Directed by Remi Weekes
His House is the feature length directorial debut of Remi Weekes and it’s quite a nice, morally uplifting film, in a way. After some brief footage of the two central protagonists... Rial (played by the wonderful Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (played by the equally watchable Sope Dirisu)... escaping from Sudan, we get wind that something has happened to their child as they are crossing the ocean to England. We then join them waking up in a holding cell in the UK, being released ‘on bail’ and given a fairly big house (though it’s extremely dilapidated). Their conditions on staying in the UK are that they must not work or supplement their income, which is provided them by the government to the tune of £74 per week. They have a case worker assigned to them in the form of actor Matt Smith (yup, The Doctor himself) and they are told that they need to stay out of trouble, aren’t allowed any guests etc.
However, when the two start to try and fit in and begin a new life in their shoddy but spacious new home, it becomes clear fairly quickly that either the house, or at least some spiritual presence residing there with them, is not all that friendly. So that’s the set up... a haunted house story, of sorts, where the victims cannot leave because, if they do create a disturbance, they are faced with being deported back to Sudan.
And... it’s very well done, actually. There’s a certain atmosphere of foreboding in the earlier parts of the picture which is sustained for just a tiny bit before the director brings on the big scares. This is not the kind of ghost story that focuses on the shadows in darkened rooms... I mean, okay there certainly is a lot of that but it’s coupled with what I should maybe call a more practical, physical manifestation of the supernatural. So what we have is a bunch of ghosts/demons etc seeming to come from behind the walls (which by the end of the picture has loads of holes banged out of it for reasons I won’t get into here) and getting actually quite aggressive. These are not ghosts gently pursuing a suggestion of a soul in a state of unrest. These are aggressive, ‘coming to slash your throat with a sharp knife when you least expect it’ kind of demonic manifestations, for sure.
Now, quite honestly, this kind of practical, hands on approach to the way in which the evil present around Rial and Bol is handled can often kill a film stone dead and, truth be told, the last 20 minutes or so of the movie do seem a little less scary than anything that comes before it but there are some effective jump scares (and a nice double jump scare in one place early on in the running time) that help the movie come alive and are extremely effective.
Now one criticism I did have of it... and perhaps this is a big contributing reason as to why the scares faded away to nothing by the last act of the story... is that there’s a strong suggestion that there’s a twist coming and the opening shot of the movie is a big heads up to that, it has to be said. Indeed, there are a couple of sequences at the end which fill in the blanks and gives more fuller disclosure to the ‘highlights version’ of the trip from Sudan to the UK and, while it’s a nice reason for the hauntings which are manifesting themselves in the house, it does tend to pack less of a wallop than it might have without all that extra telegraphing.
That being said, it does have some good actors in the leads (and, honestly, does Matt Smith never age?) and it’s also aided by composer Roque Banos’ interesting score... sadly not released on CD at time of writing (which is a shame... I like this composer and I won’t now be able to listen to the score as a stand alone experience). There are also some nice touches lurking in the background which help re-enforce the sense of alienation the family are feeling... such as a security guard in a local store keeping an eye on Bol in the background when he’s shopping or various local kids being pretty much as unhelpful as they could be to Rial when she’s trying to find her local doctor’s surgery.
And, that’s that. A short review perhaps but I quite liked His House and thought that, for the most part (especially the first half of the film), it’s a nicely made scary movie and while I don’t think it’s necessarily a ‘must watch’ for a lot of people, fans of the genre should certainly get something out of it so, if you are into some of the less subtle manifestations of supernatural dread in movies, you might want to check this one out, for sure.
Wednesday, 27 April 2022
Tuesday, 26 April 2022
Italian Horror Cinema
Edited by Stefano Baschiera
and Russ Hunter
Edinburgh University Press
Oof... okay, I nearly didn’t publish this review. I almost let it die along with a few others which I’ve never published for fear my scathing indictment of the authors not knowing anything about their subject matter would hurt someone’s feelings (not to mention mine in the event people might enthusiastically disagree with me). To be fair to around half the authors in the book, though, I’ve decided as I type these words to press ahead with it and see what comes up. If, indeed, you are reading these words now, then that means I didn’t lie to myself in the opening of this paragraph.
Okay, so first off let me thank my friend who got me this for Christmas. It’s a book I definitely wanted to read and, truth be told, I did find it interesting. And, to be fair, it’s a collection of various essays by multiple authors and, while I might suggest that the essays maybe belong in a different tome, there are some good things here, despite some of my problems with them which I’ll highlight in a moment.
Okay, so, my number one bug bear with this book is I was, perhaps justifiably, expecting a book entitled Italian Horror Cinema to actually have a fair amount about Italian horror films within its pages and, certainly, the cover photo of the shark vs zombie fight from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, which I reviewed here) would re-enforce that understandable expectation. Alas, some of the authors/editors here, don’t seem to know the difference between various film genres and have mixed up Italian giallo movies as somehow being horror movies (are you really going to tell me that gialli such as A Black Veil For Lisa, One On Top Of The Other, The Sweet Body Of Deborah, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and a gazillion others I could name off the top of my head are somehow magically transformed into horror movies?). They’ve also, bizarrely, lumped other genres like the cannibal movie or the slasher movie into convenient (and frankly non-existent) sub-genres of horror too. By that I mean, they are a genre unto themselves, not subservient to the horror field in any way, shape or form.
Frankly, I’ve been fighting against this notion where every film a horror afficionado likes is somehow suddenly lumped into the genre, for most of my adult life (arguably a status not as attributable to me as you might think, in terms of behaving like an actual adult). Horror is a bit of a misnomer as a genre term anyway because, not everyone will be able to agree on something that horrifies them and if you’re under the belief that, say, a ‘human monster’ such as a serial killer somehow designates a film’s status as a horror movie, then I’m sure the writers and directors of such pieces as, say, The Blue Dahlia or While The City Sleeps would take umbrage with that idea. Something that horrifies is not enough of a genre definition, it’s too broad and what I might find horrifying will, I assure you, often be very different to what the next person in line does... and so on. So, I tend to take the tack that it’s anything which includes either a supernatural, alien or, if I really want to stretch the genre to include such films as Frankenstein, a weird science element. After all, many of John Carpenter’s films such as Assault On Precinct 13 or Ghosts Of Mars are generally (and correctly) identified as westerns (or possibly neo westerns) without a cowboy hat or Winchester rifle in evidence.
So, yeah, not only do the editors (who I hold accountable here) lump all these other genres under the horror label, including some quite wonderful essays on gialli, which seems to be the most referenced genre in the book... there also seems to be very few references to actual Italian horror within the various texts at all. Sure, there will be mentions of the occasional horror film by, say, Dario Argento or Mario Bava but, also quite a big mention of their gialli too. One or two writers here actually referenced a great giallo director as being the king of Italian horror. Well I’m sorry but, of the 23 feature films (including a few TV episodes for fairness) Argento’s directed to date, just 6 of them, by my count, would qualify as horror. Prince of giallo (in deference to certain others) I could possibly be persuaded by but, King of Italian Horror... no. After all, he’s known as the Italian Hitchcok, right? Seriously, do you think Alfred Hitchcock would stand to be called a horror director?
My other big problem with this book, which is a common one in many modern studies of various genres of interest, is the bizarre and outdated academic way in which pretty much all of the essays here are couched. The structure of these things is ludicrous. When I was a schoolboy and had to write up a chemistry experiment as an essay, I had to write a Method section telling the reader what I was setting out to do, an Experiment section recording the experiment and its findings and then finally, a Conclusion section, basically reiterating those findings as a way of, I don’t know, patting myself on the back for discovering what I set out to find? And honestly, even in my early teens I recognised the redundancy of this approach. It’s like I was writing exactly the same thing in three different ways (and tenses) where, frankly, you only needed the middle section to make the point and tell the results. The other stuff is just padding. Well, yep, pretty much all the essays in the book, even the brilliant ones by the likes of Francesco Di Chiara, Johnny Walker and Austin Fisher, tend to adopt this style of ‘this is what I’m going to do, this is me doing it and this is me telling you I did what I set out to do’ style of writing. Frankly, I’d rather people got to the point and, in the unlikely event that the third section didn’t actually prove what it is the writer set out to do... well, then why tell me about it at all? If it’s a failed experiment, I really don’t need to hear about it (but obviously, these things wouldn’t get written unless the writer knew what they were talking about and felt that they could make their points).
Okay, rant over. Asides from all this, there are some really interesting sections, such as the aforementioned Austin Fisher’s essay Political Memory in the Italian Hinterland: Locating the Rural Giallo (again not horror but, about half the writers, including this one, do at least seem to know the difference between a giallo and a horror and some even make the quite implicit and obvious case that they are completely different genres as an aside... bravo). And much thanks to Craig Hatch’s chapter, The Horror of Progressive Rock - Goblin and Horror Soundtracks which, while not making the distinction between the many gialli scores mentioned, at least turned me on to the fact that a specific progressive rock album by an Italian group New Trolls is, in fact, a rearranged presentation of their score to the giallo The Designated Victim (and I am awaiting my order of the CD from Discogs to come through with joyful anticipation). Even Mark Bernard’s look at real animal killings made to give fake human deaths in cannibal films more credibility... regardless of the fact that I don’t agree with killing animals for movies, don’t like cannibal films and am conscious of the fact that they don’t fall into the category of horror...is a very interesting read.
There are, of course, some things here I’m less in agreement with. For instance, the idea that Tim Lucas’ excellent and hefty tome on Mario Bava - All The Colours Of The Dark (the perfect film book), is somehow so thorough that it negates the idea that Bava was an auteur filmmaker is, frankly, ridiculous. And Russ Hunter’s argument (perhaps included as a defence of the title of this collection) that genre definitions should be as flexible as the perceived shifting and changing use of language is also something I find untenable... and I similarly find the practice of mutating grammar and word usage equally suspect and usually only propositioned as ‘language changes’ by people who have allowed the ignorance of using words incorrectly to remain unchallenged. Not something I would find easy to defend, for sure.
One other thing I noticed was that one of the authors seems to be either missing a point or, perhaps, not finding it relevant to his own observations about the subject matter (in as much as the subject matter here could be agreed upon). It’s to do with the, quite correctly highlighted fact about Italian genre films making use of international stars to sell them to other countries. So, for example, David Hemmings in Deep Red, John Saxon in Tenebrae, Carrol Baker in Orgasmo etc. However, as Sir Christopher Frayling once pointed out in a seminar I attended at an Italian poster art exhibition, these actors (and also the practice of Italian directors substituting American sounding names instead of their own on the credits) were tapped not just to sell these films to the international marketplaces but, as importantly, to sell the film back to their own Italian market, who were much more likely to venture out of their homes to the cinema to see an American made movie than something they perceived as being home grown in Italy.
So, yeah, it would be fair to say I had a few problems with this book but, despite this, Italian Horror Cinema is a fascinating collection of essays, many of them with something to say and with a hit and miss ratio completely, as anything, based on the interests of the reader. So worth a read if you are interested in certain areas of exploitation cinema but don’t, I would say, expect it to be dealing specifically with Italian horror (if at all, it’s the least touched upon genre in the book).
Monday, 25 April 2022
The Falcon In Danger
Directed by William Clemens
DVD Region 1
Well now, this rushed out sequel, because The Falcon films were getting very popular, demonstrates just why that was the case. The Falcon In Danger, despite its somewhat blasé title, is definitely one of the best I’ve seen in the series. Once again we have Tom Conway, now established as the current incarnation of The Falcon, Tom Lawrence, after his fictional brother Guy Lawrence, star of the first four films as played by Conway’s real life brother George Sanders, had died at the end of the fourth film in the series (The Falcon’s Brother, reviewed here). Conway had obviously proved he could carry The Falcon pictures on his own with the success of the previous entry in the series The Falcon Strikes Back (reviewed here) and he certainly has a charm about him and way of playing the character which is close enough to Sander’s characterisation so that you don’t really miss Sanders in the role.
He’s joined once again by Police Chief Donovan, played by Cliff Clark and his sidekick Detective Bates, played by Edward Gargan). These two, however, are behaving a little differently than they normally present themselves. For one thing, the running gag about Clark having to remind Gargan of his character’s authority every time he tells him to do something is not present in this movie. Secondly, The Falcon is never a suspect in their investigation and doesn’t get arrested once... which I think is the first time this happens in the franchise, if memory serves.
There’s also an interesting addition and subtraction with the dynamic of the way The Falcon’s main character is aided and abetted in this one. So we have an additional character called Bonnie, played by Amelita Ward, who is Tom Lawrence’s jealous Texan fiance in this. She fulfils exactly the same role as Wendy Barrie did in the first couple of the George Sanders Falcon films and, for the most part, just gets under his feet and tries to steer him clear of an unusually large amount of female characters in this one. However, what we don’t have here is any kind of male sidekick for The Falcon. No Goldy or Goldy substitute here... it’s just Tom Lawrence operating on his own and, frankly, the film is none the worse for it.
It’s also got a strong start to this mystery, with an airport scene as a plane everyone is expecting to land, instead crashes at the airport. When the plane (minus a wing from the crash) is boarded, there’s nobody on board it at all... not even a pilot. It doesnt take long for The Falcon to be embroiled in a plot involving two missing industrialists, a missing $100,000, the daughter and sister in law of one of the missing people and an assortment of interested parties. The mystery of the film is offset by the return of one of the industrialists about a third of the way through but, it also further complicates things although, I have to say, I was pretty sure I knew who the real villain of the piece was by about two thirds of the way through and, yeah, it was a fairly easy one to solve but that didn’t make getting to the conclusion any less enthralling or entertaining.
The dialogue is fairly quick fire and everything makes sense. They really don’t often make movies which sing themselves off the page in such a soluble pill these days (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors) and it’s a real pleasure to watch. Of course, because it’s shot in 1943, there are a few references to the war in this one, including a neat trick where The Falcon covertly operates the neon sign in the front of an antique shop during a blackout in order to bring the police there and get himself out of trouble. There’s also a scene near the start of the picture where a gambling joint is also raided but quick steps are put into operation to hide the evidence of what’s really going in there from the police and... I couldn’t quite work out what the police would be doing raiding a gambling joint, to be honest. It’s not like it was a ‘speakeasy’ from 20 years before so... maybe gambling wasn’t allowed during the war, I don’t know. If you’re old or knowledgable enough to know the answer to that question then please leave a comment at the bottom of the page and enlighten me.
If I had one criticism of this one, it’s that there were far too many female characters for me to keep track of, especially when a lot of them looked quite similar. I gave up on that angle about half way through the film. Interestingly enough though, at the end of the picture, Lawrence manages to revert to trickery and get his fiancé to ditch him so... I’m not sure what the set up will be for the next film in the series but, obviously, I’ll report accordingly in my next Falcon review. In the meantime though, I’d have to say that The Falcon In Danger is easily one of the more entertaining installments in the series and would definitely recommend this one to lovers of the detective fiction genre. I’m looking forward to revisiting the next one of these soon.
Sunday, 24 April 2022
Belly Of A
Sting Of Death
Directed by William Grefé
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Spoilers lurking like tendrils
of death wrapping around your heart.
Sting Of Death is the first film in Arrow’s lovely He Came From The Swamp - The William Grefé Collection Blu Ray boxed set and it was my primary reason for picking this collection up because, after all, who doesn’t want to see a movie where various people are threatened by a jellyfish monster? Well, after watching the movie, I suspect the answer is probably me but, hey, the concept sounded like it was a lot of fun.
The film is watchable and it has bright colours. It’s about a bunch of women going to stay with the father of one of their number, Karen (played by Valerie Hawkins) for their vacation. Her father, Dr. Richardson (played by Jack Nagle) happens to live on an isolated island in the Florida swamps and is a marine biologist, helped by his two assistants in the form of Karen’s love interest Dr. Hoyt (played by Joe Morrison) and the forever lurking, facially disfigured, hulking Egon (played by John Vella). And, yeah... I think the character’s name is supposed to invoke associations with Ygor and his ilk in the 1930s and 40s Frankenstein movies from Universal. Well, I say he’s disfigured but his bashed in right eye, which is supposed to be sealed shut, does kind of pop open and come a little unstuck in some scenes.
Okay, so the film starts off with the jellyfish monster destroying radio communication on the island and then grabbing a bathing beauty off the decking outside the front of Richardson’s place and pulling her to her death while the credits play out. There is a line around halfway through the movie where the Doctor asks where Ruth disappeared to and I think this is in reference to this character... who is otherwise not mentioned again throughout the running time of the film.
Then the girls arrive, as do some students who promptly chase the freakish Egon off with their hateful prejudices, before enjoying the second of two long dance scenes where Grefé seems to spend an incredibly long time focusing on the backsides of various bikini clad girls as they dance about to Neil Sedaka’s new song written for the movie, “Do The Jellyfish”. It’s not a good song but the various party shenanigans seem to distract the teenagers from noticing right away that the jellyfish man attacks a girl in the swimming pool right in front of them. Another teen is also badly injured and, due to no radio, the doctor sends him and all the students back to get medical attention but... yeah... they are attacked by a swarm of jellyfish controlled by the jellyfish-man and all die. And when I say jellyfish, what I mean is inanimate polythene bags tied up with dangling bits of string floating calmly on the surface of the water while various teenagers act like they’re being stung and in their death agonies. Yeah, the special effects are not high tech on this one.
It all ends in tears after a few more deaths and people going ‘missing’ as, in a twist reveal (which really was a twist for me because, it was kinda lame and I must not have been paying proper attention), the Jellyfish man turns out to be Egon, who has perfected, among other things, the power to transform himself into a man wearing a muddied up diving suit with dangling tendrils and an almost completely see-through polythene bag on his head. I promise you, the jellyfish man looks a lot worse than I’m making him sound here.
There’s the usual resolution to this kind of picture and it’s not unwatchable... just not quite making it into the ‘so bad it’s good category’, as far as I’m concerned... although it certainly flirts with it at times. I do have a love for the atmosphere of these kinds of throwback pictures though... it’s colourful and it feels like it’s been shot in the 1950s, rather than being filmed the same year that The Beatles had their Revolver album in the charts. I’ve mentioned this in reviews of films before but it’s like certain filmmakers were kind of stuck in time and churning out exactly the same product in the 1960s which was more ‘of its time’ a decade earlier. I do like these kinds of films but, the movie doesn’t quite do enough to turn this into an absolutely essential piece of viewing, as far as I’m concerned... although I think it would be a good one for a monster themed allnighter with your friends, in between two more scarier pictures, to be sure.
Of note is the big, black bruise on Jack Nagle’s head. He hit his head on the first day of shooting and the wound had to be explained away in the script. Also, when the bruise was wearing off in the shoot, this had to be augmented by having the make-up artist drawing in the bruise for various scenes. This is mentoned on the wonderful William Grefé documentary feature, which also comes in this set (reviewed by me here) and a few other anecdotes, two of which I’ll briefly mention here...
One involves the loss of the cable for the ariflex camera, overboard in the swamps before a day’s shooting was even started and this caused some headaches on the location during the day, a lot of hours were lost... remember, this was when Grefé could churn out one of these pictures in two weeks or less so time was a valuable commodity while shooting.
The other thing involves John Vella. I wasn’t kidding about that being a big polythene bag on his head so, on at least one occasion, when a shot was taking a long time to get done, he nearly suffocated through lack of air. Obviously he didn’t (or the film would be much more well known now, I guess) but you can pretty much see his head lurking within the bag, in many of the shots.
And that’s pretty much it for me on Sting Of Death. It didn’t quite hit the mark with me but, well, it was watchable and I did kinda enjoy looking at it to an extent... but it didn’t blow me away like I’d hoped. I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it’s not, as some reviewers have said, the best of the movies on Arrow’s Grefé collection. Time will tell I guess.
Thursday, 21 April 2022
Thank You Lamb
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Mubi Blu Ray Zone B
Lamb is an absolutely stunning, modern folk horror film set in Iceland. I wish I’d seen it at the end of last year when it was released in UK cinemas (despite there being a deadly pandemic on) because this would easily taken my number two spot for films of the year, second only to Pig (reviewed here). This would have been extra pleasing to me, to have my top two films listed as being single nouns describing animals.
The film stars the always incredible Noomi Rapace (the original girl with the dragon tattoo) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as a childless couple, Maria and Ingvar, who work their small, isolated sheep farm in Iceland. During the opening scene, something comes to visit the sheep one night and, later on, as the couple are helping birth a lamb, the offspring comes out as something slightly unusual, which I won’t reveal to you here. Because of the way the film is shot, it’s not revealed to the audience exactly what is so special about the latest addition to the farm until about 40 minutes or so into the film but, I suspect you can probably take a good guess. Then, after a while, Ingvar’s brother Pétur, played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, turns up and the family dynamic is changed a little. And that’s all I’m going to say about the story as, due to the simplicity of the tale, you really have to go in spoiler free (as there’s not much to spoil) but it’s a beautifully shot film with the final ten minutes going exactly where you think they might. This doesn’t, however, take away from the potency of the ending, nor the beautiful way in which those final minutes have been realised. All I will say on this stuff is... the special effects are great.
After a truly sinister opening with a POV shot of something trudging across snowy wastes and worrying the sheep, probably the first thing you will notice is the crisp, deep focus photography. But what really stands out is the director and cinematographer’s apparent obsession with using vertical panels and upright posts etc to constantly split the screen into three. This results in, at least for the first two chapters of the movie (of which, of course, there are three), the audience being constantly bombarded with frames split up like triptych and, quite often, with quite an equal split between the three panels, as the actors either stay in their third of the screen or cross over into another. And even when there’s not a full triptych of vertical splits, there’s often an echo of one when, say, it will cut to a wide open shot of the beautiful landscape and one of the actor’s heads or their body will be filling just a third of the space. It’s an incredibly controlled film in terms of the way the frames are delineated and I really appreciated this, admittedly quite blatant, attention to the look of the shots, I have to say.
It goes without saying, almost, that the three lead actors (maybe four but, I don’t want to get into that here) are all absolutely brilliant in this. They’re also quite naturalistic in their roles... given the subject matter, there’s no room for anyone being a little over the top on this. It all has to be deadpan and natural and the three main protagonists excel at this. Incidentally, I’m told that, although Noomi Rapace was born in Sweden, she grew up from the age of five living in Iceland and that, in fact, this is the first movie for which she’s performed her dialogue in the Icelandic language. So that’s kinda interesting... Noomi as you’ve not hear her before.
The other thing which is interesting about this film is that, while it’s certainly a folk horror movie, it’s not actually scary and that’s because the modus operandi of the storytelling is such that it tries to do something else, I think, instead... and succeeds very well at it. That is to say, it’s totally character based and a lot of the film is you getting to know these people and how they bond together as a unit. However, once the director has you in this frame of mind, there are two scenes which definitely cause a great deal of anxiety. One is where the brother takes another family member into the wilderness armed with a shotgun. I can’t say more about it than that without giving spoilers but, there’s a lot of tension in the sequence and it’s got a beautiful pay off in the next scene, which is quite a delightful resolution. The other time is the ‘big thing’ the film has been building up to ever since the opening of the movie and, yeah, because you care about these characters so much, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to any of them and... well, I’ll just leave it there but, because of the way the whole movie has been shot, a sequence which would just be ‘another thing’ in many movies is something of a stress inducing event in this one and, like I said, it all works beautifully.
As does the score by Þórarinn Guðnason, which is a very effective set of cues that, sadly, aren’t available as a commercially released CD at time of writing. Which is a shame because I would have ordered it straight away. And talking about sound... the director does that thing in one or two moments where the sound of the upcoming scene intrudes into the prior scene for a few seconds... which is kinda nice. It’s nothing new but I’ve not seen it done for a while (or, you know, heard it done for a while).
And that pretty much concludes my review of Lamb. A truly beautiful film and, I suspect, an excellent companion piece to Severin’s recent All The Haunts Be Ours box set, which I must get around to cracking open sometime soon. But, yeah, Lamb... easily one of the best films released last year and something I would recommend to pretty much anyone who loves the art of cinema. I was truly blown away by it. Also good for people who like watching Welsh Border Collies cavorting around with sheep, I should probably point out.
Wednesday, 20 April 2022
Suck, You Ducker
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
UK cinema release print.
Okay, so I managed to get a relatively Covid safe screening of Morbius with only two other people in the audience, due to my suspicion that, a) nobody wants to go to the cinema on a Thursday morning and b) nobody liked this film enough to go for a repeat screening. And I really have nothing against this movie... I don’t know the character all that well (I think I had a Marvel comics sticker of him on a wardrobe somewhere in the early to mid 1970s and I possibly may have read his first appearance in a reprint of a Spider-Man story) but, really, all I went into this movie with was that he always used to be called Morbius, The Living Vampire (which would have been much more of an audience magnet of a title for this movie, I suspect) and that he was a Spider-Man villain, back in the day.
The film is not great, it has to be said but, neither is it terrible. I don’t like Jared Leto in pretty much anything I’ve seen him in, except for Requiem For A Dream where he really did a good job but, yeah, I’ve not enjoyed any of his performances since then, to be honest. In this, playing the title role, he says his lines with conviction and gives a more than adequate performance of the character as written on the page. He’s really not bad in this although the screenplay and dialogue is... well, it’s not great and somewhat out of its time, I thought...
By that I mean, it feels like it was made in the early to mid 1980s and it all seems very simple and, I dunno, somewhat flatly presented. I can imagine this fitting in well with certain things Marvel were doing in TV land and in their attempts to translate those properties into cinematic terms in the late 1970s to early 1980s... so it feels a little like a companion piece to something like the old, Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man TV show or that Dolph Lundgren attempt at a movie of The Punisher. It’s all a bit lifeless and like something you might feel a little cheated by in terms of ticket prices these days, at least that’s the way I felt about it.
Again, though, nothing wrong with it. One of the problems about the lack of any real stand up personality in the form of Leto’s, quite acceptable, turn as Morbius would be the possible mistake of putting an actor with a true powerhouse personality up against him as the villain. I remember when the previews of the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood were screened and the studio had to slice out a lot of Alan Rickman’s scenes as the Sheriff of Nottingham out of the movie before it got released, because everyone in the preview audiences liked his character a heck of a lot better than the main hero. Well, it feels like something that maybe should have happened here because, well, they’ve put former Doctor Who incarnation Matt Smith in as the villain. And so, as you would expect with a giant personality like that, the only person you are watching when he’s on the screen is Matt Smith... the other characters all kind of go out the window. Personally, I think the studio should have had Leto and Smith switch roles if they wanted a better shot at a lucrative franchise out of this thing.
Which is something they obviously are going for because there are shout outs in here to the Marvel 'blip' plus both Venom and Spider-Man, including two mid-post credit scenes featuring a returning villain from one of the MCU Spider-Man films (in a couple of moments which completely contradict the way that character would logically be imported into this facet of the multiverse and, also in a way which, if the writers aren’t careful, may completely contradict the wonderful way in which that character was left in the post credit scene of an earlier movie).
There are some nice things about the movie... such as a line paraphrasing the Bill Bixby catch phrase of the old TV show of The Incredible Hulk, where Morbius says to a policeman, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.”... but there are also lots of not so great things, such as the editing and lucidity of the big confrontations scenes between Leto and Smith where, frankly, I was confused as to what was going on half the time. There could have perhaps been a bit more visual clarification in the action set pieces.
Another curious thing is, it sometimes feels more like a DC universe movie than something starring a Marvel comics character. The night time setting on most of it and the frequent shots of swarms of bats certainly are reminiscent of one of DC’s flagship characters, for sure. But more than that, in some of those scenes, the music almost feels just like what James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer were doing for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy so, yeah, it just felt a little like I was watching one of ‘the other company’s’ movies at some points in the story.
And there’s not much more for me to say on Morbius, I think. At the end of the day, it wasn’t a bad movie and, if they feature Leto in the role in upcoming team-up movies (which I’m sure is the plan), then I’ll happily go along and watch them in the hopes the writing gets better. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one but, hey, if you’re big on the superhero and super villain movies right now then, you’ll probably have an okay time with this one and it’s just nice seeing someone like Matt Smith on the big screen. They really need to get him in some bigger title roles, for sure.
Tuesday, 19 April 2022
Directed by Ti West
I’ve not seen much of anything by Ti West before... just a couple of short segments of portmanteau horror films V/H/S (reviewed here) and The ABCs Of Death (reviewed by me here) and, I honestly don’t remember either of them making an impression on me. That being said, I’m certainly going to have to play catch up with this particular director because, what we have in the case of X is a very well put together movie in a genre that, I really don’t usually enjoy all that much.
And by that last comment, to explain, X is really not a horror movie... it’s a slasher film. I know many people, especially those who believe that slasher movies are somehow horror movies, would disagree with me here but, honestly, it doesn’t have the necessary genre tropes to make it into the area of horror for me (for further clarification on my thoughts about the genre here, check out a review of a book purporting to be about Italian Horror Cinema which I have scheduled to go up on the blog in a week or two). I’m pretty sure the director would disagree with me here too... especially since it’s stated by one of his characters in the movie that Hitchcock’s Psycho is a horror movie (it isn’t, it’s a straight thriller folks!). And if there’s one genre of cinema I’m not very interested in it’s the American slasher movie... which is possibly quite ironic considering I love Italian gialli but, well, there you have it.
I decided to see this one, however, because I found the hook of it being set in 1979 and being about a group of six people who rent out a cabin to shoot a porn movie, well... irresistible. And then, as it turns out, it’s so well shot and executed that, well, I certainly didn’t regret my decision.
I’m not going to sum up the modicum of a plot because the fact that I’ve told you it’s a slasher combined with the other information in my previous paragraph pretty much tells you all you need to know. And, also, I don’t want to be accused of spoilers on this one, although I’m sure veterans of the slasher genre will probably see every set piece coming, for sure... but that doesn’t matter.
The film opens very strongly and had me from the start, by almost parodying the opening camera placement of John Ford’s The Searchers to some extent, by having the camera looking out from behind the doorway of a cabin to the main house across the way as a police car slowly pulls into view and joins some others. However, what this opening shot also serves to do it set up in the mind the 4:3 aspect ratio of television and home video formats of the time period, because the sides of the screen around the opening of the cabin (or possibly it’s the barn, which also features in the story) are almost completely black, setting up that aspect ratio in your mind. The director than further pulls the audience into the world by zooming the camera in closer to the exterior view, causing the black vertical bands to disappear off the sides and bringing us into the widescreen format. Then, using a blend of static shots and slow camera movements which inform the whole film, we are taken on a tour of the bloody aftermath of an incident which has taken place at some point (without being shown any of the details). And then we flashback to 24 hours before, with stripper and budding porn actress Maxine, played by the always watchable Mia Goth, getting ready to go with her producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), sound girl Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), director for hire RJ (Owen Campbell) and fellow porn actors Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Kid Cudi) to the site of the shoot.
The two octogenarian antagonists of the film are Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife Pearl (played again, in a dual role, by Mia Goth, who stayed on with Ti West at the location to film the prequel movie, Pearl, when X had finished shooting). Actually, when I figured out it was Goth behind the old age make up (one of my big problems with movies which use old age make up is that they always look fake), I figured that the film would steer into horror territory by the end of the story, expecting some kind of Elisabeth Bathory style twist reveal to the character but, alas, there is no story content reliant on the casting. Even so, Goth does a really good turn as the old lady who causes so much trouble for the young film-makers of the piece, it has to be said.
The film has a nice 1970s vibe to it, while still maintaining a clean, crisp look to the proceedings. It’s straight, no filter, as the saying goes but it does emulate the 1970s feel in other ways, such as using a wipe at one point and also, quite often, using that fast crosscutting into and out of the next scene and then back again and repeat... which I kinda hate but, heck, he seemed to do it in a, slightly, more palatable way than when Dennis Hopper used the same technnique in Easy Rider so, yeah, nicely done.
There are some other things which he does too which are very interesting. For example, shooting some of the shots from very low down angles and then just throwing them into the edit alongside shots taken at eye level, somehow without managing to pop the viewer out of the movie in a jarring manner. It all flows pretty well. There are some nice split screen moments too, when West pushes the method and actually has characters and situations switching sides of the split frame and, in one wonderful case, the same things overlapping to make a single image but just slightly out of kilter on the angle (or the way it’s been spliced in) and I thought this looked pretty cool.
Another interesting thing he does is subvert the visual syntax of the film via the audiences familiarity of the medium. For instance, a 4:3 shot from the porn movie the actors are shooting might follow on or precede a shot of another character somewhere else but, it will still be exactly the next follow on shot the subconscious mind is expecting it to be, just with a different character and in a different aspect ratio. And, yeah, once I’d got the hang of that after he’d done it a couple of times, I'd say I was having a good time with the way the material had been edited too.
Now, in terms of jump scares... there are a couple of good ones but none of them relating to the set piece kills. Frankly, if you are reasonably cine-literate, you’re going to see all the kills coming before they happen (you don’t go looking through holes in barn doors and you don’t poke your hand through a hacked out door panel to reach around for the lock, for example). Now, in many of the cases, I’m pretty sure this is done intentionally by the director, who seems to delight in getting away with well worn clichés and, well.. he gets away with them perhaps but I don’t think the average viewer will have any surprises and, honestly, I’m not so sure all of the kills (perhaps the final one where one of Mia Goth’s characters takes out the other one) are supposed to be as obvious. There was one moment that annoyed me because, there’s a famous Lucio Fulci ocular gore moment in Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) where it totally looks fake and, frankly, a similar sequence here didn’t look any better. However, even with the fake looking effects, the movie was quite fun in the execution of them and I still had a good time with most of it, to be fair. And the artistic decision during the first stab scene to suddenly have the assailant and the victim bathed in red lightning for the remainder of the shot, to emphasise the idea of blood in an almost Dario Argento/Mario Bava non-sequitur lighting manner, was actually very impressive.
One last thing... the score for the film by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe also was quite 1970s/1980s in its approach and I quite enjoyed what they did with it here. I mean, it’s not so blatant as, say, the Disasterpeace score for It Follows (reviewed here) but, yeah, it did remind me of something like, say, The Amityville Horror to a certain extent and I thought it was subtly done. Alas, the score has not been released as a proper CD, merely a substitute electronic download, so it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to hear it away from the movie anytime soon, it would seem.
But, yeah, that’s me done with X and, I have to say, it was so much better than I thought it was and, despite my aversion to the slasher genre, I have to admire the film for what the director and the rest of the cast and crew managed to achieve here. This was definitely the first feature I’ve seen directed by West so, yeah, now I’m going to have to go back and catch some of his other movies, for sure. Very much worth a look!
Monday, 18 April 2022
Pirate Ship Devils
Doctor Who -
Legend Of The Sea Devils
Airdate: 17th April 2022
Warning: Spoilers looping back into spoilers.
Okay, so, I may have got prematurely excited for a new spurt of good writing on Doctor Who after the brilliant New Years special Eve Of The Daleks (reviewed by me here) as, yeah, this episode wasn’t that great in many ways. But, it has to be said, the return of Sea Devils was not as badly handled as it was in their second appearance against the Fifth Doctor in Warriors Of The Deep (reviewed by me here). Although, yeah, not nearly as iconic an appearance as their first dance with the Third Doctor in the original story The Sea Devils (reviewed here), it might also be noted.
Doctor Who - Legend Of The Sea Devils gives us the returning triumvirate of Jodie Whitaker as The 13th Doctor (depending on how you count them, with the added complication of The War Doctor and various other manifestations), Mandip Gill as Yas and John Bishop as Dan. And it’s set in a couple of time zones in a sea faring adventure with a real, historical pirate queen (kind of) and various anachronistic shipboard instruments or overlooked details such as, you know, the fact that a cannon has a bit of recoil when fired.
It also suffers a little in the writing, I thought. The story was the usual, ‘think of a jam and then spout scientifiction gobbledy gook to enable a gadget to save the world’ kind of thing... which is getting a bit tired. And some of the dialogue was bad too. The stuff with Yas and The Doctor trying to come to terms with their recent, much rushed burgeoning romance was okay (but, you know, could have done with a longer playing out of that rather than start it off two episodes before Jodie leaves the show) and those were definitely the best moments in it. However, a load of the rest of the dialogue sounded like characters were trying too hard to say something big, surprising or funny to transition into the next scene with and, yeah, it kinda ended up sounding a little stilted and child-like in its performance (much like the dialogue in Pierce Brosnan’s last James Bond movie Die Another Day). It was a bit much and left me kind of cold, which is a shame.
However, I’m going to temper all that with... the show looked pretty good. Especially when it came to getting the Sea Devils right. I mean, they’ve streamlined them a bit and they were nowhere near as good at creating a sinister presence in the episode but, they were a darn site better than their truly, comically bad re-designs from the Peter Davison era, at an rate. Yeah, I missed the Pertwee era’s string vests but, at least the costumers added a kind of echo to that in the texture of their new clothing for this one.
The mucic was okay too although, since Silva Screen now seem to have totally stopped releasing proper CDs of the scores, I’ve kind of lost all interest in that aspect of the show. I think they’re alienating a certain section of their audience by cutting off the supply chain there.
Overall, like I said, Doctor Who - Legend Of The Sea Devils wasn’t terrible but it could have been a lot better. I didn’t mind it but, unlike the New Years Eve story, it will be forgotten quickly, I suspect. So, we have one more Jodie episode to come this autumn (although I’d be surprised if she didn’t return for a guest spot in the November 2023 episode). And it looks like it’s pitting her against... the Daleks, the Cybermen and The Master again so... yeah, not the most inspiring of challenges, I suspect.
However, there is one aspect of the Coming Soon trailer at the end of that episode which certainly, already, has fans talking... and that’s a bit of T & A action which everyone seems excited about. By that I mean, the return of Janet Fielding’s Tegan (Fourth & Fifth Doctor companion) and Sophie Aldred’s Ace (companion to the Seventh Doctor). It will be nice to see them in action again, for sure but, I think it kinda says something that we’ve just had an episode featuring the return of the Sea Devils and all people are talking about is the trailer for the next show. Perhaps the reveal on the casting decision was a bit too soon (although, hopefully, there will be some other surprises in store for us in the episode itself). My only other complaint, seeing that they’ve stripped it down again from 13 episodes to two or three specials (again, depending on how you count them) is that the episode was only 50 mins long, like a regular episode. Since when did ‘specials’ stop being feature length?
Anyway, it was entertaining enough and, as always, it’s nice to see Jodie as The Doctor and still, I insist, doing very well in the role despite the scripts she’s working with. So I do hope she returns for the sixty year anniversary episode next year. Also hoping all in our house are safe and well enough to watch that one when it comes on.... but that’s another story.
Sunday, 17 April 2022
The Eve Of War
USA/UK BBC iPlayer
28th February - 11 April 2022
So Series Four is the final series for our two constant heroines of Killing Eve, namely Sandra Oh as government spy gone slightly rogue Eve and Jodie Comer as psychotic assassin Villanelle. Now, I have to say I wasn’t expecting much from a fourth series since, as the years have gone by, the content has gotten a bit ‘the same old same old’, to say the least. Well this one had two surprises in store for me, which I’ll get to in a minute. Rejoining Eve and Villanelle are series regulars Fiona Shaw as big boss (now also gone rogue and treacherous) Carolyn and Kim Bodnia as Konstantin. We also have newcomer character Pam, a psychotic assassin in training and taken under Konstantin’s wing, so to speak, played brilliantly by Anjana Vasan.
Okay, the good news, which will be tempered by the bad stuff I’ll get to later, I’m sure, is that the new series, while following some of the same patterns and set ups of the previous years, really managed to elevate it’s game this time around. There were character reveals, close calls and various other surprising moments which heightened the show and freshened it up. They didn’t always pan out as being significant to the storyline but, hey, they were very entertaining. For instance, we get to see a lot of flashbacks to when Carolyn was in her twenties and infiltrating the shady organisation known as The Twelve, even coming up with their name in those early days. Her personal mission now is to find which one of the mysterious shadow intelligence kingpins ordered the death of her son, as seen in a previous series. And these black and white flashbacks really give a sense of depth to both her and, to an extent, Konstantin’s characters.
However, one of the things this show does this time around is throw away a lot of the good work it’s doing by not following through and giving us a pay off. For example, in the first couple of episodes, an angel from God who looks exactly like Villanelle (with dark hair, beard and moustache) and also played by Jodie Comer, is trying to help her redeem for her past sins... until Villanelle realises it’s just taking the piss and ends up killing the angel (or God... or it could be the devil), more or less, herself. The show doesn’t present more than two options to the audience here... we know Villanelle is a psychopath but she never comes across as someone given to hallucinations so, either she really is speaking to a messenger for God or her mental health has deteriorated. However, at no point other than these scenes scattered randomly in the first couple of episodes, is it suggested her mental faculties are in any way changed from her normal state. Alas, this promising development of a spiritual aspect brought into play for one of the characters is ditched as quickly as it started and is not mentioned again. A shame, really.
And then there’s new girl Pam. A mortuary lady who is really good at killing people and who is recruited to work with Konstantin. She’s a great character and while she does have a satisfying personal arc of rejecting those who would employ her, ultimately... she’s kind of a pointless addition to the show and doesn’t seem to serve much purpose other than to kill a key person at a point and, also, find some kind of redemption in the act. I mean, yeah, Vasan plays the character well and she’s really interesting but... hmm... by this stage of the show you’d think everything should be coming together to reach a clear end game, rather than just be an addition or, dare I say it, padding to get the show to eight episodes. And I say that knowing that I’m now going to say that the ending of the last episode seems completely rushed.
Yeah, okay, the last episode seemed completely hurried and, frankly, like a truly cop out ending. Things don’t necessarily go as you might think (although certain things are sadly inevitable) and you may be forgiven for wondering why the series is called Killing Eve at all... but the way the end treats the two main characters seems something of a joke. And, also, even though it’s a clear ending and there will probably be no more shows, it actually manages to leave things open for one of the characters to return for a sequel should she want to... which is crazy but, yeah, the whole thing feels like there’s a lot of unfinished business by the final credits. You kind of want to see what happens next.
I also suspect there may have been some major interference in the censorship department too, it has to be said. For instance, in a scene where Villanelle goes to take out The Twelve in a slaughter filled scene on a boat, you don’t actually see anything of what she’s doing to The Twelve other than at the periphery of a slow motion shot, because it’s just concentrating on her face and upper body. You don’t see the faces or fates of any of her victims (apart form a few stabbings) and this has the effect... at a point when the audience needs a cathartic release of on screen violence to show the ‘The Twelve’ have all died horrible deaths... of giving a kind of tempered, watered down, unrevealing moment cross cut with Eve dancing at a wedding party on the deck above. I can’t help but think, since this seems like a huge error in terms of the presentation, that there was originally a proper sequence shot entirely differently (or from a wider angle, maybe) which would have made for a stronger prelude to the final scene of the show but... yeah, was maybe compromised by the show’s producers, perhaps.
And then there’s the sudden ending where one of the characters is picked off with a sniper’s rifle in a completely unnecessary and somewhat subdued moment, as her body sinks deeper into the Thames. By the way guys, the Thames isn’t all crystal clear water and you’d be swept away on the currents of that particular river in seconds. This is not a realistic moment at all and, that would be fine (I’m all for artistic expression) except... well, the death seemed unnecessary by this point and it leaves one of the characters dangling on a revenge arc which, I suspect, the audience now wants to see. And it was just such a clumsy way of winding it all up... it felt completely wrong and, yeah, oh well, that’s that I guess.
So, Killing Eve Series Four kept me entertained for seven out of the eight episodes and, as usual, was filled with strong acting, out of left field surprises and clever cuts but, nope, for me this resolution was like a back stab of betrayal... an unjust dessert to a pretty good series. It left me a little disappointed after I’d found myself in a position, a couple of times over the last six or seven weeks, of defending the choices the writers were making on the show to others. At the end of the day they really needed to get the ending right on this one and, frankly, they didn’t come close. So, half recommended for some excellent foreplay but, alas, no really satisfying climax on this occasion.
Friday, 15 April 2022
B For Benedetta
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Okay, so Benedetta is the final movie in the second of my two Nunsploitation weeks for the blog this year... the one I’ve been building to in the hopes I could time my review with the same week of its release (or just after). Of course, when you see that a film has been made by a quality filmmaker and adapted from Judith C. Brown’s account of events... the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (or as Verhoeven puts it on the opening credits of this movie... “This film was inspired by real events”)... you have to wonder if it really is actually going to qualify as a nunsploitation film or more as a respectful, historical account of what we are told are the facts. Well now, Verhoeven is a consummate artist and, no matter what genre he chooses, he usually ends up delivering a very ‘classy’ looking picture, which is exactly what he does here...
But, of course, he really is also a fairly schlocky director in terms of the content of his work and, frankly that’s not a criticism. I reckon it could have gone either way but, of course, what he finally delivers, while certainly being respectful of the characters involved and also presenting quite an epic feeling, historical drama is... well I think anyone who’s seen this would have to agree that it’s a modern example of ‘proper nunsploitation’, no two ways about it. Certainly, in terms of the many exploitative moments in the movie, it really goes a lot further in terms of what it gets away with than the majority (if not all) of the films I’ve reviewed in my two nunsploitation weeks. This doesn’t, of course, make it the best of these but, I have to say it’s certainly one of the better ones I’ve seen.
Okay, so I’m not going to go into full synopsis mode on this one but I will say, in terms of judging the basic elements of the story, is that it deals with Benedetta (played by Virginie Efira) seeing many visions of Christ, manifesting stigmata and also taking on a lesbian lover in Bartolomea (played by Daphne Patakia). There is political intrigue between the various interested Catholic church parties, Benedetta and the Abesse (which I assume is the equivalent way of saying Mother Superior, played by Charlotte Rampling) and various trials and tribulations suffered by all the key players, set in the 17th Century midst the backdrop of the plague.
What Verhoeven does here... and kinda gets away with to an extent... is to try to show both sides of the coin in terms of the reality of Benedetta’s visions and he’s definitely treading on fairly similar ground to the brilliant, recent horror/thriller movie (depending on what the audience brings to it in their final analysis) Saint Maud... which I reviewed here. So you will see what Benedetta sees when she has her visions and it could be argued, when you think back to the intervention of a wild bird on her behalf at the opening of the movie when she is just a child, that he also shows one or two minor miracles. He does load it a little more in Benedetta’s favour than the way Saint Maud treats its central character, it has to be said but ultimately the film, although not having as visceral a finale as the former movie, gives us a similar ‘on the fence’ kind of stance. So although, for example, we’ll see many of Benedetta's visions of Christ, we are also given the possibilities of self inflicted stigmata, although it’s these very points that are played on as the drama unfolds and it all gets a bit ‘Salem witch trially’ for a bit.
And then there’s the heavy exploitation element... the fact that Bartolomea whittles down Benedetta’s miniature statuette of the blessed virgin into a dildo for their use, for instance. Or the torture scene where the pear of anguish is used to extract a confession. There’s also the element of blasphemy in this and, though I honestly wouldn’t usually bother to mention it, Verhoeven has already been questioned on this area regarding this film and gone on to deny that the film is blasphemous because, as he puts it, it depicts things that really happened. But, you know, because of the grey area more than heavily implied by the director when he shows us visions of Christ at their most exploitative, you have to maybe wonder at how he got away with that answer... he should maybe have just responded by an admission and then question the relevance of the accusation instead, I think. Because, yeah, you will see Jesus lopping off the heads of killer snakes, persuading Benedetta to get naked and up on the cross with him, save her from rape by slicing up soldiers and so on (and there’s a certain sense of duality in that scene in terms of ‘is it really Christ... no, the nightmare just changed’ aspect of that particular scene)... so, yeah, probably just a little bit blasphemous but, I’m not really the one to judge on that kind of stuff. It is, however, one of the most pulpy of dime store pulps takes on Christ that I can remember seeing in a film. A heroic Christ who wields a sword to get his woman out of danger, so to speak.
The shot set ups are not too intricate but they’re all pretty nice to look at and the movie feels like something very big and polished. Verhoeven does a nice thing with some of his transitions by pitching the occasional, very different, colour palette to segue into another scene. For example, you’ll go from those warm creams, oranges and beiges of the interior of the Abbey to, suddenly, the outside of the Abbey in a storm at night, where it’s all blues, greens and blacks. Not overly saturated or anything like that (although the ‘comet’ scene nearly gets there) but even these more subtle colour changes brush up against each other from scene to scene with a pleasing visual frisson that helps the movie trundle along at a fair pace (and it’s quite a long movie so that’s a good thing). Ann Dudley’s score helps the whole thing along too and, yeah, in one scene depicting self flagellating monks, you get to hear yet another rendition of the Dies Irae, which is kind of a curious comfort by this point.
And I’ve not got much else to say here about Benedetta other than, it really is a pretty exploitative piece of nunsploitation, the girls (who are often naked) look great and are so enthused in their roles that they pull off amazing, believable performances plus, my favourite bit (and see if you can spot it when you see it), there’s a dire part of the movie which brought an unwitting smile to my face when I realised the dialogue was the 17th Century Paul Verhoeven equivalent of, well, the ‘Pagliacci joke’. Yeah, that was a good moment. So that’s me done with both this and the second nunsploitation week and, I guess if you like the genre, you’ll definitely like Benedetta. So, yeah, done with the nun themed weeks now but not quite done with nunsploitation as a genre yet. There are a couple of good Blu Rays which have just been released which I think could be considered part of this cycle, including what sounds like one in the big Severin box set of All The Haunts Be Ours folk horror movies sitting on my shelf so, yeah, there will be some more of these reviews coming at some point, I think.
Thursday, 14 April 2022
Sins Of Sister Lucia
aka Shûdôjo Rushia: Kegasu
Japan 1978 Directed by Kôyû Ohara
Nikkatsu/Mondo Macabre DVD Region 0
Sins Of Sister Lucia is one of Nikkatsu’s lucrative (until the advent of home video) Roman-Porno films (aka romantic pornography), brought out to combat the rise in Pink films which had become a way for Japanese cinema to combat what you could get away with on television and thus continue to bring audiences into the cinema. There were loads of these things made and, from what I can tell, the Roman-Porno sub-genre differed from Pink films only in that the budgets were a lot more generous. As Jasper Sharp, renowned expert on Japanese cinema (and fungi, but that’s another story) explains in one of the two extras that feature him on this nice Mondo Macabre release of the movie, there was a bit of a sea change at Nikkatsu when many top directors who didn’t want to just make sex movies left and went to other companies, leaving a load of former assistant directors suddenly in the driving seats and giving them new opportunities... although he does mention that the director of this one, Ohara, while good at what he did, wasn’t really considered the upper tier of Roman-Porno directors. I’m glad he said that actually because, honestly, I didn’t get a heck of a lot out of this one.
I bought this one because a) I quite liked the 7 or 8 Pinky Violence movies I’d seen (what the Pink genre evolved into) and I saw this one at a film fair and b) I liked the cover of this one (Yuki Nohira in a sexy nun costume) plus I saw the film was on the Mondo Macabre label. Now I used to love Mondo Macabre and they introduced me to a lot of undeservedly unloved exploitation classics over the years. I hadn’t bought one of their films in a long time so, since the price was right, I thought I’d give this one a go. Plus, I’ve seen very little nunsploitation in my time (this has changed since writing this review... as you may have noticed on the blog recently) and certainly, to my memory, none of the Japanese nunsploitation movies.
The film starts off with Yuki Nohira as lead character Rumiko, renamed Sister Lucia by the head of the Mother Superior, being bizarrely and slowly pursued down the corridors of an abbey by her fellow nuns, singing religious songs at her. They finally corner her and tell her to confess her sins in order to properly join the convent. So we get a flash back of her revealing, to her religious teacher, that she’s stolen the corrupt bribe money of her crooked politician father, before seducing him. When caught in the act of practically raping the poor guy, she stabs her dad’s bodyguard and this prompts him to send her to the convent. They punish her for her sins with spanking, while simultaneously getting turned on by her story. The rest of the film is just the nuns all sexing each other up and the Mother Superior bringing in a monk every few days to fuck her and her two assistants to ‘bless them’ and relieve them of the desires which torture their bodies and get in the way of them communing with God. Pretty soon, though, everybody is at it! Sister Lucia continues to flaunt the rules of the sisterhood, culminating in her aiding two escaped convicts who fornicate their way through all the nuns before the police come. In a bizarre epilogue, Lucia is sent to a mental hospital as punishment for her wicked ways.
And there’s not much to say other than that. It really didn’t do much for me, it has to be said. It’s filled with the quite inane and rough groping of naked female flesh, while everyone on screen - man and woman alike - bow to the bizarre laws of their country by ensuring that their genitalia are in no way caught by the camera. It’s an easy and quick watch of a movie and, while it looks nice, I can’t say there were any breathtaking compositions in this one or much in the way of unusual edits which caught my attention.
Probably the best thing about the disc are the various extras. There’s a nice documentary about Japanese erotic cinema and the resurging interest with a new generation of female fans of the genre in Japan, including references to Seijun Suzuki’s famous Gate Of Flesh (which I confess, never entered my mind as being related to the genre) and some interview footage of the great man himself. There’s also a pretty great talk by Jasper Sharp about the differences between Pink, Pinky Violence, Roman-Porno and their birth in Eroduction (Erotic production) which, I’m probably never going to get straight in my mind but it’s extremely interesting (I do have Sharp’s definitive book on the subject in my ‘to read’ pile so, I’m hoping to get on to that one sometime next year). Added to this is a bunch of trailers for others in this series that Mondo Macabre have put out on DVD and, of course, the general Mondo Macabre trailer reel of just some of the weird and wonderful titles they have on their books... which is something I always love watching (even though I’ve sat and watched it on various releases a gazillion times).
And there’s probably not much more I can say about Sins Of Sister Lucia, other than the nuns at the convent must get through an awful lot of fabric because their clothing is constantly being torn away from their bodies. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend and I suspect there are some much better Roman-Porno films which serve a similar kind of function in a much more interesting way... so, yeah, that’s a 'film watching hole' I definitely need to research and fill. I’ll report back here when I have done so.
Tuesday, 12 April 2022
Solving A Problem Like Maria
aka Satanico Pandemonium:
Mexico 1975 Directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares
Mondo Macabre Blu Ray Zone A
Warning: Satanico spoilers.
Wow, what an amazing movie. I was not expecting too much from Satanico Pandemonium, especially with the amount of nunsploitation films I’ve watched recently but, yeah, I sure got a surprise with this one. It’s easily the best nunsploitation movie I’ve seen and so much more. A real masterclass of movie making which, I believe, should be taught in every serious film studies class across the planet. I almost don’t know where to start with it, other than to say... I skimmed the user reviews on the IMDB and was astonished to read some absolutely terrible, unappreciating reviews of this little masterpiece on there. Maybe it’s an age thing but, it’s like some of the people who reviewed this were almost deliberately missing the point (and if they weren’t doing it deliberately then I feel sorry for them... and they should get out more and go watch some movies).
Now, many people will know this title, not from the film itself but from another film... Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk To Dawn. In that film, Salma Hayek plays a vampire stripper called Satanico Pandemonium and, while that film doesn’t really have much in common with this one, her character is obviously named after this one. A nice little homage although, yeah, it seems almost a bit too ‘name checky’ for QT. That was an okayish film, though, to be sure.
This film though... wow. Okay, so it’s filled with some beautiful colours. Many of them are natural landscapes (and sometimes studio additions to those landscapes it seemed to me) where the camera dwells slowly on the various environments the main character, Sister Maria, finds herself wandering in for various stretches of the movie. Sister Maria is played by Cecilia Pezet and... what an amazing performance! This is easily one of the most well thought out, nuanced and intelligence performances I've seen in any kind of exploitation movie. Pezet plays the role completely seriously and, one of the strengths of the film over a lot of the nunsploitation movies I’ve seen, is that everything does come across as genuinely real in terms of the intent of all the characters, as opposed to the more tongue in cheek tone of levity regarding the more exploitative elements of most nunsploitation movies. Don’t get me wrong, this film does involve some full on exploitation elements but, the tone of this movie is measured enough to dilute any silliness from them. How should I clarify this...?
First of all, the story is very simple. Maria is tempted by a teleporting devil (played by Enrique Rocha) and his big, crisp, red apple on a number of occasions and, after a while, gives in to temptation... not by eating the apple but by being seduced by a lesbian nun who turns out to be the devil having intercourse with her and thus setting into motion the seed of the evil acts of lust and violence she starts to indulge in. The film takes a little while to build up Maria’s character and she plays the nun as almost the purest of the pure... a kind hearted, good natured, charitable servant of God who all the other nuns seem to look up to. Somebody who knows medicine and can help heal sick lambs, cows and people etc... a valued member of the nun community. So every time we see her committing an evil act, we clearly see her own guilt and revulsion at the atrocities she inflicts upon others...
For example, when another nun comes to her seeking medical aid but resists Maria’s naked seduction, she responds by stabbing her ‘patient’ in the neck with a pair of scissors. When she seeks out a young, ‘just in his teens’ boy and jumps naked into his bed, trying to lust him up and he rejects her... she attacks him with her knife until the blood covers her naked body and leaves the boy and his mother behind to perish in a burning cabin. And again, when her hands suddenly start smoking in one scene from the weight of her sins or, say, she has a vision of a snake jumping out of her cup during supper, we see the battle of good and evil going on in her soul by her ‘almost but not quite deadpan’, very subtle facial expressions. Cecilia Pezet really invests a lot of energy and intelligence into this central performance.
But while all this stuff is going on... the movie feels old. And I don’t mean like it was shot in 1975... I mean it manages to present this story but feels like it was shot in the late 1940s to mid 1950s in the golden age of Hollywood. Or maybe the kind of films Powell and Pressburger were making in the UK at around that time. Seriously, it’s like watching a rural Western movie or something and it feels almost authentic to the period. This also goes for the score under the music director (a credit which makes me suspect there may have been a little needle drop used in here too) named Gustavo César Carrión. The scoring feels like it was either 40s/50s Hollywood or, in some instances, a mid 1960s Star Trek episode (which more or less amounts to the same thing anyway, in terms of the style of the cues I’m thinking of).
Now, it’s not uncommon in terms of the music for some countries to be somewhat behind the trend and looking backwards when it comes to trying to compete with Hollywood product. For example, when I first listened to the score of Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava’s movie Caltiki Il Mostro Immortale (reviewed here), way before I actually got the opportunity to see the film, the people writing the liner notes had to explain why the score for a 1959 movie sounded the way it did... as in why did it sound like it was being scored in the 1930s/1940s Hollywood B-movie style. So, yeah, I’m used to movies not made in America sometimes harkening back to an older sound and not being quite ahead of the curve... or even caught up to that curve as yet. And as I first started watching Satanico Pandemonium, I thought this was maybe the case. But as the film moved on, I realised that some of the musical choices, while working completely, were still deliberately playing against the implications of what we were seeing. So, for instance, when Sister Maria goes off to infiltrate the young boy’s home and molest him, the music is still playing the light, airy and charming style of music associated with the innocence of her character until we get up to the deed, in direct counterpoint, even though we know her intent and the track record for the character has already been soiled by evil acts. So, the more I think of it, the more I’m beginning to realise that this probably was a very clever and deliberate choice on the part of Carrión and his director.
And what this does is bolster up the ‘old Hollywood’ feel of the picture already in evidence, which in turn makes the various set pieces of violence and nakedness that would be just dimmed down to being a standard use of the genre tropes in most other nunsploitation movies, much more powerful because they are less frequent and paced out. The film is a very slow boil and, while there is certainly some slow camera movement in a few scenes here and there, there are also a lot of sequences where the camera is completely static and observes people walking in and out of the frames (and there are huge swathes of the movie without dialogue too, which helps push the atmosphere). Those compositions are not overly clever or complex either... everything is simply done with some very bright (well, okay, not ‘Bava bright’) colours which give the shots interest. Even the nuns are not as stridently costumed as they are in other movies. There is a lot of visible white on their clothes contrasted with a very light blue hue and, on each, a yellow Patriarchal Cross with its double cross bars stitched onto the front of the pale blue habits (the two figures of this week’s Sisters Of Nunsploitation Week header are both renditions of Maria in Satanico Pandemonium from various points in the movie) .
And then, at the end of the movie, two things happen which are of interest. Firstly, we get a whole extra dose of quick, exploitation imagery all in one hit, as Maria is further tempted by the devil and imagines herself naked and being tortured by the inquisition... by such things as being forced to drink molten lead, having her torso ripped open and having her eyeball pulled out. This almost yanks you out of the movie and I wonder if the director was just told he had to put something like this in to satisfy the audiences expectations of the genre tropes towards the end... but somehow the music and the sure and steady tone of the whole thing, keeping consistent with the rest of the movie, kind of allows for it to not seem too ‘tacked on’.
Secondly... there’s the ending... and this really is a big spoiler people so, be warned, don’t read on if you don’t want to know. After becoming the Mother Superior of her convent, Sister Maria eventually finds herself stabbed to death by the various naked, cavorting nuns under her care and, her habit covered in blood from many wounds, she dies on her bed. But then we cut to many nuns, including a few who Maria has either injured or outright killed (in an overly enthusiastic assisted suicide scene in one case), very much alive and praying for her. We cut back to the bed we just left her on and there’s no blood and she’s very much at peace. Some dialogue makes us aware that she’s been ‘infected with the plague’ and been fighting it for days, finally succumbing to the disease and death. So, yeah, I can totally get why some people can condemn this ending as being a total cop out, ‘it was all a dream’ kind of ending, as we are lead to believe the entire battle between good and evil was playing out entirely in her head in some kind of fever dream but... you know... while I wouldn’t have chosen that ending, I think the director, whether he was forced to include it or not, really makes it work. It doesn’t undo the slow burn of the movie and its final trajectory much, if at all and, furthermore, you do get to see the Lucifer character again at the end, after Sister Maria has died. So, did he actually infect her with the plague all along?
I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think it matters. I think the movie is, if anything, hugely subversive and getting away with a lot (including issues of the damaging effects of racism too in one scene)... presenting it all in a way that both makes it more palatable due to the tonal style of the movie but, somehow more shocking when the exploitation content is juxtaposed with that presentation. And that’s me done with Satanico Pandemonium... a film that I intend to watch quite a few more times in the future and which, for me, is the absolute cream of the crop in terms of what the genre can do. This film is an absolute masterclass of how to make a movie which is tonally setting up an atmosphere and using it to sweeten the pill of the less palatable (by comparison), exploitation elements. Absolutely amazing. I honestly can’t recommend this one enough.
Monday, 11 April 2022
A Simple Flavia
Flavia The Heretic
aka Flavia, la monaca musulmana
Directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi
Shameless Films DVD Region 2
Okay, I want to start off Sister Of Nunsploitation Week with a bit of an apology. My previous week celebrating the genre saw a series of four films with somewhat diminishing returns, with my verdict on the later films being mostly negative. Well, because I want to continue, with this one, the practice of reviewing this week’s films in the order they were released into cinemas, I’m afraid this first review is still a fairly negative one, it has to be said. But, please, stay with me because the film I’m reviewing tomorrow is an absolute humdinger of a movie which I was absolutely thrilled to discover (when I actually wasn’t expecting much from it, truth be told).
Okay, so the notorious Flavia The Heretic, often cut in the UK but presented uncut finally by Shameless, on both their DVD and later Blu Ray edition (why they can’t do the same for The New York Ripper, which contains similarly exploitative scenes, is anybody’s guess at this point), is a film I was mostly disappointed with, in all honesty. Not that I was expecting a lot from it but, the ideas behind the movie are interesting... I just found it was all done in a fairly dry and dull manner.
The film starts off with a pre-credits sequence giving a semblance of motivation to the main protagonist, as young Flavia... who has been looking on at a battlefield filled with the slaughtered bodies of Muslims... sympathises and shares a moment with the one surviving enemy soldier before her father, despite her pleading, then cuts his head off. Then, she is sent to a nunnery and, sometime during the fairly dull opening credits, we are told the year is around 1400 and she manages to grow up into famous actress Florinda Bolkan, right in the middle of a scene which jumps time via a clever cut.
The film is mostly a lot of boring conversations between her, her friend Sister Agatha (played by María Casares) and pretty much anyone who will listen, about how men are all bad (apart from the odd one or two she likes) and how women should be doing more stuff. Yup, she’s a real feminist but, I dunno, she’s definitely ahead of her time and seems like one of those new era, man hating feminists who seem to have taken the stage in recent years (which seems to me less like proper feminism and more like enhancing the inherent matriarchy of society but, yeah, I’m not getting into that here).
So she hates her father and all the men in her Christian town, especially what they did to one of her fellow nuns for showing sexual interest during a bizarre scene in which a bunch of lunatics are let into the convent for a little while, for purposes less clear to me. And what they do to the nun in question is one of the notorious scenes which always used to be snipped out on these shores until recently... so body having hot pitch dripped on it, cutting the nipples off etc. Things get no better after Flavia runs away from the convent with her favourite male tutor and the father recaptures her and has her flogged (for reasons again unclear to me but presumably as a metaphor for the prominence of the stupidity of male power over the female?).
Flavia also has a sympathy for Muslim invaders since her experience on the battlefield as a kid... looking up to them and having odd, surreal moments when a painting of one comes alive to interact with her now and again. So when the Muslims show up, Flavia and Agatha spout their feminist mantra gleefully at the fleeing Christians and stay to watch the carnage, walking around the battlefield unmolested as they witness various conflicts. Unmolested, that is, until Sister Agatha is speared to death by one of the Christians due to her words. So Flavia throws herself at the Muslim chief, sexes him up and then, after a slightly surreal scene where she takes them all back to the nunnery to get revenge by sexing the nuns up (naked nun climbing into the stomach of a slaughtered, hanging cow anyone?)... wakes to find the nuns all dead. Then she armours up and joins the battle as the Muslims take her father’s town but, after this, comes a cropper with her new man and is left behind when the invaders return to the sea. After which, Florinda Bolkan continues the cliché of coming to a rather sticky end in some of her films, by being held to account for her crimes by the remaining Christians and having the skin torn from her body.
And it’s a film which admirably pushes the idea of feminism and acceptance pretty well, more so than I’ve seen in many other movies but, at the same time, I have to say that with all these spectacular and truly exploitative things also happening, I found the film pretty much dull as ditchwater. I think Florinda Bolkan is a pretty good actress but here she just spends the whole film in a kind of moody anger all the time, scowling at almost anyone who tries to engage with her.
Also... and I don’t think this is anything to do with the print that Shameless Films sourced, the colours are all completely washed out. I mean, it’s a given perhaps that the monastery and its interiors are just full of creams and beige hues but, even when Flavia ventures into a green landscape, it’s extremely pale like it’s dried out with dead grass in terms of its colouring. There are no really strong colours in the movie and this, combined with the lack of any really interesting frame designs, is maybe why I responded to the film in a less than enthusiastic manner. Don’t get me wrong, the camerawork is fine, with the director using moving camera to capture both the subject of a shot and then shifting to others reacting to that within the same shot without a cut so... yeah, it’s economical in that manner and holds some interest rather than just cutting to reverse shots all the time but... I dunno... nothing really grabbed me about this one.
So that’s me done on Flavia The Heretic... a film which has some notorious exploitation moments but, ultimately, left me more than a little cold. I don’t think I’d recommend this to many people, to be honest. However, come back tomorrow and you certainly will find me reviewing a true masterpiece which I certainly would recommend to all lovers of cinema. Hopefully you’ll take a look.