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Thursday, 17 March 2011

Automorphosis (2008)

Director: Harrod Blank

'It's difficult to go against the grain,' says Harrod Blank early in this documentary about art cars. He knows that from experience, having turned his 1965 VW Beetle into an art car called Oh My God!, while believing that he was the only one to do something so weird. Yet he made it through the inevitable isolation and alienation to discover that he was far from the only one, that he'd unknowingly tapped into an American tradition, one that has become an increasingly important component of his life. When I moved to the US in 2004, I didn't see a lot of eccentricity, at least not the sort that people live and breathe. In England, every town has an eccentric or two to spice up everyone else's lives. My local eccentric was named Jake Mangelwurzel, a colourful character who rode around on a bike with a toilet on the back, married his dog and lived in a house with a moat and a car on the roof. Not having someone like Jake around makes life quieter and sadder.

Automorphosis revealed to me that there are indeed eccentrics in the US, beyond the folks who simply live on Route 66 or build the world's biggest something or other. Not everyone in the film is an eccentric, because if Blank does anything beyond fill 76 minutes with a wild menagerie of colourful and imaginative art cars, it's to seek answers to the simple question of why someone would choose to do this and he found many such answers. Some are eccentrics, sure, but there are almost as many different reasons to get into this obvious community of creators as there are people to have them. For some it's a compulsion, for others it's therapy. Some want to make a personal statement with their vehicle, others use theirs as commercial advertisements. For some it's an extension of who they are as a person, while others are simply artists painting on metal. A few cross a line to create behemoths that must cost a fortune to run and may not even be legal.

Blank is obviously passionate about his subject, this being only the latest in a body of work that has taken him a long way. When he realised that he wasn't the only person with a vehicle like this, that there were others around the country with their own art cars, he began to photograph them and eventually put them into a documentary, called Wild Wheels, which was picked up for repeat broadcast by PBS, bringing publicity to this community. As he explains in this film, more and more art car owners emerged, showing up to his screenings with their vehicles. Inevitably for a son who followed his father, Les Blank, into independent filmmaking by obtaining a degree in theater and film arts, he ran with it, creating Driving the Dream, a preview of this film that ran 29 minutes but grew into this feature length documentary. He co-founded a gathering, the Art Car Fest in San Francisco, and is currently creating a museum called Art Car World.

We learn about Harrod Blank in Automorphosis by looking at others and realising that they're in much the same situation that he is. For most of the colourful characters he introduces to us, and he shows us many such people, this has become a life, a vocation, a definition of who they are. In fact that's the biggest success of the film, working well as a smörgåsbord of art cars, a riot of imagination that decorates the screen throughout without ever becoming boring. Many creators get a little time to explain why they did what they did but nobody gets much. There are poignant moments and a few dynamics that run through the film but there are no opportunities for any of them to get particularly in depth. This is an introduction, an ambitious and wide ranging one, but still just an introduction. I get the impression that if you get hooked on the idea after seeing this film it'll become a gateway drug that may drive you all the way into Blank's next art car film.

While Automorphosis often feels like a scrapbook or a cabinet of curiosities, there is some subtle planning behind it if you look beyond the surface. There's a growth to what we see, that may in some way mirror a neophyte's journey into the world of art cars. Initially customisation manifests itself through paint jobs, like the tartan car, the Mondrian car or the car striped like a zebra. Then objects begin to appear on the vehicles and here we start to see differences. It's obvious that for some people it really isn't specifically about cars, it's about everything. Sure, the button king has a car that's covered in buttons, but he has a coffin and an outhouse done up the same way. We aren't told which came first, but at some point it took over enough to warrant a trademark. Harry Sperl drives a cheeseburger trike because he lives Americana, even though he's German, but he sleeps in a cheeseburger waterbed too and has shelves of them in porcelain.

These folks didn't interest me as much as those for whom their car is their first and perhaps only creation, especially when there's obvious dedication to their personal statement. They don't look professional, they look real, outward manifestations of inner selves. Ratgirl Cheri Brugman aims for a horror/scifi theme, with her car adorned with severed heads and dead babies, plus fire that breathes out of the bonnet. To her the vehicle is a way of fighting depression by demonstrating who she is and validating that through shock factor. The gloriously gloomy Rebecca Caldwell built a Carthedral, a 1971 Cadillac hearse with a Volkswagen Beetle on the roof, all done up with stained glass and ornate embellishments. It isn't surprising to find that she lived in it for a while, because it's as truly original as she is. She ended up finding both isolation and belonging at the same time. These women drive their creations, maybe not every day, but enough to be real.

I could easily go on about the other sights you'll see in Automorphosis but just a list of the art car aficionados who appear in the film would be as long as this review is already. There's one in the end credits that runs and runs, reinforcing the lesson we learned during the film, the same one that Harrod Blank learned many years ago, that in an increasingly plastic, uniform world, there's still room for individuality, imagination and creativity. He ably demonstrates this by bookending his film with children, suggesting the cars they want to drive when they grow up. At the outset, it's the brand names you expect, relecting only what commercials tell them is cool, but after the film wraps, it's pure imagination. That's what I took away from this film, not the parade floats or advert cars, not vehicles that are truly obvious in hindsight, but the unique visions of dedicated individuals that are both outsider art and a much needed affirmation that originality isn't dead.

Automorphosis begins a theatrical run at FilmBar in Phoenix on the evening of Thursday, 17th March, with 7.00pm and 9.00pm screenings and a Q&A from director Harrod Blank. There will be art cars present, though I don't know which. Blank is Californian but given that his Art Car World is in Douglas, AZ, there could be quite a few interesting vehicles on show.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959)

Directors: Jeffrey Dell and Roy Boulting
Stars: Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers and Luciana Paoluzzi

An early collaboration between Peter Sellers and the Boulting brothers, this one's a treat for fans of Terry-Thomas instead, of which I am emphatically one. Sellers was undeniably a comic genius and he does a fine job here, but I've often found his work inconsistent, some of his performances being sheer bliss but others less memorable. Comparatively, Terry-Thomas managed to shine in everything he did, at least everything I've seen thus far which is quite a lot. He's not tasked with playing the unmitigated cad he was so frequently typecast as, instead portraying a well meaning bungler who runs an obscure department of Her Majesty's Foreign Office, the FO of the title. He breezes along as if occupying a different reality to the rest of us, only partly as it was the ruling classes' turn for being speared with wit by the Boultings, as they speared the Church of England, the army and the trades unions in Heavens Above!, Private's Progress and I'm All Right, Jack.

This one is less successful than most of them, at least as a complete film, but it's packed with moments of genius that make it shine nonetheless. Terry-Thomas is much of the reason for that, showing how versatile an actor he was, epitomising the inept but likeable hero usually played by Ian Carmichael in Boulting brothers pictures. Terry-Thomas was great at Dick Dastardly roles, such as those in School for Scoundrels, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Jungle Book, but it's good to see him play the hero occasionally. Another actor who epitomised inept heroes was John Le Mesurier, well known for playing one on TV's Dad's Army, but here he's dynamic as the Grand Duke of Gaillardia, who can't seem to stand still. Sellers is energetic too but in a totally different way, as the insatiably corrupt Prime Minister Amphibulos, characterised as a swaggering mafioso. Unfortunately both Sellers and Le Mesurier are sadly underused.

Gaillardia is the setting for much of our story, a small island which Britain colonised after a cargo ship ran into it in the dark, only to grant it independence in 1916 for being a burden. When Her Britannic Majesty's Advisor to the island sends a secret missive home about Russians digging holes, the Foreign Office has to scour the archives and the maps to find out what and where it is, especially as they had forgotten he was still there. It falls to the title character, Cadogan de Vere Carlton-Browne, the Permanent Assistant Political Secretary for the Miscellaneous Territories, to do something about it, which he does with glorious ineptitude, building unintended consequence upon unintended consequence and even sparking a revolution. There is a happy ending but it's the journey that matters rather than the final stop, one that surely inspired Water, a particular favourite of mine. The Whitehall scenes were reminiscent of Yes, Minister, but decades earlier.
The Boulting brothers fostered a stable of comedic talent, many of whom are given lesser parts to flesh out. Raymond Huntley is underwhelming as Tufton-Slade, the British Foreign Secretary, Terry-Thomas stealing the scenes they share by simply looking lost, but he does get two magic moments, both provided through speeches to the United Nations that are mixed metaphor riots. Thorley Walters, who I somehow never recognise when he's young, is Col Bellingham, a military attaché who accompanies Carlton-Browne to Gaillardia and has a few inept moments himself. The goverment's resident advisor on the island is played by Miles Malleson, who was so natural as a bishop that it always seems somehow surprising to see him play something else. There's even a glorious but unfortunately brief appearance for Irene Handl as a housewife interviewed on the news. I blinked and missed Nicholas Parsons.

Surprisingly for an institutional comedy, the romance that trumps everyone's efforts turns out to be a success. Young King Loris, who has been studying at Oxford, is blissfully down to earth in the form of Ian Bannen, a versatile actor whose first credit was in Private's Progress. The object of his attentions is a young lady he meets while incognito on the plane home to take his throne. She turns out to be his cousin, the Princess Ilyena, who her uncle, the Grand Duke, sees as the rightful heir. Sorry, but if that's a spoiler, then you just haven't watched enough films like this: it was transparent from the moment we saw her! Italian beauty Luciana Paluzzi appeared in many English language films alongside Italian ones, as varied as Muscle Beach Party, Thunderball and Return to Peyton Place. She was even the leading lady in The Green Slime, but she reminds of nobody less than Audrey Hepburn here, a delightful pixie. No wonder the king falls for her.
The script was by co-directors Jeffrey Dell and Roy Boulting, and is surprisingly inconsistent, constantly veering between comedy gold and uninspiring lead. Lesser pictures may be designed to be set pieces linked by filler, but that's not the impression I got here. It seems like they aimed at a consistency in tone but simply failed to find one. It kept lapsing into a coma of dialogue, dry and ignorable, but then kept getting resuscitated with some truly great comedic scenes that made me laugh out loud. Pomp and circumstance is speared skilfully as Bellingham and Carlton-Browne arrive in Gaillardia. The calamitous 'show of strength' is even better: an attempt to copy what the Russians used to do on May Day, but on a Gaillardian budget that mostly ended up in the pocket of Prime Minister Amphibulos. It's a joy to watch and I'm smirking in admiration again just thinking about it. Even better than the visuals is the commentary that accompanies it.

The dialogue is just as inconsistent as the rest of the script. A number of dialogue heavy scenes should have been cut because they do nothing but make us wonder why they're there, yet other scenes are textbook examples of what good dialogue can do. The British Foreign Secretary is a waste of a character for most of the film but he comes magnificently to life at the United Nations and he does so twice. Sellers gets some great dialogue too, usually delivered in broken English that is unintentionally truthful. When a stand collapses to embarrassing effect because of rotten timber, he explains he 'was promised by the contractor they would use it only for the public.' My favourite faux pas was when he invited Carlton-Browne to dinner, 'everything very friendly, with all our cards under the table.' When interpreting the young king's honest concern for his people as particularly subtle manipulation, he reminded me of David Bowie's character in Into the Night.

Carlton-Browne of the FO is obviously a very English title, so it was promptly retitled abroad, not least in the United States where FO tends to suggest something a little different from 'Foreign Office'. There it was released as Man in a Cocked Hat, which would seem strange if not detailed next to the German title, Ausgerechnet Charlie Brown, which inspires something different again. Regardless of the title, this is a film any fan of classic British comedy should seek out, albeit with a number of caveats. Yes, Peter Sellers is here and he's well worth watching, but he doesn't get much more time here than he did in The Ladykillers. Sellers fans would be better off with any of his other 1959 films: I'm All Right, Jack, The Battle of the Sexes and especially The Mouse That Roared. Fans of the Boulting brothers will find this one of the least of their comedies, albeit with many great moments. It's the Terry-Thomas fans who will appreciate it most.

Grizzly (1976)

Director: William Girdler
Stars: Christopher George, Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel

Opening with an message that manages to combine environmentalism with American patriotism without seeming remotely forced, this film does look gorgeous from moment one, the vistas of Clayton, GA being very pleasing to the eye. The music is far too chirpy though, this Jaws rip-off sounding rather like an episode of Little House on the Prairie. Sure, it gets a little sinister when we switch to bear vision but not much. There's a vague attempt to emulate those famous John Williams da dum notes, but it all sounds much more like the bear is going to break through the trees to do si do with the inevitable jovial young female campers than roar in a subdued fashion and smack his bitches up. I use that term deliberately because director William Girdler does attempt to keep his film's monster hidden for a while by only allowing his paws to be visible. Unfortunately that makes it look like he has a penchant for bitch slapping.

Even from its earliest scenes Grizzly plays like a cheap B movie version of Jaws and that's really what it is. Its biggest success is that it got there before all the other cheap B movie versions of Jaws, of which there were many, and its next biggest success is that it follows the story closely. The film is capable, given those caveats, certainly much better than later rip-offs like Tentacles, but that doesn't mean it doesn't pale in comparison. Taking the Roy Scheider role is Christopher George who would have been good as Michael Kelly, the ranger in charge of this national park, if this had been a TV movie, but he's no competition for Scheider. Similarly Andrew Prine isn't bad at all as Don Stober, helicopter pilot, but compared to Robert Shaw, he's a nonentity. As Arthur Scott, the local naturalist who knows every bear in these here woods personally, Richard Jaeckel does come a little closer to Richard Dreyfuss, especially early on, but still falls short of the mark.
It's Scott who gets to explain to his disbelieving colleagues what they're facing, of course. Most of the bears in these woods are brown bears, but this one's a grizzly. Most grizzlies are 7 feet tall. This one is more like 15 (18 in the tagline) and weighs over 2,000 pounds. Scott can tell that from claw marks on trees, though I wondered how he could know so much about every bear in the forest but not know that there's even a grizzly out there. After the two campers, this grizzly takes out Ranger Gail, which I was happy about because she just couldn't stop grinning. Vicki Johnson had the Susan Backlinie role from Jaws, tasked with stripping down to her underwear to frolic in a stream and wait for the predator to come and get her. The bear gets more and more daring and we gradually get to see more and more of her, though unfortunately Teddy, the largest bear in captivity at the time, is too much of what her name suggests to be truly scary.

She wasn't that cuddly, of course, as eleven foot grizzlies are dangerous even when friendly. Unfortunately the camera crew couldn't get many fear inspiring angles and the director couldn't build enough suspense to make it all work. It doesn't help that Teddy looks much more like a Gentle Ben type than a bloodthirsty killer, and it helps even less that regardless how many victims she takes down, she never seems to get any blood on her at all. To be fair, there are some good shots of her roar, acquired through throwing marshmallows into Teddy's mouth and then holding another out for her to reach for. She also has some presence, as we discover when we realise how little attention we're giving to the arguments between the three leads. She would return for Girdler's follow up film, 1977's The Day of the Animals, and she sired Bart the Bear, who appeared in The Clan of the Cave Bear and Legends of the Fall, among others.
I've probably sounded negative in this review thus far and I should try to find a balance because this isn't a bad film, it's just not a particularly good one. It can't even hope to escape comparison with Jaws because it steals from it ruthlessly, setting into motion a whole slew of rip-offs that got generally worse and worse as time went by. There are some differences, not least where the three lead characters end up, but mostly it's a pretty close remake that merely transplants the monster onto dry land and into the woods. Compared to Jaws it sucks, but compared to what came along in its wake, it's a capable enough picture. The actors are better than the script, the music and certainly the effects, all three being solid and dependable names, reuniting six years after they had all played supporting roles in the John Wayne film Chisum. Grizzly didn't hurt their careers, turning a $750,000 budget into a record breaking $39m take for an indie picture.

In fact both George and Jaeckel returned a year later for The Day of the Animals, again produced by Edward L Montoro, who also wrote the film with a vague Night of the Living Dead approach to nature's revenge movies. Montoro would go onto more overt rip offs, like the Italian Great White, which he distributed Stateside before being sued out of theatres. Eventually he stripped a million dollars from his production company, Film Ventures International, and disappeared. This was his most successful picture. A direct sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator, was shot in Hungary in 1983 but not released and it remains unavailable to this day, though a workprint is circulating on the net. While an unreleased sequel to a blockbuster ripoff is hardly likely to be any good, this particular one features a cast that makes it notable whatever the quality: not just Charlie Sheen, but Laura Dern, George Clooney, Louise Fletcher, John Rhys-Davies and Charles Cyphers, among others.

Stars aside, the cast of this film is predominantly made up of a number of Clayton locals, who do bring some authenticity to their roles but hardly shine as actors. One of the first pair of victims is the mayor's daughter, so it would seem that everyone joined in the film being shot in their neck of the woods. Nobody gets a part worth speaking of though, even the real supporting cast lost in the mix. The love interest for Kelly is Allison Corwin, a photographer who's spending time at her father's lodge, but it fizzles quickly and she vanishes from the film. The most obvious character beyond the three leads and the bear is Charley Kittridge, the stereotypical greedy politician who keeps the park open, lets the hunters in and wants everyone else's ass. A very two dimensional character, losing a tough argument to Kelly emasculates him and he fades too. Watch the bear with a few beers, though, and you won't worry about the rest. On that front, this is a success.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Worm (2010)

Director: Richard Powell
Star: Robert Nolan

'It's a lovely day,' says Geoffrey Dodd. 'The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the fish are swimming.' What he says doesn't tell the real story of Worm though, because the story is in what he thinks. We hear a lot of his thoughts and they're hardly the breezy cheerfulness his words suggest, not what you might expect from an apparently contented high school teacher, at least not to begin with. He's frustrated, stuck with idiots who don't want to learn from him, the curse of high school teachers everywhere. I can guarantee that anyone who knows a teacher, let alone has a family history in the profession, will be sympathising with him quickly. It may look easy but it's a tough job at the best of times, and the best of times aren't what most dedicated teachers tend to end up with. In this film, the frustrations go far beyond the kids, demonstrating that Dodd is an apple that the worm of the title is eating away at, and there's really not a lot of him left.
Worm treats us to a blistering glimpse into Dodd's psyche, a powerfully written one that ends up as the epitome of the newspaper headline that protests, 'But nobody suspected a thing.' It's an explanation for the bloody sequel that hasn't been and shouldn't ever be made, as it would only lessen this picture. As Dodd's frustration builds, we wonder where writer/director Richard Powell is going to take us, his superb script taking on a lot more than mild frustration to skirt a number of dangerous edges. When the twenty minute running time is up, we know plenty about Geoffrey Dodd and we despair at what's going to come next, but nobody else notices a thing. We've been let in on a powerful secret and we can't help but wonder how many of those secrets are around us. If Powell made a film of our life, would there be a Geoffrey Dodd character? Who would it be? How could we tell? This is the endgame that all horror films should reach and few even attempt.

While Powell's writing is dominant and his increasingly claustrophobic direction superbly done, the difficult task of peeling away layers to expose the character of Geoffrey Dodd goes to Robert Nolan, who I've never seen before but who has racked up a succession of tough roles in a wide variety of genres. According to his IMDb bio, his goal is to continually stretch himself as an actor, a routine thing for thespians to blurt but one that rarely seems to actually be lived up to. If we can judge from one performance alone, it would seem to be the case here, as Nolan appears to sculpt this character out of his sweat. No wonder he's already played Adolf Hitler three times. I can't fault any other member of the cast but they're swept away by the sheer force of Nolan's performance. He and the monologues Powell gives him utterly dominate proceedings. Worm is akin to being dragged through a scintillating cesspool and that's a sincere compliment.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Moon (2009)

Director: Duncan Jones
Star: Sam Rockwell

You know the ideas are going to start rolling when a film begins with a commercial pointing out how we've already solved the energy crisis. Lunar Industries Ltd has been farming HE3 from the dark side of the moon and shipping it back home and now feeds 75% of the energy needs on our planet. You know it's hardly going to be conventional because it's written and directed by Zowie Bowie, David's son, though he's going by his real name of Duncan Jones to presumably at least attempt to avoid that connection, as if that's ever going to work. It stars people as talented but as diverse as Kevin Spacey and Matt Berry, all backing up Sam Rockwell, hardly a minor talent himself. Its $5m budget is high for a low budget film, which it looks far too expensive to count as, but low for a Hollywood movie which it seems to have successfully competed with, both with the critics and the public, though praise has not been universal. So it's about time I saw it.

A movie this optimistic can't help but invite comparisons and initially they're entirely obvious. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who's almost at the end of a three year work contract, which is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, he's working at a mining base on the dark side of the moon, by the name of Sarang, possibly because it means 'love' in Korean. Secondly, he's the entire human crew, which is a strange decision on the part of the company he works for but one that isn't without precedent. In fact, this is the first reason that Silent Running is the obvious initial comparison. For a while it looks a lot like Dark Star too, especially given Sam's plentiful facial hair. There are inevitable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not only because there's a computer called GERTY who runs the show and talks a lot like HAL but because that computer is able to lie and refuse to let Sam out of the doors following an accident. Open the pod bay doors, Hal, indeed.

The accident is the point at which we begin to ask a whole slew of questions, deeper ones than just why Sam has a table tennis table when there's nobody else there to play. He's started to experience hallucinations. He burns himself while making coffee because he sees a figure of a girl in the room with him. Then out on the surface he sees another figure, causing him to crash into one of the harvesters. He wakes up in the infirmary back on Sarang with short term memory loss, but he finds a way past GERTY to visit the scene of the crash and discovers himself, still alive in the crashed moon buggy. The film really engages here as we ask a whole bunch of questions, postulate a whole bunch of answers and wonder if we've figured out the twist a little early in the film. Obviously we're in Blade Runner territory, but is that all we have in store or is there something else to follow?
Well, the good news is that every time we think we've answered everything, more questions turn up. There's also emotional impact in the answers, which is a powerful achievement given that for the most part there are only two actors on screen, both of whom are playing Sam Bell. I should add that it isn't done with effects the way that Buster Keaton made Sherlock Jr, it's done with an actor named Robin Chalk, who looks very similar to Sam Rockwell. The bad news is that the way the film has unfolded thus far leads us to phrase our questions in terms of which classic science fiction movie they're going to patch into the story next. I was expecting a mind trip along the lines of my expectations of Solaris, one of the few classic science fiction movies I haven't seen yet (and should really get around to soon), but surprisingly I got elements of everything else instead, with 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most frequently referenced.

Where this all leaves me is a little hung in my opinion. A lot of people have raved about this film to me and it's done well as far as awards nominations go, especially in its native England. I have a lot of admiration for it, both because it's a serious science fiction film done well and because it has managed to escape its low budget origins in a way that others have not managed to do, not least GB: 2525, another low budget serious science fiction film released in 2009 that impressed me but didn't seem to reach critical mass and impress everyone else. The story unfolds well, the effects are decent without being groundbreaking, presumably courtesy of Jones's experience in turning out quality effects for little money in the commercials industry, notably using physical models instead of digital effects. The acting is excellent, Sam Rockwell dominating not merely because he's almost the only actor we see. It's a substantial part and he does it justice.
Where I had problems was mostly in the fact that there's very little, if anything, here that could be called original. Much seems to have been made of the thinking behind it, including a tale of synchronicity from a screening at NASA. In his Q&A Jones explained why the base looked like a bunker not like something that would have been transported to the moon, namely that he saw it as more likely that Lunar Industries Inc would use materials there to build things. A woman then explained, from the audience, that she was working on a substance called mooncrete comprised of lunar regolith and ice water that could be harvested from the moon's poles. I have no problem with the hard science or in acknowledging that Jones really thought his story out, but almost all of it seems to have been borrowed from other science fiction films. What is there that exists in this movie that doesn't appear in another science fiction movie? Were GERTY's emoticons it?

It got so obvious that I soon reached a point where I stopped wondering about what progressions the plot would make and started wondering which movie references were going to appear next. I even began to think about which movies hadn't been given nods thus far and so tried to imagine how they could fit in. It was a fun game, but it damaged my interpretations of the film and I don't really see that as my problem, rather one inherent in the script. Rockwell's dynamic acting really isn't enough to get past it. In fact, the very act of wondering highlighted parts of the story that were under- or not explored, not least GERTY, as capably voiced by Kevin Spacey. I was waiting for a nod to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but perhaps that's too early for the era of influence Jones had. It never came. I was also waiting for a Planet of the Apes reference, but the film's timeframe didn't get that ambitious. The hallucinations may have ended up too Blade Runner.

Jones is apparently planning a sequel to Moon, but ultimately aims to end up with a trilogy, albeit much later in his hopefully long and versatile career. He certainly shows serious talent, as this is his first feature film. Sure, being David Bowie's son can't hurt. Having Sting's wife as a producer can't hurt. The gazillion entertainment industry contacts you probably grew up around certainly can't hurt. Yet at the end of the day, Duncan Jones had to make this film and he did exactly that. However original it is or isn't, it's a capable piece and it's a heck of a starting point for a career. Before it was only a short film called Whistle, dating back as far as 2002. After it comes Source Code, an action thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal due for release on April Fool's Day, and then an epilogue to Moon called Mute, which is currently in development. This could easily be Jones's Donnie Darko. The real question is whether Source Code will be his Southland Tales.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Livestock (2009)

Director: Christopher Di Nunzio
Stars: Fiore Leo, Robert Hines, Johanna Gorton, Michael Reardon, Irina Peligrad and Christina C Crawford

Livestock is one of the most ambiguous indie horror films I've ever seen. It would be easy to just dismiss it, for a whole slew of reasons, but I find that I can't do that, even though attempting to explain why will be something of a challenge. It's not a good film but there's a good deal that's good about it. Where it goes wrong isn't where most indie horror films go wrong and it's difficult to lump it in with anything else for a comparison, beyond something as generic as the fact that it shows plenty of promise though that promise doesn't tend to be met. In many ways, it all comes across as schizophrenic, as if the film itself wants to succeed and fail at the same time. Every time it does something dumb, it follows it with something intelligent, and vice versa. It holds our interest throughout, but in a strange way where we consistently want to know where it's going next while somehow not remaining confident that it's going to end up anywhere.

Are you confused yet? Well, that's a good definition of where I ended up. Written, produced and directed by Christopher Di Nunzio for Creepy Kid Productions, it's apparently unlike anything he's attempted before, his previous films including a short comedy/drama and a documentary feature about celebrations of the feast of St Agrippina in Boston, MA. In fact it's unlike anything else I've seen, as the script takes the rather unusual approach of having its subplots spring from utterly different genres. On one hand, it's a gangster flick, following Victor Corsi's gradual rise within a mysterious crime family. On the other, it's some sort of cannibalistic serial killer movie. Yet, as these two subplots gradually merge, the story becomes something else again. It's a thoroughly different approach that may explain much of the fascination it held for me, but once the credits rolled, I found that the journey had proved to be more interesting than the destination.

The beginning turns out to be a good pointer for what follows, being alternately magnetic and infuriating. We're inflicted with an almost endless string of stars, each getting their own screen, while being treated to a set of gorgeous Kali related art by Ralph Di Nunzio. I would love to own some of these pieces! When the actors finally arrive, we already have expectations of what we have in store, grown not just from the art but from the film's summary which speaks to cults and dark secrets, but what we see appears to be completely different. There was a brief surge in Kali related storylines in the eighties, especially in horror fiction, but this isn't anything like those. It's our introduction to the gangster subplot. Victor Corsi is a nervous man, stuck in the back of a car for what seems like too long, long enough to suggest he's going to be killed, but it all turns out to be good news. The large bald man who arrives has a promotion for him.

The acting isn't great but it's capable. Fiore Leo, who plays Victor Corsi, reminds in some ways of Al Pacino crossed with a young Jerry Orbach, but while he's supposed to be a tough, gifted and much appreciated member of the Pack, the crime family he belongs to, he can't quite persuade us that he isn't just a nice guy who wouldn't hurt a fly. The large bald man who we later discover is Edgar Ozera is overplayed with relish by Robert Hines, who looks the part of a pulp villain and plays up to the feel of one too. He's the boss and to demonstrate how powerful he and the Pack are, he takes Victor and Dimitri the chauffeur along to a body shop to meet with Ted Costa, who plans to run for the Senate next year. He knows too much about the Pack's operations so could be dangerous. Victor and Dimitri take care of him, but I was watching Edgar, who strains forward as if wanting to take care of Costa himself but holding back so his minions can work.

The serial killer story begins with a hooker in leopardskin named Angel, whose mark doesn't give his name so she calls him Sugar. We find out later that he's Anthony and he's assisted by a pair of strangely exotic ladies called Natalia and Bella. Leighsa Burgin, who plays Angel, albeit not for long, is perhaps the best actor in the film. As Anthony, Michael Reardon comes across as Quentin Tarantino trying to play Glenn Danzig and that really doesn't work at all. He's annoying, more of a child's concept of a serial killer than anything. If he were real, he'd be caught in ten minutes. His girls are the interesting ones and I really wish Di Nunzio had given them more to do, because they're exotic and freaky and the beginning of a story of their own. Irina Peligrad gets more to do as the sultry and vampish Natalia than Aurora Grabill does as Bella, but then Bella gets to nick a hole in Natalia's neck so she can drink blood from it. Did I mention exotic and freaky?
These two stories turn out to be connected already, but they meet through Annabel, perhaps the only character in the film who's given a real grounding, partly due to more careful writing and partly due to the work of Johanna Gorton, who proves to be the cast's only subtle actor. Almost everyone else either feels thrown unrehearsed into scenes with lines only just memorised, like Christina C Crawford and Stephanie Spry as Annabel's friends Tina and Kristen, or deliberately overplay their roles like Anthony and Edgar. Annabel is coming out of a bad relationship, taking a full year to get ready to finally go out with someone she meets online. The first scene with the girls is embarrassingly plastic and I found the contents of her DVD racks much more interesting. Having Man Bites Dog, a set of Maya Duren's experimental films and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People on the same shelf deserves respect. Season one of The Munsters helps too.

Fortunately, as we leap forward that year so that Annabel can date again and intersect with the rest of the film, we avoid more clichéd girl talk and try to do something with the story. Hints have been dropped frequently to keep us wondering about the Pack, what it's all about and why we should care. The strange thing is that half of the unfolding is original and the other half is cliché, apparently in alternation. There are scenes where characters come alive with potential, as depth is thrown their way and they run with it, but there are others where all that potential is discarded as if it was never worth anyone's time. At the end of the day, I wanted to know more about these characters, or at least most of them, but Di Nunzio held back in every case, leaving me wanting when the credits ran. I wanted to know about Victor's philosophy about being who and what he is, to find Jerry was more than a date, to know the background that led Tina to the finalé.

Most promising but inevitably disappointing was the explanation given for the Pack, during the annual feast that provides the final scene. The hints about the Pack kept me interested, because it seemed like a unique approach in a genre full of convention and cliché. One scene in particular with Victor and Natalia could be the foundation of a movie all on its own, with a new mythology that doesn't just explain the title, it endows it with meaning from which we can reevaluate the entire film and the character motivations within it. It's the best scene in the film, but Di Nunzio doesn't follow up on it, instead giving us a mess of an explanation during the worst scene of the film, the finalé in which Edgar Ozera answers everything without meeting any of the questions we actually have. In fact what we get is so out of whack with what we want that this scene ends up being counterproductive and the film would be better for its absence.

Now, I've just given eight paragraphs to explain how this film is both good and bad all at once, but mostly because of the script and the acting. I should, in fairness, highlight the real successes of the film because there are a few of them. The cinematography is frequently notable, as Nolan Yee, the director of photography, obviously has a good eye and a great sense of composition of frame. Anthony's basement is dark and crowded but he still finds the room to get into worthwhile positions to shoot. Outside in plenty of space he shines. Beyond the DVD being a little quiet in general, the lighting and sound are good, avoiding the most common pitfall of low budget film. I read only $3,500 for budget, which if accurate means that the crew did a great job. The music by Nicholas David Potvin is also worthy of notice, enforcing that those off screen outshone those on screen. Perhaps it's easier to make a journey seem worthwhile than to take it when it isn't.

Absentia (2011)

Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Katie Parker, Courtney Bell, David Levine, Morgan Peter Brown, Justin Gordon and James Flanagan

I watch as many low budget, independent horror movies as I can get my hands on. One reason is that I just love the genre, but the main reason I have such a enduring fascination with them is that they have traditionally acted as a training ground, teaching filmmakers the arts of cinema so that they can move onto the next level and become someone special. There's a third reason though: every now and again someone appears out of the blue who has already done that, and they are the most special of all because not only do they work their magic for us to wonder at, they do so without moving on to the mainstream. That leaves us something that will be talked about for years: a low budget, indie genre flick that surpasses every expectation and leaves its slick, professional competition in the dust. I'll say this outright: this is the best horror movie I've seen since Let the Right One In, the best independent horror since Night of the Living Dead and it carries the biggest emotional impact of any horror film since... well, since I can remember.

It achieves this by throwing out the modern rulebook and stepping back in time to the days of character, suspense and subtlety. This is what Val Lewton would be making if he were still alive today. The mysteries begin with the film. Daniel Riley is missing and his pregnant wife Tricia is stapling up fresh flyers onto telegraph poles to replace older ragged ones. She's using up the last of them because he's been gone for seven years and back home is an application for death in absentia which may or may not bring the closure she hasn't found thus far. She's a complex character twisted by a whole slew of emotions, most obviously guilt, which is hardly diminishing now that she's about to have her husband declared dead while bearing another man's child. The renewal of posters is as much ritual for her as burning the ones she brings back. There are more subtle rituals in this film than anything else I can think of outside the work of John Ford.

When she gets home her sister, Callie Russel, is there waiting. Writer/director Mike Flanagan doesn't just break the rules of convention to give us a female lead, he gives us two, who appear achingly real and who serve as a fascinating dynamic. They're very different characters, perhaps the only things they share being hidden strength and the fact that they care about each other, enough to mention taboo subjects but not harp on about them. Tricia is settled being unsettled, unable to leave her home and its memories even when she wants to. Callie is younger and full of wanderlust, having apparently travelled and lived everywhere, not just physically either as the box she slides under the bed testifies. They haven't seen each other for five years, but Callie has grown and discovered a conscience with religion, so has come to help her sister through a tough time. Why now instead of five years earlier is merely another depth to her character.

Courtney Bell and Katie Parker are the actors tasked with these delicate portrayals and had they not been up to the task, this film would not be the success it is. Neither have much experience, it would seem, but they make every bit count, aided by realistic, well written dialogue and by Ryan David Leick's almost minimalist soundtrack, a pointer from moment one to the film's subtlety as a whole. Everything is psychological at this point, most obviously our first views of Daniel within Tricia's thoughts of what might have happened. Initially she just thought he left due to a fight, but that turns to amnesia and eventually alien abduction or other esoteric rationalisations. And that's just year one of seven. Great writing and great acting really embue this with emotion. It all matters, just as if we were part of the family. Finally, of course, is the inevitability of death, but that's the toughest to really believe, right? As Tricia says, it's hard to come back from that one.
Watching a second time, I caught a few clever hints in the early scenes that I'd missed the first time around. This is an accomplished screenplay with bookends, a pivot halfway through and a set of three well defined acts, plus a host of nuances that make sense on a first viewing but add depth on a second, once we know exactly what Flanagan has in store for us in the later acts. I'm still in awe at how he twists the viewers and characters both, not least because the twists are emotional things here, not some sort of self righteous M Night Shyamalan intellectualism. All that unfolds in this film is utterly consistent with the story as a whole, and the various readings that can be made of it, but the events that lead us into the second and third acts are truly emotionally powerful. A third of the way in, Flanagan rooked me between the eyes and I felt my gut twist at the power of what he had done. Another third and he did it again.

This also means that I can only summarise a fraction of the story because if I go beyond the first act I'll be throwing out spoilers, something that wouldn't happen with most films until the finalé. I can tell you about the tunnel, of course, because that's at the core of the film, a tunnel close to Tricia's house that leads to a park on the other side. Callie jogs through it in the morning, finding that the missing posters over there are about small pets. On her way back through she wakes up a freakishly thin man who lies in the way and rambles on about nothing. 'It's sleeping,' he says. What, he doesn't seem to know, but he wants to trade with her. He's a bizarrely cool character but the most awesome thing about him is that he's he's played by Doug Jones. Yes, Doug Frickin' Jones from Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy. Flanagan funded this movie through Kickstarter and yet he managed to cast Doug Jones. Some things are very right with the world of film.

Also building the freakiness of this film are the hallucinations Tricia starts having about Daniel, whether she's awake or asleep. Her therapist thinks they're lucid dreams caused by the stress of declaring her husband dead, which makes sense. They're nicely done too, neat manipulations of the laws of physics. Discussing their meaning actually has meaning, which really doesn't happen too often. I can't highlight just how much I despise therapist sessions in movies. This one is spot on and underpins much of the story, because the whole thing can be read in a number of ways. Every event has a few possible explanations, though the characters find the ones that work for them, in itself a message because that's precisely what we do as viewers, whether watching this film or going about our daily lives. This realisation heightens the tension as we seriously wonder what we would do in these situations.

There's much more that I shouldn't go into because you should discover it for yourself. Honestly, you deserve to be rooked between the eyes too. Cheap thrills are fine but every once in a while you owe it to yourself to experience the real deal, something that makes you wonder and squirm and think all at the same time. Somehow the freakiest thing in the first third of the film happens because of a good deed. Cassie, as a Christian thing, took food to the freaky dude in the tunnel only to find him gone. She leaves it, but the next day she finds that he's left something in return on her doorstep, what looks like a collection of keys and odd jewellery. After she takes it back to the tunnel, even when cautioned not to by a young passerby, it reappears that night, under her bedcovers. In most films this would be a cheap shock moment, here it's the final underline that tells us we're in new territory, we're not in control and whatever is going on is scary as hell.
Flanagan didn't have a lot of money to play with here but he achieves well beyond his meagre budget. He raised about $25,000 through Kickstarter, enough to appeal to private investors who added another $40,000. He used it wisely, starting with what he had and building from there. He knew the actresses who play the leads well, so well that he could write the parts for them and incorporate some of their own personalities into the characters. Courtney Bell, who plays Tricia, really was pregnant during filming, but fortunately she didn't have to travel far to work because Flanagan is the father, their apartment is where they shot most of the movie and the tunnel is really that close. 'I've been looking at it for four years,' Flanagan told me, 'and wanted to find a good story for a horror movie to feature it.' He found one and in doing so he also found another way to keep costs down.

Another way came through growing experience. Flanagan is a director at heart but his credits are all over the map, most obviously in editing as that's what pays the bills. Usually when people dismiss the art of editing, I point them at Russ Meyer movies, as all his wild motion is conjured up through editing because he never moved his camera. Now, I think I'll point them at Absentia, as an object lesson. Before his career as an editor took off, Flanagan made three features as a writer/director and the first cut of each ran well over two hours, only to be trimmed down as far as 80 minutes. His third feature, Ghosts of Hamilton Street, shrank from 140 to 106, but when he made Absentia, he experienced his 'sensibilities as an editor driving the script and the directing,' meaning that he effectively edited in camera, a trick Hitchcock did deliberately to avoid studio interference. The first cut of Absentia ran 95 minutes and it ended up at 91.

Needless to say, the editing is exactly what it should be, leaving us with a slow burner of a movie without an ounce of fat that never loses our interest for a second. A second viewing does outline a few flaws, but even here I think Flanagan got lucky. Some of the camerawork is a little shaky, though that may actually help provide an edge, a mere hint at the immediacy that found footage provides but without all the motion sickness. The lighting isn't perfect but again, that often works in the film's favour. From outside, for instance, the tunnel is just a tunnel. Even looking out from a few yards in, it's just a tunnel. However the further inside you go, the more surreal it gets as it seems to shift somewhere else, perhaps outside of space and time, helped to no small degree by the fact that the ends look like nothing but light. We're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy. As the story unfolds and we start to realise different interpretations are possible, this all helps.

The cast help too, every one of them adding something notable to the film. The two leads serve as the grounding for the story but the supporting cast back them up ably. Morgan Peter Brown is particularly excellent as Daniel, even though very little of his role involves speech. Dave Levine is solid as Det Mallory, powerful and unmoving but not always knowing. Justin Gordon is as solid as his partner, Det Lonergan, thoroughly different but just as good. They play well off each other, just as Parker and Bell play well off each other as Tricia and Callie. Flanagan only got Doug Jones for a day but that was enough for him to become a very powerful presence in the film. He's the only hugely experienced member of the cast, the rest ranging from very little to not much in the way of credits, which come often only or predominantly from Flanagan films. It doesn't matter. Nobody lets the side down.

I have much more that I want to say about this film, but can't, beyond the emphatic suggestion that you find a way to see it. Local audiences here in Arizona will get a couple of chances soon. It's a selection for the International Horror & Sci-Fi component of the Phoenix Film Festival and also the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson, both screenings in April. There's no doubt that it will experience great success on the festival circuit and I can only hope that that success translates into a wider release. I can't wait to see it on the big screen and I say that having seen it twice at home already. It's awesome, freaky, fascinating stuff, character driven from moment one, full of ideas and worthy of many interpretations. Watching Absentia was a privilege and a pleasure and I look forward to introducing many people to it for many years to come. When you go back to Kickstarter for another film, Mr Flanagan, drop me a line. I'm in, whatever it is.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the second in the Aztec mummy trilogy but it tends to be the one that viewers see last. Until recently, the last of the three films, The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy, was the easiest to find, readily available in dollar stores everywhere in an English dub courtesy of K Gordon Murray. Only in 2006 when BCI released the entire trilogy in a cheap box set were its predecessors made available to the masses, both in dubbed and subbed formats and with notes by David Wilt. Naturally when you can finally see a trilogy, you start at the beginning, so by the time folk watched the others they had plenty of expectations, most obviously because movie three is comprised for the most part of footage from movies one and two, so even though they hadn't seen this film, they'd seen parts of it. What is likely to surprise them considerably is how far off their valid expectations are. This is not the film you expect it to be.

Admittedly, for a while it plays like a straight sequel. The Bat, unmasked at the end of the first film as the sinister Dr Krupp, who apparently had so many similarities to the pulp villain that it's insane to think nobody could make the connection to begin with, has been arrested and jailed. However, after the police captain fails to get anything out of an interrogation, possibly because almost the entire Almada entourage is in the room at the time, right down to Dr Almada's little brother Pepe, he transfers him somewhere, thus providing the ratlike Tierno and his colleagues with a good opportunity to spring their boss. That they do in a gangster shoot out, but then we discover that we're not in a horror movie any more, at least not the sort we might expect having seen the other two films. Following Dr Krupp and his gang is a masked luchador in a posh car, who valiantly joins the fight but ends up on the losing side, left in the dirt as the villains ride off.

He's El Ángel and while he doesn't seem to be played for comedic effect, it would seem that he's a pretty poor excuse for a luchador superhero. I have no idea when or why he was written into the script, but beyond the actor playing the part having been a real luchador for some time prior to his movie career, he doesn't seem to fit at all. Most obviously, the character within the suit is notably without it not just in the first movie, whose story takes place prior to this, but also in the third, which comes afterwards and includes this story in its recap! Those with sharp eyes will see El Ángel stripped of his mask in some of the recaps in The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy and Dr Krupp uses the name once in dialogue. Here's where to find explanations for those unexplained anomalies. Naturally it's child's play to fathom his identity as only one character is mysteriously absent whenever El Ángel is around, but everyone is surprised anyway when he's unmasked.
Beyond the new and unheralded luchador angle, which the rest of the cast take utterly in stride, we get far more attention to the pulp crime angle this time, with Dr Krupp, who had previously kept his real identity secret even from his own men, ready to leap into pulp serial action to find the breastplate and bracelet which serve as the McGuffin to all three movies and thus the Aztec treasure whose location is inscribed upon them in hieroglyphics. After conveniently being in the right place at the right time in the first movie to hear about the treasure, he's conveniently in the right place at the right time in the second too to discover that it's back in the lower temple of the pyramid of Teotihuacan. The only catch is that he doesn't know where the lower temple is so he kidnaps Flor Sepúlveda in order to replicate the experiment her fiancé had conducted on her to regress her back to the Xocha persona who knows the place well, having been sacrificed there.

If anything, this is the only film in the trilogy to really have a focus. Initially assuming from the unholy mess of a third movie that Dr Almada is the hero and the Aztec mummy is the monster, the first highlights that really Dr Almada's opponent is Dr Krupp, making them hero and villain, while the monster occupies an entirely separate position outside the morality of the main story. He just abides, a cursed creature doing what he was cursed to do. He doesn't go on rampages, he simply makes sure that the artefacts he's tasked with protecting stay protected. Once done, he goes and lies down somewhere and ignores the fact that he's in a movie, because that's all he cares about. Here, at least there's a firm dynamic in the Almada vs Krupp battle and Dr Krupp gets to find some depth as a pulp villain, compulsively stroking his Satanic goatee as he tells Flor that the Aztec treasure will allow him to become immortal. Cue maniacal laughter.

While he's never original, he is at least suitably villainous. He's sane enough to know that Flor will resist his attempts at hypnosis, so he conjures up a serum that will compel her to submit. He blackmails Dr Almada into translating the hieroglyphics on the breastplate and bracelet only to ruthlessly go back on his word. Well, you wouldn't ever trust a man who has a chamber of death in his secret lair, would you? Yes, he has one of those too, naturally full of writhing snakes. It's the supposedly capable but inevitably inept El Ángel who gets thrown in there first but after the floor retracts he gets saved by... nah, I'll leave you that cliffhanger. Suffice it to say that it's the wussiest escape a superhero has ever made from certain death in the entire history of film. No wonder the third film ignored his existence: the filmmakers probably noticed the laughter in the crowd to their attempt to build a character into something other than comic relief.
Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the shortest film in the trilogy, running a meagre 63 minutes, two less than its successor, but at least most of its footage is original. While The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy gave up two thirds of its running time to reused footage and recaps of what had gone before, here there's only a relatively short section of recap, provided by Dr Krupp to his men to explain just what they're going after and why. In many ways the opportunity to recap in this film is the only valid reason he was put in the right place at the right time in the first one. However he does a fair job, letting us enjoy the exotic scenes leading up to sacrifice in the lower temple yet again with thankfully sparse commentary. The mummy is underused, not even appearing until fifty minutes in and then in the dark, this film inheriting the bad lighting for mummy scenes that the first suffered from. This is a movie monster well worth seeing, after all.

As to the cast, it's the same as the others, of course, Jorge Mondragón racking up his second of three co-starring credits even though his character died at the end of the first film. There's less Dr Almada here and more Dr Krupp, more Flor and even more Pepe, Almada's little brother who appeared out of nowhere in the third film without explanation, but has a good deal to do in the first movie and especially here in the second. He's a nosy parker, who wouldn't be out of place in the sort of B movies Hollywood set in newspaper offices. Mostly this one is for the pulp fans, the folk who watch Republic serials or low budget Hollywood movie series as well as the folk who get a kick out of Mexican wrestling movies. No, El Ángel doesn't add a single thing to the plot except our disbelief at why he's there. Yet this is a genuine picture, a sequel that spins a variation on its predecessor and stays a long way up the ladder of quality from the nightmare that followed it.

Attack of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
'How far can the human mind fathom the mysteries of the hereafter? No one knows.' Nobody will know after they watch this film either, the first in a trilogy of Aztec mummy movies shot back to back by producer Guillermo Calderón in Mexico in 1957 and released almost as quickly in 1957 and 1958. This is by the far the best of them, partly because it's an entirely original film, those following cannabilising their predecessors to increasing degrees, and partly because it's a little different from other horror movies released during the same era. It took its spark from a current fad that dealt with regression through hypnotism to past lives, but built that into a fire based on Universal's take on both Frankenstein and The Mummy, as transplanted to a native setting in the kingdom of the Aztecs. It also frames all this in a pulp crime story featuring, almost inevitably, a villain called the Bat, so you can hardly accuse it of being conventional.

The Bat has an overly convenient habit of being in the right place at the right time. He's at the first international congress on neuropsychiatric investigations, though we don't know that at the time, to watch the rejection of Dr Eduardo Almada, who has come back to Mexico to present his theories on how hypnotism can be used as a mechanism to regress patients to previous lives. He's rejected not because he hasn't actually tried any of these theories out, due to an inability to find a volunteer willing to risk the extreme danger to mental health he highlights is possible, but because such regression implies a belief in reincarnation which is truly beyond the pale for these scientists. Remember that as this review runs on. So Almada leaves, rejected even by a congress whose president is his future father in law, Dr Sepúlveda, who sees him as his 'favourite disciple' and who cautioned him not to give such a flimsy presentation to begin with.

So how to bulk it up? For a start, Almada's fiancée Flor promptly volunteers for the experiment, though we can't help but wonder why she never did so before. Sepúlveda is willing to assist, as is Almada's assistant, the cowardly Pinacate, and so we begin. The Bat conveniently overheard these plans so turns back up to watch proceedings, though why we have no idea. Nobody sees him hanging around in the window in his pulp Bat suit, complete with hat, mask and cape, but there are far more outrageous problems with the plot than that, trust me. Flor is taken back to when she was a twenty year old girl called Xochi, consecrated from birth to be sacrificed as a virgin to the god Tezkatlipoka. Not a bad first discovery for Almada's regression technique, huh? He's only eight moons away from her sacrifice, so naturally he jumps forward to that event as it can't possibly cause his fiancée any trauma, right? You know, like dying while under hypnosis.

The experiment with both a whirligig and a metronome, is interesting to watch, though it has far too much slow counting, but it's not as interesting as what unfolds in the lower temple of the Teotihuacan pyramid. Here we witness exotica actually conjured up by the ethnic descendants of those depicted, unlike most exotica, which came out of the imaginations of lounge musicians and Hollywood screenwriters mostly based on sailors' yarns and pictures in National Geographic. The bad side is that it's really no better, with a terribly choreographed flower dance and a singer who tries for Yma Sumac but doesn't have either the range or the charisma. She's accompanied by a small group of musicians, one of whom plays a flute and a drum at the same time. It's very primitive but fun to watch. What's really fun to watch are the costumes, which are vastly ornate with headdresses based on peacock fans. I'd love to see all this in colour.

Playing the double role of Flor Sepúlveda and Xochi is Rosa Arenas, who looks the same in both parts but does demonstrate some notable flexibility during her sacrifice. She's all for it, though the warrior Popoca who she loves unconditionally wants to take her away from inevitability. He fails dismally because he really should have done that a little earlier than the day of sacrifice, so ends up forced to drink an elixir that will send him mad then buried alive, tasked with protecting for eternity the breastplate and bracelet his girlfriend wears as she dies. Naturally these are gold and are inscribed with hieroglyphics that identify the location of the Aztec treasure, because why wouldn't they be? Can anyone think of a reason why that would be a bad idea? Anyone? Anyway Xochi gets sacrificed, Popoca gets walled up and poor Flor has to endure the death of her former self, left floating, a soul out of a body, until her fiancé calls her back.
Venezuelan born Arenas does a capable job but she's no great actor. She'd been acting since 1950 but was nowhere near as prolific as her co-stars, who racked up long filmographies. She found herself in a string of genre movies at the end of her career, partly because she'd married Abel Salazar, who had really kicked off the modern Mexican horror genre with The Vampire in 1957. Only two were with her husband: The Witch's Mirror in 1962, which he directed, and The Curse of the Crying Woman a year later, in which they co-starred as husband and wife. As Flor she's pleasing to the eye, as Xochi she's a little more but she's unable to steal the film back from Ramón Gay, who channels Vincent Price as Dr Almada, and Luis Aceves Castañeda, who exudes the villainy of the Bat. Remember him? He'll be back. We're talking Aztec treasure here, and no self respecting mad scientist/pulp villain could resist Aztec treasure.

Unless I missed a reference, we find out about the treasure 54 minutes into the picture and the mummy shows up six minutes later, shuffling around for a while to build suspense. There have been a number of attempts to build suspense thus far but most of them fail, because while it's great to see more footage of most of these scenes than the compressed versions recapped in the third film, The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy, a few of them run too long. We get too much of the Almada party wandering around the pyramid in the dark trying to find the lower temple and thus the artefacts that will prove Flor's story and Almada's theories. We get way too much of Pinacate because in this film he's an embarrassing attempt at comic relief, fainting after the experiment and resisting danger the way you'd expect Scooby and Shaggy to do. He's a mouse not a man, he freely admits. If only he was that small, we could ignore him.

Fortunately the Aztec mummy is someone we don't want to ignore. He's a memorable monster, far more inspired by the Universal version of Frankenstein's Monster than their Mummy, as his movements and moans are notably reminiscent, especially when cringing away from light. For some bizarre reason he cringes away from a cross too, which makes no sense to me, but that's a small price to pay for such a unique monster. The character's success is partly due to his look, a wizened face framed by ragged hair atop a period costume, looking for all the world like he was really buried alive. Partly though it's because he wins, in a sense making him the hero over the more obvious Dr Almada. It doesn't matter whether it's Almada or the Bat who tries to steal away the breastplate and bracelet, even Almada's daughter Anita who takes a fancy to it back home, he blindly does what he's cursed to do and he's done. He's a sympathetic monster.

For the most part the various genre conventions play well together. The ancient curse is handled capably, the mummy used judiciously and the past life regression embued with interest. The Bat is a fair pulp villain, clichéd but interesting, with a suitable costume and a videophone to talk to his minions. He even has a more capable assistant in the tall, ratlike Tierno than Almada has in the annoying Pinacate. What doesn't work is the consistency of the story, which has more leaps of logic than can be counted, something that only gets worse as the trilogy progresses. Above all the use of science is terrible, the scientists who reject reincarnation outright being perfectly fine with supernatural curses and astral powers. 'In the realm of the dead, the secondary malignant spirits are always ready to follow the orders of the ruler of darkness,' they suggest, which must bring a new meaning to the word 'science' that I've been hitherto blissfully unaware of.

Character motivation is terrible, not reaching the level of the serials that it comes to resemble over the course of the trilogy, though the actors are capable. The technical side is varied, with great sets on one hand and bad lighting on the other. The finalé is a joke, apparently tacked on because the running time was adding up and they ought to wrap the first story up so that they could make a start on the second. What survives above all is the creature, who abides eternally and made an impact on horror cinema in Mexico. Mummies are probably more prevalent there than any other monster except vampires, though they appear in many forms. Popoca returned only for the remaining two Aztec mummy films but others followed in his wake in very similar storylines, such as in The Living Head, The Wrestling Women vs The Mummy or Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy, even as recently as the 2006 Mil Mascaras vs The Aztec Mummy.