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Monday, 31 January 2011

Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives (2010)

Director: Israel Luna
Stars: Erica Andrews, Willam Belli, Kelexis Davenport, Jenna Skyy and Krystal Summers
Sometimes there are movies you should never watch because there's just no way they could ever live up to their titles. When I saw that the Arizona Underground Film Festival was screening a film called Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, I knew it was either going to be a disappointment or the greatest film ever made, but catching up on DVD I realise that it's a combination of both. Obviously this isn't a movie for everyone, but you can hardly accuse it of false advertising. It's an indie film, financed by a lesbian in her eighties, shot by a gay Texan director and, perhaps for the first time anywhere, starring real transgender women in most of the lead roles. It's also a throwback to grindhouse rape revenge movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Savage Streets, but with plenty of comedy and nowhere near as much nastiness. Those who would hate it are the ones who wouldn't dream of watching it to begin with because it's exactly what they think it is.

Personally I've found drag queens to be an acquired taste, somewhat like gangsta rappers, but I'd much rather see a dozen drag queens bitching at each other for ninety minutes than just one pissant little gangsta rapper who thinks he's tough for five minutes. The five stars of this film are mostly transgender women but all are professional entertainers, most of whom director Israel Luna knew from a Dallas bar called Station Four. This is success number one, though he didn't have a clue while making it that his film would be a first. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately given the free publicity it gave him, he had problems with GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who protested at his use of the word 'tranny', and at his depiction of transgender women, surprising given that the real transgender women who played them built the characters themselves. Luna sees his film as empowering, which makes sense to me.

The characters the girls play are success number two. Willam Belli, the best of the five actors, often appears on TV dramas and cop shows, but she rarely gets to be as flamboyant as this. She plays Rachel Slurr, who isn't a racist, she just hates everyone. She also has a repartee that is so gloriously dry that she had me in stitches with almost every line, as the persona is one that she can really explore, unlike usual roles like 'Bathroom Tranny', 'Blonde Drag Queen' or 'Tranny Hooker'. When her characters have names, they usually lean to the generic, like 'Sasha Simone', 'Candy Darling' or 'Supernova Chablis'. Rachel Slurr is so much better, as are those of the girls she works on stage with: Tipper Sommore, Emma Grashun, Bubbles Cliquot and Pinky La'Trimm. These actors are less experienced than Belli, at least on film, with few if any credits, but they're more than up to the task, all five of them contributing substantially to the dialogue.

Success number three should have been the throwback to the grindhouse days, but while Luna gives awesome interviews and obviously really loves the films and subgenres he takes influence from, he doesn't nail this as an old school rape revenge flick. I can get by the technical issues, as he didn't have much budget to speak of, so fabricated fake tape rips out of Final Cut Pro effects. Some are better than others and I have to admit I loved the missing chapter and the deliberately abrupt ending to another. Part of it is that there's no attempt to grain the film or date it, but for the most part it's the lack of consistency of tone. Sure, many grindhouse movies were so awful that they didn't have consistency of tone either but chapter five here left me totally dry because it only served to interrupt the good stuff that came after and especially before it. So while I love the idea of a seventies tranny rape revenge movie, this one isn't it. It's a 2010 indie version.

As you can imagine, if you've seen the sort of picture that Luna was inspired by, the plot is not particularly difficult to summarise, but for a rape revenge movie there's just not enough rape or revenge. The rape takes place before the film begins, though we find out about it during chapter three. Bubbles was raped by a redneck lowlife called Boner because he thought she was a real girl, which looking at Krystal Summers (no, not the porn actress) is understandable. Now she's dragged along by Emma and Rachel to be the third girl in a private party with three guys and he turns out to be the one they hadn't seen. What ensues is an agreeably violent scene with decent filmmaking from Luna, especially given the budget. While the choreography needs some work, he's able to build suspense well, as he proves again later in the film. The suggestion is that after this scene fades to black, Bubbles may have been raped again and two of her friends are dead.
Up to this point the film has been solid. The first chapter introduces the girls, not just names but characters, in a great scene that would feel like Quentin Tarantino wrote it if only it didn't sound so natural. These flamboyant drag queens with daunting cleavages argue about Trashy Tuesday, Lindsay Wagner and Latino nicknames (would you date anyone named after a cheese?) in lines that were ad libbed as much as they were ever written down. Apparently Luna often had to work hard to keep his camera steady for laughing so much. This all carries on when they go to a gay bar to party and talk about relationships. Anything less than four months isn't a relationship. If you sucked it, you're gay. Only you, unicorns and leprechauns believe in bisexual men. I wonder if I'd find Kevin Smith funnier if he was a drag queen. These drag queens have no conception of restraint but they don't ever cross over that line where banter becomes cruel.

So after so much great character building and so much great dialogue, we get a decent scene of violence and I was all set for this to become a great movie. Unfortunately the missing reel was probably better than the one after it that survived, at least once the first scene is done. That's as funny as the early ones, with Bubbles emerging from a coma unable to speak, while Rachel and Pinky go to cheer her up and prove to be gloriously infuriating instead. Unfortunately, for a while it goes downhill from there. We get Nurse Connie Lingus, Dr Phil Lashio and a character called Fergus who takes them on a haycart ride into the middle of nowhere in oriental garb, umbrella for Pinky and all. The scenery is great, the rest is embarrassing. There's even a fart joke, which sadly isn't out of place, and the only redeeming moment it finds is the last one, as it ends with the film burning up and an 'excuse us while we change reels' message. I was thankful.

I expected that after the scene of violence (I'd say rape scene to be traditional, but surely a rape scene has to contain a rape), we'd get a period of recovery and then Bubbles would turn tough and hunt down with a bloody vengeance the men who killed her friends and violated her. There are three of them, so that would make three scenes of therapeutic justice, building in degrees until Boner gets his during the finalé. Instead we get a chapter of juvenile humour that is totally out of place and then only one vengeance scene, because the three bad guys show up together at Bubbles' place for the final hurrah. Having three scenes condensed into one means quite a lot. It means there's plenty of time to stretch out good dialogue into far too much dialogue, it means there's little opportunity for suspense and most of all, it means no escalation of violence, which is much of the joy of such films. If this scene was this gruesome, what is the next going to have?

Luna doesn't skimp on the violence for his finalé but he misses the mark with some of it, going beyond the choreography, which in this instance was understandably a little awkward because it was all shot in one long 27 hour session. My biggest problem with the scene is that rape is an act of sexual violence and you would expect any response to it to be an act of sexual violence too but we don't see any of that here. In the films Luna was influenced by, rape scenes make women squirm and revenge scenes make men squirm. I didn't squirm once, though there was plenty of opportunity to include material that would have done the trick. The only example that comes close (a great use for switchblades) was again told to us rather than shown to us. Grindhouse is always about showing us, which is why this fails on that front. It has a joyous beginning with joyous characters but the middle sucks and the ending could have been so much more.

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Director: Toshiya Fujita
Star: Meiko Kaji

Back in the eighties in England, I learned about genre film as much by reading about it as by actually watching it, given that the self appointed arbiters of public morals cut or banned movies by the bucketload. I remember reading with longing about a number of Japanese films from the early seventies, generally sourced from manga and featuring stylised violence and great gouts of blood, precisely the sort of thing that the censors had kittens about. Most notable were those written by Kazuo Koike and eventually, through an underground source, I found the six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, along with the American Shogun Assassin, compiled from the first two, which had a history of trouble with the censors, though it technically never made the video nasty list. I never found Lady Snowblood back then but I'm overjoyed that AnimEigo have made it available in a crisp letterbox print with solid subtitles and useful liner notes.

Rape revenge films were always a popular target for the British censors, but most were sleazy affairs that had little redeeming value, not that I didn't want the freedom to choose to watch the things anyway. In stark comparison, Lady Snowblood is a deep and meaningful exploration of the concept of revenge, albeit with a good deal of bloodshed. The depth begins with the title, as Shurayuki-hime is not just visual poetry but also a deliberate pun in Japanese. The three words involved are 'shura', a Buddhist term meaning 'netherworld', a place with similar implications to the western 'Hell'; 'yuki', which means 'snow' and is a popular girls' name; and 'hime', a suffix meaning 'princess' or 'lady'. Change a single letter to 'Shirayuki' and you have 'Snow White', an innocent girl pursued by an evil queen, or in other words the precise opposite of the heroine of this story, who is a pursuer of evil who shows no innocence when cutting it down.

The script dances around the years a little, showing us scenes and then explaining the context. This context is grounded as much in Japanese history as in a set of fictional characters, and the AnimEigo subtitles and notes ably fill us in without distracting us from events as they unfold. Our heroine is Yuki, the Lady Snowblood of the title, who shows how dangerous she is at the outset, making quick work of gang leader Shibayama Genzo and his men with somersaults, swordplay and a sharp edged parasol. What's important isn't just that she's a finely honed weapon but that she's seeking vengeance for someone other than herself. Her mother, Kashima Sayo, who dies giving birth to her in a Tokyo prison, explains to the midwife that she is born for vengeance, 'a child of the netherworlds.' In fact Sayo has whored herself out in prison entirely to increase her chances at pregnancy, so to enable her plans for revenge. This is all consuming vengeance!
It's 1874, the seventh year of the Meiji era of Japanese history, which saw the country embrace western ideals and attempt to haul itself up by its bootstraps after centuries of isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate were ended. The Tokugawa era was known for feudalism and peace but after Admiral Perry's ships arrived in 1853, demonstrating how powerful the foreigners had become, the shogunate slowly collapsed until its replacement by the sixteen year old emperor Meiji who ruled until 1912. Meiji was a supporter of western ideals who turned his nation into a world power, but there were many troubles on the way. Of particular importance to this story, he introduced a military draft, requiring that all sixteen year old boys register so that when they turned twenty they could be conscripted. A misunderstanding of one clause in this law led to a superstition that the army sent men in white to kill conscripts and sell their blood to foreigners.

And so, in 1873, when Kashima Go wanders into the village of Koichi to take up the position of schoolmaster, he really shouldn't have dressed all in white. He's quickly murdered, along with his young son Shiro, by killers who promptly rape his wife, Sayo, for three days and three nights. One of them then takes Sayo to Tokyo, where she kills him and ends up in prison, consumed by hatred and a thirst for revenge that she manifests in her daughter, Yuki, whose sole purpose for existing is to track down the three remaining villains and kill them to satisfy her mother's lust for vengeance. The midwife, Mikazuki Otora, takes her to Dokai, a priest who trains her ruthlessly to fulfil her destiny. If you're horrified by the lengths that Sayo goes in the name of revenge, that's the point. This is a lesson in what that revenge means, how it affects those involved in the story and also how it affects others who only later join its periphery.

In 1973, Meiko Kaji was known for pinky violence movies, such as five films in the Stray Cat Rock girl gang series and four in the Female Prisoner Scorpion women in prison series, as well as the yakuza picture Wandering Ginza Butterfly and its sequel, these eleven films only taking up four years of her filmography from 1970 to 1973. Lady Snowblood and its 1974 sequel, Love Song of Vengeance, allowed her to move into more serious work, the pinnacle of which is probably The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a 1978 adaptation of a play first performed in 1703 and described as the Japanese Romeo and Juliet. She's a good part of the success of this film, ably portraying not only the resolute face of vengeance but a growing questioning of what will come next. The film's final moments are given over to putting her into a magnificently poetic setting of this question: what do you do next when your entire raison d'être has been fulfilled?
As Yuki leaves her training ground with Dokai, she doesn't question much. It's as the body count mounts that the questions appear and grow along with the deaths. Initially the moral grounding of her quest seems simple: these are evil people who perpetrated an evil act and they must pay for their crimes. As time goes by and she gets nearer to completing her goal, it ceases to be that simple. She elicits the help of a gang leader, whose men were all set to rape her, to track down the two men and one woman she's searching for. Takemura Banzo, the first that she finds, is a father wasting away to drink, drugs and gambling, but whose daughter Kobue loves him anyway. She provides for him by selling her body but hides this from him by weaving chikufujin, bamboo dolls that serve as Dutch wives, that she pretends to sell in town but really throws into the sea. Killing Banzo merely leads Kobue to start her own vengeance quest. Revenge breeds revenge.

I should add that Genzo isn't one of those Yuki seeks, his death merely being a nod to the many she kills in the source manga as a hired assassin. Kazuo Koike's manga ran to four volumes with fifteen distinct chapters, so an attempt to tell the story within a 97 minute running time means that much had to be left out. We focus instead on the three direct objects of Yuki's quest, which are bloodier and more complex in turn. Beyond Kaji, who dominates the film, the most obvious actor is Toshio Kurosawa as Ashio Ryurei, an author and journalist who meets her in a graveyard where she discovers that her second target was killed in a shipwreck three years earlier, thus prompting questions about how she can meet her obligations when the man is already dead. Dokai feeds Ryurei her story to novelise, which serves as bait to bring out Kitahama Okono, the woman who held Sayo back from her husband's murder and to be raped by the others.

While it's easy to watch this film for the blood, which gouts and gushes beyond any semblance of reality, spraying out in vast quantities as if every wound pierces an primary artery, it's hard not to realise just how much depth it has. I have to admit that after one viewing, I'd still favour the Lone Wolf and Cub films, but this one is already resonating as I ponder the implications and questions that it raises. The story unfolds with panache, with a firm place in history and with new complexities introduced at each key moment to deepen Yuki's character. It's backed gloriously, Masaki Tamura's camera moving simply but very effectively. Banzo's death is a great example. When Yuki strikes a killing blow, the camera leaps back as if in shock, then closes in as he falls sideways into the sea, focusing on his face as he dies, washed by bloody waves. We close in on Yuki's eyes before she tosses him into the sea at the spot his daughter threw her chikufujin.

This camerawork is deceptively clever, but perhaps only if we expect an exploitation film. This is really as artistic as any of the great jidaigeki films, albeit in more garish colours, and the pace is note perfect. The relentless story unfolds inevitably, but with a few surprises on the way, and it builds as Yuki's character builds, each setpiece bigger and more complex than the last, until the logical conclusion where we leave the story at precisely the right moment. It's no wonder that Lady Snowblood proved so influential, not only as a companion piece to Lone Wolf and Cub but as the chief inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which tells much the same story and even uses the theme tune, The Flower of Hell or The Flower of Carnage, in both halves. It was also recently remade, though transplanted from the past to the future, as The Princess Blade. As a substantial treatment of a timeless story, it has solidified its place as a cinematic marker.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

British Agent (1934)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Leslie Howard and Kay Francis
Of all the great leading men of the golden era, I've never really understood Leslie Howard. He was certainly an accomplished actor but he has such a lack of charisma that every time I watch a Leslie Howard movie I tend to find myself watching everyone else instead. This always surprises me because the charisma he has is a by product of the 'perfect Englishman' persona that he cultivated: tall and slim, intellectual and sensitive, reluctant to fight but willing to commit to the bitter end when needs must. These are attributes I admire and they should have made Howard a refreshing counter to the brutish leading men of the time, who tended to be quick with their fists and their wits, but short on sophistication. Yet characters like Ashley Wilkes, which epitomises his persona, simply annoy the crap out of me while I appreciate more dynamic and decisive roles that seem to be played against type, such as in The Scarlet Pimpernel and British Agent.

Here he's Stephen Locke, a loose fictionalisation of the very real R H Bruce Lockhart, who worked for the British secret service in Russia and whose bestselling 1932 autobiography, Memoirs of a British Agent, quickly became this film. Lockhart was a Scot, from teaching stock, but an obvious wanderlust led him to lead an action packed life, one ripe for adaptation to the screen. Even at a mere 21 he had travelled to Malaya, where his uncles were rubber planters, opened up a new rubber estate, 'caused a minor sensation by carrying off Amai,' a ward of the local prince, was subsequently poisoned and, in an emaciated state, bundled back home. You'd think joining the British Foreign Service and being posted to Moscow as a Vice-Consul would have been a chance to live the quiet life, and sure enough, he spent a good deal of his time playing in a local Moscow football team. The Russian Revolution was not far away, though, and he played a central part.

Our fictionalised version begins in St Petersburg in 1917. The Russians have revolted and exiled the Czar but the provisional government is only just hanging on and a second revolution is more than likely. Great Britain is worried about Russia leaving the war effort by signing a peace with Germany, thus releasing wide swathes of the Kaiser's army from the Eastern Front to move back west and plague the other allied powers. Stephen Locke wants his government to recognise the Russians now in power, to demonstrate to the Russian people that Britain is behind them, but he only succeeds in persuading his superiors that he might be a good man to have on the ground, so off he goes as the new British Consul General in Moscow. This is a Hollywood movie from the golden age so we don't expect accurate history, especially given that it's based on the memoirs of a spy, so it isn't surprising to see plenty of liberties taken, but this is great setup for drama.

There are a number of things done very right. As Locke arrives at the embassy in St Petersburg, it's alive with one of Lady Carrister's parties and there's a glorious contrast between the civility inside with the unrest outside. The gentlemen are paying attention to what's going on in the streets but they're doing so while dancing the night away as if it's nothing of concern, similar to the infamous black tie dinner in Carry On... Up the Khyber. A lot of effort is given to authenticity, in feel if not in historic detail. When Lenin foments revolution, he does so in Russian and is even played by a Russian actor, Tenen Holtz, who had admittedly moved to the US at the age of ten. Orders are in Russian, signs are in Russian, even songs are sung in Russian. This is unusual for Hollywood in the thirties, but then this was a notable production with 41 sets built, 1,500 actors cast and 3,000 rounds of ammunition shot during the riot scenes.
Of course, there are a number of things done very wrong too, as is the case with almost every historical film made during the golden age. The most obvious is the imposition of a ludicrous romantic subplot between Locke and a Russian lady, Elena Moura, who hangs out with the head of the Russian secret police and works as an undersecretary to the Soviet government after the second revolution. It's a notably unlikely romance, as well as being a particularly doomed one that begins quickly and never engages on a single level. It doesn't help that when First National needed a romantic Russian leading lady, they cast Wavishing Kay Fwancis, who I have a great respect for when not appearing in films like this. Hollywood did much worse, even in 1934, such as casting Katharine Hepburn as a backwoods hick in Spitfire, but that doesn't make Francis a good choice for a seductive Russian. The happy ending she's given is soul destroying too.

There's also an early attempt at a multicultural set of friends for Locke, who are there to help him run a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the Soviets in Moscow, but turn up long beforehand without a thing to do except hang around and play cards until something happens. Walter Byron is the Brit, William Gargan the American, New Yorker Phillip Reed the Frenchman and a young Cesar Romero the Spaniard. This was only Romero's third film after The Shadow Laughs and The Thin Man, but he was already well worth watching, even though Gargan is the highlight of this quartet as Bob Medill, a rough and ready sort who would stand up to anyone or anything. It helps him that at this point, Howard is in full on stir crazy mode, itching for action, and while he's great when being dynamic and demonstrative, he's far less capable in scenes where he's tasked to be unsure, frustrated or weak. A weak Howard is a waste of film, a dynamic Howard is alive.

When he's finally given something to do, instructed to act as an unofficial representative of His Majesty's Government, his first act is to read his unofficial instructions aloud with a member of the opposing government listening from the next room. It's a little careless for a secret agent, but there are more such scenes to come, all tied around Elena Moura, apparently suggesting that even the best agents are useless when there's a pretty girl hanging around. She's there as an undersecretary, when he attempts to persuade the Soviet central committee not to sign a peace with Germany, but she throws a spanner in his works and he only manages to keep hope alive for three weeks before everything falls apart. Yet he never gives up on her. What a gift he is... to the Russians! When the Soviets move from St Petersburg to Moscow, signs that peace and assassinates the Czar, Locke follows in the hope that he can talk them back into the war.

What he ends up doing is discovering many attempts to overthrow the Soviets from within, and whether the attempts are being mounted by the Russian royalists, the white army or those who just plain don't like them, he does everything he can to support them. Here's where the picture comes alive, with Locke's name on the lips of every interrogator. It doesn't take long for Sergei Pavlov, the head of the secret police, to enlist the aid of Elena to do away with the pesky Scot who loves her. Director Michael Curtiz ably builds the tension as Lenin is shot and it's unclear whether he will survive, but there's too little time and too much inevitability. History is only surprising when it's obscure. When it comes to the big stuff that we know, only the details can surprise and this is a truly epic story straining to explode out of a mere 80 minute running time. There's a vast amount crammed into this film but very little opportunity to do any of it justice.

It doesn't help that every time we get caught up in the flow of history, we have to pause to find out the latest in the romance angle. Perhaps this could have made a palatable romance story if there was nothing else to compete with it, but it's merely an intrusive subplot shoehorned into a spy film and it really has no place, especially when handled by Kay Francis, who should never have been cast. She's much better than Irving Pichel, as Pavlov, which doesn't say much for his performance, but J Carrol Naish is a surprisingly effective Leon Trotsky, at this point Commissar for War. It's not that Howard and Francis don't have capable scenes together, because they do, one in a gypsy café in particular, it's that they don't belong in this film. If Warner Brothers had adapted Lockhart's memoirs more literally, or jettisoned the first half and phrased the picture as a guerrilla action movie in Moscow, it would have been far more worthwhile.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The Sleeping Cardinal (1931)

Director: Leslie S Hiscott
Star: Arthur Wontner

The Guinness Book of Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the 'most portrayed movie character' of all time, with no less than 75 actors portraying Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective in over two hundred pictures. This trend seems unlikely to abate, given that Robert Downey Jr is about to reprise the role, Sacha Baron Cohen is planning a comedy version and the Asylum will likely cash in on both. The most remembered screen Holmes is Basil Rathbone, who played the part in fourteen popular features during Hollywood's golden age, but he was neither the first actor to take on the role nor to reprise it. Most prolific was Eille Norwood, who played Holmes 47 times in the silent era, but most of those films were two reelers running about twenty minutes in length. The first film star to play Holmes was John Barrymore in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes but that took liberties. Only in the thirties did feature length films begin to do the character justice.

A slew of British actors took the role in the early days of sound. Clive Brook was the first, in two films for different studios: The Return of Sherlock Holmes for Paramount in 1929 and Sherlock Holmes for Fox in 1932. Raymond Massey earned his first credit as the detective in The Speckled Band in 1931, when Robert Rendel made The Hound of the Baskervilles. Reginald Owen, Watson to Brook's Holmes in 1932, was promoted in 1933 for A Study in Scarlet. These actors met with varying levels of success, but the actor who became Sherlock Holmes to both the critics and the fans, at least before the heady days of Rathbone, was Arthur Wontner, who began in 1931 with The Sleeping Cardinal and returned to the role four more times, ending with Silver Blaze in 1937. He reportedly won the part by playing Holmes knockoff Sexton Blake in 1930, but Arthur Conan Doyle had suggested the role to Wontner a decade earlier, aiming at a stage portrayal.

The best of the five Wontner films is supposedly 1935's The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, but I'll find that out as I work through them. Four of the five are readily available in public domain box sets, though the second of them, 1932's The Missing Rembrandt, is considered lost. I'm not sure if The Sleeping Cardinal is also lost under its original title, or whether the American release, with a more commercial name, Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour, is simply easier to find. It's a fair opener to the series, albeit mostly because of Wontner's memorable portrayal. He's more pixie-like than we expect Holmes to be, as well as much older given that Wontner was 56 at the time. He also shines above the material even though he's inevitably tasked with wheeling out the usual in his first outing. He gets to correct Watson's false impressions, conjure up an 'elementary, my dear Watson' and introduce Prof Moriarty (here named Robert), both to Watson and to us.

Unfortunately it takes us a while to get to Holmes and what precedes him is hardly essential. A man is murdered in the strong room of the London and Commercial Bank, though the £70,000 it contains is left mysteriously intact. We switch to a game of bridge, a genteel one in a large room with ornately carved chairs and a butler. Ronald Adair is the host and he's a cheat, inexcusable behaviour for an English gentleman, even if he and his sister Kathleen were left penniless when their father, governor general of the Bengal, died and the ensuing trustee absconded with all the money. The pace is slow and leisurely, but unfortunately it doesn't indicate more story. Instead the script hammers its point home, apparently for the sake of hearing some of the characters talk. Ronnie isn't far above a nonentity and Kathy is overly melodramatic. We are bludgeoned with, 'I can't believe you're cheating but you must be... oh I can't believe it!' shenanigans.
Fortunately things pick up when we get to 221B Baker St. Even the set is glorious, far better to my eyes than Rathbone's equivalent most of a decade later. I'd much rather move into these, with floor to ceiling bookcases and a number of nooks. Rathbone's apartments always felt like a movie set to me but Wontner's feel lived in. Housekeeper Mrs Hudson is a jovial woman, short and rotund, with Minnie Rayner as down to earth as she should be in the part. Thankfully Watson is no bumbling fool, though he still fails to get the right end of a whole collection of sticks. Nigel Bruce could bumble better than anyone but he turned Watson into a buffoon. Ian Fleming (no, not the creator of James Bond) is capable as much more than just a sidekick, being believably different things to different people: gentlemanly to Kathy, genuinely assistive to Holmes. Philip Hewland is less memorable as Insp Lestrade, but still acquits himself well.

It's here that the writing shows its highest quality too. Three writers worked on the script, which is spun out of two Conan Doyle stories, The Empty House and The Final Problem. Initial scenes at the Adair's are typical overblown early sound era nonsense, from a time when studios adapted every stage play they could find, regardless of the quality, and all viewers saw was interminable talk. Once in Baker St, the talking works. The mystery unfolds well, with Wontner and Fleming interesting foils, and Lestrade a worthy third wheel, a man of action who doesn't buy into all Holmes's ideas. He thinks the detective is obsessed, especially when he wheels out his Moriarty theories, but of course Holmes is way ahead of everyone. The biggest problem with the plot is that it's all entirely obvious. There are no red herrings, just a gradual unfolding of the truth to Lestrade and Watson. Holmes keeps his secrets from them but we're in on them from the start.

At least there are a plethora of little crimes to keep us interested, while waiting for the big one to be revealed. The reviewer for the Times enjoyed these details immensely, listing 'a potpourri of all known social and domestic crimes. There is a bit of card cheating, some counterfeiting, bank robbery, Foreign Office dalliance, murder, and simple assault with attempt to kill.' Holmes has an uncanny talent at connecting the dots because there is simply no attempt made to link disparate parts of the plot except through the detective announcing a connection, but at least the dots are kept coming. For some reason the one thing that escapes him for a while is the painting of the recumbent Cardinal Richelieu which provides the original title to the film. Moriarty hides behind it to issue orders, especially to characters he attempts to blackmail, like Ronald Adair. The retitle served only to put the detective into the film's name for those who hadn't read the original story.

With a plot that remains continually interesting but unchallenging, it's Wontner who dominates. The writer Vincent Starrett, who wrote a number of Holmes pastiches as far back as 1920, wrote that, 'No better Sherlock Holmes than Arthur Wontner is likely to be seen and heard in pictures in our time.' While Rathbone would claim that honour within a decade, Wontner wriggled inside the skin of the detective better than anyone thus far and it's easy to see this film as little more than his emphatic stamp of ownership on the character. Certainly, in comparison, Norman McKinnel is a particularly poor Moriarty. He's as melodramatic as Kathy Adair, full of cheap theatricality and wild threats. His first appearance is bad, visiting 221B Baker St in a terribly overdone disguise, and he gets worse from there. Fortunately McKinnel was replaced for his return in a later film. I look forward to seeing the series develop, even without the missing The Missing Rembrandt.

Eyes in the Dark (2010)

Director: Bjorn Anderson
Stars: Wayne Bastrup, Melissa Goad, John Symonds, Maureen Francisco, Telisa Steen, Melinda Ausserer, Jason Robinson and Paul Eenhoorn
We may be coming up on a whole new era in Forteana. The X Files told us that the truth is out there, the Internet gave us opportunity to start looking and now Wikileaks has the potential to actually hand us the details. While we may never quite get treated to a leaked document that identifies the precise crate in the precise warehouse that the Ark of the Covenant is currently languishing in, I'm intrigued to see what the next decade or so brings us in uncovered cover ups, demystified mysteries and explained conspiracies. It might even bring us a real life equivalent of this, the second feature from Bjorn Anderson, whose imagination shows in his choice of subject matter for his debut: a mediaeval war movie from 2009 called Warrior's End, hardly the usual starting point for a new filmmaker. He fills the same roles here, as writer, producer and director, but this is a more traditional horror movie, albeit following relatively new traditions.

It's a handheld found footage movie, always an engaging choice for the low budget filmmaker because it doesn't cost much. This one set Anderson back a mere $5,000, most of that going on cabin rental and food supplies for the cast and crew. Such a microbudget generally means two things: the film is going to look like crap but it's going to look awesome for the money. After all, the quality level you should expect from Avatar with its $237m budget should be 47,400 times higher than Eyes in the Dark. There are no 3D blue aliens here but frankly I'd rather watch this, even though I tend to hate handheld movies because they give me motion sickness. For $5,000, it's astounding. Ignoring the budget, it's still pretty good, not least because it doesn't fall for the problems that most handheld movies fall for every damn time. In fact it seems to make a point of not falling for any of them and it's refreshing to see such a carefully crafted microbudget film.

The most obvious success is that it's internally consistent. So many found footage films revolve around a camera that's discovered somewhere that magically contains footage edited together from multiple tapes, often from multiple cameras, with all the boring bits conveniently removed. Eyes in the Dark opens with us using a gloriously old school terminal to login to a classified FBI database where we review several pieces of video evidence. Someone has found this footage, arranged it according to logical context and archived it so hackers like us can sneak our way in to watch. I love this conceit right down to the clicking sound of the keyboard. Anderson is also careful to keep the size of the frame consistent with the source recording device, whether that's a cell phone, trusty old videotape or even a TV news camera, thus ensuring that the story neatly expands to fill the screen, as the bulk of it was shot on a pair of Sony digital HD cameras.

We're in the Cascades, a particularly beautiful mountain range that stretches 700 miles from British Columbia down to northern California. In particular we're east of Seattle, in country that I've visited and can attest fits this material well. I remember looking down from a remote bridge on I-90 at what seemed like vast swathes of forest and feeling my imagination itch for release. Anderson's chief inspiration for the story was a nightmare but I'm utterly unsurprised that he set it in this landscape. The central section of the film involves the usual bunch of college kids going into the woods to have a good time but the inevitable frivolity of these scenes is contrasted well with more serious footage shown beforehand. The depth that this gives the story is what stayed with me long after watching it. Unlike other handheld microbudget movies like Four Leaf Clover, House Swap or even Evil Things, this is much more than just kids and a camera.
How much more is slowly revealed, as with all the best monster movies. The cell phone evidence that we see first has nothing but a panicked man and a strange noise to set the mood. The video taken by a pair of missing research biologists adds both depth and tension, not least because of the mostly serious tone taken, but it only drops hints at what is hiding in these woods. They're in the Cascades to study deer migratory patterns but they don't find the evidence they expect, just scat or the odd carcass or skeleton. They do hear something on the second night, something big that ends up coming too close. A local news station reports that eight students lost in the woods have been officially updated from missing persons to murder victims, but this is confiscated film so we can be sure that story has been suppressed. All this means that by the time we see video recovered from a social networking site for missing persons, we have rare context to go on.

The main section is the weakest, but that's inevitable in a story like this because there are just so many other horror movies about college kids finding themselves in danger in the woods. At least Anderson avoids most of the standard clichés and somehow manages to ensure that these kids don't come close to the usual levels of annoying. The idiocy level is appropriate: they aren't the brightest kids in the world but they're far from the most stupid too. They just do dumb things because they're kids. Sure, they wander over to the mysterious caves after the local ranger asks them not to; they try to stick together when the eyes in the dark show up, only to fail miserably; and they're generally dismissive of anything they can't drink; but they're hardly average spring breakers and this is no Hollywood frat comedy. If you want an endless parade of naked breasts and conveniently shot lesbian makeout sessions you want a different film.

Technically the sound and lighting are flaky but believably so. After all, we're watching handheld footage shot by a college kid called Josh, who plans to liveblog through the last party of the year, which he and six friends will enjoy at the Cascades Ski Lodge. Most of the actors have a few films behind them and they're all capable without anyone standing out. The characterisations are not the deepest I've ever seen but compared to its obvious competitors, this is Oscar worthy writing. I applauded every time a cliché is hauled out only to be deflated. Even before Anderson delivers on the title, we discover that cell phones work in the woods, even at the most crucial moments; kids can both ask for and take directions when they get lost; and when characters rewind the tape we're watching, it actually stops playing. There's even one point where the camera stays on when it shouldn't, but as we prepare to get annoyed, the characters notice and switch it off.

While the biggest success of the film is the writing, the attention given to the suspenseful build up, the background and the internal consistency of the story and its presentation, the biggest failure may lie with the writing too. Some may complain about the monsters, which are kept at a distance for the most part and only come closer for the chaotic finalé, but I'd suggest that they would be missing the point. The film is called Eyes in the Dark not Big Hungry Monsters in Your Face, after all. Suffice it to say that these things are big, furry and dangerous and look vaguely like the Crites from Critters. However when the film ends, we still don't know much about them and I wanted to know a lot more. Anders, the Aussie caretaker at the ski lodge, tells them about Indian legends that speak to ancient spirits coming down from the mountains but we're never given any real explanations. Nobody explains why this whole episode is being suppressed either.

I don't know if Anderson left that for a sequel. Usually I'd say that I'd hope not, because found footage films have the most definite endings in all of horror and when sequels are made they tend to be painful. There is the potential for an utterly different sequel though, something that takes the material as a starting point for something new, in the way that James Cameron took the claustrophobic sexual horror of Alien and turned it into a military science fiction action movie with Aliens. The entire setup here oozes cover up and conspiracy theory, but never addresses why. A sequel could alternate between a hacker viewing this footage then heading out into the Cascades to investigate with an official but secret operation to take care of the eyes in the dark without ever letting on that it even exists. It wouldn't even have to be handheld, as this picture would serve only as the questions that it would answer. The truth is still out there, right?