Sunday 18 March 2012

The Forest (2011)

Director: Shan Serafin
Stars: Aidan Bristow, Johnny Young, Christina Myhr and Michael Madsen

The Forest is a surprising horror movie to come out of the States. It feels far more Oriental in its outlook as if it was really a Japanese or Korean film made with Americans. Partly this is because it was shot in Japan with a number of Asian actors and a good deal of Japanese dialogue. Partly it's to do with the attitudes of Shan Serafin, who wrote, produced and directed the film and also took the lead role of Det David Stone, though he snuck that admission in at the very end of the credits. Certainly he's a better director than actor but he's impressive in that vein too, reminding somewhat of Adrian Paul but more realistic and sincere. Stone is an American cop working at the Tokyo Bureau of Interpol and Serafin is believable beyond the fact that he's obviously bilingual. He's an active Buddhist and presumably has an interest in myth, superstition and culture in Japan because there's plenty of it in this, his debut script. It's a shame that American distributors retitled his film Forest of the Living Dead, because there isn't a single zombie in sight.

Stone finds himself caught up in a fascinating case, a ghost story of revenge triggered by a suicide in Aokigahara, better known as the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest. This is a real forest at the foot of Mount Fuji that is the world's second most popular suicide spot, after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. More than thirty people take their own life there every year and the numbers have been gradually increasing recently. It's such a well known spot for suicides that there has been an annual body hunt conducted since 1970 by volunteers. The plot unfolds carefully and with depth but at heart is a reasonably simple thing: the cold deliberate revenge of Ariaana Mills, an American model whose boyfriend has left her. Officially she's been missing for a couple of months but really she's been stuck in some sort of Japanese purgatory for a mystical 49 days after killing herself in Aokigahara. She wants revenge on him and everyone hanging around him who didn't like her too.

Kyle Lardner is fine as Ariaana though she is kept suitably in the background for most of the movie and appears more through fear than visuals. We hear about how obsessed she was with fashion photographer Jason West, we see the 'you'll never leave me' word art that populates her diary and we witness the results of her vengeance. First it's Jason's clingy new girlfriend, Nichole Williamson, another model who has travelled to Japan to be with him and parades around in front of him naked but for a set of skimpy dresses held up for him to ignore. He must be truly dedicated to his art if he would really rather look at a set of negatives than her butt. It's when he's about to tell her that he loves her, with prompting, that the noises begin. As he investigates, someone who isn't physically there tears out her cheeks with her fingernails. Next time the words are imminent a picture flies off the wall. Her modelling career is over, of course, even though we don't see the damage.

Serafin aims very much at a suspenseful ghost story rather than a gorefest and he does a solid job, though a few scenes run too long and the dialogue is sometimes forced. He succeeds mostly through plenty of quirky detail that escalates from Nichole discovering in the hospital everything that she had blocked out of the night before. Anyone with a background in Japanese freakiness won't be surprised to find spirals cropping up too. I still don't know why spirals scare the crap out of the Japanese but Uzumaki, a horror manga by Junji Ito, is certainly something to behold. Serafin had less than a million bucks to play with, maybe a lot less, but he backs up these freaky details with clever filmmaking, stylish but without pandering to modern conventions. Subliminal images punctuate the film. Other scenes are sets of shots that blip slowly in and out like a pulse. The camera often moves to reveal new things that weren't there before, aided by clever editing.

Nichole leaves the film relatively soon, after flying to Fiji and sawing off her hand on a balcony. It's not surprising that she went nuts, given that she's presented by repetitions of 'Die, you cheating whore!' written in blood on her walls, each change in angle showing another instance that wasn't there a moment before. Fortunately there are other young ladies in Jason's company to follow in her stead, all of whom are played by actors with small but quickly growing filmographies. Valerie is the most obvious, because she's a very American character in a very Eastern story. She's his PA who constantly provides the sort of happily profane American reaction we expect in American films but not ones like this. Christina Myhr does it well, in what may be her biggest role thus far. Lisa Cullen is capable as Katana, her fashion designer roommate. Sayo Haraishi is gorgeous as Reiko, a backup model, who I could happily watch for longer than this movie runs.

Best of all is Johnny Young, who plays Koji, initially a clumsy assistant photographer but soon a sort of master hacker. Like the references to Japanese culture and superstition, this hacking gives a very different tone to the movie. It's far from realistic, of course, but somehow it's mysteriously unlike any other far from realistic hacking I've seen on screen. So much of the bad IT in movies is recycled, but this is completely new bad IT and it's rather fascinating to me. It's Koji who discovers the connection to Aokigahara, while hacking into Interpol and intercepting a fax Stone sends to his boss, Lt Brandon Ross, a fax that details that the internal lacerations discovered on Nichole's body in Fiji were the Japanese kanji for the Suicide Forest. Young has a thick Asian accent but somehow remains absolutely clear throughout and I'm still not quite sure how that works. He's more fun to watch than the official male leads, though he doesn't get anywhere near as much screen time.

Serafin gets the biggest part and is up to the task, though he's too in control to get away with his more outrageous proclamations. He's great with regular dialogue but flounders a little when he's supposed to be panicked. Aidan Bristow, who plays Jason, is a very strange looking actor. He's a handsome sort with piercing Leonardo Di Caprio eyes, but he also has thick mismatched eyebrows that throw the whole thing off. It grounds him and makes him an appropriate choice for a character who isn't Hollywood plastic but who the models fall for anyway. That leaves Michael Madsen, the sole star in this film, who plays Lt Ross. He's fine, not that he really knows how not to be, but fails to dominate proceedings because, like Henry Fonda in Tentacles or George Takei in Bug Buster, he only interacts with one of the primary characters and then entirely over the phone. Obviously he didn't travel to Japan and shot all his scenes back home in the States to be spliced into the picture.

This is a film with flaws but they're entirely forgiveable for a sub-million dollar movie conjured out of the head of a first time filmmaker. Serafin is only 34 years old but has already written a couple of novels, staged a play and here made a movie, as producer, director, writer and star. No, it isn't Citizen Kane, not even close, just as Serafin is not Orson Welles, but it's a quirky and fascinating horror picture that outshines its homegrown competition and proves that it's possible for a western filmmaker to make a eastern movie. I hope that if this succeeds he doesn't end up helming a string of J-horror remakes. He demonstrates that he's above that from the very first scene, where Ariaana looks into the camera, pronounces, 'Let me show you how much I love you,' and promptly suffocates herself in a transparent bag. It's a great start to an indie horror movie and it builds well to an even better finalé that's as appropriate as it's shocking. Serafin is definitely a name to watch.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

The Pink Angels (1971)

Director: Larry G Brown
Stars: John Alderman, Tom Basham, Henry Olek, Bruce Kimball, Maurice Warfield and Robert Biheller

When I started my Cinematic Hell project, the aim was to watch (or rewatch) some of the worst movies of all time and try to build a primer into who, what and why. Much of my planning was on including a suitably wide range of titles, genres and key names to take care of the 'who' and the 'what', but over time the 'why' of it all took over. I became fascinated about why films like these were made, why anyone ever thought they might have been a good idea. Perhaps inevitably at that point, the scope morphed a little from bad movies to inexplicable ones. After all, there's a huge crossover between the two, and most of the films I'd covered fit both categories because the more inexplicable a picture is, the more likely it is to be really bad too. Yet The Pink Angels is something of an exception. While it's certainly no great cinematic achievement, it's capable in so many ways that it escapes the usual levels of badness. Yet it remains wildly inexplicable.

The most obvious reason it was made was because of a bet, as with Manos: The Hands of Fate. Someone bet producer Gary Radzat that he wouldn't be able to make and obtain US distribution for a motion picture. I don't know who bet him, when the bet was made or whether he ever got his winnings, but Radzat certainly won that bet as Crown International released The Pink Angels to five thousand theatres. Beyond being bet winners, Harold G Warren and Gary Radzat couldn't be more different. Warren was an inept filmmaker who chose to serve as writer, producer, director and star anyway; Radzat took a saner approach and hired people to make his picture, restricting himself to the role of producer. Warren's budget was $19,000, while Radzat surely raised more than that. Warren's career died as it began but he would have made films forever if only people would have let him; Radzat seems to have had no interest in making another movie.

Perhaps because of those differences, the results are light years apart. Warren made an unholy and incoherent mess, thoroughly amateur in every regard and full of every mistake in the book. I'm still not sure what Radzat made, but at least it feels professional. It's certainly watchable and yet unlike anything you're likely to have seen before. It could easily stake a claim to being ahead of its time, with its nearest comparisons coming a quarter of a century later: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. So I should explain who the Pink Angels are, given that if you google for them you're going to come up with paintball guns and Japanese rape fantasies. Initially they seem to be a random bunch of bikers, in their denim, leather and Nazi memorabilia, but we soon find that they're really drag queens, not just gay but really gay, heading down the Californian coast in disguise to a cotillion.
The scene in which we discover the charade is one of the great 'Huh?' scenes of cinema. The six leads drive into an A&W, paired up in three motorcycle sidecars, and play up biker stereotypes, disrespecting their surroundings and hinting at violence to the girl behind the counter and the hitcher they'd just picked up. It's all obviously fake but their true selves quickly become readily apparent. One gets jealous and calls his bitch, get this, a 'fickle pringle', only to have his fake beard ripped off in return. 'We're being watched,' one points out as a crowd gathers. 'Everyone is looking at us!' So they deepen their voices again and start a food fight with condiments. 'Hit me hard, you fool!' one cries as the ketchup and mustard fly like they're in an action painting. No wonder the hitcher runs. However it's apparently some sort of revelation to him that, 'Jesus Christ, you're all faggots!' Did he miss the white garter the gang leader wears on his arm?

It was here that I first wondered just what the motivation for the picture was and everything that unfolded from that point on merely added to my wonder. Put simply, I could see two audiences for the movie, bikers and gay men, which were both seemingly written away from. The opening scene in terrible light is only discernible as some sort of standoff with authority at a hotel pool, though I'm not sure if it feels more like an acid trip, aided by experimental music, or a bad frat comedy of the sort that has drunken pledges dressed in drag. It's followed by a general being chauffeured to his base, where we later find him sitting in front of the stars and stripes fondling a riding crop while listening to reel to reel tapes that rail against deviants and sex criminals. The credits unfold against a gloriously cinematic backdrop looking like nothing less than a Pink Floyd album cover, a sort of graveyard for huge concrete conduit.

Obviously we're setting this up as a clash between freedom and oppression, hardly a surprising theme for a biker movie, but it's a really bizarre way to frame it. Maybe The Pink Angels can only be understood by looking at what was happening in the counterculture at the time. Bikers had been a dominant image since the fifties because they felt they could opt out of society and live free on the road. Was there ever a more blatant threat to society than Brando in The Wild One? When he's asked, 'What are you rebelling against, Johnny?' he famously replies, 'Whaddya got?' Biker movies were an exploitation genre of their own in the late sixties and early seventies, after the massive success of Easy Rider. Another key genre at the time was porno chic, as for a short few years porn was fashionable, vaguely feminist and near mainstream with Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door playing in mainstream theaters to celebrities.
It's hardly surprising that audiences were reevaluating sexuality and authority, given a backdrop of free love, Vietnam war protests and the civil rights movement. Changes in the world of cinema helped that to be reflected on screen. By the late sixties, the production code which had defined morality on screen since 1934 proved to be no longer enforceable, allowing filmmakers a much broader palette to work from. Also studio bosses lost touch with the youth audience, which had drifted away to a growing world of independent exploitation cinema. They attempted to address this by hiring film school gradutes to make Hollywood movies with million dollar budgets and complete artistic freedom. The so called New Hollywood directors, such as Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola frequently came from Roger Corman's companies and made movies rooted in the counterculture that changed the face of American film.

So with this background, was The Pink Angels an argument that gay men were just as marginalised as outlaw bikers in the American society of 1971? In combining these two oppressed minorities, was it highlighting their similarities or suggesting that bikers had become more accepted than gay men, given that the latter have to disguise as the former to get by. Regular folk don't mess with bikers, bars have prostitutes all ready for them and even cops understand how to deal with them. In fact, while there's a suggestion here that homosexual and transvestite are synonyms, it's the latter that gets a particular nod in a telling scene that has our leading ladies pulled over by the cops. While they have trouble with the bikers being fairies, with one of them being black, confederate flags not withstanding, and one being a Liverpudlian poet without a driving license, it's the women's clothing that really throws them and seems the biggest disconnect.

Half of me believes that The Pink Angels is a product of its time, when it seemed natural to question things and raise issues in film, especially independent film, just as a matter of course, and it's natural to explore what those questions and issues are, especially when the story is as wild and unexpected as this. Radzat freely admits that his film was shot as cinéma vérité, a varied style that seeks truth through provocation. Yet the other half of me seems pretty convinced that I'm just searching for meaning in a picture that doesn't have any. The filmmakers may have set up scenes to be improvised through but there may be no truth to be found. The writing credit is to Margaret McPherson, who never earned another one, suggesting that maybe she didn't actually have a lot to say. How much was she responsible for the plethora of what now seems painfully stereotypical gay behaviour and how much were the obviously improvising actors?
The latter is a good possibility, because for a movie built off a bet it has a substantial cast from which you'd recognise a few faces. Mostly it was cast from film school students at the University of Southern California, male and female, but also from independent exploitation film regulars. Two of the six leads were prolific: John Alderman as Michael, the leader of the gang, and Bruce Kimball as Arnold, the big guy with a fake beard. With credits back to 1958, Alderman appeared in what seems like every exploitation subgenre in the book, all the way to hardcore porn in the eighties under the pseudonym of Frank Hollowell. Kimball had been working since 1966, often in biker movies like Run, Angel, Run!, Wild Wheels and Chrome and Hot Leather, though not always as a biker. He was also a regular in softcore hicksploitation for Bethel Buckalew and featured in other exploitation titles from The Mighty Gorga to Dracula vs Frankenstein via Love Camp 7.

Henry Olek, who plays Eddie, the Liverpudlian in John Lennon glasses, was just starting out but he became a regular face on American TV throughout the seventies. Ronnie, the black queen, is Maurice Warfield, who retired from the screen but returned in 2000 for a few film and TV roles. Robert Biheller plays Henry, the most flagrant sissy of the group, who looks like a moptopped Monkee. He made a few films in the sixties but this was it between 1968 and 1993. He earned a lot of TV credits though, including a long run on Here Come the Brides, which has nothing to do with this film, I promise. Rounding out the Pink Angels is Tom Basham, who reminds massively of Bill Murray as denim clad David. He returned to the screen in 1975 for The Psychopath, which was written, produced and directed by this film's director, Larry Brown. In that he played the lead role of a children's TV show host who stalks and murders abusive parents. Hell, yeah.

Half an hour into the picture our fake biker gang meets up with a real biker gang and there are even more recognisable faces there: Michael Pataki and Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty. Pataki is their leader, channeling Jack Nicholson and building up his counterculture presence a bit from his mime role in Easy Rider. He was prolific in the seventies, on TV and film, but stayed active, earning his last credit in 2010, the year he died. Haggerty is in amazing shape as one of Pataki's barechested bikers. He'd been in Easy Rider too, though uncredited as both an actor and a motorcycle builder. Obviously part of the scene, he was also a bodybuilder, animal trainer and stuntman, but most of his parts at this point were as bikers. It isn't surprising. If he walked down the road towards you at this point, he wouldn't look like a mountain man but a biker. Amazingly neither of these two get much to do, beyond wake up in make up and with bows in their hair.
Admittedly the last third of the film involves a vague pursuit plot as the real bikers chase the fake ones to 'kill those bananas' but they end up picking them up instead, as they'd switched into drag and these bikers are idiots. It's all ignorable, just as the brief scenes with the General, played by Putney Swope's George Marshall, amount to nothing more than a vague excuse for the blisteringly out there ending, which apparently was shot later because, as Radzat describes him, 'the director was insane' and had forgotten to film one. To our eyes, the General is a cross between Henry Gibson's character in The Blues Brothers and General Jack D Ripper from Dr Strangelove. As he doesn't connect with the main story whatsoever until the last minute, I'm sure his few scenes were shot along with the ending. It's as outrageously hamfisted an ending as I may ever have seen and it's hard to believe that they couldn't come up with a better one.

The way in which the ending doesn't fit in the slightest highlights the suggestion that there was no script at all, merely a set of locations that the actors got to improvise in so a vague picture could be edited together after the fact. The whole film has a destination which never arrives, so perhaps the only way to end the film is a surgical strike, quick and painless, which the General does at the 80 minute mark. There was a film, now there isn't. There's one final view that comes totally out of nowhere but it can't really be considered as part of the film proper. Really the last few minutes can be completely ignored as we go back to the most overt cinéma vérité, as the Pink Angels realise their women's clothing is lost and so have to outfit Ronnie afresh from local stores, ones apparently run by their real proprietors, given the shocked and bemused reactions captured on camera. I'm sure mine looked rather similar but for different reasons.

Ultimately, after all the questioning and analysing, I'm still not convinced this isn't just a one joke movie. If the film was constructed during the editing phase from however much footage they shot in potentially useful locations, maybe that's all it is. It's a situation comedy designed around having limp wristed caricatures pretending to be tough bikers. That's really not a funny joke to begin with and it doesn't get any better, though it might improve with a serious quantity of narcotics. The funniest may well be when David can't pick which bathroom to use at a gas station, but when he finally picks the gents, Henry prances out of the ladies. Maybe it's when David is dropped back with the others by a couple of girls who have apparently raped him and stolen his jeans. Surely it can't be the picnic scene, with red tablecloth and candelabras. Let me lend this to a gay friend and see if he can find anything remotely humorous. I doubt it.

In fact I should do that anyway to try to discover the audience. While this is a film built around gay characters and oppression, I have a feeling the gay audience would be offended by the use of stereotypes and inaccurate merging of subcultures. At least when our leads become ladies, they adopt drag conventions and refer to each other by persona rather than name. Yet what would a biker audience make of it? Surely having tranvestites pretend to be bikers is about as offensive to them as having a black audience watch white men in blackface playing dice and carving up watermelon. If they can get past that, what would they think of the real bikers, who are the densest in the whole film. How many stoned hippies were going to drive ins in 1971? Maybe at the end of the day, there was no audience, there was just a bet. Whatever else this film achieved, it won Gary Radzat a bet. Perhaps that's enough.

Sexy Killer: You'll Die for Her (2008)

Director: Miguel Martí
Stars: Macarena Gómez, Alejo Sabras, César Camino and Ángel de Andrés López
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
It's always easy to describe modern movies as ADHD or MTV or some other acronym, to highlight how untraditional they are, but it's rarely fair. Frankly, I haven't a clue what Spanish MTV might look like, but I'm tempted to haul out an acronym anyway to summarise the movie. The script by Paco Cabezas, who is a successful director in his own right, is deliberately fragmented, obscured and manipulated until it's hard to really figure out what the story is about. At the end of the day it plays out like a deconstruction of almost the entire horror genre, filtered through a quirky love story which is doomed to failure and formatted as a comedy. At least it plays out that way and I'm inclined to give it that much credit. It might just be an experiment in which Cabezas spent a night getting absolutely hammered, wrote down everything that seemed cool in that state and turned it all into a movie script. It's what Transylmania would be if Pedro Almodóvar had made it.

It's obvious who it's about from the opening scene, which has some dude in a Hallowe'en mask spying on the girls changing room at a university and stalking them in the showers. Briefly it's every bad Hollywood slasher movie, but only briefly. Then it turns it all delightfully on its head. It's the slasher who gets slashed, by another dude in a Hallowe'en mask. Santiago, the pervert in the first one recovers, in time to try to save Bárbara from the killer, only to realise, too late, that it was her all along. She's the sexy killer of the title and she very much lives up to both sides of that description, dressing in the latest expensive styles, moving like heaven in high heels and killing everyone who pisses her off. That's a lot of people. Imagine if Heathers had a little less social commentary but a lot more acid and a lot less restraint. After all, she keeps Santiago's head in her fridge with his missing poster on the door. She even takes it out for walks.

Two thirds of the film unfolds in stylised flashback, as she explains her life to a man who killed her dog with his sports car, after she nails his hand to it of course. Now, when I say stylised that's exactly what I mean. Bárbara has already broken the fourth wall and she continues to break the traditional conventions of cinema. To begin her story, she literally rewinds the film. She reads a copy of CosmoKiller during a university lecture and we're treated to an animation that shows us how many calories each method of killing uses up. One memorable death scene, in which she wraps the head of a poor lover in a plastic bag and kicks him out of the window, is accompanied by a graphical explanation as if this was an infomercial or a cooking show. How much you'll get out of this film is going to be roughly similar to how tolerant you are of these gimmicks. If you hate the very idea of them, this film isn't for you. If your imagination is piqued, you'll love it.
Of course there are pop culture references. How could there not be? They're handled well though and in keeping with the gimmickry. It's fun to see the lovely Macarena Gómez run through the time honoured Travis Bickle scene in front of the mirror. It's even more fun to see her drown a fellow student while asking her why Leo had to die in Titanic instead of the fat chick. In keeping with the concept of not just having a female serial killer but having her as the sympathetic lead of the film, many of these references tie to a redefinition of 'the weaker sex'. Bárbara doesn't just demonstrate a deeper knowledge of serial killer movies than a man, she applies her knowledge practically. The only surprising moment arrives when she turns out to not know anything about zombies. Yes, we get those too. There are no vampires here, no werewolves, nothing that comes close to sparkling unless it's due to make up, but we get pretty much everything else.

Bárbara's killing spree, credited to the Campus Killer, continues unabated until a potential victim inadvertently sets her up for a misunderstanding. She thinks he's a killer too, which naturally makes her hot, and cleverly written dialogue and situation comedy enhance the misconception. He thinks her brutal honesty about the murders she's committed is just her being weird, which he's more than happy to put up with given that it'll not just get him laid, but laid by the sexiest girl in town. In truth, he's not just not a killer, he's a forensic scientist at the Anatomical Institute trying to catch the Campus Killer. He also has the scientific genius to have built a device that can turn brain patterns into visual imagery, thus allowing a replay of a corpse's last moments. He isn't the delightfully crazy genius that Walter is on Fringe, but this is much the same sort of device that he'd come up with. The obvious potential for suspense it raises is handled well.

The most obvious success of the film is that there's never a dull moment. Blink and you'll miss something, maybe a lot of something. That may be why it opens in a women's changing room because the young ladies in this film are delightful enough to make you never want to blink. The leading lady Macarena Gómez demonstrates not just style and beauty but charm too, enticing us onto her side, regardless how batshit crazy it might be. The easy sympathy she coaxes out of us is something usually reserved for Japanese schoolgirls in movies with similar disdain for the tried and true conventions of cinema. In many ways this feels like a very Spanish translation of wacky modern Japanese comedy horror, with very little except cultural reference points coming from Hollywood. The catch is that those modern Japanese movies rarely live up to their gimmicks, but this one remains consistently solid even when it turns into something else entirely.
And no, it doesn't shrink from doing that. Two thirds of the way in, Bárbara finishes recounting her history in flashback to the sports car driver and we start moving forward. We have no reason to doubt anything she's told us, while we may translate the style into substance, but she isn't aware of what else has been going in town, most of which centres around her boyfriend/nemesis Tomás, and which is about to set us up for a riotous finalé with a heady mix of irony, philosophy, genre commentary and outright splatter. As much as this is a fast paced comedy, there's plenty of blood to keep the gorehounds happy. The death scenes are agreeably varied and delightfully set up. It's patently obvious that Paco Cabezas had a blast writing the script, probably more than Miguel Martí had directing it. He provides us with a bloodsoaked feminist serial killer movie that has us laughing out loud and rarely losing a smile, a Woman Bites Dog with Style. Bravo, señor!

Given that this is a Spanish movie, it's less likely that we're going to know anything that the cast and crew have done. This is Martí's most recent film and he seems to have found his way to it through teen sex comedies. While most notably a writer, Cabezas has almost directed as many films as Martí, certainly more serious ones such as the 2007 political horror movie, Aparecidos, which translates from the Spanish not only as The Appeared, its English title, but also as 'ghost' and has a more direct tie to the 'desaperecidos', 'the disappeared' of the dirty war in Argentina. Flanking it in his filmography are the short and long versions of Neon Flesh, which also feature Macarena Gómez. She's a prolific actress, who acts in many genres but has made more than a few horror films, including her film debut in Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft movie Dagon, an American picture shot in Spain with a predominantly Spanish cast.

Exploring filmographies tends to highlight gaps and Spanish horror films are one of mine, even though I saw this one at the Phoenix Fear Film Fest, where organisers Jim and Chris McLennan frequently program them. In fact, I've seen far too few Spanish films, regardless of genre, though I've watched Pedro Almodóvar since his early days, when the police inspector in this film, Ángel de Andrés López, made a couple for him. His may be the only face I've seen before, so I missed out on jokes like Alejo Sauras, best known for playing a gay character on TV, playing a rampant heterosexual here. These actors don't seem to venture outside of Spain very often, though Juan Carlos Vellido, a forensic scientist here, was also a sea captain in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. I'm looking partly to exercise due diligence as a reviewer, but mostly because this film prompts me to do so. If Spain is making films this fun, what else am I missing?

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Our Man Flint (1966)

Director: Daniel Mann
Stars: James Coburn, Lee J Cobb, Gila Golan and Edward Mulhare

Tura Satana made two films for director Daniel Mann, Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? and Our Man Flint, and in both she played an uncredited stripper. The strange thing is that even though the two movies were separated by only three years, they were an era apart. In 1963, she was a burlesque dancer of note, an obvious choice to play a similar role on screen. By 1965, she was a great deal more than that: no less than the epitome of feminine power, courtesy of the picture she made in between, Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Meyer apparently regretted that she only made one film for him, but hindsight merely underlines how massively important she was in that one. It also puts these others into perspective and highlights the Hollywood mindset at the time. Good or bad, the mainstream films she appeared in have dated, often painfully, but the indie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! plays better and more timely every time I see it.

In many ways, Our Man Flint is the honest version of the others. Irma la Douce was ostensibly about a prostitute but Wilder's version turns it into a man saving her from herself. Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? is a misogynistic romp that sets up Dean Martin as a bachelor supreme who marries only when his fiancée demonstrates what she can do for him. At least Our Man Flint is honest in its sexism, creating in Derek Flint less a James Bond spoof and more a wish fulfilment version of what every American male dreamed of being: a man utterly in charge of his destiny, who laughs at authority, achieves great physical and mental feats that literally save the world and, not incidentally, maintains a bevy of gorgeous women at his beck and call. Yet Varla would eat them all for breakfast. 'I never try anything, I just do it,' she explains in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and we believe it. Elvis Presley proposed to Tura. She turned him down. That's tough.

While Derek Flint isn't really a James Bond spoof, that doesn't mean that his film isn't. Director Daniel Mann suggested at the time that it was 'a spoof on Douglas Fairbanks pictures' involving 'swashbuckling in modern dress'. He may even have believed it, but Fairbanks was from another era and this was utterly of its time. It's absolutely a James Bond spoof, merely with Bond himself spun off into a peripheral character, named 0008 and with more than a passing resemblance to Sean Connery. He passes information to Flint during a fight scene at a strip club in Marseille. 'It's bigger than SPECTRE,' he tells him, 'it's Galaxy.' Coincidentally this is during Tura's performance. Later in the film, we see a character reading a 0008 book, another overt nod to the Bond series. So any pretense that this wasn't sending up Bond is ludicrous, it's simply that by relegating his equivalent to a minor role, Twentieth Century Fox inherently suggested their man is better.
They do more than suggest at the beginning of the film. A sinister organisation, which turns out to be Galaxy, is wreaking havoc globally by manipulating the weather: generating avalanches or hurricanes, triggering earthquakes or volcano eruptions, changing the global temperature at will. The bigwigs at ZOWIE (the Zonal Organisation World Intelligence Espionage) realise that their organisation has been infiltrated so they look outside for a saviour. They throw punch cards into their UNIVAC and out pops the name of Derek Flint, regardless what source data or who enters it. He's the man for the job. Chief Cramden doesn't want to hire him, because he knows he doesn't take orders well, but he's overruled. Then we meet him: running through a martial arts kata and defeating all comers. Coburn obviously isn't Bruce Lee (though Lee trained him) but he has a notable grin that hints at a good deal of character and a pristine air of supreme confidence.

Here's where he's firmly established as the wish fulfilment version of every male viewer. Not only ruggedly handsome and deft at martial arts, he's a renaissance man who gives Doc Savage a run for his money: an accomplished doctor, an antiques expert and a world class epicure, he's fluent in every language that arises. He can kill a fly with a blowdart, suspend himself between two chairs and stop his heart for three hours at a time. He's a master of improvisation. Of course he's rich. He has a penthouse apartment with talented guard dogs, his own private jet and better equipment than ZOWIE: his cigarette lighter 'has 82 different functions, 83 if you want to light a cigar'. His quartet of international beauties take care of his every need. And he has the chutzpah to tell Cramden to get lost. The world can save itself without his help. It usually does. He's 'the total man', the trailer calls him, 'as much at home in the casbah as he is in the boudoir.'

Of course he takes the job in the end, or otherwise we wouldn't have a film. He uses his unique talents to progress from exotic location to exotic location, exposing the good guys as idiots and tracking the bad guys to their lair. His immediate foil is Gila, a ruthless agent for Galaxy who is as exotically beautiful as you might expect, actress Gila Golan being a runner up for Miss World, Israeli via France and Poland. Needless to say she's extremely effective in everything she does, until Flint arrives on the scene, at which point he gets to interrogate her in bed. I last saw her in 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, the last of the five films she made in the sixties, this being her second. After that she retired, to return to the big screen only once for a Sergio Martino Italian football movie in 1984 that doesn't even have an English title. Our Man Flint was at the peak of her charm but of course has her dominant only until the right man comes along.
Coburn and Golan are by far the most watchable characters. Lee J Cobb does a capable job as ZOWIE's Chief Cramden, just as the white labcoat clad scientists who lead Galaxy do capable jobs, but all of them are only really there as props for Flint. Any way in which their actions seem topical is entirely accidental, such as the man made global warming that causes panic amongst the leaders of the world because they immediately see the damage it would cause. It was all completely generic at the time, nothing more than hokey science fiction transplanted into a spy story as was the norm. None of it makes the remotest sense, not that mad scientists are really supposed to make sense, but I've found over time that if you're going to tell a cartoon story and ignore reality, then at least go hog wild and go overboard on the style. Bava's Danger: Diabolik was dumb but it stands up better today as entertainment than many of its better peers.

Galaxy's island HQ in the Mediterranean is pretty cool but it can't hold a candle to Diabolik's underground secret lair. It's more notable for what it says about the writers, Hal Fimberg and Ben Starr, both best known otherwise for writing for television. Certainly this is as advertised as any home base of a secret terrorist organisation bent on world domination that I've ever seen. Not only do all the Galaxy henchmen wear uniforms, but the main building wears a logo. I loved the eagle that sits on the plinth outside it though. 'An anti-American eagle,' notes Flint. 'That's diabolical.' The HQ looks roughly as you might expect, with art installations, industrial facilities and random numbers in coloured hexagons. Yet the island is a tropical paradise full of jugglers, folk musicians and bikini clad women wandering around apparently at random. It turns out that they're pleasure units, conditioned to provide bodily service to the men. That's not sexist, right?

But there I go, rationalising a spoof again. To be fair, it's easier here because Our Man Flint is a comedy that is played delightfully straight. The Austin Powers movies owe a lot to the Flint films, this and its sequel, In Like Flint, which Powers reveals in The Spy Who Shagged Me to be his favourite movie. Yet they're overt comedies that couldn't be taken seriously if you tried. Flint is just as outrageous in his way as Powers but he's no more unbelievable than many of the serious superspies who saved the world on a regular basis back in the sixties, that comment reflecting more on the supposedly serious characters than on Derek Flint. This is a spoof that pokes fun at the spirit of the genre rather than specifics, so there are no overt gags and few references to its targets. We're supposed to be thrilled more than set to laughter. While Our Man Flint is often a dated mess of a film, it and especially James Coburn still succeed on that front.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Roman's Bride (2010)

Director: Michael Paul
Star: Anne Paul
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
The Pauls were all over the Phoenix Fear Film Fest 2010, almost literally as it seems like Anne Paul is ten feet tall, that impression coming through enthusiasm as well as height. She's a lovely lady with striking good looks and a wealth of gorgeous long red hair, but you wouldn't guess any of that except the hair from this film. She plays the title role but it's hardly a sympathetic one, given that Lily (short for Lilith) Heller is a religious nutjob turned stalker with skeletons in her closet who stops taking her medication when things don't go her way. You'd wonder why she took the part but then she created it, given that she wrote the script and produced it too. Her husband, Michael Paul, shot and directed, while they edited together. So it's exactly what they wanted it to be, down to the very last bit of freaky behaviour. That's what I like most about it: that it's really independent. Nowadays, indie pictures are little Hollywood films. This is different.

Lily is a troubled character. She's been on her own a long time, the daughter of the local priest and a dead religious nutjob. She doesn't know the former but she was responsible for the latter: she fought back after her mother cut off one of her toes with garden shears as a punishment. She seems to have inherited both the religious mania and the craziness from her mother. She doesn't go to church any more because they've got too liberal, what with allowing women to expose their flesh and everything. 'Toes and ears lead to the devil's tingles,' she tells the priest who comes to visit, with an entirely straight face. We meet her mother in moments of weakness, as she appears as a vision to bring her daughter back to the straight and narrow, but the real craziness arrives with the main thrust of the plot, which is one of the saddest and most pathetic love triangles ever filmed. That doesn't stop its unravelling being well worth watching though.

You see, we're in rural Iowa, very rural Iowa which looks delightfully peaceful but which doesn't contain many people. We meet few characters and they've all known each other forever. Since they were kids, Lily has liked her neighbour Roman, but Roman doesn't like Lily, at least not that way. Amos likes Lily that way, enough that he buys as many 'blessed bouquets' as she can make just to keep her busy, even though he knows he can't sell them on and so burns them all at the side of the road. Both Roman and Amos know the score, though Lily continues to bide her time, waiting for the right moment. It seems to arrive when Roman's girlfriend Angela leaves him and takes her kids back to their real father. Suddenly there's potential, or so Lily thinks, especially as he doesn't take it well, but then Angela comes back and everything's peachy again, enough that they start planning a wedding. Unstable women don't mix well with loss of hope. It gets bloody.

Roman's Bride is obviously an independent film, very low on budget but very consistent in tone and unique in outlook. If anything you could place it as a modern southern gothic, though Iowa is hardly the depths of the deepsouth. Unrequited love, religious mania and sexual frustration always make great ingredients for a gothic horror and the apparent isolation of the characters from the rest of society, surely partly driven by the restrictions of the budget, certainly doesn't hurt. It ensures a lot of local flavour to the piece, including an agreeably suspenseful scene set in the Iowa cornfields. The budget, or the lack of it, is often noticeable, with some dialogue lost in the mix and lighting occasionally burying a scene in white, though one instance is deliberate and appropriate. Yet it's professionally done, with a solid pace and some agreeable tension, a story arc for each of the three leads and decent, often excellent, camerawork.
In fact I'm surprised at how good it was technically, given that so much was shot outdoors and given that I don't think anyone involved had done anything like this before. Well, at least that a wider audience has seen: the Pauls have apparently been making short films with their friends for a couple of decades. Anne Paul has ten credits at IMDb, for instance, but they're all for this film. Most of the cast members also earned credits as crew because, well the cast was the crew. If you were there, they presumably put you to use: as a writing assistant, a hairstylist, a children wrangler (got to love that one), whatever was available that day. I'd guess many of them didn't know what booms or grips were when they started out but they all did fine work. Only one has credits for anything else. Jim Siokos, who gets to canoodle with a lovely young lady in the creek for most of his part, has been starring in films for Scott Beck and Bryan Woods since 2004.

This cosy filmmaking unit brings other benefits. The natural charisma between Roman and his family is because it's really his family, the Rennats, who are almost as well represented in the credits as the Pauls. They all have fun playing up to the camera, especially young Zoe who is delightfully individual, scuba diving in the bath and collecting bugs. Elise Rennat earned an extra credit as a cricket wrangler, which should be on a business card. Her mother got to dust off her old cheerleading outfit and give her husband a fresh cheer. It isn't difficult to see how this also helps the budget, given that it wouldn't surprise me to find that Roman's house is also the Rennats' house. The film was shot at locations over three counties in Iowa, but I'm guessing that all those working farms belong to people involved in the film, or at least to their friends. No independent film can pass up that sort of opportunity and I'm sure that this one didn't.

While Roman's Bride exceeds expectations and sits very nicely with me as a freaky backwoods drama: a gothic take on seventies horror, a more insular version of Deliverance without tourists or, to use the New York Post's description, The Iowa Chainsaw Massacre, that doesn't mean it's perfect. I can easily forgive minor technical issues and amateur acting, but it's harder to forgive some of the script's missteps. Nobody ever seems to hear a shotgun blast in this film or at least pay heed to one. Roman's bride to be seems to inexplicably vanish at a rather crucial point and she certainly doesn't ever seem to worry enough, given the circumstances. Character decisions are occasionally unlikely, especially but not only Roman's actions after his escape. Amos is also notably overlooked. This is a love triangle, after all, and everywhere the story goes is because of that. He deserved to be on an equal footing as as a character with Lily and Roman.

Other reviewers have pointed out other flaws that didn't bother me. I enjoyed the quiet, sedate pace of the film, which to me reflected the quiet, sedate pace of rural Iowa. The story caught my interest from moment one and kept it throughout. Yes, some of the shots of Lily stalking Roman got a little repetitive, but then what else was there for her to do in her self-imposed isolation? If anything, the most repetitive shots for me were of Gary and Lindsey in the creek, but they're ended satisfactorily. I can't say I'm a huge fan of the score but it certainly didn't bother me. If anything, it settled into the film so well that I didn't really notice it. And don't get me started on microbudgets. The Pauls self-financed this film and did a great job in shooting it, promoting it and making it available. Horror is a very viable genre on an incredibly low budget, but it's rare to see originality at that level. This has a feel unlike anything I've seen recently and I like that.

Bug Buster (1998)

Director: Lorenzo Doumani
Stars: Katherine Heigl, David Lipper, Meredith Salenger and Randy Quaid

This DVD was just too good to resist, especially for a measly buck ninety-nine. It's a modern day monster movie from the late nineties that tries to be a throwback to the late fifties and succeeds, though only in a good way for about two thirds of its running time. It features a cast of TV actors, led by Dr Izzie Stevens from Grey's Anatomy and backed up by both Scotty and Sulu from Star Trek, along with The Love Boat's Dr Adam Bricker, Battlestar Galactica's Sheba and Crystal from Passions, even a brief appearance from MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown. The monster is played by Doug Jones, early enough in his career that it predates even Mystery Men. In the end the show is stolen ruthlessly and shamelessly by Randy Quaid, who ably spins his gimmick into a force to be reckoned with. Of all things, he plays an over the top exterminator from TV commercials. Early on that's the only place we see him. Later, he joins the regular plot and simply takes over.

The setup is traditional. Before the opening credits, the governor of California announces at a press conference that he will order his state be sprayed with a chemical pesticide to combat the spread of a fly that threatens to wipe out it's entire food crop for the year. What stands out today is that the doctor who stands up to protest this decision is played by George Takei, who many would dearly like to see enter politics. He's Dr Fujimoto, who explains that his studies suggest that this particular chemical pesticide will cause mutations and accelerated growth in insects. His final line is quintessential Takei. The governor asks him what could be worse than losing the entire state's food crop and putting thousands of people out of work. 'You have no idea,' comes the reply. Well, we have a pretty good idea, given that this is a monster movie called Bug Buster, one made by Shoreline Entertainment, an independent production company on its second title.

After the credits we leap forward thirteen years to find cockroaches crawling all over a sleeping Katherine Heigl. They don't appear to be CGI, not least because I don't think the budget ran that high, so she did a pretty good job of not icking out. These things are everywhere, crawling over her face and up her nightgown, hanging from the ceiling fan. My stepson would have fled the house screaming like a girl at this scene, so I'm sure the stereotypical girls at drive ins would be burying their heads in their boyfriends' chests right about now. And this is most certainly a drive in movie. I can't think of a better place to see it. The budget, or the lack of it, is also noticeable in that this scene, which is a recurring nightmare on the part of young Shannon Griffin, is reused a number of times during the film. Maybe Heigl managed to not ick out only once and then briefly, forcing the filmmakers to reuse the footage every time they needed more.

Shannon is moving with her parents from Newport to Mountview. They're a happy family, even though Gil Griffin has been downsized and has bought the Black Forest Lodge with their savings. He has a new lease on life, he explains. 'Moving here is going to be a blessing for all of us,' says Cammie, his wife. I'd certainly go for it. Mountview may not have a doctor any more but it has a movie theater playing classic Vincent Price movies. The tone is very old school. Shannon is the rebellious kid who didn't want to leave what she knows as home, but in this throwback to the fifties that simply means she gets to pout at the lodge's door for a scene and then make the best of it by hooking a cute guy in no time flat. The Griffins are also a peach of a TV family, a mere year before TV would create another peach of a family called the Griffins in Family Guy. Heigl is best known from Grey's Anatomy, Dad from The Love Boat and Mum from Battlestar Galactica.

If you've ever seen a monster movie, you know it can't stay this happy for long, and sure enough in Mountview, the stories about things that eat the legs off swimmers in the lake turn out to be true. Something is down there trying to get its hooks into skinnydipping Veronica Hart and Steve, the sort of boyfriend she's already got her hooks into. Enter James Doohan to start with the pop culture references that pervade the film. He's a very calm sheriff but a tough one. One scratch on Veronica's leg and he shuts down the lake. He saw Jaws, you see, and he 'just doesn't want anyone to get hurt.' It doesn't last. When searching the next day, he shoots the scarfish that was trying to eat his young deputy, Bo (yes, the other deputy is Luke) and business is back to usual, at least for a while. Dr Laurie Casey, the cute local vet, isn't sure it will last. Nothing adds up and so she calls her former professor, Dr Fujimoto, for advice and everything links back together.
Bug Buster isn't just a monster movie, it's a comedy, so we know it's not taking itself seriously, but it worked for me for the majority of the film. The story is traditional and the tone is PG as far as the internal morals of the piece go. We do get to see one of Katherine Heigl's breasts as she gets out of the bath but that's it for 'adult material'. Switch it to black and white and age it a little and the main thrust of the story would have worked half a century ago. Sure, audiences in the fifties wouldn't have got the references to Uncle Buck, Mike Tyson and The Dukes of Hazzard, let alone recognised any of the plethora of TV actors in the cast, but on the flipside Dr Fujimoto's computer equipment would have seemed believable back then. It's your usual primitive late nineties PC but this one does DNA analysis, talks with a sultry female voice and allows him to set up 3D battles between insects. To us it's stupid, to them it would have been science fiction.

The death scenes get pretty gruesome, surprising given the tone the film takes otherwise, but they do play up the quirkiness: the first character to die is Johnny Legend, after roaches creep up his saxophone during a performance by Trailer Park Trash. While there obviously wasn't much of a budget, the gore effects are surprisingly good and the monster at the end, designed by Jeanne Vosloo of Alterian Studios, is an appropriate throwback to the heyday of the genre. Presumably if the filmmakers had stayed true to the death scenes of the classics, they wouldn't have sold their movie. Otherwise it's very traditional. There's a local nutjob foreseeing doom and destruction, this time called Judediah. There's a love interest for Shannon in the form of Steve Williams, an orphan working at a gas station. The cops don't really know what to do. The scientists struggle to find out. Meanwhile the deaths continue to mount. It's nothing unusual but it's capably done.

Where it broke for me is when Gen George, Pest Eliminator, star of a number of suitably over the top TV commercials screened during the film, escaped the small screen and actually joined the rest of the cast in Mountview as a character. Randy Quaid has a blast as Gen George, supposed Vietnam vet and hater of all things bug. His commercials are militaristic, with him swinging from jungle vines and firing automatic weapons at anything that moves. His number is 500-KICK ASS. You get the picture. Well, this was funny in the form of commercials but bringing Gen George in to take care of the bug problem in Mountview is when the film jumps the shark. I don't want to fault Randy Quaid's performance because he's solid as a rock but he just shouldn't be there. The film immediately stops being a story and becomes a Saturday Night Live skit. Everything set up is forgotten and ignored so that Gen George can run riot and the cast can try not to crack up.

George Takei had fun as Dr Fujimoto, though he didn't bring any Star Trek jokes with him as he did to Full Moon's Oblivion films. His biggest problem is that he doesn't actually interact with any other character, presumably because he wasn't actually in the same place as the other actors. After the opening scene, which doesn't feature any of the other characters in the film either, he's confined to his lab from which he talks to his old student on the phone, getting her name wrong every time. Downtown Julie Brown plays a sensationalist TV reporter, ignoring every convention of good behaviour to get another salacious tidbit. So there's been life in the film, just relatively believable life, or at least as believable as monster movies get. Once Gen George hits town, all that is thrown out and we go as overboard as we can. As if to compete, every character starts to go wild too, even James Doohan who had been as restrained as Takei wasn't up to this point.

I liked the film for two thirds of its running time. It's nothing special, to be sure, but it's a fun little monster movie with faces we know and stories we know better. The dialogue is decent: 'He was a war hero in Vietnam,' Uncle Buck says about Gen George. 'What did he do?' 'He survived.' The location is neat; the camera capable; all the actors decent, even if we don't recognise them. It feels like one time writer Malick Khoury knew his genre and paid it fair homage. But I hated the last third. Gen George leads a charge not just against the bugs in Mountview but against the old school tone of the film. To me he felt like Hollywood arriving and demanding that it should all be louder, more obnoxious, more stupid. So in come the fart jokes, the stand up comedy and the overt spoofs of Patton and Ghostbusters and who knows what else, all at once. Even the ending is insanely stupid and makes absolutely no sense whatever. I should have stopped an hour in.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Wound (2010)

Director: David Blyth
Stars: Kate O'Rourke and Te Kaea Beri

I thought I recognised the name of writer/director David Blyth. This is a New Zealand horror film, released Stateside this week by Breaking Glass Pictures, and he made an earlier New Zealand horror film that I remember fondly, 1984's zombie flick Death Warmed Up. Looking back at his filmography, he's had a taste for experimental film and a disregard for traditional boundaries since his student days. His 1980 erotic punk fantasy, Angel Mine, may well be referenced here, as surely is his 2004 documentary about Kiwi bondage dungeons, Bound for Pleasure. Wound is the precise opposite of mainstream, and the polarisation of response won't be a shock to Blyth. Just look at the IMDb reviews; most people hate it with a passion but the few who like it are head over heels about it. I'm more open to experimental film than most and I found this approachable, even though it's stirred up a similar controversy to Angel Mine over thirty years ago.

In a word, it's about insanity. The central character is Susan, who we first meet at home, inviting in her father who has flown over from London to see her, then crowning him with a baseball bat, tying him up in a strange Satanic setting, strangling him to death, pulling out his pecker and cutting it in half with a pair of scissors, before taking off her mask and singing to her dolls. Yes, that's the introduction to this movie, so it's hardly surprising that most of the detractors in those IMDb reviews didn't get any further. There's something about male genital torture that seems to upset horror fans who can happily watch nubile young ladies tortured all night long. I'd tell you more about Susan, but I'm not yet sure what's real and what isn't. I'm pretty sure that everything I've just told you about isn't, for instance. It's just another manifestation of her mind, presumably an attempt to come to terms with her demons as she reevaluates her life and its events.

Kate O'Rourke gives a powerful and very brave performance as Susan. She doesn't seem to be a highly experienced actress, having played more roles on film as uncredited orcs, goblins, uruks and ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring than in all her other credits put together, but she allows this role to wash over her as utterly as Susan allows Master John to control her actions in a dom/sub scenario within the story. Potential roles may well be closed to her after making a film like this, especially given the controversy that has built around it in New Zealand, but I'm sure that filmmakers more concerned with art and less with audience metrics will be seeking her out. As submissive as she plays during certain scenes, she utterly dominates the film, to the degree that the character and the film are almost, if not absolutely, synonymous. I'm still thinking through whether all or just most of what we see takes place in her head.
There are other characters. Most obviously there's Tanya, her daughter, capably played by Te Kaea Beri in her debut on the big screen. When we first meet her, she's an unhappy orphan at school, plagued by doubt as to why she was given up at birth and searching for her real family. Soon we discover that she was stillborn to fourteen year old Susan, the product of incestuous rape by her own father, thus explaining the emasculation and murder that opened proceedings. There's also Mistress Ruth, Susan's mother, who works as a dominatrix at a club called The Box and appears through visions at various points to direct her daughter. Sandy Lowe seems notably comfortable in the role and has no other credits, so I wonder if Blyth found her while shooting Bound for Pleasure. Certainly there's a Mistress Sandy in that film, playing herself. Ruth is also dead, apparently murdered in an arson attack by her daughter after her miscarriage.

I should point out that while these sound like spoilers, they're not, and frankly I'm not convinced that anything I could tell you could act as a spoiler, given that what I got out of this film may only be my personal interpretation and not what David Blyth intended in the slightest. Ruth is the first character we know is dead, as we see her gravestone before she ever appears. Her next scene is on the phone, as her daughter explains to her that she's 'living a nightmare and can't wake up'. It's when we realise that she's talking into a dialtone that we begin to reevaluate everything that came before and, increasingly as the film progresses, everything still to come. It's all projection not reality, what Ken Russell described as 'repulsive dream-surgery'. If Ruth is dead and Tanya was stillborn, what else here is manifestation? It's all a battle, to quote Russell again, with 'her delirious, incestuous monsters of the id.' It underlines that Freddy Krueger is a happy meal toy.
The source for this rollercoaster ride to rationality appears to be gothic fiction, which Blyth freely acknowledges in the credits and on the film's website. It rings very true, but gothics are usually period pieces and this is utterly contemporary. In fact the only hint at a timeframe is through the gothic tinges to Tanya's appearance, which was surely deliberate, the modern goth carved out of the old gothic romances filtered through the fetish community, again very represented here. The Box is a gem of a location, situated somewhere only a little closer to reality than the labyrinth of the Cenobites, half club and half dungeon, both governed over by a delightfully iconic creation: a naked man in an elaborate pig mask, heavily tattooed but only from the waist down and with a spiked iron codpiece pinned to his skin. In lesser films, this would be the villain of the piece, here it's just another facet to the concept of control that Susan continually struggles with.

Everything here seems to be about control, making me wonder if it grew out of what Blyth found when shooting Bound for Pleasure or even what drew him to make that in the first place. Within the framework of this quest for sanity by a woman who doesn't know what sanity is, there are subplots dealing with the lack of control: Susan voluntarily abdicating control to a master, acknowledging her powerlessness over her mother by fashioning her into a dominatrix, losing control to incestuous rape. The most controversial scene, in which the pig masked man at The Box rapes an unconscious girl, merely depicts the most overt loss of control. Ironically, Wound is a very controlled film, low budget but without any need to not be. I get the impression that Blyth made precisely the film he intended to make and he's backed that up in interviews, suggesting that if he had ten times the money he'd merely pay the cast and crew more.

Whether this is the film for you is very much something you'll need to figure out for yourself. It isn't just not a Hollywood summer blockbuster, it's not likely to be an experience remotely close to anything you know. It's grotesque and repugnant, surreal and difficult, but challenging and rewarding. If you want well defined characters, you're in the wrong place. If you like the idea of a character who, with her fragile grip on reality, reimagines who she is, manifesting herself into the personae of mother and daughter as archetypes and specifics, so she can then interact with herself physically and mentally from different perspectives, then perhaps this is the picture to blow your mind. It goes further than David Lynch as it doesn't try to be cool, but it stays focused more than Alejandro Jodorowsky as it doesn't aim at the spiritual. It's more like Jan Svankmajer turned into live action by Luis Buñuel and remade by Ken Russell. If that inspires, buy it.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Shellter (2009)

Director: Dan Donley
Stars: Cari Sanders and Will Tulin
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
I remember Shellter best of all the features shown at the Phoenix Fear Film Fest in 2010. It was less slick than Sexy Killer, less funny than Trippin', less microbudget than Ouija Board, but it was more brutal than anything else shown. It's a film that messes with your mind, not least because it's rooted in real life experiments that did exactly the same thing. That's the trippiest part of the experience that is Shellter: the realisation that some of the extremes that we see people go to in this fictional setting were reached for real in Ivy League university studies into human behaviour, specifically the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram experiment at Yale. Everything that we see is psychological in nature, effectively asking us over and over again what we would do if we found ourselves in the same situations that the characters find themselves in. Would we do anything different? Are we capable of 'questionable things'? That's where real horror lies.

It's easy to see where the psychology came from here: Dan Donley, who wrote, directed and shot the film, has a masters degree in the subject. He's fascinated by historical events where normal people did abnormal things. He'd like to know why both rank and file German soldiers and Jewish prisoners did what they did in the death camps. They weren't necessarily the sociopaths, racists or political opportunists that the people who designed the final solution were. They were people, good or bad, who did inhuman things. After Shadows, a psychological thriller that's only horror in name because agents told him that horror is the 'only genre you can sell without known talent', he wanted to make something more overtly horror, an extreme movie that 'would make people squirm in their seats'. That aim quickly pushed Shellter into the realm of torture porn, a dubious genre with a dubious name that mixes extreme violence and sadism, but without intelligence.

And intelligence is the big difference here. The Saw films, now the highest grossing horror film series of all time, like to believe that they're intelligent, but to me they're just complex. They're Rube Goldberg machines on celluloid, each building towards another ick moment grosser than the last. That's no bad thing, but the focus is the complexity, the intricacies of the devices rather than the psychology of the characters. Replace the villain with a coyote and the victims with a roadrunner and you have exactly the same story, just with less gore and more escapes. The first Saw movie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, cost a mere $1.2m to make, peanuts in the film industry, and it grossed a hundred times that. Shellter has so many ick moments that it makes Saw look like Bambi but it all means something and it achieves another of Donley's goals: for his film to not just make the audience feel it mentally and physically but for it to change them.

Our lead character is Zoey, who wakes up from a dream that looks like 3D without the benefit of glasses in a hospital bed. 'You're safe,' says the doctor who attends her, perhaps inevitably. He's wearing a white coat and has a friendly bedside manner. He explains that they're in a nuclear fallout shelter, one intended for VIPs that didn't make it. The world has gone to hell, something backed up by the TV which is running on an emergency channel. Her family are 'dead or worse', 'survival is literally one in a million', 'the world you knew doesn't exist any more', 'the infected went crazy'. He lays it all on her quickly, emphasising that this small underground location is it. There's no escape, there's only survival, and gradually Zoey realises what survival really means, which isn't anything remotely pretty. She is carried along on a wave of necessity, spurred by the doctor and what he needs her to do, often without advance warning, and it changes her.

When I first saw Shellter, partway through a day long horror festival of shorts and features, it felt like I'd been rooked between the eyes. Most obviously it contains much that makes us squirm, not least what seems like every medical ick moment in the book, each of which to many people are ickier by far than the murder and rape scenes. We see those all the time: we're already conditioned. We're not so conditioned to surgery without anaesthesia, self amputation, genital mutilation, let alone orbital pre-frontal lobotomies or gluing orifices shut with surgical adhesive. With apologies for the cliché, you won't want to go back to the hospital again. The physical ick factor is outweighed by the mental ick factor though. Everything we see is done by a person, a person who is apparently just trying to survive, or yes, just following orders. We ask ourselves why they do it and then we ask ourselves whether we would do it too in the same situations.

When I watched Shellter again, a couple of years later, I went through all the same reactions but also noticed just how much more Dan Donley was involving us in proceedings than I had initially thought. The middle of the film contains a reenactment of the Milgram experiment, in which a survivor named Emily is strapped into a wheelchair that is hooked up to an electric current. The doctor asks questions and every time she gets an answer wrong, he has Zoey press a button to deliver a shock, then increase the voltage before the next question. Initially it only tickles but it quickly reaches dangerous thresholds. The point of the experiment is that it isn't about Emily at all, it's about Zoey and why she continues to press the button even when it causes obvious pain. While the story focuses on Zoey, I wonder how much it's really an experiment about us. Donley seems to be more interested in our responses than he is about the technical aspects of his film.

As passive participants, we aren't drawn into the same type of experiment that Zoey is. However she's drawn in through assumptions. She makes judgement calls, consciously or not, about her situation and they shape the actions she takes. A subtle component of the Milgram experiment was that when participants stopped pressing the button, they were prompted to continue with comments of increasing vehemence. That's replicated here, not just in the overt Milgram scene but throughout the film. Each time Zoey questions her surroundings, the doctor reenforces them with increasing vigour. We aren't subject to that, so we quickly realise that the doctor is not all there, but we are subject to the same assumptions. The core twist of the film is a kick in the gut but the lesser ones carry just as much impact: the changing status of the characters and what that means, as well as the deliberate inability to keep track of time.

The way this is all structured means that we've become part of the experiment. After all, if Dan Donley asked you what you would do if you woke up in a nuclear shelter and had to do X, Y or Z, you wouldn't be able to answer fairly because you aren't there. You'd be detailing what you think you'd do or what you like to think you'd do, not what you actually would do. You may not have a clue what you really would do. That's the point. Yet here, we're thrown into the same situation as Zoey, albeit by proxy, and are given the same amount of information to work from. So we make assumptions and judgement calls, just as she does, merely without the power of life and death at our fingertips. We may surprise ourselves in the decisions we take, especially when the twists arrive and we realise what we've been suckered into believing. The real kicker comes when we watch the film again to see if we changed our minds, even with foreknowledge of the twists.

The cast are generally very good, though few of the actors have much experience. Another key story element is that almost nobody is given a name during the film, keeping everything notably impersonal. Fortunately the Shellter website helps identify who played who so due praise can be handed out. Cari Sanders does an excellent job as Zoey, even though this was her film debut. It can't have been an easy part to play, especially for someone fresh to the screen. Will Tulin is a gloriously freaky mad doctor, exactly the right mix of pragmatic, driven and batshit crazy. He gets no end of great moments, but the best for me were during the Milgram scenes. His clinical delivery of banal lines like 'increase the dosage' and 'administer the treatment' are note perfect, perhaps due to his background as a broadcaster, as he hosts a morning radio show in San Diego. As the only male character with a lot of screen time, his dominance is especially notable.

Nobody else lets the side down. A number of other characters enter the shelter, though few get to leave, and while they share obvious characteristics they and their situations are agreeably different. Three stood out for me. Erin Mae Miller gets little to do as Amy, but she does a huge amount with it, eliciting massive amounts of sympathy as perhaps the victim with the most sustained presence in the film. Maria Olsen is the apparently wackadoodle nurse who spends her entire time soaked in blood but unable to speak. She apparently read well for another part but wanted the challenge of this one. She lived up to it superbly with a grounded horror presence. Best of all though was Sophie King, an Aussie actor who plays Emily, the ostensible subject in the reenactment of the Milgram experiment. Almost her entire part is a death scene but it's the most powerfully played and gruesomely believable death scene I've seen in a long while.

And yet everything inevitably comes back to Dan Donley, who needs to make more feature films and soon. He found his way to film while working on his masters degree, through a catalogue of classes at community college. He now has a couple of decades behind him shooting TV shows, commercials, awards ceremonies, you name it. His first feature was Shadows, which I really need to track down and which he wrote, produced and directed. From the trailer it appears to start at a number of places that we know well but then move off into a good deal of new territory. Trailers can be misleading, of course, but given the substance behind this film I'd hope we can trust that there's substance in that one too. It was released in 2005, with Shellter following four years later and playing well on the festival circuit. At this rate we should be due another feature next year. How about it, Dan? What's next?

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Ouija Board (2009)

Director: Matt M J Stone
Stars: Nick Smithers, Candice Edmunds, Ross Maxwell, Georgia Goodrick, Lee O'Driscoll and Marysia Kay
This film was an official selection at the 3rd Phoenix Fear Film Fest in Tempe in 2010. Here's an index to my reviews of 2010 films.
Obviously low budget from moment one, with sound that could be better, Ouija Board succeeds in transcending its limitations and becoming a film to watch on its own merits, not just because of what it does with a microbudget. Director Matt Stone (not that one, this one is the fourth of eleven with that name at IMDb) is a TV cameraman by day, working for the BBC, but he shot a couple of short films back in 1996 and always wanted to build on that experience by making a full length feature. The Ouija Board website ably explains how hard that turned out to be, even with him filling many roles: not just director but writer, producer, cinematographer and editor too. In the end it took four years for him to get to the point where Ouija Board could be released, but it's unquestionably a success and it bodes well for what he can do with his next film, given that he now has four years of valuable experience on this one under his belt.

It turns out that moment one is the worst one, but perhaps inevitably so. Paul and Kerry are on their way to a remote Scottish cottage for a fun weekend, with three of her friends in the back seat, and we've seen this so many times that our hearts automatically sink on seeing it again. It's hard to catch everything that's going on, because it's outside and the sound quality is far from pristine. It doesn't help that Ross Maxwell has both the most lines and the thickest accent. It's dark and rural, which helps explain how Paul has got lost but means that we have nothing to look at except the characters and the inside of the car. I really can't say that it was promising. Fortunately moment two is when it begins to distinguish itself, because just as Paul starts to nod off, he runs over a young lady who was standing in the middle of the road covered in blood. We don't find out immediately, but she reminds him of a former girlfriend, Claire.

Perhaps because of his day job as a cameraman, Stone avoids the handheld approach for which I'm eternally grateful and he keeps his camera moving. The sound improves once the car stops. Most obviously, as the characters talk about what to do with the corpse and, more importantly, what to do after they wake up in the morning and find it mysteriously gone, we realise this isn't going to just be about the dead girl, it's going to be about each of our leads too: how they react to the event and how it changes them. Some may see that as an indication we'll get more talk than action, as talk is cheap and so the best friend of a microbudget filmmaker. Others may see it as a sign that however clichéd the action gets, at least we'll have characters to get our teeth into and that's what we get. Stone may see writing as the least of his talents, the one he has to work hardest at, but I'd say it may be the strongest as it's the writing that elevates the picture.

With only five main actors in the film, he builds them each into well defined characters with story arcs and opportunities to shine. Fortunately they're all played by actors, not just the director's mates, and they do a pretty good job with a lot of dialogue to explain their back stories and how who they are affects their reactions. Each is affected differently and the group dynamic shifts a number of times because of that. While Paul is the grounding for the plot, not just the driver who apparently kills someone on the way to the cottage but also the outsider in the group who may have a skeleton in his closet, James is the catalyst for change within it. He begins as the odd one out, the only one not part of a couple, perhaps because he's also the inappropriate one, the one with a knack of either finishing conversations or prompting entirely new ones that those around him might not want. Yet he grows the most and becomes the most sympathetic.

On the good side, the dialogue is mostly believable, fleshing out the story and drawing us into the picture, but on the bad side the delivery is often stagy, often feeling more like a radio play than a feature film. What's surprising is that it's less because of the actors and how they deliver their lines and more because the performances are insular. While the actors don't always find the life in the dialogue that Stone wrote for them, they all do a pretty good job for the most part, certainly exceeding usual microbudget standards. It's that they often don't interact well, each of them better on their own than as a group. Perhaps part of this is due to the lack of room in which to move the camera around, so forcing many conversations to unfold as monologues with the camera shifting back and forth between speakers. Given that there's a lot of solid and obviously conscious framing of scenes otherwise, I can only assume technical limitations here.

It helps that the cast is varied. Nick Smithers and Ross Maxwell, who play Paul and James, are both experienced actors, with growing lists of credits. Smithers has some really good moments but ultimately can't live up to the challenge of his character. Maxwell grows from being the least sympathetic, the asshole of the bunch, to being the most sympathetic, the most rounded. He gives the best performance on show. Georgia Goodrick has become the most successful, given that she went on to The Human Centipede II, but she's the least consistent here as Kerry. She's wooden more often than any of the others but she also gifts us with some of the most acutely sensitive moments of the film. Candice Edmunds and Lee O'Driscoll round out the main cast as Lucy and Simon, but have the least experience. This is the only credit for each of them at IMDb, though both have worked on film before: she'd done short films and he'd done a mockumentary.

The most prolific member of the cast is actually Marysia Kay, who plays the dead girl so well that sometimes she looks like a special effect and I mean that as a compliment. She gets no lines at all, at least as an actor. The character she plays finds a way to speak through the ouija board of the title, which you just knew had to come into play sooner or later. It turns out to fit into the story a lot better than is usual. So she's tasked with acting only with her body, mostly in scenes where she isn't the focus and yet she makes her presence very known. At one point she falls out of a closet and does it so well that she could have been a mannequin. I'd be very interested to see what she can do in bigger roles and there are plenty to choose from. Surely films with titles like Zombie Women of Satan, The Scar Crow or Karl the Butcher vs Axe aren't going to be Oscar winners, let alone Bikini Blitzkrieg, Part One: Dance Domination, but I'd certainly watch them.

At the end of the day though, these actors showed up, played their parts and went home, while the film began and ended with Matt Stone. Four years of patience and determination, along with who knows how many more of dreaming, are the reasons why this picture exists at all and Stone deserves the lion's share of any praise or condemnation it might attract. I'm sure that in the end, it will become a great learning experience for him to look back to, but it's worthy as microbudget cinema done right. He failed to entirely transcend that budget: the sound begins badly, the trees were in dire need of colour correction and the gore effects felt like the BBFC had pulled out their scissors. Mostly though he succeeded in making a film, not just a microbudget film, with a story that grew and kept us interested throughout, actors who lived up to their characters and neat little moments that show he did his homework well. I'm looking forward to what he does next.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963)

Director: Daniel Mann
Stars: Dean Martin, Elizabeth Montgomery and Carol Burnett

Tura Satana made two films for director Daniel Mann, which means one more than she made for Russ Meyer, with whom she's forever associated. In fact, given that her fifty year career totalled only ten films in all, that means that Mann made a full twenty percent of her films, and yet she played an uncredited stripper in both of them. That's a shame. It's also a shame that this doesn't remotely live up to its potential, especially as it had such a promising outline. Made the same year as Irma la Douce, it's a vehicle for Dean Martin, who coincidentally starred in Billy Wilder's next film, Kiss Me, Stupid, and it's a great multilayered role for him, given that he doesn't just get to play actor Jason Steel but the character that Jason Steel plays on TV too, the apparently flawless title role of Ask Dr Adam. That's not a bad deal really, but the problem is that the ladies in the story see him more as Dr Adam than they do Jason Steel and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

The similarities between Steel and Adam are highlighted early, which is promising. 'There's a lot more to being a doctor than checking thermometers and taking pulses,' a nurse tells him as he saves a marriage. 'It's all in a day's work,' Adam replies and walks off into the credits, to emerge in the car park as Steel to rail at the godlike status of his character and cycle off into the sunset: two exit scenes running so we can't help but compare them. He's grouchy because he's about to get married, though he's enough of a man to still maintain a cool bachelor pad with a spacious bar and a gentleman's gentleman of his very own. Quagmire would be proud. He's nervous but not with cold feet. He wants to elope right now and avoid the big wedding, hardly surprising given that his fiancée is an art teacher played by Elizabeth Montgomery. If only these two were the only characters in the story. Unfortunately, he has five unhappily married poker buddies.

These misogynists want nothing more than to escape their wives and play poker together every Wednesday night, while their wives try everything to stop them. Why, I have no idea, given that they're not likely to be good company. Tom Edwards doesn't want to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary with his French wife. 'Let's not be slaves to this middle class nonsense,' he tells her. 'It's just another day on the calendar.' Apparently he can resist her cute accent. Harry Tobler has had two heart attacks already, dancing with his very supple wife. He doesn't want another one, but I'd chance it. Yoshimi Hiroti doesn't want the traditional Japanese culture his delightful wife deluges him in. I'd take it all. Sanford Kaufman wants out of a lecture on pre-Columbian art his wife wants to take him to. Actually I'd go for that too. Leonard Ashley's wife goes for reverse psychology, making him feel as guilty as she can. She'd let him kill her if it'll make him happy.
And so the neglected wives start to ring Dr Adam at the poker game, because he can do it all: fix medical ailments on the operating table and human problems away from it. They see Jason as the character he plays on TV so much that they start calling him Doctor. Thus Jason starts to experience married life by proxy, his good nature easily taken advantage of by wives desperate for attention. So Jacqueline Edwards cooks for him, Toby Tobler dances with him and Isami Tani sings to him while walking over his back, all unloading their troubles at the same time. You can imagine how easily this leads to situation comedy, with Steel trying to keep them all apart, but it also leads to breakdown as Mona Kaufman rings him to complain about her husband right after he's booked himself in to see him the next day at his practice. He's a psychiatrist as well as a poker buddy. I really enjoyed the film up to this point, but here's where it goes downhill.

That's not to say it's been without flaws thus far. It's a particularly testosterone fuelled romance, perhaps the true opposite of a chick flick, with the misogyny inherent rather than confined to the misogynistic husbands. The moral really feels like these guys have the right attitude. Sure, they each made the same mistake and got married, but that's all behind them now and they've come to terms with it. They can deal with the little ladies back home well enough, and we're supposed to hope that Jason Steel learns their lessons in time to avoid making the same mistake himself. No, that's not quite how it turns out in the end, of course, but Hollywood always had a habit of throwing in endings to satisfy certain audiences, whether they be female filmgoers who flocked to see Dean Martin movies or administrators of the production code who were all about having the sanctity of marriage underlined on screen.

Partly this attitude is dominant because the female characters are so badly written. Elizabeth Montgomery got a co-starring credit as Steel's intended, Melissa Morris, but she's hardly in the movie. Even when she's given screen time, she gets a lot less to do with it than Carol Burnett, who stamps all over her scenes as if she owned them. Then again, while Montgomery is a very recognisable face to us today, that's mostly from her long run on Bewitched, which wouldn't begin until the year after this film. While Burnett was debuting on the big screen here, she was already a household name on TV, 1963 marking her second consecutive Emmy, the first for The Garry Moore Show and the second for both Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and An Evening with Carol Burnett. She pulls out the stops here and gets most of the best lines of the picture, but I'd much rather have seen more of Montgomery. Burnett is annoying here, Montgomery isn't.
As for the other women, they don't get much to do either except provide potential validation why their husbands don't want to spend time with them any more. They may be delightful to look at, as you might expect from actresses like Jill St John, Macha Méril and Yoko Tani, but they're clingy and whiny and hardly grounded in reality. They may entertain us, but they drive poor Jason Steel batty. Like Montgomery, they also disappear mostly into the background as the capable, if a little predictable, comedy of the first half deteriorates into silliness and slapstick in the second half as Carol Burnett takes over and Dean Martin runs wild. This latter is a saving grace, given that he gets to demonstrate a Cary Grant impersonation at one point and even a couple of Dean Martin impressions too, that somehow appropriate for a film in which he plays a character who plays another character. Why not have his character play him too?

The most interesting thing with this script is how it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. As Jason Steel finds himself unwittingly helping out everyone else's marriage just by being nice, he feels more afraid of beginning his own. His session with Dr Kaufman is enough to define him as a confirmed bachelor. Yet as the ladies treat him more as the perfect character he plays on TV he becomes less and less perfect in real life, becoming notably unstable, to the point we wonder why our delightful art teacher still wants him. It's not like the actors weren't accustomed to ending marriages. Montgomery had divorced two husbands already and she married William Asher while making this film. While that marriage would also end in divorce, it also produced her three children. Dino went through three divorces too but at this point was fourteen years into the twenty three his second marriage would last, one that would give him three children too.

It's hard to see how this film could have been fixed. The premise is a good one and I'm hardly going to complain about the cast, but it seems to consistently take the wrong direction at every step. For a while those wrong directions are still funny, so we can run with it, writer Jack Rose no rookie writer with two Oscar nominations already behind him and a third to come. By the halfway point all the bad directions have only set up more bad directions and the humour drains out of them as situations progress. At almost an hour and three quarters, it's also too long. One of the few highlights of the second half of the film is that uncredited performance by Tura Satana, a brief spot as a stripper in a Tijuana bar, moving a heck of a lot more than she ever got a chance to do in Irma la Douce. She sure was flexible back then. If only the script had been as flexible, maybe it would have given us a lot more to enjoy from the perspective of a different era.