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Index to ghost, zombie and general horror films commented on here:



Kill, Baby, Kill!
Riding the Bullet
The Haunting of Lisa
Dead Men Walk
In the Mouth of Madness
Death Tunnel
Uncle Sam
Ghost Story
The Tingler

Hell Night
Day of the Dead 2: Contagium

Dracula (1973)
Black Friday

Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys
Seven Mummies
The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer

Carpenter's The Thing
Cold & Dark
Shallow Ground
Tales of Terror from Tokyo: the Movie
The Haunted Lantern (1998)
Next of Kin (1982)
Dead Girl Walking
The Black Room
Zombie Movie
Ghost Train [Otoshimono
] (2006)
Spider Forest [Geomi sup]
Burnt Offerings

More reviews

Burnt Offerings (US, 1976) -- dir. Dan Curtis

Note: this review contains major spoilers.

By 1976, TV producer/director Dan Curtis had already made many of his most famous and effective TV films, including assorted "Dark Shadows" episodes, two feature-length spin-offs (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows), Dracula, The Night Strangler, The Norliss Tapes, The Turn of the Screw and, of course, the seminal Trilogy of Terror. In these he proved that he could work the horror genre to great effect on modest budgets and utilise the limitations of television production to create unusually creepy entertainment.

Burnt Offerings, however, was made for cinema release and featured a better-than-average cast -- Karen Black (who was famously terrorised by an evil Zumi doll in Trilogy of Terror), Oliver Reed (who had starred in several Hammer horror films, including the excellent Curse of the Werewolf in 1961, but was yet to appear in David Cronenberg's early classic The Brood), Burgess Meredith (who played The Penguin in 20 episodes of TV's "Batman"), and an ageing but still dynamic Bette Davis (here heading into the twilight of her eminent career). Though still a "small" film, it clearly had greater aspirations.

Based on a novel by Robert Marasco, Burnt Offerings is a "classic" haunted house tale -- so "classic" in fact that much of it seems very familiar. Looking back on it, post-Kubrick's The Shining, it seems even more familiar, in that its basic narrative line is pretty well the same as that of its more prestigious descendent. The final shot, of framed portraits of father, son and aunt among a vast collection of "family snaps" belonging to the mysterious occupant of the house, is similar to the end of Kubrick's film -- which in itself was a major deviation from Stephen King's original novel. Who knows, perhaps Kubrick had seen Burnt Offerings and thought the idea a good one to replicate in his own vampiric house movie?

It would be easy to maintain that, strictly speaking, Burnt Offerings isn't a ghost movie. As in Kubrick's The Shining, the house itself is the main player. In Burnt Offerings, in fact, there are no obvious ghosts as such. It is the house that feeds on blood and negative emotion, provoking aggression and feasting on the resulting violence and death. Yet there is also a suggestion that the Allardyce Family is so bound into the house that they are merely part of its survival mechanism. A nearby graveyard reveals that the last Allardyce to be buried there died in the late 1800s; is it perhaps the case that the house calls up the two Allardyce siblings whom we meet at the beginning to act as its agents? Once the agreement is made, the pair disappear -- even at the end we only hear Arnold Allardyce's voice, as though he no longer exists except as a narrative construct -- or a phantom. And of course, the whole point is that Marion Rolf (Black) is re-made by the house as the ruling Allardyce matriarch -- because a matriarch is needed in order to renew the estate. The film is about human sacrifice that brings renewal -- hence the somewhat deceptive title.

Burnt Offerings isn't Curtis' best film, nor is it a great haunted house movie. But like all Curtis' productions, it works. Yes, it is slow to build and perhaps too-deliberately paced in a manner that some -- more attuned to modern Hollywood thriller aesthetics -- find tedious. Key moments can suffer from an overtly melodramatic approach -- though it seems to me that the performances are largely controlled and often subtle, notably Reed's -- impressive from a man who is a renowned chewer-of-scenery. To my mind professional acting combined with Curtis' thoughtful direction mitigate the effect of an undynamic script and in the end Burnt Offering effectively creates an atmosphere of growing dread, one that easily carries us through the narrative's more plodding moments. Though latter-day audiences may guess what is happening from the start, the film's main interest relies less on standard shocks and surprises and more on its depiction of a familial relationship under threat, as the characters' seething weaknesses and phobias are slowly brought to the boil and husband, wife, young son and ageing aunt are increasingly pitted against each other as well as the house. Curtis' dynamic use of the camera draws us in and unsettles us, and when moments of violence -- emotional as well as physical -- occur, we feel their impact as part of a growing sense of dire inevitability. Being inevitable, it doesn't matter that we see it coming, for when it arrives, it can overwhelm us nevertheless.

Note: the DVD presentation is not a particularly good one, patchy in quality and featuring an occasional fuzziness that makes it appear as though some scenes were filmed through gauze. Hopefully one day a better print will be found.

23 December 2006

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This section is designed as a place where I can add quick comment, short reviews, random thoughts and observations on films and TV related stuff.

Spider Forest [aka Geomi sup] (South Korea, 2004) -- dir. Il-gon Song

Spider Forest is a difficult movie that demands the viewer's close attention -- a meditation on memory and loss in which the semantics of film narrative are fractured and slowly re-arranged and rebuild over its considerable running time. The intention here is not to deliberately confuse the audience, but to replicate the multilayered nature of an extreme experience. In the film's worldview, reality is not a simple thing to understand.

Though unquestionably a horror film -- and a ghost story -- it is not typical in either its concerns or its methods. Like the surrealist films of David Lynch (especially Mulholland Drive), it rewards those willing to forego standard expectations and accept that reality's tapestry may be woven according to a logic that is the stuff of nightmare. I'm not sure whether or not Spider Forest resolves all its narrative loose ends or that it completely follows its own internal logic. But by the end its meanings are broadly apparent and as a cinematic experience it repays the effort needed to follow its convoluted path toward emotional resolution. It may not be as tightly controlled as Memento, with which it shares the theme of amnesia, but it may pack more of an emotional punch.

Kang (Woo-seong Kam) awakens, beaten and pained, in a starkly creepy forest. Within a house in that forest he finds the corpse of a violently murdered man and then his own lover, who dies in his arms. He spies the murderer, chases him, is knocked down by said murderer and, later, struck by a car. After surviving an operation to his battered cranium, he is led by police investigations and his own confusion into a nightmare of fractured memories, trying to piece together the recent (and distant) past. He meets Min Su-jin (Jung Suh), a strange young woman whose subtle omnipresence suggests a connection with Kang's history that will be central to the narrative's final resolution.

To reach that resolution, grief, fear and delusion intermingle and re-form in Kang's battered mind -- and in the mind of the audience, which is forced to experience the story from Kang's point-of-view. Reality and fantasy circle each other with the architectural intricacy of a spider's web -- a web in which Kang (and others) are caught. Temporal paradoxes and realised myth play further havoc with narrative simplicity.

The primary metaphor is that of the Spider Forest itself, a mythic place where the souls of those who are forgotten (and who have forgotten themselves) become the ubiquitous arachnids that haunt the place. These souls are trapped there in spidery oblivion until such time as they are remembered. This myth is both literal and figurative within the context of the narrative. It is not hard to see how it relates to Kang's psychic journey toward realisation and acceptance. There are revelations, though director Il-gon Song does not strive to hide them from us; most viewers will suspect the identity of the murderer long before it is "revealed", as the visual cues are abundant. But the revelation isn't his primary concern. It is the complicated emotions that lie at its heart that matter, along with the details of the temporal web amongst which they have been hidden. This is why the film works -- and why it survives both its arguably excessive length and its conceptual ambiguities. Spider Forest is an extended hallucination, from the threads of which a complex emotional portrait is woven.

With fine performances, dream-like pacing (despite surges of extreme violence), a creepy and melancholic atmosphere and beautiful photography (albeit ill-treated by a flawed DVD transfer), Spider Forest is a worthy extension of cinematic ghost lore.

10 December 2006

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Ghost Train [aka Otoshimono] (Japan, 2006) -- dir. Takeshi Furusawa

The idea of a new horror movie about a ghost train has enormous appeal. Tales of railway spooks and phantom trains have been conspicuously absent from the cinema since the 1941 UK horror-comedy Ghost Train (starring Arthur Askey) -- though we should not forget, of course, the 1976 BBC version of Charles Dickens' classic ghost story "The Signalman", or the excellent 1979 Season 2 of Sapphire and Steel ("The Railway Station"). Add to this lack of attention given to supernatural mass transport the prospect of a Japanese take on the theme, and the idea definitely has legs. Sadly, then, Otoshimono proves something of a disappointment that fails to generate much more than a few mildly spooky moments and an aura of lost potential.

With its familiar story of a "cursed" object (in this case an abandoned railway pass and bracelet) and its fairly standard J-horror stereotypes, Otoshimono relies for its effect on imagery and situational atmosphere taken from the more successful Japanese ghost films that preceded it (Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge, Kairo, One Missed Call). Attempts to steal from such a strongly influential tradition are neither surprising nor particularly reprehensible -- that's what groundbreaking works inevitably lead to. But here the theft is lazy and inept, failing to meld the elements -- and a halfway decent concept -- into an involving and convincing narrative.

Of central importance is the lack of emotional truth, in particular in regards to the developing relationship between two senior schoolgirls caught up in the vengeful nastiness of a desperate maternal ghost. This relationship should have been the crux of the story's resolution, giving what salvation there is a reasonable focus. By the time the film takes a stab at this, during the climax itself, no context has been created for it and no emotional commitment has been instilled in the audience. It remains token and unbelievable, and the result is that it provokes either laughter or a melancholy sigh. Even the central "surprise" (involving the identity of that which a ghostly voice tells prospective victims they must "give back") is ruined by a piece of grossly exaggerated visual overkill and poor dramatic timing.

To the film's credit, the apparent "meaning" of the mystery at the core of the film proves to be more complicated than is at first suggested. As well, director Furusawa forges a killer third-act sequence that involves a huge rocky mound that the main character must climb, whereupon the "rocks" reveal themselves to be corpses and she must flee, the corpses chasing her in a ghoulish wave of crawling physical distortion along the abandoned railway tunnels. There are other effective sequences, too, but they are not enough to give the film credibility. The audience is alienated by shallow melodramatics and false sentiment throughout, and the film never recovers from its moments of clumsy pacing and its awkward dramatics. Even as schlock, it remains unconvincing -- and disappointingly so, as there lay deep within it some fairly powerful unrealised potential.

5 December 2006

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Zombie Movie (NZ, 2005) -- produced, written and directed by Michael J. Asquith and Ben Stenbeck

An ace 15-minute zombie flick is way cooler than a crap 90-minute one, eh, bro! And Zombie Movie -- created by a comic book illustrator and a SFX artist whose previous credits include design/sculpture work on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy -- is definitely a zombie movie and definitely ace. Michael J. Asquith and Ben Stenbeck know their bogan and their undead stuff and bring both to the screen in this darkly comedic take on a Romeroesque zombie plague in New Zealand in 1986 -- around the time of events depicted in Romero's 1985 Day of the Dead.

The short film features three bogans (see below for an explanation of the term) stuck in the inevitable Holden stationwagon and surrounded by an unspecified number of cannibalistic living dead. All but the final few moments of the film take place inside the Holden, focused on the increasingly wretched faces of its three somewhat dim inhabitants as they struggle to work out what to do in order to eat, piss and escape. Peripheral visions of zombies shuffling around the windows looking for a way in and a few excellently designed zombie faces leering through the dirty glass give the film a tight claustrophobia that plays effectively against the grim humour of the bogans' plight.

Zombie Movie is like one extended moment (it takes place over several days) somewhere in the background of Romero's living dead series. I can easily envisage an anthology of such "moments", featuring characters from different social and national situations -- an interesting potential subgenre. But Zombie Movie isn't simply a random and unformed snippet. There is a unified plot development here, one that leads the bogans to a suitably ironic resolution of their various dilemmas.

With a good script, effective characterisations, intelligent pacing and terrific make-up effects (as one would expect from ex-WETA alumni), Zombie Movie well deserves its "Best Horror Comedy Short Film" award from Screamfest LA and "Best Short Film" award from the New York City Horror Film Festival.

If you want to experience the love for yourself, you can download Zombie Movie for free from Asquith and Stenbeck's 2chums website.

Note: For those living outside Australia and New Zealand, a "bogan" is a term referring to a certain social stereotype -- lower-class, not-too-bright ... a "trailer trash" analogue perhaps, though without necessarily containing the same suggestion of innate violence and moral looseness. The "type" does imply a very definite clothes sense, vocabulary, hairstyle, and musical taste. The characters in Zombie Movie are classic examples.

1 December 2006

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Venom (US, 2005) -- dir. Jim Gillespie

It may have a voodoo background and a well-designed rampaging zombie (thanks to Patrick Tatopoulos), but Venom is nevertheless a fairly straight-forward teen slasher flick, 1980s style. According to producer Kevin Williamson (who used a similar template and made something new with it in Scream, thanks, one suspects, to the directorial nous of Wes Craven), creating a new slasher franchise ala Halloween was exactly the film's reson d'étre. Well, it pretty well succeeds in replicating the form and indeed in manufacturing an effectively identifiable villain -- much good it will do the fortunes of Dimension Films, I suspect, who clearly hoped to initiate a new cult franchise. The utter, straight-down-the-line predictability of it all is, in fact, Venom's biggest problem.

To be fair, it's not badly done. The Louisiana location is atmospheric and though the voodoo mumbo-jumbo no doubt bears roughly the same relationship to real voodoo as Flash Gordon science does to quantum physics, it nevertheless makes the thing seem momentarily imaginative. The stars are young and attractive -- and mostly required to undertake minimal character development throughout, being there to die horribly. You'll find well-placed shocks, lots of MA-rated gore (R in the States), and a script that says little but allows the cast to engage in a full-on body-count fandango. It works on that level. So, well and good. The trouble is, once you're past the surface glamour, there's not much going on and what is going on is way too familiar to generate much enthusiasm.

All up, however, Venom is reasonably entertaining on its own undemanding level. There are certainly worse big-budget teen-oriented horror films out there, where the presence of all those beautiful young stars actually works against the plot, dumbing it down to the point of farce (such as the remake of The Fog) and where the horror is leached out through a desire to keep the age entrance criteria as low as possible. At least this one doesn't flinch from its brutality and isn't annoying enough to keep you from engaging with the action. It's just that Venom would have been much more than halfway decent with an injection of creative intelligence and less respect afforded the slasher template itself.

26 November 2006

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The Black Room (US, 1935) -- dir. Roy William Neill

More a gothic thriller than a horror film in the tradition of Whale's Frankenstein (1931), The Black Room is a superb showcase for horror legend Boris Karloff. Here he plays twin brothers, one of whom -- it has been prophesised -- is doomed to kill the other in the so-called "black room" of a feudal castle, thus bringing the dynasty that spawned them to an end. Karloff's acting is both subtle and commanding. As kindly brother Anton and evil brother Gregor, he brings a respectively likeable benevolence and dark, immoral malevolence to the screen -- and then astonishes even more as he subtly portrays evil Gregor pretending to be the "good" brother he has killed. His eyes positively sizzle with insincerity and malice, while finely controlled body language and the tone of his delivery create an indefinable tension that few could pull off as well.

The script is more than adequate (with good dialogue and a well-worked circular inevitability to the plot), the cast excellent and the cinematography atmospheric. But there is no doubt that it is Karloff who transforms the film into more than the standard period drama it would otherwise be.

26 November 2006

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Dead Girl Walking (Japan, 2004) aka Kaiki! Shinin shôjo -- dir. Kôji Shiraishi

Made as part of Hideshi Hino's Theater of Horror (Hino Hideshi no za horâ: kaiki gekijô) hexalogy, the 44-minute Dead Girl Walking exists at one extreme edge of the genre, offering little by way of mainstream commercial glamour to recommend it to your average cinema-goer. This will be seen as a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point-of-view. Cheaply made, the film exudes an art-school sensibility, coming across as metaphysical meditation rather than as a story -- though certainly things happen, many of them both outrageous and gruesome. Shot mainly in black-and-white (to reflect the colourless world of death that the main character inhabits), the film neither gives you rational explanations nor expects you to ask for them. What happens happens, and to appreciate the film, you have to start from that premise. It is not about making sense at a plot-level; it is about emotionally absorbing the metaphor itself, even when the film cheekily embraces some rather nauseating imagery.

The scenario is simple. Schoolgirl Sayuri has a heart attack while watering her favourite plant and wakes up to find that she has not only been pronounced dead but now exists in a state of slow decay that repulses her family and inspires them to try getting rid of her for good. She escapes, but with body parts dropping off she's a bit like the classic zombie and not overly adroit. Abused and put on display in a freak show for the amusement of its black-suited patrons, Sayuri seems doomed to suffer a lonely, pained journey to reach ultimate extinction. Given the misery and rejection she suffers, it's amazing then that her final resolve is to live -- which she does in an unexpected way.

Based on a story by infamous manga artist Hideshi Hino -- whose gruesome and confronting works also inspired the controversial Guinea Pig films, two of which he directed himself -- Dead Girl Walking is a J-horror curiosity for those so inclined, being hard to recommend to any but a hardcore horror audience. Not that it isn't effective. Much of the imagery is both iconically powerful and moving. But there is a degree of schlocky pseudo-seriousness that needs to be tolerated in order to embrace the experience -- and it's not likely that everyone will find in themselves the gumption to walk away from the film honestly claiming that they've enjoyed its descent into bloody existential misery.

26 November 2006

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Next of Kin (Aust, 1982) -- dir. Tony Williams

With the atmosphere of a haunted house flick in its first half and a gradual phase-shift into the world of giallo (an approach that is obvious from the beginning, once you realise what's going on), Next of Kin is an involving horror thriller that mixes its influences to good effect, even if the sudden violent extremes of its ending feel a little contrived (in itself a giallo trait).

The film has an Australian character that mutes some of its most blatant influences -- a layback dustiness that gives its slasher climax a natural quality (though few will fail to be reminded of Halloween, sans hockey mask). Sure, its Australian ambiance comes from the setting, which is unmistakably in "the Bush" -- even if the house itself would not be out of place in a British ghost movie -- but the peripheral characters play their part in drawing out the Aussieness as well. Not to mention the accents. (As an Australian myself and hearing Australians speaking all the time without noticing an accent, I find it rather odd that our peculiar Australian speech patterns are so noticable in local films of this vintage.) Despite the Aussie overlay, however, the movie's stylish visual imagery and the distinctive musical themes that accompany moments of physical threat and psychological fracturing help evoke the giallo of Bava and Argento.

Slowly paced and atmospheric, with generally believable characters (especially the old folk), Next of Kin benefits from director Williams' deliberate control, which generates a growing unease that keeps the viewer on edge -- until it all explodes into blood, violence and fire. With good camera work and effective acting on the part of its leads, especially Jacki Kerin as Linda -- newly returned to her childhood home after the death of her mother and haunted by more than memories of the past -- Next of Kin survives comparison with many of its better-known giallo progenitors, or at least the less classic of them.

18 November 2006

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Mortuary (US, 2006) -- dir. Tobe Hooper

It has become something of a cliché to say so, but "Master of Horror" Tobe Hooper's cinematic output has been patchy for some time, with little of overpowering significance offered by him since the early heady days of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, in a more mainstream vein, Poltergeist. Those who, early in their career, produce a film so potent that it affects its genre's future -- and changes the way audiences view the possibilities of horror cinema -- can be tragic figures, as it becomes hard for them to ever meet their self-created expectations, no matter how effective their next project might be.

Yet, with cover art and an "R" rating that promises more than the upgraded teen-horror that is too common these days, Mortuary comes over as a significant disappointment, even making allowances for unfairly raised expectations. A zombie movie from Hooper sounds intriguing enough. And the premise isn't too bad, as stereotypical as it really is: a new emotionally damaged mortician, along with her two children, moves into the long-abandoned mortuary of a small, struggling industrial township only to find that there is Something hidden beneath the house that won't let the dead sleep peacefully. With appealingly grotesque design work (despite some unnecessary and less effective CGI), a terrific setting and good use made of various industrial sights and sounds --along with some decent undead mayhem -- Mortuary should be better than it is. The result, however, is less than involving and is as teen-oriented as horror movies come.

The trouble is, the film feels compromised and schizophrenic. I suspect that Hooper was going for the sort of retro-pulp comedic horror thrills that work so well for the small-town scifi flick Slither, for example. In that film the humour grew out of the characterisation and added to the horror. Here the humour plays against the more visceral elements and the potentially serious undertones that might have provided an emotional focus for the plot. Whether the trouble lies in the script, the acting or the direction is a moot point. The actors (especially Denise Crosby as the new mortician, Leslie Doyle) seem unable to modulate their performance smoothly between serious and comic, and the result is alienating. Even the "oddball" characterisation of some of the more peripheral characters doesn't find its place, becoming clichéd rather than disturbingly eccentric.

Yet ultimately it is the emotional shallowness that weakens the film most -- and allows its concentration on the teenage "outsider" status of Doyle's son to dominate. It becomes a "safe" adolescent adventure, albeit one loaded with considerable gore. There is nothing particularly hard-hitting here, despite the narrative's willingness to kill off "sympathetic" characters. The kids seem relatively unaffected by the deaths of acquaintances, friends and parents, being too busy running, hiding and acting like the Scooby gang to notice. In fact, in the end not much of it matters. And that's the real kicker.

Hooper has tried this sort of comicbook, tongue-hovering-in-cheek pulp stuff before -- for example in Lifeforce, his Invaders from Mars remake and even Eaten Alive, all more successfully in my opinion. But here it simply didn't work for me. The film kept pushing me away. Mortuary isn't a dead loss and it certainly looks good. But it simply doesn't leave me with anything that's likely to stick.

12 November 2006

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The Haunted Lantern (Japan, 1998) aka Otsuyu: Kaidan botan-dôrô -- dir. Masaru Tsushima

The traditional nature of this kaidan, or Japanese ghost story, is underscored by the fact that it is based on a tale by Encho Sanyutei (1839-1900) -- an author and performer of the late Edo-early Meiji period. His popular story "Botan Doro" has been the subject of some 18 film adaptations, this one being the first of the "modern" period. Sanyutei's story was itself an adaptation of a traditional Chinese folktale that has a long history of re-telling and performance, especially in the form of kabuki theatre. It entered Japanese culture in the 1600s and became one of that country's most loved kaidan, fusing romance, sexual politics and terror into an emotionally potent drama.

This 1998 film has an inevitably old-fashioned air about it, particularly in comparison to other contemporary Japanese ghost stories, such as Ringu and Ju-On: the Grudge. Yet there is also a modern sensibility that comes through the approach taken by director Tsushima -- which is bloody and forthright, utilising an array of digital SFX to manifest its horrors. Nevertheless, it is the traditional elements that give the film its main appeal, especially as the SFX are patchy in effect and often quaint rather than frightening.

Still, there is an undeniable power to The Haunted Lantern's tale of passion, betrayal and guilt. As is often the case in such traditional stories, it is not always easy for the audience to locate where its sympathies should lie, as main protagonist Shin Hagiwara (Gitan Otsuru) suffers the supernatural depredations inflicted upon him as a result of karma he has created for himself in a previous life. The female ghosts that haunt him (Yuna Natsua and Junna Suzuki) are demonic and romantic figures, traumatised by betrayal, yet themselves haunted by their own tragic passions.

It is the role of exorcist Hakuodo (Akaji Maro) -- with his blank white eyes and text-based mode of supernatural attack -- that gives the film's climax an ambiance suggestive of the colourful SFX weirdness so familiar from Hong Kong supernatural action thrillers.

11 November 2006

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Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan: the Movie (Japan, 2004) aka Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro: gekijô-ban -- dir. Various

"The Night Watchman" (Yoshida Akio), "Wisps of Smoke" (Suzuki Kosuke), "Gloves" (Sasaki Hirohisa), "The Weight" (Suzuki Kosuke), "Full-Length Mirror" (Miyake Ryuta), "Line of Sight" (Toyoshima Keisuke), "The Promise" (Amemiya Keita) and "Hisao" (Hirano Toshikazu).

If your view of what is scary in ghost stories relies on the threat of bloody death and violence, then you can safely bypass this movie-length anthology of short, anecdotal films and go seek out the latest unsubtle generic gorefest.

The stories in this "Best of" collection taken from a Japanese TV show of the same name deal with the numinous rather than the forthright. Their strength lies in each particular approach, an atmosphere of bizarre creepiness and an abundance of startling imagery, rather than in plot. Each story contains moments of spectral manifestation, with little narrative development, served up as a ghostly anecdote -- they are indeed supposed to have been based on genuine reported events.

Though some (such as "Gloves" where the meaning of the phantom gloves that strangle the protagonist on a nightly basis is the crux of the story, or "Line of Sight" where a shy and awkward student accidentally gains notoriety via a spooky image in the background of a self-made video portrait) more obviously work toward resolution via some revelation, others rely on a single weird image ("The Weight"), on a spooky supernatural situation ("The Night Watchman", "Full-length Mirror") or on an exploration of a state of mind ("Hideo"). In the story that offers what is possibly the creepiest ghost of the lot -- "The Promise" -- a young man is allowed to house-sit his uncle's luxury apartment on the proviso that he always "answer when called". He doesn't know what this means until he starts to hear his name spoken by some disembodied voice -- and the voice is only assuaged when he responds. Naturally we eventually find out what happens when he upsets the owner of the voice -- a bizarre female ghost whose appearance makes Sadako (of Ringu fame) seem normal.

No attempt is made to connect the eight stories, so as a film Tales of Terror remains resolutely a series of anecdotes, joined only by being ghost stories of one kind or another. In style, mood and situation they are all quite different, and they range in tone from seriously threatening to humorous.

Information on the background of the film can be found elsewhere on this site. All in all, these eight choices live up to their reputation as being the "Best" of the short films made for the TV series. They are entertaining and at least creepy -- and the show's technical edges having been smoothed out they group together well as an effective cinematic experience.

5 November 2006

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Shallow Ground (US, 2004) -- dir. Sheldon Wilson

Shallow Ground is an engaging, if blood-soaked, horror thriller that takes a slightly different approach to the concept of the vengeful ghost. Set in a dying backwoods community and focused on representatives of the local sheriff's office as they pack up in preparation to depart the area, it begins with the startling image of a naked blood-soaked youth striding through the trees and into the sheriff's office. The film then proceeds to unravel the lives of the few locals that remain. Most of the characters carry some degree of guilt, but the real focus of spectral vengeance is a mysterious hooded figure who has been torturing and killing assorted victims for reasons that are only indirectly conveyed and never very thoroughly. Perhaps, when the revelation finally occurs, the identity of the killer comes as no great surprise (given the small cast and the presence of Patty McCormack, the original Bad Seed), but it hardly matters -- the revelation isn't the point. It's getting there that counts, and the process is handled with impressive style and considerable intensity by director Wilson, whose only previous effort was a non-supernatural cable TV crime thriller called Night Class (2001).

The blood-soaked youth (portrayed with a numinous abstraction by Rocky Marquette) isn't the killer that he seems, despite all that blood caked to his skin and dripping continuously from him. Rather he is a physical manifestation of the dead. Coming in contact with his blood (which seems to have a life of its own) provokes visions of the past, usually traumatic, which in turn lead the protagonists to recall their own culpability and guide them toward the killer -- and from there to an effectively gruesome act of revenge.

Refreshingly this independent production resists the Hollywood urge to explain everything, instead implying much of the back-story rather than spelling it out. It feels at ease in leaving the supernatural logic to fend for itself. Don't look for a primer woven into the dialogue; there's no Wise Old Man Who Explains Everything here. Though a less-than-careful viewing might leave you confident that the scenario doesn't entirely make sense, in fact it seems to me that it does -- with one or two possible, though relatively minor, exceptions. (Even the rather generic "shock" coda can be made to fit well enough into the script's "mythology" if some imagination is applied to it, though nothing by way of "official" explanation is offered. Either way, it packs a nice minor wallop as we depart Shallow Ground's rather messy world.)

Also intriguing is one brief scene that takes us away from the more claustrophobic forest setting and suggests that the "composite ghost" phenomenon might have a wider, more apocalyptic dimension. This aspect is never expanded upon except as it relates to one of the protagonists, but it provides the film with an even darker resonance than it already has.

At any rate though Shallow Ground may not be a perfect incarnation of the ideas it develops, it is nevertheless an intriguing and effective independent horror film that holds its own against the average mainstream product. It is deserving of the Best Picture award it received at the 2004 Dead by Dawn Film Festival.

5 November 2006

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Cold & Dark (UK, 2005) -- dir. Andrew Goth

A stylised modern-Brit cop thriller that morphs somewhat uncomfortably into gruesome supernatural horror, Cold & Dark is a near-miss that is nevertheless more interesting than not. The film works best when its punchy pseudo-realistic approach reveals mere glimpses of the unnatural possession that reanimates "the Gov'nor", Mortimer Shade (Kevin Howarth), and concentrates on the ethical and emotional dilemma into which his increasingly violent behaviour plunges new acolyte-partner John Dark (Luke Goss). The trouble is, bloody, headlong action and director Goth's confusing approach to communicating the story too easily overwhelm the real conflict lying deeper in the narrative. And when the infecting "grail" creature manifests itself by way of a grotesquely morphing hand with a heavily fanged alien serpent erupting from its palm -- like something straight out of a Stuart Gordon film -- the styles fail to completely meld and the viewer is all too likely to be thrown from the frame. Yet despite this and the fact that an abundance of style can't entirely hide the film's basically simplistic narrative, Cold & Dark remains admirable for its gritty, hard-nosed edginess and Goth's obvious ambition.

5 November 2006

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The Thing (US-1982; dir. John Carpenter)

Some films so etch themselves into your consciousness that they affect the way you judge everything that follows. For me, The Thing -- John Carpenter's 1982 version of John W. Campbell's story "Who Goes There?" -- is such a film. Though an archetypal, if exceptional, monster flick, it transcends mere "popcorn" superficiality through its iconic power as an exploration of paranoia, strongly evoking one of the central metaphors of the horror genre: our sense that things aren't what they seem. At the same time it is unremittingly frightening; Carpenter's mastery at building and sustaining tension, and choreographing scenes of unnatural terror, is at its peak here. Hugely underrated at the time of its release, The Thing just looks better and better as the years go by -- its supposedly "outdated" physical effects achieving a level of visceral impact that CGI can't quite replicate. Time has also undermined accusations that it is merely a gross-out extravaganza; in fact, it doesn't look particularly gratuitous at all in the light of subsequent developments -- though the strong impact of its ghoulishly weird imagery remains. Claustrophobic, muscular and beautifully paced, with an ending that is so appropriate it's scary, it represents a high point of modern horror cinema.

Comparisons with the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World are pointless, of course, if inevitable. Yet though general critical wisdom is that the earlier film is the best of the pair, for me Carpenter's "remake" is the greater achievement: more gripping, more frightening and, as an exercise in paranoia, more quintessential. It is also, of course, a much more accurate rendering of the original story.

Together with Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness, The Thing forms what Carpenter refers to a his "Apocalypse Trilogy".

24 October 2006

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The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (US-2003) -- dir. Craig R. Baxley

Though it features characters created by Stephen King for his mini-series Rose Red (including the titular haunted house), this film can easily be enjoyed as a separate entity. Its sense of period drama and a narrative that concentrates on the married life of Ellen Rimbauer and her relationship with the house that is re-constructed/built for her, and then by her, give it a satisfactory completeness that neither depends on a knowledge of Rose Red nor on a need to reach some iconic pre-ordained moment of revelation. Effective if somewhat stylised acting, good cinematography and a slow-burning but compelling build-up toward its admittedly inevitable climax make this telly movie a worthy addition to cinematic ghost lore. Those wanting all-out horror or unrelenting chills will no doubt be disappointed, as the film relies more on subtleties of atmosphere and character drama than it does on moments of supernatural spectacle. But it handles the dramatic needs of its traditional Anglo-influenced haunting well -- obsession, betrayal and the claustrophobic power of Place being the order of the day.

3 November 2006

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Seven Mummies (US-2006) -- dir. Nick Quested

A motley group of escapees from a crashed prison van -- with their inevitably gorgeous prison-guard hostage -- stumble upon the possibility of treasure in the middle of the Arizona desert, thanks to the enigmatic cackling of a old injun they meet along the way (whose melodramatic laughing goes on for an annoyingly long time and even gets a last-scene reprise). Unfortunately the treasure is "guarded" by a ghost town full of refugees from the Old West, not to mention the mummified, though rather lively, remains of seven Jesuit priests. Our protagonists try to find the gold and this causes much mayhem, bloodshed and dusty mummy kung-fu fighting. Western ghost story? Curse-of-the-mummy tale? Zombie flick? Vampire thriller? The film could be any of these things. That's not bad in itself -- in fact, it's potentially good -- but the trouble is that no one, least of all the scriptwriter, has managed to work out the logic of the back story, the mythology involved or the central narrative itself. Or if they did, it was somehow lost in translation. Nothing comes together at all.

Seven Mummies was an independent production with an estimated budget of $5 million. Sometimes the impact of those dollars is obvious enough. For example, the cast is a potentially decent one that includes the rather attractive Cerina Vincent in a pointless and illogically developed role, the main purpose of which seems to be for her to look sexy in her sweaty low-cut, non-standard, prison-issue singlet top (even if all those horny, immoral convicts she's with completely fail to notice this), and the gaunt and scary-looking Billy Drago as the sheriff/lead mummy. Other positives are the good make-up and (mostly) effective gore effects, some OK music (even if it alternates with some rather inappropriate music and is often poorly synched with the dialogue and action), the convincingly stereotypical Western township and some patchily expansive use of the landscape in the first half.

But the whole thing is so illogical, nonsensical and cinematographically and narratively choppy that the effect of the good stuff is lost well before the silly last moments of the film are thrust upon us (violating, as they do, everything that was established a few moments before). The film is full of confusion -- and not the deliberate kind. The characters do dumb things when they're not supposed to be dumb, the violent and immoral convicts are illogically selective in their immorality, nobody asks the obvious questions (such as "Why is this town we've just stumbled into full of refugees from old western movies?"), important elements are introduced that lead nowhere either emotionally or narratively (such as the purpose of the seventh medallion, and the suggested romance between the Gorgeous Prison Guard and the Only Nice Convict), -- and, worst of all, the main impulse to take the DVD off the shelf in the first place -- to see the titular seven mummies in action -- remains largely unsatisfied as they only turn up at the end and as far as I could tell were nowhere near seven in number! Argghhh! Whatever happened to truth in advertising? On top of that, while the film starts well in terms of editing and picture-quality, both these things deteriorate sharply as it progresses -- suggesting that the makers ran out of money or inspiration or lighting equipment or all of the above. The frequent shadowy scenes become extremely murky and appear to have been filmed using video, and the editing becomes so haphazard it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on.

In short, whether inspired by Joe Lansdale's Dead in the West stories, the western vampires of Near Dark, Ossorio's Blind Dead zombies, or Tarantino's crime-vampire crossover From Dusk to Dawn, Seven Mummies doesn't succeed in turning its positive assets into an effective horror film, even one that might be embraced by a cult audience.

22 October 2006

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Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys (US-2004) -- dir. Ted Nicolaou

André Toulon's ex-Nazi-fighting marionettes are revivified in this continuation of the Puppet Master series -- in order to take on, Jason vs Freddy cross-franchise style, the titular characters from the (admittedly fairly lame) Full Moon evil-doll flick Demonic Toys. Sounds OK if you're into evil puppets? The sad truth is, though, the script is so bad and so lacking in any real understanding of both genre necessities and the Full Moon ethos itself, it's really hard to revive one's past affection for the semi-heroic psychotic little guys. Sadly, the puppets are given little to do, being smothered by some indifferent human activity. Even when they do get into a bit of biffo with the toys from Hell, the result is so pitifully choreographed it doesn't give the audience much to engage with. It should be noted that though Charles Band receives an executive producer credit, he apparently had nothing to do with the film, the rights to both franchises having been acquired by the SciFi Channel. So this time it's not his fault.

But, folks, where's the gore? Where's the gratuitous violence? Where's the nudity? The film does make some pretense of including these things (well, not the nudity), but it's all too watered down and too awkward to keep any sort of grip on the viewer's attention. Corey Feldman overacts and engages in one-note comedic eccentricity -- so that in the end his character is annoying rather than endearing. The puppets do get a mecha upgrade, but seem stiffer than they did in 1989 under the auspices of then-animator Dave Allen, and their various psychotically intense personalities have been leeched almost completely. The plot is tired, the script ill-conceived, the direction lazy and the narrative pacing (such as it is) completely miscued. Even the odd decent concept (the demon's Speedy-Gonzales-like movement, the sonic attack of the evil Jack-in-the-Box, Six-Shooter with laser weapons) isn't enough to fire the imagination for long. Oh, well. None of the Puppet Master films were what you might call brilliant, but they were generally fun. This one -- the ninth in the series -- neglected to take account of that tradition as well.

21 October 2006

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Frankenfish (US-2004) -- dir. Mark A.Z. Dippé

Don't be confused by the title. Frankenfish isn't about a revitalised monster-fish sewn together from the parts of random fish corpses. The title refers to recent media usage of the prefix "Franken-" to designate genetic modification, as in "Frankenfood". It isn't a Mary Shelley rip-off, though it certainly works within a time-honoured cinematic sub-genre.

The most original thing about this mutant-creature-on-the-loose SciFi-Channel horror film, in fact, is the monster itself -- a genetically modified Asian snakehead fish (the real-world progenitors of which are apparently known in the vernacular as "Frankenfish") -- and even that looks rather like a less convivial version of the coelacanth that causes so much trouble in Jack Arnold's 1958 genetic-throwback flick Monster on the Campus. Everything else is fairly standard.

But that's not to say it isn't effective. In fact this is one of the most enjoyable modern B-film monster pictures I've seen for a while, with effective and pacy direction (by Spawn director Dippé) and a decent if unadventurous script. What's more it makes atypically savvy use of both physical and CGI effects to create the monster and to give it its much-needed ferocity. The film is gory, fast and knowing -- and what it knows is that unoriginal B-films can work if we care about the characters (even if they are stereotypes such as "the Voodoo lady", "the local boy made good", "the attractive marine biologist"), the audience is kept slightly (but not too far) off-balance and the film doesn't cheat them by failing to provide decent build-up and some degree of climactic closure.

With excellent bayou photography -- open and clear, especially during the all-important night scenes, yet still able to become claustrophobic when appropriate -- Frankenfish looks more cinematically convincing than its origins would promise and it maintains a tone that is nicely modulated between non-condescending humour and full-on suspense (in a way that reminds me of the superb 1990 monster flick Tremors -- even if that film was more intelligently and tightly scripted and its actors better known).

My only significant gripe would be use of the "rich hunter" trope -- you know, the one where the mutant fish/snake/lizard/whatever has been created/stolen/paid for/imported by some rich hunter because such prey has never existed before and it gives him a sadistically orgiastic thrill to be the one destined to hunt it down. However, in Frankenfish this rather tired and unconvincing cliché plays a relatively minor role, so I can live with it. The effectiveness of everything else balances it out.

In short, then, if you like monster flicks, you probably won't be disappointed with this one, even if it doesn't end up on your top-ten best-of list.

14 October 2006

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Black Friday (US, 1940) -- dir. Arthur Lubin

It would be wrong to blame Stanley Ridges for the relative failure of this minor crime-noir scifi horror film. Though hardly a genre luminary, especially in comparison to Karloff and Lugosi, he does an admirable job in the central role of kindly English Professor George Kingsley, who suffers from a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality instability thanks to the dubious, if life-saving, surgery of Dr Ernest Sovac (Karloff). Using minimal make-up effects (slicker hair and a certain hardness added to his face), he manages to become a totally different personality when the brain of violent criminal Red Cannon takes over, displaying subtle (and unsubtle) changes in manner, body language, tone of voice, general demeanour and, well, moral ambiance. Ridges' acting is so effective in fact that at times you start to wonder if it's a different actor playing the role after all.

So it is not Ridges' performance that is the problem, but confusion in the production as it relates to the main stars themselves -- a casting glitch that director Lubin couldn't quite overcome. The key role of Dr Sovac was clearly written for Lugosi (with that foreign name and all), but Bela was relegated to a minor role as a gangster, getting little screen time and none in the company of his co-star. Karloff himself handles the role of the well-intentioned but ethically compromised surgeon with his usual panache and authority (a "mad scientist" role he undertook many times during this period), despite the fact that he was originally set to play the dual role of professor and mind-subverting gangster. Whether the decision not to do so was his own or the studio's (some claim he couldn't convincingly handle the role, though that doesn't seem likely as he had undertaken similar character parts many times), the effect was to cripple the film, fatally skewing its dynamics. With Lugosi as the surgeon and Karloff as the professor/gangster we might have had a classic.

While the script itself (co-written by B-film veteran Curt Siodmak, of The Wolf Man fame) seems somewhat underdeveloped, it still has its moments. And the main critical gripe directed at it -- the illogic of a "brain transplant" leaving the patient with both sets of memories -- is based on a misunderstanding. As is made clear in Karloff's dialogue toward the end, what was transplanted was not the entire brain but parts of it; the doctor's experimental interest (as distinct from his pursuit of funding) lies in proving that transplanted brain cells can be made to integrate with the cells of the patient while in fact retaining the memories of their donor. Still bogus science no doubt, but at least it makes some sort of Hollywood scifi-horror (non)sense.

As it is, Black Friday is an entertaining, fast-paced, if somewhat off-kilter film -- a better crime-noir than horror flick. Its claim to being a Karloff/Lugosi team-up feels like marketing deception and that puts audiences off, dooming it to the status of a mere aberration in the canon.

14 October 2006

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Dracula (US, 1973) -- dir. Dan Curtis

For several decades, Dan Curtis (who passed away of a brain tumor in March of 2006) lurked in the background of horror film commentary, relegated to being something of an outsider because he specialised in television production. Most famous, perhaps, for his involvement in the vampire melodrama series Dark Shadows (1966-70, 1990-91), he was also responsible for many horror films, including (as director) House of Dark Shadows (1970), The Night Strangler (1973), Scream of the Wolf (1974), Turn of the Screw (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), Intruders (1992), Trilogy of Terror II (1996), and (as producer) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968), The Night Stalker (1972), Frankenstein (1973) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973). These are the work of a man with a firm grasp on the aesthetics of the horror film and the technicalities of evoking an atmopshere of terror. And one of his most memorable efforts was the tele-movie Dracula (1973), starring Jack Palance as the Count.

This version of the Bram Stoker novel is not only more faithful to its source than most, but contains one of the best portrayals of the vampire lord yet produced for the screen. Bela Lugosi's Dracula might be the more recognisable and the most iconic of them all, but Palance's Dracula is frightening and imposing, and exudes a power that few have captured on the screen before or since. He is superb -- probably the first Dracula to encompass such inhuman complexity, coming over as both fascinating and unnerving. He is physically dominant throughout and conveys a wonderful sense of dark power: aristocratic without being effete; yet strangely, deeply haunted by his lost humanity. What's more he looks like he might have led armies -- and not gentlemanly armies, but armies of semi-barbaric warriors. I loved the way Palance reacts when Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) thrusts the cross at him; it hurts him and he must turn away, yet he fights it with an almost despairing anger. The emotions -- loss, desire, hate, despair and animalistic rage -- swirl across Palance's features: confronting, yet not melodramatic and overplayed. Palance has more than a touch of Christopher Lee in his performance, but he brings more complexity to its emotional nuancing than Lee ever managed to give the role.

Coppola's Dracula takes much from this version, too -- including the "lost love" storyline, which Curtis (and Matheson) introduced as a way of giving their Count a more emotionally potent rationale for immigrating to England, while opening a door on his lost humanity. Over all, in fact, the Richard Matheson script is excellent -- inventive, yet closer to the book than any that preceded it. Curtis' direction is also inventive and wonderfully controlled, if somewhat constrained by TV budgets and TV-style cinematography (though he continually pushes the limits of standard contemporary practice, creating effective camera movements that cause the viewer to focus on important visual information yet otherwise carry him/her effortlessly through the narrative). Davenport as Van Helsing is not in Peter Cushing's league, of course, but he is more than servicable, and both Fiona Lewis as Lucy Westenra and Penelope Horner as Mina Murray bring a convincing sensuality to their roles as Dracula's less-than-unwillling victims.

But it is Palance who gives the film its frisson. His cry of suprahuman despair over the staking of his long-lost love -- and the coldly inhuman revenge he pursues in its aftermath -- stays with you long after the film has ended.

10 September 2006

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Day of the Dead 2: Contagium (US, 2005) -- dir. Ana Clavell and James Glenn Dudelson

The common assumption lying behind critical approaches to this middle-tier zombie flick is that the decision to identify it as a sequel to Romero's classic was an act of exploitative insolence. But it may well be that its creators conceived of the film as a genuine sequel/prequel, displaying hubris perhaps, but a hubris that arises from innocent respect for Romero and genuine enthusiasm for the genre. For what it's worth, that's the impression I get from both the film itself and interviews provided on the DVD.

Nevertheless, heralding Day of the Dead 2 as a sequel to Romero's zombie classic was clearly a marketing misjudgement, as the title alone has caused much derision among fans and provoked avid condemnation from critics -- particularly as there was no way it was ever going to achieve the status of a "genuine" sequel. The title's upfront pretension simply ensured that it wouldn't get a fair hearing. At any rate I can only assume that the negative expectations created by the title explain the excessive scorn that has been heaped upon it.

So, let's call it just "Contagium".

The truth is, Contagium isn't all that bad, and certainly doesn't show signs of being an ultra-cheap knock-off, despite the limited resources on display. This isn't Big Budget Hollywood of course, but it's not sub-basement sheep-gut stew either. Though the film has its flaws and displays occasional narrative miscalculation, it isn't boring, cheapskate or laughable (well, not in toto). The filmmakers were on a learning curve, yes, and did not have full control over the film's pacing and dramaturgical elements. But the technical aspects are decently handled, the acting OK (in most cases) and the gore plentiful. Overall it displays a wealth of living-dead vim. The scenario even strives for a touch of originality -- which is more than can be said for many of the pseudo-Romero gorefests that appeared in the 1980s in the aftermath of the Master's success, or the standard Hollywood blockbuster for that matter.

By introducing an outer-space virus that causes rampant genetic mutation, Contagium tries to work a pseudo-scientific rationale for the zombie plague. As a narrative device, the virus' non-sentient drive to "create" a new race on Earth gives the film character -- and very nearly makes sense, whatever the scientific status of the jargon used to express it. In particular the idea of a developing telepathic connection between infectees is an intriguing one, though in the end the concept is never fully developed. Contained within a narrative structure that stretches back to 1968 (when Romero's plague first reared its cannibalistic head), the film offers a new recurrence of the plague decades later, garnished with a pinch of alien invasion and a cornucopia of military overkill. The main narrative isolates a number of emotionally crippled characters within a psychiatric hospital setting, and that setting, too -- with its One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ambiance -- speaks of something more than a careless exploitative attitude. The thematic resonance provided by characters striving to 're-make" themselves psychologically and emotionally is effective in itself, which only makes the inevitable tragedy all the more ghastly.

In the end Contagium can come over as a decent zombie flick, should the viewer give it some leeway. Romero it's not, nor is it in any way epoch-making, but that doesn't mean it has no redeeming entertainment value.

5 June 2006

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Hell Night (US, 1981) -- dir. Tom DeSimone

Though looking a tad staid, leisurely and even non-exploitative by the frenetic standards of other 1980s slasher flicks, not to mention more recent stalk-and-maim hits such as Saw, Wolf Creek, Hostel and the Hills Have Eyes remake, Hell Night is surprisingly watchable due to its darkly atmospheric build-up, good cinematography and a few well-directed fright scenes. Often dismissed as a sub-Halloween/slasher rip-off, the film actually shares just as much with the haunted house tradition, especially as there is a touch of ambiguity about the status of gothic Garth Manor's mutant inhabitants, in regards to their bloody history at any rate. Certainly the killers' appearance and general air of supernatural malice is monstrous rather than simply maniacal, with nary a word spoken beyond a grunt, and considering the sub-basement netherworld they seem to spring from. Ex-Exorcist possessee Linda Blair brings a non-stereotypical air of intelligent appeal to the central damsel-in-distress role, at least until the story requires her to run around screaming, and the ending is choreographed with enough pizzazz to keep any halfway-tolerant viewer's eyes idly glued to the screen. Though it has its fair share of silly plot points and illogical conveniences, and is saddled with the usual college-pledges-must-spend-the-night-in-haunted-house motif, the film strolls, then suddenly speeds, to its conclusion with more aplomb than might have been expected.

15 May 2006

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The Tingler (US, 1959) -- dir. William Castle

After the success of House on Haunted Hill and its "Illusion-O" screen-defying flying skeleton, B-horror film producer/director William Castle upped the ante with his next film, The Tingler. Once again, this one starred Vincent Price, who puts in a totally convincing performance (handling some daft dialogue with admirable aplomb) as Dr Warren Chapin, a pathologist seeking to experimentally validate his theory that fear gives life to an actual creature living within each of us. According to his theory, the Tingler grows along the spine when fed by our fear and would break it, thus killing its victim, if the victim didn't incapacitate the creature by screaming. It's a nice idea and one that Castle develops only up to a point -- but up to that point, he works it well. The first two thirds of the film has an effective noir feel about it, with its threats of murder, Chapin's femme fatale wife and the marital contentions she provokes, and assorted nefarious goings-on -- all with a SF/horror overlay. For me, it's when the gimmickry kicks in that it all goes to pieces.

The basic narrative has a lot that is silly about it, but Price and his fellow actors manage to blind the viewer to the silliness for a while. There are even some excellent scare moments, such as the hallucinatory sequence where a deaf-and-dumb women is scared to death, culminating in a bathtub full of lush red blood -- the only colour in a black-and-white environment. To me, however, Castle's fatal error is the very thing that makes his film such a cult favourite: "Percepto", a bogus technique that allows theatre patrons to directly experience an attack by the Tingler. Everyone knows how it works; random seats within selected theatres during the first run were wired and set to vibrate at appropriate moments during the showing. As Castle tells viewers in the film's prologue, anyone experiencing a "tingle" should scream as loudly as possible in order to avoid death at the hands... um, feelers ... of the Tingler. I imagine that the build-up and the participatory thrill of the "event" worked brilliantly in 1959. Now, however, despite its cultish interest as an artifact, the direct inclusion of this piece of showmanship into the narrative merely serves to truncate the suspense and to undermine any imaginative involvement Castle has managed to generate up to that point. As in 13 Ghosts, we are forcefully reminded that what we're watching is driven by a gimmick; watching it now, out of its time and on DVD, the film becomes not so much a satisfying imaginative experience as a historical curiosity.

Still, up to that point, it works well and is great fun. The central narrative concept still holds a lot of undeveloped potential; perhaps one of these days someone will do an effective, less-gimmicky remake. It's a pity Vincent Price won't be able to participate.

9 May 2006

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Ghost Story (US, 1981) -- dir. John Irvin

Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, John Houseman: with a cast of nostalgic favourites like that, Ghost Story promises to be an exceptional entertainment. Certainly it's the sort of ghost film that wants to be seen as more than a genre throwaway -- an ambition it has in common with other horror films of this period, such as The Exorcist and The Changeling. To a degree it fulfils this aim, with beautiful photography, an adult approach to its subject matter (discounting the discordant presence of too many shock-cuts of the ghost as a grotesquely decayed corpse, courtesy of Dick Smith), and the evocative central performance of Alice Krige as the decidedly corporeal phantom. In the end, however, the film remains too self-consciously portentous for its own good, with flat direction that fails to realise the story's full potential. Of necessity it simplifies the complex and multi-layered novel by Peter Straub on which it is based, substituting ageing regret and simple guilt for the novel's atmosphere of cosmic damnation. That is fine, but in the process there are redundant hangovers, such as the role of Gregory and Fenny Bate, which simply come over as meaningless and somewhat confusing. Nevertheless, Ghost Story does succeed in effectively capturing something of the core nature of the ghost story: a tale of the guilty past returning to plague the regretful present, told in a dark and claustrophobic setting on a stormy night. Alice Krige's effectively nuanced performance, along with the presence of the old-timers, does carry the film over its low points, so that it remains entertaining, if not as exceptional as it was hoping to be.

19 March 2006

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Uncle Sam (US, 1997) -- dir. William Lustig; script by Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen is not your typical Hollywood prodigy. Even a casual glance at his best-known work gives a clear indication of where he's coming from. As scriptwriter and director (God Told Me To, It's Alive and sequels, Q: the Winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Ambulance) and as scriptwriter only (Maniac Cop and sequels and the recent Phone Booth), Cohen brings an inevitably low-budget, independent and idiosyncratic sensibility to the exploitation film, even in these times when exploitation can command huge mainstream budgets. He knows his genre stuff and tends to produce "cult classics" -- memorable films that both celebrate and stretch their genre and that retain an audience (albeit limited) well beyond their brief theatrical life. Of course, the subversive mentality he displays also means that audience reaction can be divided and he is often dismissed as a hack. His attraction to horror doesn't do anything to dispel this notion.

Cohen wrote the horror B-film Uncle Sam in collaboration with director William Lustig -- as they have collaborated on other occasions, most obviously on Maniac Cop; and the film certainly feels like a Cohen production. Often comically brutal, it is exploitative, low budget and genre-savvy -- and it wears its left-wing, subversive themes with obvious pride. Ostensibly a genre throwback to the "holiday/seasonal slasher" films of the 1980s (with a zombie killer returned from the dead to wreak havoc on the "guilty" during 4th of July celebrations in a small town), Uncle Sam works well both as entertaining low-budget exploitation and as political satire. Beautifully shot and generally well directed, it can be scary in the cartoon-like, unrealistic manner of EC Comics and the films that oeuvre inspired. The titular zombie even looks like he's been directly transposed from Tales From the Crypt. Sure, it lags in places and on occasion its low budget is all too apparent. But as well as excelling in the creation of the odd inventive visual detail and some excellent horror sequences, where Uncle Sam shines is in its surprisingly intelligent questioning of patriotism, militarism and political non-conformity, all encapsulated in a knowing B-flick horror format.

Set against the background of Kuwait and Desert Storm, Uncle Sam presents us with a war hero killed by "friendly fire", who rises from death as a maniacal zombie and gives expression to his own less-than-heroic nature in a bloody vendetta against anyone he sees as inimical to the American ideal. To do so, he hides his disfigured appearance under an Uncle Sam costume and mask. Despite appearances and the film's obvious satirical intent, however, Uncle Sam should not be seen as a simple piss-take directed at the iconic Uncle Sam. Its psycho war-hero is not the icon itself; he is a brutal, twisted maniac who wears the mask of patriotism as a means to indulge his own lust for brutality and misdirected anger. The film carefully points out that patriotism is not the same thing as blind, unreasoning acceptance of the need to kill, that Uncle Sam is not always right, not always what he appears to be, that political "idealism" is not always "idealistic". Blind opposition to the ideal is just as damaging as blind acceptance of it: the maniac Uncle Sam kills both left-wing and right-wing victims -- all "guilty" in his eyes.

There are few real heroes in Uncle Sam and those that creep in are flawed and disillusioned. America is under threat, not simply from external enemies, but through the misuse of idealism for personal or simply misguided ends. But is Uncle Sam the answer? As a hero, the maniac Uncle Sam epitomises all that is bad about war. Unfortunately the "ideal" of Uncle Sam the icon is only an ideal; how it is manifested in reality is another issue entirely, and too easily it can become an evil in itself. The film creates a metaphor for the proposition that we can't afford to mistake psychotic brutality for necessary action. If we do, not just Uncle Sam but democracy itself is likely to become a victim of "friendly fire".

No one is going to mistake the film Uncle Sam for a classic of the cinema, but at its best it is an intelligent "comic" horror flick that uses its genre credentials effectively, exploring with a wry smile a theme that is both important and timely.

At the very least, on the other hand, it's all a bit of a hoot. Dismissing it is easy for those so inclined. But anyone willing to see both its genre awareness and its complexities should embrace it with affection.

19 March 2006

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Death Tunnel (US, 2005) -- dir. Philip Adrian Booth

There is a "revelation" scene in this haunted hospital ghost flick at about the spot where you'd expect there to be one. For the sake of those who have never seen a ghost movie before I won't say what exactly is revealed, but I will say that this climactic moment of enlightenment is a perfect example of what is wrong with this movie. The revelation should surprise no one -- unless they really weren't paying attention. Apart from being an oft-used cliché, it falls flat because the director has already (albeit patchily) tossed most of the revealed information at us, visually and verbally, several times -- first on a totally redundant pre-title card, then in a scene-setting medical lecture and then, ceaselessly, in period flashbacks. So by the time the revelation happens (and it is delivered as a revelation), all the audience can do is frown and wonder what the fuss is about and why the characters seem so surprised. The fact that the revelation isn't overly original is much less important than the fact that it doesn't come over as a revelation at all. The backstory it represents would have worked as an intriguing mystery if carefully seeded into the narrative -- and it would have made the movie a much more involving and suspenseful experience.

Giving us too much, taking technique to excess, seems to be this director's modus operandi. Though apparently a low budget film, Death Tunnel looks terrific; Booth has a firm grasp on the technicalities of cinema and has produced a film full of impressive style. Unfortunately the film has so much style that atmosphere, suspense, character empathy, shock value and narrative cohesion disappear in a nuclear flash of distracting wizardry. What Booth doesn't seem to realise is that too much style, ill-used, works against the effect he is striving to achieve. Death Tunnel offers, in abundance, slo-mo, flash cuts, historical montage, subjective intercutting, fractured motion, camera tilt and point-of-view shift. Often you can't tell, on an immediate reactive level, whether what is on screen is what the character is seeing or what a different character, somewhere else, is seeing; whether even non-ghostly moments are actually happening or are meant to be impressionistic; whether an occurrence is taking place now or happened long ago; or whether an approaching shadow is in the same corridor as the POV character or somewhere else entirely. Meanwhile you are continually and fatally distracted by the sheer sense of urgency. Nothing builds, nothing is coherent; in the end, the overkill simply loses momentum and gets dull. Even the superbly spooky real-world setting and its potent history -- a now-abandoned hospital where tens of thousands of "white plague" patients were medically mistreated and met tragic ends -- is rendered null-and-void by the visual frenzy of it all. From the title sequence, the film screams out at you that it is uniquely weird and utterly scary. The acting continually insists that we are supposed to be feeling more scared than we've ever felt before. The music shrieks terror. The noise of all this cinematic protestation is so loud we are simply numbed into a state of non-responsiveness. I've rarely seen a clearer example of total disconnection between cinematic style and narrative intent.

And all this frenzy leaves aside the fact that the wonderful setting is given a fictional treatment that you've seen before many times and which was rarely convincing then: the "initiation in a haunted house" scenario. "Five floors, five girls, five hours ... five ghosts." This is the 1981 pic Hell Night on speed. Actually, the abandoned hospital setting brings to mind the more recent film Session 9 -- to the disadvantage of Death Tunnel. Session 9 had style that was used to create atmosphere, characters that were more than attractive eye-candy, and a narrative that had more than linear, if fractured, predictability.

20 February 2006

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In the Mouth of Madness (US, 1994) – dir. John Carpenter

Strange how some films seem doomed to be underrated right from the start. Third in what Carpenter refers to as his "Apocalypse Trilogy" (the first two being The Thing and Prince of Darkness), In the Mouth of Madness is an effective exploration of communal perception and its role in forming accepted reality – and remains one of Carpenter’s best and most disconcerting films. It is also one of the best of the many films based on or inspired by the Cthulhan imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft, with their vision of vast inhuman "Old Ones" intent on re-gaining command over the human world. Here, inter-dimensional conquest takes place via a phenomenally popular pulp horror novelist, whose works increasingly upset humanity’s psychic (and physical) stability and offer up a fiction that is designed to consume reality itself. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator who is rather smugly adept at defusing the attempts of fraudsters to impose their small, self-serving views of reality on insurers and other financiers. "He’s an amateur," Neill’s John Trent says of one such fraudster, and longs for the challenge of a true professional. In the end he gets his wish, but to an apocalyptic extent that totally overwhelms him ... and, given the ending, us as well. If The Thing was a study in claustrophobic paranoia, In the Mouth of Madness is its agoraphobic twin.

9 January 2006

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Dead Men Walk (US, 1943) – dir. Sam Newfield

A C-grade 1940s Dracula rip-off by any other name is still a C-grade 1940s Dracula rip-off. In Dead Men Walk, George Zucco gets to impersonate both a Van Helsing-style doctor – initially skeptical of supernatural possibilities – and his evil brother, whose funeral begins the film and who soon, thanks to his black-magic leanings, rises from the dead as a vampire-like phantom. He gains immortality from the blood (aka the souls) of his victims, leaving two puncture marks on their necks, must hang out in his coffin during the day, and is immune to bullets (but not crucifixes). So, yes, he’s not the ghostly zombie promised by the title but a vampire – and the basic story is that of Stoker’s Dracula, as the undead twin brother drinks nightly from the neck of the good doctor’s niece and threatens to turn her, eventually, into a vampire like himself. Meanwhile, we are offered a variety of clichés to be going on with: the initially skeptical fiancé, the helpless local cop, the mad woman who knows the truth, the irate – and skeptical – villagers, the hunchback acolyte (played by an aging Renfield … um, Igor …. no, sorry, Dwight Frye), a rampant mob seeking to deal harshly with the good doctor under the belief that he is the killer, and a climactic fire to reduce everything to victorious, but tragic, ashes. "Bookending" the film is the burning of a book on vampires.

Zucco does well in his dual role, there never being much doubt about which brother is which. But the production values are not high, and the film is overall both predictable and dramatically flat, despite the odd good image. There is some camera tracking, but static theatrical cinematography is much more typical. Generally the acting can be best described as serviceable (I rather liked the violence-prone leader of the rampant villagers and Frye is … Frye), but nothing special. Still, if you don’t mind watching a low-budget, seen-it-before variation on Dracula, the whole thing isn’t too bad (especially at just over an hour long).

9 January 2006

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The Haunting of Lisa (Canada, 1996) – dir. Don McBrearty

Presenting us not with the ghost story promised by the title but rather with a now familiar tale of psychic investigation, The Haunting of Lisa suffers from its mid-1990s TV-movie status, reflected not so much in low-budget restraints (which can often be overcome by good scripting and good performances, though such is only marginally the case here), but in its bland lack of visual style (stylised vision-sequences notwithstanding) and an unconvincing plastic sheen given to both characters and atmosphere. McBrearty’s direction simply fails to transform the decent script into an emotion-charged drama, always veering toward the static and bleeding the characters of conviction. It proves hard to believe in any of them as people rather than as actors, though ex-Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd performs well enough as Ellen Downey. So does her on-screen daughter, Lisa (Aemilia Robinson), whose innocent strength and vulnerability provide focus to the tale of hereditary psychic powers and ever-threatening killer. The script manages to bounce viewer suspicions from one suspect to another with some skill, and it is this that makes the film work to the extent that it does. However, that extent doesn’t take us very far. In the end the result is too undynamic to warrant more than a cursory viewing. Comparison with almost any episode of the similarly themed 2005 TV series Medium will indicate why. In essence, I think, The Haunting of Lisa is simply too brightly lit, literally and metaphorically speaking, to engage our imagination.

Though I have no evidence of such being the case, The Haunting of Lisa comes over as a pilot for a proposed series, one that never eventuated -- not unless Medium, with its “star” female lead, its psychic crime-solving scenario, its mother-and-young-blonde-daughter characters, and its stylised vision sequences -- can be identified as some sort of indirect, and vastly superior, descendent.

9 January 2006

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Riding the Bullet (US, 2002) – dir. Mick Garris

Not all horror films need to be, or should be, considered "thrillers". Based on a story by Stephen King, Riding the Bullet is more a meditation on death than it is a standard horror film. Displaying many of the narrative and thematic strengths and weaknesses of latter-day King stories, the film uses horror elements (the ghost/reaper, isolated hitch-hiker on a benighted road, noises in the dark, strange deathly hallucinations, redneck threat) to explore its main character’s need to accept the inevitability of death and his own responsibility to embrace life. Its production values are high, with excellent cinematography and clear night-time visuals; the acting is professional; the period setting makes an effective background to the theme; and the scenario works well, once you accept its literally linear structure – in essence, with a few flashbacks, protagonist Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) hitch-hiking across the country to reach his hospitalised mother. Mythically, the film depicts a journey through the death-realm to reach moral and spiritual awareness – a classic structure dating back to the beginnings of literature. Here, the line between objective reality and subjective experience remains blurred and uncertain, adding to the metaphysical ambiance: Parker talks to himself, literally; people and objects appear and disappearance with the fluctuations of his grip on reality; we see extrapolated possibilities (fears) directly dramatised. Director Garris clearly delights in such audience manipulation, and the technique does serve the theme. Over all, in fact, Garris proves himself adept at capturing the mood, nostalgic delight and hard-won sentimentalities of King’s works – but if you are familiar with those works you may feel that you have seen quite enough of such sentiment already and that the serious side of King’s reflections on mortality (which he does so well) can too easily become a sort of self-created cliché.

9 January 2006

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Kill, Baby, Kill! [aka Operazione Paura] (Italy, 1966) – dir. Mario Bava

One of the most effective gothic ghost films of the 1960s, Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill still works for the darkly effective beauty of its period settings and its rich colours, its masterful pacing and direction, and its stylised imagery of decay and haunted culpability. It well deserves to be seen in the clear, uncut, widescreen image that is now available on DVD; this format best serves its romantic yet claustrophobic vistas, as Bava fills the screen with a shifting panorama of twisted shadows, garish pools of light and the overlapping textures of broken walls, decayed wood, dead trees, obscuring mists, dusty corridors and other metaphorical evidence of a community in a state of moral ruin. From the moment when summoned coroner Dr Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in the isolated village where the inhabitants are dying mysteriously, he presents an obvious contrast to what he finds there, in the immaculate stylishness of his clothes and the civilised confidence of his manner. Though both these things will suffer the depredations of dealing with a force that transcends his medical knowledge, his outsider status acts as a catalyst, initiating events that may bring an end to the reign of fear and vengeance that has blighted the town for over a decade. Once again, Bava creates many superbly hallucinatory sequences, as he explores the morally uncertain evil that haunts the Transylvanian village. As well, his depiction of “woman” is more complex here than is often the case in horror films of this (or any) period, as the numerous female characters adopt a variety of roles: as the source of evil and its agent as well as its victim and its nemesis. Eroticism, innocence, maternal care and vengeance are incarnated in ways that subtly manipulate the standard tropes of the genre and give a unique power to the simple narrative.

Note: One oft-used technique is that which heralds the presence of the young girl haunting the town by the sudden appearance of a ball that bounces across the visual field. An early use of this particular image, it would appear often in later ghost films, such as The Changeling (1979), The Shining (1980), the recent Feardotcom (2004) and many others. Perhaps its suggestion of childhood innocence, combined with the way a ball’s passage can be marked by a combination of visually incongruous movement and a regular thudding sound, is what makes it so effective in the context of a spookshow.

9 January 2006

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