozure Kindaichi in the 70s, but then, Brannagh does keep his film flowing and comparatively tight for its genre, where the Japanese master of this form thrived on digressions of all sorts.

As an actor, Brannagh does an admirable job with his Poirot, avoiding either turning him into a caricature or just copying the style of David Suchet’s interpretation of the role. This Poirot doesn’t go overboard with dubious French or incessantly babbles about little grey cells, but reads as a somewhat eccentric, clearly brilliant man with a great capacity for compassion and understanding, in the end a very human genius. Which makes him just the right sort of Poirot for Brannagh’s interpretation of the mystery’s solution which attempts – and even half succeeds – to sell its inherent absurdity through emotion, an approach that is certainly further supported by much fine acting by everyone in the cast, be it Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., or Daisy Ridley. These are actors willing and able to understand and incorporate into their acting one of the finer points of what is going on here: that everyone in this film is hurt and broken, and acting out a role in front of Poirot - sometimes themselves too - and that not each character here is as good of an actor as the one playing them.

I usually see Brannagh as a director prone to too grand gestures, but in Murder, he demonstrates particular strength when it comes to visually incorporating telling details – obviously a rather important thing in a classic mystery – without feeling the need to excessively point them out to his audience. In a comparable vein, I also appreciated how Brannagh anchors the film’s narrative in its place and time without pretending the film itself does belong to that time, too. So there’s a much clearer view of the way concepts of class and race played out than you would find in most mysteries of its time without strictly making this a film about race and class. Instead, these issues build part of the social fabric the film’s narrative takes place in, adding veracity and further emotional resonance that keeps the film far away from the abstractness that kills a mystery for the type of viewer I am.

All this makes Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express easily one of my favourite films in the classic mystery style. It may not be as incisive as Gosford Park but unlike the Altman film, it is aiming to make a perfect modern specimen of a form instead of deconstructing it. In this, it succeeds splendidly.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: A journey that begins where everything ends!

Roger Dodger (2002): As all films about the horrible plight of being a (r)aging full-time asshole, Dylan Kidd’s film quickly came to a point for me where the question arose why I should care about this guy (or, for that matter, for his Jesse Eisenbergian – fortunately played by Eisenberg or things would be awkward - sixteen year old nephew who comes to him for explanations regarding the nature and habits of those strange creatures male filmmakers just never quite seem to be able to see as people, “women”), and listen to the film letting him drone on and on and on and on and on and on and on (and on)? For my compassion, the film doesn’t put any work in; for my derision, Campbell Scott’s Roger isn’t interesting enough; my mockery, I save for targets who do harm to more than themselves and my ears. See me shrug.

A Silent Voice aka Koe no Katachi (2016): And yet, it isn’t actually all that difficult to make me care about a pretty unlikeable character, as the protagonist of Naoko Yamada’s and Norihiro Tomiita’s anime demonstrates. This is after all a teenager who bullies a deaf female student to an inordinate degree. Of course, he is eventually ostracized by everyone around him for this, even by the people surrounding him who weren’t much better at all, and spends the next couple of years not just suffering from a bad consciensce but actually doing something about it. The film complicates what could be a too simplistic tale of redemption that could end in romance by insisting on giving every character involved a complex inner life, exploring the moments when easy solutions and even easy moral judgements stop working, as well as getting closer to actual feelings of teenage loneliness, yet never falling into the trap of pretending everything must end as badly as possible.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): In comparison, Mamoru Hosoda’s anime adapatation of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s much adapted novel is a bit conventional. This doesn’t mean this time-travelling tale of various kinds of heightened teenage emotions and the cusp of what we laughingly call growing up isn’t highly effective in most everything it does, be it jerking tears or producing guffaws. It’s just not quite as complicated, insightful or honest as Yamada’s and Tomiita’s film, going for love, laughter, pain and bittersweetness of a more generic and safe variety. It’s a very well done safe variety, mind you, presented beautifully and feeling satisfying. Plus, there’s no asshole holding horrible monologues for hours on end.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Imperial Swordsman (1972)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

As always, the Chinese Emperor is in trouble. The high-ranking official Fu Bing-Zhong (Cheng Miu), who is supposed to guard the Empire's eastern borders, is planning to attack the capital with the help of a bandit army and his Mongol allies. When the Emperor finds out about Fu's treasonous ways, he relieves him of his posts, and orders him to return to the capital. Fu pretends to go along with the Imperial edict, and starts off in the direction of the capital on foot and only accompanied by a lone servant. In truth, he's carrying his attack plan on the capital and a list of names of generals in his pack to bring that information to the heavily fortified mountain base of his army of bandits.

Lord Sun (Lee Pang-Fei), whoever he might be, somehow knows what Fu's plans are and sends out four imperial bodyguards - the sisters Shi Xue-Lan (Shu Pei-Pei) and Shi Xue-Mei (Yue Wai), and the rather dubious looking couple of Zhi Yu (Lee Wan-Chung) and Gu Wan (Liu Wai) - to kill the traitor and get a hold of his plans, and if need be to infiltrate the mountain base of their enemy and break all resistance there. If possible, they are to team up with imperial swordsman Yin Shu-Tang (Chuen Yuen), who walks around the countryside being rude to people while dressing a lot like a certain character out of Yojimbo, and a small group of men lead by Jin Zhi-Ping (Tung Li) who have infiltrated parts of the bandit organization. At least I think that's what the plan is - the film sure isn't making that point very clear, and in the beginning, the characters tend to act in a way that doesn't fit too well with what they are out to achieve. The Shi sisters, for example, pretend to be a pair of sisters on the run from a marriage, and hunted by Zhi and Gu, which certainly makes a degree (but only a degree) of sense as long as they are interacting with Fu and trying to look harmless but doesn't make a lick of sense when they do it towards Yin too.

Be that as it may, before long, everybody knows more or less on which side he or she stands, and a desperate battle can begin.

For the first forty minutes of its running time, Lam Fook-Dei's The Imperial Swordsman seems like a rather minor Shaw Brothers wuxia that features some promising fight scenes but more often than not shoots itself in the foot with a lack of narrative clarity that is remarkable even for a film in a genre not exactly known for such a clarity. The longer it goes on, though, the less interested the film seems in being needlessly confusing (not to be confused with the needed confusion of a Chor Yuen film), and the more interested it becomes in being awesome.

Once the protagonists start their attack on Fu's base, the whole film turns into a long (about thirty to forty minutes), and incredibly intense series of fights and pitched battles that is as good as anything of its type I've seen. Lam (with whose body of work apart from The Imperial Swordsman I am disappointingly unfamiliar) shows a fantastic ability to not only increase the action's intensity from moment to moment, even when he's juggling three or four fights happening parallel to each other in different parts of the base, but to show it in ever changing imaginative ways that at times seem heavily influenced by the way Japanese chambara films used to frame their action. The Imperial Swordsman's fights are often as much about the parts of the fights Lam's camera doesn't show as about those it shows, trading a bit of clarity of choreography (which was by the way created by Leung Siu-Chung) for the ability to surprise from shot to shot.

Lam again and again does things like going from standard wuxia camera set-ups to thirty sudden seconds of a static shot looking from outside into a corridor into and out of which the fighters move, so that we only ever see parts of the battle surrounding the camera's point of view, which again is replaced by a more close and more dynamic set-up for a short interlude with a more individual (and therefore more personal) fight. Somehow, Lam's creative style never gives the impression of belonging to a director just wanting to show off, and never breaks the all-important rhythm - wuxias of course having a lot in common with musicals - of the film. It's a fantastic and altogether unexpected thing to witness in a film that began merely being solidly done.

Lam also shows a fine eye for shooting some well-known Shaw Brothers cave sets in ways I haven't seen before, making the very familiar look new and exciting again. I also approve of a bit of obvious but beautiful miniature work that stands in for locations nobody working for the Shaws could ever have afforded to shoot in; there are some of the standard outside locations every regular viewer of these films know by heart, but the artifice of model work is in many cases better - at least moodier - than nature in any case.

The Imperial Swordsman's mood is somewhat gritty, with an emphasis on decorative blood spatters and some pretty gruesome - yet great - ideas for action set pieces, like the fight where one of the Shi sisters has to avoid being run through with her own sword that's sticking in the belly of her opponent. As that example should make clear, Lam's film may be on the more bloody and gritty side of the Shaw Brothers' output, but it sure is preferring fun gritty violence to the more realistic type. It is, of course, a directorial decision that's right up my alley, especially when the film's idea of fun leads to moments like the one when Xue-Mei gets rid of a whole corridor (there are a lot of corridors in this movie) of guards with the help of her trusty throwing darts, as demonstrated by some fast cuts, a few swishing noises and a lot of falling bodies. And really, that's the thing about The Imperial Swordsman's second half: it's so full of exciting little moments like this, of outrageous ideas and imagination I could go on for another thousand words or so just listing every single one of them.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Random Gushing about Die Hard (1988)

Because this is a childhood (well, teenhood) classic for me and has held up through repeated viewings nearly on the level of the original Star Wars trilogy, I’m making even less of a pretence to objectivity (which I don’t actually believe in when talking about any kind of human expression) than usual. So this is more a list of various bits and pieces I particularly enjoyed and found interesting  or just thought about while watching Die Hard this time around.

For those among my imaginary readers who haven’t seen this (even though I suspect these are even more imaginary then the rest of you): this is one of the three or four best US big budget action films of the last century, featuring Bruce Willis in his absolute prime, the true spirit of Christmas (which has a lot to do with explosions), Jan de Bont doing what he’s actually good at (hint: it is not directing, and certainly not Shirley Jackson adaptations) and brilliant action movie filmmaking by John McTiernan, also in his absolute prime.

This is certainly one of the godfathers of the non-brain-dead blockbuster style action movie. Now, I’m not pretending Die Hard is a film of infinite depths, but it’s certainly not treating its audience as zombies like the Michael Bay school of this sort of thing demands. To wit: watch how much of the film is actually conscious of the concept of class and how it plays out in practice, and how much of it is a paean to the working stiff which is kinda, well, socialist, really, given how all people in class-based authority are either evil or utterly incompetent, and how a deeply working class cop helped by the voice of another cop at the bottom rung of the ladder (in a lovely performance by Reginald VelJohnson) saves the day.

Feeding into this is that Willis is never portrayed as an unstoppable killing machine, not just because Willis’s kind of charisma at this point, following a long stint as mostly a comedic actor, is a very human one. He’s also the rare action hero who sweats and bleeds a lot, losing as much of his clothing as the film can get away with, and coming over as genuinely tired, in danger, and heartily sick of the whole affair, only coming through via the very working class virtue of tenacity. This also makes the film a good fit for the more American reading of being about the lone guy who puts things right with elbow grease and conviction, but then, the country as it is was founded by protestants, with whom this sort of thing particularly resonates.

It’s also pretty interesting that the script is interested enough in social reality to have little moments like the one where the insufferable Deputy Police Chief introduces himself to the African American FBI agent while calling him “man”, and is rebuked simply but effectively. These bits of reality standing beside broad caricature make all of the film’s awesome implausibilities (German Alan Rickman! Crazy FBI cowboys!) more believable and even more fun. Also, explosions are pretty.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Passage (1979)

Some time during World War II. The resistance against the Germans hires a nameless grumpy old Basque shepherd (grumpy old Anthony Quinn, wearing the appropriate beret to prove his basqueness) to lead a Swedish scientist (James Mason, a very Swedish gentleman, as we all well know) sought by the Nazis through the Pyrenees. Of course, things will turn out more complicated than that. Firstly, it becomes soon clear the good Professor isn’t going to come alone but is bringing his whole family – his ill wife (Patricia Neal), his rebellious teenage son (Paul Clemens) and his soon-to be raped by Nazis daughter (Kay Lenz).

That’s enough to make the Basque even grumpier, but what’s worse is that the Germans have sent a guy after them who is insane even by the standards of the SS – Captain von Berkow (Malcolm McDowell), wearer of swastika underwear, torturer by kitchen implement and all-around murderous crazy bastard. And the whole “crossing the Pyrenees” bit? Well, the Basque will spend large parts of the film getting the family there from Paris.

If you’re interested in a film where the sensibilities of the more sensible of Charles Bronson’s main directors, J. Lee Thompson, seem to have magically turned into those of that other Bronson favourite, old sleazebag Michael Winner, this is the film to watch. Given the quality of the cast, one would expect The Passage to be a pretty serious adventure movie with moments of earnest drama; instead it is a lurid concoction of crazy ideas, bizarre bullshit, scenes right out of a Nazisploitation movie, and a couple of scenes one might buy as earnest if not for the tone of everything surrounding them, like a certain heroic sacrifice late in the film.

The most bizarre and the most entertaining part of the whole thing is certainly Malcolm McDowell’s performance. McDowell portrays his crazy cartoon Nazi as if his Alex from A Clockwork Orange had found a place and time where he truly belonged, torturing people, having at least four different kinds of murderous hissy fits, gloating, presenting his swastika underwear with crazy laughter, imitating Hitler in front of a mirror, and so on and so forth. Of course, the way the film goes, the laughter and amusement McDowell’s crazy capering produces crashes right into moments of intense discomfort. His very special underwear, for example, is positioned right in the middle of the scenes in which he first humiliates Lenz’s character and then rapes her. There’s also a comparable scene where cartoon Nazi strutting ends with an actually horrific massacre of the family of Christopher Lee’s character (inevitably, given the way this one casts nobody in an appropriate role, playing the leader of a group of Romani). It’s as if Thompson is doing his damndest to make a viewer uncomfortable in their enjoyment of evil cartoon Nazis.

The thing is, I’m honestly not sure at all if Thompson is doing this one purpose, perhaps trying the make a point about our enjoyment of atrocities in cinema if it is only presented with a wink, if McDowell is sabotaging/saving the film, or what the hell was going on behind the scenes here. It certainly is never boring to witness, but instead at times funny, at times unpleasant and at times bewildering. For the last one, there’s for example a highly peculiar fake-out ending that suggest a whopper of a 70s downer only to then explain that the combined powers of Quinn and Mason’s fatherly voices can put a dying Nazi into a hallucinatory state. I have no idea why that bit is in there, what anyone involved was thinking, or honestly, what the hell I was watching for half of the time.

Ironically enough, given how crazy parts of the film are, the cast apart from McDowell (who is not from planet Earth) makes usually surprisingly naturalistic acting choices for their surroundings, while Thompson works a lot with hand-held camera and set-ups that suggest a naturalistic/documentarian approach. Which, as should be obvious by now, is another choice that makes little sense whatsoever, but in the most interesting way possible. From time to time, Thompson also manages to slip in a couple of perfectly straightforward action and suspense sequences, as if this were your typical World War II adventure movie.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

In short: Grave Secrets: The Legacy of Hilltop Drive (1992)

Because it’s the 90s, this made-for-TV haunted house tale directed by John Patterson is supposedly based on a true story, though the damn Warrens were apparently – and fortunately – not involved. Some charming Southern family – Patty Duke as the matriarch and David Selby as the patriarch cursed with the somewhat eyebrow-raising first name of “Shag” – builds a new house in some charming Southern area where the land is surprisingly cheap. Alas, they are soon haunted by a truckload of supernatural phenomena, starting with the particular obsession of American TV movie ghosts, the ghostly flushing of toilets, but certainly moving into more interesting, gruesome, or weird directions, too. I turns out the piece of land they built on was once part of a graveyard for former slaves.

Alas, at about that point, the film starts losing steam quickly, developing an unfortunate interest in the pre-judicial proceedings between the family, their neighbours, and the (probably evil) real estate company that sold them the land. In fact, the film’s losing drive so quickly, even the ghost induced deadly heart attack of a daughter doesn’t get the dramatic emphasis it – as the actual climax of the story – should have. Grave Secrets suffers from what I can be now call “true ghost story syndrome”, so that is can’t really bring itself to end in a dramatically satisfying climax, because true ghost stories just never have that sort of thing. That it mostly wastes the opportunity to metaphorically examine white Southern guilt despite a set-up that basically screams for it is par for the course. But then, if a film can’t even milk ghost-induced cancer and heart attacks properly, asking for depth might be a bit much.

It is something of a shame, though, for some of the ghostly manifestations are genuinely creepy, strange, and even upsetting. There’s a pretty cool (and unpleasant) moment where the family’s birds are apparently killed by insects that works very well, later followed by a wonderfully strange bit where the (of course sceptical) Shag suddenly turns around and sees the bird cage and the birds looking alive and well at their old place, only to have them disappear again once he turns on the lights. I’m also fond of the moment where Patty Duke’s character witnesses their garage door first opening for a snake to slither through, and then politely closing behind the animal. Unfortunately, Grave Secrets seems more interested in the horror of ghosts costing families “their investment” than in the ghosts and what they might mean.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Deathline (1997)

aka Redline

aka Armageddon

aka The Syndicate

We are in some sort of mildly cyberpunk-y future where everybody’s a bit of a freak. Aging tough guy John Anderson Wade (Rutger Hauer, not doing much, but doing it like Rutger Hauer, which is what we came to see) is smuggling some kind of virtual reality implants into Russia. Alas, he is betrayed by his girlfriend (Yvonne Sciò) and his partner Merrick (Mark Dacascos). Not that his girlfriend has much joy of it, for Merrick guns her down right after Wade.

Wade’s corpse is recovered by corrupt elements of the Russian authorities who use some kind of experimental technique on him to revive him. I’m still not quite sure why, and am not willing to even start thinking about the how, but there you are. Anyway, once Wade’s alive and awake again, he quickly manages to escape captivity and goes on a murderous rampage, I mean, subtly tries to find and take vengeance on Merrick. Only without the subtlety. Merrick for his part is now a middle-sized wheel that would like to be a big one in criminal and corrupt circles, so there are goons to shoot before him.

Wade’s good at that sort of thing, though, so no biggie there. He also quickly acquires the help of one Marina K. (also Yvonne Sciò), who not only happens to look exactly like his late girlfriend but also shares her taste in older men. Oh, and she’s handy with guns and face-kicking, too.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone told me that an earlier script version of Deathline explained all of the weirdness going on in it by most of its plot being an Incident at Owl Creek Bridge-style fantasy in the brain of a dead man. As it stands, the finished version of Tibor Takács film doesn’t explain or excuse any of its weird shit at all; as a matter of fact, it doesn’t even bother to explain much of its plot. Which is fair enough, given that most of what’s going on is only meant to set up various pretty okay action scenes, some hideously bad CGI effects, and a really, really, really long sex scene.

Everything that’s going on between these scenes feels like variously successful attempts by the filmmakers to distract themselves and their audience from the most basic of plots and the vagaries of working on a small budget (but at least shooting in Hungary where you get somewhat more bang for your miniscule buck) by throwing as much random crap on the screen and at the audience as possible. It’s a time-honoured technique which can help enhance a film with snarky dialogue, bizarre satire, or just with a bunch of sight gags. Quite a few Roger Corman productions from the 70s and 80s became at least minor classics of various genres this way. Deathline never manages to do anything quite this successful, but for an action film that obviously can’t afford much action – and even less martial arts action despite casting Dacascos – its general weirdness and distractibility keeps it pretty entertaining. At least if you enjoy stuff like “The House of Culture” being a bordello, a TV re-enactment of Wade’s crimes that shows him gunning down a baby in its cart in a play on exactly the scene you’re thinking about just now, only with a pretty tiny flight of stairs, bizarre dream sequences that feel like set-ups for future psychological depth which will never arrive, and so on.

Too bad that Takács’s direction is atypically bland for most of the time, but I still had a reasonable amount of fun with Deathline.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Three Films Make A Post: Sometimes love is a strange and wicked game.

Atomic Blonde (2017): This action-heavy spy movie is a pretty big disappointment, managing to waste the enormous talents of a great cast (though the usually great Charlize Theron is about as British as Donald Trump, but then, her character never feels British in any way either), and a seldom used setting on a series of empty gestures that suggests the film wants to be a smart, POP! version of the spy genre but only ever reaches the smug and the arbitrary. The setting of Berlin just before the fall of the Wall is neither authentic nor inauthentic in interesting ways, instead a series of lame clichés presented with the same self-congratulatory gestures the film uses for everything. Unfortunately, there’s really no substance here, no point, no philosophy, no interesting character arcs; and when it comes to the style and surface values, director David Leitch is clearly trying but it doesn’t come much of it.

The Constant Gardener (2005): This John le Carré adaptation by Fernando Meirelles on the other hand has substance, style and actual British people and combines an angry anti-colonialist subtext with deep and complex characterisation, excellent acting not just by leads Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and the quiet desperation you often find in le Carré. It’s particularly admirable how elegantly Meirelles mixes two very different genres, the conspiracy thriller and the scenes of a marriage type drama in a way that suggests – but never actually states – commonality between private failings of trust and public corruption and lies that goes beyond the more simple game of betrayal.

Mausoleum (1983): If you’re making it through Michael Dugan’s very silly yet highly entertaining possession horror movie (made in a time when possession horror wasn’t necessarily about exorcisms and the possessed hanging out on the ceiling) you’ll become highly acquainted with the breasts of lead actress Bobbie Bresee, in their traditional state as well as dolled up with John Buechler devised demon mouth nipples (with teeth), you will believe that eyes glow green, as well as that cursed-based possession is best cured by elderly doctors putting a crown of thorns on the possessee’s head. You will also witness Marjoe Gortner’s hilarious death face, a bewildering twist ending, and all the latex and rubber Dugan could get out of Buechler. In between, there’s even more nudity, characters who all act as if they were in a porn movie, and some pretty damn funny 80s style deaths. Obviously, it’s not a good movie in a traditional sense (at least if you’re like me and expect mood, character or narrative of one) but it certainly never bores even for a second.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Sennentuntschi (2010)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

1975. Just after a small village in the Swiss Alps has buried its sacristan following his suicide, a bloody and battered young woman (Roxane Mesquida) appears in town. The woman doesn't seem to be able to speak, and is clearly either heavily traumatized or mentally ill, but the villagers at once blame her for the sacristan's death. After all, one of the villagers saw what he thinks was a woman in a monk's robe in the mountains the day before, so witchcraft must be afoot! This must make some kind of sense to the villagers, even though it's the sort of logic that's only logical if you're a surrealist. It sure doesn't help improve the situation when the local priest brandishes his crucifix in the poor woman's face and provokes her into a fit of panic.

Confronted with that sort of superstition, and a little bit infatuated with the mysterious stranger, the local constable Reusch (Nicholas Ofczarek), seemingly the only man in town who isn't batshit insane, takes charge of the woman and attempts to find out who she is and where she came from. He stumbles upon something strange: his new ward looks exactly like a woman who disappeared twenty-five years ago during the burning of a mountain cabin that killed three men.

While Reusch is away talking to the retired cop who worked the case in the 50s, the priest attacks the nameless girl with a knife, and drives her to flight. On her way, she accidentally causes a miscarriage (her fear of crosses is again to blame) in Reusch's former girlfriend (now the mayor's wife), which conclusively proves to anyone not Reusch that she is in fact a witch.

Next time we see the girl again, she arrives at the mountain cabin of farmer Erwin (Andrea Zogg), his son-who-thinks-he's-his-nephew Albert (Joel Basman), and their newly arrived helper Martin (Carlos Leal), who is on the run for the murder of his wife, and therefore just as insane as everyone else in the movie. Because they were just having an orgy with home-made absinth, the men kinda-sorta assume the girl's a Sennentuntschi like in the old tale about a straw doll brought to life by the devil. Clearly, the girl's suffering won't end with her arrival.

All the while, Reusch discovers the dark secret of his village.

So, the classic continental European artful exploitation movie, horror department, is alive and well and living in Switzerland, it seems. Even though director Michael Steiner deconstructs most (yet not quite all) potential supernatural aspects of his story and the Sennentuntschi legend, he's doing everything else I've come to expect in and hope from this kind of film.

As the plot synopsis should have made clear, the film is heavily over-written, full of preposterous plot ideas (only about half of which I've mentioned) and melodramatic explanations for everything that's happening, populated by (predominantly male) characters who are all so clearly out of their minds as to make a girl who can't speak, acts like a child and turns dead guys into straw dolls look positively normal. In addition Sennentuntschi is told with a structural trick I'm not going to spoil that I don't think makes the film any better, but clearly makes it a hell of a lot weirder; in fact, I'm utterly unsure if Steiner wants his audience to be surprised by that trick or not - his film is sending very mixed messages about it.

This may sound as if Sennentuntschi weren't a good movie at all, but the opposite is true. There's a lot to be said for the film's over-serious rediscovery of much of what was good about European genre cinema of the 70s, the rediscovery of a combination of strangeness, metaphorical overload, and classic exploitational values, as well as for its the willingness to be nasty and cruel to its characters, even those it clearly doesn't hate. I, for one, can't help but respect a film that gives up clarity for the possibility of surprising its audience. But then, that's what I would say.

On the film's metaphorical level, Steiner seems to be quite obsessed with dualities. At least, the film is stuffed full with them, from the boring man-woman and rationality-superstition ones to the structural one I'm still not willing to spoil. As is good and well-loved tradition, the film's narrative logic and the reasons for its narrative logic can get a bit confusing, which seems to be a fitting way to construct a narrative about characters who are all not exactly mentally healthy.

Not confusing at all is Steiner's visual mastership. The director uses the impressive Swiss landscape to build a mood of overwhelming strangeness, and to intensify the already over-heated feelings of his characters, grounding the strangeness of what is happening in the very real, yet also very strange mountain landscape of a place whose harshness seems to influence the state of mind of the characters populating it for the worse.

I also found myself very impressed by Roxane Mesquida's performance. Her combination of childlike body language, the visible remnants of hurt and pain, a peculiarly innocent sexuality and a very calm sort of madness dominate the film's best moments without being showy. If not for Mesquida's performance, the part of the film's metaphorical level that's all about contrasting "maleness" and "femaleness" would probably be quite annoying, but the actress turns what could be a mere symbol - and a symbol of various conflicting things, by the way - into a person. Plus, most of the male characters' problem isn't their maleness, but their being murderous rapist assholes, a fact the film seems to realize about half of the time. Which again puts Sennentuntschi directly in the tradition of classic European exploitation movies, where the subversive, the uncomfortable and the conservative have always been entwined in the most interesting, yet also often very uncomfortable, manner.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

In short: Big Bad Wolf (2006)

Teenagers in cabins. Does is ever end well? Sensitive teen Derek Cowley (Trevor Duke) really wants to get into the student fraternity his deceased father – who died from having a leg ripped off by a werewolf while on a hunting trip in Africa, though his son doesn’t know that – belonged to at his age. So he has to agree when a couple of his future frat bros and their girlfriends ask him to host them for a weekend in the cabin in the woods belonging to his awful, abusive step father Mitch (Richard Tyson). In need of reinforcements, Derek also invites his friend and crush Sam (Kimberly J. Brown). A good decision, as it will turn out, for her solidly developed survival skills will save both of their asses when the cabin is attacked by a quipping werewolf who won’t ever shut up with rape jokes. Sam and Derek are the only survivors.

Back home, the two soon develop a terrible suspicion: Mitchell might not just be abusive, he’s a werewolf!

Lance W. Dreesen’s Big Bad Wolf is a frustrating movie, mixing sleaze, terribly unfunny humour, quite a bit (which is to say, too much) rapiness, solid filmmaking, good effects and some enticing ideas that attempt to treat the werewolf as a symbol for abusive men.

The last bit is obviously what I find interesting about the film. There are a couple of scenes which – also thanks to Tyson’s good performance – indeed seem to want to say something about what regular abuse – be it verbal or physical – does to its victims as well as to the humanity of its perpetrators. Unfortunately, these moments and the film’s sense of humour are no fit at all, seeing as it is a rather difficult proposition to seriously thematize abuse and its psychological consequences while making rape joke. It’s a bit as if Dreesen (who also wrote the script) was mashing two werewolf films of rather incompatible tones randomly together, weakening the interesting one decisively with the heap of bad decisions that is the other.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Haunted (1991)

When the Smurl family – mother Janet (Sally Kirkland), father Jack (Jeffrey DeMunn and quite a bit of facial hair), a couple of grandparents and an ever increasing number of children – first move into their shiny new house, a couple of horrifying things happen: a hammer disappears, a toaster starts burning, and, well, I suppose some socks don’t make their way back from the washer, but nobody mentions it. Anyway, over the course of the following years, lots of small things make the life of the Smurls more difficult, inducing the make-up department to paint quite some shadows under poor Sally Kirkland’s eyes.

Supernatural activity does increase over time, until black shadows have a bit of a float around, someone makes bathing noises, someone invisible “uses foul language” in Janet’s voice (the horror! the horror!) and so on and so forth. Things turn so bad, Janet becomes convinced the house is haunted. It takes quite some time, but once Jack has the opportunity to hear the whispers coming out of Janet’s pillow, he’s convinced of it, too. Eventually, the Smurls call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Stephen Markle and Diane Baker), who will, as is their wont, not actually be terribly much help to anyone, as won’t the Catholic Church, who is unwilling to exorcise the Smurls and their house even after the Warrens have churned out their usual diagnosis of “It’s demons! And ghosts!”. There’s other rambling stuff to come, some escalation of the hauntings, but if you are hoping for some form of a dramatic climax, all you’ll get is a prayer meeting and the slow fizzling out of a plot that wasn’t terribly interesting in the first place.

Which is of course not a terribly surprising problem in a film that sells itself on being “based on a true story” and actually means it, for the sort of manifestations generally reported from actual hauntings (full disclosure: I don’t believe in the authenticity of any of this, but I’m perfectly willing to play) tend to be, well, a bit boring, really, so if you have a pretence of realism, you’ll have mostly boring manifestations too, as well as a non-ending where nothing is resolved or explained. However, the film – it was produced for FOX television, after all - does feature some rather spectacular elements. Dad is raped by a demon, after all, and Janet gets up to a bit of levitation action, so there’s really no reason for the film to not also come up with a decent climax or an ending.

The film’s true problem, I think, lies in the direction of Robert Mandel. A better director could have managed to milk the more quotidian moments for chills pretty well, but in Mandel’s hands, there’s a blandness to much of the proceedings. There is, to be fair, a tense sequence where Janet follows the bathing sounds through darkened corridors that really works wonders, and the business with Janet’s talking pillows is handled rather well, too. The rest, though, just doesn’t work at all. The demon rape sequence is so awkwardly done, it’s even funny, something no rape scene should ever be. In that particular case, it doesn’t help the film’s case at all that DeMunn underplays his character’s reaction afterwards terribly. Apparently, demon rape is not a big thing for him (happens all the time in suburbia, once presumes). The film’s pacing is just off, too, with too many scenes wasted on business like the family calling in the press only to then complain that the press is besieging their house. What did they expect – exorcism by journalists?

The most interesting aspect of this whole thing is probably its connection to a certain rather popular mainstream horror franchise. This is an earlier example of the Warren businesses’ media-savvy, somehow managing to rope perfectly normal filmmakers into making feature length ads for them, though it curiously enough suffers from the same problems that – to my eyes – haunt the The Conjuring films, too. It’s not just the holier-than-though aspect of the characters, or their really boring version of Christian mythology, that makes their popularity in fictional films a bit puzzling to me, it’s also how boring their emphasis on being “normal” makes them as characters. If there were demons in the real world, I very much suspect the people fighting them would be a lot more interesting than these non-entities. Another curious parallel to the The Conjuring films is of how little use the couple actually is to the people they are supposedly helping. They are not quite on the low level of LeFanu’s Martin Hesselius but are generally portrayed as pretty ineffectual in anything they do before a film’s finale rolls around, even though the films themselves never seem to actually realized this and talk throughout as if they were badass conservative demon fighters. A problem The Haunted exacerbates by not having an actual finale.

So, unless you really need to watch all Warren-related horror movies, this is one to avoid.