Wednesday 28 August 2019

Rabid (2019)

Run, Rabid, Run

2019 USA Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska
World Premiere screening at FrightFest on Monday 26th August

Warning: Some very slight spoilerage here if you’ve not seen Cronenberg’s original.

Wow... just wow. Turns out that the last film I saw at FrightFest this year was also the one that took the cake and really rocked it. And I really wasn’t expecting that. I’d kind of only half appreciated the Soska Sisters’ movie I’d seen prior to this, American Mary (reviewed by me here). I wasn’t all that keen on it and a quick reread of my old review makes me come across as somewhat jaded. So I was quite worried about this film for a couple of reasons.

One thing was the trailer... which really does nothing for me and, I think, almost undersells just how remarkably good this new incarnation inspired by David Cronenberg’s classic (which I recently reviewed here) actually is. I honestly wasn’t sure about shelling out for a ticket for this one on the strength of that but then I remembered the exclusive footage I’d seen from this presented at last year’s Halloween Edition of FrightFest and thinking it was pretty great. And then, of course, I found out The Banana Splits Movie was playing before this and I had to see that (my review of that one is here) and so I figured, what the heck, I’m going to see this new version of Rabid, too.

And I’m so glad I did because, right from the opening shot, the Soska Sisters suckered me into accepting their new take on this even while I was aware of the manipulation tactics they were lovingly employing to make sure the Cronenberg fans were kept on board and happy with what they were doing here. And I mean quite literally the opening shot, which starts off with a leather jacket clad girl standing by her motorcycle... just as Marilyn Chambers did in the original, before panning down and away to reveal that it’s actually a billboard advertisement (shame it wasn’t an ad for Ivory Snow, I guess). We see the main protagonist/antagonist of this movie, Rose (played by Laura Vandervoort) standing by her own modest scooter and looking up at the advertisement before riding off to her job as a staff, fashion designer for a conceited fashion superstar called Gunter (played by Mackenzie Gray).

As she approaches her work area we hear Gunter giving a speech and, again, I suspect this is all about the Soska Sisters wanting to make the Croneneberg fans feel comfortable because he’s talking about ways of remaking oneself... while it also taps nicely into both the body horror theme of the story and the idea of his upcoming ‘Schadenfreude Collection’. So, yeah, it was overt but by this point the idea of being open to a remake was slowly settling in with me. I’m pretty hit and miss on remakes myself... everybody loves the third version of The Maltese Falcon with Bogart, for example but, if you are going to be remaking stuff like Ringu then you’d better watch out, as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, over the next few scenes the characters such as Rose’s best friend and model Chelsea (played here by Hanneke Talbot) and the potential boyfriend Dominic (played by Stephen Huszar) are introduced and Rose’s back story is also fleshed out a little before we get into the main first incident which sparks all that follows, which people who know the original will remember is a motorcycle accident and there is a variant of that here. The nice thing about this was that the directors appear in a few cameo scenes at a party and, due to something they are saying in a toilet cubicle, overheard by Rose, they kinda become the catalyst of all that is to follow because Rose is not left in a stable mindset after this scene.

So after this, things run pretty similarly to the original movie in terms of the main plot focus... the accident happens and a new form of living skin graft is applied to what is left of Rose’s grizzly, hollowed out face and torso. And after things take their course we have the craving for blood, spells of amnesia and, of course, the attacks which begin and, as in the original, escalate on their own independently of Rose who is the carrier of a viral, “don’t mess with me big time” version of rabies. And all I will say as to what Rose becomes in this is... well, you remember those little armpit stingers in the original? I was wondering if the directors would run with that concept here or do their own thing as a replacement and, without getting into spoilers, all I am saying is that this film doesn’t do anything small. And I’ll  leave that for you to discover.

In terms of how the film plays.... well it’s just beautiful. Vibrant, sometimes almost primary colours and shot set ups with a Bavaesque quality to them which eschew some of the more coldly clinical moments of Cronenbergism while simultaneously enhancing the content of key scenes where a sequence might be washed in a dominant green or red playing in contrast to the preceding scene.

Added to this you’ve got a lot of strong performances in here and in terms of the story and dialogue... well it mostly does the same kinda thing but it reaches its end goals in a way which, I think, is more in tune to the way stories are explored and presented now as opposed to, obviously, the late 1970s. Which is absolutely right for this because... who wants to see a so called remake when it just does exactly the same thing as the original, which is its own entity entirely? This one tries to take the essence of Cronenberg’s ideas but makes it more direct and takes its time more in certain areas and rushes through other bits which don’t seem so important in this vision of the tale. Again, it feels like this was the right way to do this and I think this new version is different enough that it would make for a good cinematic double bill with the first version playing right before it.

And, as I said earlier, this one shouldn’t alienate those who are big Croneneberg fans. There are a lot of visual and textual references to his world scattered throughout. For instance, the surgical gowns in the operating room presided over by... ahem... Dr. William Burroughs (played by Ted Atherton) are a deliberate echo of the surgical gowns worn by Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers... as are the names of the characters played by the Soska Sisters in this, Bev and Ellie. And there are quite a few little nods in this to keep enthusiasts for the work of Mr. C on their toes, such as a shop Santa Claus being gunned down, just like in the original (but for slightly different reasons). One which I’m not 100% sure was deliberate or just me imagining things, is when Dr. Burrough’s wife turns up near the end of the film. I’m skirting around specifics here because of spoilers but the visual look of some of the scenes she is in reminded me somewhat of a reveal right at the end of The Brood. Like I said, though, I’m not sure if that was on purpose or just me getting too near to my bedtime.

Oh... and Claude Foisy’s score works a charm here and is certainly a lot better than the needle dropped tracks on the original Rabid. It’s a shame that this thing isn’t on a CD because I would rush out and buy it (or, you know, my fingers would rush to the internet to grab it) and I’d similarly do the same thing with his score to Pontypool (reviewed here) if it was around on physical media. It’s one of those scores which has moments of great beauty interspersed with an almost industrial grating, ragged style of musical colour and it’s really much more appropriate to this film than what was used in Cronenberg’s original.

If I had one criticism of this version I’d say the ending, which is quite a bit different from the 1977 one, due to the fact that by this point the character of Rose is now quite self aware of what she has become, maybe missed the best part to just stop at. There was a moment near the end where she does something and I thought... “Yes. Good ending! This is precisely what she should do here.” Alas, the scene has a follow up where things are somewhat compromised in terms of how Rose is left and I felt it diluted things a little but, honestly, it’s a very minor criticism of what I shall be proclaiming to people is the Soska’s great masterpiece (with many more to follow, I’m sure) and I can kinda see why this particular ending would also have been a desirable one. It'll grow on me.

Okay... I think I’m drying up on things to say about this because I really need to see it again and study it properly for a few more hits and, alas, it doesn’t come out on Blu Ray here until October... although I think this would have done well as a full cinema release over here, for sure. This is one of the most beautiful looking horror movies made in the last few years and it doesn’t skimp on the gore here either... which is kind of a bonus when it’s done as well as this. Whether you are familiar with the wonderful original version of Rabid or not, this new film deserves your attention. I was, as you can probably tell by now, really bowled over by the Soska Sisters' movie here (who did their Q&A wearing the same dresses as they wear in the film) and I really can’t wait to see where they are going next. Guess it’s about time I ordered their first movie to have a look at on the strength of this one. I’ll try and get that one watched and reviewed sometime next year. Check out Rabid though because... you know... it’s kind of sensational and everything I didn’t think it could be.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

The Banana Splits Movie

One Banana, Two Banana,
Three Banana, Gore!

The Banana Splits Movie
2019 USA Directed by Danishka Esterhazy
Screening at FrightFest on Monday 26th August

For the last 35 years or so I’ve wanted to write, draw and publish a series of alternative, adult themed Mr. Men books. So stuff like ‘Mr. Guts Spaghetti’ who can swing across chasms by his intestines or use them as a lasso to round up stray cattle. Or Mr. Sexworthy who... yeah. never mind. The point being that I’ve not actually done this because I don’t have the rights to the Mr. Men books but, the idea of using a children’s format to tell outrageously over the top, so called ‘adult’ stories for laughs has always appealed to me. Therefore, when The Banana Splits Movie became a blip on my radar earlier in the year, I was so interested to see what this was going to be like. Somebody who is able to distort a former children’s property into something completely different and, obviously, who holds the rights to said property.

This film, it would be safe to say, was the main draw of FrightFest for me in this, their 20th Anniversary year. If this wasn’t playing then I’m not sure I would have bothered to grab tickets for any of the other movies in the festival this year but... well, it was so I got a few films in. As it happens, it wasn’t my absolute favourite of the festival (that one will be the subject of my next review) but this one was still pretty cool.

I’ve loved The Banana Splits ever since I used to watch them on TV as a 2 year old around 1970. I always assumed they were repeats but, as it happens, it ran from 1968 for around three years over the course of 31 episodes, so when I first started watching it then the show must have been brand new. Well... I say I loved The Banana Splits but really I just loved the opening credits with that fantastic theme song... the Splits themselves weren’t all that funny (and even looked a little threatening at times). I kept coming back to it though, because I loved the cartoons they used to show during the programme such as Arabian Knights and The Three Musketeers. It was a show that certainly colonised the subconsciousness of all the kids at the time (to paraphrase Wim Wenders famous quote on American culture) and, all in all, memories are fond.

So I couldn’t wait to see this new version of them which has taken the basic characters and turned them into the antagonists of a horror movie. Well... I say horror but, as it turns out, this new movie is more of a sci-fi tinged slasher movie. Also, the Splits have a human co-host on this version called Stevie, played by Richard White, who everybody hates and who is invented for this just to see another unlikable character run afoul of the new version of the gang.

The plot is very simple. On his birthday, young uber-fan Harley (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) is taken on a trip to be part of the studio audience on a film recording on the latest Banana Splits show. He is accompanied by his mum Beth (played by Dani Kind), his ‘not actually a bad brother after all’ sibling called Austin (played by Romeo Carere), one of his classmates, Zoe (played by Maria Nash) and his stepfather, the somewhat ‘villanous if only mummy would realise’ Mitch (played by Steve Lund). Rounding out the main protagonists is a studio tour worker named Paige (played by Naledi Majola) who is the potential love interest for Austin. In this version of reality, The Banana Splits show never stopped running since its inception in 1968 and, also, the Splits themselves are not ‘men in suits’ but ‘robots in suits’, programmed by their inventor who accidentally gives them a new software update which turns them evil. Which is timely because, unknown to most, a new studio head has been promoted and he is pulling the plug on the show. This will be the last recording ever...

But not if the Splits can help it, as they go on a rampage of destruction before, finally, rounding up all the little kiddies and chaining them into their seats to watch a deranged, killer version of the regular show. Meanwhile, Beth, Austin, Paige and a couple of other characters they meet along the way, are trying to get their kids back and then out of their studio... trying to survive the red eyed robot wrath of the splits.

And... it’s actually, despite that synopsis, quite a slow paced film. That being said, the novelty factor alone of seeing the four splits... Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky... getting up to all kinds of hardcore, violent mischief while keeping the whole tone of things surprisingly ‘on brand’ didn’t fail to keep a big smile plastered to my face throughout the whole performance which, with the FrightFest crowd in attendance, was certainly a memorable one as people were laughing at every outrageous kill. This one was well received, I think it would be safe to say.

So yes, if the idea of your childhood TV chums getting up to cute shenanigans like flame throwing someone’s head, pulling someone’s arms and legs out of their sockets or doing the old sawing a person in a cabinet in half trick... only to pull the two halves apart to reveal a pile of intestines plopping out onto the floor... is somewhat heretical to you, then you’re probably better off steering clear of this one.

I, for one, think it’s an interesting experiment and it’s got some lovely shot set ups, some beautiful colours (as you would maybe expect from this subject matter) and some nice one liners in the dialogue too. Plus, the acting is really very good. There’s no tongue-in-cheek sensibility coming from any of the cast and they manage to play it straight throughout the whole movie. Romeo Carere as the older brother seems to be somehow channeling the look and performance of Mike Nesmith from The Monkees, it seemed to me but even that approach seemed to work here. Incidentally, I believe The Banana Splits was always supposed to be a young kids version of The Monkees anyway so, there you go.

And the kids in this film, especially since they’re so young, are absolutely great. I heard one of the audience saying that the thing which absolutely made the movie for her was the screams of the kids as they watch the bloody carnage in front of them, which she found hilarious. I would personally love to see a documentary, 15 years from now, when the various kids in this are finally able to watch the movie they’ve performed in and just see what their reaction is to the various shots which have obviously been cut in around them. It’s quite a bold juxtaposition of gory ultra-violence pitched against the innocence of childhood, for the most part here.

So, this one came out on Blu Ray over here in the UK on the same day as its UK cinematic premiere so, if you want to take a look at this then you can grab one now. Also, I was very pleased to get, like everybody else who attended the FrightFest screening, a free T-shirt to commemorate the movie with its Splits-like catchline... Tra La La Terror. All in all a good time was had by all so you can’t really argue with that. Some people are going to see this film as some kind of blasphemy while others of a certain age will, I suspect, find the concept of this movie interesting. So check this one out if you’ve a mind to. I would quite like to see this trend continue for a bit to see what new children’s programmes they can treat in a similar vein. Like a violent version of Rainbow where Rod, Jane and Freddy are trying to escape the studio before Bungle and Zippy eat them. Or a sexed up version of Pipkins where stud-muffin Hartley Hare has a fling with Octavia the Ostrich?

Anyway, The Banana Splits Movie was time and money well spent at this years FrightFest but, unbeknownst to me, my final FrightFest film, a remake of a well loved classic directed by The Soska Sisters, was what my whole weekend was building towards. And you can read my review of that stunning film as soon as I manage to squeeze in enough lunchtimes to write it... so give it a couple of days.

Monday 26 August 2019

Madness In The Method

Methadone Actor

Madness In The Method
2019 USA Directed by Jason Mewes
screening at FrightFest 24th August 2019.

Okay, so my second feature at this year’s Arrow Fright Fest (now in its 20th year) was a much more positive experience for me than Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary (which I reviewed here).

Madness In The Method is the directorial debut of actor Jason Mewes, who most people would best know as Jay to director Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob. This one was a blast and though I was initially skeptical of this guys ability to helm something like this, given his on and off screen personae and how easy it is to be fooled into thinking the character created by Kevin Smith based on Mewes,,, and Mewes himself... are one and the same, I found myself very pleasantly surprised at how good this was. Of course, since I am already an admirer of the duo in all their big screen appearances (I even forced myself to watch Scream 3 just to catch their cameo), I am part, of a ready made target audience and, although this movie wasn’t written by Jason himself (I suspect he had a fair amount of input in that process, credited or not), it’s actually a kind of mockumentary fantasy written about him.

Right from the outset, fact is blended with fiction as Mewes fills us in on just who he is and charts both his career path with Kevin Smith (done with some nice animated Jay and Silent Bob inserts) and his various trouble with substance abuse in one form or another. We learn about his former trade as a roofer and how tough it was for him growing up etc. And... I suspect it’s one of those films which Hollywood loves where fact and fiction are blended. The film is full of cameos, some as major roles such as Vinnie Jones and others falling somewhere in between that and what is, in this movie, Stan Lee’s final cameo performance. So, for example, both Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, the two title character actors from TV’s Lois And Clark - The New Adventures Of Superman, have recurring roles in this.

It’s a bit like Fellini’s great masterpiece Eight And A Half, only filtered through a young Hollywood vibe.... in terms of the central character, Mewes playing a fictional version of himself who very consciously wants to crawl out from his stoner typecasting in which he finds himself trapped and reading a not so mythical book about Method Acting before ‘really’ getting into the ‘killer’ mindset of his latest role. I should probably also mention Paul Mazursky’s 1970 movie Alex In Wonderland as a kindred spirit to this film also... but I haven’t seen it myself (or I have and it's been so long I've forgotten it) so I’ll just drop that here in passing.

Okay, so this is a film which never gets dull and explores Mewes’ ‘descent into the method’ as he turns from accidental murderer to, by the end of the film, something else entirely. This is not a horror movie rather than a comedy thriller with the emphasis firmly on the comedic (so I don’t know why it’s playing at FrightFest but I’m certainly not complaining) but it is quite impressive and I especially liked the way the film is edited. Mewes calls some nice cuts here and, although it annoyed me at first, there’s good use made of a little, rotating, ball of Mewes’ head bouncing off the sides of his computer on a screensaver which shouts his catchphrase ‘Snootchy Bootchies’ every time it hits a side of the screen, used to punctuate the structure of the film and to show time and location shifts in the narrative... which is, by its nature, quite freestyle.

I also loved the idea that Brian O’ Halloran, who played Dante Hicks in three of the Jay And Silent Bob movies to date, plays himself as a director who is about to direct a large budget, major Hollywood production of Homer’s The Odyssey. It was genuinely nice to see this guy again although he is in a somewhat darker story here. And like I said, this film is full of cameos from the likes of Danny Trejo, Judd Nelson and even Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith. There’s also an interesting performance by a modern character actor (future Elisha Cook Jr in the making?) called Mickey Gooch Jr, who plays a handle-barred moustached detective obsessed by his suspicion that it is, indeed, Mewes who is behind the killings in the movie. He’s pretty good in the movie but he was even better in the Q and A before the movie, regaling the audience with his tales of the production, which is obviously set in LA but had its shooting locations split between LA and Derbyshire, here in the UK. A very entertaining fellow, despite his choice of head gear.

Oddly, Kevin Smith himself comes off as a little of a darker version of what I perceive to be his true life persona here. However, I’m pretty sure this is one of a few deliberate deviations from real life, especially when Mewes and Moobs (Smith) do the lion face, lemon face routine from Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. Also, it’s kind of a dead giveaway that this is definitely portraying a heavily fictionalised scenario bearing in mind the final fate of Vinnie Jones in the movie, which is actually pretty funny, I thought.

So there you have it. Turns out Mr. Mewes can actually direct pretty well, as well as act and, cannily, put together a movie which, in spite of its free form narrative style, holds together very well as a coherent, linear story. Whether it will actually get any kind of physical home media release over here in the UK is anybody’s guess but, if it does, I’ll certainly be shelling out to have another look at Madness In The Method, for sure. So now looking forward to the next film in my 2019 FrightFest experience, The Banana Splits Movie. Review to follow in a couple of days.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary/Troll Bridge

Mary In Haste

Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary
(aka Exterminadores do Além Contra a Loira do Banheiro)
2018 Brazil Directed by Fabrício Bittar


Troll Bridge
2019 Australia Directed by Daniel Knight
Both screening at FrightFest 24th August 2019.

Okay so, the first feature film I picked out to see at this year’s FrightFest (sponsored by Arrow Video again this time around and celebrating it’s 20th Year) was... well it was a bit of a dud as far as I’m concerned. It had potential and, don’t get me wrong, this so called horror comedy seemed to go down a treat with the FrightFest audience that I saw it with... who seemed to be laughing in all the right places... but in all honesty, I just totally failed to engage with it. However, there was a silver lining in terms of the short film that the programmers had paired it with and which was shown before this one... but I’ll review Troll Bridge towards the bottom of this post.

Okay, so Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary is a terrible mess of a movie and I was really expecting a lot more from it. A lot happens in terms of ‘over the top’ set pieces including a pickled, still-born foetus attack, a basketball bludgeoning and an altercation between a security guard and the demonically possessed excrement he’s just excised from his body. It’s a wild ride in many ways and, on paper this looks like just the kind of film I could normally get behind and which would suit, what a very special person in my life would call, my ‘gnarly brain windings’.

Alas this film, which follows the antics of four ‘Ghostbusters inspired' charlatans (for the most part) who are trying to hit it big with their reality style internet show and who go to investigate a school where the famous ‘Bloody Mary’ legend has taken grip... played by Dani Calabresa, Léo Lins, Danilo Gentili and Murilo Couto... was, for me, just very dull. It shouldn’t have been because it was full of comedy horror action and lashings of practical, gory effects but, ultimately, this failed to connect with me in the way I thought it would.

Now I don’t mind the tonal clash of comedy and horror... that’s a combination which has proved to work really well throughout the history of cinema and mixing these genres can often do pretty well for people. I think here, though, my main problem with the movie was that there was only one character who I could empathise with on any level and, frankly, that person gets killed early on in the film when the character’s head explodes, blood splashing over the faces of this protagonist’s colleagues. The people who have to carry the rest of the film are basically non-likeable idiots who I would steer clear of as best I could in any real life situation and who, frankly, I would be happy to watch die in an unpleasant manner early on in the movie. Ironically, it’s the characters who are the least relateable who manage to survive the film to the end.

The acting was way too over the top to be credible. Yes, I know it was probably supposed to be but these people really didn’t do themselves any favours and their exaggerated mannerisms and flailing limbs as they run and scream from each new ‘horror’ really didn’t help matters. I started off trying to have a good time with this movie but, by about half an hour in, I really wasn’t ‘on its side’ anymore.

If I was to find anything good or memorable about the film it was the scene where a still born foetus is possessed and breaks out of its bottle in the science classroom to attack one of the main protagonists and, also, the fact that the girl playing this schoolgirl variant of Bloody Mary looked really sinister when she was in the full make-up. This wasn’t enough to save the film for me though which was, bizarrely, distributed by Warner Brothers in Brazil. Despite mild flirtations of a metatextual nature with two characters who are there mostly for ballast plus tonnes of references to much better movies and TV shows, I wouldn’t recommend this film or ever need to watch it again myself.

There was that silver lining though..

Playing before this film was the Australian short Troll Bridge by director Daniel Knight and based on one of Terry Pratchett’s short Discworld stories. Now I’m not a fan of Terry Pratchett. I tried to read his first Discworld novel when it came out but for some reason couldn’t get into it. This short film is lovely, though and tells the story of an ageing Cohen The Barbarian, played by Don Bridges and his talking horse, voiced by Glenn Van Oosterom. I’d never heard of these characters before but loved the way the dialogue went, as the elderly barbarian goes to wake a troll under a bridge and ends up reminiscing with said monster about the ‘old days.’

The CGI, which I think the director who was interviewed for the audience just before the screening said took something like eight years in post-production, is actually quite charming with the troll being almost Disneyesque in his realisation. Added to this, the short has some beautiful dialogue and even more breath taking cinematography... although the amount of CGI work here makes it hard to tell whether cinematography is the right word to use. But the film does look gorgeous, is what I’m trying to say.

Also, the seemingly suicidal path of Cohen’s desire to finally take on a troll may seem pretty much like a death wish but, once all the whimsy and nostalgia has played out and he and the troll have parted company, you realise that Cohen’s encounter with said creature went more than ‘according to plan’ and that, despite paying 25 gold coins in toll to said troll, he actually comes away with something far more precious to him for use in his ‘barbarian hero’ career.

What can I say? This was a charming piece and really the only thing that made sitting through the main feature worth the price of the ticket on this one. I’d urge people to try and seek out Troll Bridge whenever or wherever it is screened as much as I would tell them not to bother with Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary. Somewhat of a mismatch of a double bill, I thought but at least I got to see something of note on my first FrightFest screening of 2019. And, as it happens, the second feature length movie I saw there that day, the directorial debut of actor Jason Mewes of Jay and Silent Bob fame, certainly topped my expectations. More on that in my next review so, watch out for it either tomorrow or the day after.

Friday 23 August 2019

Angel Has Fallen

No Drone Unburned

Angel Has Fallen
2019 USA Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
UK cinema release print.

Well here we are again with Angel Has Fallen, which finds Gerard Butler reprising his role as ‘bodyguard to the president’ Mike Banning from the previous two installments Olympus Has Fallen (reviewed here) and London Has Fallen (reviewed here). Rejoining him for this movie in reprising a character from the last two is Morgan Freeman, this time promoted to President of the United States after Aaron Eckhart turned down a third shot in the role. In fact, Butler and Freeman seem to be the only two people reprising their roles in this one and even the brilliant Radha Mitchell, who played Banning’s wife in the last two, has been replaced with Piper Perabo here. I dunno, maybe all the others read a copy of the script before signing on for this one.

That isn’t to say the news is all bad here folks. Angel Has Fallen is an okayish kinda action movie but, it has to be said, it’s a pale shadow of the previous two films and I think they could have cooked up something a little better for the third one here, especially with the trajectory of the main character who is leading up to taking a desk job in his near future.

There are also a couple of really good actors new to the franchise jumping on here... namely everyone’s favourite bad guy Danny Huston playing... um... the bad guy and Nick Nolte playing Banning’s ‘estranged father who bonds with his son so he can save him at a certain point in the film’ before going in like the cavalry to aid Banning’s wife and child near the end of the story.

This one seems a little disconnected from the previous two films in the series because Banning’s obvious penchant for randomly stabbing bad guys in the head with a big knife seems to have gone dormant (admittedly, at least in the first movie, it was a necessary stealth tactic to kill people silently). So that viciousness to the character is less obvious and, honestly, that in itself is not a bad thing but, like I said, gives it a bit of a disconnect.

Another thing which lets it down, at least in terms of keeping some sort of stylistic continuity to the previous films, is that the action sequences don’t seem as brutal or over the top as the last two either. Especially in terms of the blaze of destruction as the bad guys wiped out most of London in the second movie. In this one, when a huge building is selected, almost arbitrarily, for complete destruction in the third act of the movie, you kind of get the feeling the studio heads are trying to pitch it back into that direction but, honestly, one building doesn’t cut it in the wake of that last film.

Okay... so one of the good points is that at least Banning has a little more depth to his, still fairly shallow, character. Being that he’s suffering from some kind of vague and unidentified illness which seems to be both something to do with his spinal column but somehow also something which causes almost narcoleptic episodes at unexpected moments. He is warned not to punish his body anymore and, while this character build up is nice, it’s also one of the reasons the credibility is shot to hell right from the start after we see him at both an outrageously realistically staged training session and, a little later, save the president, somehow, from an assassination attempt by a fleet of suicidal, exploding drones which kill everyone else but then, when both Banning and the president are found unconscious in the water afterwards, makes you wonder why the villains didn’t stay and finish the job. Also, I think Banning is in about three vehicular crashes in this one so... after the vague as mist diagnosis we heard earlier in the movie, things don’t really stay that credible for very long.

On the other hand, there are some nicely done things here too. After an interminable time which sets up Danny Huston’s character as a long standing friend and former war buddy of Banning... so you just know he’s going to be the villain straight away, as you’ll very quickly identify who his ‘partner in evil’ is going to turn out to be very early on in the film... Huston’s villain comes across as someone who has a lot of time and respect for Banning. Even in his inevitable death at the end, there is a certain dignity in the way his character is both portrayed by Huston and written by the writers that you don’t get in most of the movie villains on film (maybe Marvel's Thanos recently but, not that many).

The story, such as it is, is purely focused on Banning clearing his name after he’s framed for trying to kill the president (even while he is saving him) and also involves the FBI trying to figure out what the heck is going on. However, as great as Huston’s character is written, everyone else tends to be pretty thinly drawn and it must have been a real challenge to some of the actors here to add some flesh to their lines. For instance, Jada Pinkett Smith plays the top FBI agent in charge of tracking down Banning and she really has a good, powerful presence in the role actually. However, when she gets close to the truth of what’s really going on, she does something so dumb, with the expected consequences, that you have to wonder how she was even let into the FBI in the first place.

So, yeah... the action is nice, the score is appropriate and holds its own against the foley, for most of the time but, ultimately, Angel Has Fallen is not something I could see myself watching again (whereas I am tempted to go back and have a look at the first two again, at some point). It holds its own against some of the other action movies doing the rounds but it’s nowhere near as special as it might have been and just seems very dumbed down from its predecessors. So not much more to say... if you ike action movies then you may want to give this one some of your time. If not then... probably best to steer clear, I think.

Monday 19 August 2019

Mum And Dad

The Parent Trap

Mum And Dad
(aka Mom And Dad)

USA/UK 2017 Directed by Brian Taylor
Universal Pictures  Blu Ray Zone B

Well this is an interesting movie. I’d wanted to see this when it hit the cinemas late last year (maybe a year behind the US release) but it only played for a week and I think I must have been ill or something so I missed it. I didn’t recognise the name of writer/director Brian Taylor when I sat down to watch this thing but, now that I’ve looked him up, it seems obvious that this would be the fun, off-beat film it is as he’s the guy who wrote and directed the two brilliant Crank movies and, also, the blisteringly good sequel that was Ghost Rider - Spirit of Vengeance (which I reviewed here). Makes perfect sense now.

The film covers quite a gruesome theme but it’s got either some extremely curious choices in it about the way it handles the violence or, possibly, the studio may have got nervous about it and pre-cut it before it got submitted to the various censorship boards. I mention this as a possibility because, while the violence and story content is quite grim, you don’t get to see too much of it actually ‘in camera’. Aftermath of the violence sure and, frankly, because of the way this one is shot, you certainly feel the implied violence much more than you might have had if you’d actually seen it.

Either way, it doesn’t bother me too much because, due to the strength of the premise and the way it’s presented here, you certainly feel like your witnessing something much worse than you might have at first thought the film could be if it was shot in a more conventional manner.

The film starts off with a mother parking her car on the middle of a railway level crossing. As she leaves her car in an almost trance-like state you can just catch the head of hair of her infant as she leaves it to its fate. Just before the inevitable destruction of the car and the child, the screen fades rapidly to black... and this is a prime example of the camera not catching the actual path of destruction on screen.

We are then taken into a quite fantastic opening credits sequence which is a complete throwback to the kinda of credits sequences designed back in the mid to late 1960s. It involves a lot of split screen and different things going on in various miniature frames with Dusty Springfield singing Yesterday, When I Was Young on the soundtrack, pre-empting the mid-life crisis that both Nicolas Cage as Dad and Selma Blair as Mum both seem to be going through here. The whole opening titles sequence reminded me, somewhat, of the original first version of The Thomas Crown Affair to a certain extent. 

Right from the start I was hit by the feeling that someone who really knows how the language of cinema works and is not afraid to take risks, was at the helm. There’s all kinds of styles and camerawork on display in this thing from sections of static shots edited together (sometimes rapid fire and sometimes, not so much), lots of moving camera and even some instances of that kinda voyeuristic way of shooting so that the camera is just slowly moving around in a handheld way and then latching onto something to pick out as a detail. Also, this man doesn’t fear the use of the zoom lens or rack focusing to put his films together and, while it’s not as beautifully, stylistically chaotic as the Crank movies (which also seem to somehow work really well against the odds), it all just seems to blend together so well.

After a while, the plot starts to come in focus and it involves an epidemic of all the parents nationwide trying to murder their children... and only their children. They are all absolutely aware that people are doing horrible things to their offspring but, when it comes to their own children, as soon as they see them they are overcome with rage and try to kill them. Like some of the best zombie and epidemic movies, there is no real explanation as to what is causing this national crisis or why... it just is happening and that’s the end of it. Which is kind of an interesting premise I think.

Throughout, the director uses the ‘screen goes black for a few seconds’ modus operandi as in the pre-credits sequence to basically punctuate the film like little breaks or subconscious chapter stops and also, in some instances, he uses these to usher in little flashbacks to scenes which, at various moments in the narrative of violence that plays out, give a respite and a moment to reflect how long and well established certain parent/child relationships are. Not to mention a scene which explores the lost dreams of both Mom And Dad as we see Nicholas Cage build a pool table from scratch before letting out all his anger and demolishing it with a sledge hammer. However, what these moments of reflection also do, of course, is provide the audience with a respite and a chance to simmer down again before leaping straight back into the intensity of the scene we were watching prior to the flashback.

The performances are brilliant. I’m really getting the hang of Nicholas Cage now and his perfect switches from jokey humour into... ‘you better be taking my threat seriously’ stares are just wonderful. He has Selma Blair matching him in the ‘somewhat off-kilter’ stakes playing a mother concerned for the safety of everyone else’s children but her own.. who she’s trying hard to kill. The one and only Lance Henriksen also does a great little job as Cage’s father towards the end of the movie here. And the kids played by Anne Winters, Zachary Arthurm, Robert T. Cunningham and Olivia Crocicchia are all pretty credible in this too.   

There’s some nice use of needle dropped music during the movie, such as the Dusty Springfield song I mentioned earlier but, there are also some nice things happening on the instrumental side of things too. Composer Mr. Bill keeps things light and neutral in some passages and then switches into some dark and sinister electronic stuff to highlight things but, sometimes he will score the scene contrary to what you are expecting to hear, to make a comment on what you are watching. For example, a montage of various families chasing their offspring from school and killing them is played out to some cheery, up beat muzak. The movie reminded me a little of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in terms of the way some of the musical decisions go here, for sure. 

At the end of the day, Mum And Dad is a film which deals with the idea of parental betrayal couched in the language of violence in which the cinematography and edit cause you to perhaps, in some scenes, feel more than you would see. These include ‘long game’ pay offs, for example, where a shot of the housekeeper repetitively slamming a meat hammer against a kitchen board building on from various activities preparing food with potentially lethal implements is enough to imply exactly what she does to her daughter when the camera... and one of the other kids... look away. It’s a quality production and in terms of the way the film feels, it would not look out of place with a themed all nighter at a cinema playing this along with Cronenberg’s Shivers (reviewed here) and Rabid (reviewed here), Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and Rollin’s The Night Of The Hunted. Frankly, Mum And Dad deserves to be in such good company because it’s a makes a really interesting little study of a condition which, by the end of the movie, is never fully explained and certainly isn’t cured in any way (although there are some visual hints about what’s carrying the ‘virus’ at various points). A good little genre film by a director who continues to make interesting movies. I just wish he were a little more prolific with the frequency of his output, to be honest. 

Sunday 18 August 2019

Sunstone Volumes 1-5

The Long And Binding Road

Print Collections 1-5
Written and illustrated by Stjepan Šejić
Top Cow Publishing

I’ve only recently gotten into digital comics and they’re not really my best choice of reading materials when I much prefer the printed page to all this electronic gubbins. But price and scarcity trump that kinda consideration in the digital realm, I guess. That being said, I’ve noticed lately that the .cbr and .cbz files which can be downloaded from the internet (often for free, it seems to me) are nothing like, say, watching a comic or cartoon off of a DVD or Blu Ray, which tend to get a little pixilated, quite often. This file format is pretty good, when synced up to an iPad (or nearest equivalent tablet) at giving you something which is 100% the same, almost, as holding a comic in your hands... if not actually approximating the scent of a good old comic or giving you that feeling of paper rubbing against the fingers which is almost as much about the reading experience as anything else.

I do know comics a little, though. When I was either three or four, I started reading with comics such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and SHAZAM! (the original Captain Marvel) and it certainly a format that teaches you to read fast, I can tell you that. I was reading a lot of comics for the first 16 years of my life and then, back in July 1984, I read the serialised version of what was and still is, to me, the greatest single literary experience of my life. I never thought I’d say that about a comic but it’s true... within the pages of 2000AD, which I’d been buying and saving since its first issue, Alan Moore’s three book epic, The Ballad Of Halo Jones, first hit my brain and has never left it. Even with great works like the same writer’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Moore’s The Killing Joke... The Ballad Of Halo Jones has never been surpassed and it’s the standard I measure all comics against. It’s always been the greatest comic ever written and drawn and that’s still the case.

Sunstone is, therefore, not the greatest comic ever written and illustrated. At least to me. However... it is easily the second greatest comic ever written and I say that having read some really great masterpieces in my time. This comic is just about perfect... so it obviously makes it difficult to review, for sure.

Now, I think I may have heard of Sunstone before, a couple of years ago... or I may not have. It rang a bell but when I found a stash of the first six volumes of this book online I gave it a go and... well. What’s that you say.... there are six of these (so far) but you are only going to be talking about the first five here? Well, yes. That’s because... and much to my surprise because I wasn’t done with the main characters yet... the first main arc of the book comes to a close at the end of the fifth volume and it seemed, with only the sixth volume starting the next arc actually out there so far, a natural place to break from what has been an intense binge session of a great work of art.

Sunstone tells the story of Lisa and Allison, two bisexual turned lesbian characters who have an intense BDSM relationship which turns very quickly into an intense love affair... which neither of them wants to admit for fear of the other one rejecting that their friendship and sexual role play (Alli is the domme and Lisa is the submissive) is anything more than that. Now the book is told from the point of view of Lisa, who is a writer, telling her story and, also, the story of many of the friends they make on their journey. It tells of how they met, how they both grew up and how their appreciation of the BDSM scene came about and, also, how everything jelled for their friends too. In fact, the nice thing about this book is that it jumps off on a tangent and the various other characters become as much people to care and worry about as the two main protagonists.

It also explains, to some extent, some of the different guises and forms from the world of BDSM which, I have to say, would probably be fairly educational to some people. I’ve been interested in and participating in certain aspects of that in my life in different guises and levels for a while now so I'm fairly experience in a wide range of stuff but, I’m happy to say, the writer is pushing ‘safety’ and ‘limits’... and the extension of those limits... to the forefront of the occasional sexually charged scenes within the story (of around 600 pages of story divided between the first five volumes). Heck, even the title of the strip is the safeword Alli gives to her subs and lovers when she is playing with them. As the pages go on a newbie to the scene can learn about stuff like harnesses, rigging, S&M play and also, on occasion, some of the risks involved... such as the consequences of someone stupidly cutting off the blood circulation with ropes applied incorrectly or a nice throwaway comment about the use of gags and how you play with them when a sub isn’t able to utter a safeword.

There’s also a lot of humour in the pages and, absolutely, a lack of casting judgement on the practices on display here from the writer... not always from some of the characters but, hey, that’s how you create the drama and provide the path to enlightenment. For instance, on the humour front... and its hard to recreate this without showing the panels but... let me just put it in script form...

Lisa narrating: We had to employ advanced tactics to persuade her...”

Person A: Come on!
Person B: No!
Person C: Come oon!
Person B: No!
Person A: Come ooooon!
Person B: “No!”
Person C: “Come ooooon!”
Person B: “Fine.”

Or in another scene where Alli has worn out Lisa’s now sore tongue by having her bound body going down on her for an incredibly long session so all her ‘s’ sounds become ‘sh’... and when Alli’s best friend Alan shows up just after and calls them on it... “Of course you don’t. Lisa merely developed a mean case of Connery by diving for pearls.” This book is really, very funny and, quite smart while also having tonnes of nerdy references to stuff like Star Trek, Doctor Who and even a ‘Dildo’ Baggins joke (at one point Lisa likens Comic Conventions to Fetish Conventions and, yeah, with what Comic Conventions have become over the years, I totally see that).

And the art is gorgeous too. Painted stuff which constantly walks a thin line between exquisitely detailed realism and cartoony expressionism, which shouldn’t quite work this well when combined but it really does. Also, the way the panels are designed in the comic are amazing. There’s a lot of stuff where you see simultaneous things happening, where the action of two individual characters and situations are crosscut visually on the same page, for instance. But, the artist manages to pull off this kind of stuff which does, in some pages and spreads, include some elabourate designs, without throwing up any impediment to the way the eyes decode the flow of the material on the page... which is a difficult thing to get right and, believe me, I’ve seen in a lot of published stuff where this can sometimes go wrong and your eye is left not knowing which part of the page to read next. This didn’t happen to me once within the first five volumes and... well, what can I say? This guy nailed it. And bearing in mind how tangential and sometimes devilishly metatextual some of the content in this book is, that’s really no mean feat.

 I haven’t quite figured out how he’s able to write female characters so well yet but, it all seems pretty authentic to me and he does manage to explore a few different ‘character voices’ over the arc and none of them seem out of place or too overly like anyone else when they are talking or thinking. And this, I’m sure, is one of the things that makes this book so addictive. I seriously didn’t want to put it down and that’s why I’ve had to stop for a while now that Lisa and Alli are no longer going to be part of the next arc. I mean, yeah, I’m sure they’ll feature heavily in it, actually but, this is the majority of their story done I think (although there are some important bits hinted at that we’ll obviously see from a different perspective when the time comes, I am guessing). The book takes the form of a flashback to real events from Lisa, Alli and their friends’ life in the past but, occasionally, the past will be interrupted by a little intrusion from ‘the present’ where Lisa is writing from and, obviously, things are still moving towards where they are at in their lives now.

I am, of course, referring to these characters as real people because, very quickly (like from the first couple of pages) they became just that for me... and I’m telling you now it’s rare for me to get this attached to fictional characters, for sure. Presumably because the writer has a very good ear and there is a strong sense of 'the truth of things' coming across in the writing all the way through. This is just plain good writing. Period.

So, yeah, as you can probably tell, this comic totally had me hooked and I feel like I need to come down a little to exorcise the addictive hold it has on me... which is, of course, where me writing a review of it comes in. If you write about something then maybe it stops holding power over you, right? At the moment I’m not sure whether to go onto Book Six or wait until the next couple of volumes come out before getting back to it. Either way though, I’m guessing you can tell from my somewhat clumsy enthusiasm here that I’ll definitely be recommending it to pretty much anyone I meet who has an interest in either the format of the comic strip or the particular subject matter at hand. Sunstone is seriously a comic book that means a lot to me right now so... yeah... this one is something you should read, for sure.

Friday 16 August 2019

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood

Bruise Lee

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
UK/USA/China 2019 Directed Quentin Tarantino
UK cinema release print

Warning: Even the presence of a spoiler warning for this movie would constitute a spoiler so you can see the kind of Catch 22 situation I am in with this... so let’s just say that, yes, there is a spoiler here.

Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is the... well, since I don’t seem to be as mathematically challenged as the Hollywood marketing machine, let’s just call it the ‘latest’ movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, who also wrote it. It’s a film I had been looking forward to for a while since, although I find the director a bit hit and miss, when he’s on form he does create absolute masterpieces of cinema (such as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds) and a film doing the ‘Manson murders’ and set in Hollywood in 1969 seems like a match made in heaven.

And, as a film it’s kinda entertaining but it’s also somewhat less than I was expecting from it, although I do reserve the right to change my mind on this one because, like some of the best Marvel movies of recent years, it might be that my brain needs to have longer to process it and it’s quite possible that if I ever do see this one a second time, I might like it a lot better than I did before.

Saying that, I still had a fairly good time with this movie... after all, one of the chief pleasures of watching a movie by Tarantino is spotting all the visual and audio references to other peoples movies and, as you can imagine, this film is filled to the brim with them in a much more overt manner (if such a thing is possible when it comes to Mr. T) than any of his other works.

The film follows fictional movie star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his stuntman/driver/best friend Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt. It also follows real life Sharon Tate played here by Margot Robbie, who was of course the most noted of the victims of the slaughter by the hippy followers of Charlie Manson on that grim August night in 1969.

Now, while I loved both all the references to various movies which the film is littered with and, frankly, loved the film and TV shows created to slot into this era by Tarantino for the Rick Dalton character (I especially loved the authenticity of his Italian secret agent movie although, on reflection, it maybe looked a little more like a ‘polizei’ movie than the specific strand of Italian spy movies it was emulating). However, it has to be said that there was practically no story on this one and its all over the place in terms of the way elements of the characters are revealed...

Now I’ve got no trouble with this usually, especially coming from Tarantino. As he’s demonstrated in a few of his movies, he can do this kind of slowly developing story image put together out of myriad scenes which tell something intrinsic about the characters very well and he usually does it in an effective manner which is a joy to watch. However, this particular hodge podge of scenes involving the various main characters and people such as Bruce Lee or Steve McQueen are... well, they’re all still a joy to watch individually but for some reason they never really forward the story that much. At least that’s how it seemed to me. The reason being, I think, is as I said in the paragraph above, there is no story, as such. And everyone knows the outcome of the Manson murders, right?

Okay... spoiler coming up.

I had a couple of conversations with different friends on the lead up to the release of this film about what I thought was going to happen because people keep telling people not to ‘spoil’ the movie and, frankly, it’s hard to spoil a movie when you know how historic events play out. So, this led me to believe that, just as he completely rewrote the end of World War Two in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino would change the outcome of events as they happened in real life and create a ‘new ending’ for Sharon Tate and Manson’s followers. Indeed, asides from the obvious tribute to Sergio Leone in the title, it would also suggest a certain fairy-tale quality to the narrative being presented here and suggests that there will be a certain amount of, shall we say, ‘deviation’ in terms of how things are left. And... yeah. I totally called it, this film left things exactly as I thought they would leave them when I heard about this project so... the film’s two main male protagonists are injected into history and, of course, change it in the way that very few people other than Tarantino would do without some kind of logical alternate to the ending, or lack of, of certain characters... such as in the movies From Hell or The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot (which I reviewed here).

And yes, it’s kind of a double edged sword in terms of the education of young movie goers everywhere when you present fiction as implied facts like this. I work at a college and know a lot of the kids think the war ended when Hitler was machine gunned down in a cinema and... I'm pretty sure that a lot of those same teenagers will be checking the IMDB after this to see what films Sharon Tate has been in recently too. It’s not fair that ignorance of history should block cinematic art like these Tarantino flicks and it’s no reason to censor the art in any way but... a disclaimer at the end might help clarify things to a certain section of the audience maybe. You know... like a statement saying that in real life Sharon Tate, her friends and unborn child were brutally slaughtered by the followers of Charlie Manson... something like that.

Anyway, other than this and despite the kind of directionless, almost spectator sport of 'picking out little details on the screen' kind of nature of the film, there are still some sequences which demonstrate Tarantino’s absolute mastery of the art. Two scenes spring to mind, both featuring Brad Pitt where, frankly, even though I’d worked out exactly how they were going to play out before they finished, were nevertheless almost excruciatingly suspenseful to watch and this is where the director really shows why we go and see his films time and time again. One is where Brad Pitt goes to check out an old friend on a ranch (I won’t say more) and the other is when a bunch of hippies invade a house towards the end of the picture. I’d liken them to the scenes with Alfred Molina in them from Boogie Nights in terms of just how insanely intense they are here and, as always, Tarantino has a way of taking things which we take for granted as fetishised instruments of death and reminding us that they are, truly, very dangerous.

And that’s me about done on this one. The common Tarantino needle-drop approach to the music was less appealing to me this time around (and it really shouldn’t have been since I love that period in music) and, although there is the obvious Manson reference to The Beatles White Album in the dialogue, you don’t actually get to hear any of it in the movie. Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is probably not a film I would recommend to anyone but the most cine-literate of my friends, truth be told but I expect it will grow on me in time and might even be worth a Blu Ray purchase at some point in the next few years. Nothing more to say except... stay on for the end credits.

Tuesday 13 August 2019


Value Rabid Attacks

Canada 1977
Directed by David Cronenberg
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2

As I said in my review of Cronenberg’s Shivers the other day (you can read that review here), I’ve been wanting to rewatch Rabid because I have a ticket to the world premiere of the new remake by the Soskia Sisters in just under two weeks and wanted this to be fresh in my mind. Having rewatched it now on a nice Arrow Blu Ray (although, I understand there’s a brand new, even more super duper restoration out later this month from 101 Films) it’s easy to see why I always get Shivers and Rabid confused. They’re both concerned with the spreading of a virus... by parasites in Shivers and, arguably, a kind of parasite in Rabid... and they both have the juxtaposition of hard violence and sex appeal to them. I’ll expand on that statement a little down the page.

The very first shot of the film introduces us to the person who is both the main protagonist and antagonist in the film, Rose, played by the late, great Marilyn Chambers. I’ll get back to her in a little while too but the opening credits start as she is waiting for the film’s other main protagonist... her boyfriend Hart, played by Frank Moore... her impressive figure leaning against his motorcycle. Hart soon picks her up and a lot of the titles pay out to various dynamic shots of the two of them on his motorcycle, whizzing around on a road trip...

Then, right bang smack in the middle of these credits, the cycle zooms past a building and instead of following the vehicle as we have in all the shots prior to this, we stay with the shot of the exterior of the building, The Keloid Clinic... because the director is now using this held moment as an establishing shot... followed by the interior of one of the offices where Dr. Keloid, his wife and his business partner Murray Cypher, played by Joe Silver (who also has a similar kind of role in Shivers) are discussing the future of his business, which is a cosmetic hospital specialising in modern techniques of plastic surgery. This is a great way of quickly filling in the audience about the hospital prior to the next series of shots which, when the titles resume, show a vehicle in the road blocking it after a man has an argument about directions with his wife and the motorcycle swerving to miss it but going up and over the edge of the highway. Hart is thrown clear but Rose lands underneath the motorcycle which then explodes on top of her.

However, this action has been witnessed by one of the cosmetic patients at the clinic through their binoculars and it’s not long before Dr. Keloid is racing to the scene of the accident with an ambulance and rushing the two patients back to his hospital where he has to perform an emergency operation on Rose which is an experimental form of surgery he is trying out, to do with using internal skin grafts. As he explains to his team while he cuts some skin from Rose’s thigh, he is going to be using “unusual skin grafts treated so they become morphogenetically neutral.’ Neutral field grafts which grow with the patient like an embryo. Now, I don’t pretend to completely understand the scientific lingo here but it’s the only explanation we get to a possible reason as to what happens next in the film... which truly continues Cronenberg’s obsession with ‘body horror’ that he was responsible for popularising around this time.

What does happen next is that, Rose wakes up and, mostly using her natural sexual attraction, starts drinking people’s blood by biting them with a kind of proboscis which retracts from a new orifice in her armpit. When she tries the same trick on a cow or tries to eat normal food, it just makes her throw up so very quickly the ‘half Rose-half beast’ she has become learns that she needs to drink the blood of humans to survive. Unfortunately, this also gives her victims a kind of untreatable super-rabies which causes them to attack others and spread the virus before dying themselves. Soon after Rose ‘escapes’ from the hospital, the new rabies spreads like wildfire and it’s not long before Canada is under martial law. And so the plot of the movie becomes Rose trying to find safe haven in between sexually enticing various human snacks while both Hart and Murray are out on the streets looking for her.

It’s business as usual for Cronenberg then... or at least what would become business as usual during this cycle of the writer/director’s career and I have to say, he has the added bonus of having more money (it seems to me) to make his wonderful shot compositions sparkle... he tends to gravitate to the centre or just slightly off-centre of the screen with some of his designs in this one, as he sets up vertical blocks of colour and texture to compartmentalise the screen.

There’s also the fact that many of the performances seem somehow more professional than some of those in his previous feature, not least of all Marilyn Chambers’ turn which really does stand out here in comparison to the expectations of her more famous career. And if you don’t know who Chambers is... or rather was, she died ten years ago.... she was the wholesome face of the Ivory Snow commercials in America. Yep, the famous Ivory Soap girl with her “99 & 44/100% pure” catch line. Well, she was the Ivory Soap girl until she started appearing, simultaneous to her advertising career with Ivory Soap, as the leading porn star in such, perhaps fondly remembered, pornographic films as the notorious Behind The Green Door, Resurrection Of Eve and Insatiable. This caused a scandal within the advertising industry at the time but, in the very rare crossovers she did, she really showed that she was more than up to the task of doing some good (and in this case somewhat ‘out there’... in the best Cronenbergian sense) performances and could hold her own with much more experienced commercial actors. I think this also shows how good porn actresses can be in general and that they shouldn’t necessarily be typecast in the genre of films with which they are most famously associated. An argument for a different article perhaps but, one wonders if Brian DePalma’s pursuit of porn actress Annette Haven for the lead in his film Body Double (which she ended up not starring in after all) was inspired by the casting of Marilyn Chambers in this.

It’s interesting that, although the method of viral contamination in Rabid is not a sex based one like it is in Shivers, the film seems somewhat more sexualised because there are a fair few nude shots of Chambers, who would have been totally comfortable doing those kinds of scenes anyway. It gives the film possibly a little more of an erotic edge to proceedings than in the previous movie where the theme of sexuality was more pushed to the foreground while remaining discretely in the background at the same time.

As well as the usual horror effects... which are done quite well with the proboscis that lurks within a sphincter under the armpit being particular well done, as sophisticated as anything in Cronenberg’s later ‘body horror’ movies... he also injects a more overt, almost slapstick sense of humour, into things at times. The moment in the shopping mall, for instance, where a policeman armed with a machine gun sprays a rabid attacker with lead and inadvertently also kills the Santa Claus in the Christmas Grotto is a particularly humorous swipe at establishment values, it seems to me.

Also... and perhaps I’m being a little unkind here but... whoever picked out the needle-dropped cues from a music library on this one (it may have been Cronenberg himself) did not do nearly as good a job as was done in Shivers. The over the top 1950s B-music style stings are lovely but totally out of place with the scenes they are scored with here and certainly give an unintentional humour vibe in places when it’s more than likely that the opposite effect is probably what was required.

Asides from that minor gripe though, Rabid is another early winner from the mind of David Cronenberg and I can’t really decide which, between Rabid and Shivers, I like more. I’d certainly recommend the movie as another good jumping on point to this writer/director’s cinema for those who haven’t seen his work before and now, all that’s left for me to do, is to go and see the new Soskia Sisters reboot at the London Frighfest this coming Bank Holiday Monday, so I can watch it with the original template in mind. And, hopefully, unless anything happens to me, a review will follow soon.

Sunday 11 August 2019


Parasite Lost

aka The Parasite Murders
aka They Came From Within

Canada 1975
Directed by David Cronenberg
Arrow Blu Ray Zone 2

I’ve been meaning to re-watch some of the old Cronenberg classics for some time now and have, over the last few years, bought some shiny new Blu Ray restorations to do just that. The reason I’m watching Shivers now is because I’ve got tickets to the premiere of the Soskia Sisters remake of Rabid and I wanted to watch the original again before seeing the new one. However, since I always get Shivers and Rabid confused in my mind, I wanted to refamiliarise myself with Shivers first... especially since it comes directly before Rabid in terms of when it was made.

Looking at this now, it’s strange to try and process the reaction to this movie when it was first released in Canada. There was a bit of a scandal about this being made with funding from the taxpayers and most people seemed to condemn this film as being a terrible movie. I’ve never thought it was a terrible movie, to be honest. I always kind of quite liked it although, it has to be said, some of the acting may be a bit questionable... I’ll get back to that in a minute.

The film’s opening credits sequence takes the form of a slideshow advertisement, where a voice tells us of all the promise of buying an apartment in the new, modern Starliner Apartment Block which houses a community of people on Starliner Island. It introduces us to the fact that the people who live in the block have their own shops and facilities like an indoor swimming pool (which plays prominently in the last act of the film) and it’s a nice idea for Cronenberg to give the audience a kind of a map to the environment in which the film they are about to watch will take place.

We then have a sequence with a new couple visiting the apartment block for the first time to get a sales tour but this is intercut with the film’s first scene of ‘ body horror’ running simultaneously with their dialogue with the guy in charge of the buildings. A man... a doctor/research scientist as it turns out... is trying to stop a schoolgirl from leaving his apartment, violently and eventually manages to strangle her. He then tapes up her mouth... to stop something we’ll see later from leaving her body and then puts her down on a table, slices open her stomach with a scalpel and then pours acid into the open cavity. After he’s done this he slices his own throat open with a scalpel and dies.

A lot of the early part of the film also concentrates on Nicholas, played by Allan Kolman, who is very sick with constant, surprise stomach cramps and who is trying to just survive his day. His wife Janine, played by Susan Petrie, is worried about him so she goes to see the doctor who has a practice in the Starliner apartment block. Here we meet the two people who act, for the most part of the movie, as the real protagonists of the film... Doctor Roger St. Luc, played by Paul Hampton and Nurse Forsythe, played by the lovely Lynn Lowry, with whom he is romantically involved. He promises to stop by and have a look at Janine’s husband later that evening but, as he gets more patients exhibiting similar symptoms... things moving around inside them and pushing on the skin... it’s an appointment he never gets to make. 

As he gets deeper into his day, Roger finds that the doctor who killed himself has been experimenting on people under the guise of an organisation who are breeding parasitic slug thingies to replace failing human organs like kidneys. However, as his fellow researcher soon finds out and then reveals to Roger, he was actually on a mad scientist trip to create a parasite that's “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy.” And that’s exactly what the parasites do... get inside people and then ‘sexy them up’ so that they attack other people and pass more sluggy looking parasites on to them...  transforming them into a growing number of infected, sexed up, somewhat aggressive and ultimately doomed human beings. So there’s your plot set up and the rest of the film is about Roger and his nurse trying to get out of the apartment complex and warn the rest of the world before becoming infected themselves. People who are familiar with the work of David Cronenberg will know him as one of the main geniuses of the modern horror scene, not to mention the man who... well he didn’t exactly invent but certainly he popularised the sub-genre of ‘body horror’ with films like this, Rabid, Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome, the remake of The Fly, eXistenZ and probably a few others I’m forgetting. So if you’re familiar with the inevitability of the situations he creates in these films, which might seem to some as pessimistic and bleak in their outlook, then you can probably guess how this all ends.

Meanwhile, Nicholas has been vomiting up parasites which escape into the complex and attack other people, including the most famous member of the cast, to genre fans at least, Barbara Steele as Janine’s friend Betts. Now let me say something about the almost amateurish acting vibe coming from some of the cast. I think the real problem here... at least in how the film may have been perceived by some at the time... is in the somewhat lacklustre and minimalistic performance by Allan Kolman as Nicholas. However, you have to remember that right from the outset, this character has several parasites swimming around in his body affecting the way he acts and talks so, I suspect, this somewhat less than engaging performance is a result of him really nailing the part and giving Cronenberg exactly what he wanted, rather than anything lacking in his performance skills. That’s my guess anyway since the actor seems to have gone on to a successful career in small roles in film and television over the years.

Let’s talk about Barbara Steele for a moment here too. This iconic actress from such fan favourites as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, Roger Corman’s Pit And The Pendulum, Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Federico Fellini’s Eight And A Half, Michael Reeves’ The She Beast plus The Curse Of The Crimson Alter, Nightmare Castle and The Long Hair Of Death, amongst many others, has a nude scene here which is both supposed to be an obvious ‘exploitation’ moment but which also manages to not show any of Steele’s sexualised body parts such as breasts or backside. It’s a scene where Steele is attacked by a parasite in the bath and it swims into her vagina (is the implication) but there’s no real nudity on display in any overt way here. Which is odd considering there’s a scene with Steele and Susan Petrie naked and doing the back stroke in the pool towards the end of the movie.

However, the reason I’m highlighting this scene is not to complain about it but to show how Cronenberg, who clearly wants us to get a ‘sex vibe’ from the sequence, manages to give us a ‘sexual surrogate’ to create the illusion in the audience's head that they are watching a proper nude scene. It’s simply done by just crosscutting this scene constantly with a sequence in which Doctor St. Luc is on his phone talking to someone but, as he talks, he watches (as do we) his nurse lover strip down out of her uniform to finish up for the day... under which she is not wearing any underwear of course. So, simply but brilliantly, the director manages to add the sexualised thrill missing from the simultaneous scene of Steele’s bathtime encounter... which ends really strongly with a close up shot of her walking bare foot on broken glass long before Bruce Willis did exactly the same thing in Die Hard... while not showing anything of Steele herself.

As a quick shout out to the lack of underwear on the nurse, I will say that, for a film about a sexual parasite, there is very little nudity in the movie as a whole but there is a definitive lack of underwear in it. None of the female characters seem to have ever heard of a bra (maybe people in Canada don’t wear them) and so everyone’s nipples seem to be covered but fairly prominent throughout... which I’m not going to complain about either. That Susan Petrie is a dish, though. Sorry, I just had to make that pun here or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

There are some nice shot compositions in this movie too... which you kinda expect from Cronenberg these days, it has to be said. Especially in some of the few, rare scenes shot externally to the apartment block at night. There’s a lovely shot of actor Joe Silver, for example, leaving a big office block via the front entrance and the whole atrium area is lit up in subdued greens right in the centre of the frame as he leaves and walks towards camera, with the rest of the shot around that atrium all very dark (practically pitch black) to highlight the action... very nice. It’s somewhat echoed in a similar shot in Rabid but it’s much more striking here.

Looking at the film now, it doesn’t seem that much dated but seems to give off that 1970s vibe of laid back, voyeuristic naturalism (for want of a better term) which puts it as a spiritual cousin to other contemporary movies such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (reviewed by me here) or Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets. Which is good company to be in, as far as I’m concerned. There are a few silly mistakes in the movie too, it has to be said but my biggest criticism would be the scene where Doctor St. Luc rescues his girlfriend by repeatedly shooting the guy who is trying to rape and ‘parasite her up’ in the car on top of her. Honestly people, a doctor should know that the human body is usually not resistant enough to bullets that said projectiles at that close range would as likely travel through the body and into the person below. However, James Bond makes a similar mistake in Thunderball (reviewed here), if memory serves, so I’ll just let that one pass for now.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about Shivers at the moment. Some of the music is nicely effective in some sequences but I’m pretty sure it’s all been needle-dropped in from a music library from varying, contributing composers so it’s not likely at present that I can find any of them on CD. They are, for the most part, well utilised and all in all help contribute to some of the stronger performances in the film and give the whole bunch of viral shenanigans a certain sense of menace and inevitability. Not my favourite of Cronenberg’s oeuvre but certainly one of his best and most fondly remembered (as much as I mix it up with his next film). Definitely a recommendation from me, especially if you’re not familiar with this director’s work and aren’t worried about the lack of visual sophistication in some of the effects shots. This is a film I’ll continue to come back to when I can.

Thursday 8 August 2019

Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom

Up And Atom

Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom
(The Gold Key and Whitman Years)

Gold Key Issues 1 - 27 USA 1962 - 1969
Whitman Issues 28 - 31 1981 - 1982

Written and drawn, initially and without credit, by Paul S Newman and Bob Fujitani, Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom was not a comic I read when I was a kid. I always loved the beautiful covers of those old, Gold Key comics, which were the biggest rival to Marvel and DC then back in the 1960s and 1970s but there were not that many of them around over here in comparison to the sheer volume of their competitor’s comics and they never had the issue number printed on the front other than a kind of code number that the publishers used. I had a couple of their Star Trek issues (and a load of the strips reprinted in the British annuals), a big black and white reprint album/colouring book of some of their Boris Karloff Presents... series and, I think a Scooby Doo comic I have might be from Gold Key too (or else that one was published by Dell, like the Alvin comic I had). But those covers were always much more stunning than the Marvel and DC covers of the time and featured some nice painted artwork.

Doctor Solar was published for eight years in the 1960s, which is a fair run until you realise that Gold Key comics were never published that often and the frequency at which they were published varied form year to year. Doctor Solar was published anything from between twice a year up to maybe four or five times a year. He’s a nice character though and, having now read this Gold Key run, I found it very interesting that the style of the character changed/progressed over the stories as, one can conclude, the Marvel superhero comics which became incredibly popular from 1962 onwards, had an influential impact on the contemporary comics scene.

Doctor Raymond Solar was the real name of a scientist who worked in ‘Atom Valley’ with his colleagues Doctor Gail Sanders and Doctor Clarkson. However, while trying to stop an atomic accident which kills one of his other colleagues, Solar doesn’t die as you might expect but, like many comic book characters of the time, finds himself transformed into an ‘super powered man’ who can change his body into various forms of atomic energy to stop the forces of evil from trying to obtain the secrets of Atom Valley. Dr. Clarkson is in on his ‘secret identity’ from day one (as the president of the USA soon is, too) since Solar has to live, confined in his lab/office so others won’t have much exposure to his level of radioactivity for long stints and, also, so he can be recharged. Gail, the ‘almost love interest’ of the comic, also is let in on the secret after a few issues. Already, though, you can see the influence of Marvel since the character sometimes turns green when using his atomic powers (actually, the green colouring is a bit random in the first few issues but gets a half baked explanation for this phenomena as the series progresses).

The stories are fine and all based on scientific principles which often generated a lot of letters for the letters page where various kids would write in about continuity glitches or factual errors which the publishers would then have to try and write off with elabourate scientific explanations. He also had his own Blowfeld-like super-villain, who you would only see from behind or with his features partially hidden behind a speech balloon with just his prominent bald head to indicate he was responsible for the latest evil plot (he also appears in almost all the issues and the letters pages are full of people complaining that it’s almost always the same villain).

The early issues would contain two Doctor Solar stories per issue with a short back up strip, Professor Harbinger, sandwiched between the two. As the series progressed, the two Solar stories would be two parts of the same story but, for the 27 Gold Key issues, the Professor Harbinger stories were always in there because he was popular with the readers and I can certainly see why. These are great little stories where Gold Key’s very own Harbinger of doom would highlight a scientific achievement or miracle of nature and then start imagining/speculating/explaining to the reader what could happen if things naturally progressed on this theme in the future and how humanity might perish from the result of the seed sown from this scientific nugget. The strip would then end with an indication that Harbinger’s prophecies were already under way, which would make the Professor jump or nearly pass out until it turns out that, say, a giant bug was really just a projected shadow or a creature flying outside the window was really just a shaped helium balloon. I must say, I really enjoyed these little flights of fancy as much as I enjoyed the main Solar strip so I can see why they didn’t stop running them.

Now Doctor Solar was pretty unique for the first four issues... he didn’t even have a costume and I must say I did like that fact. However, those pesky Marvel and, to an extent, DC heroes were leading the way in sales and so various concessions can be seen coming in as the stories progressed. In Issue 5, Solar finally gets a costume to help protect his secret identity. It uses the radiation symbol on a red costume and is very similar to the costume used by the creators of The Simpsons (who were obviously paying tribute here) for their Radioactive Man character. However, he also has a visor (and glasses when he’s just plain old Ray Solar) to protect others from his unhealthy, radioactive glare and I can’t help but think this might have been ‘acquired’ from Cyclops of Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men, who made a debut earlier in the same year. Similarly, stories where Ray demonstrates that he can cool down his body to freezing temperatures, heat it up etc might well be borrowed from X-Men’s Iceman and the newer version of The Human Torch, who would have gained popularity in Fantastic Four comics at the time. It’s all a bit tell tale when, for the first time ever in Issue 7, Doctor Solar is referred to in the narrative as a radioactive ‘mutant’... a word which was fully popularised right from the outset in the X-Men comics, if I recall correctly. Although, to be fair, the term doesn’t have the same satirical message that it did in the Marvel comic.

Again, as Ray demonstrates in later stories that he can shrink his body to tiny size or, indeed (and accidentally at first) grow to a huge, giant-sized version of himself, you have to wonder if the Ant-Man (and later Giant-Man incarnation of that character) was a huge hit with the kids at the time. And it could have been any number of Marvel villains who served as a template when, in the later comics, Nuro transplanted his brain into his robot helper Orun and became a more active, mechanical threat to his super powered nemesis.

When the strip first started, as with the Doc Savage Gold Key comic I reviewed here, the page layouts were all five panels per page operating out of a six panel grid, two by three, with one or other of the panels being stretched vertically or horizontally to break up the page. However, as Marvel and DC presumably grew more adventurous and the artists influenced other people in the same field, the layouts grow more relaxed and dynamic as the comic progresses.

And then, in 1969 and without warning, the comic just stops. Doctor Solar does have at least one later crossover appearance in an issue of Gold Key’s The Occult Files Of Doctor Spektor but I haven’t read that one yet... and I’ll save it for when I read those for another review for this blog (hopefully fairly soon). After this, the character was put on ice until the same publishers, under the name of Whitman Publishing, brought the character back for four issues running sporadically from 1981 to 1982. The art is not much different but the story content seems a lot less interesting and, by this time, the character of Doctor Solar is a lot more haunted by his fate. Also, in an age after Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and a whole host of other, popular science fiction films and shows, he also seems to have two ‘cute and funny’ robot helpers lending a hand in Atom Valley... which really sets it apart from the earlier stories where the writers did, at least, try to keep the majority of the tales less fantastical where they could (with only the odd alien or energy monster unleashed in the strip very rarely). These issues dropped Professor Harbinger and, instead, had another popular Gold Key character making a return in the pages, Magnus Robot Fighter (again, another run I have to read for this blog). Probably the worst thing about Whitman’s brief resurrection of the character, however, was the awful, drawn covers. These things look quite childish and are a far cry from the traditional Gold Key covers of the 1960s and 1970s.

Again, there’s no warning of cancellation on this brief reappearance of the character but this wasn’t Solar’s last hurrah, by a long shot. In the 1990s and still, I think, to this day, there are new versions of the character, although none of them are actually Phil Solar. I believe the first ‘rebirth’ of the character actually took his inspiration from being a fan of the old Gold Key comics and so, when he is transformed into a similar being, pays homage to them. I’ll probably get around to catching up with these at some point in the next ten years though, I suspect. Meanwhile, I would thoroughly recommend the original Gold Key run of Doctor Solar - Man Of The Atom as they are quite nice commentaries of a certain section of society who were reading them (I found a young Paul Gambaccini had written in on one of the 1960s letter pages) and, despite their growing similarities to the comics of ‘the opposition’ on the racks at the time, they were also their own unique thing, to an extent. Quite a change of pace from the amount of teenage angst which made the Marvel tales so popular during the same period (and which became more prominent in the Doctor Solar comics in their short Whitman incarnation).