Sunday 24 March 2013

Eel Girl (2008)

Director: Paul Campion
Stars: Julia Rose, Euan Dempsey, Nick Blake and Robyn Paterson

While there's some Night of the Hell Hamsters in The Devil's Rock, it's mostly the technique that allows Campion to turn a little into a lot. It's a feature distilled down to its essence and played out over a quarter of an hour, with only two characters visible on screen. The skills Campion showed there, especially on the writing front, were put to good use in his debut feature. Eel Girl provides the rest of the skills that he needed, as well as some of the themes that he would later spin into an occult Nazi framework. Most of the praise deserved here could be copied and pasted from my review of The Devil's Rock. What it's missing is the background and the story, playing out instead like an extended scene from a feature that doesn't exist. That's not to say that the beginning and the end don't work, it's more to say that it could be inserted partway into an extended story with no changes required. There aren't even any opening credits to suggest a beginning.

While Night of the Hell Hamsters only used two actors, Eel Girl uses and discards two as it begins, as a crisp military type collects a scientist to meet their commanding officer in a briefing room. The details don't matter, only that Protocol 482 is ignored, leaving an obsessive junior scientist on his own with the title character only a few important doors away. There don't appear to be occult shenanigans in play here, though we're given little background to build onto, but a military force has unleashed on itself something very similar to what Col Meyer unleashed on his Nazi troops in The Devil's Rock: a naked, female, non-human creature who looks frickin' awesome but who has an agenda of her own and absolutely cannot be trusted. The sets are superbly realised, costumes no less and even the technology is believable, unlike almost every other movie ever made. The colour palette is especially notable: alien white on superbly lit and textured green and black.
Most obviously there are the make up effects. This five minute short was shot at Weta Workshop, after all, with make up by Weta Digital. Julia Rose is magnetic as the title character, even though she never speaks. She looks roughly as you might expect: naked, with pale, possibly luminescent skin, gills in her cheeks, sharp pointed teeth and webbing between her fingers. She's memorable not only as a Weta make up job but for the way Rose carries her. She commands attention, which is what she gets from the obsessed scientist on the other side of the protective glass. What goes down from there isn't entirely surprising, especially to those who have seen The Devil's Rock, as the signature move is not far removed from one which the demon bitch uses in that film. Without the context of the later feature, this would play much more Lovecraftian, as Eel Girl feels a lot like a solid realisation of a denizen of Innsmouth, where men consorted with the Deep Ones.

The technical quality here on every front and the effortless dominance of Julie Rose as the Eel Girl scream out for a more substantial story, but one is not forthcoming. We're given no background to ground the story, just a hint at military experimentation that doesn't go far enough to determine whether this creature was created or found. She could be from Innsmouth or a sinister relative of Abe Sapien, but she could equally have been the product of unsanctioned genetic engineering. It really doesn't matter, as Campion was obviously concerned less about story here and more about tone and texture, in which aspects Eel Girl shines, figuratively if not literally. Rarely does a short film look this good, but of course rarely does a short film get shot at Weta Workshop. We viewers can't help but want a story to surround this weird creature and her bath of black ichor but we're left resoundingly wanting. If Campion had a story, it presumably morphed into The Devil's Rock.

Eel Girl can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Night of the Hell Hamsters (2006)

Director: Paul Campion
Stars: Stephanie Ratcliff and Paul O'Neill

After watching and enjoying The Devil's Rock, I just had to follow up with Paul Campion's previous short films. How can anyone resist titles like Night of the Hell Hamsters and Eel Girl? Well, they're an interesting pair, two very different pieces that each point to The Devil's Rock in their own way. Night of the Hell Hamsters is the more fun of the two, with a surprisingly well defined story built around a tiny cast and a confined setting. Eel Girl is far more accomplished technically, not only because of the outstanding creature effects but through excellent costumes, sets and a capably subdued colour palette. Yet what it has in tone it lacks in story, to the degree that it's more like a small slice of a much bigger picture that doesn't exist. More directly, it's centred around a naked non-human female creature and there's a shared gruesome effects shot. Looking back, it's clear that the two films are two halves of the bedrock that Campion needed to make his first feature.

Night of the Hell Hamsters is surprisingly solid for a debut director. It even kicks off with a neat bit of distraction, the scream that opens proceedings not sourced from Julie, the Williams' babysitter, but from some cheesy movie about giant zombie rabbits on the TV. She seems comfortable and capable, very much the trustworthy girl next door, even when her boyfriend Karl shows up. She's disappointed only because she wanted him to bring a ouija board but he only brought the box. He sissied out, which fits the perhaps unintentional feminist tone. She improvises though, setting up her own with a kids' alphabet puzzle and a shot glass, the crowning touch being a drop of blood from Karl's finger after one of the Williams' hamsters bit it. He plays along and fakes a spiritualist conjuration, summoning the almighty Spozgar, which name he found spelled out on the letter blocks left by the kids Julie is babysitting. As you can imagine, Spozgar turns out to be real.
It's easy to slate this film for terrible effects, as the giant zombie rabbits are clearly crew in giant rabbit suits and the hell hamsters with their glowing red eyes couldn't be cheesier, but I'm pretty sure Campion was aiming for the level of cheese he reached. Certainly the film is technically solid; the camera angles are capable, the lighting is fair and the sound is fine, though the hamsters do sound as cheesy as they look. Rob Hall's editing is especially solid, everything flowing together so efficiently that it's a short sixteen minute ride to the finalé. Campion gifts us with some very well phrased shots too, not least a superb gore scene that will have every male viewer cringing in his seat. Yet what it depicts is a stereotypical male fantasy shot, very possibly exactly what Karl was aiming at for his evening in with Julie, but with a simple change of liquid that turns everything on its head, pun very much intended. And yes, it's probably popular in Japanese porn.

Paul O'Neill does a fair job as Karl, though he's cut off in his prime in more than one meaning of that phrase all at once. Mostly he's there to be a slightly dorky but decent boyfriend for Julie, but he adds a lot of grounding to the film and he delivers a simple and clichéd line impeccably. 'Make it stop,' he pleads in a small voice and Julie's response underlines why she's the lead, not only in this picture but in their relationship too. While Stephanie Ratcliff is not a great actor, she delivers everything that Campion needed her to do here. She believably takes Julie through the story arc that Karl could never have managed, all the way to the iconic final line which underpins the film. Even though we're hauled through cheap Exorcist knockoff lines and cheesy hell hamsters along with her, we never lose sight of the moral of the story which is surely to never piss off Kiwi chicks because they can take care of anything. Either that or ouija boards and hamsters don't mix.

Night of the Hell Hamsters can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Devil's Rock (2011)

Director: Paul Campion
Stars: Craig Hall, Matthew Sunderland, Gina Varela and Karlos Drinkwater

Given this week's announcement that our beloved local grindhouse gore girl, the Midnite Movie Mamacita, is back with fresh fodder at FilmBar, it felt appropriate to celebrate with a Kiwi triple bill. The Devil's Rock is so indie that writer/director Paul Campion re-mortgaged his house to pay for it, though fortunately the New Zealand Film Commission then stepped in to help out too. It's his debut as a feature director, though he's made a couple of award winning and intriguingly titled shorts: Night of the Hell Hamsters and Eel Girl. He also worked on many of the biggest pictures of the last decade, crafting textures, painting mattes and creating conceptual art at Weta Digital. Working for Peter Jackson is hardly the worst way you can kick off a career in the film industry, especially if you're working in New Zealand and your personal tastes draw you towards the gore genre. This film's success certainly placed him firmly on the cinematic map.

It kicks off quietly and darkly, as a couple of Kiwi commandos land on Forau Island, northeast of Guernsey, in the German occupied Channel Islands. It's the day before D-Day and the allies want sabotage raids to distract the Nazis away from Normandy. Capt Ben Grogan and Sgt Joe Tane are supposed to blow up some big gun, but they're led into a bunker that looks like the Black Knight's helmet in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the eerie screams and moans escaping from it, not to mention the Nazi who bursts out of the door to puke in front of them. They soon discover what makes this picture such an attractive proposition to begin with. Using an antique occult text, Les Veritables Arts Noirs, these Nazis are attempting to harness demonic forces to supplement their more conventional arsenal, and if there's anything better than a horror movie with Nazis, it's a horror movie with Nazis, demons and arcane occult practices in the name of der Führer.

The neatly disconcerting ambient soundtrack underpins the progress these Nazis are making, but most of them appear to be dead, surely demonstrating just how much trouble they're in, trouble that our Kiwi commandos soon walk into. It turns out that the only living Nazi is an officer, SS Col Klaus Meyer, who promptly shoots Tane and takes Grogan prisoner. The rest of his men are dead, some shredded into lumps of meat that are almost unrecognisable as human beings. From them, Meyer even shovels up gouts of grue to feed to his other prisoner, the young lady whose voice we've been hearing throughout. Grogan escapes but, attempting to help her, discovers that she looks and sounds exactly like his dead wife. Of course, she's really the Nazi-invoked demon bitch who wreaked havoc on the Colonel's men. So Grogan and Meyer, the only two live human beings in the bunker, must put their differences aside and join forces to dispel her.
The Devil's Rock is something of a textbook in how to make a low budget horror feature. While there are some agreeably gruesome effects, notably including a corpse with a rifle rammed down its throat in an homage to Cannibal Holocaust, it focuses more on the characters. To be brutally honest, it had to, because they really aren't many of them and it was always going to succeed or fail on whether our attention is ably courted by such a small cast. In fact, the reason that Sgt Tane dies quickly is because at that point Campion was financing the film himself and couldn't afford to pay for more than three actors to flesh out the story. Anyone else was stuck in the extra bracket or at least not far above it. To keep things interesting, he forged these three characters into a dynamic triangle, each one with its own unique antagonism towards the others. Then he keeps us guessing as to which of those connections will develop the inevitable twist.

Campion, who co-wrote with Paul Finch and Brett Ihaka, deserves most of the credit. This could easily have been a mess. The concept is great but the money wasn't and hanging a feature film on three major characters is a gamble. By coincidence, the last feature film I saw with a cast this minimal was Lo, another picture about a demon, but that one aimed to build a plot with theatrical and cinematic invention, while this one aims to do it while keeping things traditional. It may not have a lot of locations to play with, but it does have them and they're well put together. We see solid sets, solid props and solid effects, the latter being very much in the old school physical vein rather than using new school CGI. The story unfolds chronologically, with each progression built and executed slowly but surely. There's little here to suggest at a 2011 release date except the quality of those effects. It could easily have been a found picture from the seventies otherwise.
Of course, that timeless feeling is never hurt by a cast of new faces. I didn't recognise anybody here, though everyone in the cast has at least a little experience. Capt Grogan is played reliably by Craig Hall, who may well be a familiar face on television down under, judging from his credits. His movie career has included films as widely seen as 30 Days of Night, The Water Horse and the remake of King Kong, the latter two alongside Geraldine Brophy, who provides some voice work here as the demon bitch. Physically she's played by Gina Varela, who brings more than merely enticing sensuality to the role, in and out of clothes or bodypaint. She was in a highly regarded Kiwi crime series called Bloodlines, for which Hall won an best supporting actor award. Best of them in my book was Matthew Sunderland as Col Meyer, who serves as both the grounding of the film and the catalyst for most of the plot movement, but all three act well off each other.

Any downside surely has to tie to the budget. While Campion did a fine job of throwing as much of it as he could onto the screen where we can see it, he would have benefitted from having more of it to throw. It would have allowed for more actors, for a start, to nip and harass the core dynamics of the three leads. It would also have allowed for more versatility in the locations. The few we see are used well and Campion did a fair job turning the bunker into a claustrophobic jail cell rather than letting the familiarity degrade into boredom. There are also many places where more effects work could have been beneficial, though I'm not going to complain that a good deal of what we see is there to add texture to the background rather than for cheap shock value. The more I think about this picture, the more I see it as bedrock on which Campion can construct his next few features. I'll surely be following up on them and going back to his short films too.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

Director: Harold M Shaw
Stars: Martin Fuller and Mrs William Bechtel
The Land Beyond the Sunset isn't just utterly different from the last Thomas A Edison Inc picture I reviewed, 1903's Electrocuting an Elephant, it's utterly different from anything else being made at the time. In 1912, movies were still short affairs, usually running under fourteen minutes and thus fitting on a single reel of film. Over a decade of improvements in storytelling techniques had led filmmakers to push the boundaries of what could be done in so short a timeframe, but they made busy films, crammed with gags or melodramatic moments, depending on the tone. This one is a rare exception. It isn't crammed with anything, playing out in a slow, relaxed way. It doesn't have a consistent tone, apparently unaware of what it wants to be and happy to break all the rules to become something else entirely every couple of minutes. It can't even focus on why it was even made, ending in bizarre whimsy that apparently counters the whole point of the film.

It was made as an advert, of all things, a promotional film to point out how awesome the Fresh Air Fund was. This non-profit organisation is still in operation today, even though it was celebrating its 35th anniversary in 1912. Founded in 1877 by Rev Willard Parsons, a pastor in rural Sherman, PA, it aimed to provide disadvantaged children with holidays in the countryside, courtesy of a network of volunteer host families. It succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, outlasting the newspaper that assisted it, The New York Tribune, and thus far helping over 1.7m children. Within the framework of this story it helps young Joe, a newsboy in the slums of the big city, who lives in squalour with his abusive, alcoholic grandmother. Instead of buying a paper from him, a lady gives him a ticket to a Fresh Air Fund picnic in the countryside and he sneaks out to catch the train and discover the colour green for the first time. You'd think that tells you the whole story but you'd be wrong.
It's no surprise to find that a promotional piece for a charitable organisation dedicated to helping needy kids would start in an overblown Dickensian manner. It's no surprise to find the Fresh Air Fund coming to the rescue, literally gifting young Joe with a mindblowing trip of a lifetime. As he reaches the picnic area, he looks around as if he doesn't understand what he's seeing, treating the grass, trees and flowers with a suspicious wonder as if they're about to spring to life and eat him. He brightens up and, after the picnic itself, is bewitched by the storytelling. The volunteer ladies tell fairy tales, you see, and we get to see them reenacted in his imagination. As Joe hears about young Jack, we see him. He's rescued from a wicked witch by a flutter of fairies who guide him to a flower clad boat which they launch onto the sea, 'along the path of shining light, to the Land Beyond the Sunset, where he lived happily ever after.'

If the film ended here, it would have been less notable than it becomes. It would still have been unusual for morphing Dickensian social commentary into promotional home video into fairy tale fancy, complete with a little cinematic trickery. The naturalistic acting is refreshing, hardly what you might expect from an early silent film. Yet it's writer Dorothy Shore's finalé that sears it all onto the memory. With one subtle shot that still impresses over a hundred years later, she kicks into motion the wild ending that still has me puzzled as to what she really aimed to say. As the fairy tale ends, the happy reenactment in Joe's imagination is countered by a darker reenactment in his memory of his grandmother beating him, projected onto the side of the barn behind the still seated children. Clearly he doesn't want to go home, so he hides away until everyone has gone, then walks down to the shore to find a way to reenact his fairy tale for real.
The problem is that it unfolds about as well as it could, given the circumstances. Joe finds a boat and drifts off 'to the land beyond the sunset' but without anything to suggest that he might reach such a mythical land in reality. He has neither food nor water. He has no sunscreen, no means of navigation. He has no idea where he even begins his journey, let alone where the sea might take him from there. So the picture ends before we can discover whether his inevitably horrible death will be from starvation, dehydration, exposure or just plain drowning. Are we supposed to see this as a preferrable fate to returning home to his wicked witch of a grandma? Should we appreciate that at least he ends the story on his own terms, apparently the master of his destiny, however scarily soon that might arrive. And how are we supposed to view the Fresh Air Fund, whose good deeds it was all supposed to showcase?

And that's what I can't get past here. There is much to enjoy in this film, which is in a category of its own, unfolding unconventionally from grim reality to ambiguous finalé that could be a dream within a dream, unbridled romantic lunacy or a subconcious manifesto that death is better than poverty for young boys. The shifting tones play out like Joe elevates through planes of existence, ascending to higher and higher levels of imagination, like an acid trip that unfolds blissfully but is about to go horribly wrong. Simply changing the title cards could warp this unashamedly. And at the heart of it is the Fresh Air Fund, depicted initially as lifesavers, helping kids like Joe to escape their lot in life for a brief window to revel in the countryside, but then as well meaning bumblers, ineptly losing track of one of their charges who surely dies on their watch. How could this possibly have been the sort of promotion that they were looking for? Thanks, Edison!

Sunday 3 March 2013

Off Track (2012)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Hanelin, Scott Scheall and Gus Edwards

January's Travis Mills review was of the film I currently regard as his best, The Memory Ride (my favourite is probably still his debut feature, The Big Something, for its irrepressible irreverence). February's was of what may be the one I regard as his least, The French Spy, even though Travis liked that review best of all my reviews of his work. This month's choice, Off Track, sits inevitably in between them but in an enlightening way. Thinking about why highlights why some of his films work so well and why some of them don't, thoughts that Mills quite obviously experimented with during 2012. As with most of his films, it appears to be a very simple tale; as with most of his best, it doesn't turn out to be quite so simple after all. His best work is ambiguous and deep but stops short of being cryptic, perhaps because of his fondness for film noir. A rule of thumb is that the simpler the film, the more likely it is to fail, even if it's technically exquisite.

This one appears to be very simple indeed. The rare image sitting behind the title suggests that it's a horse racing film but for a horse racing film, we sure see a lot of Michael Hanelin's face and very little of either horses or horse racing. Of course that's because it's really all about him, the unnamed character who rarely leaves the screen and who narrates the entire picture without a single word of dialogue to distract us. He goes to the track every Friday afternoon and puts on what he calls his 'ultimate performance': he buys a program, an overpriced beer and sometimes looks at the track. He loses every week, a sucker just like everyone else there. He looks the part, showing everyone that he cares, even though he doesn't. The only difference is that he doesn't actually bet. Why? 'It kept me in balance' he says, allowing him to cope with the stress of work and his wife and two kids. He's so generic that it should have been two and a half.
And then, as he leaves one week, he finds a note tucked under his windscreen wipers, one that provides the name of a horse and how to bet on it to win. Here's where the movie changes, not least because it's when the highly appropriate score kicks in. It's been as absent as the dialogue thus far, but after the note is read, it rumbles quietly into place, the volume increasing steadily until we reach the point of the story, then it stops entirely, to return only for the end credits. Of course, the horse in the note is running the next week and it places as suggested. Had he taken its advice, he'd have won. Every week from then on, there's another note, except the week when he camps out in the parking lot to see who's leaving them, and they're always right. The finalé is not going to surprise you too much, but it's well handled, and it leaves us wondering about which of the three ways we can read the entire film is the right one.

This is what Mills does best. When he paints an abstract, such as The French Spy, it tends to fail, just like when he paints something obvious, such as Shine Like Gold. It's his impressionistic films that ring true, like The Ruffians or The Memory Ride, because we can read them in a number of ways, examining layers until we find a hidden truth, even if that truth turns out to be a reflection of ourselves rather than anything he deliberately placed there. Perhaps Off Track could be called impressionism lite, as the architect of this character's destiny is shared by each way the film can be read; we merely ask whether he does so literally or psychologically. Hanelin is perfect for this sort of Everyman role: he looks so unremarkable that he could easily fade into the background, but his malleable face and subtle acting talent allow him to ably personify the ambiguity in Mills's impressionistic films. No wonder he's now a Running Wild regular. We'll surely see more of him.