Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The plot couldn't be simpler. A pair of medical supply company numbskulls accidentally crack open a barrel containing "2-4-5 Trioxin" gas, a military toxin responsible, according to Frank the warehouse man, for the zombie outbreak captured in the film, or has Frank would have you believe documentary, The Night of the Living Dead. Adding to their already impressive incompetence they manage to seed rain clouds with the gas, causing a cemetery full of corpses to zombify and seek sustenance of the cranial type... brains!

The back story to the film is actually more interesting than the plot. John Russo (co-writer of Night of the Living Dead) and George Romero (director and co-writer of the same) had a bit of a falling out over the direction of any sequels, with each man going their own way. George using the "of the Dead" suffix and John the "of the Living Dead" suffix. Kids huh? So we all know how George's films ended as the social/economic/military commentaries that would shape all future zombie films, but what about John? Well after a writing a sequel script to be directed by Tobe (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) Hooper that went nowhere, he teamed up with Dan (Dark Star, Alien, Life Force, Total Recall) O'Bannon, wrote a new script. The rest, as they say, is zombie history.

Is it as good as Romero's Dawn of the Dead? Really it does a disservice to both films to make a comparison as they are both so different to each other in the direction the story is taken... but, I'd say yes it is just as good, just in a funnier, goofier, more comic-book way. The Return of the Living Dead is entirely successful in its aims; to make you laugh and spew in equal amounts. It's a zombie film as made by the three stooges and is laugh-out-loud funny but not in that nasty post-modern ironic way that seems to have infected films nowadays.

The "Quincy" style punks are great and their teenage nihilistic dialogue is hilariously earnest:

  • "You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life"
  • "I like death"
  • "Do you ever wonder about all the different ways of dying? You know, violently? And wonder, like, what would be the most horrible way to die?"

And then there's Linnea Quigley, who after disrobing to dance naked on a grave keeps her clothes off (except for a pair of woolly stockings!) for pretty much the entire film.

The film is jammed full of little touches like the zombie butterflies, the eye test poster, the "Fuck You" football jacket, and the fact that the fate of the world rest on the shoulders of Bert and Ernie - a right pair of Muppets. There are so many memorable moments that it'd be unfair listing any of them as you really should watch this film yourself. I will say don't have a mouth full of coffee when the "rabid weasels" line pops up like I did.

The undead are fantastic - imaginative, gory, fast, intelligent and nothing like the grim shambling grey dead of previous zombie films. There's the stumps-for-legs zombie, the torso zombie, tarman zombie, zombie half-dogs. The makeup and gore effects, influenced by the multicoloured splatter films of the time, are still shit-hot. The famous tarman zombie alone make the whole film worthwhile!

And finally to the soundtrack. The Return of the Living Dead has one of the greatest punk soundtracks ever created (even if it does come down on the psychobilly/goth side of punk), with tracks by 45 Grave, TSOL, The Flesh Eaters, Roky Erikson, The Damned and The Cramps. It's up there with Repo Man, Dogs in Space, and The Decline of Western Civilisation.

The Return of the Living Dead is a hilarious zombie romp with high-quality effects. It is the Airplane of the zombie genre. Funny, gory, great music, fast paced with barely a minute with nothing happening - what's not to like?

There's only one thing the film needed and that's Lee Ving - he would have been awesome in it.

Laugh out loud, coffee-spitting, fucking hilarious.

"Ahh, my favourite brain soup; Cream of Nowhere!"

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dracula (1958)

Hammer's Dracula is the film that drew me into horror films when I was a kid back in the 70s. I remember collecting those Hammer bubblegum cards, swapping them in the school toilets and a few years later buying Fangoria and wishing my Dad would buy me one of those latex masks. Dracula was my film and Alice Cooper was my soundtrack. I started reading really late (around age 8) and picked it up fast, really fast. Within a year I was hooked on the golden era of sci-fi (Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov). Again Dracula fucked me up! Screw those nerds, give me King, Hutson, McCammon, Straub! I was Mark fucking Petrie hoping to see Danny at my window. Then there was the video nasty scare a little later - I watched every fucked-up little VHS tape I could find before they were removed from the shelves. Dracula was the fucking ruin of me.

So onto the film...

This release contains a few extra minutes and alternate camera angles from a previously lost Japanese release. These were originally cut after requests by the British Board of Film Classification. Do they add anything to the film? Yes, for once these cuts are essential to the film. Without at least one of the alternate angle shots Dracula's sexuality is reduced to that of a fumbling schoolboy. Do yourself a favour and seek out the full uncut version.

Only a year after The Curse of Frankenstein and the drawing-room melodrama is gone, replaced instead by Gothic menace, blood and sex. Again, just like Hammer's Frankenstein, the plot is condensed to account for budget. Gone is the ship sailing into Whitby harbour, gone is London. Instead everything takes place in an unnamed European country much like Bavarian Germany or Austria. This may sound like a cop-out, but it tightens Stoker's long-winded and, if were honest, messy story into a fast-paced horror thriller. Of course to be able to do this Hammer needed a sound pair of actors to make sure it didn't fall to pieces at the first sign of action and who could take the horror legends of Dracula and Van Helsing and make them their own, two people who were already on their books and were cheap. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you... Christopher "it's not you neck I want to bite" Lee and Peter "fuck with me and I'll stake your nuts" Cushing! In 1958 Dracula was reborn as a sexual predator and Van Helsing as a stake wielding Indiana/Transylvania Jones! This is a vampire that wants to ravish the sexually repressed Victorian society and start a humping, writhing, pumping sexual revolution. Dracula is bubbling over with sexuality and brute strength; just watch the restored scene where Lucy is on her bed, showing both fear and desire as he kisses her face moving slowly down to her neck. Dracula is the ultimate "Bad Boy". There is none of that suave Bela Lugosi shit going on here.

The sets are full of Gothic loveliness from diaphanous nightdresses to crypts, candles, fog, shadows and howling wolves. There are wonderfully livid splashes of colour set against shadows and flickering candlelight. The James Bernard score is as in your face as the film. It's big, brash, bombastic and absolutely perfect. Lee is magnetic and brutal as the Count but nothing can top Cushing's strong, confident, athletic and intelligent performance as Van Helsing. Cushing is THE Van Helsing and no one will ever top his performance.

Tight and beautifully paced; this Hammer's first true horror film.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

I won't go over the plot of Frankenstein as I'm sure everyone knows at least the main thrust of the story - man creates monster, monster kills, monster dies. The Curse of Frankenstein is Hammer's attempt at bringing Mary Shelley's tale of creation and the quest for knowledge to the silver screen and although it discards a lot of the more expensive parts of the plot (I don't think Hammer could have afforded to replicate the frozen Arctic wastes) it does stick to the main themes of creation, science, knowledge, religion, morality and pulls it off very nicely in only 86 minutes.

Hammer did seem to have a problem leaving behind the Gainsborough-like melodrama that Britain churned out in the previous two decades but this only adds to the shock when we finally see the creature for the first time in that amazing zoom-shot to its face in one of the best reveals in horror cinema. At 6'4" Christopher Lee is perfect as the shambling and pitiful creature with his spastic almost involuntary movements; in my opinion far superior to the famed 1931 Universal monster.

Peter Cushing meanwhile is the coldest Baron Frankenstein ever committed to film. He is egotistical, obsessed, manipulative and willing to go to any lengths in his search to create life. In fact he is almost sociopathic in his inability to empathise and to balance his work with morality. Which brings me to the Baron's friend Paul, who is nominally his moral compass but fails completely in this regard when he damages the creature's brain, refuses to accept responsibility and continues to blame his friend for the actions of the creature. In fact, even though Frankenstein is a murdering dick, you have to wonder just what would have happened had the brain not been damaged?

The belief that some things are better left untouched still holds true for a large number of people today: GM crops, cloning, stem cell research, and the large hadron collider. Should science advance at any cost, should it be tempered by morality or does it stand above these very human principles? According to Greek myth Prometheus was the god who created mankind and then gave us the fire he stole from Olympus; have we reached godhood ourselves and if we have, can we be trusted with this knowledge?

Although The Curse of Frankenstein doesn't hit the lurid and gruesome highs that Hammer became known for it's an excellent take on a genre classic and should be watched by everyone interested in horror history... in fact go read Shelley's novel as well.

Letterbox Review

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Ascension (2014)

Ascension is a mini-series telling the story of 600 volunteers sent to colonise a new world orbiting the star Proxima Centauri. There's a problem though - Proxima Centauri is over 4 light years from Earth and it will take several generations to reach their new home. The series starts 50 years and one generation into their 100 mission.

There have not been many true Generation Starship stories portrayed on the screen and, being a fan of Brian Aldiss' "Non-Stop", I was looking forward to watching this one. So what makes this different to Battlestar Galactica and  Pandorum? For a start the volunteers leave Earth in 1963, the time of the Cold War, of Mutually Assured Destruction, and pre-civil rights. Secondly there a BIG twist. I won't give it away but it is entirely fitting with the time period.

Ascension is not Hard Science Fiction, nor on the other-hand is it truly Space Opera. What it is, is Social Science Fiction. How would a group of people socially evolve given that they are small in number and are removed from any of the usual forces that promote change. For example one of the largest causes of change within society is technology: from the telephone, to paperback books, to transistor radios, to the pill, to home computers, to the internet, to mobile phones. All of these have fostered changes within society and if technology stagnates then so too will society. We need external forces to drive us to get better, to improve, to evolve. Unfortunately because the show is a mini-series of 6 episodes, they are limited in how much of this they can show. There are themes of male entitlement versus burgeoning feminism, body image, free will, and equality but these are subservient to the main story arc.

So how does it look? Terrific. The opening few minutes left me a little nonplussed as it seemed to be taking place in a large hotel rather than a starship with all the women wearing ball-gowns and the men in naval uniforms, but then the viewpoint moves. The camera pulls back through the corridors and maintenance floors to a central hub, up vertically through several floors, up through a dome to the outside of the ship and into space. A stunning shot. The inside of the ship has that 2001/Silent Running aesthetic which is great - very 60s.

Ascension may not be the perfect Generation Starship series I've been waiting for but it is a very interesting attempt within a limited format. I really liked it.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Seven Death's In the Cats Eye (1973)

Set in 1920's Scotland, a young and innocent convent girl moves back to her ancestral castle home and uncovers a trail of dead bodies, money, and vampires.

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a Gothic horror (the castle, crypt, fog, secret passages, candles), heavily influenced by the Hammer films of the period and whilst not a pure gialli it does contain various superficial motifs including black gloves, bizarre dreams, sex and a straight razor. As well as Hammer there are touches of Edgar Allan Poe, with the, admittedly terrible, ape being a nod towards his Murders in the Rue Morgue short story, considered the be the worlds first modern whodunnit, and also the inclusion of the cat as a constant witness (The Black Cat). There are some nice touches of humour; one that jumped out at me, whether intentional or not, was when James mentions that the blood on his palette knife is actually red paint - and we all know that Italian movie blood looks just like bright red paint!

The cast are all pretty good with Jane Birkin standing out as a wholesome young naïf. The photography and lighting is above standard and sometimes rises to the great; the zoomed freeze-frame on James and Corrinda stands out (used to great effect in Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot), as did the lighting in the dark castle passageways and the crypt. The soundtrack is suitably overblown and melodramatic with kettle drums, quivering violins and crescendoing horns.

The Blue Underground transfer was good with only a slightly muddy soundtrack slightly marring what would otherwise be a great DVD. Although the dialogue is all in English there are three scenes in the original Italian which I'm guessing were cut from the international release.

Agatha Christie crossed with Poe and M.R. James with a dash of Nancy Drew.

If Hammer did giallo then it would look something like Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye.

Je t'aime!

Letterboxd Review

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Mark of the Devil (1970)

This review is for the uncut Arrow Blu-Ray with the English soundtrack.

Mark of the Devil is a film infamous for its scenes of bloody torture and depravity. This should be good then!

An eighteenth century Austrian town is a hotbed of catholic corruption and satanic paranoia, held in thrall by a sadistic Witchfinder (Reggie Nalder), a man with the morals of a Mallard Duck and the looks of old leather stretched over razorblades; imagine the Child Catcher fucked up on scripture and power. Into this shit-hole rides our hero, Udo Kier (yes, Udo Kier playing a hero), a young and idealistic adjutant paving the way for his master the Witchfinder General (Herbert Lom). Kier swiftly falls for a buxom wench, Nalder succumbs to the green eyed monster, Lom is as corrupt as Ferdinand Marcos and bloody, screamy shenanigans ensue.

Mark of the Devil is a euro-Witchfinder General with none of the subtlety. What it does have is gore by the bucket-load - at least by 1970's standards. The film starts with the rape of a nun and then continues through severed fingers, tar and feathering, women being burnt alive, whipping, finger crushing, stretching on a rack, branding, a chair with a spiked seat, Chinese water torture, a beheading, and of course the infamous tongue versus pliers scene. They really must have read Hammer of Witches for research! Nasty stuff, and this is where this film differs from the other rural-horrors of the period. There is little of the tension, atmosphere and background of Witchfinder General or The Blood on Satan's Claw, instead Mark of the Devil is a fine witchploitation film with some obvious commentary about corruption, the abuse of power, and the hypocrisy of the righteous. Of course these themes are as relevant today as they were in the 1970's and the 1700's. The tavern keeper in particular reminded me of the members of the United Kingdom's UKIP party: just after two women have been burnt alive and a man was had his fingers chopped off and then tarred and feathered and chased through the town, he remarks to Kier's character "It's good to see some real authority around here. The idea of justice in this town is like a joke". Bring back National Service is what I say! The ending, while great for having a rampaging mob armed with pitchforks (no burning torches though), is let down a little by the ham-fisted religious symbolism.

The photography is pretty good with some Franco worthy zoom shots, the editing though can be poor with some very hard cuts between scenes and camera positions. The dialogue is fantastic, take the following charge made against a young woman for example: "...has killed an embryo, and then boiled the cadaver together with snakes and toads into a witches brew. Made a sign over the devilish broth and then hid it in the earth under the porch of the convent that gave her welcome, so that lucifer's wooden leg could step over the threshold and the nuns who serve god in the convent may receive large pus-infected swellings on the arms as a sign of the devil". How awesome is that! The score however is just bad.

As far as the Arrow disc is concerned; the restoration is top notch apart from the noticeably grubby title sequence and the soundtrack which drops out to "recorded in a shoebox" standard on a few occasions; I'm assuming that these were previously cut scenes spliced in from different sources.

For the curious here's the cuts that the British censors required when this film was released in the UK in 1971:

  • Reel 1 - Drastically shorten the scene of women being burnt at the stake, removing all shots in which they appear to be in contact with the flames.#
  • Reel 1 - Remove all shots of Albino piercing Vanessa's back with a sharp instrument, together with the sound of her cries.
  • Reel 2 - Remove all shots and sounds of Albino lashing Vanessa and sounds of her cries.
  • Reel 2 - Remove the shot of Deidre's bruised and bleeding hands when she is brought in by Albino.
  • Reel 3 - Remove the entire scene in which Deidre is seen and heard on the rack, and all shots of her hands being placed in the thumbscrews.
  • Reel 3 - Remove the whole of the second scene in which Deidre is seen and heard on the rack, with all shots and sounds of her feet being burned and shots of her feet afterwards.
  • Reel 3 - Remove the entire episode in which a young couple are seen making love in a bedroom and afterwards Albino and his henchmen break down the door, try to rape the girl, and stab the man.
  • Reel 3 - Remove all shots and sounds of the Baron being set upon a bed of spikes and flogged.
  • Reel 3 - Remove entire scene in which Deidre is tortured and her tongue is torn out, and all shots of her bleeding face and mouth afterwards.
  • Reel 4 - Drastically reduce the shots of the burning of Deidre. The scene should start after she has been hauled up when the man sets the torch to the faggots, and there should be no shots of her apparently in contact with the flames.
  • Reel 4 - Remove all shots and sounds of the Baron being tortured by thumbscrews or by having a fire lit under him.
  • Reel 4 - Remove all shots of the puppetmaster being stabbed in the stomach with a stiletto.
  • Reel 4 - Remove the incident in which a man is stabbed in the eye and shots of him holding his bleeding eye afterwards.
  • Reel 4 - Remove all shots and sounds of the rape of the puppetmaster's wife by Cumberland, stopping the scene as he chases her into the bedroom.
  • Reel 4 - Reel 5 - Remove all shots of the Baron when he is bound and screaming. Remove the flash shot of the Baron's head being severed and the shot of his body twitching afterwards.
  • Reel 4 - Remove the shot showing a dead man with a severed arm and bleeding stump.
  • Reel 4 - Remove all shots showing the spiked belt which is placed around Christian's waist, leaving only the suggestion that he is hung up and brutally killed in an unknown way.

Mark of the Devil may be a second-tier rural horror, but it's a top-notch witchploitsation movie!

Letterboxd Review

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Invasion USA (1985)

A Canon action film staring the Beard of Death and directed by Joseph Zito, the man who brought us The Prowler.

Soviet led guerrillas invade Florida and it's up to the one man army of Chuck Norris to stop that shit!

Chuck Norris is Matt Hunter.
Chuck Norris wrestles a 'gator.
Chuck Norris is sick of frogs.
Chuck Norris has a pet armadillo.
Chuck Norris is one man, alone.
Chuck Norris can give you nightmares.
Chuck Norris gets blown up.
Chuck Norris works alone.
Chuck Norris wears black driving gloves.
Chuck Norris doesn't have patience.
Chuck Norris will send you a postcard from hell.
Chuck Norris will stab you in the hand.
Chuck Norris will hit you with so many rights, you'll beg for a left.
Chuck Norris will fuck you up if you irritate him.
Chuck Norris is crazy.
Chuck Norris saves Christmas.
Chuck Norris causes vehicular devastation.
Chuck Norris turns day into night.
Chuck Norris saves Jesus.
Chuck Norris saves children.
Chuck Norris likes Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.
Chuck Norris can summon a multitude of tanks.
Chuck Norris will round you all up like sheep and then kick your arses.
Chuck Norris will shoot you through a solid concrete wall.
Chuck Norris will throw you around like a little doll.
Chuck Norris will tell when it's time to die.

The baddies shoot a lot of furniture.
The baddies die.

Chuck Norris wins!

A well paced and efficient action movie with some stunning set-pieces. A plot that would normally be ridiculous is made believable by the use of guerrilla and terror tactics. I loved the little nod to Dirty Harry - the bus full of kids singing "Row your boat". The edit from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers to military trucks driving around a corner was so good. A far, far better film than Red Dawn.

A Canon classic and one of the finest action films ever made.

We need more armadillos in films.

Letterboxd Review

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Who Dares Wins (1982)

Lewis Collins plays Peter Skellen, an SAS trooper, who goes too far during a training mission and leaves the service rather than be RTU'ed. Skellen with time on his hands and chip on his shoulder joins up with a far left-wing political organisation who want to step up from the usual protests (the anti-cruise theatre piece is hilarious in it's liberal hippy artiness!) to full-blown terrorist acts.

Who Dares Wins (known as The Final Option in the US) was made back in 1982 when men had names like Peter and Terry and Rod, moustaches were rife and there were real political and social movements and not just the fart in a hurricane Facebook whinging that most of us are guilty of nowadays. This was a time when Reagan and Thatcher's foreign policy, an ever expanding nuclear arsenal and a resurgence of the "reds under the bed" fear of the 1950's McCarthy era was driving the Soviet Union to bankruptcy. Set against the CND and Greenham Common protests of the 80's and riding on the Nationalist euphoria after the Iranian Embassy siege the film has an obvious right-wing "kill the commies" feel to it and like most revolutionary movements, it portrays a battle between middle-class liberals and middle-class fascists with the workers dying in the middle.

I've seen this countless times over the years and, I guess, nostalgia allows me to see past the flaws and dodgy politics.

As far as accuracy goes; 22 SAS Regiment helped train the actors and actually took part in the seige in the film's third act. We see the famous SAS killing house where allegedly Thatcher acted the part of a hostage during a live fire exercise. Their training takes place in the Brecon Beacons where the SAS train and recruits undergo the Selection process. So accuracy is a given it seems.

The cinematography is ok, sort of TV like but serves it's purpose. There is a stirring score by Roy Budd of Get Carter fame. There are loads of bad clothes and even worse hairstyles. Then there's the cast: TV hard man Lewis Collins as a Flashman (or Flashheart if you like) type, full of testosterone and bravado; Edward fucking Woodward! Brendan Gleeson lookalike Tony Doyle as a shouty "Rupert"; TV stalwart John Duttine; the beautiful and talented Ingrid Pitt; Richard Widmark; Judy Davis having a bad hair week; the square-jawed and wonderfully voiced Patrick Allen; and a list of other great British and American actors. You'll spend the entire film going "hey isn't that...".

The final incursion by the SAS is thrilling and explosive, and from what I can remember of the Iranian Embassy hostage siege, very accurate. In fact one of the troopers being set alight by a burning curtain caused by a flash-bang mirrors an incident in the Embassy siege. Regarding this hostage situation; the terrorist's demand is wholly unrealistic and more could have been done to insert a sub-plot here that involved using this as cover for another more devious plot (a'la Die Hard).

Is there such a sub-genre as "Special Forces Exploitation"? If so then this is one of the very best, but leave your political sensibilities at the door.

Letterboxd Review

Sense8: Season 1 (2015)

Odd statistical anomaly:  Andy Wachowski, as well as sharing my name is exactly one day younger than me!

Sense8, a dodgy title that reminds me a little too much of the abundance of i's, e's, and x's in product names a few years back. I just don't like the substitution of numbers and letters for another letter; just call it Sensate. I suppose it could be worse, it could be "iSense8 eXtreme"!

So what's it about? A group of eight unconnected people become linked; sharing each other's thoughts, emotions and skills. Is this the next step in humankind's evolution and who is the shady organisation tracking them down? Sense8 was created, directed and written by the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5).

The first few episodes are quite bitty, which, I guess, can't be helped when introducing eight characters from eight different countries. That's fine though as all the background detail is intricate and you really start to become involved in their lives. You can tell it's all leading somewhere but you're not entirely sure where and knowing J. Michael Straczynski's penchant for huge sprawling story arcs you know it's going to be an interesting journey. The episodes are quite slowly paced with occasional action set-pieces to get your juices flowing. There is no rush, and that makes a real change these days when programmes seem to be continually scared of being cancelled and throw blood and John Woo style gun battles at you like there's no tomorrow. Don't get me wrong though, there are some stunning foreign location fight scenes, gun play and car chases in this otherwise character-lead sci-fi drama.

The main characters are well fleshed out and likeable. Some of them have obviously useful talents (shooting, unarmed combat, lock-picking, hacking), but others may not be quite as obvious. The "bleed-through" from one character's life to another's is really well handled and leads to some interesting crossovers. There is a considerable LGBT slant to some of the characters, in particular a transgender relationship allowing Lana Wachowski the means to address the media and public reaction to her transition. This is not at all preachy and intrusive, but welcome and very moving.

This brings me on to the, ahem, sexual content. Sense8 is highly sexual - there are dildos, masturbation, straight and gay sex. Also, because of the shared conciousness, it also brings up some interesting ideas about gender fluidity. Sense8 is admirable for the normalising of gay sex and intimacy.

Sense8 has themes of identity, empathy, gender, sexuality, trust, and personal and species evolution. there are touches of The Matrix; shared conciousness; dreams as reality; reality is an illusion; solipsism; simulation hypothesis, but if there is one overall theme it is that we are all flawed and it's our friends, our partners, our lovers that seal over the cracks and make us whole.

Some technicalities are glossed over, for example, how can a person who is two places at the same time, move in both places, which have different dimensions and layouts, without bumping into things. I guess this is what suspension of disbelief is for - just go with it and don't over-analyse the science; this is more about the "why" and not the "how".

The first season finishes with a terrific, action packed finale where every character has a part to play. The plot may have been a little obvious and contrived but I didn't give a shit. A fun end to a really interesting gender/identity drama. Good on ya Lana and I really hope Netflix picks this up for a second season.

Plus any programme that quotes Conan the Barbarian has got to be good!

"Conan! What is best in life?"
"Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women."

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Residue (2015)

Part of an unnamed city is cordoned off and quarantined after the bombing of a nightclub on New Years Eve. Residue tells the story of a photographer, her boyfriend and a police detective's hunt for the real story behind the blast. Their investigation uncovers corruption, murder and the horrors of bio-warfare.

Although filmed in Leeds, Residue could be set anywhere. The lighting and set design owe a great deal to Blade Runner and the Cyberpunk books of the 1980's. This gives the city a near future Euro-Japanese feel, full of cold neon, noodle bars and Kanji road markings.

The photography is stunning and leaves most other TV series in the shade, and the simple plot hangs together well and leaves you wanting to know more. If there is one thing that lets Residue down it is the uneven performances.

An enjoyable mini-series and hopefully the start of something longer.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Insidious Chapter 2 (2013)

I did see Insidious, and no I didn't like it very much at all. Like the majority of viewers I quite enjoyed the first half then burst into laughter when "Darth Maul" made his, rather silly, appearance. So let's hope Maul gets binned for Chapter 2.

A good horror film works in the same way as a pressure release valve. The pressure builds until the valve opens and steam is vented in a high pressure jet. The valve closes and the pressure starts to build again. The problem with Insidious Chapter 2 (IC2) is that it cranks the valve open and closed so quickly and so often that: 1) the pressure doesn't build and 2) in the end the valve breaks. This is what happens when you rely on jump scares rather than a nice steady increase of tension and fear. That's not to say that IC2 only uses this technique, but it is used so often that you end up inured to it, and as they say, familiarity breeds contempt.

The film starts with a spooky house shot at a Dutch angle. So far so predictable. Unfortunately this predictability leads to clichés and they start to come thick and fast.

A chandelier moving slightly for no reason; wardrobe doors suddenly opening; spooky radio voices; spooky children's drawings; slow tracking shots down hallways; overly loud clocks; creaky doors; pianos that play themselves; radios that turn themselves on; toys that turn themselves on; spooky woman in white; a person crossing a corridor in the distance beyond the character in focus; spooky character in a mirror; a scary father straight out of The Amityville Horror; plenty of Dutch angles; a spooky nursery rhyme; doors that lock themselves; a spooky seance. All this and I've still an hour to go! Spooky deserted hospital; spooky doll; scary lady in black; scary old man; haunted elevator; spooky doll-house; spooky kids; haunted telephone (well, tin-can phone); spooky wardrobe; a chandelier that unscrews itself; banging; dry ice. There was so much spooky shit that I was waiting for a fucking clown to appear! It's like a tick list for horror idiots.

The dialogue is atrocious and lines that should be sinister come off as plain silly. Here's a couple of my favourites: a medium during a seance "I suppose I should have explained this isn't an exact science". A little later he also says "No! Do not break the circle!". Quality stuff. The soundtrack is just as bad and abuses the intelligence and emotional empathy of the audience by constantly shouting "Be scared... now!". Speaking of insulting the audience's intelligence; at one point a character, seeing a door mysteriously open says "So that's what that was about", referring to the same door mysteriously opening 30 minutes earlier in the film. Look Wan, we're not all morons with the memory of a goldfish!

The performances are fine apart from the evil witch, the thing under your bed, the big bad. Well you know Creedence Leonore Gielgud from Troll 2? It seems that James Wan managed to track her down and give her this pivotal role; just awful. Then there's the two paranormal investigators that are ripped straight from a Seth Rogen film. The "humour" they provide is completely misplaced and does nothing except kill what little tension there is.

Hopefully I don't come over as pompous here but IC2 is a horror film for people that don't like horror films or have never seen a proper horror film. There is nothing in it that is even remotely scary and the film relies on overused jump-scares to shock rather than engender a feeling of dread and, dare I say, horror.

Insidious Chapter 2 is lazy, cynical and cliché ridden with a distinct lack of subtlety. It's full of supposition, irrationality, giant leaps of logic and contrivance. It is a giant ball-bag of shite.

At least Barbara Hershey was in it, but if you want to see a truly scary film staring Ms. Hershey try Outer Space; an amazing horror short re-edited from footage from the 1982 film The Entity.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Whiplash (2014)

"Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent" -- Miles Davis

This is one film I've really been looking forward to as I love jazz. I even play a little guitar, bass and drums, although extremely badly. Where the lead in this film could change time signatures during a song, I do the same, just accidentally and really badly. In other words I'm a shit drummer that can't keep time. There is one problem with Whiplash though - I can't watch him drumming as I can't understand the music that way - the timing, the swing - I get confused by the movement. I have to close my eyes which means I don't get to see the film. Argh!

The structure of Whiplash is very traditional; boy wants to be the best, boy gets discouraged, boy bounces back and becomes great. Really it's a jazz version of Alan Parker's Fame. I'm not saying that it's bad. In fact it's good. Very, very good. You'll find no experimental filming techniques, no improvised dialogue. What you do get is an examination of talent, the pressure that the need to excel brings and how it can either destroy or re-enforce depending on how great that "need" is.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a talented music conservatory drummer who wants to be the very best. J.K. Simmons plays his teacher and mentor; superficially a bully, but digging a little deeper we find a very hard taskmaster that expects the best and wants his musicians to reach their potential. Fletcher uses every trick in the book to coax every ounce of effort from his band members, including playing three drummers off against each other - speaking of which, I far prefer Andrew's drumming as it has way more swing, groove and a lot less attack (unfortunately this groove was lost in the later half of the film where they focused on the more, admittedly impressive, pyrotechnic aspects of drumming). It's not just ability that's important, it's drive and focus.

The gradual disassembly of Andrew, then rebuilding as a harder and stronger drummer is just brilliant. Just how much can he cope with and sacrifice to be the best? The pain, the abuse, the doubt. Who is really causing the pain? Fletcher or Andrew himself? Overshadowed at home by his cousin, a mediocre football player and continually told that music is a hobby and not career, only drives him harder.

Filmed half in shadow like all good jazz should be. The important thing about Whiplash is the contrast. The black against white. The silence against sound. The spotlight in the dark. This concept is highlighted by Andrew taking his girlfriend to see Rififi; a film famous for a "silent" heist scene. The silence is as important as the rolls, fills and paradiddles. It's the empty spaces that highlight content. As Miles said, "Don't play what's there, play what's not there".

The soundtrack, and by that I mean the incidental music, is top notch and is not overshadowed by the stonking jazz covers that they play.

The dialogue is very good with both Teller and Simmons delivering lines worthy of a hero in an action movie or Malcolm Tucker from TV's The Thick of It, including: "Unfortunately, this is not a Bette Midler concert, we will not be serving Cosmopolitans and Baked Alaska, so just play faster than you give fucking hand jobs, will you please?" and "Hey, fuck off Johnny Utah! Turn my pages bitch!".

A five star killer of a film. Pressure. Nice!

"Inhale resolve, Exhale ambition
Inhale all I need, Exhale all I want
Inhale love of life, Exhale fear of death
Inhale power, Exhale force"
-- Henry Rollins

Written whilst listening to Benny Goodman's legendary 1938 concert at the Carnegie Hall, which I recommend everyone listen to.

Letterboxd Review

Rabid Dogs (1974)

This review is for the Arrow Blu-Ray (in the original Italian with English subs) of Mario Bava's 1974 Poliziotteschi thriller Rabid Dogs and not the re-edited Kidnapped.

The film starts with an outstanding and typically "Bava" title sequence in lurid colours and then straight into the action with a violent robbery. During this scene the editing is frenetic and almost nonsensical. You have no real idea what is going on. A bit like what I would guess a robbery would be like! This is followed by an escape in a wee little Fiat in which gigantic George Eastman is continually bumping and rubbing his head on the ceiling. Following a police chase the criminals take a father and his young, ill son and an unrelated young woman hostage and make a break for the countryside. It's here that the rest of the film takes place - in real time, and this is the cause of most of the issues with the film.

After such a frantic first act there's no way that Bava could keep up the pace and the film drags in places as we are treated to endless shots of cornfields and gorges interspersed with some pretty nasty dialogue and exploitation scenes. Rabid Dogs was filmed at the end of Bava's career and only six years before his death. On occasion, I could almost feel Bava's embarrassment at filming the more exploitative scenes and could imagine the producers saying to Bava: "Come on Mario, this is what the audience want nowadays! They don't want shadows and atmosphere. They want humiliation, piss and rape" and then Bava, crying silently into his cappuccino. Something that could have helped would have been some focus on the Police's attempt to stop them which, at least for me, makes Lenzi's Almost Human the superior film.

The criminals are full of menace and unpredictable and barely controlled aggression. Bava doesn't want you to feel any form of sympathy with them. There is none of the romanticisation that is used to coat villains in today's films. The title Rabid Dogs is perfect as you can almost see the foam spilling from their mouths. The blood is of that 70's Italian type; thick and bright and unnaturally red. The photography and editing are great, but the score is far less successful with some misjudged organ driven jazz funk being used over a chase through a cornfield being a case in point. It's not used for emphasis or even for counterpoint (a'la Last House on the Left - which was obviously an influence on other aspects of this film), it's just like someone the their record player on. There's a nice twist at the end that I unfortunately guessed a good 45 minutes before it happened - it was still good when it happened though. As for the restoration? There are colour and resolution shifts during the scenes cut from the Kidnapped version which is understandable considering this original cut of the film was originally thought lost and perhaps never even fully edited. These are not really too intrusive and we should be grateful to Arrow for at least attempting what must have been a difficult restoration. Finally, J&B Whiskey makes a welcome appearance!

Where's One-Shot Finch when you need him.

Original Letterboxd review

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Film Reference Books Page Added

I've just created a page listing some film reference books that I have or have owned in the past. No review as such but I've given details for each book as well as a brief mini-review and an Amazon link.

Included are:
  • The Story of Film: A concise history of film and an odyssey of international cinema
  • Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s
  • Eaten Alive!: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies
  • The New Flesh: 21st Century Horror Films A-Z, Volume 1
  • The Psychotronic Video Guide
  • The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies
  • Horror!: Films to Scare You to Death
  • Shock Xpress: v. 1: Essential Guide to Exploitation Cinema
  • Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: Dark Dreams of Dario Argento
  • A Pictorial History of Horror Movies
  • Monsters of the Movies
The link is over there on the right  ==========>