Sunday 24 April 2016

Behold a Pale Horse (1964)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Writer: J P Miller, from the novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, by Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
This review is late for a number of reasons, which ably highlight how important it is to always get ahead of your deadlines, even when they’re self-imposed. I should have posted it sometime during Tuesday, 5th April, to commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of Gregory Peck. However, that turned out to be the day before I flew home from the UK after a couple of weeks travelling around Scotland. I’d tried to take care in advance of both films due to post during my trip, but I only managed to watch Terror in a Texas Town. I did review that film on time, staying up late after an all-day wedding, only partly drunk, and posted it in the wee hours. This, however, I didn’t have a chance to watch until the night I needed to post and that proved difficult. My sister’s TV doesn’t have a USB jack, so I borrowed my nephew’s but his wouldn’t pick up the audio. So I watched on his TV but listened on my laptop as I took notes. Security ate our four hour layover in New York and then my laptop died, losing all my notes. So, hello 18 days late.

I picked Behold a Pale Horse because it’s the sort of film I have trouble believing exists and I have no idea why anyone thought it would be a good idea to make. My review of Terror in a Texas Town talked about an era of American cinematic history that was dominated by Communist witch-hunts, the Hollywood Ten and how tough it was for blacklisted artists to find work. So, only six years later, it feels completely surreal to watch Peck, a huge Hollywood star riding high after On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, How the West Was Won, To Kill a Mockingbird and Captain Newman, MD, to mention just the previous six movies he’d made over the previous five years, playing a hero who happened to also be a Communist, a terrorist and a vehement anti-Catholic. Could there possibly be a more unlikely role for a Hollywood star in 1964, especially the year after his Oscar win for playing the iconic American hero, Atticus Finch? I’m a blank and I wonder if it’s why this marks the line between what I know Peck from and what I don’t.
Today, almost everything about the film sets off a red flag (no pun intended) that could have stopped the production in its tracks. It’s based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-born British filmmaker known for the quintessentially British films that he made with Michael Powell, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. These are great classics, but they’re not commercial Hollywood in the slightest. That novel, Killing a Mouse on Sunday, was loosely based on the life of Francisco Sabaté Llopart, or El Quico, a Catalan anarchist who lived outside the law from the age of seventeen, fighting a guerrilla war against the Second Spanish Republic, the Vichy government and the fascist regime of General Franco, none of which Americans knew or cared much about. They would surely care more that he was an anarchist, a murderer, a deserter, an assassin, a bank robber, a political exile and a public enemy number one. Compared to El Quico, Clyde Barrow looks like an amateur boy scout.

Even if somehow director Fred Zinnemann could manage to tap into an early vein of counterculture anti-hero worship, he had to get the film made first and, utterly unsurprisingly, Franco refused permission for Columbia Pictures to shoot in Spain. In fact, his government blocked distribution of all Columbia’s output in Spain and forced them to sell their Spanish distribution arm. M J Frankovich, a Columbia vice president, estimated months prior to this film’s release that it had cost them millions of dollars in lost revenue even discounting its production cost. They were unable even to screen the film on American television, after a request from the Spanish government. But they continued on with production, shooting exteriors across the border from France, and filming ran a month over schedule. Yet, when they previewed the film to US audiences, they found that nobody knew what it was about, so they had to add an introduction, cut from To Die in Madrid, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War, with overlaid narration in English.
‘These were the men who lost,’ that narration explains of those lined up at the French border, stripped of their weapons and sent into exile. Manuel Artiguez gets to that line, only to turn round and try to walk his way back in to Spain. ‘The war’s over,’ say his compatriots. ‘Why don’t you give up?’ Sure enough, off he goes into France whether he likes it or not. Even in this unspeaking scene, it’s odd to see Peck in this role, not only for the reasons already mentioned but also because his co-star is Anthony Quinn, who could play Artiguez in his sleep. In fact, he’d asked to play the guerrilla, but Zinnemann wanted to avoid typecasting him and so cast him instead as Viñolas, the corrupt but capable captain in the Civil Guard who’s the other player in this game of cat and mouse. And cat and mouse this promptly becomes, as Artiguez is set up to be the Jerry to the captain’s Tom. ‘Everyone who loves Spain and freedom should know who that is,’ little Paco is told, who sees him as a folk hero. ‘Manuel will always come back when he’s needed.’

This is Paco Dages, a young orphan who travels over the border to Pau to track down ‘the great leader of the guerrillas’, so he can ask him to kill Viñolas. After all, the captain beat his father, José Dages, to death in an attempt to drum Artiguez’s location out of him. Paco doesn’t find the hero he expects, even asking him, ‘Are you his father?’ The supposed ‘great leader’ is a slouchy and grouchy man rotting in his garret with a smoker’s cough; he’s quick to anger and he promptly throws the kid out. By comparison, Captain Viñolas is bursting with life. We meet him on horseback warming up a bull for a matador, then he goes to romp away the day with his mistress. Quinn wasn’t the star that Peck was, though he already had a pair of Oscars under his belt, but he was still well established over a decade since Viva Zapata! He plays the captain with ease, but for a plastic tricornio that looks like the headgear of an alien race in a cheap sci-fi movie, while Peck consciously tries not to play Artiguez like his co-star would have done.
So, as we’re introduced to Pilar Artiguez, the catalyst of the story, we find ourselves oddly sympathetic to Viñolas but indifferent to Artiguez. The captain enjoys who he is, even if he takes bribes and cheats on his invalid wife and can’t see the irony in taking his mistress on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. His exiled opponent, however, is a frustrated and angry man who’s relinquished his fight as twenty years have taken his heart out of it. Discovering that Pilar, Manuel’s mother, is seriously ill and not expected to live long, Viñolas has her put in the San Martin hospital and locks it down. He smuggles word to Artiguez that she’s there, as he will surely try to come and see her, thus giving him the opportunity he needs to set up a sting to take him down. The guerrilla has two things going for him. One is that Paco knows the hospital well, as he snuck in to see his father before he died. The other ties to the third star of the film, a very young Omar Sharif as a Catholic priest named Father Francisco. Without his usual moustache, he reminds of Tony Curtis.

While Peck and Quinn are both given opportunity to build depth into their characters, Sharif is gifted with a peach of a part that’s full of complexity and, once he’s introduced, over forty minutes in, it’s hard to see anyone else as the lead. Pilar Artiguez, played with surprising passion by Mildred Dunnock, given that she is bedridden and immobile for the entirety of her small part, has no love for the clergy. She tells a priest who attends her, ‘Go bless the rifles of the firing squad, Father.’ But, hearing that he’s substituting for Fr Francisco, who’s about to leave for Lourdes, and knowing that the other will have to go through Pau, she requests his presence and, right before she dies, asks him to fulfil her last wish. She knows that Viñolas has set a trap for her son and that he’ll walk into it, so Fr Francisco should take the news of her death to him and thus save his life. The priest thus finds himself in the horns of a dilemma, torn between duty to his God, to his country, to the law and to the last wish of a dying woman.
And it only gets more complex from there because the script refuses to take all the easy ways forward. It could have been a predictable ninety minute film, but J P Miller, who adapted Pressburger’s novel for the screen, knew what had to be predictable and what didn’t and so his script takes a winding route to get to it’s relatively predictable ending, a winding route that constricts like a snake on characters like Paco and Fr Francisco. While the story pits Artiguez against Viñolas in a battle to the death that’s twenty years due, neither is remotely as interesting as either the priest or the child. Both of them have competing loyalties to confuse them and complicate their actions. Both of them struggle to do what they believe is right and what they go through in this picture challenges their beliefs. Marietto Angeletti, appearing in his last role at the ripe old age of fourteen, does well as Paco but Omar Sharif’s believably tortured performance as Fr Francisco dominates the film, especially when we leave San Martin and Capt Viñolas behind.

The loss of screen time hampers Quinn as much as his tricornio because, as capable as he is as Viñolas, we find that we don’t miss him when the story takes us to Pau and Lourdes. Peck, on the other hand, has more resonance when he’s offscreen than when he’s on it, because he’s clearly miscast as Artiguez and he struggles to sell the role to us. As an actor of serious talent, he gives it his best shot, but he’s just too morally upright to carry a role that has him kidnap a priest and slap him across the face. We don’t buy it, even as we utterly buy Omar Sharif’s lack of similarly violent response. Peck is at his best when Artiguez begins to think, because there’s admirable subtlety in his body language, but the louder he gets the less credible he becomes. I presume Peck took the role as a challenge and an opportunity to diversify parts, but it didn’t work. Fortunately for him, few people saw the film in 1964 and he stayed as popular as ever. Quinn, of course, walked easily between heroic and villainous roles and this didn’t hurt him at all.
To my mind, Omar Sharif steals the show and it makes me realise that I’ve seen a lot fewer of his movies than I have Peck’s or Quinn’s. Even those I have seen, like Juggernaut, Top Secret! or Oh Heavenly Dog, I doubt he’d see as his most memorable roles; I was knee high to a grasshopper when I last saw Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago and they were too long and too artistic for my tastes at the time. Outside the cast, it’s Jean Badal and Maurice Jarre that I’d commend over more obvious names like Fred Zinnemann’s as director. The former was responsible for the stark black and white camerawork, the latter for his score which relies on unusual instruments for a thriller. Zinnemann, an important and versatile director with a pair of Oscars already to his name, recovered surprisingly well from this misfire because his next picture landed him two more. That was A Man for All Seasons and it was as clearly appropriate a title to shoot in 1966 as this wasn’t in 1964. So this remains an oddity, out of time and place even before it was made.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Zombie Killers: Elephant's Graveyard (2014)

Director: B Harrison Smith
Writers: B Harrison Smith and David Agnew Penn
Stars: Billy Zane, Dee Wallace, Mischa Barton, Felissa Rose and Gabrielle Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Dee Wallace’s first pick for my Make It a Double project, Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder, surely came to mind because, even though she only had a supporting role, she was able to really get her teeth into it and demonstrate her acting chops. She clearly remembered her performance with a sense of pride. I can see why she found it tough to pick a second one, though. After an early career that included a pair of major horror films, The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling, she found herself remorselessly typecast in variations of the role she played in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’d become America’s favourite mother and she was stuck there, even in genre films like Cujo or Critters. While there are exceptions, such as The Frighteners, it’s a difficult task to find a movie in which she was given free rein to demonstrate how good an actor she actually is. In the end, she chose a horror film that she’d only just completed, which she co-produced and in which she played a different role. Acting alongside her daughter was clearly a bonus.

I couldn’t watch it for a while because it hadn’t been released yet, but it did look like an interesting pick, as it was directed and co-written by Harrison Smith, who started out writing interesting indie movies that I’d previously reviewed here at Apocalypse Later: The Fields, starring the intriguing combination of Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid, and 6 Degrees of Hell, in which Corey Feldman attempts to convince us he’s a tough guy, even with an emo fringe and an electronic cigarette. He started to direct his own scripts with Camp Dread, placing Eric Roberts, Danielle Harris and the slasher genre into a reality show format. None of these films were what they could have been, but the two I’ve seen showed promise and imagination. I found that this one fits alongside those well, not because it’s similar in content or style but because it’s another interesting film that wants to be a great one, if only it can figure out how. Sadly it can’t, but it’s a step closer than those earlier pictures and there’s great possibility in Smith’s future.
It’s hindered somewhat by its awkward title and odd IMDb synopsis. This isn’t a sequel, yet another entry in the nonexistent Zombie Killers series that’s got so long that it’s ditched the numbers. It’s a standalone movie in which zombies aren’t important. They’re the MacGuffin of this film, the only thing everyone we meet cares about but something we don’t see until after the ten minute mark and don’t see often as the picture runs on. This is less about fighting zombies and more about the internal dynamics of the town of Elwood and how they change in the face of this threat. There is meaning to the other half of the title, but it’s likely to confuse anyone who isn’t aware what it refers to; there are neither elephants nor graveyards here. The synopsis says, ‘A young militia is all that stands between a coming dead horde and their rural town decimated by the fracking industry.’ This suggests some sort of social comment on the latter, but it refuses to go there beyond mild speculation that a local operation had contaminated the water.

What we have is Elwood and its people and that young militia is only one component part of it. We leave town only once, otherwise only venturing out a little on occasion beyond the tall fence the townsfolk have constructed to keep the zombies out. Inside we’re given the impression of many people, though we really only see three factions. One are the Zombie Killers of the title, a ragtag band of ‘orphans and misfits’ who have been drafted and taught by Seiler, a military sergeant played by Billy Zane. They are the ones who venture outside of town to track down supplies, for which everyone else puts in orders, from chapstick to ammunition. Another is the ‘cult compound’ of Lia, a psycho nutjob religious chick in the capable form of Felissa Rose. Even in a closed off rural town, she still goes door to door trying to convert those she thinks are in need of the Lord. The third is led by Doc, played by Brian Anthony Wilson, whose narration begins the film. He’s the nominal leader of town, apparently a good man merely in charge of sadistic thugs.
Each of these actors does a great job. While some of the cast are clearly green and have less substantial moments, these three are excellent. Zane, everyone’s favourite wild and wacky villain, plays against type here as Seiler. He’s calm, he’s collected and he cares about his people and his town. He comes across like a younger Stacy Keach and he gets an emphatic final scene. Rose, who retired from film after Sleepaway Camp to go back to school, thankfully returned after eight years as a character actress who elevates bad movies with her presence. She sells Lia absolutely, especially in a couple of bitter scenes opposite Brian Gallagher, who plays Rory, one of the townsfolk. Wilson is a rumbling powerhouse as Doc, a philosophical man who sees the town as a patient, a viewpoint that shapes his actions in many ways. We’re constantly kept guessing as to what he’s really up to, especially with regards to the baby that Rory’s young wife Toni is carrying, but also to Team Dynasty, his group of sadistic and potentially psychopathic enforcers.

By comparison, Dee Wallace gets a very odd role. She’s Sharon, the mother of one of Sgt Seiler’s Zombie Killers, Ian Sommers, but she’s bedridden for the entire movie as a character dying of cancer. Beyond Ian, her screen son, she only gets to interact with one other character, Nikki Slater, Ian’s screen girlfriend and her real life daughter, Gabrielle Stone. Nikki is Doc’s nurse, so we wonder if we’re going to see crossovers between these factions but that doesn’t ever evolve. Sharon is there to tie Ian to Elwood and to gift Dee Wallace with an opportunity to really act with her daughter. The two have shared credits before, in three features, Fuzz Track City, Beyond and The Jazz Funeral, plus a few shorts, but I wonder if any of them had opportunities like this one. Sharon, who knows that she’s dying and that cancer may take her before the zombies take the town, talks to Nikki as the girl her son loves, the young lady she remembers in herself and the personification to her of the town she lives in. It’s a very touching and meaningful scene.
It’s also one that’s underlined by the obvious connection between mother and daughter, something that doesn’t extend to any of the other scenes that stand out. Smith wrote the script with David Agnew Penn and the two of them conjured up something notably different not just from other zombie movies but from other movies, period. One features Ashley Sumner, a hot blonde chick not playing a hot blonde chick, just another of Seiler’s Zombie Killers who takes his lesson to grip the fear seriously. She ventures outside the fence, where she sprays a mixture of perfume and blood, part deer and part her own, fires a single shot and waits for the zombies to come and face her. She’s acutely put out when they show up, only to move away, apparently called by something. Another has Rory, protected by Seiler and a couple of his men, go to the nearby fracking site to investigate. They’re utterly alone but wary and conjure up a mass of movie quotes to not use if that changes. In the end, Zane gets a real peach out just at the right moment.

One that both beguiles and disappoints is the zombie deer stampede, which I have to say I’ve never seen before, but its originality is let down by the poor CGI and the repetition as they run past. The greenscreen work and the CGI is not great here, but then it’s not really a greenscreen/CGI kind of movie so I can give it a pass on that. I’m less forgiving about how many questions end up unanswered. I don’t mean the source of the zombies, which is theorised on half-heartedly but never figured out conclusively, because it isn’t of special interest and wouldn’t have been of any at all had the script not decided to conjure up intriguingly imaginative ideas and then mostly forget about them. I’m talking about the internal stuff. I get that Doc is treating the town like he would a terminal patient, but that doesn’t explain everything he does and there are questions left hanging at the end. I like how he plays God for real, making Elwood occasionally feel a little like Jonestown, with Lia the religious nut just a red herring on that front.
But why does nobody question some of his actions? We certainly do, out here in the cheap seats. Sure, he can claim all he likes with his blood tests and pronouncements as to who’s infected and who isn’t, but I’m not sold on all the townsfolk trusting him quite as far as they do. There’s too much that’s suspicious for it to go uncommented on. ‘Am I infected?’ asks Toni at one point. ‘Not yet,’ he replies. The questions extend to the other townsfolk too, starting with where most of them are. Rory and Toni are set up as a mystery, a young wife and an older husband, accused of killing his first wife. Why set up the mystery but not explain it? I saw a couple of competing theories but neither was confirmed. As to that first wife, there’s a glorious scene where Seiler asks him outright if he killed her. He looks long and hard back and says yes, but the editor cuts away and the subject is forgotten outright from that moment on. Well, we want some answers, not just to this but also to a host of other questions that keep coming up but never get squared away.

If I appreciated most the originality of this screenplay and the neat avoidance of most clichés associated with the horror and zombie genres, those unanswered questions were the most annoying counter. I liked the camerawork, which never does anything particularly flash but keeps the frame alive throughout, like a drummer who just sits there, keeping the beat but never trying to play lead. The worst acting is decent, though a few of the newer actors occasionally could have done with extra takes. The best is superb, with Zane, Wilson and Rose all spot on throughout, even when playing notably against type in a welcome and appreciated way. The other name actor, Mischa Barton, also gets an interesting role, though it’s not given all the opportunities that it could have been. And Wallace is superb in a role unlike any that I’ve seen her in, able to act and emote as if her typecasting restraints had been unshackled. Her daughter isn’t yet up to her standard but she has promise. And surely their scene together is why she picked this movie.

Friday 22 April 2016

Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder (1997)

Director: Richard A Colla
Writer: Steve Johnson, based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth
Stars: Holly Marie Combs, David Lipper, Cassidy Rae, Gary Grubbs, Kurt Fuller, Joanna Garcia, Joanna Canton and Dee Wallace Stone
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but this TV movie seems determined to set us against it. It has an unwieldy title, dating back to before such things became oddly popular (thank you for that, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life); the producers wisely renamed it to Swearing Allegiance for its DVD release. It also begins with what could well be the most boring title sequence in movie history. Mildly creepy piano music plays as we watch the names of the cast and crew appear slowly in white text on a gradated blue background. That's the movie for almost two minutes! Perhaps the producers wanted to ensure that everyone watching on NBC in December 1997 made it back from the bathroom in time for the film to start, but I’d have thought that unnecessary, as the murder it explores was a hot story at the time and this docudrama version didn’t merely recount it, based on a confession no less, but also turned into a new story in the process because of its choice of timing.

Here’s the chronology. Diane Zamora and David Graham began dating in August 1995, while high school students. She attended Crowley High and he Mansfield High, each named for the neighbouring towns in Texas in which they can be found. It was apparently a lightning romance, as the couple announced their engagement in September, planning to marry after graduating college. However it was also problematic, as Graham confessed to infidelity around 1st December, with Adrianne ‘AJ’ Jones, a fellow runner on the Mansfield High track team. On 4th December, Jones was murdered on a remote road near Grand Prairie, northeast of Mansfield. Zamora and Graham were arrested in September 1996; both were now cadets at US military academies, she at the Naval Academy and he at the Air Force. Zamora was tried in February 1998, Graham separately in July 1998; each was quickly found guilty of capital murder and awarded life sentences. As I write, in February 2016, both are still behind bars.
So, the murder was in 1995, the arrests were in 1996 and the trials in 1998. We might expect that a TV movie aiming to explore this true crime would follow on, perhaps being written in 1998 and shot in 1999 for a 2000 air date. Well, not in this instance; this particular TV movie pre-dates both trials. How can that be, you ask. This parallel chronology begins when Lindy DeKoven, a senior vice-president for movies at NBC, saw the case reported on the Today show soon after the arrests. She called Steve White, who used the internet to assemble information from news reports which he then fed to Steve Johnson, who turned them into a script, his first draught being completed by October 1996, only a month after the arrests. It was rushed through production for an initial screening in February 1997, one of the four sweeps months for American television in which Nielsen TV ratings are compiled. It ran into legal difficulties, one lawyer asking for a temporary restraining order to block its broadcast. It was eventually screened in December.

It’s not hard to understand why and, in fact, protests didn’t just come from the legal defence teams; the parents of the victim also protested. The strongest objections were legal ones though, suggesting that a prominent TV movie speculating on a case that hadn’t even reached trial yet would be likely to prejudice jurors. Sure, Graham quickly confessed his crimes and his confession was printed in The Dallas Morning News, so there wasn’t much doubt in anyone’s minds about what went down, but innocent people have confessed before and airtight cases have been known to fall apart in court. NBC did succeed in quoting precedent and got this film on the air two months before Zamora’s trial and seven before Graham’s, but it would have been awkward for them if something new had come to light to change everything. Clearly they were willing to sensationalise the case because the film’s title is completely irrelevant; while both Zamora and Graham were cadets when they were arrested, neither was when the murder took place.
At least the film has something going for it beyond its reason for existing and the opportunities it gave to Dee Wallace in particular underline why she chose it as her first pick for my Make It a Double project. She has a surprisingly small supporting role here, as indeed she does in her second pick, the otherwise very different >Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard, but it’s a strong one that allows her to exercise her ability to show emotion on screen a lot more than in the standard mom roles in which she was typecast after ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. She’s a mom here too, but of Adrianne Jones, the murder victim, and that allows her to emote a lot more than in something like Critters, for instance. As I mentioned, though, it’s a small part so we don’t even see her for 24 minutes. Before then, we’re introduced to everyone else, none of whom were familiar to me, though Holly Marie Combs and Cassidy Rae are well known for American TV shows. I’ve only seen David Lipper in Bug Buster, hardly the greatest title to have on your resume.

We begin, of course, with the actual murder, which happens at night in the middle of nowhere. We see a couple in a car; she thinks they’re going to neck just like all American teenagers do in TV movies but he has other plans. She gets out, but he stalks her. She makes it over a fence but he goes back to get a gun from the car and he shoots her dead. There’s someone else sitting up in the back seat too, from a hiding place on the boards. We don’t see any of them well and off the car drives, leaving a corpse in a field. It’s certainly a lot more enticing for viewers than the first line we hear. ‘Diane’s beautiful eyes always played the strings of my heart effortlessly,’ narrates David while he types it into a word processor, presumably confessing to the cops in inappropriately florid fashion. We skip over to Diane next, as she flounces into a school corridor talking about him. ‘He’d do anything in the world for me,’ she tells a friend. Twice. Given what we’ve just seen, of course, these two brief scenes are complete giveaways.
They’re a cutesy couple in the annoying way that teens in love tend to be. They even have their very own code so that they can say ‘I love you’ without anyone else knowing: ‘Greenish brown female sheep’. Olive ewe, get it? The catch is that there’s obviously a catch. They’re choosing wedding rings together, but she doesn’t want to give up her virginity (though she does without much argument) and he’s horny enough to do the cute blonde from his track team in a side street, the one Diane was jealous about when she served them at the drivethru. It’s easy to see why, of course. AJ seems like a nice young girl who’s willing to take off her kit without even requiring a date first; she does explain that she won’t be with anyone who’s going steady, but only after the fact which is pretty dumb. Diane, on the other hand, is a creepy little thing who defines her life in terms of her fiancée. ‘I’m either going to die Mrs David Graham or Miss Diane Zamora,’ she tells her mum and she goes into hysterics when David, who can’t keep a secret, comes clean.

And now we get down to business. After an hour of meltdown, Diane calms down to proclaim that ‘She’ll have to suffer the consequences. She will have to die.’ Oh yeah, she’s really out there, and David is such a 24 carat wuss that he’ll let her do whatever she wants. Because, you know, ‘Once she’s gone we can go on as before.’ Oh joy. At this point I was torn between whether Holly Marie Combs was really good in this role or really bad. On the one hand, she sells the story well, believable as a girl who is quite willing to kill someone just because her guy cheated with her but still go to school in the meantime like everything was right with the world. On the other hand, she looked her 22 years so was a little too old for us to really buy into her being a high school student and she’s so obsessive and possessive with David that, even without a backbone, we wonder why he stuck with her. AJ was clearly his best option and Cassidy Rae plays that up without being pushy. David Lipper is the weak link as I don’t buy into him being such a pushover.
After the first commercial break, we skip forward to the aftermath of that opening scene and we’re off and running. We know whodunit, of course, so we mostly settle back and wonder whether the cops will figure it out before David caves. That’s not much drama to hinge this on, I admit, but that’s all we have. Diane’s like a rock, so confident that we’d believe her passing a polygraph test. David, on the hand, looks like he might confess to murdering Jimmy Hoffa if someone even looked at him cross-eyed. Fortunately, we have some experienced actors in the cast and we’re almost distracted by some serious acting at this point. As Linda Jones, Dee Wallace breaks apart astoundingly well to the news of her daughter’s death with a teary intensity that I can only imagine gave her a serious headache afterwards. Det Carl Baker has the temerity to look awkward here, given how brutally he told her. His colleague, Det Tom Green, does likewise, and I appreciated how Gary Grubbs and Kurt Fuller underplayed their roles here to give Wallace the limelight.

In fact, Wallace is so powerful in this scene that it remains with us through the routine investigation that follows. Sure, Bryan McMillan seems like a perfect suspect, given that he was obsessed with AJ, is unable to recall whether he rang her because of a combination of alcohol and pills and even answers rhetorical questions from the cops like, ‘If you did kill her, where would you have left the body?’ So the real killers move onward and upward, even though they’re dumb enough to go to the funeral and walk out halfway, while arguing about not proving anything. ‘That young man is a recruiting poster,’ Baker tells Green, as they look through the files again. In fact, as solid as both Grubbs and Fuller are in their roles as cops, it’s Dee Wallace who elevates the film with each successive appearance, even if there aren’t many. She gets a good scene where she comes into the station to ask what’s happening in the case and an even better one to wrap up the film, crying but attempting to compose herself by the memorial tree planted for AJ.
So this is a decent but routine TV movie that half sets up a mystery but then promptly spoils it by making it very clear whodunit. It gets by because of an uncluttered script that keeps on moving, a decent pair of performances from the leads and some capable support from some recognisable faces, both Grubbs and Fuller quintessential actors who you’ve seen before but can’t quite remember what from. At the time, the tie to an imminent court case was surely its biggest selling point, but that fades with the years to such a degree that we wonder who would really seek out the film today. Well, the answer to that resides in Dee Wallace’s performance, because I’m utterly unsurprised that it came quickly to her mind when picking a pair of films of hers for me to review. I’ve seen her in a lot of movies but I’ve never seen her so powerful as she is here. She did suggest that it was an important film historically, but I’d recommend it a lot more for the work she does in it than how it supported the freedom of the press.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Dark (2015)

Director: Nick Basile
Writer: Elias, from a story by Nick Basile and Elias
Stars: Whitney Able, Alexandra Breckenridge, Brendan Sexton III and Michael Eklund
I enjoy discovering new films at Apocalypse Later, whether they’re part of a project I’m working or merely happened to be submitted for review. This is one from the latter category, but it was a gimme because of the names involved. The most obvious to many will be that of Joe Dante, the executive producer, but I’m a fan of a few others too. The screenplay was written by Elias, who wrote and directed Gut. The leads are all established names: Whitney Able notable for Monsters, Alexandra Breckenridge for The Walking Dead and Michael Eklund for Errors of the Human Body, amongst many others. So, I wasn’t going to pass up on the opportunity to see a thriller from these folks that was enticingly set in New York during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. That power outage, which affected 55 million people, was the second most widespread in history at that time and it contributed to twelve deaths, though this film isn’t a fictional spin on any of them, rather a character study of a troubled woman’s paranoia building with deadly effect.

She’s Kate, a former model from Brooklyn who’s recently moved into the New York apartment of Leah, her girlfriend, who is about to head out for the weekend on business. That’ll leave Kate on her own at a tough time in their relationship. You might think that their moving in together bodes well for their future, but it’s not that simple. Kate is clearly a troubled soul with a troubled history, even if that history isn’t detailed in the script, and it’s already overflowing into their life together. Kate’s started smoking again, even though Leah hates it; Kate wants her lover to pull her hair and strangle her during sex, which Leah really doesn’t want to do; and Kate is even having difficulty unpacking from the move: the moment Leah heads out to work, she’s on the phone looking for a new place. Then again, she’s an exercise in contrasts, suggesting schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other mental torment that pits her against herself. How else can we buy into a yoga teacher who smokes nervously?
There are good moments for Kate; she giggles at couples making out on the subway and at street artists poledancing in the carriage. But there are bad ones too and they add up; each of them adds another item to our growing checklist of what might be wrong with her. She drops a bottle in the apartment but there’s no kitchen roll to clean it up because she’s not focused on actually living there. Without much thought to where she is, she wanders over a crossroads without looking and nearly gets hit by a car. Sure, the traffic lights are out because of the blackout but we wonder how comfortable she is in this neighbourhood. John the neighbour knocks on their door to check on how wide the outage is and the conversation is awkward to say the least. When she tracks down some candles and a battery powered boombox, she leafs through old photos and doesn’t seem happy to see most of them. We see her old hospital bracelet in the box too, but we’re left guessing as to why she had one. Well, for a while at least.

As you can imagine, this story revolves almost exclusively around Kate and, fortunately, Whitney Able is up to the task. In fact, she draws us into her tormented life so capably that it’s only after the film is over that we start to wonder why we were so engrossed, given that we really don’t like her. She’s certainly not a sympathetic character hooking us because she reminds us a little of ourselves. If anything, we’re more likely to associate with the characters around her: Leah, the grounded girlfriend who’s wondering why it isn’t working the way she thought it would; John, the awkward neighbour who just wants someone to talk to; even Benoit, the French Canadian she meets at a club and who wants to walk her home. Throughout all of this, we’re very aware that it isn’t these folk causing her troubles, it’s her causing her own. There’s little doubt that Kate is her own worst enemy and that’s the hardest sort of character for an actor to try to inhabit because the better they do at it, the less we’re going to care.
If this picture was always going to hang on the performance of Whitney Able, there are some interesting cinematic tricks in play to support her. One that’s used at a few key points is oddly jagged editing. When Kate visits a bar in a kinky black outfit with a padlock around her neck, she gets talking to Benoit. During their opening conversation, before he’s even bought her a drink, the editor cuts out the boring stuff and leaves in the key lines, which is routine enough until we realise that the dialogue often overlaps between cuts. I honestly wondered if there was a lipsync issue when I first saw this, but it’s consistently done and restricted to a couple of key scenes. Presumably the goal is to show Kate disconnecting from reality, as she does especially well back at the apartment when we’re wondering what happened to Benoit. I’m still not sure where he goes. One minute she tells him to get lost, the next she invites him in but then he’s never seen again, even though we watch Kate’s half of a conversation that we expect to be with him.

Elias clearly wanted us to think about what his script was saying. We’ve seen the dysfunction growing in Kate and Leah’s life. We’ve seen the marks on her body that Benoit sees and reacts to. We’ve had shots where Kate revels in her rebellious behaviour; if Leah doesn’t want her to smoke, she’ll smoke right into a powerful camera she’s using to snap increasingly wild shots of herself. But we’ve also had shots where she seems to hate what she’s doing and hate herself for doing it. I know Elias dropped a whole bunch of clues for us to hone in on because I caught some of them, but others seemed more cryptic, at least on a first viewing; maybe a second will shed some more light on Dark, as it were. I wonder if there are enough to really piece together Kate’s former life. I get that she had attempted suicide, but I don’t know when or why. I saw hints at some of the latter but I don’t know if I was reading them wrong. Was she overreacting, for instance, to John’s drunken performance because of paranoia or because of personal history?
And that leads to another key question. Are we supposed to read this entirely straight or assume that it’s partly the product of hallucination? Certainly she seems to leave a voicemail for Leah using a dead phone and listen to music on a silent boombox, so the latter seems possible but the former just as likely. If some of it is taking place only in Kate’s head, where’s the point at which that begins? I could argue that it’s the point she asks Benoit in because a heady combination of paranoia, alcohol and guilt would explain a few things, but I’m not convinced. I think we’re supposed to read it straight and trust that Kate’s hallucinating is happening without having to see it. That makes the ending particularly brutal but leaves us questions as to the how of it all. It’s beautifully shot, Kate wandering the balconies and flashing her camera to see, but a blackout doesn’t stop our ears from working. Given that the admirably diverse soundtrack features Johnny Thunders, Dead Can Dance and Nina Simone, we’re aware of what we hear and what we don’t.

Dark was crowdfunded on Kickstarter, raising just over $50,000 in 2013, and much of it is up there on the screen for us to see. The title refers both to the darkness caused by the Northeast Blackout, which is very effective as a backdrop, and the darkness inside Kate’s head, but it doesn’t refer to the images we watch. We can always see what we need to see in this film, which was particularly refreshing in a movie all about darkness. I’ve seen too many movies recently that were either shot, mastered or projected too dark to be really watchable. One, which admittedly took place entirely at night, felt like a radio play with occasional visual elements rather than an actual feature film. I wondered if a picture called Dark would play into that from conscious decision making but I’m happy that it didn’t. It aimed instead for a claustrophobic feeling and succeeded in finding it. Scenes often run long but, through a combination of script, performance and camerawork, feel freaky and disjointed anyway because that’s how Kate is surely experiencing them.
I can’t say I enjoyed Dark but then it’s not the sort of film one enjoys. I appreciated what it did and where the story took Kate, even as I wanted to know more about her background. I enjoyed the supporting cast even if none of them had much screen time and it was always used to build Kate rather than themselves. Alexandra Breckenridge gets some time early and uses it well; she was enticing enough to make me feel that I should be a lesbian. Redman gets one scene as a doorman who recognises and welcomes Kate and thus makes us realise that she hasn’t always been dark. Michael Eklund is oddly off during his scenes but it’s very possible that he did that deliberately; Benoit may hold a key in this story but he’s not developed far enough for me to understand what it is. Brendan Sexton III may be the best of them though, as John; I wasn’t sold on his underplayed initial scene but loved his return very much under the influence of booze. I wonder if watching the film drunk would render it even more effective. Maybe I should experiment.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Night of Something Strange (2016)

Director: Jonathan Straiton
Writer: Jonathan Straiton from a story by Jonathan Straiton and Ron Bonk
Stars: Rebecca C Kasek, Trey Harrison, Wayne W Johnson, Toni Ann Gambale, Michael Merchant, John Walsh, Tarrence Taylor, Nicola Fiore and Brinke Stevens
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.
It wasn’t surprising when Night of Something Strange won Best Horror Feature at the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival because it was the one that had the buzz. The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man was different and enjoyable but everyone was talking about this one instead, whether because they loved it, they hated it or they just couldn’t believe what they had just seen. I talked to quite a few people in each of those categories, but along with The Greasy Strangler, which wasn’t in competition, it was the film on everyone’s lips this year and it won’t take much to explain why. In fact, I can just explain some of Wayne W Johnson’s role as Cornelius and you’ll get the picture. He’s not the star of the movie, though he is the first person we see and he continues to show up throughout. He’s just the actor who gets to do the most outrageous things, even without a heck of a lot of screen time. I can’t think of another part in any movie that does as much, even if we don’t correlate to time on screen. If we do that, he’s in a league of his own.

Let’s start at the beginning. This film kicks off with a necrophiliac rape and only digs a deeper hole from there. Yes, that’s Cornelius in the morgue getting his rocks off with a Jane Doe. He should have read the card, because this unknown naked chick died of a virulent STD and, next thing we know, he’s back in his trailer with burning junk, raping his wife. She knocks him out with a heavy phone then sticks him with a kitchen knife, but he rips out her uterus and eats it. At least, I think it’s her uterus. It’s possibly a foetus and I wouldn’t put it past writer/director Jonathan Straiton. By sheer coincidence, he and actor Michael Merchant were sat immediately in front of me and it was fascinating watching them watch the audience and laughing at their disbelieving faces. Let me highlight that we’re about five minutes in at this point and we’ve had two rapes, one of them of a corpse, and an ingestion of the female reproductive system. This film clearly isn’t going to hold back and it’s really only just getting started.
Now, some people told me that it was a disturbing film and I don’t buy that at all; this is a comedy more than it is a horror film, though it’s very much both. Other people told me that it was offensive and I don’t buy that either; it could have offended a lot more people by simply mentioning politics or religion and it steers clear of both. It’s really an icky film, a professionally icky film that does the sort of things that we usually only see in Troma pictures but with real actors and higher production values than Lloyd Kaufman is comfortable with. That doesn’t mean that this cost a lot, because Straiton told me how much he spent on it and it’s certainly not what you might think; it’s just that all the money is up there on the screen. He claims to have been influenced by eighties horror movies, especially slashers and zombie flicks and that makes a lot of sense. I saw it as Brain Dead meets The Taint with live action hentai and the odd nod here and there to classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. So not disturbing, not offensive but very icky.

While Cornelius reappears at points to do something else utterly outrageous, as if he’s determined to be a drinking game, the movie couldn’t sustain its impact if that was everything that happened. So, we shift back to school and meet a host of characters who will soon leave for Spring Break and end up running in to Cornelius and/or his zombie STD creations. If we hadn’t realised Straiton’s influences already, we can’t miss them in the names of the five kids who head out to the beach together. There’s Carrie and her dorky cousin Jason. There’s her boyfriend Freddy and her friend Christine. The only one not named for an iconic horror movie character is the token black guy, Brooklyn. Skipping out of class early to leave before them is Pam, whose boyfriend Dirk shows up in a black muscle car blasting Mean Motherfucker Blues by Angry Johnny & The Killbillies. No, this movie isn’t interested in being subtle but thanks for the heads up about that band, folks. How have I never heard of these guys before?
I throw all those names in quickly because that’s how the movie does it. While it generally nails its goals, there are flaws and the rapid fire introduction of characters is one. I couldn’t keep up at this point, so had to figure out names and relationships as the film ran on, and it took until the Q&A to figure out Cornelius raped his wife rather than his mother. Another problem is that the cast here are generally young so a few had to put on make up to look aged. The clerk we’re about to meet at the gas station in Goldvein, VA is a great example, as she looks like she’s young but made up to look thirty years older, yellow and wizened to boot, because she chain smokes. She’s a minor character so it’s no real spoiler to highlight how funny her death scene is, with her avoiding a zombie mailman who aims to rape her to death by crawling slowly away while still puffing away like a true addict. This also highlights how much this is a comedy as much as it is a horror movie. I missed what may have been her best line because people were laughing so hard.

Everyone ends up at the Redwood Budget Motel and, well, here’s where I’d usually say that you can write the script yourself but… I have to be a little careful this time out. No, there’s no attempt made to twist the tried and tested formulae of zombie flicks and slasher movies into something clever and original. We get what we expect to get on that level: good looking teens with their little relationship dramas aiming to get laid when the apocalypse hits and kills them one by one. However, Straiton ratchets up the ick factor with the delight of a pixie. While he succeeded in making the sort of picture that he wanted to both make and watch, I honestly believe that his true joy is in sitting back at a festival and enjoying how much it grosses people out. And to say that it grosses people out is an understatement, though I do wonder how many of today’s kids will be freaked out more by the brief appearance of a clown than anything else. Highlighting that this could be called Freddy vs Jason is guaranteed to make anyone who’s seen the film cringe.
And, as much as this is an homage to the eighties, just as its companion piece, She Kills, is an homage to the seventies (Straiton would like to see them exhibited as a double bill), this is a product of today. Things didn’t get this outrageous in the eighties because this would have been seen as too much. I grew up as a horror fan in England, where we suffered from the censorship inherent in the video nasty era, but none of the VHS tapes I bought under the table at market stalls because they were technically illegal to sell could dream of doing what this film does. Only today can we make pictures that feel like they could have come from the eighties in an alternate dimension. This one is also a child of the internet age. It’s a gimme for a subset of websites to throw together cheap lists of the film’s top ten grossout moments. People will share scenes on YouTube without context just to gross people out and the few will proudly identify the source. I believe it’s as much a challenge as a feature too, throwing down the gauntlet to see who can top it.

And, because of all that, everything keeps on coming back to Cornelius. Sure, Dirk’s really the hero of the piece but he’s only the hero just as Pam’s the nympho and Jason’s the dweeb and Freddy’s the clown. It’s Cornelius who’s going to show up on most of those YouTube shares because he gets almost nothing to do except prompt us to ask, ‘Oh my God, he’s not going to do that?’ and then do exactly that. Over and over again. Straiton spoke well about his film but I want to read an interview with Wayne R Johnson about why he chose to do this and what he sees his legacy as being. I should also call out Michael Merchant here, as he gets some similar moments as Freddy, including one set that took him three days to shoot in, shall we say, rather trying conditions. His dedication to do that deserves our respect and his ability to stand up in front of a sold out screening and talk about it deserves even more. ‘This is the worst Spring Break ever!’ he cries after one fantastically wrong scene. ‘Well, second worst.’
I should also come back to the production quality. Any detailed synopsis of this film is going to throw up a Troma vibe in anyone who knows what Troma is, but this doesn’t feel like a microbudget film. Straiton was never interested in mining the ‘so bad it’s good’ vein or just lining up a showcase of ickiness to trump the production values. Night of Something Strange will never be mistaken for a $300m James Cameron epic but it does look like a ‘proper film’ with a ‘proper budget’, however little it really cost. Cut out the outrage and it’s nothing special but it’s still capable and still watchable. Add the outrage back in and it’s a picture destined to reach a cult audience. Universities should leave one in every dorm room just to save students from having to discover it themselves. It deserves a run on the big screen just so folk can see it once and then come back to watch other people watch it. Sadly, it’s more likely to be self-distributed and build its audience from festival buzz to rock what’s left of the rental market. Oh, and let’s see the drinking games!

Tuesday 19 April 2016

The Dark Tapes (2016)

Directors: Michael McQuown and Vincent Guastini
Writer: Michael McQuown
Stars: Courtney Palm, David Rountree, Shawn Lockie, Stephen Zimpel, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Aral Gibble, Brittany Underwood, Jake O'Conner, Michael Cotter and Tessa Munro
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.
Each year there’s usually one film that screens at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival that I hate with a passion but it’s usually a showcase feature, like Monster Brawl or Betamax, rather than a movie in competition like this one. That means that it was selected from submissions rather than programmed and I don’t get that. Programming showcase features is an art, especially when you’re often working from the buzz a film has generated without actually having the benefit of seeing it, but screening submissions is a little easier because at least you can watch everything in scope. I have no idea why anyone would choose this film for a festival, but that’s just me. I talked to quite a few other festival-goers and some liked it a lot so maybe it’s just my personal taste. I’ve admitted to not being a fan of found footage films as they often give me motion sickness, but part of it is my OCD railing at the logic behind what we see and this one is a notable failure on that front. It makes no frickin’ sense at all and let me explain that.

This is not just a found footage film, it’s a found footage anthology film and, like most anthology features, we’re given something to frame it and a few short stories to sit within it. Now, with a regular picture that’s fine, especially as that framing device usually features a host or a mechanism which ties the short pieces together, but it’s a rather awkward format for found footage, which is defined by a whole slew of inherent rules: something happened that was worthy of note and was recorded, but only the camera survives, left behind for someone to discover and pass on to us. The freedoms of the format allow (even often require) filmmakers to use cheap equipment, shoot in natural light and not worry about crappy sound. However, a bunch of restrictions creep in too, especially in editing, which can break the internal consistency unless it aims to trim down what’s on a recording to what really matters or to collate footage using a documentary approach. As you can imagine, this is paramount in an anthology or the whole thing breaks.
And this film breaks for a whole bunch of reasons, which is sad because there are a whole bunch of ideas that are worth exploring and might even work outside of the framework which breaks them. The framing story is what this clearly should have been, an experiment by a CalTech professor in applied physics who also has a degree in theology. He’s Martin and he’s taking over a theatre with his TA, Nicole, to validate a theory he has about night terrors. He figures that they really exist, merely moving much too fast for us to notice unless we’re operating on time dilation during REM. They’re not demons, even if the tape is called To Catch a Demon; they’re trans-dimensional entities and he wants to catch them on film using a camera that shoots and plays back super slow motion simultaneously. I love this idea, I like the bizarre places and dilemmas into which it takes the experimenters and I appreciate how it plays ball with the found footage rulebook, creating an imaginative means for a video camera to be left for other people to find.

Unfortunately, it’s just the framing story rather than the feature and it’s when it’s combined with the rest of the stories that the internal consistency falls to pieces. How would the folk who share this footage find any of the footage from the other stories, especially when that footage was never left to be found, would need to be compiled from a variety of different sources (most of which would be technically impossible to acquire) and, in most instances, would have been carefully kept away from prying eyes? Even if, in some inexplicable scenario, they did manage to find all this disparate footage, they wouldn’t collate it together in this fashion anyway for reasons that I can’t go into because they would constitute spoilers. Let me just say that only the third of the stories has any real connection to the framing piece or, indeed, is viable for publishing to an audience. I did like one of the other two stories but given that its entire point is to have no business being in a found footage movie, it absolutely shouldn’t be here at all.
That’s The Hunters and the Hunted, the first segment, and it would work rather well as a standalone film as it’s a regular horror short with a twist which merely happens to be shot without conventional cameras. In fact, it would benefit from losing most of its jerky handheld camerawork to rely instead on a collection of cams. The only segments worthy of a handheld camera are the bookends, the first of which has David introducing his blindfolded wife to their new home, only to find that it may be haunted. It’s a neat choice of location with a really nice spiral staircase that I’d love to have in my house and the usual progression of supernatural events is handled well enough. They hear footsteps and stuff moves or falls over and we wonder why we’re watching something so clichéd but then David wakes up with a huge handprint on his back and we understand why they call in PIPP. That’s the Pacific Institute of Paranormal Phenomenon (sic) and they bring some welcome humour into the piece before we reach the twist.

It’s a good little movie, if it wasn’t stuck in this framework, with decent acting and some agreeably creepy shots of David and Karen’s dead daughter Ashen. Sadly it is stuck in this framework, where it should have never been put without a further twist on the twist to make it viable. The second short, Cam Girls, isn’t as strong and it makes even less sense for this framework. I’m all for a couple of lesbians doing a cam show and I’m all for one of them rebelling against a devout Christian upbringing. I’m especially for her thinking that she might be possessed as that opens up a realm of possibilities, but none of the rest makes a jot of sense. What sort of cam show gets run like a lottery? Come to think of it, what sort of cam show features girls who don’t get undressed? And why would Jerry not disconnect the moment Caitlin gets too freaky on him, especially as he doesn’t even get to see a pair of boobs for his troubles? Emilia Ares Zoryan is good as Caitlin but absolutely nothing here makes sense and I nearly threw my hands up in despair.
Fortunately, the third and final short, Amanda’s Revenge, returns to the initial concept introduced by the framing story, even if it takes its sweet time about it and adds additional weirdness that doesn’t fit at all. The Amanda of the title is a young lady who attends a party where she’s roofied by a couple of guys. The hosts save her from being raped, or at least I think they do, and they beat up the wannabe rapists, but it doesn’t register on Amanda who doesn’t remember a single thing. She appears traumatised anyway and we run through a whole slew of weirdness that doesn’t make any sense at all, but in the end, she returns to the house so her friends can watch her sleeping. While she wasn’t raped earlier, she now believes that she has been raped every night by night terrors and, to capture it, she has antique tech that doesn’t rely on electricity (a vinyl recording device from the 1920s and a 1950s film camera on a spring load). Finally we get somewhere with Brittany Underwood good as Amanda in Oculus territory, but it took its time!

In between each of these shorts, we return to the framing story of To Catch a Demon and wonder why it’s broken up into sections. As always, with this movie, it falls apart when we think about it. The whole point of found footage is that someone found some footage and showed it to us; how they choose to show it is reliant on what they found and what point they want to make and the point here is clearly that scientists have documented creatures that exist at a different speed to us. Oh yeah, that’s worth showing to us! So why do the unknown presenters think it it’s a good idea to break it up into sections? Why do they think it would be enhanced by the shenanigans of David and Karen or by what cam girls Caitlin and Sindy get up to? I see why they might include Amanda’s revenge on the sort of creatures the scientists explained, but how would they get that footage and why would they wait eight years to do so? I have precisely no idea and I’ve spent some time trying to figure it out.
To my mind, this ends up as nothing but a bunch of interesting ideas presented in a horrible fashion and with no thought to logic or purpose. The man behind the concept is Michael McQuown, who wrote all of it and directed each of the shorts; Vincent Guastini directed the wraparound To Catch a Demon segment. I wonder how he figured it would work. His ideas are good, with the exception of Cam Girls, which needs a lot more than a rewrite to render viable, but his execution doesn’t make any sense. Why name that story for something that the story itself says doesn’t exist? Why keep it brief and broken, when it has potential enough to be something substantial? Why add in unrelated and unrelatable stories to bulk up the running time to feature length instead of building it into a strong short? Why not release those shorts separately, especially The Hunters and the Hunted, which would stand much better on its own? I don’t understand in the slightest how this grew the way it did but I know that it’s a shame.

Monday 18 April 2016

The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man (2015)

Director: James Habacker
Writer: James Habacker
Star: James Habacker, Jillian McManemin, Joe Coleman, Stormy Leather, Julie Atlas Muz and Camille Habacker
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.
I’m really interested to discover what audience The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man ends up finding. Sure, it has a built in core audience that has surely already pre-ordered it but, while it’s a quality piece that will hook new eyes at film festivals, those eyes will be inconsistently drawn because it’s going to seem out of place pretty much anywhere it plays. I found it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, competing as a horror feature. A horror feature? ‘If you can call it that, really,’ was James Habacker’s apt response in his Q&A. No, it’s not really a horror feature though it shares origins with the horror genre in fairy tales and Elizabethan horror plays via the Grand Guignol, that French theatre which gave its name to entertainment featuring graphic horror portrayed without morals. This film is very much a Grand Guignol performance in itself, even as it showcases others within, and that’s going to challenge people. It’s likely to impress those who already know what Grand Guignol is, but I want to meet those intrigued by this film to look it up.

It clearly belongs to James Habacker, who wrote, produced, directed and co-edited the picture. He is also responsible for providing its key set, the Theatre Diaboliq at the House of Choade, given that in reality it’s the Slipper Room in Manhattan, which he founded in 1999 and still runs today. The biggest plus point this film has is its authenticity, which begins with the venue and continues with the cast, most of whom either play fictional versions of themselves or perform routines that they perform at the Slipper Room for real. It has to be said that, while many horror directors mine this subculture in their work, none has comparable access to the sheer diversity of talent that Habacker has. Don’t just look at those on stage in this picture, look into the audience and be subsumed into the world of performance art on the Lower East Side. What seems like everyone who’s watching the performances within a performance has a body suit, a drawn-on moustache or an animal mask but not one of them feels like an actor. It’s just who they are.
Conversely, the biggest minus point to many audience members is going to be the theatricality that can’t be ignored. I’m not just talking about what these performers do as they perform on the Theatre Diaboliq stage; I’m talking about how they continue when they step off it. Habacker himself is the epitome of this. As Mr Choade, the director of the House of Choade, he’s a glorious creation: a faded impresario with a top hat, frilly shirt and platform boots; he sports the white gloves of a prestidigitator and wields the cane of a gentleman; he’s largely hidden behind a prosthetic proboscis that puts Cyrano de Bergerac to shame and a bushy false moustache reminiscent of Groucho Marx. He delivers like Groucho too, with a smörgåsbord of rapid fire one liners and bad puns told with superb comedic timing but little emotion, though Habacker cites W C Fields as his chief influence. This is all fantastic on the House of Choade stage but what’s odd is how he stubbornly remains within this character off it too, to run his theatre. That’s challenging.

This theatricality is not just restricted to Mr Choade either but to others too, especially the Medicine Man of the title, portrayed by the legendary Joe Coleman, a painter, writer, performer and collector of oddities. In scenes late in the film which I won’t spoil, he’s a natural, a performer utterly in his element effortlessly commanding our attention. However, before we get to that point, he’s an unapologetic ham, reminding of Ted V Mikels as he chews all the scenery he can find in a woodland cabin populated with wonders brought from his Odditorium. Clearly this is deliberate theatricality, so we can’t condemn his poor acting. We have to ask instead why he, and others, adopted this approach; the key may be in a scene back at the theatre. The House of Choade audience is used to outrageous performances and they lap them up, including the gory Grand Guignol plays with obvious blood squibs in abundance. However, these are clearly fake and when one such performance seems real (because it is), that audience becomes acutely uncomfortable.
So, I believe that Habacker realised that his story, which has Choade supply the souls of showgirls to the Medicine Man in return for the elevation of his theatre to ‘a temple of high art’, would be inappropriately disturbing if played straight, a tone that wouldn’t serve well to showcase either his performers or the big community of neo-burlesque which the Slipper Club had helped to build. Instead he chose to phrase the entire film as a performance, in the process emphasising what these players do best, as, after all, most of them are performers rather than actors, each with their own skillset which may or may not translate into selling their characters in a feature film. In other words, we should think of this less as a movie and more as a variety show at the Slipper Room. If we consider Habacker as not really playing Choade but an actor who plays Choade with method dedication, everything makes sense. Similarly, Coleman plays layers: an outrageous Victorian stage actor playing the Medicine Man as a Victorian stage Devil.

To love the film, I believe you have to get past this layer of abstraction. If you can’t manage that, at least you have Jillian McManemin to watch. She’s the character who leads us into this performance by showing up at the House of Choade to confidently interview for a cocktail waitress job that doesn’t exist. She finds herself dancing for stage manager Bitsy McGuffin instead, auditioning for the stage role vacated by Kitty who was killed during Choade’s knife throwing act. She sees the assistant cleaning up her blood but goes ahead anyway. Hey, it’s show business, right? McManemin is both delightful and capable as Linda, even if she (McManemin not Linda) auditioned as crew rather than cast. Fortunately Habacker saw her potential and gave her the lead. She sells the role well, whether it’s as the sweet new fish trying to fit in, the darker girl with a history hinted at in nightmarish flashbacks or the carnal creature in bed with butch Roxy who, courtesy of the talented Stormy Leather, is clearly the best traditionally acted character in the film.
Fairy tales are usually cautionary in nature and this film is certainly phrased like one. Linda finds herself promptly down a rabbit hole and the warnings come quickly, especially from Scarlet, an experienced girl in the company who enters the film in tears and exits it in the way she suggests she will during her plea for Linda to get out fast. But fairy tales are also very dark, if you go to the original stories rather than the sanitised Disney versions, and they’re often as cruel as the title of this picture suggests. Using the Slipper Room, its regular performers and its audience as a fantastic backdrop and Grand Guignol as a framework, Habacker capably fashions an original fairy tale that warns us not about what might happen if we fail but what might happen if we succeed. The ending is a particularly neat one which can easily be read in a few different ways, depending on our personal predilections. The more focused story about Choade and the Medicine Man is resolved without any particular surprise, but the wider one about Linda remains cleverly open, especially if we read into the stage name that she picks.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, though I’m aware that it certainly isn’t for everyone and some of the reasons why became quickly apparent during the Q&A session with Habacker. Audience members asked about his influences and generally didn’t get the answers they expected, because, as I mentioned earlier, this really isn’t a horror movie. Sure, I could see Ted V Mikels in Joe Coleman’s performance, and others raised 1970s exploitation flicks like The Wizard of Gore and Bloodsucking Freaks, but Habacker didn’t seem like he knew what those were. He likes Hammer Horror and Vincent Price, but his influences are either in the stage, from sources that also influenced gore pioneers like Joel M Reed and Herschell Gordon Lewis, or from the New York underground film scene. Certainly, there are easy comparisons to be made, both of those films revolving around real death during stage performances, but I’d suggest that if Habacker had grown up as a grindhouse fan, this would look more like The Burlesque Assassins.
The film influence that leapt out to me wasn’t a grindhouse movie but a precode classic: Tod Browning’s Freaks. Like Habacker, Browning had grown up around performers, having run away to join the circus at sixteen. Many of his films are set in circuses with circus performers, not uncommon for the time, but they stand out from the crowd for their sympathetic portrayal of the unusual people. We can see this in films like The Unholy Three and The Unknown, both of which starred Lon Chaney, whose own background was in vaudeville, but it’s especially obvious in Freaks. In framing a love triangle between a dwarf, a trapeze artist and a strongman, Browning used the old moral of Beauty and the Beast, namely that Beauty was really a beast and the Beast the only beauty. His title refers both physically to the freakshow performers and morally to the normal people, beautiful outside but ugly inside. As Browning did in Freaks, Habacker depicts his own unusual folk here with respect and honour by merely treating them like people.

A great example is Mat Fraser, whose Facebook page is named for a quote from Freaks. He appears here only as an actor playing a character, whether he’s playing drums in the House of Choade house band or sitting down in a booth to talk to his boss. There’s no mention made of the fact that he’s clearly disabled because in the context of the theatre, nobody cares; it’s literally unworthy of comment because he’s one of them, to return to that quote. Only we up here in the cheap seats care that his part is listed in the end credits as Sealboy because he was born with thalidomide-induced phocomelia but, frankly, why should it matter? I thoroughly appreciated the way in which The Cruel Tale of the Medicine Man embraces the unusual by treating it as routine. I also thoroughly appreciated the selection of this film for the IHSFFF, even if it’s not a horror movie. It’s a film that deserves to be seen and I hope it continues to find screens in places it doesn’t quite fit and slowly gather fans by shocking and beguiling them. Gooble gobble, indeed.