Thursday, 17 October 2019

Puppet Master: The Legacy (2003)

It seems a bit unfair to review Puppet Master: The Legacy when I have reviewed all of the other movies that came before it. Because this is one of those specials that we've come to expect from Full Moon Features, a film that has about ten minutes of new material in there, if that, with the rest made up of edited sections from other movies. Charles Band, credited as director here (under the name Robert Talbot), never met one movie that he wouldn't try to stretch into three more movies.

The very slim plot sees a woman (Maclain, played by Kate Orsini) trying to track down the secret of Toulon. She eventually tracks down Eric Weiss (Jacob Witkin), who is actually the older incarnation of the boy named Peter Hertz, a child saved by Toulon in the third movie. As Maclain demands answers from him, Eric plays her a number of tapes and tells her a number of stories about the life of Toulon. It's all stuff that viewers will be familiar with, but what is more annoying is that it's also all supposed to be stuff that Maclain also already knows.

I would be kind to this movie and say that it was best viewed as a "greatest hits" swansong for the series, but neither of those things are true. Perhaps it was all meant to end here, although I am glad that it didn't (unless the next instalments can somehow get any worse, which I seriously doubt), but there were so many more good clips that could have been served up to entertain viewers, and remind them of what they loved best about the series. What you get, instead, is just a potted version of every other film (although I don't remember too many scenes from part 5 . . . but it's in there) without a decent enough framing device to make it feel like anything other than the lazy cash grab it so obviously is.

Orsini is quite bad in her role, but she's not given much help from the dialogue she's made to spout (by C. Courtney Joyner). Witkin is slightly better. And then you have to endure more moments you've already endured, as the flashbacks really take over with Greg Sestero talking in his horrible French accent. At least that allows you to know the structure, and to know that once that portion of the story is out of the way it is a Sestero-free zone for the rest of the movie. Thank goodness for small mercies. There are incidental pleasures from seeing the clips that feature action from the second and third movies, but you could always just . . . rewatch the second and third movies, which would save you having to be reminded of the weaker elements of some of the other instalments.

No wonder Band credited himself under a different name here. Taking any directorial credit is a bit of a cheek, considering how much of it is simply placing the work of others in some kind of series overview film collage. Easily avoidable if you've watched the series in order.

2/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.


Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Prime Time: The Devonsville Terror (1983)

Here's another one of those unmemorable horror movies that became more memorable to me because I saw it at the right age. And the right age is, of course, the wrong age. I would be 9 or 10, I had no idea of what constituted a good movie, and I was able to sit quietly to the side while my parents watched any number of VHS tapes that probably weren't supposed to be viewed by youngsters. It is how I was first traumatised by Creepshow, how I fell in love with both Jenny Agutter and the practical effects in An American Werewolf In London, and how I laughed awkwardly while also gawking at the naked female form in films like Porky's, the Lemon Popsicle movies, and Screwballs. Every one of those tapes seemed to have the same trailers on them, unless I am misremembering. One of them was advertising Necromancy (a film I have somehow not yet seen), and one was The Devonsville Terror.

Both of those films seemed dark and dangerous, arguably more interesting and strange than the modern horrors I had already seen because of their basis in what looked to be spooky lore from years gone by. They also had some fine work from "trailer voice guy". I knew I had to see them. I suspect that when I finally did see The Devonsville Terror I was, even at such a young age, relatively unimpressed. It's not a terrible film, and far from the worst to come from director Ulli Lommel, but it feels like something without enough going on to entertain viewers who had recently discovered the VHS pleasures of the titles just mentioned in the previous paragraph.

But let me get to the plot. Things start with some witches being executed in Devonsville. And then we move forward 300 years, to the here and now (as it was in the early '80s anyway). A new female teacher comes to town, by the name of Jenny Scanlon (Suzanna Love, who was also married to Lommel at the time), and quickly upsets the menfolk, who seem to have their attitudes set very much in line with their misogynisytic ancestors. If that wasn't enough, another young woman appears who is ALSO a scientist (Chris, played by Mary Walden). And then they also receive an outspoken DJ, who is also . . . a woman (Monica, played by Deanna Haas). Does anyone have any grounds to be perturbed by the ways of these modern women from the outside world? Can Dr. Warley (Donald Pleasence) be of any help, or will he be too busy trying to cure the family curse that leads to worms crawling out of his skin?

With some acting of varying quality throughout, a decidedly murky visual palette, and a script (co-written by Lommel, Love, and George T. Lindsey) that sticks to everyone like a wet shower curtain, The Devonsville Terror is clearly not any great shakes, to use a technical term. It's so forgettable that I actually didn't realise I had revisited it a few years ago. It all came back to me as the movie started.

"Wait," I thought, "I HAVE seen this as an adult. I remember it not being that good, but I don't think it was that bad to make me rant. I wonder if my opinion will change this time around."

My opinion did change, but only slightly. The Devonsville Terror, although a weak horror movie for those seeking actual scares or bloodshed (one or two decent FX moments in the finale aside), has some interesting elements to make it more worth your time nowadays than when it was first released. This is a film bookended by men being incredibly horrible to women, intent on killing them, and every scene in between shows a male population angry at women who don't seem to "know their place", and angrier than they otherwise would be because they are also covering up their fear. After being used to keeping women in their place for centuries, they don't know what to do when faced with individuals they cannot get to fall in line as easily as those who have lived within their community for years. And the evil deeds that these women commit? Simply being intelligent, opinionated, and unwilling to give themselves over to any man who gives them a bit of attention.

There's a saying that even a stopped clock is right once a day (twice if you're not using a 24hr display format). A comparison could be made here. The current conversations, the sense of great, overdue change coming, the problems and abuses that are now harder for people to hide away or excuse, all of these things make The Devonsville Terror a strangely interesting piece of work to view nowadays. But that doesn't mean it will remain that way if viewed again in five or ten years. And I'm certainly not rushing to ever check it out for a third time, although I tentatively recommend others give it one watch.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.


Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Retro Puppet Master (1999)

As you are all aware, this is the Puppet Master movie in which a young Toulon is played by Greg Sestero, working with a horrible French accent. Wait, are you telling me that you were NOT aware of that? You didn't know that one of the stars of The Room was, at one point, Toulon AKA the Puppet Master? Well, to be fair, neither did I. Somehow, nobody told me about this, even as they knew I would be making my way through every instalment in this series. Seeing him piqued my interest, which then started to slide downhill fast when I realised that it wasn't just the influence of Tommy Wiseau that had shaped his performance in The Room.

Things start off with the elderly Toulon (Guy Rolfe appearing once again) talking to his puppets. He offers to tell them a tale about the very first time he made them live. And then things move back to show viewers the young Toulon (Sestero), a woman who falls for him (Ilsa, played by Brigitta Dau, who I am assuming is AKA Elsa, Toulon's wife we last saw played by Sarah Douglas in the third movie), and a sorcerer named Afzel (Jack Donner). Afzel is being pursued by servants of Sutekh, three mummies who have been ordered to kill him, and anyone else who gets hold of the secret of life. Knowing he needs to pass along the knowledge, Afzel teaches Toulon.

Once again pairing up director David DeCoteau and writer Neal Marshall Stevens, this seventh Puppet Master movie feels like a step up from the sixth, in some ways, yet also feels like a step down. It's good that we're back with the elements that feel more ingrained in the series (Toulon, the scenes that focus on the actual puppets, even the minions sent out to do the bidding of Sutekh), but setting it in Paris at the start of the 20th century causes a number of issues.

The biggest issue is the downright painful accent being attempted by Sestero, who is awful in the main role. His acting style is just too big and obvious, more fitting for a Troma movie (or some of the Full Moon Features that are more broadly comedic), but the accent is the final nail in the coffin. It will make you want to rip your ears off, stuff them in a croissant, and have them transported to Paris to be soothed by the accent of someone who is actually French. Dau is a bit better in her role, which allows her to be imperilled in time for the finale, and Donner has fun with his supporting role. Stephen Blackehart also has fun, portraying the leader of the mummified trio.

None of the main sequences work as well as they could, the editing is too clumsy (probably trying to cover up any shortcomings) and, as is often the case with prequels, the threat is greatly reduced because we know the overall outcome. And a small part of you may want to see some harm come to Sestero, if only to stop him speaking for a few minutes.

Having said that, the retro design of the puppets is a nice way to mix things up slightly, and having some mummies after our hero allows for some better fights than any that involved the small minions featured in the 4th and 5th movies. But that's not enough to make up for how bad Sestero is.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.




Monday, 14 October 2019

Mubi Monday: Psycho (1998)

Well, I guess I owe an apology to quite a few people. I used to spend some of my time online defending this ill-advised remake of the Hitchcock classic. This recent revisit, the first time I have watched the film since I caught it on a rental VHS copy, quickly had me reconsidering my view. So many elements are awful. And yet... yet... there is still something here that leaves it ad a fascinating experiment. Not a satisfying movie, and not a remake that comes anywhere close to the original, but something worth viewing as a way to strengthen the case of how many different elements come together to make a movie a timeless classic.

You know the story, basically. Unless you don't. If you don't, I am not going to spoil any potential twists and turns, even if you've seen the original film. Anne Heche is Marion Crane this time around, a woman who is left in charge of a large sum of money by her boss and, in a moment of madness, heads off to use the money as a chance to start a better life with her boyfriend (Viggo Mortensen). Tired from the drive, but so close to her destination, Marion pulls in to get a room for the night at the Bates Motel, where she meets Norman (Vince Vaughn). He seems like a nice young man, in stark contrast to his angry mother.

Based on the exact same shooting script as the 1960 original, written by Joseph Stefano, and with many shots replicated as closely as possible to the way Hitchcock already did them, it's understandable that many people cite this as an example of a remake that is completely pointless. I was tempted to think the same thing as the end credits rolled this time around.

And yet . . . there's definitely a lot to be gained from viewing this as an academic exercise. Director Gus Van Sant knows how pointless it is to try and remake such an acclaimed masterpiece, and he makes a great effort to highlight the futility of the exercise. Before you even see one bit of the performances on display, just watching the opening credits is enough to put you off. They're exactly the same as the original credits. They're just now in colour. Seconds into the film and it's already not as good, the colour seems to serve as a final flag raised up before the viewer. "You were warned," it seems to say, "and now the reality of the situation is here in front of your eyes." This continues throughout the entire movie. Even the moments that are staged as best as they can be (the sequence between Marion Crane and a highway patrolman, this time played by James Remar) just don't ever feel as good because, well, they're just not.

It's a shame that the cast don't do better though, even if they were given a thankless task. Heche is hard to warm to in the role of Marion, and Mortensen gives one of his worst performances as her beau. Vaughn is given the biggest shoes to fill, and I still find a lot to admire in his performance. It doesn't work, his laugh is too jarring and his quick-talking manner feels unlike the Norman Bates we're used to, but I still appreciate the way that he tries to make himself seem smaller and a bit more timid than he seems in most of his other roles. Julianne Moore, as much as I like her, is quite awful as Marion's sister, not helped by the pointless addition of headphones she is given to wear (as if the character was written to be some spirited, resourceful teen), but William H. Macy at least manages to make up for her presence in the second half of the film, easily outshining both her and Mortensen in his scenes as the detective, Arbogast.

And yet . . . there's STILL something here. Something in the heart of the story, something that pulls you towards it, even as the performances and the new colour scheme put you off. Van Sant knows this, he knows that YOU know it, and your growing appreciation for the original movie in direct correlation to your anger at the audacity of this remake just goes to prove the point that he decided to make when he took on this project.

4/10

You can buy the movie here, if you really want to.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 13 October 2019

Netflix And Chill: In The Tall Grass (2019)

Adapted from a novella co-written by the father and son powerhouse duo of Stephen King and Joe Hill, In The Tall Grass has plenty of moments familiar to fans of those authors. The simple heart of the whole thing calls to mind the famous "Children Of The Corn" tale by King, a tale that would spawn a long-running movie series that u don't recommend to all but the most sadomasochistic viewers, and the early scenes certainly layer creepiness upon familiar moments in a way that both writers like to do.

Laysla De Oliveira is Becky DeMuth, a pregnant young woman who is being driven some distance by her brother, Cal (Avery Whitted). Their journey has a definite objective, to be revealed, and the father of the child doesn't seem to be in the picture, but things start to get decidedly odd when the two enter a large field of tall grass in response to the pleading cries of a young boy (Tobin, played by Will Buie Jr.). Entering the field is a damn sight easier than finding your way out again. It's an area that doesn't obey the laws of physics, and time also seems to run differently there. Becky and Cal eventually meet Tobin's parents (played by Patrick Wilson and Rachel Wilson). And, due to the time trickery in the field, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) turns up to help. He is the absent father of Becky's child, and claims that she and her brother have already been missing for a couple of weeks by the time they all come together in the field.

Adapted for the screen, and directed, by Vincenzo Natali, this is a great bit of horror escapism that viewers will enjoy if, much like the characters onscreen, they allow themselves to be fully subsumed by the atmosphere of the field. Although I am unfamiliar with the source material, so cannot tell you whether this is faithful to it or not, Natali definitely delivers a good helping of mystery and scares while keeping the focus on the characters, their mental states affected by where they are in life (not in relation to the field), and how they can potentially save or doom one another as the field toys with them.

The cast is a mixed bag, but with more good than bad. De Oliveira is the best of the bunch, and automatically gains more sympathy due to the pregnant state of her character, but Patrick Wilson is a lot of fun, and good to see in a role that doesn't have him trapped in any Wan-iverse movie role. Rachel Wilson doesn't get a lot to do, Buie Jr. isn't too bad, and Gilbertson is okay, although I do wish that his role could have been given to someone a bit more familiar to viewers. Whitted is the weak link, and I suspect this may be the one element that Natali couldn't quite get right in translating the tale from page to screen. His character feels, deep down, like a typical King character. He's the guy playing nice while perhaps having a hidden agenda that will complicate things when it comes to the fore in the latter half of the story. You can meet this kind of character in The Stand, Needful Things, Under The Dome, and many other King tales. Unfortunately, either that is mishandled in the novella or Natali doesn't want to push it in this adaptation, stopping the character from becoming truly sympathetic while also never turning him into the major liability you suspect he could be.

This is not a film that's really about the human characters, however. It's about that field. It's about what is contained in the tall grass, and what it can do to those it manages to ensnare. In that regard, Natali does a fantastic job. He doesn't set out a number of rules, and the people/bodies signposting developments are intriguing, but also able to be changed at the whim of the field. Knowing that there's nothing to really figure out, in terms of any rules and limitations, allows for a more satisfying experience, as long as you are happy to go along for the ride.

Although not really all THAT scary, In The Tall Grass has some nice atmosphere, even in the scenes set in broad daylight, some impressive imagery, and a brisk pace that makes the 101-minute runtime pass by in a flash. It won't necessarily become a new favourite for anyone, but it is a fun little chiller.

7/10


Saturday, 12 October 2019

Shudder Saturday: Black Rock (2012)

Black Rock is not, technically, a bad film. There's a decent enough main premise, a trio of good female leads, and it has a slim runtime to help it avoid overstaying its welcome. Unfortunately, it is not technically a good film either. It's just . . . there.

Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell), and Abby (Katie Aselton) are reunited for the first time in what seems to have been many years. Sarah plans for them to spend a weekend on an uninhabited island, to reconnect with one another. It turns out that the island isn't actually that uninhabited. Three men are on there, ex-military. One of them is known to the women, which allows them to relax and spend some time together, drinking under the night sky. But things soon take a turn for the worse.

Very much the creation of Aselton, who both co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Duplass and also decided to direct again (a couple of years after her feature directorial debut, The Freebie), Black Rock is a film that clearly has good intentions. It just falls some way short of the mark when it comes to delivering whatever it is aiming for. It remains interesting enough, if only to see this familiar material in a rare case of it not being filtered through the male gaze (also check out the superior Revenge for that), but it's a case of the approach to the whole thing being of more interest than any of the actual content, which will leave viewers wanting if they think they are getting a standard revenge thriller.

Everyone does just fine in the acting department. Bosworth, Bell, and Aselton have a decent amount of chemistry between them, with no small amount of tension between the latter two, stemming from an incident in their past that they may or may not move on from. Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, and Anslem Richardson are the men, and do fine in their roles. Initially viewed with suspicion, they are soon shown to be normal guys who don't automatically pose any threat to the women, although their appearance immediately puts the women more on edge than they would have been if left to enjoy the alone time that was planned.

The biggest problem with Black Rock is that the second half doesn't work. At all. Everything is good for the first half, and the main incident that changes the whole tone of the film is very well done, but it then becomes a much less interesting film. The characters were being developed well for that first half, which is then dropped altogether (and before any of them are truly fully-formed) in favour of something ultimately unsatisfying for those who want a drama, yet also unsatisfying for those who want a thriller. It doesn't even do enough to subvert any tropes and expectations, and each subsequent scene in the second half gets worse and worse right up to the anti-climactic finale.

I can't really point out the many ways in which this could have been improved. Sometimes these things are intangible as you view the film as a sum of its parts, sometimes there is something obvious that sticks out. All I know is that Aselton seems to have missed an opportunity to deliver something interesting and unique.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
And here.


Friday, 11 October 2019

Curse Of The Puppet Master (1998)

Okay. This. This was a film. The sixth entry in the Puppet Master series doesn't really feel like a Puppet Master movie. Instead, it feels like one of those low-budget films trying to cash in on something more successful, which is very odd. Think of how Dolly Dearest compares to Child's Play and you'll get the idea (oh, and for those who have not seen it in years, it does NOT hold up well). A bit of research once the end credits rolled shows that the film also borrowed quite liberally from a 1973 movie named Sssssss, which means I will have to check that out one day. It also helps to explain why this feels less like a film belonging to this series than any of the other instalments I have viewed so far.

The plot this time around concerns a Dr. Magrew (George Peck), the owner of a doll museum known as The House Of Marvels. On a jaunt with his daughter (Jane, played by Emily Harrison), just home from college, the two meet a mild-mannered young man named Robert (Josh Green) who works at a small gas station. Robert also carves small wooden creations that impress both of the Magrews, prompting a job offer. Once back at The House Of Marvels, Robert is shown the living puppets that viewers are already familiar with, and Dr. Magrew admits that he is looking for help in crafting his own new creation. So it looks like everyone could help each other out, much to the chagrin of a local bully (Joey, played by Michael D. Guerin) who seems quite bitter and jealous.

It's David DeCoteau back in the director's chair, credited as Victoria Sloan, but this is one of the many movies that he can seem to do nowadays for the producer-pleasing combination of quick and cheap. Hey, he's made a huge number of films, and kept a whole lot of people in employment, so it works more than it doesn't, but it feels like a further step down for this series after the previous couple of movies.

The script, by Neal Marshall Stevens (credited as Benjamin Carr), is . . . well, it's actually not TOO bad. There aren't any surprises, despite Stevens maybe thinking otherwise, and the broad characters are given the sort of dialogue that feels like it came out of a book entitled "cheap genre screenwriting 101", but it does everything required, sows a couple of good ideas, and at least tries out this particular diversion without really messing up the established history preceding it.

The performances are, to be as nice as possible, pretty much exactly as you'd expect. Peck is quite good fun as Magrew, Harrison is quite sweet as his daughter, and Green does better when he gets to move forward from early scenes that have him perilously close to just being "Simple Jack". Guerin is an irredeemable baddie, which makes things all the more enjoyable when he is finally shown the supernatural power of the puppets.

It's bad, yet it's not awful. There just isn't enough good stuff in the first half, one or two nightmare sequences aside. That wouldn't be a problem in the finale made up for it. It doesn't. In fact, once it became obvious where things were heading (which you should be able to spot quite early on) it then becomes a waiting game to see how well it's all depicted, leading to disappointment when you see that it's not depicted half as well as it could have been.

4/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.


Thursday, 10 October 2019

Puppet Master 5 (1994)

AKA Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter, but not one of us would believe that title anyway, surely.

Following on almost immediately from the events of the previous film, you even get a handy little recap to take up a few minutes of the brief runtime (a classic Full Moon Features trick, as any fan will be able to tell you), this sees Rick Myers initially under arrest for some part in the deaths of his colleagues. A company man named Jennings (Ian Ogilvy) isn't sure what to make of his story, but he certainly doesn't want to dismiss it entirely if it could mean getting hold of a serum that can give life to the non-living. This leads to Jennings heading to the Bodega Bay Inn, with some hired hands by his side, to search for the puppets. Meanwhile, the angry demon Sutekh is still angry, and still out to kill anyone in between him and the serum.

With Jeff Burr still at the helm, and the same five people involved in the writing of the screenplay, this feels very much like everyone involved was asked to come up with one main plot that could be broken into two series instalments. That's fine, and you can ultimately take or leave them, if still disappointing in comparison to the first few movies. Unlike the previous film, however, this has a few more scenes in which the puppets can still attack some humans. That doesn't stop it from becoming even sillier this time around though, with more small scenes in which Sutekh helps the screenwriters kill time by repeating his motivation and what he plans to do, and a finale that is almost impossible to care about.

Gordon Currie is still fine in the role of Myers, and he's joined once again by Chandra West as his girlfriend, Susie. Teresa Hill also returns, playing Lauren, but is forced to stay in a bed for most of her scenes, shaking her head with a pained expression and occasionally uttering the handy results of her psychic visions. Ogilvy is a pleasure to watch, bringing a touch of class to the proceedings (maybe I'm projecting, I can never be unimpressed by a former Simon Templar), and his three main "assistants" are ably played by Nicholas Guest, Willard E. Pugh, and Duane Whitaker (arguably the most familiar of the three, due to his work with Tarantino and Rob Zombie). Guy Rolfe also returns, and you get a very brief cameo from Clu Gulager.

There's fun to be had here, and the puppets are still now on the side of the good guys, but without feeling completely devoid of any menace. I just hope that this is the end of this particular storyline, allowing the series to go on some other interesting and wonderful side roads in future instalments. Having said that, I realise I may very well regret that sentiment as soon as I have actually watched the next one or two movies.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.




Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Prime Time: Inseminoid (1981)

There's a crew of people working in space. Exploring unknown terrains. Taking notes on their findings. It's a familiar scenario. Unfortunately, one of the crew members (Sandy, played by Judy Geeson) is raped by an alien, becoming pregnant very quickly, and also then setting out to kill all of the people around her in a fit of alien-induced-hormonal-bloodlust.

Director Norman J. Warren made some fun, and even interesting, movies over the course of his career. Many of them were peculiarly ambitious despite remaining essentially British. Inseminoid is not one of them. It is, instead, a bit of an Alien rip-off that throws in a bit of gore and nudity to try and make up for the lack of any logic, or even any shred of interest in the main characters. Which isn't to say that I hate it. Thanks to the fact that Warren at least tries to push things as far as he can in a number of scenes this is hard to truly dislike. It's just a shame that it ends up being a lot more boring than it should be.

I put the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of the writers. Nick and Gloria Maley had worked for a number of years as makeup artists, involved in movies as big as Superman and The Empire Strikes Back, but this was the only script that they ever wrote, and we can count that as a blessing. It's not all their fault though, I'll grudgingly admit. Warren said that, due to the finances potentially being available already, he needed a script in four days. I guess this is what happens when you ask a pair of married makeup artists to give you a workable sci-fi horror script in four days.

The fact that it's most notable for scenes in which Geeson lies naked on a table, understandably distressed, while an alien tries to live up to the title should tell you all you need to know. And Geeson is, for better or worse, the only cast member you'll remember for her onscreen performance once the end credits roll. You will remember that Stephanie Beacham is also in the movie, and it's always novel to see Victoria Tennant in roles that she had before I knew of her, but nobody else gets to make much of an impression (with the exception of Dominic Jephcott and the moment in which his corpse very obviously blinks). I could namecheck Jennifer Ashley, Robin Clarke, David Baxt, Trevor Thomas, and the others, but I'd be struggling to tell you who played which character in the film, and what they brought to their roles.

At least some of the design work is good, with the production making use of Chislehurst Caves as a location they could then create the space base sets in. And you get occasional servings of gore, as well as puppet aliens. So it's not all bad, even before you consider the bravery of Geeson putting herself through the discomforts that the role required of her.

Inseminoid is sci-fi horror trash, but it's trash of the highest (or should that be lowest?) order.

5/10

You NEED this set in your life.


Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Puppet Master 4 (1993)

Okay, so THIS is obviously where the Puppet Master series starts to drop off in quality. I could tell from the very first scene, one that shows a demon talking to his minions about a need to retrieve the formula that was stolen by Toulon to imbue his puppets with life.

Gordon Currie plays Rick Myers, a young man who is currently working on a project that wants to create artificial life without the artificial part. It may be couched in science but the main quest is a standard Frankenstein one. He's joined one evening by his girlfriend, Susie (Chandra West), and two other unexpected guests, Cameron (Ash Adams, billed as Jason Adams) and Lauren (Teresa Hill). And, of course, a number of puppets turn up. They're not out to kill innocent people though. The puppets, still hearing advice from the spirit of Toulon (Guy Rolfe reprising the role), want to protect the people around them from the evil minion menace.

It took five people to write this movie, apparently. Five. That would be understandable if this new direction for the series was created thanks to some masterful writing that carefully gathered together everything we know from the previous three movies and then used the puppet creations in a new and exciting way. That isn't how things turn out, however, and the end result is disappointing, especially compared to the films that precede it. Although the continuity is far from the worst, things don't feel to connect properly to other instalments in the series, and any moments that feature the puppets engaging in a bit of violence are usually showing them fighting against the evil minion puppets.

This isn't the first rodeo for director Jeff Burr, who had already proven himself a solid helmer of horror movie sequels with Stepfather IILeatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, but his hands are tied by the weak script, which locks him in to a number of unfavourable choices. I don't know if the story continues immediately in the next film in the series, but I do know that it's Burr directing once again, and with a number of the same cast members.

When it comes to the cast, I must say that these are far from the worst people to be thrown into some Full Moon Features fare. Despite being given a weak script to work with, Currie does his best in the main role, and the leading ladies give good support. West is fine as the loved one put in danger and Hill works hard to avoid making it completely laughable when she has that oft-used Full Moon Features trope, canny psychic sensations. Adams also does okay, but he's playing the cocky, jealous member of the group, meaning you quickly take a dislike to him anyway, and Rolfe has minimal screentime as Toulon, using a specific puppet to project his visage upon when he has to provide some further exposition to the main characters in order to set up the finale.

I still found enough here to enjoy, despite the lack of decent moments for any of the puppets (and it's unbelievable how much of the soundtrack is composed of the weird chuckle that the six-armed gunslinger makes), but this was one to just get through on my way through the series. I am sure a number of instalments will feel that way, I just hope it doesn't end up being too many of them.

5/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.

Contents may differ from puppets shown on advertising materials. Torch NOT actually included.



Monday, 7 October 2019

Mubi Monday: Psycho (1960)

What is the point in even attempting to write a review of Psycho nowadays? People have said everything there is to be said about it, right? It's had a remake that was almost shot for shot, it has featured in movies made about director Alfred Hitchcock, and that classic shower scene has even been dissected in a documentary all on its own (78/52, which refers to the number of shots and cuts, respectively).



And yet . . . it's that feeling that everyone has seen the film, that everything to be said about it HAS been said, that makes me feel it is still worth writing a whole review. Because most of us know Psycho, and know it well, but I would wager that few remember just how great a number of the elements are, especially when you are asked to pick favourites from the outstanding filmography of Hitchcock.

It seems pointless to summarise the plot, and pointless to try and avoid spoilers. So let me roll my sleeves up and attempt to do two pointless things at once. Janet Leigh is Marion Crane, a woman we first see making herself look respectable again after a tryst with her lover (John Gavin) in a hotel room. They are not married, he stays quite a distance away and has very little money, but they do seem to love one another. The whole situation, and an encounter with a customer at her work who seems intent on being as vulgar about his wealth as possible, leads Marion to seize an opportunity when her boss asks her to take a large sum of money to the bank. She leaves town, money in her possession, and sets out to join her lover. It's a long journey, however, and she decides to stop at the isolated Bates Motel, which seems suited to the low profile she is keeping on her travels. And the young man in charge of the place (Norman, played by Anthony Perkins) is very pleasant and accommodating. He seems to take a liking to Marion, but his mother most certainly doesn't.

Everybody remembers bits of Psycho. They remember the shower scene (it's unforgettable, a masterclass in editing and audio-visual synchronicity), they remember the Bernard Herrmann score, they remember the twists and jumps. They even remember how good Perkins is in his main role. They also often remember enjoying Martin Balsam (he plays a detective who ends up trying to track down Marion Crane). Some people also remember that Janet Leigh is quite good in her role, despite being overshadowed by Perkins.

Yet very few people remember everything all together. I rewatched Psycho with the intention of taking down some notes in preparation for this review, and I soon gave up on that idea. I was hooked from the beginning, and I knew there was better still to come. Leigh isn't just quite good. She's great in her role, perfectly portraying a woman who has one moment of madness and then spends the rest of her time onscreen weighed down by that decision. Perkins still manages to overshadow her, but not deliberately, simply due to him being so absolutely perfect as the nervy and pleasant young man with a dark secret. Balsam comes into the movie at just the right time, a shot of energy before the tension starts to ratchet up again in the finale, and Gavin does a good job in his smaller role, working well alongside Vera Miles (playing the sister to the character played by Leigh).

Hitchcock knows just how far to push things, and how to code the characters very effectively, in ways that work with, and subvert, expectations. There are other films from him that are more complex, that are more thematically interesting, that can be dissected even more than this one, but Psycho is arguably his most effective blend of the macabre and the entertaining. He's helped by the team around him. Hermann giving him that classic score, Joseph Stefano giving him a cracking script adapted from Robert Bloch's source novel, the supporting cast members, the titles from Saul Bass, and every key player who helped to bring his vision to life.

And what more is there to say? Nothing, and everything. There are new film fans created every day, of all ages, and some won't have seen Psycho yet. So I hope this may prompt one of them to do so. I also hope it maybe reminds more seasoned film fans to revisit it, to just remind themselves of how utterly fantastic it is, in every aspect of the craft it took to bring it all together. That is the point in deciding to write a review of the movie, after almost sixty years of it scarring the membrane of public consciousness and becoming a pop culture staple. Or maybe it was just another little moment of madness.

"We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"

10/10

This is the set to buy. And, ummmm, please click on links somewhere on this blog and help because I MAY have just ordered that set for myself. Seriously . . . help.


Sunday, 6 October 2019

Netflix And Chill: In The Shadow Of The Moon (2019)

Taking place mainly in 1988, 1997, 2006, and 2015, In The Shadow Of The Moon is a sci-fi thriller that will hold no surprises to anyone who can pick up on the obvious seeded clues. It will also hold no surprises to anyone who has seen the trailer. Or, because I am going to go into some more detail, anyone who reads this review. So, if you haven't seen it, proceed with caution. The film is not good, but you're more than welcome to watch it before reading the rest of this review.

Boyd Holbrook is a cop named Locke, working with his partner, Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine), when they end up investigating a number of mysterious deaths. The person responsible, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman), is chased down and ends up losing an argument with a speeding subway train. Meanwhile, Locke's wife is giving birth to their first child, but that isn't going to end too well either. Nine years pass, the killer reappears, and Locke starts to become obsessed with figuring out just what the hell is going on.

Directed by the usually-dependable Jim Mickle, In The Shadow Of The Moon proves that he shouldn't spend too much time away from his old co-creator, Nick Damici. Because the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is a terrible film, easily the worst thing that Mickle has done so far. It's not necessarily the direction that is the biggest problem, but the fact that he couldn't get better performances from his cast, or figure out small ways to improve the script, undermine his ability to help something with a concept that requires a bit more attention to detail.

Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock are the men responsible for the script. Their background seems to be in TV, and it looks as if this is their first feature, which explains a number of the failings. The characters are a bunch of tropes mashed together (seriously, they just have Wookbine saying "shhheeeeeit" more than the jokingly stereotypical black character in Not Another Teen Movie), they don't feel connected to any wider world out there, and the main premise has at least one plot hole you could drive a huge truck through. Time travel is always perilous territory, which means people usually have to decide whether to approach it seriously or just hope viewers go along with everything as they deliver fun. Weidman and Tock choose a worse path, trying to be serious while hoping that nobody notices the massive error in their plotting that undoes the entire film before your eyes while you should be enjoying the final scenes.

The extra disappointment of Woodbine's character being so poorly written is that he still gives the best performance out of the lead roles. It's hard to tell, beneath the weight of the weak script, but he does. Holbrook just isn't strong enough to carry the film, so it's hard to care about how things turn out as the movie begins to focus more and more on his character, Coleman is used best when just fleeing from cops, as opposed to the moments in which she has to explain things that don't make sense, Michael C. Hall is solid, but sadly underused, and Rudi Dharmalingam is hampered by playing a character who is shoehorned in because . . . nope, I've got nothing. I know what he ends up contributing to the plot, I just have no idea why they decided to plan it that way.

The first half is a decent little genre film, and it's a great shame that there wasn't a way to somehow keep all of the action based in 1988 while the leads figured things out (btw I am SURE that could have been done, but that's why I just maintain this blog while others write the movie scripts), but it's sad and frustrating to watch everything unravel in the second half, leading to a manipulative finale that is unearned, and ultimately dishonest (no matter what the sleight of hand tries to make you think).

4/10


Saturday, 5 October 2019

Shudder Saturday: Don't Knock Twice (2016)

It is often no fun to be as curious and/or optimistic as I am. Along with my need to see everything I can, to form my own opinion on it, it means that I end up quite often disappointed. Which was the case here, after someone reminded me that Don't Knock Twice was available. Nothing about it really drew me in, both the plot and the promotional imagery seemed clichéd and lame, but once it was brought up in conversation, well, I knew I had to see it.

To the surprise of no one, this turned out to be just about as bad as everyone else had already said it was.

The paper-thin plot concerns a young girl (Chloe, played by Lucy Boynton) who knocks twice on the door of a woman believed to have been a child-snatching demon. When she was alive. Bring harassed by people drove her to an early grave, so we are told. Lucy no longer feels safe at the care home she resides in, and so goes to spend some long-overdue time with her mother (Jess, played by Katee Sackhoff), who was useless many years ago while occupying her time with drug addiction. Before you can say "knock, knock" there are bumps in the night, bumps in the day, and jump scares aplenty en route to a finale you will struggle to care about.

Directed by Caradog W. James, who wrote and directed the interesting little sci-fi movie The Machine a few years ago (recently also developed into a TV movie, although I cannot say whether that is a progression or simple remake), Don't Knock Twice is about as far removed from that as you can get. Not only is the premise ill-conceived and paper-thin, it's just poorly handled throughout, with nothing more onscreen than a mix of some poor jump scares and nonsensical plotting.

Writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler have a LOT of writing credits for children's TV shows, which makes a lot of sense. This is something that would play out a lot better if pared down and packaged into an episode of something like Goosebumps or Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

All of this would be easier to tolerate if the cast was good enough to make up for the obvious failings. Unfortunately, it's not. Boynton does her best in her role, and she's the best out of everyone onscreen, while you have a supporting turn from Pooneh Hajimohammadi that requires her to look wide-eyed and alarmed almost as soon as things start to gear up for the second act, and Nick Moran is a detective named Red Herring . . . I mean Boardman, his name is Boardman. But is he all that he appears to be? As for Sackhoff, I have enjoyed her in a couple of roles, but I certainly don't get my hopes up when I see her name listed in any movie credits. Does anyone think she's a good actress, or is her career now maintained thanks to her landing a role in Battlestar Galactica that gained her a loyal fanbase for life?*

This is really not worth your time, even if you're after something that won't require you to concentrate too hard. It has some decent production values, and the benefit of Boynton in a lead role, but there's nothing else here to recommend it.

*And should I check out that show one day?

3/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a blu here.


Friday, 4 October 2019

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991)

Uh oh. I must admit that I was worried when this film started. The third film in the Puppet Master series is a prequel (and not the only one, from what I have gathered). I could already envision the reworked character backstories, the use of footage that had been cut from the previous two movies, and a general feeling of something lacklustre. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. This sees the series at three for three, with all of them reaching the same level of quality - almost unheard of when it comes to Full Moon Features, in my experience.

Guy Rolfe is the actor portraying Toulon this time around, a man who enjoys spending his time entertaining children with his impressive puppets. But there's something about them, something that imbues them with life, and that is of interest to the Nazis. Before you can say "heil who?", Major Kraus (Richard Lynch) has marched in to tell Toulon that his life is pretty much over.

As potentially tricky as this could have been, risks are minimised by using the more experienced hands of David DeCoteau, on directorial duties, and C. Courtney Joyner, writer of the enjoyable Prison and even more enjoyable Class Of 1999, and that clearly pays off. Taking this step back allows viewers to enjoy everything they know about the series, dig a bit further into the background lore, and not find the material already too familiar and boring.

The cast also help, with the majority of the runtime focusing on Rolfe and Lynch in a basic good vs evil battle. Rolfe is a very good Toulon, sympathetic and easy to root for as he puts his talented puppets to deadly use, and Lynch is entertainingly irredeemable as the main villain. Sarah Douglas is good to see in a small role, Ian Abercrombie, Kristopher Logan, Aron Eisenberg, and Walter Gotell all do decent work, and the beautiful Michelle Bauer is onscreen just long enough to add some gratuitous nudity and remind you of the power of Bauer.

As well as some of the puppets already seen in previous movies, the main addition here is a six-armed gunslinger, and it's worth mentioning that the work on him is some of the best seen in the series so far. All of the Puppet Master movies, from the few I have now seen, have impressed me with their work involving the actual puppets, but this is a real high point (a standard I hope the series maintains).

Part of me wants to pick out some more positives, part of me wants to stop before everyone suspects me of completely overselling the thing. Without the context of any future instalments to go by, I will just say that I recommend anyone picking up a box set of these first three films, especially if you find them going for a cheap enough price.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.





Thursday, 3 October 2019

Puppet Master II (1990)

The second instalment in the Puppet Master franchise is easily on a par with the first film. What it lacks in gore and thrills, it more than makes up for with a fun streak of dark humour.  What can I say? I am an easy mark for this kind of thing.

Leading on, more or less, from the events of the first film, the plot this time involves a group of people who head to the home of Andrés Toulon to find out just what happened to the last group. It's mentioned that Alex, the character played by Paul Le Mat in the first movie, has been kept safe and secure in a facility designed to help his mental healthy recovery, and it's clear that nobody is in a rush to believe a tale of lively corpses and murderous puppets. That is, of course, until they start realising that they are in danger from a lively corpse and some murderous puppets.

David Allen is the director this time around, working from the script by David Pabian. He worked on a number of instalments in the series, creating some of the puppet effects, but this would be his only directorial work. Despite his lack of experience in this main role, Puppet Master II doesn't ever feel as if it is in the hands of anyone less experienced than other Full Moon Features names. Granted, this is perhaps due to the film sharing a lot of team members with the original, and Band helping to oversee everything, but it's still a damn fine effort from Allen.

Although it feels quite cheesy at times (especially during the moments that force a romance between the characters played by Elizabeth Maclellan and Collin Bernsen), and although there is a twist that is about as surprising as the moment that the masked criminal is revealed to be Old Man *insert name here* in any Scooby-Doo adventure, this remains surprisingly committed to putting together a proper sequel, as opposed to another feature mixing in as much old footage as possible (which is often the main M.O. of Full Moon Features). You get to learn a bit more about the history of Toulon, although I am willing to accept that the continuity will become more and more . . . flexible with every subsequent instalment, and there's a new main addition to the roster of killer puppets in the shape of Torch.

Maclellan and Bernsen are okay in their roles, I suppose, and Steve Welles has some fun as a mysterious, bandaged, figure who appears and acts suspicious from his very first moments onscreen. Nita Talbot may not stick around for too long, but she gets some of the best scenes, and there are a few precious moments of wonderful interplay between Sage Allen and the legend that is George 'Buck" Flower.

The pacing isn't quite as good in the first half as it could be, but it's good enough to keep things ticking over while pieces are moved into place for a very enjoyable third act, and a genuinely amusing little coda. Will things drop off sharply with the third movie? I'm about to find out.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.



Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Prime Time: The Tunnel (2011)

A found footage horror movie that follows a journalist (Natasha Warner, played by Bel Deliá) and her crew as they investigate a large area of tunnels underneath Sydney, The Tunnel is a decent film that does well with limited means, although there were aspects of the movie that bothered me more than it will bother some other people. I'll get to those soon enough.

Basically, Natasha wants to base a story around these tunnels, knowing that they are possibly about to be put to another use, which will lead to the relocation of many homeless individuals who live down there (a claim denied by those who want nothing interfering with their plans). Four people, including Natasha, head into the tunnels. Not all of them will make it back to the surface.

What The Tunnel does really well is, thanks to the script, by Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey, and the performances, get you on edge from the earliest scenes. The whole film is framed as some kind of documentary, or TV special, that will reveal the events of a mysterious tragedy. And the whole look and feel of that framing style is spot on.

Deliá is good in the main role, someone who decides to venture into unknown territory with her small team, despite numerous obstacles and rejections making it obvious that it could be a bad idea. That's often what journalists do, I guess, so it's a believable starting point for everything starting to go wrong, especially when it comes to light that she has not been honest with her co-workers. Andy Rodoreda is Peter, Steve Davis is Steve, and Luke Arnold is Jim AKA 'Tangles', and the three do just as well as Deliá at portraying confusion and fear without just repeating themselves over and over again, as can happen so often with movies done in this style.

There's only one main problem with The Tunnel, but it's a problem big enough to have frustrated me for most of the second half. Basically, the characters have to move to night vision far too soon. Look, if you've seen enough found footage movies then you know to expect the night vision to be turned on in time for the finale. It makes things even more tense, gives everything an unnatural look, and can cover up a multitude of sins. Sadly, it kicks in here after the opening third. It's not permanent, thankfully, but is used far more than any other horror movie I can think of, and makes it very difficult to see what could be some very scary imagery.

I understand that the imagery may seem even scarier because of that black/green night vision look, don't get me wrong, but I can't help resenting something that makes me squint for so much of the runtime as I try to make out shapes, shadows, and just what exactly is coming into frame. That resentment increases when it turns out that I'm watching a creature feature that seems to not want to show a potentially impressive creature.

But I'm still glad I watched this, and I definitely enjoyed it, overall. So I encourage others to give it a watch. Oh, and don't make the same mistake I did, avoiding it for a number of years because I kept confusing it with the much worse Death Tunnel.

6/10

Here's the film on disc.




Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Puppet Master (1989)

A group of psychics gather together to pay their respects to a deceased colleague. Except they actually have another agenda, to learn the secrets of a famed alchemist named André Toulon (played in a short sequence at the start of the movie by William Hickey). And their colleague may be hiding something from them all. It's not long until people start wandering off on their own, which allows them to be terrorised and picked off by Toulon's deadly creations, some killer puppets.

Directed by David Schmoeller, who also worked on the screenplay from a story idea by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall, Puppet Master is the first in what would be the most successful series for Full Moon Features (in terms of fan loyalty and number of instalments). Unless I am forgetting another obvious contender.

All of the elements are in place here that let you know this is from the house that Band built. There's a very familiar score from Richard Band, a cast full of relative unknowns, with the exception of Hickey in his small role and Paul Le Mat as someone who turns out to be the lead, in a number of ways. There's a sprinkling of nudity, creative use of the low budget (done better here than in so many other Full Moon Features movies), and a few scenes that recycle footage from earlier scenes. And, of course, you get the main killers, which are among some of the best diminutive creations to be enjoyed in this kind of non-theatrical fare. The film was originally due to be released in cinemas, but Band figured he would make more in the home entertainment market. It's hard to argue against him when you think of how these films have maintained their following for the past thirty years.

The cast are all there to play second fiddle to the puppets, which they all seem fine with. While nobody is doing their very best work, nobody totally stinks up the screen either. Le Mat is a bit bland, but not awful, Robin Frates is the widow of the deceased figure at the centre of events, which automatically shades her with some mystery and suspicion, and Kathryn O'Reilly gamely takes on the role that throws some gratuitous nudity into the mix. Irene Miracle, Matt Roe, and Jimmie F. Skaggs do what is asked of them, and Barbara Crampton appears for a completely unnecessary, but welcome, cameo appearance (her total screentime is probably not even one full minute though).

Although it doesn't make the most of the fun premise, Puppet Master is a film I will always have a soft spot for. It has a weak script, an average cast, and those puppets, with each one at least having a memorably unique trait. That last aspect is enough to keep me happy. I hope to make my way through the entire franchise one day, and I suspect that I have already endured much worse during my cinematic "travels". I know that my optimism may be worn down by the time I get through the first few movies, but I'll cling on to it for now. Watch this space to see if it ever disappears entirely while I get myself up to speed with the escapades of Toulon and co.

7/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a decent little set here.




Monday, 30 September 2019

Mubi Monday: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Perhaps most easily viewed as the antithesis of Brief Encounter, this look at love, marriage, sex, and loss oozes quality from start to finish. It might look dreary throughout, a deliberate choice, and the exploration of the main themes may be quite depressing, but it's a fantastic showcase for the talents of the oft-overlooked Rachel Weisz.

Weisz is Hester Collyer, a young woman stuck in a marriage to Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) that doesn't satisfy her. This is her excuse for beginning an affair with Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing RAF pilot who is trying to make the most of his time after doing his part to help win the war. Unfortunately, Freddie isn't as committed to the relationship as Hester, although how much of Hester's contribution comes from love, how much is lust, and how much from a sense of duty is hard to tell, especially as her husband, who has refused to give her a divorce, does his bit to allow her a way back to her marriage.

Based on the play by the prolific Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea is directed by Terence Davies, who adapted the material for the screen, in a way that dances between the big outbursts and the quieter moments of sadness. It mimics the extreme highs and lows of such a relationship, and does so without inadvertently turning the whole thing into some kind of parody of this kind of thing. That's easier said than done, considering the oh-so-Britishness of it all, the difference between what characters try not to say in public and what they shout aloud in relative privacy, and the old-fashioned values at the heart of it (and, no, those values are not shown as necessarily being any good).

When I mentioned Weisz being oft-overlooked I was mainly referring to my own view of her, but I also don't see her praised enough by film fans when general discussions are taking place. That's a shame, because she's almost always very good. Her skill is particularly noticeable here, playing a woman who feels the need to supplicate herself as she tries to keep hold of a man she loves, even though he doesn't feel things as strongly as she does. Hiddleston works well in the opposite role, happily revealing a colder and more cruel persona as he tries to distance himself, all juxtaposed alongside the sweeter moments in which he uses his charm and attractive smirking ways. Beale also does very well, taking on the least interesting of the three lead roles and allowing his character to regain your sympathy once his initial anger has abated.

It would have been very easy to push everyone here to go bigger, to take every scene to a point at which it starts to hammer you over the head, but Davies is the right person for the material, keeping things nicely quiet and underplayed throughout, the occasional Hiddeleston outburst aside (and I don't think anyone can keep Hiddleston from having an occasional outburst).

8/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy it here.


Sunday, 29 September 2019

Netflix And Chill: Creep 2 (2017)

A lot of people loved Creep when it first appeared in 2014. I can definitely see the positives. It was independent cinema done right, in terms of main characters and the blend of naturalistic performances and everything feeling a bit off, but it also suffered from a couple of major flaws. Like so many other found footage movies, it was hard to buy into the fact that someone would keep filming while things started to get crazier. And it was just a bit too lightweight.

Creep 2 feels like a far superior sequel, despite having made the smallest of changes to the concept. Mark Duplass is back in the main role, calling himself Aaron, a serial killer who seems to derive more pleasure from the build up to the murders than the actual act itself. He has hired someone this time around, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), to document what he says will be his final video. And so begins the mind games.

I can't quite put my finger on the reasons why, but this felt easier to buy into than the first film The character of Sara is someone desperate to try and boost the viewing figures of her small internet show, so the combination of the fee and watching something play out that may draw some good traffic makes her feel like someone who can tolerate more nonsense than other people may put up with. There's also the fact that we now know the main character, unless you decided to go wild and watch this without having seen the first movie. We know that he IS a killer, and that is also clarified in the opening scene here (which basically gives a good reminder of his M.O. and manner within the first few minutes).

Director Patrick Brice has less to worry about here, not being also onscreen as he was in the first movie, and that also seems to factor in. Despite working from an outline (by Brice and Duplass), and despite the fast and loose improvised nature of most of the scenes, this feels like a tighter film all round.

It helps that there's a better, stranger, dynamic between the leads here. Duplass is still as excellent as he was in the first film, often coming close to being gleeful as he peppers his lies with some complete honesty that the person recording him just doesn't believe, and Akhavan (who has done great work on the other side of the camera, having written and directed the excellent The Miseducation Of Cameron Post) proves to be a surprisingly good match, becoming more and more intrigued by her subject as he shows more and more of his . . . oddness.

If you enjoyed Creep then you're going to enjoy this. More importantly, you may enjoy this even if you didn't enjoy the first one that much. The construction of the film may be enough to put some off, but the performance from Duplass alone makes this a brilliant watch, and he's created one of the best new killers in the past decade. What's more impressive is that he's managed it simply by being a brilliant actor.

7/10

Creep and Creep 2 are both on Netflix. A perfect little double-bill to warm you up for your October horror movie viewings.


Saturday, 28 September 2019

Shudder Saturday: Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire (2019)

The third film in what is, to me, one of the best set of found footage movies around, Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire may also prove to be the best point at which to end the series (although I am sure that others think that should have happened after the first film).

Once again written and directed by Stephen Cognetti, the Abaddon Hotel is open for business yet again, this time due to be the setting of a theatrical riff on Faust, put on by the rich and successful Russell Wynn (Gabriel Chytry). The preparation for the experience, which will take audiences on a journey through the hotel, is recorded by a local reporter, Vanessa Shepherd (Elizabeth Vermilyea) and her small team. And it's not long until strange things begin happening.

Not quite as good as the second film, but still a step ahead of the first, "Lake Of Fire" works best when it's being nothing more than a series of brilliant, and creepy, scare moments. I can absolutely understand why people may prefer the slightly more subtle approach of the first film, but things have improved for me ever since that first story was out of the way, allowing Cognetti to push onwards and upwards with tales of the hotel and recurring nightmare imagery.

Okay, this is not going to win any awards for the writing or the acting, or anything else really. I didn't really enjoy the performance from Chytry, who doesn't bring enough to the role to make up for the fact that the script gives him almost no depth at all, but Vermilyea at least did better, and was someone worth rooting for. The only other person to mention is Sam Kazzi, as a producer trying to hide away the worst things that happen on the way to opening night. Kazzi does alright, and is at least more memorable than some of the others onscreen. This is a film that adds more characters to the main storyline without giving them anything to do beyond being targeted in main scare scenes.

Here's the thing though, I am not too bothered by that. When the scares are as well done as they are here (e.g. an initial chilling encounter with some clown figures that provided plenty of chills in the last two movies) then it helps to forgive all manner of failings.

Cognetti definitely tries, but he can't do enough to flesh out the cast while setting up all of the plot points that he wants in place by the grand finale, all in between the spine-chilling set-pieces. Ideally, a slightly longer runtime could have been used effectively to spend more time with different characters, although he's also constrained by the "found footage" format. His biggest mis-step comes towards the end of the whole thing, where he decides to make a few decisions that a) feel out of character for this series, and b) feel far too contrived as he attempts to tie everything up in a way that connects all three movies and provides an all-too-neat ending to the whole tale.

Ending aside, which is still good enough, if not what I personally wanted, this is an excellent little horror movie, and I hope they leave the Hell House movies alone now that we have a damn fine trilogy. I'll definitely be keen to see what Cognetti gets up to next.

7/10

Hell House LLC III: Lake Of Fire is currently streaming on Shudder, and that new Creepshow series just launched, AND they have Tigers Are Not Afraid, so now is a good time to bag that free trial.


Friday, 27 September 2019

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Okay, I cannot really formulate my thoughts on this film in a way that makes sense, but I'm going to try my best to explain myself. A lot of Bohemian Rhapsody is quite rubbish. It is laughable that the film won an Academy Award for best editing, especially when you can highlight some key sequences that wouldn't look out of place in a Paul W. S. Anderson movie. It is a "greatest hits" version of the history of Queen, and the life of charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. It's a family-friendly rock opera, in a way, with the mix of humour, tragedy, and elation you can expect from such a thing. And yet . . . that doesn't stop it from being a bloody good time. The highlights are absolutely goosebump-inducing, and easily impressive enough to make up for the weaker aspects.

Rami Malek is Freddie, in a performance absolutely deserving of all the praise heaped upon him, as well as his win at the 2019 Oscars. He becomes the lynchpin of Queen, with the talent of Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello). He also develops a life-long relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), constantly astounds the band manager (Aidan Gillen) with his vision, and his ability to make that vision into a fan-pleasing reality, and enjoys gently mocking the lawyer that they have in their corner, Jim 'Miami' Beach (Tom Hollander). And, as the start of the film makes abundantly clear (as does the advertising imagery and any trailers you may have seen), it all leads to a legendary live performance at Live Aid in 1985.

Directed by Bryan Singer (but with the whole thing finished in the last few weeks by Dexter Fletcher after Singer had gone AWOL for a while), Bohemian Rhapsody is almost exactly what you want it to be. As long as you want it to be a fun time in the company of Queen. The screenplay, written by Anthony McCarten, is more concerned with keeping viewers entertained and in high spirits than it is with providing a story that feels grounded in the truth. Even the moments that really happened just feel so unreal, so apocryphal, that it never allows the film to feel like anything more than a rocking fairytale.

It's a good job that Malek is uncannily good in the main role, and that you have Gillen and Hollander to look out for, because none of the other main cast members do anything worthwhile. Well, none of the cast members portraying members of Queen anyway. Lee, Hardy, and Mazzello are poorly treated in a storyline that serves as nothing more than a testament to someone they obviously loved. The sad thing is that you get the feeling that everyone deserved something a bit better, even if that meant showing more of the low points and exploring just what would drive the band, individually and together. Boynton is the other person who actually manages to make an impact, thanks to both her performance and the fact that she is the only character in the film given any hint of depth.

Please believe me when I say that I am not being snobbish (and people who know the wide variety of films I watch will know I am no film snob) by saying that this is quite rubbish, and quite rubbish in oh so many ways. Yet, despite the myriad flaws, it's easy to see why it's a crowd-pleaser. You get all of those familiar Queen songs, you get a number of great moments, and you get a finale that is up there with the best I can think of, in terms of making you want to stamp your feet, throw your fist in the air, and vicariously join in with one of the greatest live performances of all time.

6/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get it here.


Thursday, 26 September 2019

Ad Astra (2019)

Is it sheer coincidence that exactly twenty years ago Brad Pitt played a man who commanded an army of "space monkeys"and now, in Ad Astra, he has a moment in which he actually encounters a space monkey? It probably is, but I like to think not. Because while Fight Club (which featured Pitt as Tyler Durden and his space monkeys) delved into the recesses of a dangerous and destructive mind, Ad Astra takes viewers on a journey that shows part of what it takes to keep exploring the further outreaches of our universe. Captain Marvel may have been sold with the tagline "Higher. Further. Faster." but the same applies here.

Pitt is an astronaut named Roy McBride, and a damn fine one at that. Nothing really phases him, as we hear near the start of the movie when those appraising his health comment on how low his heart rate remains, even in more stressful times. He's divorced, explaining this to others with a resigned acknowledgement that his job is not an easy one on anyone who would be waiting at home for him, and has no strong connection to anyone, so it would seem, which makes him an ideal candidate for a mission that involves him travelling to try and contact his father (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut assumed dead many years ago when no further communication was received from him.

Starting with a huge power surge, the main event that serves as the motivator for the main mission, Ad Astra then settles in to what it ultimately is. It's the thoughts of a man pushing himself, both physically and mentally, in order to discover what else lies out there in our universe, be that answers we have been seeking for centuries or nothing. There's a possibility that the only thing beyond the stars is more space. A void. Which would then serve as a reminder that there are many journeys we can all make on our home planet, within our own minds and bodies.

Director James Gray, who also co-wrote the script with Ethan Gross, wants to deliberately slow things down. Space travel, especially over the kind of distances shown here, is often imagined as sleek and quick and easy. But it's really not. It's a long time spent waiting, often alone with your thoughts and the vastness of space around you. Moments of crisis may punctuate the relative monotony, but even those aren't film-friendly crescendos. They are emergencies only until things are stabilised, and then it's business as usual. The film reflects this, locking viewers in with Pitt's character, he is still for many sections of the film and we hear his thoughts in voiceover narration, but it also realises the environments with some top-notch CGI.

Although you get decent supporting turns from Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, and Jones, of course, this film rests very much on the shoulders of Pitt and, in much the same way he has been stealthily and steadily improving with almost every movie he's done in his career, it's a superb central performance. The film may still be too slow and ponderous for some, and perhaps Gray realised that such a different look at the stars would need a major star at the centre of everything. What better surface to show reflected starlight on than a different kind of starlight.

Two main sequences disappoint, one at the halfway mark and some beats during the third act, but, overall, Ad Astra is a welcome slice of intelligent sci-fi that shows how much outer space can relate to our deepest inner space.

7/10

You will be able to buy the movie here.
And American sci-fi fans may enjoy this book.


Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Prime Time: Strictly Sexual (2008)

I was fortunate enough, if you can call it that, to spy this title when I was browsing Amazon Prime for a viewing choice this week. Wondering if it would be some kind of sex comedy based in the world of shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I decided to look at some of the details. I saw that it starred Amber Benson, a name that rang a bell. "Oh," said my wife, who had been watching me in amusement as I rushed to my usual stance of firm indecision, "she was Willow's girlfriend in Buffy, and she was in that film you watched that had her mourning Ron Jeremy." My wife retains some bizarre snippets in her brain, and is rarely wrong. Today was no exception. I had enjoyed Benson in both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and One-Eyed Monster. And so the decision was made.

It was a bad decision.

There's a core idea here that could have been decent. The basic plot concerns two women (Donna, played by Benson, and Christi Ann, played by Kristen Kerr) who decide to head out and pick up a couple of male prostitutes. They end up picking up Joe (Johann Urb) and Stanny (Stevie Long), two men who ARE NOT male prostitutes, but could do with the money when it comes up in post-coital conversation. This leads to the women agreeing to an arrangement that should benefit them all. They will let the men stay in their pool house, where they can enjoy an easy life in between any time they are called upon for sex. But, as we've seen explored in movies many times before, can sex without feelings ever really last as a good thing?

I'd be interested to see what this material could have looked like, filtered through a female gaze. Director Joel Viertel doesn't manage to keep things balanced, although he's definitely held back by the script, which was written by Long (something that seems so obvious now, considering how his character is viewed throughout the film . . . let's just say that he's most definitely packaged as the wise alpha male). One or two amusing exchanges aside, Strictly Sexual does nothing to make the characters engaging enough, or even make the conversations and dynamics more interesting.

Benson does okay, hampered by the fact that her character quickly turns into someone who turns on those around her, especially when she suspects that she's about to catch a dose of icky feelings. She's the best of the bunch anyway. Kerr and Urb are a bit weak, but it's Long who really throws off the balance. If his writing is . . . problematic, to put it as kindly as I can, then his acting makes it all a lot worse. Although far from the worst actor I have seen in movies, the combination of his poor performance and poor dialogue makes almost every minute that he's onscreen slightly painful.

In summation, Strictly Sexual is a film that desperately wants to present itself as something honest, modern, and risqué. Unfortunately, it begins to spiral early on, nosediving into a mire of overdone melodrama and false-sounding attempts to sound cool and progressive that it never recovers from.

3/10

There's an overpriced DVD that Americans can buy here.