Thursday, 31 October 2019

3 From Hell (2019)

Here's the one thing that I know about the feature film career of Rob Zombie. I am one of the many voices making up part of the problem. I LOVE his first film, he still hasn't topped it for me. It's a carnival sideshow experience in which you are taken by a variety of eye-catching grotesqueries by someone you don't entirely trust. Unfortunately, every movie he has given us after that one has been more of the same, with the exception of two movies that many fans didn't care for. I love The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto. I didn't love The Lords Of Salem. Sadly, the more that Zombie retreats back into his comfort zone, the more I appreciate him trying to channel Ken Russell in The Lords Of Salem, and the less likely it is that we will ever see him try that again.

Which brings us to 3 From Hell, a film that continues the saga of "the Firefly family", the notorious and nasty criminals we last saw being abruptly halted by a hail of bullets as they headed towards a police roadblock. The basic plot is similar to The Devil's Rejects, it's three bad people doing bad things until a final encounter leads them towards either another victory or potential death.

Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, and Sid Haig in place? Check (although the role for Haig was greatly reduced, he has only one main scene, when news of his illness came along just before his death this year). A decent soundtrack? Check (note - it's still a bold move for ANY film to use In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida even all these years after Manhunter). Maniacs who like to deliver verbose dialogue before they commit their atrocities? Check. A '70s aesthetic throughout, no matter what time the film is supposed to be set in? Check. The baddies being a lot smarter/luckier than anyone with their M.O. would be? Check.

On paper, this should be another easy win for Zombie. It's not though. Although it fails in different ways to 31 (which remains arguably his worst film), it still fails. Some fans may disagree with that, and I'm happy that Zombie is at least keeping his core fanbase happy. He seems to have a good relationship with them, and often delivers just what they want. It's just a shame that he doesn't take a chance nowadays on exploring other genre styles that will allow him to grow more, and potentially surprise audiences.

Most, but not all, of the problems here like with Zombie himself. The script is more of the nonsense that he likes to hear being delivered by his favourite actors, always a mix of gleeful nihilism and purported wisdom from those who are savvy enough not to be constrained by the laws imposed upon society by men who just weren't brave enough to give in to their base desires at all times. It also all starts off on the wrong foot, a double whammy of viewers being told a time period that never feels right and an air of sympathy for the main characters that you just can't see ever happening. EVER. Nobody onscreen is worth supporting.

The second main problem, aside from anything done directly by Zombie, comes from the main performances. Few people onscreen are actually bad, but they're rarely actually good either. Moseley is pretty much in self-parody territory now, pushed into that area by Zombie, and every moment he's onscreen feels a bit silly. Richard Brake, stepping in to the void left by Haig, has the potential to make a better impression in the role of Winslow AKA "Foxy", but he ends up looking and sounding far too much like Moseley. That leaves us with Mrs Zombie, who is the worst of the three, and suffers the most from the script. There's just no way anyone would consider her for a parole hearing, for example, given her history of constant unpredictable madness, and she's getting a bit too old to play the role in the same giggling and coquettish way she did back in House Of 1000 Corpses. You get supporting roles for people such as Daniel Roebuch, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, Bill Oberst Jr, Danny Trejo, Pancho Moler, Emilio Rivera, and many others, although some are little more than the most fleeting of cameos it is some light relief to spot some of the familiar faces dotted around.

With House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, Zombie delivered one hell of a double-bill. That hasn't changed. It's just that some people will have an inferior third instalment they can choose to watch at the end. Or, and bear with me, we can all forget it exists and just stay a lot happier. This film says nothing worthwhile, does nothing new, and deserves, well, I am sure you can guess.

3/10

Here's the movie available from Rob Zombie's site (because he needs the clicks more than I do . . . the blogger typed sarcastically).


Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Prime Time: Infestation (2009)

Despite my fear of them (fear, revulsion, general feeling of starting to itch, depending on what species is onscreen), I do occasionally like a horror movie that features some killer insects. Infestation is a comedy horror, but it's one of many that fails to make the comedy funny enough or the horror content actually scary, or thrilling or bloody enough.

Chris Marquette plays Cooper, a young man who we first see heading in to his work, late as usual. He doesn't seem to have any motivation, which disappoints his father (Ray Wise) no end, and thinks a fun way to waste some time is to call someone's name and then immediately look as if he is busy with something else. That game COULD be fun, I suppose, if it looked as if there was more than one person playing. There isn't, not really, and so all we have is a pointless set-up for a payoff much later on, which is actually almost worth it. Anyway, a load of bugs grab everyone, wrapping them up to come back and harvest later, which leads to Cooper fighting for survival with a group of disposable supporting players.

Written and directed by Kyle Rankin (who would go on to direct the more enjoyable Night Of The Living Deb a number of years after this, as well as a few other movies I've yet to check out), Infestation has far too many problems to make it as much fun as it wants to be.

First of all, the characters aren't easy to root for, especially our slacker lead. I know someone like Cooper is supposed to be identifiable as he struggles to find his way in life while making his little efforts to "stick it to the man", but when you take things too far then you end up stuck with someone you want to get away from. I usually quite like Chris Marquette, having seen him in a number of enjoyable teen movies, but I spent the entirety of this movie just reminding myself that he's usually more than just a low-budget Miles Teller.

The same can be said for the rest of the cast. Well, not the exact same, but you know what I mean. Brooke Nevin, Kinsey Packard, E. Quincy Sloan, Wesley Thompson, and co. don't get a chance to shine. The only one who comes out of this well is Ray Wise, and that's simply due to the fact that he's giving one of his familiar performances that allows him to go full Ray Wise.

Second, the script is a mess. While focusing on his smart-ass lead, Rankin forgets to keep things engaging enough in between set-pieces, fails to flesh out any of the supporting characters enough for viewers to care about them, and seems to revel in the fact that most of the people onscreen live or die thanks to no more than good or bad luck.

Of course, the second point also explains the first. I could have just said that the script undermines the whole endeavour, but I wanted to highlight the different ways it manages to damage the material. Distract from this with better comedy or gooey FX moments and it's easier to overlook, but this doesn't do that.

You do get some decent CGI throughout, considering the obvious budgetary limitations, and the lack of any full explanations for the wilder ideas ends up working in the film's favour, but this should have been an easily-enjoyable bit of fun, instead of a bit of a slog that outstays its welcome by about 15 minutes.

5/10

You can buy a disc here.
Americans can buy that same disc here.



Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Satanic Panic (2019)

Written by Grady Hendrix (arguably best known for his outstanding work on the wonderful Paperbacks From Hell book), Satanic Panic is the feature directorial debut from Chelsea Stardust, after a number of years directing shorts, as well as a number of various roles in the movie industry. All I can say is that I hope she is already developing her next feature, because this is an absolutely brilliant bit of entertainment, happy to take a diversion or two into some very wild territory indeed.

Hayley Griffith stars as Sam, a young woman at the start of her career as a pizza delivery driver. That start is not looking too promising. She doesn't get any tips, she ends up roped into helping customers with small tasks that shouldn't be any of her concern, and then, worst of all, she ends up the potential virgin sacrifice at the heart of a ritual being led by a ruthless and powerful coven leader (Danica Ross, played by Rebecca Romijn). Can she survive the night? And will anyone actually give her a decent tip?

With a script full of great lines of dialogue, in the form of both venomous one-line insults and amusing exchanges between characters, and a fantastic brisk pace from start to finish, Satanic Panic is a film full of easy pleasures, and a lot of laughs. Thankfully, and to the relief of many horror fans, it also delivers on the satanic part of the title. Although not ever really scary, it's nice to see something put together that feels as if equal care has been given to the moments of horror and gore in between the many chuckles. At least one set-piece has an impressive commitment to what is being shown that should make viewers squirm and wince, and the infrequent gore gags are expertly realised to show plenty of blood flowing without churning any stomachs.

It also helps that the casting here is practically perfect. Although Griffith is very likable in the lead role, and is given a great co-star to work with in the shape of Ruby Modine (who plays a young woman who was the original potential sacrifice), there is an impressively large shadow cast over the proceedings by Romijn, giving the best performance I have seen from her as a leader who has to balance the black arts with social standing, rivalries, and her own family. Arden Myrin is also a lot of fun, the number two who may hope to one day be number one, and there are great supporting turns from the likes of AJ Bowen, Jordan Ladd, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Jerry O'Connell, and others.

Although it can feel like 90% of horror film festival highlights (and I first heard about this after it was received very well at a number of festivals) are horror comedies, Satanic Panic also deserves some extra brownie points for not being another of the seemingly unending comedic riffs on slasher or zombie movies. I also enjoy many of those, don't get me wrong, but it's always good to see something willing to take a path less traveled.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.


Monday, 28 October 2019

Mubi Monday: Peeping Tom (1960)

There are a number of words that can be used to describe Peeping Tom (thrilling, disturbing, intriguing), but the most appropriate one is masterpiece. Yes, I have been a fan of this film since I first saw it and nothing has ever changed my mind about that, nor do I think it ever will. Arguably much too far ahead of its time for the cinema audiences of 1960, Peeping Tom holds up today as a fascinating study of someone affected by the constant eye of an impassive camera lens looking to catch every feeling and moment, including fear and death.

Carl Boehm (or Karlheinz Böhm to give him his proper name) plays Mark Lewis, a young man we see giving in to his deadly urges from the very start of the movie. He is compelled to film women, continue filming them while killing them, and then spending a lot of his spare time watching the movie that he has made. Things get complicated, as they tend to do, when he gets close to a young woman named Helen (Anna Massey). He doesn't want to hurt her, but can he manage to restrain himself?

Written by Leo Marks and directed by Michael Powell, celebrated during his time making movies as part of the powerhouse Powell & Pressburger duo, Peeping Tom certainly has the right people behind the camera (no pun intended) to deliver a movie that handles potentially salacious and sleazy material with just the right mix of fearlessness and finesse. The cinematography by Otto Heller and music by Brian Easdale also helps, both being wonderful additions to the film.

You do get a number of set-pieces here that start off playful and teasing, before leading to the inevitably horrific finale, but everything is underscored by the fact that we know what will be coming. We are just as voyeuristic as Mark, having chosen to watch a film which then sets out to challenge that viewing choice throughout, a wonderfully complex layer over the movie that may also have put people off back when it was first released.

Boehm is superb in the central role. He's as nervy and awkward as you'd expect, at times, especially during the moments when he tries to battle against his impulses, but always more confident, and often seeming to be on some form of auto-pilot, when he is working his camera. Massey is good in the role of Helen, perhaps a little bit too sweet and innocent (although that is exactly why she has quite an effect on Boehm's character), and Maxine Audley gives a great performance as her blind mother, her condition immediately fascinating for our main character. You also get a great little role for Moira Shearer, and Jack Watson and Nigel Davenport doing excellent work as two cops after a killer.

It's a great shame that the hostile reception to this film effectively marked the end of Michael Powell's directorial career (he has a few credits after this, with his last feature film being for the Children's Film Foundation, but nothing on the same level as this, or any of his previous pictures). There's stuff here that we've seen reworked a number of times in more recent years, with characters either attracted or repelled by the age we live in, an age in which we are constantly in front of webcams, phone cams, security cameras, and so many other lenses. Some of those films are better than others, but none of them are better than Peeping Tom.

10/10

You can buy the movie here.



Sunday, 27 October 2019

Netflix And Chill: Selfie From Hell (2018)

Where to begin with Selfie From Hell? How angry should I allow myself to get? It is a bad film. A very bad film indeed. I thought I would say that at the very start, allowing people to skip this review if they wish, therefore helping to avoid spending more time on this film than necessary.

Hannah (Alyson Walker) is delighted to welcome her cousin Julia (Meelah Adams) for a visit, not really noticing that she seems a bit twitchy and haunted by a looming death curse. It turns out that she is being haunted by a looming death curse, one that allows a nasty demon type to come up to you whenever you take a selfie. This leads, mere minutes into the film, to Julia slipping into a comatose state. Hannah starts trying to get to the bottom of things, which leads her to the dark web, and numerous jump scares.

Written and directed by Erdal Ceylan, developed from the short movie made a few years previously, Selfie From Hell is another horror movie that signifies the very worst elements of the genre. It's not enough to dismiss this because it is aimed at teens. I know teens, I used to be one, and they're not all just after movies that use some of the words familiar to them. Teens can also have taste. And intelligence. And common sense. But you wouldn't think it from some of the worst movies marketed to them. This is a film that doesn't even get the idea of a selfie right, with one scene having a character holding up a phone to the face of someone else and making them watch the front-facing camera while they take photographs. That's NOT a selfie. That's someone holding a phone up and taking pictures of your face!!!

It would be unfair of me to spend too much time complaining about the cast. Walker and Adams aren't great, but they're at the mercy of the incompetence of Ceylan. The same could be said of Tony Giroux and Ian Butcher, one being helpful to our main character and one being a threat to her, but it's hard not to view them as doing an even worse job than the female leads. Tyler A. H. Smith is credited as "Selfieman", which tells you all you need to know about his character.

I've not even started to scratch the surface of how much is wrong with this movie. The lack of ANY logic, despite it thinking it has some. The idea of someone stumbling about the dark web and giving our personal information while they ask questions (it may happen, it may even happen as easily as it is shown here, it just doesn't feel believable at all). The plotting that just assumes viewers will accept a young woman keeping a comatose friend in her home, without requesting medical assistance immediately, while they decide to turn amateur detective. And so much more.

We all know that when someone uploads that perfect shot/selfie to Instagram, or other social media site, that there are 100 other photographs that didn't make the cut. The wrong light, the wrong angle, a blemish that was quickly hidden. This is one of those rejects. In fact, this is the movie equivalent of accidentally uploading a selfie while you were just trying to show your partner how much pain you were in while in the middle of a particularly explosive, and seemingly never-ending, bowel movement.

2/10

This disc is cheap, and yet still far too expensive.
The same disc may seem even cheaper to Americans.


Saturday, 26 October 2019

Shudder Saturday: The Untamed (2016)

It's always odd, but also oddly satisfying, when a film featuring some very alien designs, and ideas, ends up making a lot of interesting points about humanity, our various relationships, and the nature of love. It happens on so many occasions, of course, with film-makers using the eyes of an outsider to coolly look on at the complex contradictions we carry around throughout our lives, but it's always a pleasant surprise.

The Untamed is another of those movies. It may not resonate in the same way as something like The Man Who Fell To Earth or Under The Skin, for example, but it certainly amounts to more than what it may seem to be at first glance, which is a film containing people who have sex with a tentacle-wriggling alien beastie.

Simone Bucio is Verónica, a young woman who . . . has sex with a tentacle-wriggling alien beastie. It lives in a barn. Verónica seems to enjoy visiting the barn. But things change when she is bitten, which means she has to go to hospital for some treatment. There she meets the handsome Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), and there may be the chance to start a relationship with someone who can have fulfil her without using tentacles. It's complicated though, because Fabián has been having a secret affair with Ángel (Jesús Meza), who is married to Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), who is Fabián's sister. You can see how things can develop from one messy situation to the next, while the alien in the barn just waits patiently for people to visit it when the urge takes them.

Directed by Amat Escalante, who also co-wrote the script with Gibrán Portela, this may seem like a bit of a departure for them when you look at previous films they have worked on, but it's actually not too far removed (especially for Portela, who wrote Juegos Inocentes about a decade ago). The horror elements, and the sci-fi heart of things, all push snugly against very identifiable issues for the main characters. An unsatisfying marriage, people taking more risks as they try to find sexual pleasure, betrayal, and more. Take away the alien and you have something that could be a very familiar melodrama. Add it in there and you have something that's a little bit more interesting, and a lot darker.

All four of the leads are equally good, with Bucio dominating the proceedings in the first half, so intriguing as she seems intent on weaning herself away from one damaging relationship by getting herself mixed up in another that could prove damaging in a different way. Funnily enough, despite some of the plotting, this is a film that flips some cinematic gender stereotypes, with the female characters often more confident and sure in their own bodies than the male characters. That means that  Ramos becomes just as interesting to watch as Bucio, as narrative strands start to weave together, but also lends more weight to the performances of both Villavicencio and Meza than might otherwise have been the case.

More thought-provoking than you might think a film about a barn-dwelling squirmy alien that just wants to sex people up could be, this is well worth your time. As long as you're prepared to spend some time being bemused as the narrative writhes and wriggles as much as the glimpsed creature.

8/10

You can buy the movie here.



Friday, 25 October 2019

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

Although it absolutely perverts the essence of the characters that fans of the series have been invested in from the first movie, to varying degrees, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is a wonderful return to form for the series, and a fantastic way to reboot things after the tailspin of the past few years. Purists may balk at the puppets, and Toulon, now being on the side of the people they battled, and tried to stay ahead of, for so many years, but I would advise you to just get on board with the new direction and have fun. Because if this film has any purpose, it's to deliver fun.

Thomas Lennon is Edgar Easton, a man recovering at home with his parents after the end of his marriage. He finds a puppet in a box of belongings that used to belong to his younger brother, now deceased, and realises that it may be worth money. This leads to him heading along to a major auction, with a new lady by his side (Ashley, played by Jenny Pellicer), and his friend/boss Markowitz (Nelson Franklin). Unfortunately, so many of the puppets in the same place mean that things are, almost inevitably, about to get bloody and dangerous.

This is, arguably more than anything else, a reward for viewers who have stuck with the series through the many ups and downs. The script, by S. Craig Zahler, may not be as witty or smart as he possibly wanted it to be (although who knows what he was aiming for when crafting a Puppet Master script, it's not really the place to show off your best work), but that doesn't matter when the puppets go into crazy killer mode, the blood starts flowing, and everyone tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.

Directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund, familiar to horror fans who previously enjoyed Wither and Animalistic from them, do enough to ensure that viewers know who everyone is, and where they are in relation to the carnage, even in the most hectic sequences (and there are a couple of wonderfully over the top bloodbath moments). Once the gratuitous gore and nudity appears, it then becomes a constant factor right up until the end credits, with a lot of impressive practical effects bringing the wilder script moments to life.

Lennon looks a bit out of place in the lead role, but he doesn't do a bad job. I'm just so used to enjoying his comedic performances that it felt odd to see him in the midst of this (particularly THIS series). Pellicer is a fun female co-star alongside him, and Franklin gets to play irritating, while staying just tolerable enough to make him someone you root for in the second half. Udo Kier is our Toulon this time around, and he does well with a very different portrayal of the character, Michael Paré is a cop with no time for any of the nonsense he sees around him, and both Charlyne Yi and genre favourite Barbara Crampton do well in supporting roles.

If you've made it through the previous eleven movies then you'll welcome this like a cool drink of spring water after a journey through a scorched wasteland. If you're some casual latecomer then, well done, you can jump in and enjoy this as a standalone film. And everyone who made it through every previous instalment will glare at you with an expression of judgmental resentment and anger.

7/10

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


Thursday, 24 October 2019

Puppet Master: Axis Termination (2017)

And here we have it. I know that there is one more movie in the series, to date (that may be five more movies by the time you read this), but Puppet Master: Axis Termination tries hard to be the worst in the series. It's certainly on a par with the previous film, although it tries to distract viewers with some gratuitous nudity and gore.

I fear that attempting to describe the plot will result in me losing brain cells that I will never get back, so let me just say that a group of people are still out to stop a group of Nazis from using the puppets for their own nefarious plans. This group of people includes the character of Brooks (a tough military type played by Paul Logan, very similar to the character of Sgt Stone in the last movie) and a number of people with various supernatural abilities.

While he may do well in his role as businessman/carnival barker for Full Moon Features, Charles Band is a director who has long ago forsaken any ounce of talent and integrity for any quicker way to make a buck. Some may argue that he never had talent or integrity. Okay, I'm not entirely sure about the latter, but I'd point to the first couple of Trancers movies as evidence of the former. And I know some people still have a soft spot for Prehysteria! (which he co-directed) so we know that he once made some movies that people could enjoy. It just becomes harder and harder to remember them with each subsequent movie he helms.

The script by Roger Barron doesn't help at all, although I have to wonder just how much is developed from the fervent imagination of a writer wanting to try and use the puppets in a fun and entertaining adventure and how much is developed from the wide-eyed ramblings of Band, who probably thinks he is a one-man-idea factory, and the best person to steer this series back on to a track that he derailed it from in the first place. This is only the second script from Barron, who also wrote Trophy Heads (I cannot deny that I really want to see that), and it's clunky, ridiculous, nonsense that doesn't throw everything together in a good way.

At least the cast all do well. Wait, no, I am just kidding. The cast are almost uniformly atrocious. I may even forgive Greg Sesteros for his appalling accent in the seventh movie, it's nothing compared to the wildly uneven "Russian" accent being delivered by George Appleby, playing the good Doctor Ivan Ivanov (sheesh, even that name just smacks of utter laziness), or the . . . whatever accent that is supposed to be coming out of the mouth of Tonya Kay, one of the main Nazi villains this time around. I have enjoyed Paul Logan in a number of movie roles (nobody can kick a megapiranha in the face like he can), but he's not used properly here, placed far too often as the wisecracking cynic dragged involuntarily into a battle that utilises more magic than the guns he is more comfortable with. Nobody else is worth mentioning, because I'd rather not insult every single person involved with the movie.

Oh well, I am pretty confident that the next movie can't possibly be as bad as this one . . . can it?

2/10

There's a decent set here, for those who want the whole Axis saga.


Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Prime Time: The Power (1984)

Written and directed by Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow, who had previously worked together to give slasher fans The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Power is yet another film I had a hazy recollection of. I saw it on video and remember it being quite an intense and effective horror movie.

Once again, my memory has failed me. This is not a very good film, although it has two things going for it. One, it's an admirable attempt to try and do something a bit different at a time when every other horror movie was a slasher flick. Two, the scenes bookending the film remain surprisingly effective.

Warren Lincoln plays Jerry, a man who gets involved with a story that some teens tell him about a small Aztec doll that seems to have great power. Trying to enlist the help of journalist, and ex-girlfriend, Sandy (Susan Stoke), Jerry soon becomes possessed by the spirit of the doll, which puts everyone around him in great danger.

It's a shame that The Power doesn't ever quite work, although a few scenes deliver some effective moments. The main idea just isn't as developed as it should be, it's hard to figure out how useful the power of the doll can be while it is so drastically changing its current owner, and what could have been an enjoyably tense second half is undercut by the fact that none of the characters are worth giving a damn about (with the lone exception of Sandy).

Things also aren't helped by the overall look of the film. Perhaps seeing this cleaned up a bit would help, but for now we're left with yet another horror movie that often hides the scarier moments in scenes lit so badly that you're too busy trying to work out details when you're supposed to be tensing up in readiness for a fright.

The cast are competent, to be fair. Lisa Erickson, Chad Christian, and Ben Gilbert do perfectly okay as the younger characters who (re)discover the doll and start to figure out that something is up before handing it over to someone they think may be able to solve their unique problem. Stoke is the best one in the entire cast, which is why we give a damn about her, but Lincoln is one of the weakest, which sorely unbalances the scenes that keep them both together. It's not so bad once Jerry is being affected by the doll, but during those scenes you may be distracted by the choices made in the "evil" Jerry design.

Carpenter and Obrow have a number of credits to their name. This is close to the worst of their work (although Obrow directed Legend Of The Mummy so that proves that he can scrape closer to the bottom of the barrel than his co-worker). It's still not close to the worst of the horror movies of this time period, however. Positives include those scenes bookending the movie, some fun thrills when the Aztec doll is starting to stretch out tendrils of power, and a wonderful score from Christopher Young that feels very much like a practice run for his superb work in Hellraiser.

Would I recommend this to everyone I know? No. Would I recommend it to one or two individuals I think can enjoy this kind of schlock? Maybe. Would I buy the film if it was cleaned up and presented on a disc with a few tasty extra features? You're damn right I would.

4/10


Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Puppet Master X: Axis Rising (2012)

Puppet Master X: Axis Rising leads on immediately from the events of the last film. However, being directed by Charles Band, it is not concerned with actually needing to have any of the same actors in the main roles, it feels ten times cheaper, and it ends by teasing a continuing storyline that some may wish was just dropped in favour of more standalone instalments.

Danny and Beth (this time played by Kip Canyon and Jean Louise O'Sullivan) are to be recognised for their act of heroism in defeating the Nazi plot from the previous movie. Meanwhile, a Kommandant Moebius (Scott Anthony King) is eagerly awaiting on successful results from a doctor (Oto Brezina) that he has put to work on developing human corpse versions of the puppets they have managed to get their hands on.

There are some fun ideas here, mainly thanks to the script by Shane Bitterling, but everything is undermined by the cost-cutting directorial style of Band. I cannot fully hate any movie that has a scheming, busty, blonde Nazi (Stephanie Sanditz) in the mix, and the third act has some fun new puppets added to the roster, but the rest is much tougher to get through than it should be. Aside from the central cast, about eight people, it's obvious that Band didn't want to pay anyone extra if he could help it. You can get away with that if you keep every scene small and intimate. It's a bit harder to do it if you're supposed to be shooting a dinner party sequence (as happens here).

The cast are all exactly as you'd expect them to be for the budget. There are two people who don't do a terrible job, Brezina and Sanditz, with one giving a decent performance and the other most effective because of the look and manner of her icy blonde character. Canyon and O'Sullivan are worse than the actors who portrayed their characters in the previous movie, King gives the kind of pantomime Nazi performance I thought went extinct after 'Allo 'Allo! ended, and Brad Potts, playing a Sergeant who reluctantly has to "babysit" the two leads, gives the worst performance in the film, despite some strong competition.

What else is there to say? If you've read all of that and still think you may enjoy the film then you MAY enjoy the film. It has enough little pleasures to avoid being too painful. It also has sets that feel like they were thrown together to give the maximum coverage for the lowest cost (the Band way),  the character arc for Danny is pretty ridiculous, and there's a Japanese puppet added to the cast that, well, you will just have to see it for yourself. Not to mention the poorly-shot puppet fights that make the strings all too visible.

Thankfully, it looks like the eighth movie will remain the absolute low point, but this is still far removed from the quality we had at the start of the series. And I am already afraid about what the next instalment will have in store for me.

3/10

There's a decent set here, for those who want the whole Axis saga.



Monday, 21 October 2019

Mubi Monday: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

A fairytale framed by dramatic elements, and punctuated by moments of vicious violence, Pan's Labyrinth remains the very best thing from writer-director Guillermo del Toro, despite stiff competition from the likes of Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and The Shape Of Water.

The main character is a young girl named Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), who is taken along by her mother (Ariadna Gil) as they start a new life with the ruthless Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is under orders to deal with republican rebels in the local area, a job he does with no small amount of rigour and zeal, even fatally punishing people who were guilty of nothing more than hunting rabbits in the wrong area. Ofelia does not like her new stepfather, but she does like Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a housekeeper who is helping the rebels in their efforts. She also takes a liking to escaping into some flights of fantasy, encountering a Faun (Doug Jones) that sets her a number of challenges, explaining that completing them will prove that she is the spirit of an immortal princess from the underworld.

Intelligent, tense, and beautiful throughout, Pan's Labyrinth is a moving and rewarding experience for horror movie fans. I was worried about revisiting it this time around, having not seen it for about a decade, and I could remember the basic plot elements but not exactly how they all played out, but it took me mere moments to settle into the rich and detailed onscreen world, onside with young Ofelia from her first moments.  I encourage anyone else to revisit this, especially if you have left it as long as I did.

As a cinematic world-builder, I cannot think of anyone who does that better than Del Toro, especially when it comes to his horror work. He's helped in no small measure here by Jones, who plays both the Faun and a character named the Pale Man, and some gorgeous CGI creations (insects and fairy figures), but there's not one element I can think of that feels like anything less than top-notch work.

Baquero gives a wonderful performance in the central role, at ease with the magical sights around her as she retreats further and further away from a reality that is growing bleaker and bleaker. Both Gil and Verdú work well with her, and on their own. The former is playing a character who, due to her heavily pregnant state, spends a lot of her time resting and unable to see the worst of the events unfolding around her, either unintentionally or deliberately seeming oblivious to things. The latter is a strong fighter who has to work even harder in the third act to help save the lives of those she cares for. López portrays one of the great villains of modern cinema, whether he's horrifically bashing in someone's head with a wine bottle, torturing prisoners, or trying to self-repair his own wounds. He's easy to hate, and viewers are clued into how we should feel about him from Ofelia's point of view, but also avoids being a pantomime figure. You could argue that Del Toro sometimes has more time for his villains than his heroes, but he gets the balance right here, and every character, even a local doctor (played by Álex Angulo) becomes someone you're invested in. I've already mentioned Jones. I don't want to harp on and on about him, but his performances are absolutely worth mentioning again, and he has the pleasure of being involved in the most memorable imagery tied to the film.

The script and direction are almost perfect. The only criticism, a very minor one, is that you can too easily tell one or two characters that may be dealing with Captain Vidal while also betraying him by helping the rebels. A couple of nervous movements and glances feel very obvious and unsubtle, especially compared to everything else in the film. But that is the only thing I can think of that stops this from being a perfect modern classic of cinema, and it's still not enough to actually stop it from feeling, overall, like a flawless gem.

For teenagers who have the patience, and for all adult viewers, this is a powerful enchantment. Del Toro himself is the insect/fairy who takes our hand and takes us slowly and surely into an underworld as beautiful as it is dark, reassuring us at every step that we have nothing to fear, as long as we remember everything he is telling us. It's a tale of familial love, a tale of grief, a tale of war, and a tale of tales, how we use them to process horrifying thoughts and to escape reality, even if that escape is only temporary. Even if it is our mind deceiving us while our body endures some harsh mistreatment.

10/10

You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a great disc here.



Sunday, 20 October 2019

Netflix And Chill: Office Uprising (2018)

You wait for one movie that works with the premise of a downtrodden office worker finding a renewed sense of purpose in the midst of a situation turning everyone incredibly violent and then three come along at once. Yes, after the corporate violence of The Belko Experiment and Mayhem, Office Uprising is the latest genre offering to remind everyone of how much stronger the survival instinct can be in people who are spend most days trying to avoid being stabbed in the back by colleagues.

Brenton Thwaite is Desmond, a laid-back staff member at Ammotech, a leading company in the world of weapon manufacturing. Cutbacks are happening, leading to a more competitive atmosphere than ever, but "our hero" would rather spend as much time as he can developing his phone app/game on company time. That lazy schedule is interrupted, however, when most of his colleagues turn into raging maniacs. It is all the fault of an energy drink this time. A scientifically-engineered energy drink. Once ingested, it ramps up the aggression levels of the drinker. Desmond needs to get to safety, with the only two co-workers he views as anything like friends.

Directed by Lin Oeding, already a bit of a veteran in the stunt industry and now building a directorial career in shorts, TV, and this feature, the worst thing about Office Uprising is that it comes along after two superior movies riffing on very similar material.

The other worst thing about it is the tone. Writers Ian Shorr and Peter Gamble never seem committed to their own creation. The humour isn't as sharp or smart as it could be, and the moments of violence generally use shouting and insults to try and distract viewers from the fact that there's not that much actual nastiness and bloodshed on display. It's a shame, especially when Shorr has the wince-inducing Splinter in his filmography, and leaves you with the impression that the film doesn't have any guts or heart beneath the surface.

There's one more major factor working against it. Thwaites just doesn't make for a great lead in this particular role. He's just not a good fit here, almost sleepwalking through most of his screentime, which is a shame. It's a good job that the two people he hopes to keep alive are Jane Levy (already able to make a claim as something of a scream queen) and Karan Soni (arguably best known for his hilarious turn as Dopinder in the Deadpool movies). And the main villain of the piece is played with the expected level of aplomb by Zachary Levi, which also helps. Gregg Henry and Kurt Fuller aren't given enough screentime though, and there isn't quite enough to fix the damage caused by the miscasting of Thwaites.

It's not a terrible film, especially if you're after something that mixes some humour and horror without too much gore thrown around the place, but it lacks bite (no pun intended), it lacks focus and commitment, and it's never one that I would encourage you to prioritise above others that you may want to take a chance on.

5/10

Office Uprising is currently available on Netflix (UK, not sure about other territories).


Saturday, 19 October 2019

Shudder Saturday: Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (2016)

The more I think about Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, the more I find to like about it. It's the kind of film that can be easy for people to hate. It seems light, scenes are put together in a way that make you wonder what the point of it all is, and then you get an ambiguous ending that allows you to take away from the viewing experience what you want to put into it. Trying to truly figure out what it means to you is like trying to catch a bubble without popping it, and the end result is all the better when it finally works (both the figuring out of the movie AND the bubble catch).

Erin Wilhelmi plays Adele, a young woman who moves in with her Aunt Dora (Susan Kellermann) to help care for her. Aunt Dora doesn't want to interact with anyone though, including Adele. She leaves notes for her, instructions for what is to be done and what is not allowed, and that leads to a quiet, lonely, existence for Adele. Until she meets Beth (Quinn Shephard), a young woman who brightens up Adele's life with her energy and willingness to indulge in moments of selfish naughtiness, be it encouraging Adele to bend/break the rules laid out by her aunt or stealing a dollar tip left on a bar. Things look up, which means they may inevitably soon turn down again.

Written and directed by A. D. Calvo (AKA Alejandro Daniel Calvo), this is an Autumn-tinted gothic tale of commitment, complemented by a quiet and effective score from Joe Carrano and two lead performances that I am unable to find any fault with. It's not a film for the impatient, and not a film for those who need their genre elements to be much more overt, but it is most definitely a horror film, despite the protests you may hear from those who don't appreciate how slowly it winds towards a brilliantly effective finale.

Wilhelmi is the standout, but only just, giving a performance that always shows a character who is bad at hiding everything below the surface, good or bad. You know that her default state is shy and quiet, and there's a real sadness to her, which makes it more bittersweet as she starts to experience real happiness for what feels like the first time. It may not be, but it feels that way. Shephard is just the right mix of sweetness and strength to make it easy to believe that Wilhelmi would be so taken with her, and it's essential that she plays everything just right. Susan Kellermann is fine in the much smaller role of the reclusive aunt, hardly seen but responsible for at least one solid jump scare.

Beautifully ethereal from start to finish, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is a film about haunted people in the same way as both Burnt Offerings and Picnic At Hanging Rock. Or even, as namechecked by one of the main characters, Jane Eyre. And it easily ranks alongside every single one of them.

8/10

You can, of course, currently watch Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl on Shudder.


Friday, 18 October 2019

Puppet Master: Axis Of Evil (2010)

Here is, as expected, a film in the Puppet Master series that finally plays around with the chronology established in the earlier movies, in an attempt to shake things up a bit and move forward, yet also step backward slightly at the same time (I WILL explain in a moment).

On the plus side, this is not another crudely-assembled mix of footage from the other movies. To be fair, it would be hard to do that again, so soon after the eighth instalment in this series. You also get Nazis, and who doesn't enjoy seeing Nazis get their just desserts. On the downside, it's another film that decides the story is best set in the past, and also assumes that nobody will remember when Toulon was said to have killed himself, as shown at the very start of the first movie.

David DeCoteau is once again back in the director's chair, working this time from a script by Domonic Muir (credited as August White). The two work together to provide fans with occasional moments of fun mired in a plot that consistently tries to play certain elements out more seriously than it should.

Here's the quick summary. Levi Fiehler plays Danny Coogan, a young man unable to do his bit during the war, due to a leg injury. He's helping his uncle at the Bodega Bay Inn on the night that Toulon kills himself to finally stop being pursued by Nazis. Because he had spent some time with Toulon, Danny knows about the puppets. He whisks them away. This all leads to Danny realising that Nazis are in his home town, attempting to infiltrate a factory that his girlfriend (Beth, played by Jenna Gallagher) works in. The Nazis are working with a Japanese criminal (Ozu, played by Ada Chao) and Danny realises he can do his bit for the war effort by putting a stop to their plans, with the help of his puppet pals.

There are a couple of good puppet scenes here, including the creation of a new little guy (Ninja), and this is certainly a huge step up from the previous film. Having said that, Puppet Master: Legacy was such a low bar that almost anything would have been a huge step up. So it's a shame that those involved with this one thought that the best way to revive the series would be to create a tale of wartime intrigue and thrills, while forgetting to include enough of both.

The cast are okay. Fiehler is a bit of a uncharismatic lead, making it impossible to figure out how his character ended up with such an apparently lovely girlfriend. Gallagher does a bit better in her role, despite not being given enough screentime, and Chao does what is required of her as one of the main villains. Aaron Riber is fine as Klaus, the other main villain, most at ease when he gets to run through the expected broad "act like a Nazi" bag of tricks.

DeCoteau doesn't do a terrible job, and the general look of the movie makes it feel as if a bit more care has been taken with it than was taken with the past few films, but neither he nor Muir push the material in a direction that allows for fun to take precedence over the plotting, scheming, and attempted melodrama.

It's a step in the right direction, but it's not a return to form. And I'm not sure that will ever happen now, considering how far along the series has now gone.

4/10

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



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.