Wednesday 31 August 2022

Candy Land

In The Realm
Of The Cleanses

Candy Land
USA 2022
Directed by John Swab
Roxwell Films
FrightFest Screening 27/8/22

Warning: Okay, this one will have slight spoilers
because I want to talk about certain things.

Candy Land is a new film I saw at FrightFest this year and, as you’ll probably see people writing in their various reviews, it’s got a kind of grindhouse movie vibe to it. It’s not actually a horror film as such, more of a throwback (in the absolute best way) to the kind of raw edged thrillers being churned out in the 1970s except... that grindhouse tag also does it a bit of a disservice because it’s actually a very well put together, slick piece of movie making for sure. I had a couple of problems with it, which I’ll come to (and it’s the same issue my friend who saw it with me had) but, overall it’s a very gutsy and technically well made piece of art.

Okay, so the film is about a group of truck stop girls (and a guy) played by Eden Brolin, Sam Quartin, Virginia Rand and Owen Campbell, plus their ‘employer’ played by Guinevere Turner. They all live in a few motel rooms and service the various truckers and other customers either in their rooms or out in ‘the pit’ where the truckers park up, taking sex directly into their trucks. Another character, who turns a blind eye but constantly procures the male sex worker for his own gay thrills is the local sheriff (who is very bad at his job, it has to be said) played by William Baldwin.

Now, they are constantly bothered by some kind of ‘deeply Christian’ cult talking about repenting and cleansing their souls living nearby and, one day, rejected from that clan of people, a character called Remy turns up, played by Olivia Luccardi. Now she is the naive girl who, because of their protective nature, gets taken in by the friendly bunch sex workers and she soon becomes one of the girls working tricks. Then a client turns up dead in the bathroom, his eye stabbed out. Things get more violent and it’s not long before one character starts attacking the customers in gory ways.

The film pulls no punches in certain areas of the dark territory it explores... via nudity and editing (yeah, I’ll get to it) but also has a truly poignant atmosphere and a sense of joy, love and camaraderie between the main characters. Which of course, makes the murders and sense of peril for these people all the more engaging.

Okay, so the editing. At lots of points in the film, especially early on, a bunch of close ups are used with the director cutting to details of what would normally have been a wider shot, often edited together every two or three seconds without any real sense of establishing shot, often used almost as a montage to bring you straight in, up close and personal, to the way the truck stop characters live their lives. So, that way of shooting things against the ingrained, expectations of wider master and establishing shots quite often, tends to leave you with a sense of being less than comfortable with the way the film is shot and, of course, this all serves to make the audience more vulnerable to the onslaught of both violent imagery but, also, really helps generate the amount of suspense and tension you are feeling. Especially coupled with the charming performances of the actors here. It really is skillfully put together and so I can forgive it any other problems I had with the film.

Bit I’ll highlight those two problems here anyway because, heck, it’s what I do, I guess.

Number one problem for me is you will clock onto who the killer is right before any of the murders take place. So when the first murder happens and it’s not made clear by that point who the culprit is (it will be soon), you pretty much know anyway what’s happened. Then there’s a red herring of a scene where one of the truckers attacks Owen Campbell’s character but, to be honest, that really doesn’t detract from who the real killer is and, yeah, I was disappointed to latch onto who it was that soon in the film. Although, having said that, maybe the writer/director wanted us to know that anyway from early on, to build the sense of tension so... yeah... it didn’t spoil things overall.

What did detract just a little (but not enough to not celebrate this marvellous film in the way it needs to be championed) is that both my friend and I were expecting the film to be a lot more violent than it is. Don’t get me wrong here... it’s a total bloodbath of a movie but, I think because they were going for practical effects instead of CGI (which is always going to be a better choice, I think, no matter what), I did get a sense of ‘feeling’ the kills rather than seeing them. Things were cutting away just before a body hit for the most part or taken from a concealing angle and, although there was plenty of gore on offer, it felt like the illusion of violence was in the foreground, rather than seeing a knife or blunt object actually penetrate a targeted part of someone’s anatomy in close up on camera. But, again, it’s only a minor grumble and, like I said, because of the visual language the director, DP and editor have boiled it all down to, it feels a lot rougher than it looks, if that makes sense.

All in all, then, a nicely put together movie full of nudity, gory aftermath, fantastic acting, a somewhat off-kilter editing style and some rough, dark subject matter. I won’t say anymore than that because I don’t want to spoil the experience for people but, yeah, Candy Land is definitely one to watch. Also, Colin Salmon was at hand to introduce a clip from his new exorcism movie Prey For The Devil, which is released in UK cinemas at Halloween this year and... yeah, he’s an interesting person to have speaking about your new movie, that's for sure.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Dark Glasses

Blind Games

Dark Glasses
aka Occhiali Neri
Italy/France 2022
Directed by Dario Argento
RAI Cinema
FrightFest Screening 27/8/22

I’m not quite sure why the new giallo from the legendary Dario Argento has met with a somewhat muffled response from audiences over the last few months. Dark Glasses is, in many ways, a return to form for Argento... although I’ve frankly found something good in pretty much everything he’s done, including those last few films which received a critical mauling from fans.

This one stars Ilenia Pastorelli as sex worker Diane. In an opening scene she apparently damages her eyes slightly by watching an eclipse although, frankly, not badly enough that it makes any difference to her vision and, asides from one line in the script, I suspect this sequence may well have been a hangover from another draft of the script 20 years prior but, typically for the director, he’s kept it in anyway because he wanted a nice scene showing an eclipse (I may be wrong about this but my gut tells me this may be true, since the director has admitted on numerous occasions in the past that clinging onto a fantastic visual composition is much preferable to it actually making sense within the context of the movie).

Anyway, after a string of escorts are killed... we see one grottled to death early on in the picture in a scene where she takes a bizarrely long time to bleed out and die, while a crowd of concerned onlookers fail to help her... Diane somehow finds herself next in the line of sight of the killer. An early scene which highlights the killer to the audience is so obvious that, most (including myself) would think that this was a deliberate red herring to deflect attraction from the real killer but, no, it’s not the case. Anyway, the killer... who is somehow intelligent enough to spray his black van white after the first victim but not smart enough to repaint it again after any of the other murders or attempted homicides in the picture... causes Diane to lose control of her car. She is blinded in the subsequent crash, which also kills a mother and father in another car, leaving an orphaned boy called Chin, played by Andrea Zhang.

Diane is given a dog and a white stick, striking up a friendship with her ‘adapting to being blind’ coach Rita, played by Asia Argento. She also, unofficially and illegally, adopts the boy but, of course, the killer is after them and the rest of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the killer, his intended victims and also the police, who want to find the boy to put him in an orphanage. And that’s enough I’ll say on the plot.

So, yeah, it’s actually in many ways a typical Argento and, right from the outset, you are probably going to be in not much doubt just who is directing this one. The score by Arnaud Rebotini (which is about to come out on CD, yay!), for example, is absolutely spot on for what I think Claudio Simonetti or his group Goblin would have been doing with this material. It sounds right away like it belongs in an Argento film.

Added to this we have the fluid, moving camera work and slavish devotion to beautiful visual compositions which you would expect from this director. He loves using elements of architecture and other natural elements to split the shots into interesting shapes and this is especially noticeable in the first two thirds of the movie, before we go into a rural setting leading to the film’s finale. For instance, there’s a wonderful shot where the screen is split by a big vertical doorframe which is taking up more or less the full height of the frame on the right hand third of the composition. Behind it, through the doorway in a corridor, on the wall right behind it, is a large, vertical rectangular painting... which is angled so the top and right hand sides of it make a perfect margin within the frame, thus accentuating the vertical split. Then, to the right and slightly overlapping the door is the big foreground head of Chin as he writes at a desk. Then, the other two thirds of the shot shows the wall with various bits of furnishing and Diane as an upright vertical herself at a distance farther back from the lens. This looks really great and, of course, this kind of stuff is exactly the reason why I admire Argento’s work so much.

One thing, it almost surprises me to say, is that the acting is pretty good. I mean, that’s kind of a given in terms of his daughter Asia but, both Pastorelli and Zhang do really well here and have good chemistry. It’s not quite the same kind of relationship as between Karl Malden’s blind character and his granddaughter in Argento’s classic Cat O Nine Tails (reviewed by me here) but, yeah, I can see how lovers of his earlier works might feel a little nostalgic at this element of the story.

If there’s anything I have to say as a criticism, it’s that the last third of the film could have been a little more ingenious in terms of character reveals and kills but, honestly, it all works fine and I was happy to be watching something which is, probably, his best movie since The Card Player. That being said... yeah... I could have done without the snakes scene which makes me giggle every time I watch this one (don’t ask... it could have used Samuel L. Jackson in here yelling it up a bit, maybe).

And, yeah, this is probably one of my shorter Argento reviews but, what can I say, I enjoyed Dark Glasses a lot and I hope a UK/USA friendly, subtitled Blu Ray gets a release date sometime soon... this one deserves it (although you can certainly pick up an Italian Blu Ray with English subs at the moment... copies of which were at sale on one of the stalls at this year’s FrightFest). A nice return to form and I hope we get more from Argento soon. He’s still a visual wizard. Actually, on that last point, Dario was on hand at the screening to talk a bit about the film and he is planing to start shooting a new movie in Paris, spring of next year, which he hinted would be a remake of a dark Mexican, 1940s movie so, yeah, we shall see.

Monday 29 August 2022

Orchestrator Of Storms

Rollin Alley

Orchestrator of Storms:
The Fantastique World
of Jean Rollin

USA 2022
Directed by Dima Ballin & Kat Ellinger
Arrow Films
FrightFest Screening 26/8/22

Orchestrator Of Storms: The Fantastique World Of Jean Rollin is a brand new documentary that I saw screening on its European premiere at this year’s FrightFest. And, truth be told, it was a really nice little movie. Although my first reaction to this heady concoction of talking heads, excerpts from Rollin’s cinema and behind the scenes stills was that it felt a little like “Rollin for Beginners” to a certain extent. Some of the presenters and guests for the screening seemed to be getting more out of it in terms of acquiring knowledge than I did and my first gut reaction straight after the screening was... really? You can pick most of this up from the extras on many DVDs and the few books written about the director. But then I realised that this documentary did do something new which I’m really grateful for... it did give me at least one thing I’d not known before and it also reminded me of something I’d long forgotten. And, actually, it also acts as a kind of summary for a lot of those old DVD and Blu Ray extras from times gone past so... yeah, after I got thinking about it for a bit, I figured I did get a lot out of it and, beyond me personally, this cinematic document is going to be a lot of help for people who don’t have the time or opportunity to piece together all this information like some of us were doing as teens in the 1980s, when there was no internet. So, yeah, good job.

The film talks to certain key people in the director’s life and various other experts, among them some very important ones such as the brilliant Virginie Sélavy (who I think I might have met at a seminar on Rollin’s work once and who was one of the guests here at FrightFest), the great Kier-La Janisse, Nigel Wingrove (who founded the Redemption label, instrumental in exposing a lot of people to Rollin’s work... albeit in sometimes cut form... in the UK back in the 80s and, indeed, Redemption’s recent definitive US Blu Ray editions are still the best documents of these films), the wonderful Françoise Pascal and frequent collaborator and legend Brigitte Lahaie... who was the main guest for this screening with much to say and who I was happy to meet, briefly, at a signing session after the film.

The movie takes us from Rollin’s early childhood, where I found out a little about his parents and was reminded that, when he was a very young boy, his mother was engaged in an amorous affair with the writer Georges Bataille, who was an early influence on Rollin. It goes through his early break into the film industry and talks about the riot that ensued at the screening of his first feature film The Rape Of The Vampire (which I reviewed here), putting it into context with what was going on at the time. It goes through, mostly, his personal films but it does touch on his career in the pornographic industry he used to finance his own work, perhaps a little more briefly than I would have liked since this is the stuff I genuinely don’t know much about and could do with learning a little more.

What I did find interesting was Rollin’s desire, in his final year, to try and make a movie version of Georges Bataille’s confrontational, pornographic work Story of the Eye (Histoire de l'oeil). Admittedly, it would be a tough movie to try and get past any censor in most countries but one thing which did spring to mind, when Wingrove describes the scene where a man’s eyeball is torn out and then inserted into a woman’s vagina... is that Bertrand Blier already filmed a version of that scene, pretty much, in his charming movie Merci La Vie so, yeah, maybe not necessarily that scene but it would have certainly made for a challenging movie, that’s for sure.

Kier-La Janisse once again tells the charming story about how she invited Jean Rollin to one of her first film festivals without realising the strings attached and it’s made apparent just how much that meant to Rollin and how much joy it brought him. The most moving and informative stuff in the film, though, I think comes from his technical collaborator Véronique Djaouti. There’s a point in the proceedings charting just how ill Rollin was in his final years and it gets to a point where she’s practically reliving his final night for the camera and just breaks down, unable to go on for a while. Now, I was in tears myself by this point so it’s admittedly a very powerful piece of film but I was thinking to myself... they could at least have turned the cameras off. I’m sure the footage is here by mutual consent though so, yeah, it’s strong and engaging stuff.

After the film finished there was a quite good Q&A with Sélavy, Lahaie and the man behind the new book about LeHai’s films and, I learned a lot from this too. I already had an inkling but it turns out that Lahaie has been successfully hosting a very popular two hour, daily radio show since early in the millennium and so she’s actually a very busy person these days. I’m not going to say too much about the Q&A because Arrow were filming it for inclusion on their Blu Ray of the movie, due to be released sometime next year. There were some interesting questions that came up though, including one about Rollin’s connections to the underground jazz music scene at the time.

And, yeah, I think that’s me done on Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin. I got so much more out of it than I at first realised and fans of this director’s filmography should appreciate this one... especially the future fans who will certainly find this an invaluable insight into the director’s life and work. This is probably my favourite film of FrightFest this year, I think.

Sunday 28 August 2022

The Breach

Collider Scope

The Breach
Canada 2022
Directed by Rodrigo Gudiño
Hangar 18 Media
FrightFest Screening 26/8/22

Okay, so The Breach was my first ‘in person’ screening back at FrightFest, since the start of the Covid pandemic. This one sounded really intriguing and, truth be told, I did find it to be pretty good up until a certain point in the story... and I’ll get to the negatives in a minute.

The film starts off very strongly with an opening scene following the progress of a canoe which washes up by the side of a river. A bunch of people relaxing in the sun go to check it out and then we see them all run screaming from it, before the picture freezes and shrinks down into the centre of the frame shaped as the words, The Breach (and more on that stylistic flourish a little later). Turns out there’s a mutilated body in the canoe which has been shredded pretty good, has six fingers on one hand and has all the bones vanished (rather than removed). The backpack with the body identifies it as a scientist set up in a house downstream in the wilderness. So the police guy Hawkins (played by Allan Hawco), his ex-girlfriend Meg (played by Emily Alatalo) who is an expert on the local area and her previous ex Jacob (played by Wesley French) who happens to be the local forensics guy... all take Meg’s boat to the location and try and find what happened to both the scientist and... also a problem... his long since missing daughter. When they get there they find a particle accelerator/collider style invention the scientist has been tinkering with, a lot of weird noises, incongruous events and, not only the scientist who was supposed to be the dead body but, also, his estranged wife. And the shenanigans heat up from there.

Okay, so positive things first. Well, the acting is great. Everyone works well together, certain tensions are pushed and it all makes sense and feels real. And you remember that start where everything shrinks down? Well the director opens the post credits shot as a box in the screen with a police car arriving and then opens that box out to fill the aspect ratio. And this seems to be a stylistic theme going on with the picture. He does this a couple of times, shrinking or expanding deliberately truncated frames and, sometimes when he isn’t doing it from a technology stand point, he’s also doing it with the frame content, designing shots here and there where objects or architectural details obscure both sides of the screen in black and the content of the frame is suddenly narrowed to a slit or a box. I’m not sure why he does this but... it’s an interesting visual signature for the film.

Another thing I appreciated was when a few characters were standing in profile on the left of shot about to go into a room. The camera pans right with them and the black of the wall moves into frame and, you would expect here that the wall would be a cut away to see them entering the unseen room on the left as it comes into view. Instead, when the black finishes it reveals the next room alright, still with the camera travelling in the same direction and at the same speed, but from an overhead shot with the characters entering on the opposite side of the screen. So, yeah, that was a nice visual rug pull which I appreciated, for sure.

My biggest problem with The Breach (which is based on a audible CD rather than a novel... so I guess I won’t be able to read that for further clarity) is that the film telegraphs itself a little. In terms of when the scientist suddenly turns up at the house... I kind of figured out what was going on. Also, to further compound what I think is the main fault of the film, the science behind the ‘why’ of things in the movie is unclear... like I said, they talk about quantum physics and so on without actually explaining the logic, purpose or specific outcome behind the scientist’s new invention. And, when a person in the film is identified by another as ‘the breach’, the ending I was assuming was going to happen to help support that statement didn’t, quite, happen either. Or rather, in this case (and I know I’m being cryptic if you haven’t seen the film, don’t want to put spoilers here), what it turns out hadn’t happened already to one specific character we meet early on in the film... kinda helped up the ante in terms of the amount of gore and a bolder statement for the ending but, yeah, like I said, it didn’t seem to support the premise being played around with here. At least that’s what I thought anyway.

And the film is an incredibly slow burn which, to be fair, I usually appreciate in a movie but this time around, I have to say it felt the wrong side of dull in some places (and I did notice a couple of walk outs at certain points with the audience, it has to be said). However, overall The Breach was nicely put together and certainly entertaining to a point. It didn’t blow me away but it’s by no means a bad movie and I think a lot of people will possibly get a kick out of this one. Especially Lucio Fulci fans, I suspect. Also, big shout out to actress Mary Antonini, playing a cop who had absolutely magnificent screen presence in the few scenes she was in... she needs to be in more stuff, I think. Not the best but certainly not the worst I’ve seen at FrightFest either so, yeah, maybe take a look at this one.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Mako - Jaws Of Death

Fin N’ Tonic

Mako -
Jaws Of Death

USA 1976
Directed by William Grefé  
Arrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Silly spoilers swimming under the surface of this review.

Well now, I can see how some people are going to be pretty underwhelmed by Mako - Jaws Of Death (as it’s titled on the actual print... as opposed to absolutely any other title listing for the film) but, you know, I kinda quite liked it and think it’s quite entertaining in a low key kinda way. This is the sixth film in Arrow’s incredible He Came From The Swamp - The William Grefé Collection Blu Ray boxed edition and, although the print isn’t in great condition (like a lot of these films included... barely saved from vinegar syndrome before it was too late), it does still retain its widescreen aspect ratio. This is the movie that Grefé worked on trying to get funding for years before and nobody was interested. Then a little movie called Jaws caused a bit of a bloody splash in 1975 and suddenly, everyone wanted their own shark picture. So although this is not actually a Jaws bandwagon movie... and the story certainly reflects that... it probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of Spielberg’s magnum opus.

Richard Jaeckel plays Sonny Stein, the main protagonist/antagonist, depending on your point of view. The film starts off strongly with a wonderful pre-credits sequence where three men on a boat are shark fishing. One of them has one on his line... then a frogman, Jaeckel, swims up to the shark and cuts it loose. He then boards the boat and cuts a swathe of bloody vengeance through the three fishermen, feeding them all to his sharky friends.

Okay, so the film tells Sonny’s story and pictures him as a kind of recluse... but he’s well known in Florida, where the movie is set, as being an expert on sharks. Everyone comes to this lonely man to fulfil their shark needs. He’s not that willing to help but he is pressured into it. He is conned into signing over one of his sharks to a sideshow act in a local bar and a scientific researcher wants him to ‘loan’ them his pregnant shark friend for ‘observation’. Yeah, you can kinda see what’s coming. One of the ‘bad guys’ is Harold ‘Odd Job’ Sakata (of Goldfinger fame) as another ‘shark worrier’... he seems to be turning up in a few things I’ve watched recently.

At some point in the film we get to hear Sonny’s back story... which is this. In the war, in the Philippines, he was trying to escape from some bad guys. At some point he has to make a choice between staying on dry land and getting shot or jumping into the local shark infested waters and possibly being eaten alive. So of course, he chooses the latter (just, why?) but the sharks don’t eat him... instead they eat the two guys chasing him. A local shaman... who is a ‘shark shaman’ sitting on his shark throne and who hangs with an unseen tribe of shark worshippers... witnesses what has happened and is impressed. He gives Sonny a big shark medallion and tells him that, whenever he is wearing the medallion, he is a friend of the sharks and they will talk to him. So, yeah, that’s why all of Sonny’s best mates have fins and impressive pearly whites, I guess.

Anyway, things come to a head and, when Sonny finds out that the guy who owns the bar is torturing the shark with sound waves to make it seem more threatening in the tank... and also that the ‘scientists’ have killed the pregnant shark and all the babies, well... he goes on a roaring rampage of revenge, killing all the nasty humans who are being unkind to sharks.

And it was okay... I found it entertaining. It really makes no references to Jaws and even the music is, almost always, completely unlike the iconic John Williams score for Spielberg’s picture. According to the IMDB, the score is by two composers, William Loose and Paul Ruhland but, it never really seems like it was scored to work together or even with the images, to be honest. It sounds more like needle drop to me and I wonder if these composers actually did work with Grefé on this movie or whether he just took existing music by both of them and dropped it into his film.

Jaeckel cut his head open on one day of shooting (the same day the camera was accidentally destroyed and the boat needed for the shoot hit a sand bank)... but he was apparently stitched up at the local hospital and back on the set in no time. I don’t know if this explains why, in some of the ‘swimming with Mako sharks’ shots, he has a big stuntman standing in for him... a stuntman who’s desperately trying to obscure his unfamiliar face from the camera by hiding it behind the shark’s fin. It looks pretty funny, it has to be said.

Not too much more to be said about Mako - Jaws Of Death really. It’s not particularly well put together in terms of the way the frames are designed or anything but it’s a more than competently sewn up movie experience (there are many movies out there by directors where you couldn’t say the same thing), it’s fairly fast paced, it’s entertaining and shark whisperer Jaeckel gives a real good, mean and pyschotic stare when required. Not a bad movie but, like I said, a lot of people are probably not going to give it much time. I liked it though and, yes, I’d watch it again.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Ghost Shark


The Phantom
Men Eats

Ghost Shark
USA 2013 Directed by G. E. Furst
Active Entertainment Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight spoilers prowling the depths.

When I set out to watch Ghost Shark I thought to myself two things... one was “This has got to be a fun movie if it has a phantom shark in it, right?” and the other was... “No matter how bad this is, it can’t be as badly a made wasted opportunity as Shark Exorcist, surely?” Well, having now watched it I’d have to say a resounding “no” to the former and a “yeah, pretty much” to the latter. Although, as you can probably figure out from my review of Shark Exorcist (right here), that wouldn’t be hard for any film crew who at least can figure out which direction to point the camera in.

Now Ghost Shark is not as bad a movie as it clearly could have been... the production values are way better than Shark Exorcist although, the special effects in this are still quite cheap looking. However, the first half an hour of the film... which sets up the death of a great white shark at the hands of some fishermen... okay, fisherpeople... that then gets accidentally resurrected in a mystical cave and metes out swift justice to its killers... is just a deadly dull affair. The film does kind of pick up after that, though, when the central bunch of teenagers investigate and try to rid the waters of the Ghost Shark but, by then, it’s a little too late to really save the film.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again... how do you mess up a great concept like the deadly, ghostly apparition of a shark by being this dull with the writing. Some of the outrageous deaths (I’ll get to that in a minute) certainly provide a little comedy but the blandness and lack of humour in all the central characters really kinda kills the movie stone dead, in all honesty. These are not the kinds of people... teenagers and adults alike... who I would be choosing to spend any time with and so, obviously, I’m not in a position where I can be rooting for any of them to survive the movie.

Now the premise is way better than the rest of the film and the deaths are comically creative because of that. The titular phantom predator is attracted to water... any body of water... and so a lot of comedy ensues as the various bodies of water it inhabits get sillier and sillier. The film starts to liven up at a pool party when the shark suddenly jumps up and grabs one of the teens, flying away into the heavens. A few seconds later, the kid’s head lands and spikes itself on the neck of a bottle one of the others is drinking from. Then there’s stuff like a plumber being pulled into the pipes he’s working on by the shark, a lawn water slide where a kid gets swallowed and a sexy car wash with bikini clad girls working the hoses as they are all grabbed by the shark, one girl being pulled down into her bucket. In one instance, a guy unintentionally drinks a cup of water he’s just filled from a dispenser and the shark must have been in it because it bursts out of the man’s body, splitting him in two.

Of course, once you know it can attack anything, you know what to expect when any of the main protagonists are put in a place near water. So an accidental fire at a museum starts the sprinklers going and everyone inside is immediately in peril. Or the climax of the movie when the teens are trying to ‘exorcise’ the shark by blowing up a cave (no, I’m not going to bother to explain this hastily cobbled together plot, if you really want to know then watch the movie... but there are better films you could be watching) it suddenly starts raining so, you know, the ghost shark can obviously swim through the rain. Unfortunately, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to the way the violence manifests. When one of the heroines is pulled down into the depths of her bath by the shark, she is suddenly ejected with a just a minor scratch on her leg (even though we’d just seen the bath fill with blood). No idea what’s going on there.

And, of course, the other thing about these hollow but pleasantly silly deaths is the special effects are not that great and the CGI is not looking good. There’s some deliberately hasty editing involved too... if you know what I mean.

The scoring by someone called Andrew Morgan Smith is somewhat lacking, I felt. Not necessarily in composition but in terms of its presence in the mix. The style of it is strange because he does seem to be homaging John Williams’ score to the first two Jaws movies throughout but, not the actual two note shark motif... more the kind of beach-town Americana which was dotted about those scores. However, maybe it’s a smaller orchestra or, yeah, just too mixed into the background because, like the film itself, it almost but never quite makes it. Everything feels cheap and somewhat lacklustre so, I guess, in a way it’s the perfect score for this kind of film. Sometimes a really great score can absolutely save and re-pace a movie and make it something much more interesting than it initially was. Alas, that’s not the case with Ghost Shark.

And that’s pretty much my final word on the matter. The people behind the camera occasionally have moments where they really try to make something interesting... for example, a shot focusing on the reflection of a character in a lamp... but it never really jells as a whole and I think both shark and bad movie enthusiasts are going to find the film lacking in any real entertainment value. Sad to say. Nice idea, terrible execution. Glad I bought a cheap second hand copy but the changing, lenticular cover on the front of the Blu Ray is much more entertaining than the film itself.

Monday 22 August 2022

Shark Exorcist


Shark Exorcist
USA Directed by Donald Farmer
Kaleidoscope DVD Region 2

Wow. I don’t know where to start. I think it’s quite possible I’ve never seen a film so badly made and, also, so incredibly and irritatingly dull at the same time. I don’t know what went wrong with Shark Exorcist but, from a brilliantly stupid idea like a demonically possessed shark going around eating people... and possessing the first woman it bites... you have to wonder how this monstrosity turned out so bad. I mean, with a high art concept like that, you’d have to work really hard to actually screw it up, right?

Okay, having seen the most one and two star reviews of my life on IMDB for this movie, I thought I’d better give a review of this a go but... I don’t know how to talk about this without it sounding like a lot of fun. All I can say, people, is... it really isn’t. I had high hopes that this movie would be so bad it’s good. A lot of companies are doing that now, right? After the success of movies like Birdemic and Sharknado (neither of which I’ve seen but I should probably give Birdemic a go at some point, at least) it seems some really stupid concepts are turning up as deliberately bad movies to entertain the more discerning cine enthusiasts out there. They all, it seems to me from the few films like this I’ve seen, have their tongues wedged firmly into their cheeks and taking the ‘over the top but, you know, the cast and crew are in on the joke’ style of attitude, which served Stephen Sommers so well on his reboot of The Mummy, as their mantra. Unfortunately, as demonstrated with this movie, sometimes the people both in front of and behind the camera are less than able to deliver a truly ironic movie. This thing is way worse than I could possibly have imagined.

So the plot, as far as I can make out (I’m apparently not the only person who couldn’t make head or tail of half the stuff seen here) involves an evil nun who stabs a woman at the start and offers her up as some kind of sacrifice in her local lake. The nun then doesn’t turn up again until the end (in another of many sequences throughout the film that make no sense at all) but this is presumably how the demonically possessed shark, who you will only ever see floating in a stand-in tank or background and using what was probably almost the entire budget for wonky CGI, came into existence. It then bites someone, off camera and, the teeny tiny bite she has imbues her personality with the shark’s too. So she goes around eating people with some... actually quite nice looking shark teeth. The teeth are good, not the actress but, I think you only see them briefly in one or two shots.

And there’s a load of shenanigans with the lady from the local reality TV show Ghost Whackers, who also accidentally gets possessed by the shark and... some shenanigans with at least four lots of women writhing on the ground at various points for totally unknown reasons. Maybe the reasons are in some of the dialogue you don’t get to hear...

Oh right. Did I tell you this film was badly made? I’m pretty sure no post synch dubbing or building of  foley was used (apart from on the priest character, who’s barely in it and is somehow out of synch). When certain locations are used (the whole film seems shot on location), the wind in the microphone is so bad that you can’t hear half the dialogue. Seriously, the sound goes in and out randomly. And also, there’s one scene where you wish the sound did go out because... well, I don’t know if the producers could afford a second camera or not but I swear there’s a scene where you can hear what is either the sound of another scene being shot simultaneously or, I dunno, maybe they’re just rehearsing another scene in the background while they’re shooting this one. And don’t talk to me about the fairground scenes, which were perhaps be too much for the microphones to be able to handle, so they just lost the sound and replaced it with a cheap sounding score altogether. Seriously. You wouldn’t believe the level of easily fixable incompetence here. Stay with me, it gets worse.

There are some very un-shark like deaths in terms of aftermath in this movie. Don’t expect to see the shark ever interacting with anything on screen. Even when it’s stalking in less than a foot of water, you will still see it swimming in the big, blue tank. So you’ll see people hurling themselves under the water and then, when their bodies are found, they might have a little blood on their mouth or... well, this is more badly handled than I could possibly describe. And when I tell you the shark has glowing eyes, that sounds like it at least could be cool in a silly way, right? No. When you do see these shots... and you’ll have time to be familiar with them because I’m pretty sure it’s the same two or three quick shots reinserted and recycled throughout the entire movie... the glowy eyes which have obviously been put on after, have trouble sometimes staying in the right place or shimmering about and not quite always being where the eyes of the shark actually are. This is beyond shoddy.

If you’re looking for exploitation in this... you’ll be as disappointed on that score too, as you would expect some gory violence when the shark lets loose. There’s lots of shots of women in bikinis... being incompetently filmed with way too long takes, just like one of the post credits sequences in this film... where lots of barely watchable footage is followed up with something completely incomprehensible and possibly not even connected to... whatever the story is supposed to be about. If I hadn’t paid out money for this film I would have not bothered seeing this one through to the end. And bearing in mind the film is only one hour and eleven minutes long... you ‘d be surprised how much a film could drag. This thing seemed like I was watching it all day and, honestly, this film makes The Beaster Bunny (reviewed here) seem like something on the level of Star Wars. I have no idea why Shark Exorcist was even allowed onto the home video market. It should be illegal that people are being charged money for this. They should be paying us.

So that’s me done with Shark Exorcist... because I’m sitting here now trying to figure out just why I’m wasting time typing this one up. This film has only three good things going for it, which I shall reveal now. It has a good title/concept. It has some brilliant cover art... of a scene that’s not even in the movie... and it has one good line, “We’re going to need a bigger cross.” And that’s it. I wouldn’t be so cruel enough to recommend this disaster of a film to even those people who I know, like me, appreciate a bad movie. That’s 71 minutes of my life I am never getting back again and I feel like almost suing the company that allowed this one a release. Half the scenes look like they’re just there because the director and producers needed to get various family and friends in it... that’s the only reason I can think that some of the scenes are in here. Steer clear of this one folks. My only compensation is that I doubt if there’s a worse move out there I could possibly, accidentally stumble on. Just awful and it gives both shark movies and bad movies a bad name, so to speak.

Sunday 21 August 2022

Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre

Sharking Up
The Wrong Tree

Sharkansas Women's
Prison Massacre

USA 2015 Directed by Jim Wynorski
Shout Factory Blu Ray Zone A

The only way I found out about Sharkansas Women's Prison Massacre, somehow, is because I bought a limited edition CD soundtrack which was signed by the composer a few years ago. Given the plot, how this never got some kind of cinema release (or any release) in the UK and only a TV/home entertainment release in the US is anybody’s guess and would probably leave most people who are into these kinds of ‘high concept ridiculous trash’ movies scratching their heads in disbelief. I mean, the film is about a group of female inmates who escape from a prison near the swampland of Kansas, being chased and eaten by prehistoric sharks who can swim as fast through land as they can through water. Being as they are not actual sharks which you can experience in the real world, that may push the movie into horror territory for some people although, personally, I think this is more of a fantasy thriller.

The film starts off with two guys fracking in the district which, of course, ruptures the dividing walls between our world and a subterranean ocean, allowing the pre-historic, armoured sharks who, like I said, can swim as easily through the floors of the surrounding forests as they can through water, out into the area. Meanwhile, a crew of prisoners from Arkansas Women’s Prison have been sent out into the forest to clear logs. There is a scene where they take a rest break and seem to end up pouring more water on their t-shirts than they do into their mouths but, strangely enough, this and a similarly tame hot tub scene are the only hints that this may have started out being written as some kind of exploitation film and, while there is plenty of quick gore, there’s absolutely no nudity here... although the various actresses such as Dominique Swain, Christine Nguyen, Cindy Lucas and Amy Holt are ll pretty cute, if that’s your kind of thing. Suddenly though, the girls and their gaolers, including John Callahan playing a very fair and smart Prison Warder, are held up and taken hostage by one of the prisoners’ girlfriends. They are all taken to hide out in a cabin to wait for the law to stop looking for them. Instead, they get sharks.

Meanwhile, Detective Kendra Patterson (played by Traci Lords) and her partner Adam (played by Corey Landis) are searching the area for someone and then get mixed up, from a distance, at the periphery of the action while they try and figure out just what is going on. What’s going on is a group of survivors trying to get to safety and away from the killer land sharks who want their blood. Not much else to tell, I guess.

The film is not, quite, what I was expecting. If this had been attempted in the 1970s I’m sure there would have been some harder and sleazier moments in the film, for sure but, instead, we have a nicely shot movie with occasional kill scenes and some pretty nice cinematography here and there. The various scenes set in an underground grotto are nicely lit and composed, the colours popping in all the right ways. Also, the acting, despite the kind of over the top characters which are always the currency of films like this, is actually pretty good. I’ve not seen Traci Lords in anything before, to my knowledge, but I really did enjoy her performance as the lead and seasoned police detective... even if the lines on the page were occasionally working against her (how many times was she required to speak the line “You do that!”?). She plays it dead pan even when there are some silly jokes, like when her partner asks her if she’s found anything and she starts showing him this vintage coke bottle made of glass she’s found, which will look really good in her minibar at home. Little things like this keep me watching these kinds of movies. Also the big things but, I probably won’t go into those particular assets possessed by a number of the cast in this particular review.

So yeah, it’s a nice film. Some of the blood splashes look a little too much like CGI rather than the often more effective, practical, in-camera variety but mostly it’s one of those films which deal with quick flashes of action and then concentrates more on the bloody aftermath, presumably because that’s a much more budget conscious thing to do. The sharks are actually quite well rendered and burrow through the ground at an alarmingly fast rate, feeling surprisingly dangerous in some sequences. That being said, the trails they make when they burrow through the earth seem to mostly disappear from scene to scene, which was quite puzzling, I thought.

So, yeah, this is not as tacky or inappropriate to good taste as the awesome title of Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre had raised my expectations to, for sure, but it does have a certain, almost 1980s glamour charm to it and I certainly didn’t get bored during the 84 minute running time. Possibly one of the least offensive pseudo-exploitation films I’ve seen but I still enjoyed it. Not sure I could recommend it as something to seek out but it’s definitely not one to avoid, for sure. Maybe give it a go sometime.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Bliss (2019)

Night Of The
Living Pez

USA 2019
Directed by Joe Begos
Eureka Entertainment

Warning: Spoilers here be... you were warned.

I missed Bliss a couple of years ago when... I think it played FrightFest over here in the UK? I think it was a case of really not liking the poster design (I still don’t) and having other movies on my priority list that year. The only reason I came back to this is because the writer/director, Joe Begos, made another movie I saw recently called The Mind’s Eye (reviewed here) which was... well it was kind of an unofficial sequel to Cronenberg’s Scanners, to my mind. The stand out of that movie for me was the score by Steve Moore, which sounded a lot like early to mid phase John Carpenter by the finish of it. Anyway, astonishingly, I managed to find a soundtrack CD to that movie (which is great, by the way) and when I was looking at the website of the company that put the CD out, Relapse Records, I came across a couple of other CD scores by the same guy including this one, Bliss, which was for the same director. So there we are... I wasn’t expecting too much but I gave it a go and... wow.

I really wasn’t expecting to be as impressed by this movie as I was (so much so that I’m going to order a Blu Ray copy of it real soon... and the CD, of course). A certain amount of that is down to the director and crew. I don’t know who Begos is but it’s like, since The Mind’s Eye, his confidence and boldness with what he is trying out with the camera and editing has matured and grown to the point where he really delivers something which demands your attention. The crucial part of this movie for me though, was the absolutely brilliant, tour-de-force performance by an actress I’ve never heard of called Dora Madison, who plays the films central protagonist Dezzy.

Okay...the plot is extremely simple. Dezzy is an artist, working on a big piece on canvass for an exhibition but has been ‘blocked’ for months. She can’t seem to get the painting done and it’s got to the point where she has no rent money and is dumped by her agent. So she goes to one of her drug dealing friends, played by Graham Skipper from The Mind’s Eye and gets something called Diabolo, which is the drug ‘Bliss’, referred to in the title. The effect is marked and immediate and Dezzy is out of it until she wakes up at a party and then has a threesome with two friends... Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield). Because she’s riding the effects of the drugs and booze she doesn’t notice when, during the sex session, Courtney delivers a vampire bite to her neck and sucks her blood and then gives her some in return. The effect on her painting, however, is beneficial and the rest of the film is about her getting paranoid, getting drugs, finally realising she’s a vampire and then killing people to drink their blood (in some fairly graphic ways) so she can finish the painting... because she will stop at nothing to complete the painting and, that’s kind of my way into the character because I can kinda sympathise with that. Anyhow, that’s the film in a nutshell, if plot is your kind of thing but it's the performance and direction which really make this one of the true vampire masterpieces of our time.

Now, most people who know me know that the quality of the performance in a film rarely comes up but, this one’s hard to ignore as Madison gives her all to the role and really lets go of herself to deliver one of the grittier and gutsier acting jobs I’ve seen in a movie for a long time. And it works in spite of the character she’s playing. I mean, honestly, she’s a hard person to like. She’s bratty, antagonistic, generally unsympathetic and, normally, this would be more than enough to turn me off a movie but, somehow, the actress finds a little of the light of the character to keep me interested in this one (even though she wears a Death Waltz t-shirt and, honestly, vinyl is not my thing... give me a CD any day of the week). I think, for me, the absolute obsession of her to finish the art at the cost of everything and everyone in her life is the glimmer of empathy I needed to get me into the character. I used to love doing ‘fine art’ before I became a graphic designer and the obsessive ‘art trumps people’ kind of attitude you kinda need as part of your psyche to pull this stuff off was something I’d forgotten about but was happy to be reminded of.

And a lot of the scenes in this are wordless, as she gets naked in front of her canvass (both physically and spiritually) and just tears into it with paint and, yeah, sometimes blood. It’s astonishing stuff and the way the camera works in this, totally focused on her character the whole time, really pays off. Such as when the camera is doing 360 degree turns in a bar with a swirl of noise and music before we are suddenly jarred out of it with an overhead shot of her naked on the floor, back in her studio.

Indeed, the way her performance is captured is inevitably a big contributing factor towards the success of the movie too. There’s a party scene where various conversations are chopped up and cross cut to give a real naturalistic feel of people dipping in and out of conversations, fuelled by booze and drugs. My favourite thing, though, is there seems to be almost an absence of establishing shots for most of the film. So instead of going to the next scene, we’ll suddenly be surprised by already being in a different location in the next scene without any preliminary visuals to give us a location fix and this works really well as an on screen indicator of the level of paranoia and the drug/blood heightened sense of dislocation of the character. There are even a few of those shots where the camera is connected directly onto the actor so the front or back of her is static in the middle of everything else she’s moving around... it’s not done often these days but it’s a trick that never really gets old, it seems to me. It’s great stuff and, all the while, Steve Moore’s very different but still kick ass score punctuates the splintering visuals with something which lifts them even higher.

Also, in addition to all this (as if this wasn’t enough), there are some great new takes on the old school vampire legacy. Such as, when a vampire is staked in this... instead of crumbling to dust they just kind of melt away like ice cream (which I suspect is possibly how the practical special effect of this was achieved). Ditto, when a vampire is exposed to sunlight, it’s not a disintegration, it’s a full on blood splashed explosion of flesh. And some of the kills are really memorable too... in addition to seeing George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) come up very close and personal with Dezzy’s new vampiric blood lust... there’s also a scene where she literally pops a guy’s head back like he was a Pez dispenser, leaving the head attached by a hinge of flesh while she dives into the bloody stump of the neck for her next, urgent fix. It’s a memorable moment for sure.

And, yeah, that’s me done with Bliss (until I watch it again which, well, which will be when the Blu Ray arrives and I take an evening off from writing). This feels like one of the best vampire movies in the last ten years and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has an affinity to films that portray obsession, horror, vampirism or, like this one, the thrilling intersection of all three. If you like that kind of stuff... go seek this one out now, it’s truly phenomenal.

Tuesday 16 August 2022

The Falcon In San Francisco

The San
Francisco Kid

The Falcon In
San Francisco

USA 1945
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
RKO/Warner Archive DVD Region 1

And once again a short review for another short movie in the successful series of films about The Falcon, aka Tom Lawrence. This time around it’s The Falcon In San Francisco, another cracking yarn in the franchise and, it has to be said, these films really didn’t just sit still and let them be held to too much of a formula... as long as they stuck with the character set up, the studio seemed to be happy to not just keep repeating variations of the same film over and over and the series kept getting tweaked.

Case in point, we have the return of The Falcon’s side kick Goldie Locke, brought back into the series for a couple of times but this time he’s played by Edward Brophy, a much loved character actor who’s voice would become beloved by children when he recorded the dialogue for Timothy, the mouse in Dumbo. Here he’s still the ‘not so smart’ ex-con established by previous actors in the role and he’s given some appropriately comical dialogue routines with The Falcon, played once again by Tom Conway, including a running gag about trying to find a wife to help him simplify his insurance forms.

The plot starts right away as The Falcon and Goldie, travelling on a train to Frisco, meet a kid... a young girl played by Sharyn Moffett along with her well trained dog, Diogenese. She strikes up a friendship with the two and, it’s just as well, as they have to put off their vacation in order to help the girl and her much older sister, when the child’s nanny is found murdered on the train. It all leads back to the young girl’s parental lineage, a new identity for an old time hoodlum from prohibition days and some kind of silk smuggling racket on board a ship. Can The Falcon help the two young ladies get out from under a dark inheritance of family trouble and foil the various criminals, in what turns out to be a fairly convoluted plot? Well sure he can, although he’s not above making a few mistakes of his own in this one and he doesn’t see the obvious betrayal coming until it’s too late... not that I’m going to spoil the story for you here.

The film is easy going and breezes along at it’s own pace, helped along by a strong bunch of actors including, as a somewhat hard to pin down character, Robert Armstrong  (who people may best remember for his portrayal of the original Carl Denham in King Kong and its quick follow up Son Of Kong back in the 1930s). It also has a very striking ‘heavy’ played by Carl Kent in this one and I wonder if some cuts were made to tone the nastiness down here (which does seem a little out of character for the series in general).

Why I wonder this is because there’s a scene where The Falcon leaves a restaurant with two men who present themselves as police and the next shot is a transition into him waking up the next morning having been beaten up by them. He’s still the prisoner of one of the villains in this film by this point and when he fails to give an answer to a question which, to be fair to him, he doesn’t know anything about when asked, he is beaten up some more. Which seems unusual and a much more sustained degree of villainy for the series than what were used to, I feel.

Still, it’s a fun enough film and, bearing in mind the running time of the pictures were just over 65 minutes long by this point, they manage to cram an awful lot into the story and give everyone plenty to do. You certainly can’t fault the pacing on this one, for sure.

Another unusual thing about this one is that there’s no steady romantic figure in the movie for the Tom Lawrence character. I mean, sure, he turns on the charm a couple of times and engages in the usual flirtations but there’s nobody chasing him and each time he gets interested in one of the various ladies in the film, he finds he knows them less well than he thought, as there’s usually a character reveal somewhere very soon relating to them.

Other than this... no, I really don’t have much more to say about The Falcon In San Francisco. Musical continuity is kept with some of the previous films on the opening credits and, just like the previous two films in the series (The Falcon in Mexico, reviewed here and The Falcon In Hollywood, reviewed here) the film doesn’t feature a cliffhanger leading to an unfilmed Falcon adventure. All in all, another fine entry in the series and, I think I only have two more left to watch based on this character (the later films after Tom Conway stopped playing him were based on an entirely different character, also called The Falcon but accredited to the wrong writer... but that’s another story, I guess).

Monday 15 August 2022

Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian

Blood And Crom

Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian -
The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus

by Robert E. Howard
Pulp Lit Productions
ISBN: 9781635912715

Robert E. Howard wrote his completed Conan stories, of which there are around 20 (and that’s including a few novellas and one novel), between the years 1932 and 1936. The last story, Red Nails, was published shortly after his death. When he was 30 and his mother had become gravely ill, he was filled with despair and shot himself, thus ending a quite prolific literary career filled with many different characters of varying genres. Indeed, it might be said by some that he invented the ‘heroic fantasy’ or ‘sword and sorcery’ genre with others following in his path (Tolkien’s The Hobbit was first published in 1937).

I have, of course, read all of Howard’s Conan stories before, a number of times (not to mention Conan tales by other writers over the years). The last time I read them it was in a two volume paperback edition which collected the stories in the chronology of the character’s exploits. However, I wanted a nice hardback edition and, well, I can’t say I chose the absolute best edition with this Pulp Lit Productions version, Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian - The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus. It has its advantages as well as its disadvantages which, I’ll go into first because, well there is a lot of positive stuff here so, lets get the silliest thing out of the way first.

When I bought this edition of the book, for reasons I’ll go into soon, I was under the impression that I was rebuying all of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales but, as the editor of this edition points out in his introduction, two stories are not present. One of which is a quite famous one, The God In The Bowl. Apparently this was Howard reworking one of his earlier stories and retrofitting it to his Conan character (much like I’ve seen certain money hungry authors adapt other Howard tales into Conan stories, over the intervening decades) and it wasn’t, like the other missing story, ever published in Weird Tales and, well, this is supposed to be an anthology of Conan tales published in that magazine. I could almost live with that if it weren’t for the fact that one Conan story and also one monograph on The Hyborian Age by Howard, also included in this admittedly handsome tome, were published in other publications. This felony... and I think it such because of the rules of exclusion of the two remaining Conan tales... is further compounded with the book starting off with three non-Conan short stories, one of Kull The Conqueror and two featuring Soloman Kane. This, it says, is to give us an understanding of how the writing style grew and advanced into Conan but, frankly, I’d have been more able to see this with the inclusion of those two missing Conan stories. So, yeah, that’s my only real negative here and I’ve said my piece on that.

The positives are much more interesting though because the book has been designed in a way to more or less match the reading experience as it would have been presented month after month in Weird Tales. Not that the stories are split into multiple parts but they are double columned on the page with the original interior illustrations reproduced... and with Margaret Brundage’s cover art included, albeit in black and white form, when the covers of a particular issue were highlighting Howard’s Conan contributions (two full colour Brundage art paintings are also used for the front and back covers). What I will say about Brundage’s work is... the paintings are absolutely beautiful and, in no way a reflection of Conan as a character, even by the standards that these kind of muscular characters were portrayed as back in the 1930s. The likeness of Conan is very weak in these but, it has to be said, her lithe and, almost always semi naked, women are a wonder to behold.

Another good thing about this volume is that it’s a real education into the haphazard and non-chronological way in which these things were, not just published but written. These are published in the exact order in which Weird Tales published them and so the first Conan story here is The Phoenix And The Sword. This is indeed one of the earliest Conan stories written and here Conan is already at the farthest end of his career, in that he is already the usurper King Conan of Aquilonia. The preceeding tales dot around from various different points in his career... thief, buccaneer, general, king etc... without much thought from either the magazine’s publishers nor, it has to be said, from Howard, as to the chronology of the character, although there is a perceived order when you read through the tales somewhere in there, trying to get out. Helpfully, the editor writes a small introduction to each story to place the timeframe in Howard’s output in the reader’s mind and, at the end of each story, there is a note on which page to turn to next if one wants to read the stories in the order in which Howard actually completed them, as opposed to their publication order. Reading them in their publication order this time, for the first time, gave me a real insight into what I thought had always been a long term plan in Howard’s mind. There are often passages which refer to Conan one day becoming king of a region and, where I’d always assumed that this was something he’d been working towards, I’d not realised that he had already written at least two of those tales where he was a monarch.

Even the novel, The Hour Of The Dragon, which sees Conan lose and then, through a hard quest and series of battles, regain the throne of Aquilonia, was published before the last, posthumous story, Red Nails, which sees Conan back in time as being a thief and adventurer again.

Anyone who’s read these wonderful tales will, of course, know how ahead of his time Howard was in terms of the violence and raciness of the tales. Compared to some of the pulp classics of the day such as The Shadow or Doc Savage (my favourite), the pages of Weird Tales were running red with the blood of crushed heads and bodies smote in half by Conan’s broadsword. Short, pacey sentences such as “The man’s brains spattered in his face.” were not uncommon in these tales. And the Margaret Brundage paintings were definitely on point when it came to the profusion of naked damsels with curves wobbling through the text.

Another thing I noticed, or rather deduced, was the promotion of the evil sorcerer Thoth Amon character after Howard’s death. Anyone reading the Marvel comics or writers such as L. Sprague De Camp’s additions to the Conan saga will know Thoth as his constant and devious literary nemesis. However, after making his first appearance as a periphery character who escapes his own bondage and never once met Conan in The Phoenix And The Sword, he is only mentioned, briefly in passing, in a couple of other stories. He never meets Conan and you never know whether either of them are on each other’s radar. I believe he turns up in The God In The Bowl but, like I said... that story is not included here and I don’t remember much about it. So his rise to super villainy, not to mention appearing as a main character in the second Conan movie, is definitely something that Howard would probably have not done himself.

Talking about the films though... although they are kind of pastiches of the original tales with a lot of stuff just created for the screen, you can certainly see where certain moments came from in terms of what Howard himself wrote. For instance, the crucifixion scene, complete with Conan biting on the neck of a vulture feasting on him as he hangs on a cross, is from the tale A Witch Is Born. The scene where a wizard turns a man’s arrow into a snake in The People Of The Black Circle is obviously something which the writers of the first movie looked at when concocting the demise of Valeria in that film, as is the battle with the giant snake where Conan pins its jaws together with his dagger.

Indeed, the movie version of Valeria herself seems to be an amalgam of at least two characters in Howard’s original chronicles of Conan. Valeria is very much a feisty and strong female co-star of the final tale in this volume, Red Nails. However, she also has more than a lot in common with Conan’s lover, Belit, the pirate queen from The Queen Of The Black Coast, including the long speech which is almost verbatim in the movie about coming back from death to once again aid Conan, something which she indeed does at the end of the tale, when the Cimmerian buccaneer finds himself in trouble.

There are other things of interest in the text too. For instance, the city of Dagon, which comes right out of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu tales (Howard was a contemporary correspondent of the writer and wrote his own Cthulhu tales too), turns up in the Conan story The Devil In Iron. And, from my point of view, I couldn’t help but think that the giant metal God from this same tale might well have inspired Ray Harryhausen’s giant metal creature Talos in Jason And The Argonauts (I know Harryhausen wanted to have a crack at Conan, at one point in his own career).

Another item of interest is the way in which the writing changes on occasion. There are two of the tales which feature a less than happy ending (although Conan always escapes with his own skin, obviously). And a couple of the tales aren’t always as focussed on the Cimmerian as they are on other characters. This would include one which is... and I thank the editor for pointing it out in an introduction... about the politics of the Old West but, instead of writing it in one of his Western yarns, Howard uses it as a metaphor in Beyond The Black River. But this really is a cowboys and indians sort of piece. Another example of the text suddenly straying in terms of the norm, would be in the penultimate couple of chapters of Hour Of The Dragon. Having stayed at Conan’s side for pretty much the entirety of the novel, the reader is suddenly redirected to Conan’s enemies and the last, big battle of the novel between the various armies is told from their point of view rather than the victorious Aquilonian forces and their allies. Which is kind of interesting and one wonders where Howard would have gone with the way the tales were written from here, had he not cut his own life so short.

And that’s all I have to say about the original, ‘pure Howard’ Conan stories as collected in Conan The Cimmerian Barbarian - The Complete Weird Tales Omnibus. Other than this edition comes with a free download of the book, both as an ebook and as an audio book, if you purchase this. You know my thoughts on the pros and cons of this volume so caveat emptor... and all that. You make your choice now with at least the knowledge of all that’s contained in this edition. Personally I enjoyed it very much... it would have been just perfect though, if the remaining two stories had been included.

Sunday 14 August 2022

Prey (2022)

Prey Detour

USA 2022
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
20th Century Fox

Warning: Some minor,
four legged spoilers within.

Okay, so Prey is the seventh film in the much loved Predator franchise. Well... much loved by Predator fans that is, I’ve always been a bit hot and cold with the series myself. If I had any previous favourites they would be, for the record... Predator 2, AVP - Alien VS Predator and the previous installment, The Predator (reviewd here). Those three were all okay. So I’m very happy that, with Prey, I now have a Predator film I think is really good. It’s a breath of fresh air to the series and this one, also, happens to be a prequel... set in ‘The Northern Great Plains September 1719’. That’s the Wild West to me and you.

This one tells of a young Comanche girl called Naru, played brilliantly by Amber Midthunder. She knows medicine and expectations of her are to dig vegetables and prepare food for the tribe, like the majority of the women there. However, her aspirations are to become a warrior and prove herself in a hunt, something that her brother Taabe, played by Dakota Beavers, tries to kind of encourage her with, while still holding her back and getting caught up in the negative attitude of some of the other male tribal hunters.

But then, when one of their number is taken by a tiger, the hunters (including Naru) go to try and find it and bring the human victim back alive, if possible. And, of course, right into the middle of the hunt comes... a Predator. Dropped in to prove itself, as is the way with its own tribe/species, possessing much of the superior technological weapons and stealth cloaking of future generations of its war mongering race. So it’s bows, arrows and tomahawks against the alien... not to mention a few scenes of musket ball mayhem from a group of French buffalo slaughterers, thrown into the mix.

And it’s a surprisingly good movie. It’s been said that Prey is a more intimate Predator movie and, because of the lack of technology on the part of the humans in the film... yes, it does give off that kind of vibe. It’s certainly more of a ‘close combat and survival’ kind of movie, with all the violence and tension that implies. It also looks beautiful, making the most of the natural landscapes, forests, water falls and open plains that come with the territory.

Throughout there are various nods to the previous movies and I’m certainly not familiar enough with the franchise to spot that many of them but I will address one of them here because it’s been called a mistake and, I don’t think it is. In Predator 2 (1990), Danny Glover’s character is gifted a pistol by one of the aliens. Well, that same pistol is used here and is presented by one of the characters (I won’t say which one) to the Indian chief at the end of the movie. However, people have been pointing out, perhaps rightly (or not as I’ll go on to say in a second) that the pistol would surely be in the hands of the alien species by the end of the movie, in order for it to be gifted to Danny Glover’s character a couple of hundred years later. All I will say about this ‘possible error’ is... you didn’t stay on to watch the beautiful end credits animation, did you? The end credits sequence does what a few films have been doing over the last five or so years, retelling the story you’ve just seen in small, animated vignettes to accompany the credits. However, it does go very slightly past the point where this story ends and gives audiences a very brief preview of what happens next in the tale... in which case, it does kind of make sense that the aliens would find themselves in possession of the pistol at some point. Maybe in... you know... the next film in the franchise, hopefully continuing on from where this one left off? Which I’m sure, given the success of this one (and the fact that people are rightly angry that a film this good didn’t get a proper cinema release... and will we see it on Blu Ray please?), is definitely on the cards.

Another nice thing about the film is it also bucks a cliché which I was expecting to happen and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. So I will say, for those of you who will worry throughout the whole film about these things (like me) that... Naru’s dog survives. Yay! Never saw that one coming.

But talking of clichés... there are two big ones in the movie, apart from the normal baggage you get with the sexual politics of the protagonists. One of them being... the use of a ‘smaller thing gets killed by the next biggest thing, gets killed by the next biggest thing, gets killed by etc”. There’s always a bigger fish, so to speak. I usually hate these kinds of sequences but, there’s a scene like this in the first quarter of an hour or so of the movie where it’s nicely executed and, while it’s a little indulgent in making the obvious point, I have to say that it sat quite well with me. I was perfectly fine with it.

The other cliché, of course, is the ‘invisible tension’ cliché which, to be fair, fits the Predator movies like a glove and has certainly not outworn its welcome here. That being, since you know the Predator is a) a lethal threat and b) can’t be seen by the naked eye... the camera gets away with focusing on empty space ‘where things aren’t’ to create false tension in the viewer, as you never know when that empty space is suddenly going to jump to life in an aggressive, gory attack on a character who you have become attached to. To be honest, it would be kind of odd if the director wasn’t doing that with the camera a lot and, it’s certainly a trick that serves him well here.

One last thing I should mention is the beautiful score by Sarah Schachner, a composer I’d not heard of until now. It’s a gorgeous score, fully appropriate for the milieu of the film and the sweeping beauty of it fits the whole package well, especially since there are a lot of dialogue-free passages and so the music has the opportunity to add so much... and Schachner doesn’t miss a trick. I didn’t hear any specific references to Silvestri’s classic scores to the first two movies but, I might if I had the opportunity to listen to this one on a proper CD. Alas, it’s only been released on one of those horrible electronic downloads so, yeah. Looks like I won’t be getting to explore this one away from the movie, which is a shame. I’d like this one.

One last oddment... if this is a film put out by 20th Century Fox (sorry, 20th Century Studios now... as nobody I know calls them and never shall) then what is it doing on the terrible channel it’s ended up on as opposed to the even worse, very high profile channel owned by the company who owns Fox now? Did I miss something?

Anyway, who cares. I just wish this thing was at the cinema and on Blu Ray. Prey is an absolutely wonderful entry in the Predator series and, for my money, it’s the very best one, far exceeding the original movie. If you like the Predator franchise anyway, you should probably have a good time with this. If you don’t, well, this is a pretty good jumping on point because it’s set back in time before any other Predator film so, yeah, aside from the references (most of which I wouldn’t notice anyway), it’s pretty much a good place to start. Have at it.

Wednesday 10 August 2022

The Mind's Eye

Man With A Scan

The Mind's Eye
USA 2015
Directed by Joe Begos
Channel 83 Films

Warning: Some spoilers.

The Mind’s Eye is, it has to be said, pretty much a sequel/continuation/copyright evading side step to David Cronenberg’s excellent Scanners (reviewed here). I mean, nobody mentions the term ‘scan’ but it’s pretty much ‘what might have happened next’ to certain characters or similar characters in those kinds of situations from the first movie. I hope writer/director Joe Begos doesn’t mind me saying that and I’m guessing that was his intention.

The film starts off directly in the way a lot of it is played out, with long held static shots of people moving through the frame... and a drifter, Zack, played by Graham Skipper. Indeed the film favours a lot of either static shots or locked down shots with a very slow zoom in or out for the meat and bones of the tale, it seemed to me. Occasionally switching to a hand held style in certain sections. The opening of the film reminded me a little of the start of the original First Blood (reviewed here), where Stallone’s drifter was ‘pushed’ by the local police. A similar thing happens here as Zack fights back and, though he’s not successful in escaping his antagonists in the scene, we are clued in that he has some serious psychokinetic abilities as he smashes the police car with his mind and tosses cops around mentally.

Captured, he is recruited by the sinister Dr. Slovak, played by John Speredakos, who wants him to be one of many psychokinetic ‘lab rats’ in his ‘research centre’, the Slovak Institute Of Psychokinetics, with the promise that he’ll be reunited with his lover, Rachel, played by Lauren Ashley Carter, who is an even more mentally powerful individual... who has been ‘volunteered’ to participate in the doctor’s research. Often their mental powers are inhibited by a drug injected directly into the back of the brain and, when he gets there, Zack spends six months or so being ill-treated and experimented on, including daily spinal extractions. After a while, Zack has had enough. With the help of another ‘patient’ he evades the guards, rescues Rachel and they go on the run. Meanwhile, Dr. Slovak, who has been receiving daily injections of the spinal fluid taken from the various psychics under his care so he can become an even more superhuman version of them, sends various people to pursue the two escapees, killing Zack’s father in the process. With Rachel rendered out of action and taken to a local hospital, Zack goes on the rampage and returns to the clinic to have a final reckoning with the now out of control, power mad doctor and his various bodyguards.

And, yeah, it’s not a bad little movie. There are some heavy leanings on Scanners such as the electronic style score, the grating musical effect when somebody is using their mental powers and the ferocious orgasm face theatrics of people thinking ‘really hard’, which very much follow the lead of the former Cronenberg film. It’s different territory in terms of the pacing and, I think for me, the slightly faster speed and the sheer amount of admittedly impressive and over the top gory ‘mind killing’ scenes were maybe a little too much. There are various objects such as knives, guns and axes wielded psychically to achieve many a bloody demise as well as the usual head explosions and an impressive moment where the top and bottom of a persons body are mentally pulled and thrown in opposite directions.

The problem I have with multiple scenes of this nature all piled on top of each other, though, is similar to the same kind of ‘weight of lethargy’ induced in me by multiple action scenes in various superhero movies these days... there’s not enough time to appreciate the art and theatricality of such shenanigans before you’re onto the next thing. Cronenberg tends to slow things down so that when each set piece arrives it feels more like an event being built towards a thing and, though I certainly found The Mind’s Eye entertaining for everything it is, I did feel a little ‘clubbed to death’ by all the flesh ripping and villanous posturing after a while.

But, having said that, I thought the film was still pretty great and, you know, not everyone can be Cronenberg (not even Cronenberg sometimes). The actors were all existing in a state of ‘over the top’ readiness for the most part but the intensity of their performances added another layer of interest to a film which might have fallen flat if handled badly. As it is, the director and actors know exactly what they’re doing here and have made an interesting and engaging film.

One other slight problem I had with it is that there’s not enough of Rachel’scharacter in it. She’s supposed to be the most powerful of the bunch of natural psychokinetics in the movie but, apart from bursting open a guys head with her mental powers after levitating him up a wall, we don’t see her do that much and I was hoping she would have some kind of involvement in the final showdown scene at the end of the movie.

Gluing it all together is Steve Moore’s amazing synthesiser based score. It starts off with more of a nod to Shore’s electronic Scanners score in tone but, by the end of the movie when things are really moving on... it goes into the same kind of territory as a really good John Carpenter score and it doesn’t let up. Much to my surprise and delight, I discovered that there was actually a CD pressing of the score so I’ve currently got a copy on order from someone in Germany so I can give it a good listen away from the film. Really looking forward to this one arriving actually.*

And there you have it. The Mind’s Eye is a Cronenbergian escape and chase romp with plenty of twisted flesh and mind searing action, if that’s your kind of thing. It definitely belongs to that subsection of sci-fi horror that Cronenberg kick started with his earlier classic but, where Cronenberg was probably a little bit like a slightly more visceral Canadian version of Philip K Dick, in terms of where his storytelling lands, The Mind’s Eye is more like an action movie equivalent of similar themes. And there’s certainly room for both approaches as far as I’m concerned. A fun one to check out, for sure. 

*It did arrive and I have to say, it's an absolutely amazing
stand alone listen. The CD has had quite a few spins here already.