Directed by Jordan Graham
Mistik Jade Films
Wow, Sator... okay.
During these pandemic, ‘working from home because the rest of the exterior landscape has gone all The Omega Man’ times, I’ve been working from home while sometimes listening to a newish podcast that I quite like (regular readers will know how rare it is I listen to podcasts). It’s presented by Dr. Rebekah McKendry and Elric Kane and it’s a horror discussion show called Colours Of The Dark (well okay, in the US it’s 'Colors' but, honestly, don’t get me started)... presumably named after the Sergio Martino giallo. Anyway, I’ve been picking up a lot of fairly solid horror movie recommendations from there just recently and Sator was one of them.
It also blew me away and I wish someone would release a proper Blu Ray release of this thing, for sure. What’s even more mind blowing is the production of the film but... I’ll get to that in a little while. Let me give you a brief story tease first...
The story is mostly about two brothers... Adam played by Gabriel Nicholson and Pete played by Michael Daniel. Something has happened to their family, I think the mum has gone missing at some point. Their grandmother has been listening to a dark spirit/demon who visits her called Sator for years... it whispers to her and she has produced an awful lot of automatic writing channeling the spirit, much of which you’ll get to see and hear and which will, if you pay attention, tip you off to exactly where the movie is going. Adam is living in the woods in a cabin because his mother and, now also himself, could also feel and sometimes hear the lurking presence. He is trying to make contact with it in the forest... presumably to understand what’s going on in his life. Nothing is really spelled out and that’s cool, you can bring your own assumptions to fill in some of the blanks of the back stories but, also, as more is revealed, those assumptions will probably keep changing and, I have to say, this is quite a smart way to play it because it makes the lurking dread all the more effective as the film wears on.
Another way the director continually keeps the audience guessing... and engaged... is to use different stocks and aspect ratios (so black and white, 4:3, colour and widescreen) all mixed in together. As I started I was assigning different meanings or significance to different parts of footage... like this treatment means a flashback and this one means something else... but after a while I came to realise that this was not something where the mixture of presentations actually signifies something specific (like it does in, say, Wender’s Wings Of Desire)... at least, not that I could fathom, for sure.
And as the film slowly gives up its secrets, punctuated by the constant juxtapositions with readings of the grandmother’s automatic writings channeled from Sator, things start to get very creepy and very dangerous for some of the characters. There are, in just a couple of shots, strong elements of the supernatural so, I feel fully justified in reading this film as belonging to the ‘tricky to define’ horror genre... it’s not just a dramatic mystery, for sure (like, say, The Wicker Man). And because this isn’t a big budget studio picture, those supernatural manifestations really count when counterpointing the slow and deliberate pacing of the movie (like one of those little realisations which creep up on you mid way through a Tarkovsky movie and then suddenly resonate). For instance, without giving anything away here, there’s a scene where Adam is chasing after a woman in a forest and... something happens which really makes you sit up and pay attention in ways it wouldn’t in, say, I dunno... a Marvel movie. This director really knows what he’s doing to make a genuinely scary film with a really nice pay off at the end, it has to be said.
But here’s the thing. The director isn’t ‘just’ the director and the grandmother, who didn’t live long enough to see the final product, isn’t ‘just’ the grandmother.
For starters... Jordan Graham, didn’t just direct the movie. He wrote it, shot it, edited it, wrote the music(and possibly performed it too), built the log cabin and did a whole host of other things. It’s not quite a solo show (and he had some actors, obviously) but pretty close to it. Which is why it took seven years of his life from conception to screen. He was in it for the long haul. But it certainly doesn’t look like a low budget, Jerry built production for sure. This looks like this had way more than just this very small crew behind it. And not only that...
June Peterson, who plays the grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's in the film... really is the director’s grandmother who was suffering from Alzheimer's. And all the automatic writings from Sator to her were the real automatic writings she herself received from ‘Sator’ in real life when she was messing about with a Ouija board in 1968 and which led to her being committed to a psychiatric hospital. So as far as the ‘idea’ of Sator watching over her as presented in the movie... that’s all culled from her real life experiences and, I think Graham has gone on record as saying that Sator wasn’t even part of the plot of the movie at the start. I guess he got to know his granny pretty well as the film was made and there’s even some footage in the movie which is from years ago and includes his real life grandfather. Maybe that’s why he uses a mix of stocks during the course of the film... to better seamlessly blend the real life footage with the scary fiction.
And that’s about all I’ve got to say about Sator other than... it’s an incredibly well put together horror movie which, well, I’m holding out for an extras loaded Blu Ray at some point but I will definitely want to be revisiting this one again. Fans of horror films who are not just after violence (although there is some heavy violence at the end and, again, all I will say is that was a real beard one of the actors had and the actor did what he did with it for real) and who are looking for a more atmospheric, lurking dread and imminent danger kind of vibe should get a good fix of it from Sator. The final shot of the movie is great too and I’m really pleased I gave this one a go. It should definitely place highly on anyone’s top 100 horror films list, for sure.
Sunday, 31 October 2021
Saturday, 30 October 2021
Directed by Corin Hardy
Warning: Some spoilers.
The Hallow is a film I managed to miss on it’s UK cinema debut... I’m guessing because I was probably ill when it came out and it maybe only lasted one week at my local cinema here. It’s a nice looking film and, for a while, it's genuinely creepy... but I’d have to say it’s very much a game of two halves... a great build up mixed in with, perhaps, a little disappointment towards the end.
The film tells the story of four new arrivals in Ireland... Adam (played by Joseph Mawle), his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic), their baby son Finn and their wonderful Welsh Border Collie. They are living in a remote house in a picturesque wood so Adam can be near his work... which is assessing the various trees for disease and marking up which ones need to be cut down before the woodland is sold off to a rich businessman. So, naturally, the locals all hate this new family but, as it transpires, it’s not just hate but fear of what they might bring down that is behind the local prejudices.
For the film is partially based on Irish folklore of some kind (probably a mix of influences actually... I suspect Hardy does his own thing with the antagonists here) and there are ‘little people’ out there in the woods, who the locals warn will come to harm the newcomers for trespassing on their space. Sure enough, ‘the hallow’ as they are known, come to steal Adam and Clare’s baby in a series of attacks and try to substitute it with some kind of changeling. And that’s not quite all to the various incidents and set pieces in the movie but I won’t tell everything here... you should watch it yourself.
The film is well built up with, for the first half, a lot of very slow camera movement and lots of static shots which give everything a leisurely pace at first in the form of a kind of creeping dread. Somewhere near the half way point, though, the attacks start coming and... while the first real attack sequence involving Adam trapped in the boot of his car and the baby trapped in the back seat while these twisted ‘faerie folk’ try to take the child is quite effective... the film then starts to ramp up the action including a couple of chase sequences and a house under siege section which, frankly, is where things start to go wrong. Like the director’s later film, The Nun (reviewed here), the subtlety of the horror is let go and everything is shown. Sometimes that can be quite successful, such as in The Nun, which kind of gives it an old Hammer Horror vibe but, while The Hallow might have done the same, I feel the director hasn’t followed one of the oldest and wisest unwritten commandments of the horror film... if the monsters don’t hold up for long periods, make sure they are underlit and don’t show them for long. Sadly, the creatures here look great when they are a half glimpsed presence but, when they are brought fully into the light, so to speak, for sustained horror action sequences... well, the fright is gone and I kind of stopped caring at that point.
Having said that, there’s still a lot to like about The Hallow. There’s a particularly suspenseful moment when Adam is looking through the spyhole in his front door. Now, whenever anybody looks through their front door spyhole in a movie I get anxious and, of course, Dario Argento really played out that fear in a celebrated sequence in Opera... here though, yeah, something nasty and graphic happens which also brings with it an element of Cronenbergian body horror to the last third of the movie...although again I wasn’t fully sold on in terms of the effectiveness of that element and how it manifests in one of the characters.
Another thing to like, asides from the marvellous acting of the two main leads and a nice little cameo from Michael Smiley as a local policeman, is the cinematography and frame design on the film. One particularly impressive shot comes in a kind of downtime moment in the siege sequence. The baby has been locked in a cupboard and Clare is sitting outside by the cupboard door. The way the shot is composed of shapes and vertical blocks is fantastic. The shot is roughly split into fifths with the out of focus head of Adam in the left two fifths of the screen with a half a wall behind him leading into an opening to the next room. On the rest of the screen we can see: a second doorway and a curtain taking out a large slice of the right two fifths of the screen. In the middle slice, in clear focus, is three quarters of Clare in long shot at the centre of the frame, at odds with the scale of Adam’s soft focus head to her immediate left in the room in the foreground, which adds loads of depth to the screen. It’s a nice moment of beauty before another chase element of the film kicks in and ramps things up. A lot of the last third of the movie is given a much speedier and chaotic feel with the use of shorter shots and hand held camera jerkiness so, that specific shot as a counter to the surrounding sequences gives a nice moment of respite.
And that’s pretty much all I’ve got in me for The Hallow. James Gosling’s score (sadly unavailable on CD) is appropriate to the subject and peps things up when required... you have good acting, some nice shot design but, ultimately I feel, a lot less of a scary movie than it might have been. Still, not a bad one to watch of an evening and I don’t think many fans of supernatural folk horror would be disappointed with this one. A good effort and much appreciated, I think.
Friday, 29 October 2021
A Witch In Time
The Devonsville Terror
USA 1983 Directed by Ulli Lommel
88 Films Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilers... although it's not really that kind of movie.
There were two reasons I wanted to see a film like The Devonsville Terror (a movie I would not normally be interested in seeing, it has to be said). First up, it was shot in Wisconsin a month or so before another film I recently saw, The Demons Of Ludlow (as part of Arrrow’s Weird Wyoming boxed edition... reviews of the individual films in that set will be put up on the blog at some point soonish... but possibly not until 2022). It shares a few of the same minor cast members and I thought it would be interesting to watch another movie using the same locations etc.
Secondly, it’s another film by Ulli Lommel, made the same year as the brilliant Olivia (aka Prozzie aka Double Jeopardy, which I reviewed here) and it’s once again starring and co-written by his then wife, the remarkable Suzanna Love. And, like Olivia, it also co-stars, in a much less prominent role (not quite an extra but he might as well have been) Robert Walker Jr, who readers may remember as playing the troublesome and troubled, lethal teenager Charlie Evans in the very early Star Trek episode Charlie X.
So, yeah, I was looking forward to this one but, I have to say, it’s not nearly the film Olivia was, in all honesty. This one’s a standard ‘witch return’ movie and it starts off 300 years prior to the main action of the film, with three ladies being seized by a witch hunter before being tortured to death. One is eaten by pigs, one is broken on a wheel by being rolled along on it and the third is burned at the stake, invoking some kind of vague curse as she dies.
Cut back to the present (or, you know, 300 years later, at any rate) and the little village of Devonshire is having the 300th birthday of its guilty past, when the village gathered the witches and put them to death. The resident doctor, Dr. Warley, is played by none other than Donald Pleasance (although the voice over extracts read from his diaries in a couple of places is obviously read by someone else, presumably trying hard to sound like the great man). The doctor believes the witches were wrongfully burned and commonly puts his patients under hypnotic regression (mostly unknown to them) to find out more about their actions in that event... the film seems to subscribe, without question, to the idea that everyone has past lives directly connected to their ancestors. It’s just a phenomenon presented as the presumption of fact so, yeah, the audience isn’t given a chance to question that idea. Dr. Warley himself is cursed with a rare illness, passed from one generation to another, where he has worms swimming in his blood as punishment for his ancestor’s deeds and, indeed, on a number of occasions you see him making excisions in his wrist and pulling out worms.
Anyway, around this time, three new people arrive in the village of Devonshire. One of them, Jenny (played by Suzanna Love) is the new school teacher. Another, Chris, played by Mary Walden, is studying the water locally because of toxic chemicals she suspects the locals have been dumping in there. The third, Monica, played by Deanna Haas, is a new radio DJ and seems somewhat reminiscent of Adrienne Barbeau’s character in the then recent movie The Fog... although, to be fair, the film doesn’t seem to be cribbing from John Carpenter’s production half as much as The Demons Of Ludlow did.
And it’s a short film with the town not responding kindly to any of these new outsiders and, ultimately, attempting to kill them all in modern versions of the deaths visited on the three witches, who do appear to be these women’s ancestors, 300 years before. So one of them gets eaten by a dog, another gets dragged along behind a car and, well, when Jenny is tied to a stake she gets her revenge in a scene which is, frankly, completely lifted from another influential film from a couple of years before, namely Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark. In a less than credible and ‘way out there’ moment, Suzanna Love takes a page from Bobbie Bresee’s book in Mausoleum (again, review coming at some point soon) and shoots lasers from her eyes. This causes the ‘Raiders moment’ where one man’s head explodes and the other man’s head melts, with his glasses falling down his melting features as in the Spielberg film. Then, we see Jenny leaving the town on a bus and that’s the end. The curse is apparently lifted.
It’s a short movie and that might be the reason why this film, although watchable, is not all that engaging or that credible as a story line. Robert Walker’s character, for instance, is built up in a couple of scenes and then he bizarrely just seems to drop out of the narrative when things start really happening. There’s no awareness on the part of the three women that they’re in any way related to the witches at the start of the film either and... yeah, it all seems to be a hasty sketch of a movie rather than a fully fleshed story, it seemed ot me. About the only thing worth mentioning here perhaps, asides from Suzanna Love who I believe is a seriously underrated actress and should be better known, is a dream sequence Jenny has where some impressive, ogre-like creatures are glimpsed, with some nice, possibly animatronic movement on their faces. It’s a shame these creatures weren’t used in the rest of the movie because they look very good and the rest of the film could have done with the lift.
As it is, The Devonsville Terror is a watchable film and, certainly, it handles the whole witchcraft idea more tastefully than Bill Rebane’s The Demons Of Ludlow but, yeah, it’s not all that great and, asides from the aforementioned dream sequence and some brief landscape shots filled with nice Autumnal colour, it’s not a great film by any means and one I would have trouble recommending to others. I’m glad I saw it though and, you never know, I may watch it again some day.
Thursday, 28 October 2021
Directed by Adam MacDonald
Signature DVD Region 2
Warning: Some story set up spoilers.
Pyewacket is one of a few freebies I got given at FrightFest a few years ago. The name is one I associate with cats as it’s the famous name of a witch’s ‘familiar’ and so many TV and movie cats over the years (perhaps most famously in Bell, Book and Candle, reviewed here) have gone by that name. Here, the writer/director takes some ‘artistic licence’ with just who, or what, Pyewacket actually is (it’s a good name after all) and turns it into a dark spirit who will perform a task if summoned but... will exact a price for that task.
The film kinda works okay (although I have my reservations about it), not least because of the two very strong actresses who carry the majority of the story between them. We have Nicole Muñoz playing Leah and her mum played by Laurie Holden. The two of them have been finding it hard since the death of Leah’s dad a couple of years before and these two are not exactly bonding well. Then Leah’s mum decides they are moving house and, although Leah is able to go to the same school for a few months, this is perceived by her as uprooting her from all her friends and her potential romantic interest (played by Eric Osborne).
Leah seems to be a staunch, typically angst ridden teen goth and has a passion for writings on the occult. When her and her mother continue the disharmony in the new house, which incidentally is cut off from almost everywhere and is situated next to a very spooky forest, then she decides she doesn’t want her mother in her life anymore. So one night she goes into the woods and performs a complicated ritual from one of her books, to summon the spirit of Pyewacket to kill her mother. The rest of the movie is about spooky sounds, a dark ghostly shape, missing time (as Leah wakes up one morning in the forest) and various other ‘false starts’ as the audience waits for Pyewacket to show up and kill Leah’s mum. Meanwhile, of course, the two women have managed to put their differences aside and have finally begun to bond and become a loving, family unit again. Can Leah figure out how to reverse her spell, which she has now found out will also involve her own death at the hands of the summoned demon after the task has been fulfilled? Well I’m not going say but I will say that the way the movie ends is a little predictable, to be honest.
And, asides from the lack of surprises, the film maybe doesn’t have enough scope to play in the most satisfying way. That is to say, the concluding part of the movie is something I would have been expecting the film to do around a third to halfway through the thing and then go on to bring in some other plot twist or dramatic element... which it doesn’t do.
All that being said though... it does all the rest of it very well. The suspenseful and scary moments are executed competently and, because the characters were so well drawn by the leads and also because the director really seemed to know what he was doing with the supernaturally charged scenes, I was feeling genuinely uneasy during certain scenes and at no time did it really feel like it was dragging.
The creature is most effective when it’s just the sounds of footsteps coming from the attic just above Leah’s bedroom and the evil spirit’s final form is left to the imagination. Later forms such as a dark, ghostly silhouette are maybe not as potent although, the version which is briefly seen running about on all fours is quite creepy, it has to be said. It’s a shame more wasn’t made of this particular manifestation of the central demon.
The film looks pretty good too and the cinematography also helps invoke a nice atmosphere. This includes some of those POV shots where you assume the voyeuristic moving camera moments are meant to be a manifestation of Pyewacket, lurking unseen by anyone. This is all coupled with a nice ‘contemporary sound design’ style score by Lee Malia which really works and enhances the modern gothic flavour of the piece (and which I can’t get on CD... thanks for failing me again music companies).
Other than that, yeah, all in all I’d say that Pyewacket fails to deliver any real surprises and could have stood having a greatly expanded story line (although, I’m assuming this was very low budget so what the director accomplished here is pretty great) but what it does manage to pull off, it pulls off in style and it would make a great addition to an all nighter of similarly themed folk horrors, for sure. I think most horrorphiles would have a good time with it.
Wednesday, 27 October 2021
A Holy Place
aka Sveto Mesto
Directed by Djordje Kadijevic
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B
As part of Eureka’s first edition,
two disc Blu Ray version
presentation of VIY
Warning: Some major spoilers in this one if you don’t know Viy.
Sveto Mesto (aka A Holy Place), is a 1990 Yugoslavian TV take on Nikolay Gogol’s famous novella Viy (which I confess I’ve never read, as yet). This Blu Ray is a special and, it turns out, very limited pressing additional disc attached to last year’s Eureka Masters Of Cinema presentation of Konstantin Ershov & Georgiy Kropachyov’s version of Viy (which I reviewed here). This has, alas, already sold out and their follow up, single disc edition does not include Sveto Mesto on it.
I won’t go on to describe the whole story of it here, other than where the director deviates form the content of the previous film, but just quickly... a student from the local monastery, lost with two friends, spends the night at a hut with an old witch who assaults him and rides him like a broom (although the special effects are not nearly as ‘special’ here in this more ‘implied’ version of that scene). In this version, after nearly making love to him when she turns into a young woman, the witch's assault on him provokes violence and he appears to kill her. The next day he is ordered to the home of a rich benefactor of the church to spend three nights vigil, alone in his private church, reading from the bible over the body of his recently deceased daughter, the same dead witch in her younger incarnation (played by Branka Pujic). Each night, the witch awakens and tries to get to young Toma (played by Dragan Jovanovic, who married her in real life, two years after the release of this movie), who protects himself with a hastily scribbled circle in the dirt.
Like the 1967 movie... and presumably Gogol’s story... the majority of the running time is split into a structure of three ‘vigils’, with a significant amount of downtime in between to heighten the suspense... which is a smart structure if you’re doing a horror/supernaturally themed movie. However, this version embellishes these three pre-vigil downtime moments with Toma (who is so terrified by his experiences the second night that his hair turns grey, using a not so impressive looking wig, I suspect), with other people's accounts of the sexually, non-consensually dominating witch (involving some quite aggressive and damaging trampling, which she also inflicts on Toma on the third night) when she was truly alive. These flashback sequences are not quite sepia as they still employ a full colour palette but they are definitely filtered and lit so as to be as near as dammit to a sepia tint, with only the stronger colours like the red of the witch’s costume dominating the hues at times.
The three nightly vigils themselves are much shorter and far less fantastical encounters than in the earlier version of Viy, mostly being restricted to gaining entrance to the circle and, in the last one when the witch coaxes Toma out with his own curiosity, the threat is still only herself as she dominates and then seduces Toma (which is what leads to his quick death when he’s discovered by the father, snuggled up to her corpse on the third ‘morning after’). The second vigil sequence, brief though it is, is probably the most terrifying and makes good use of one of the few minimal but effectively eerie soundtrack cues in the picture.
Once again, this version is filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, as was required for television sets of the time but the director and cinematographer compose some nice, clean shots with people pitched towards the centre of the screen for most of it or, sometimes, filling the screen with people. It’s nicely enough shot but, I have to say, although I appreciate the crisp, clear transfer of the film... the print is absolutely awful. It’s like looking through a snowstorm for a lot of the time and there is a lot of wear and tear. Again, I don’t think this is a fault of the transfer and I think Eureka did their best with it... but I think that would explain why Severin in the US didn’t include this version on their release of Viy from the year prior to this release and, also, why it looks like it’s not being included with the presentation of Viy in their up and coming All The Haunts Be Ours folk horror Blu Ray collection. So I’m really pleased I picked this one up when I did.
There are three things I noted of special interest when I watched this... or at least three curiosities.
Firstly, the girl’s dead mother seems to remove herself from a portrait (which has her figure painted out as grey when she appears standing near it) to frighten the father. Not too much is made of this but the implication taken from this and some other accounts in those flashback sequences tend to point to the idea that the whole family are witches.
Secondly, following a maid in the house being scratched by a cat in a flashback, who is obviously a moggy incarnation of the young witch, her naked human form in a bathtub goes on to seduce the maid and later introduce her to off camera sapphic delights. I was surprised though that the nudity and sexual implication only warranted a 12 rating in the UK (not complaining and I’d like to say that times have changed but, truthfully, I suspect times are just glaringly inconsistent).
Thirdly, there’s a little continuation of the film after the death of Toma which is completely different to the end of the 1967 version. His two friends go to collect the dead body but, on their way back with the corpse to the church, are obliged to spend time at the witch’s hut overnight. She then separates them out and starts aggressively attempting to ride one of them again, thus starting the cycle anew.
And that’s me done with Sveto Mesto (aka A Holy Place) I think. I wouldn’t consider this essential viewing unless you really like Viy (and why wouldn’t you), in which case it might be worth trying to see this one at some point. Asides from the state of the print, which is not their fault, Eureka have done a fantastic job and this extra disc also comes with a half hour interview with the director. I’m glad I moved quickly on this one because it’s nice to see a different take on the same source material, for sure.
Tuesday, 26 October 2021
Way But Luz
Luz - The Flower Of Evil
Directed by Juan Diego Escobar Alzate
Fractured Visions Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Flowering spoilers.
Luz - The Flower Of Evil, not to be confused with about a gazillion other films called Luz, is a film I knew absolutely nothing about until a brand new UK label, Fractured Visions, decided to put this one up for pre-order as their second release. I looked at the trailer and it seemed like something I might enjoy and the package they were offering... comprising a nice cardboard slip case cover (which, as it turns out, makes much more of a solid statement than anything in the actual film itself), six art cards designed as miniature lobby cards, a nicely designed booklet (which appears to be masquerading as a Betamax video cassette... not featured in the film... but which for some reason has a VHS logo on the design... yeah, okay, VHS was the system with two wheels in the window guys), a bunch of extras such as a short film (which I’ve not seen yet) and, the clincher for me which made the difference between hitting the pre-order button and letting the film languish outside of my experience, a CD soundtrack of the film’s quite hypnotic score by Brian Heater (which I’m listening to as I type).
The film itself is a somewhat subtle but almost hallucinogenic trip of a movie, featuring slow but sure camerawork and, quite often, highly saturated colours to depict the landscapes and dwellings of the very small community of people who populate the film (a community which is barely in double figures, by the looks of it). It’s one of those rural movies which, in this case, barely slips into folk horror but, depending on the way you choose to decode the film, might well slide into that territory for many audience members.
The film features Jim Muñoz as Adán, who rules this very small community with a Religious fervour. It’s a primitive community but there are a few tell tale signs to show that this little group are living, perhaps, a little more primitively than they need to. For example, there are two guns seen in the film and a tape recorder... which I’ll get onto in just a moment. Adán is bringing up the three daughters of his dead wife Luz... one by him and two by her. He has convinced the village they are angels and they are Andrea Esquivel as Laila, Yuri Vargas as Uma and Sharon Guzman as Zion. They are as afraid of him as perhaps some of the other villagers. He keeps telling everyone that, when the young Jesus, in the form of a new messiah, comes to the community... they will be saved, the countryside will be fruitful again, their sins will be washed away and the dead tree which he buried to mark the grave of Luz, will bloom.
Then, one day, Laila finds a tape recorder and two tapes, which are filled with lovely music. Adán patiently explains to her that music is ‘the Devil’s chant’. He confiscates the tape recorder and one of the tapes (she hides the other from him). Later on, when it’s her birthday and he has wiped the tape, he returns it to her, not realising she can still listen to the ‘evil music’. Meanwhile, Adán steals a young boy from a neighbouring community, rapes the mother and exiles her, then chains the boy up outside where the family has to keep him fed... because ‘obviously’ he is the baby Jesus that the folk there so need. Later on, we find that this is the fifth baby Jesus he’s found in two years.
I won’t say what happens after this but there are very subtle signs, throughout the movie and as tensions within the community escalate... mostly due to the incongruities and over enthusiasm of this Religious nutter... when you start to wonder if this silent boy actually is Jesus or, considering his unflinching attitude to the wrong doings in the community and his silent conversations with the their goat, whether the child is the exact opposite of that. The anti-Christ sent to bring the downfall of these people.
And there are some very subtle hints, I think, that the answer could be the latter but ultimately I think the audience needs to unpack that baggage for themselves. So I won’t say much more about the story other than... there is sin and there will be blood.
The film is not particularly fast paced. It’s one of those pieces which transcends the need for a rush of ideas... instead it takes you on a journey where the tensions are ratcheted up by the religious and philosophical propositions, such as they are, which are discussed by the various protagonists. What is not seen is sometimes as important, perhaps more so, than any incidents that are captured on camera for the benefit of the audience. In the accompanying booklet, the writer/director lays bare his influences which include a number of things which will get people excited, such a the cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky and even Robert Eggers fairly recent movie The VVitch, which I think this film is a lot closer to than anything else (and which I reviewed here). Personally, if we’re going to play the director’s game and compare it to cinematic works from before, I think the film has huge doses of Jane Campion’s The Piano in it (and Jim Muñoz seems to be positively channeling Sam Neil in this movie, it seems to me) and a very strong ‘girls together’ vibe that marks the work of writers such as Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott.
And I don’t have much more to say about Luz - The Flower Of Evil, I think. People are going to love the saturated colours which permeate a fair amount of the shots, especially on the grainier, exterior ‘nature’ shots and I think people will conclude different things from the direction of the story, which isn’t a bad thing actually and I suspect that may be what the director would best hope for. I also think it’s a film which might divide audiences... some will love it and want to revisit many times and... others won’t, I suspect. Now, at time of writing, I’ve not had as much time to process the film and to let it haunt me properly so I’m not sure if I’m leaning more to the first more than the second camp in that equation but, I do know one thing... the soundtrack CD was worth the price of purchase alone and it will definitely be getting some more spins out of me before the year is done.
Monday, 25 October 2021
A Viy In
Directed by Konstantin Ershov
& Georgiy Kropachyov
Mosfilm/Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B
Viy is the second of many filmed versions of Nikolay Gogol’s famous novella, although I still can’t work out why it’s known as the first Russian horror movie because, like I said, it’s the second adaptation of the story and the first one, a 1909 silent version now lost to us, would surely be the first? Maybe I’m missing something here. It’s a film I’ve wanted to see for a while because I know the original story and possibly the silent version were very influential to a few directors who came to pre-eminence in the genre, among them Mario Bava (who certainly listed it as an inspiration for his ‘official’ debut feature Black Sunday).
As far as I know this is the first time it’s been made available in this country... or at the very least the first time it’s been made available in a pristine Blu Ray edition with a beautiful print and a crisp transfer from the Eureka Masters Of Cinema label. This version is directed by Konstantin Ershov & Georgiy Kropachyov but the real artistic force behind the movie is actually Aleksandr Ptushko, who is pretty much the Russian forerunner of people such as Willis O’ Brien, George Pal and Ray Harryhausen (for a crash course in the cinema of Ptushko, see the essay in the booklet in this edition, by the great Tim Lucas). The film is shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and this limited edition version of the set also includes a second Blu Ray with a 1990 Yugoslavian remake of it called The Holy Place... so I was quick to pick this up because you just know the label will probably issue a reprint version without that second disc when this one sells out (yeah, it turns out that since writing this review, they already did that).
The film is initially quite charming and a little slow paced in the way of a lot of Russian films but, that just adds to the charm. It’s also is a very strange blend of the traditional shot of Russian pessimism with a kind of upbeat, broadly comic counterpoint to the tone, which is almost an unsettling thing itself in terms of the little epilogue to the main action in the film’s final scene.
The film starts with main protagonist Khoma, played by Leonid Kuravlyov... a student from the local monastery who gets lost in the wilderness with two friends one night before they find themselves given impromptu and seperate bedding in the stable of an elderly lady. As Khoma tries to sleep, the old lady suddenly comes and exerts a supernatural force on him, with a beautiful sequence where the young philosophy student priest is manipulated, by amazing special effects trickery, to tilt his body to the ground so she can climb on his back and ride him. This witch then uses him as a broomstick as she flies around a bit before landing. While Khoma is trying to kill her by beating her with a stick, she turns into an alluring young woman played by Natalya Varley and he runs back to the monastary.
The next morning, he is requested by a mysterious man to hold a lone prayer vigil over the corpse of his recently deceased daughter, as is her last request, citing Khoma by name. When he is finally taken there he sees the dead girl is the woman the old witch turned into, having been killed by being beaten. He stands vigil for three nights and each night, the daughter rises from her coffin and tries to attack him while Khoma tries to keep her at bay in the chalk circle of protection he draws each night. Whether he is succesful in warding off the unholy witch is something I won’t go into here but, I will say that the slow and comedic nature of the scenes set outside of the little church in which he has to stand vigil each night, are sufficiently paced to ensure that the three short nights are quite effective as a horror counterpoint to the rest of the film, because of the contrast in pacing.
The film comprises nicely composed compositions for the stunted, rectangular shape of the aspect ratio with some nice, slow camera movements and a very specific colour palette made up mostly of muted blues and browns, which certainly give a striking look to the film in general. And the three later ‘vigil encounters’ with the witch are very well staged, especially the first one where, after an unexpected bunch of cats suddenly remove themselves from Khoma’s way (the second night it’s a batch of birds sitting on the coffin), the young lady rises and tries to push her way into the invisible force field created by Khoma’s chalk circle. The contrast between this scene and the majority of the scenes preceding it really do make this little set piece genuinely frightening for a while. In the last of the three vigils we finally get to meet the demon Viy, who reminded me a lot of the Golgothan monster used in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, to be honest. It’s an interesting creation and, although a bit anticlimactic in contrast to the first two vigils (the second of which features the witch lady surfing her floating coffin as it tries to bash it’s way into the circle), it has a certain charm to it when various demons, vampires and werewolves are summoned to intrude upon Khoma’s circle.
The score by someone called Karen Khachaturyan is quite good, although I can’t find any evidence of a commercial CD release of this, which is a shame. Indeed, the film even features exit music continuing on after the end titles have finished running. It’s certainly a little old fashioned, probably even for it’s time actually, compared to what America and other countries were doing with their horror scores then but it’s certainly effective and easy on the ears.. indeed, the encounter with the black cats even has a kind of musical stinger, as such.
And that’s me done with this version of Viy but I will just say that the image of the blind corpse of Natalya Varley feeling her way around the room and hitting the invisible, supernatural wall of protection with which Khoma has surrounded himself is one of those marvellous cinematic images which is arresting and lingers in the mind long after the film has played out. I can see why the film has such a reputation and it’s certainly one I’ll look at again.
Thursday, 21 October 2021
Dragon His Feet
USA 1976 Directed by Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A
Okay so, out of the many films on Severin’s wonderful Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection boxed set, Black Samurai was one of those that I was most looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint too much and, despite the clumsiness of the production and the usual Al Adamson thriftiness showing in some places, there’s more than enough silly, cool stuff happening to distract from many of the film’s faults.
Now I’ve not read any of the pulpy 1970s Black Samurai novels on which this movie was based so I can’t tell you just how close to the first book this movie is but, with credits talking about stuff like ‘additional story ideas by’ and so on, I’m guessing this is at least an ‘augmented’ take on the original Marc Olden novel. That being said the main character, which I suspect is possibly true of the books too, is in no way a ‘samurai’ of any shape or description. He’s just good at martial arts although, I believe in the novels he may be samurai trained? Anyway...
Three years prior to this, lead actor Jim Kelly had a break out supporting role opposite Bruce Lee and John Saxon in Enter The Dragon. In this... in an element which may or may not have been lifted from the books... Robert Sand, alias the Black Samurai, works for top secret government organisation D.R.A.G.O.N, aka Defence Reserve Agency Guardian Of Nations. They spell Defence wrong in the movie but this is an English blog and, you know, we like to get things right over here ;-)... but my point being that this is perhaps another, not too subtle acronym, to remind audiences of Kelly’s prior success.
Anyway, after some dreadful filler shots with pseudo-oriental music of the streets of Hong Kong, the daughter of a Chinese ambassador is kidnapped by three... well lets call all the bad henchmen in these kinds of movies ‘karate thugs’ shall we? She’s kidnapped by three karate thugs who leave her three bodyguards dead. We then get a credits sequence fairly typical of Al Adamson’s work which consists of various shots of Jim Kelly moved around the screen in a half animated fashion and that all works fairly well.
Then, post credits, we have Robert Sand’s tennis match being interrupted by his boss at the agency who needs him to check out and recover the daughter from the evil cult black magic sorcerer Janicot, played by Bill Roy and his ex-prostitute, high priestess gal Synne... played by lovely Adamson regular Marilyn Joi. Sand isn’t really into it but then he finds out it’s the ambassador’s daughter, Toki (played by Chia Essie Lin), who has been kidnapped... who just happens to be his latest girlfriend! This by way of a photo his people have of him and her kissing which, honestly, begs the question of why they would have a file photo obviously culled from a terrible padded flashback sequence of Robert and Toki frolicking from later in the film, in their suitcase... and why he doesn’t go nuts and beat them up for obviously spying on him. But hey, what do I know?
After this, Black Samurai is on the case and it’s a bit James Bond like in many respects. Adamson regular Biff Yeager is playing the 'government man out in the field' to keep an eye on Sand and, he’s set up quite nicely for both the audience and Sand to assume he’s a turncoat traitor, signalling all Black Samurai’s moves to the enemy... when, in fact, he actually does turn out to be one of the good guys at the end, assisting Jim Kelly in his fight scenes in some of the least credible footage in the film, as this pudgy white man bashes about high level karate thugs with just an odd punch or two.
Asides from the odd topless woman thrown into the mix for good measure, there’s also some really silly stuff which makes this worth watching. For instance, the early fight scenes in the picture are actually quite well choreographed and Kelly really shines in these sections (I believe he did a lot of his own choreography on this gig). However, it would also be true to say that the big climactic chase and fight scene at the end of the film is seriously underwhelming when compared to the first half of the movie. But there’s lot to see here. There are also a number of scenes where the karate thugs are also ‘kung fu midgets’ but I don’t know why they keep being brought back because Sand makes short work of them, taking them out with one punch each time. Pretty useless opponents as presented here, if you ask me.
When some karate thugs try to force Sand’s car off the road, he presses a button and a long pipe comes out from behind one of the tires, similar to the Ben Hur inspired tyre slashers from James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger (reviewed here). However, it’s not any old pipe, it's a gun barrel and it blows the tires out on the other car and sends it crashing off a cliff somehow (well, yeah, it is an Adamson movie... I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll see this particular shot). In another nod to the Bond films, when the Black Samurai takes a boat to try and find Janicot in some jungle, he pulls out a jet pack just like the one seen at the start of Thunderball (reviewed here) and whizzes over the trees. So... yeah... a Jim Kelly kung fu movie where he drives a gadget car and travels around by jet pack. What’s not to like?
There are daring escapes and some not so daring escapes. Or even not so believable escapes when, in a bizarre lapse of credibility, Black Samurai manages to get out of a room full of snakes by just quickly pointing his mini blow torch gadget at the lock on the big iron gate for literally half a second and then just pushing. Hmmm... it really doesn’t ring true here guys and I can’t believe an admittedly lame super villain would furnish his black magic mansion with puny locks that are only as effective as his kung fu midgets but, well... I’m still not complaining. After all, Jim Kelly travels by jet pack.
And that’s me done on Black Samurai. Some of the music is okay but there are no composer credits to speak of so I suspect the mish mash of styles points to a needle dropped music library solution to that side of the equation. It’s not a great film but, as I said, it does have it’s good points (jet pack!). Jim Kelly would work with Adamson again (which will be the subject of the next of my Al Adamson reviews) in a film which would also co-star George Lazenby and Harold ‘Odd Job’ Sakata so, you know, Adamson was definitely keeping an eye on the Bond films, I think. More on that soon.
Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Godzilla VS Gigan
aka Chikyû kogeki meirei:
Gojira tai Gaigan
Directed by Jun Fukuda & Yoshimitsu Banno
Toho/Criterion Collection Blu Ray Zone B
Okay, next up in my revisit of the original Godzilla films, courtesy of Criterion’s Godzilla - The Showa Era Blu Ray set, is Godzilla VS Gigan. Now, when I last watched this, maybe 25 -30 years ago on a PAL VHS tape, I seem to remember I quite liked it. Looking at it now though, I have to say it’s one of the worst in the series of films of this era although, as in a lot of them, it still has some interesting moments.
The film starts off, after a quick appearance by The Big G himself, on an opening credits sequence with a nice Akira Ifikube ostinato style credits march. As it happens, Ifikube was not actually involved with this film and all the music in this one composed by him is just needle dropped in from his previous Godzilla scores. We then get a nice, moving camera montage over several black and white comic book panels to introduce the main protagonist as an aspiring comic book artist. From this point on, though, which is only a few seconds after the opening titles, it would be fair to say the film rapidly goes downhill.
Okay, so comic book guy is not having much luck at finding employment so his... well he calls her his mother but she’s as young as he is and seems to act more like some kind of agent or sister so... I don’t know what relationship she has with him but she sends him to get a job at a relatively new company who are building a giant theme park called World Children’s Land. They even have a big tower with a lift on it built in the shape of Godzilla, at the heart of the theme park.
However, after some shenanigans with a man and woman who are, shall we say, concerned individuals... it becomes clear that the main players at World Children’s Land are all ‘space cockroaches’ who are masquerading as humans (but their shadows still show as cockroaches if you catch them in the right light). Their much publicised plan for bringing ‘Absolute Peace’ to the entire word really involves destroying Godzilla (which they fail to do) and bringing King Ghidorah and the new monster Gigan, from space, to decimate the cities of the world so they can live in peace on our planet in their cockroachy ways.
And it’s mostly painful to watch. The lead actor is almost comic in his ‘over selling’ of his facial expressions (perhaps he came from theatre, where that acting style works better than for screen acting?) and the various 'to'ing and 'fro'ing in and out of danger involving him and his new group of friends... and rescuing the brother of one of them before disrupting the plans of the cockroachy aliens... is kinda tiresome. All I will say about all that stuff is that it’s lucky his ‘sister/agent/whatever the hell she is supposed to be’ is a kung fu gal who can karate chop the aliens when they need to get out of a tight jam.
Now, there are a couple of things which are of interest. Number one is that Godzilla and his buddy Anguirus, from Monster Island, can speak to each other by crying out and then having their words translated as comic book speech bubbles filled with kanji (subsequently translated in the subtitles). So, yeah, nice but extremely silly. I think they dropped this element after this movie, if memory serves.
Another interesting thing is that Godzilla bleeds quite a lot in this one... finally. This was a response to children constantly asking why Godzilla never bleeds in battle and, I suspect, this is probably due to the more violent kaiju punch ups in rival studio Daiei’s various Gamera movies. So, yeah, when Gigan activates his front chest plates... which basically serve the same purpose as a giant buzz saw, you do finally get to see some arterial spray coming out of poor Gojira. Incidentally, Gigan doesn’t do much else in terms of fighting style to be honest. His only other move seems to be sweeping down with his sharpened arms to either swat jet fighters out of the air or bash a monster on the top of their head. I guess, because of his fighting style, I’d have to say that Gigan is pretty much the Bud Spencer of the kaiju world, for sure.
Overall, though, the film is very bad. The monster battles are made up with a huge chunk of footage from previous movies thrown into the mix... which is why the costumes and models don’t match each other from scene to scene (and why you have fights taking place at both night and day in the same scene). The model shot of Ghidorah flying whenever Gigan is in the same shot has absolutely no movement in it at all and looks just like a kids plastic model on a string... as opposed to footage from other movies where he has the full movement. You can see the budget was completely shredded for this film and also, special effects legend Eji Tsubura had died two years prior to this movie, which obviously doesn’t help. But even so, the effects still look cheap and the mismatching of the footage looks pretty bad all the way through.
Another head scratcher is... well... why the heck is King Ghidorah alive in this one anyway? We’d previously seen him killed in Destroy All Monsters (reviewed here). Well, the usual defensive explanation people seem to give is that Destroy All Monsters was set in the future and this film isn’t. Okay, fair enough but, if that’s the case, wasn’t Monster Island also started up in that same film set in the future then? Honestly, the continuity here is a bit loose at best. This would be King Ghidorah’s last appearance is a Showa era film, although he would obviously return in the various other era's movies since then. After this, he was also in a few episodes of the TV show Zone Fighter... but I don’t know anything about those.
And that’s me done on this one. I don’t think much of it, to be honest. It was supposed to be an antidote to the mis-step Toho thought they had made with Godzilla Vs Hedorah (which I reviewed here and which is, in fact, my favourite Showa Era Godzilla film) but, as far as I can see, they got something which is truly cheap and horrible as a follow up. There would be only three more Showa Era Godzilla films after this one and, yeah, I’ll be reviewing those on here very soon.
Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Fade To Black
The Crime Spectacularist
by Lester Dent
Fiction House Press
No ISBN marked.
It was after I’d finished reading The Complete Stories Of Doctor Satan recently (reviewed here) that I checked out the publishing house, Fiction House Press, finding they had one volume of stories by Lester Dent. Lester Dent is one of my favourite writers in that he wrote, under the Street And Smith house pen name Kenneth Robeson, almost all of the initial run of 180 plus Doc Savage novels published in the Doc Savage magazine from 1933 until 1949 (I believe he didn’t write any of The Avenger novels, also accredited to Kenneth Robeson). Sometime in his second year on the magazine, he also found time to write three stories of an original character called Foster Fade, The Crime Spectacularist but, I guess once the Doc Savage magazine proved immensely popular and was giving his nearest pulp rival, The Shadow, more than a run for his money, he didn’t bother developing the character any more past these three, initial short stories which were published in All Detectives Magazine.
And I couldn’t find any useful information about the creation and conception of this character at all, so I figured the only way to do so was to find out for myself. Alas, even this jewel of a tome contains absolutely no introduction or preface to shed light on Fade... it just reprints the stories straight and unaccompanied... so I’m afraid I can’t furnish you with any real background to the character (although I believe another book by another publisher quite recently published an anthology of newly written Foster Fade stories... so maybe if I can hunt that one down relatively cheaply I can get some insight from that).
I can tell you briefly about these stories though, which certainly seem to have some of Dent’s interests scattered throughout. The three stories collected here are Hell In Boxes (from the February 1934 issue of All Detective Magazine), White Hot Corpses (March 1934) and Murder By Circles (May 1934). And in these we are introduced to Foster Fade, who is employed by a disreputable tabloid, Planet, as their special private detective known as The Crime Spectacularist. In that he goes after the more sensational cases so that his crime companion, the platinum blonde Dinamenta Stevens (mostly known as Din) can write them up in her lurid style. The two are both paid handsomely, which is just as well because, although he seems a little rough around the edges, especially in the first tale, Fade exhibits the same personality trait that was a big part of Dent’s personae and also, of course, of his more famous ‘science detective’ Doc Savage...
Being that Fade uses a whole host of new, scientific gadgets to help him fight crime, such as a periscope set up so he can see who is outside his office door from a screen on his desk or photographing the entire area around the Empire State Buiding with an infrared camera so that, when the film is developed, he can pinpoint the location of the missing Din from the tell tale ‘glare’ from the special infra-red headlights he installed in her car. He also wears a fine steel mesh undergarment so, like Doc Savage who wears something similar, he can stop any bullets coming his way if necessary.
The character is not very likeable in the first tale but he gets less ‘wise-ass’ and more interesting in the other two. It’s clear Dent is still developing the character as, in the first tale Fade is partial to cigars and, in the second one, we are told he never smokes (indeed, he does have a cigarette in his mouth in that same story but only because he expects trouble and it has a tear gas pellet inside which he is able to bang against a wall with his mouth when his hands are tied).
Like the Doc Savage novels, Dent uses opening hooks which lead to the revelation of something truly startling happening to various murder victims (in the case of these stories) but which are all explained as the consequences of ‘something scientific’ at the conclusion of each tale. So the White Hot Death is a result of exposure to liquid oxygen and the Murder By Circles is the venom contained in the bite of certain bugs or spiders when thrown at the victim. In the first story, he kind of fudges it where it’s made clear that the ‘murders by aroma’ are some kind of un-named scientific gadget.
The Crime Spectacularist stories are entertaining enough (although the first one is not great) but although Dent’s tell-tale signature is built into the stories, I’d have to say that these still don’t hold a candle to his wonderful Doc Savage stories, by any stretch of the imagination. However, I certainly enjoyed reading them and, if you are a fan of the pulps, you’ll probably have a good enough time with them too.
Monday, 18 October 2021
S.H.I.E.L.D Of Dreams
Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D
TV Series Seven Seasons 2013-2020
Warning: Big spoilers throughout.
I’ve been holding off writing about Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D for seven years now*, mainly because when it first started, it was an okay show with not much I felt I could say about it in a seasonal review. So my plan was always to do a small general round up review of the show once it had finally finished and, after a couple of years of resurrections when the show was threatened with cancellation but then managed to stay afloat, which is a hard proposition in today’s television landscape, that point has finally come.
The show’s big pull in the beginning was the ‘return from the dead’ reappearance of Agent Coulson after he was stabbed through the heart by Loki in The Avengers (aka Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, as it’s known over here in the UK). So Clark Gregg was back as Coulson and we got introduced to various members of the S.H.I.E.L.D team as well as an inadvertent newcomer to the group. So we had regulars Ming-Na Wen as ‘tough as nails’ killing machine Melinda May, Chloe Bennet as Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson (who would become Quake after gaining superpowers a few seasons down the line), Elizabeth Henstridge as super scientist Jemma Simmons, Iain De Caestecker as her co-super scientist Leo Fitz and Brett Dalton as Grant Ward... in the initial line up.
And when it started it was a modest kind of weekly ‘mission impossible’ affair, sometimes linking into cleaning up loose ends from the various Marvel movies and pitting the agents against Hydra and various super powered enemies... sometimes taking The X-Files route to building up the mystery of whoever the villain of the week would be. And there were some intriguing but well telegraphed plot lines and outcomes... and others that you didn’t see coming and kept the programme fresh. Coulson’s seeming immortality and his discovery that he had been brought back to life by Nick Fury through the use of untested alien technology led to its own problems and a long running story arc and then, just as you kind of knew he would, the young heroic, well liked and trusted leading man character of Grant Ward turned out to be a double agent villain working for Hydra at the end of the first season and became, for a few seasons, the teams ultimate arch enemy.
Like the Marvel comics it was inspired by, there are sometimes deaths of characters but Agent Coulson, who dies a few times over the course of the show, was always brought back through one contrivance or another, sometimes with or without the prosthetic, weaponised arm which replaced the one which a fellow team member had to cut off to stop him from being infected by an alien virus (or some such... it was a while ago). That team member was one of a new batch of regulars and semi regulars played by Henry Simmons (as Mack), Natalia Cordova-Buckley as the super-speed powered Yo Yo, Nick Blood as Lance Hunter, Adrianne Palicki as Bobby Morse, Joel Stoffer as mechanical alien being Enoch and Jeff Ward as Deke Shaw, who is the grandson of Simmon’s and Fitz loved up couple from a bleak, future time line. Oh... and in Season 7, Enver Gjokaj reprising his role as Daniel Sousa from Agent Carter, who hooks up with the gang in the 1950s and stays with them as they try to return to their own time... yeah, give me a minute, and I'll get there.
And there were also some heavy hitting regular guest stars turning up in the show from season to season too, such as Bill Paxton as an enemy double agent, Kyle Machlachlan as Daisy’s super villain father she never knew who rebelled against The Inhumans (if I’m remembering properly) and John Hannah as the scientist who helps Fitz develop the Lifesize Model Decoys (LMDs) who were in the original comics, before the technology gets the better of them and the regular team all spend most of a season imprisoned in a crazy AI universe and embedded into different versions of their characters.
So the thing about Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D is that, every time you think the show was just about played out, it kept reinventing itself. For instance, Brett Dalton reprised his Grant Ward character a couple of times after he got killed, first as a superpowered evil alien God who took the form of Ward and then, later, as a nice guy iteration of him in the AI mirror world that Fitz’ lady robot traps them all in. So interest was held a number of ways such as, in one season, the introduction of Gabriel Luna as that season’s regular character, Ghost Rider. And then, before you knew what hit you, the finale of one season finds the gang all up in space in the far future, trying to stop an alien race from enslaving what’s left of humanity after a future timeline variant of Daisy has destroyed the Earth. All in a days work.
When they get back to their own time, now as fugitives from S.H.I.E.L.D, they are trying to stop the same timeline re-occurring and, frankly, failing at it a lot of times over. And then the next season would be a search through space trying to locate Fitz and then, when Coulson has died and an evil alien using his body clone has also died, he’s back as a mechanical, sentient alien being rebuilt by Enoch and the gang are all time hopping through various points of Earths history, trying to stop an evil alien race from changing time so S.H.I.E.L.D aren’t there to stop them in the future. That last is basically Series 7 of the show and, yeah, it’s a fantastic finale to a series that, as I said, just kept getting better and better. I loved how the seventh season shows’ opening credits emulated the media of the period that they were in from week to week and I double loved that, when Coulson got vapourised in the 1980s, Deke took his downloaded memories and rebuilt him on a TV set as a ‘Max Headroom’ version of Coulson, while they were waiting to rendezvous with the rest of the team who had accidentally jumped into their future, where Coulson’s body is rebuilt again.
The show is fast paced and has all the Marvel stuff you would expect... the budget allowed for some nice special effects and usually at least one or two battles a week. Not to mention a strong series of plot arcs performed by a bunch of actors who, honestly, really are brilliant at these roles. I don’t know if the same is true on the set but certainly they seem to have some good chemistry together on screen. I like how it managed to retain a certain freshness by around season three where the structure and milieu of any given season was never the same as the one before. I also like that they at least tie up the character line of Agent Sousa from Agent Carter and allow for both his death (he has to die because the history books said he did) and his resurrection as the S.H.I.E.L.D agents manage to fake his death so he can reappear in the future as a member of the regular team. It all sounds silly but it’s all quite well written and I did appreciate this show. If Disney deem to release the seventh series on Blu Ray at some point then I’d probably pick up a box set and rewatch all these through one day. Although, the way they’re going with their stupid Disney Plus channel, that’s looking less likely I suspect.
So there you have it. If you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe iteration of the Marvel properties (there are a few, rare MCU character guest appearances too, from time to time) then you’ll probably have a good time with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, especially by the time you hit the fourth season and the changing nature of the programme starts to assert itself. Definitely give this one a go but don’t miss out on Series Seven, which, by the logic of what I’ve been telling you, is the best season yet.
*at time of writing.
Sunday, 17 October 2021
The House By
The Night House
Directed by David Bruckner
Warning: Some mild spoilers.
The Night House is an interesting film and I almost had a really great time with it. I say almost because, like the plot development of the dream world depicted in certain moments in the film, it’s very much a game of two halves. I’ll get to that in a while but let me tell you some of the plot set up and the good stuff first.
Well, for starters, it’s got one of my favourite modern actresses playing the lead protagonist, Rebecca Hall (from amazing movies like The Awakening, reviewed here and Professor Marston And The Wonder Women, reviewed here) as Beth. And she really is fantastic in this (isn’t she always, even in lesser movies like Iron Man 2). The film starts when she returns to her lake house, after her husband’s funeral. Her husband, who designed and built the house, has shot himself in a boat in the lake with no inclination that he had suicidal tendencies and Beth, a local school teacher, is left to deal with her grief. There are a few other characters in the film such as her best friend Claire, played by Sarah Goldberg... but the majority of the film is just Beth dealing with her grief and then being caught up in weird events when she is regularly awoken by a presence she believes is her dead husband.
And all that stuff is great. There are a few good jump scares to it although, admittedly, when it does try this one too many times too often, such as a shot following Beth dozing off while laying on Claire’s knee (I don’t think it was supposed to be a reference to Éric Rohmer), the scares do start getting more predictable and, therefore, not scary, it has to be said. But the moody atmosphere is kept going throughout and I’m pleased to say, in terms of the supernatural occurrences in the film, the movie delivers the goods and doesn’t cop out when it comes to escalating the degrees and machinations of the antagonistic phenomena.
Also, Rebecca Hall really does carry the movie for a lot of the time. In her interactions with the occasional character that crops up, such as a woman she finds her husband may have had an affair with (it’s more complicated than that), Beth is written as a very sharp, stand offish, confrontational and smart woman and, yeah, that’s tailor made for an intelligent actress like Hall, for sure. And great swathes of the movie are just her on her own with barely any dialogue, so you need someone like her in this kind of movie.
The film is loaded with beautiful shot compositions too. The director uses very clear vertical sections and splits to delineate different areas of the house and even uses a shot I’d seen done in a new movie a few weeks before, where Beth’s head is small in the shot and framed within a rectangle of a grid of windows, as we look in at her from outside the house. It turns out, the symmetry of the compositions and the camera movements around those little vertical splits are very much a part of the story and there is a really neat trick where the director uses the negative shape of a column (think of the old candlestick illusion of the two faces in profile), which looks like a man’s face, to surprise the audience when the face made out of the negative space looks around at Beth. Unfortunately, the director seems so pleased with this shot that he repeats the trick a fair few times after that and it loses its impact very quickly.
The real problem is the bizarre mix of over sharing the various mysteries of the house... it’s ‘backwards’ twin house, some kind of occult rituals, Beth’s back story containing a ‘dead for four minutes’ experience, a book on Caerdroia (a term for a Welsh turf maze which I think is supposed to be a metaphor for the construction of the house itself) and various ghost women running to the lake... and giving the audience too many elements to process without really explaining the relevance of a lot of them. Now I know the ‘secret’ at the heart of the mystery, for example, I am still left scratching my head about the relevance of a lot of the plot elements found in the movie. It feels, by the last reel, vaguely unsatisfying and like the writers just let it all go and spoiled all that good build up. I must confess that, once I’d realised the film was over, I said to myself that I must read the novel this film is obviously based on to find out the real significance of all the occult jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered throughout... only to find out that it’s not even based on a book and is an original screenplay. So, yeah, I really didn’t understand how a lot of these things fit in and I’m not usually that slow on the uptake in most movies.
So, what else can I say about The Night House other than it has a gorgeous score by Ben Lovett which I wish had gotten a proper CD release? If you’re a big Rebecca Hall fan then definitely take a look at this one as she’s always an interesting actress to watch. If you’re a horror fan... I suspect this wasn’t made with you in mind because it’s not going to scare you much, I would think. If you’re not normally a watcher of the genre, then you may get something out of this one and it’s probably a good, light introduction to the supernatural, if you have a hankering to try out something like that. I probably won’t be watching this one again anytime soon and I just wish someone would tap Rebecca Hall to make a proper sequel to The Awakening at some point in the near future, to be honest.
Thursday, 14 October 2021
The Altair Limits
1974 - La posesión de Altair
Mexico 2016 Directed by Victor Dryere
Cauldron Films Blu Ray Zone A
Warning: Some minor
spoilers here to set the scene.
1974 - La posesión de Altair is a film which was completely off my radar until Cauldron Films, in the US, released a Blu Ray of it recently. In fact, my only reason for buying this release was because it was bundled with the CD soundtrack to the movie and proper CDs are becoming scarce in the phase of music business ignorance we all find ourselves in at present. So I pre-ordered this and finally it’s here and, much to my delight, it’s a great little horror movie lurking within the box.
Well, I say horror but, that’s actually a hard call, to be honest. A couple of decades ago, when I first saw the giallo All The Colours Of The Dark, I was watching it and wondering why the hell people thought it was a giallo when it was obviously a horror movie all the way through until, in the last ten minutes or so, the rug was pulled and it turned out to be a giallo after all. Well, without giving anything away, 1974 - La posesión de Altair has a similar moment, or set of moments, leading up to a similar theme of subverting the genre somewhat but, I think when all is said and done, the use of horror tropes in this one is totally justified and, as far as I’m concerned, it still functions under the genre of horror movie... albeit not the kind I was expecting. Which is also great, of course. I do have one caveat but I’ll get to that in a while.
Okay, so briefly, the film tells the story of a young Mexican couple, Altair (played by Diana Bovio) and Manuel (played by Rolando Breme) after they move into a nice, big, somewhat secluded property. The film is a found footage horror and starts off with black and white interview footage of the aftermath of the events of the film from a TV news broadcast to give foreshadowing, before going into the full colour story proper through the traditional, ‘film everything that happens to us’ route of the found footage movie. Basically, shortly after moving into a new property, Altair starts talking to an ‘angel’, unseen by Manuel and the audience and, not long after, starts acting both withdrawn and crazy. For instance, she has been told by the angel to build two, black painted brick ‘doorways’ in both her bedroom and the basement and, though she doesn’t order the materials, the bricks and black paint arrive in the garage for her the next day. Lots of the usual sound design scares and the old birds flying into the house tropes are involved but also a moment when the new puppy, Carlo, who has been lost for about a week, turns up again as a much older dog. Manuel enlists the aid of his best friend (to document the strange phenomenon) and also Altair’s sister... and they try to get her some help from out of her past and figure things out.
The film doesn’t show a lot of gore (although there is some, such as Altair bleeding from the eyes in a kind of stigmata moment... an image used on the trailer and marketing for the movie) and instead, the majority of the scares come from the camera anticipating what you don’t see (even providing a couple of nice jump scares at times) and the strong ‘sound design’ style soundtrack from composer and sound designer team Enrico Chapela and Uriel Villalobos. In addition to the CD soundtrack of this, there’s a short but sweet extra giving an insight into the ‘score’ (I still maintain ordered noise is music... because it is) and how instruments were disguised and disturbing sounds like babies crying and cats mating were sonically transformed into something less recognisable but equally unsettling. And, as far as I’m concerned, it all works very well.
There are some clues about the nature of Altair’s possession dropped through the narrative and, I have to say, I did get there just 20 minutes or so before certain chilling events take place... but that being said, the film really delivers the scares and explores a cross pollinated concept which I’ve only personally seen done once before so, yeah, I thought this one was brilliant.
There’s also some room, given the found footage nature which would almost eliminate this, for some nice moments of shot composition. For example, when Manuel’s friend Callahan (played by Guillermo Callahan) is filming an intimate conversation between Manuel and Altair, where Manuel’s face is more prominent in terms of facing towards us, Callahan pans the camera around to a mirror mid conversation so we get almost a reverse shot. Which actually perhaps stems from this character’s hastily established love of cinema. Both the main male characters are cineastes with Bergman and Hitchcock’s names being invoked at various times. Also, despite being listed as an anachronism on the IMDB, Callahan’s penchant for mathematics and his recent trip to Budapest justify, to some extent, his possession of a Rubik’s cube, which was invented that same year but wasn’t actually on the market yet.
My one problem with the film was the found footage nature of a movie being set in 1974. The whole thing is supposed to be shot on Super 8 film (and this is indeed how the director shot the majority of it) but I really don’t think the average man on the street would have been wasting expensive Super 8 film to record everything on. I get it that the character is a stop motion animator working from home and so he has drawers full of the stock but, yeah, you would get through so much more of it that it would cost a small fortune. Back in the 1970s, when my family had an old Super 8 cine camera, I think we only got about six or seven reels shot because, yeah, this stuff was expensive. You certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to go wandering around the house shooting off film as you go.
However, that being said, it does give the film a nice ambience it might not have had, albeit that nothing that happens in the story necessitates the need for a period setting at all (but that’s another story) and, if you can get past the more modern attitude of people filming everything, then it’s all fine. And as it happens, I had an absolute blast with 1974 - La posesión de Altair and would recommend it to all my horror loving friends. I wish it had got a proper cinema release in the UK so I could have experienced the film properly but, who knows, one day we might get the opportunity. One of the better of the found footage movies and now I’m off to listen to the CD.
Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
aka Onkel Toms Hütte
Directed by Géza von Radványi
and Al Adamson
Severin Blu Ray Zone A
Wow... okay then. First of all, as you’ve probably guessed form the specs up the top, if you didn’t already know, that this movie is one of those bizarre Al Adamson re-purposed films that his company, IIP, used to foist onto the public as new product, following the latest trends and, somehow, managing to be quite successful for the most part. This time it’s the turn of a 1965 West German movie called Onkel Toms Hütte and based, of course, on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular and somewhat influential (by the sound of it) novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Now, I don’t really approve of slavery as a thing and I also hate watching a lot of it in movies. I can tolerate stuff like Ben Hur because I know the lead protagonist removes himself from the equation to get his revenge but, as a rule, this trend of slaves working on cotton plantations is not something I can usually stomach and, truth be told, I tend to find these things really boring. Indeed, I only saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained once, when it was released into cinemas, because the whole second half of the movie is just such a tale. Honestly, the first half of that film was electric but when it reached a certain point, my brain kinda switched off. However, this one is part of the massive, 32 movie Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection box set from Severin which I’ve slowly been making my way through and, well, I really didn’t want to miss any of the films out.
The re-release of this film in this particular form comes about because of two things... the success of the plantation movie Mandingo, from two years prior and, more importantly, the success earlier in the year of the TV mini series Roots. IIP wanted something to capitalise on the success of that show and so they got hold of this movie but needed to really spice it up for audiences if they were going to make a success out of it.
Now then, the original version of the movie is almost three hours long. Here, Adamson has shot and added in a few scenes which lurk completely on the periphery of the plot in that way only he seems to be able to get away with... containing all the lurid content you will find in this movie totalling for, maybe as much of twenty minutes of it. However, bear in mind that, even with Adamson’s extra sex and torture footage added into the mix, the re-release only plays out for just over an hour and a half. So something in excess of an hour and a half has been excised from the original film’s running time.
Now, the film itself, the original, obviously jumps around a bit now but it basically tells of a nasty cotton farmer/slave trader called Legree (played here by Herbert Lom) and of the slave ‘Uncle’ Tom played by John Kitzmiller who, when he is close to death after one of many horrible crimes upon his people perpetrated by Legree, incites the slaves to run, burn down Legree’s big house and flood the cotton fields as they make their escape. And, from what I can see of it, despite the horrible subject matter, it’s a fairly engaging film and I could take it or leave it. Preferably leave it.
But then there’s Adamson’s scenes including a slave called Napoleon, who ties in with the West German footage only because he has the same name of a barely glimpsed character who jumps off a steamer and is suddenly played by a different actor, Prentiss Mouldon. Adamson regular, the lovely Marilyn Joi, also turns up in a pre-credits rape scene. And there’s some interesting things going on with the film in this version.
For example, sandwiched between the prologue and the opening credits, such as they are, is a load of footage from the film (including, I suspect, some of the excised bits) with screen loads of short, sharp blurb about the importance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and it kind of makes a bizzare, mini trailer for the film you are about to watch...which I’ve never seen done before.
The other interesting thing about it is just how well Adamson works to blend his footage in with the original film. I mean, don’t get me wrong, once you know it’s extra footage inserted you can tell, for the most part, which are the additional scenes... and I suspect a siege on a monastery near the end of the picture may also be ‘Adamson enhanced’ because, for a minute there, it almost turns into a Western... yarhoooo! However, you can tell that Adamson’s really given it some thought here because he’s obviously studied what Radványi did in his version of the movie. For example, the whole movie, including Adamson’s sections, is based on a very pastel colour scheme which is almost exclusively browns. Everything looks like it’s brown or sepia almost, with no other really strong colours showing up too much. Another thing Adamson does, at least at the start of his scenes, is take a page from Radványi’s book in approaching things from a distance with long shots. Radványi uses a lot of master shots rather than reverting to close ups on his film and, although Adamson doesn’t eschew close ups like the former director, he does give it that kind of look in parts of his scenes to better match up, in visual style at least (certainly not tone), to the original footage. So, yeah, bearing in mind what he did with films like Horror Of The Blood Monsters (reviewed here) and Mean Mother (reviewed here), it’s really a step up for his approach on this one, I think.
All in all, though, I don’t have too much to say about Uncle Tom's Cabin. I’m not even once tempted to try and source the original 170 minute version to watch and I probably won’t ever revisit this version again. It’s not as bad an experience as I thought it would be, for sure but, I didn’t really have a good time with it and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, in all honesty. Interesting as another experiment in the way you can change films but, ultimately a chore to watch and I’m much more looking forward to the next couple in Severin’s mighty boxed edition.