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



J-Horror Anthology: Legends
Half Light
Inner Senses
Mary Reilly
Dead Meat
The Red Shoes [Bunhongshin]

The Maid
Urban Legends: Bloody Mary
Watch Me
The Return

The Quick and the Undead
Dead and Deader
The Dead Will Tell
The Gravedancers

Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane
The Meeksville Ghost
Night of the Living Dorks
The Booth [Bûsu
Angel on my Shoulder
Planet Terror
Death Proof
Zombie Town
Suicide Club

suicide club DVD cover

Suicide Club (Japan-2001; dir Sion Soro) [aka Jisatsu sâkuru; lit. Suicide Circle]

Sion Soro’s Suicide Club is either one of the best horror films of the past decade or a chaotically structured exercise in self-indulgence, depending on your point-of-view. In fact, it’s probably a bit of both. Yet it’s also a film that rewards -- perhaps demands -- subsequent viewings and that statement explains both its strengths and its shortcomings. In essence, it’s rather like a film by a Japanese incarnation of David Lynch in collaboration with Ken Russell. And as such, you’re either going to love it or hate it. Neutrality isn’t an option.

It begins with what is undoubtedly one of the most disconcerting scenes in horror-film history. Fifty-four perfectly ordinary Japanese schoolgirls -- giggling, joking around, showing no signs of existential angst -- suddenly join hands along the edge of the platform at Shinjuku Station and throw themselves in front of an incoming train. Carriage windows, commuting bystanders, the station platform and even the camera lens are all splattered with copious amounts of blood and gore.

After that the film settles into a police investigation, as Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) tries to work out what’s going on. Bizarre suicide follows bizarre suicide. Given a heads-up by an email correspondent known as “The Bat”, he finds a website where red dots are used to predict the number of suicides that will occur that day. Other “clues” are bags containing rolls of stitched-together skin strips that pretty well correspond to wounds cut into the skin of suicide victims, a girl band called Dessert and a psycho who may or may not be somehow responsible for events. But none of it adds up, as the disease comes too close to home for Kuroda and the general obsession with self-destruction spreads uncontrollably throughout Japan.

With its tagline: Sore de wa minasan, sayonara [Well then, goodbye everybody], Suicide Club is disturbing, not at all likely to be described by anyone as a relaxing evening’s entertainment. You could describe it as surreal, except that the violent deaths are both unrelentingly grim and graphically visceral, never coming over as illusory or cartoonish (in the manner of such genre extremes as the excessively blood-splattered Tokyo Gore Police or Machine Girl). The film doesn’t let its audience off easily.

Moreover, there are no definitive answers offered; even the procedural element never resolves itself. If you expect a rational explanation, you’ll end up dissatisfied. What Sono’s confronting and difficult film does is create a metaphor for the nihilistic danger inherent in the manipulative power of popular culture, which here goes beyond telling its recipients how to dress, what to buy, whom to revere and what to think, and extends to the creation of an ethos where even mortality becomes merely another mass-culture fad. In Suicide Club, belonging to the in-crowd means losing your identity in death; how much of an extension is that, we are asked, from losing yourself in the morass of media-driven lifestyle crazes that is modern life?

Suicide Club is a serious film, for all its genre excess. Overly so, some will argue. As a satire of Japanese pop culture it is harsh, bloody, messy and often insightful. Its commentary on trends in modern Japanese society puts it in a different league to the many vividly entertaining exercises in excess for its own sake that have emerged from that country in recent years. But this doesn’t mean it works at peak efficiency. The narrative doesn’t follow a pattern of plot-driven logic and at times it’s easy to feel that the striving for effect does in fact override thematic intent. Yet it’s also important to keep in mind that the connections between the film’s images and key scenes are more abstract and layered than we get from standard box-office fare. Suicide Club sings to a different aesthetic tune to the rest of the bunch.

So, in the end you’ll either hear the music or you won’t -- and you’ll love the film or hate it. As for me, I don’t hate it, but I don’t entirely love it either -- at least, not yet. Just give me time and I’ll get around to it, I suspect. 

7 August 2010

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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.

Zombie Town (US-2006; dir. Damon Lemay)

Filled with references to zombies, and full to bursting with zombie film tropes, Zombie Town is actually in the marginal alien-infestation mode of zombie film, its zombies being citizens taken over and animated by slugs that feed off human blood but which inject their hosts with some sort of adrenalin-like substance that makes them largely invulnerable to bodily damage (with the exception of shots to the head, of course). As such it lines up with recent films like Slither (2006), 1986's Night of the Creeps and even scifi z-flicks such as Edward L. Cahn's Invisible Invaders (1959).

Of course Zombie Town is much more oriented toward Romero's zombie apocalypse genre than these, as it spins its tale of a small US town locked in by various circumstances and suddenly overwhelmed by cannibalistic zombies. A cast of locals with a variable life span eventually focuses on three individuals -- two of whom are ex-lovers soon to be reunited in adversity, and the third a wise-cracking smartarse whose services prove indispensible -- as they struggle to (a) survive, and (b) find a way to stop the zombie-parasites before they spread across America.

The film is bloody, full-on and cheap -- though personally I find this last fact the least significant of the three. Director Lemay does a good job of deflecting our attention from budget deficiencies by working his decent, if generic, script well and having leads who give human interest to the main protagonists; they are believable and likeable, despite foibles and failings, and such empathy drags us into a film more easily than expensive SFX. Only the grain of the film, some bad day-for-night lighting glitches, a few narrative lapses and the occasional overacting from supporting-cast members draws attention to Zombie Town's low-budget independent B-film origins.

It may not have an original shred of flesh on its body, but its entertainment value and good humour make it one of the less forgettable independent zombie films of recent times.

2 March 2008

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Grindhouse (US-2007; dir. Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and others)

Grindhouse is the product of an enthusiasm for exploitation films made during the 1960s and 70s. It is a pastiche and a celebration, the sort of thing already exemplified in the work of writer/director Quentin Tarantino, who has made a career out of "re-creating" those cinematic experiences that played into his development as a filmmaker. Tarantino's Kill Bill movies replicate Asian martial arts revenge flicks, just as his Jackie Brown was a prime example of so-called blaxploitation. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and From Dusk til Dawn all show the influence to varying degrees -- and the fact that Tarantino has sponsored a line of DVDs that offer restored exploitation and cult films is further indication of his passion.

Robert Rodriquez, of course, has always been Tarantino's partner-in-crime and they conspire on this exploitation double feature, too. Love 'em or hate 'em, they represent an energetic aesthetic movement that has brought B-film nostalgia into the box-office in a unique way. Yet where other films in Tarantino's oeuvre have explored the aesthetic in a more upmarket fashion, Grindhouse, both conceptually and in execution, has made the passion for re-creation so absolute that it's hard to know where it can go from here without actually reversing time and become what it is exploiting. It reproduces the aesthetic warts and all.

A word of explanation: "Grindhouse" films were cheaply made throwaways designed to exploit perceived trends in extreme cinema and were traditionally shown in "flea-pit" independent cinemas known as "grindhouses". Their programs were made up of B-films, which were often shown in double features. The films ran the gauntlet of various disreputable sub-genres: gore horror, Asian martial arts, scifi, sexploitation, blaxploitation, redneck violence, sexual revenge – that sort of thing. Grindhouse cinemas needed a lot of such films to fill their busy schedules, so certain studios would "grind" them out like sausages, frequently developing the gaudy posters long before actually working out what the movies themselves were about. Many were made for drive-in consumption. True or not, the perception is that such films were screened from poor-quality, grainy, scratched prints, and marred by missing reels – injuries sustained through frequent screenings, constant recycling and misuse. The films were full of extreme gore, exaggerated (and clichéd) characterisation, beautiful women and macho men, bare breasts, bare chests, car chases, explosions and ludicrous plotlines -- lots of fun for all the family, so long as we're talking about Leatherface's family.

Before the mega-success of Jaws (a B-film in concept, though not in budget) brought exploitation films into the mainstream, the grindhouses thrived. After Jaws, the big studios took exploitation upon themselves, to such an extent that the vast majority of box-office hits from then on were in the typical B-film genres – sci-fi, horror, monster, gangster, spy -- and it became too expensive for the B-film studios to compete. Many of them simply closed down, while others took to making porn.

Tarantino and Rodriquez's Grindhouse was originally designed as a double feature of "typical" exploitation B-flicks, complete with previews (for bogus "coming attractions") and all the trimmings. As such, it should be treated as a single unit, seen in its entirety in one sitting -- though in fact box-office failure in the US has meant that the "coming attractions" were dropped and the two features separated, each offered up in "cleaner" versions and re-released. As of this writing, they are only available on DVD separately. It's a pity, for the complete package is a marvellous concoction and a thoroughly entertaining indulgence in low-grade-cinema nostalgia.

Preceding the first feature is a wonderfully extreme and tasteless trailer for a fake film called "Machete" – a violent revenge epic directed by Rodriquez and starring the "rugged" and aesthetically scary Danny Trejo. Between the two films (and after the interval) are three more "coming attractions": "Werewolf Women of the SS" by Rob Zombie (werewolves, Nazis, SS dominatrices, women-on-women catfights, etc. etc.); "Don't" – an hilarious pisstake on the trailers of all those 70s horror movies with titles like "Don't Go in the House!", "Don't Look In the Basement!", and "Don't Answer the Phone!"), this one directed by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead fame; and "Thanksgiving", a gross holiday-themed slasher film from Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel). Spot-on, all of them. Apparently Rob Zombie and Rodriguez may be succumbing to the pleas of exploitation fans and their own insatiable love of tawdry horror and turning their fake trailers into full-length films.

But the features are the main attraction. They are: Planet Terror (directed by Rodriquez) and Death Proof (directed by Tarantino).

Planet Terror (US-2007; dir. Robert Rodriguez)

Planet Terror is a gore-drenched zombie movie of the military-conspiracy / viral infection kind, full of paranoia, guns, pus, blood, gore, severed limbs, strippers, gross medical procedures, exploding cars, exploding heads, man-on-man, man-on-woman and woman-on-woman aggro, needles, dodgy Texan food, torture and sex. Among its pleasures are Tom Savini (make-up SFX guru responsible for the bodily trauma seen in such films as Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and the Friday the 13th movies) getting cut up and pulled apart in spectacular fashion; Bruce Willis as an infected military commander who comes to a grossly gluggy end; a melting penis; an ex-go-go dancer (Rose McGowan) who loses her leg and has it replaced by hi-tech ordnance; and a scene in which a horde of the infected are cut to pieces by a military helicopter in flight. As it goes along the narrative gets more and more extreme and the imagery more and more ludicrous, injected with every unlikely act of physical violence Rodriquez could wedge in. Meanwhile, the design work is beautiful and the SFX spectacular. It is weirdly faithful (if more upmarket) rendition of its B-film template -- exaggerated sure, but the genre works on exaggeration anyway. Here, the result is hilarious.

Death Proof (US-2007; dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Death Proof is Duel meets Vanishing Point meets Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a psycho stunt man with a pathological drive to kill (spectacularly, of course) sexually attractive young women with his car -- a "death-proof" stunt vehicle. The first part of the film sees him annihilate, spectacularly, a group of ordinary bimbos out on the town. The second half sees him try the same thing with a bunch of attractive women who happen to be stunt drivers themselves, including New Zealand film professional Zoë Bell. The resulting carnage does not go Mike's way.

In producing this Good Ol' Boy redneck car-chase orgy cum chick-revenge film, Tarantino wanted to make the car crashes as visceral as possible and so he did them the old-fashioned way, sans CGI. The result has, it must be said, a lot of impact. If the film might be seen to slowdown a bit too much in places as Tarantino over-indulges in some of that smart-arse semi-comedic banter that he made famous in Pulp Fiction, it must also be added that it is through his control of the pacing that he succeeds in involving the audience in the characters and their fate, thus ensuring that the violence has all the more impact.

Anyway, both films are rather tasty examples of their respective tasteless sub-genres, well-directed and involving -- even if that involvement devolves to an appreciation of the absolute absurdity of the narrative's extremes. Such irony abounds in both films, of course. Grindhouse movies are characterised by cheap violence and cheap bad taste. Rodriquez and Tarantino re-create the form, only with expensive violence and expensive bad taste; then do whatever they can to make the result look cheap and nasty. The print is marred by patches of graininess, scratches and blemishes (sometimes concentrated on scenes of bare flesh and iconic nastiness – you know, the scenes that are watched over and over obsessively until the film becomes worn in those spots) -- and even a missing reel (burnt by an overheated projector, or simply "lost"). The careful placement of these blemishes, especially the missing reel, is part of the joke, of course.

Unfortunately Grindhouse's poor box-office performance suggests that much of its audience didn't get the joke.

Another irony is that Grindhouse, which celebrates and replicates no-art film aesthetics has been showing in arthouse cinemas around the country, at least in Australia. But in so doing, we get to see it the way it was meant to be seen, all in one piece and with its blemishes in tact.

Want a good ol' nasty time (and a good laugh)? Well, what are you waiting for? See it when it comes to a flea-pit theatre near you!

22 January 2008

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Trespassers (Mexico/US-2006; dir. Ian McCrudden)

Trespassers is one of those not-quite-a-zombie-flick zombie flicks that draws on some of the aesthetics of recent successes in the genre without embracing the full package. It has a supernatural scenario that involves a curse and a horde of cannibalistic, semi-decayed human monsters -- the product of the curse. But if you pay attention to the somewhat inelegantly inserted back-story that occurs toward the end, you'll soon realise that the "monsters" are neither zombies nor corporeal ghosts -- they are men and women who have simply been cursed with an insatiable hunger for everything, whether human flesh or not. In fact, that they are still alive becomes clear when the protagonist successfully stabs one of their number to death through the chest. It's hard to maintain the pretense of being one of the "living dead" when a basic tenet of the living dead -- being indifferent to ordinary bodily trauma -- is so flagrantly ignored. (The status of the Evil Character behind all the trouble, vis á vis being alive or dead, is, however, somewhat more problematic.)

Nevertheless, there is a modern zombie vibe to the film, so that, like 28 Days Later, it can fit easily enough somewhere on the periphery of the subgenre. Mind you, nothing in the script tries to claim the film for zombiedom -- it's only the marketeers and a few reviewers who do that. The film itself is silent on the subject, despite the uncanny resemblance of the "zombies" to 28 Days Later's pseudo-dead.

Five typical college graduates head off on a Mexican holiday jaunt, lured to "the perfect surfing beach" by the brother of one of them. The beach is isolated, "unspoilt" by either tourists or locals, and sports terrific wave breaks. I admit I was totally uninvolved during this opening, as the scenario had all the hallmarks of standard dumb teen slasher fare. After a prologue in which the brother barely gets the necessary phone call in before something indefinite snatches him and his girlfriend, we follow the five summonees as they travel toward Mexico, stopping once or twice for no apparent narratively-relevant reason. However, at this point I found my attitude subtly changing; what made the difference was the realisation that, though only given half a chance, the film was generating a decent atmosphere and making me care about the stereotypical but effectively acted characters. A well-choreographed "pit-stop" at a derelict gas station is so full of nebulous menace that by the time the travellers actually reach the beach, the idyllic splendour of the place feels tainted and we're ready for the shit to hit the fan.

The follow-up "shit-hitting" sequences involve evidence regarding the fate of the missing brother, teen flirtation that is mostly handled in a layback, non-exploitative manner, some requisite sexploitative bare-breasted perving (which, in its favour, serves a narrative purpose), the discovery of gnawed human bones and, once darkness falls, the "zombies" attacking...

Director McCrudden makes enthusiastic use of a handheld camera, but unlike in, say, The Blair Witch Project, its extremes are saved for violent moments, so that it (a) didn't make me nauseous, and (b) manages to create tension. Some reviewers complain about the night scenes being totally obscure, but while it was occasionally rather dark, the image always managed to be clear enough on my plasma-screen TV and I didn't feel as though I was missing anything. Yes, the gore remains suggestive rather than in-your-face, but that didn't worry me either, as this is a film that is clearly going for suspense rather than gross-out.

For a moment, at the very end, I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers were planning on using that totally unsurprising surprise final reveal where one of the characters who seems to have escaped scott-free suddenly "turns". But thankfully, though he toys with our expectations here and there, McCrudden follows the logic of the film's mythology instead.

In short, while Trespassers will never find an honourable place in the Dungeon of Great Horror Films, it was, for me, a suspenseful and likeable entertainment that at least deserves a good word or two spoken in its favour -- in spite of its clichés and conceptual limitations.

4 January 2008

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Angel on My Shoulder (US-1946; dir. Archie Mayo)

In the first few minutes of this supernatural gangster comedy-drama, Eddie Kagle (imbued by Paul Muni with all the appropriately iconic tough-guy mannerisms we've come to expect from the era of Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson) is released from prison and murdered by his erstwhile partner, Smiley Williams. In a blink -- and through a cloud of steam -- he finds himself in Hell, but displays so much attitude that he gives the somewhat bureaucratic Devil (Claude Rains) a devilish idea. Seems Ol' Nick needs to win a point or two in his eternal struggle with the Man Upstairs and at the moment destroying the auspicious career of Judge Fredrick Parker looks like his best bet. Parker is a good man, doing good work among underpriveleged youth and hence limiting the Evil One's ability to get new staff to man the furnaces. But Parker is Kagle's double, which provides the Devil with an "in". If he can insert Kagle's disembodied spirit into Parker's body, and get him to act as the bitter, selfish criminal he's always been, what chance will the Judge have of becoming State Governor and thus spreading his good works even further?

What Nick fails to take due account of, however, is the influence of the Judge's beautiful fiance, Barbara (Anne Baxter). That, and Kagle's basic awareness of his love-deprived, emotionally stunted past.

With a good script, excellent actors and enough darkness to give the essentially sentiment tale an edge without destroying its good nature, Angel on My Shoulder is a wonderfully entertaining comedy that makes its point with enough of a dramatic edge to make you care about the ghostly Kagle's ultimately rather bleak, if deliberately chosen, fate. The ending is redemptive, sure, but a completely happy outcome isn't what you can expect. There is always a price to pay for salvation.

Angel on my Shoulder was written by Harry Segall, who is also known for the similarly afterlife-themed Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) -- later turned into a play (and a movie) under the title Heaven Can Wait. In Here Comes Mr Jordan the protagonist is a boxer who dies too early due to an inexperienced angel's over-enthusiasm and is subsequently given a second chance in the body of a murdered millionnaire. In this film, Claude Rains plays an archangel who accompanies the lost soul on his quest to remake the dead millionnaire's life in his own image. His Mr Jordon shares many characteristics with Angel on my Shoulder's Nick, particularly his dry sense-of-humour -- though there are important differences between the roles. Rains is magnificent as a Satan who is both personable and darkly sardonic, occasionally allowing a hint of underlying cruelty to emerge through a glance or a subtle gesture.

Afterlife films, mainly lighthearted and comedic in nature, were very popular in the 1940s, no doubt offering a harmless way for a society suffering from war and its aftermath to deal with years of death and loss. The fact that Angel on my Shoulder actually depicts Hell (as a shadowy, fire-singed underworld, in which the damned toil endelessly to keep the furnaces burning hot enough to ensure its Overlord's comfort) is one of the surprisingly dark joys of the film -- and gives it a lingering, slightly bitter, aftertaste.

9 December 2007

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The Booth (Japan-2005; dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura) aka Bûsu

With a running time of just over 70 minutes, The Booth is a small J-Horror gem -- though without "dead wet girls" or any of the other post-Ring stereotypes. Set almost entirely inside an old, disused radio broadcast studio, it uses its closed environment and bleak settings to full advantage, focusing attention not on startling (or otherwise) SFX, but on the main character and his struggle with guilt. As a ghost story, it has the occasional scare, but more to the point it is an unsettling supernatural drama that uses its fantasy elements to focus our attention on the emotional realities it explores rather than to overwhelm our imaginations through violence or creepy spectacle. The one time it does seem to draw on the "spectral woman" trope, it ends up undermining our expectations to good, and somehow even more creepy, effect.

Shogo (Ryuta Sato) is a personable but emotionally selfish and arrogant DJ, host of a late-night call-in radio program called "Love Lines". On this particular night the show has been moved to a disused studio -- a studio with a reputation (it turns out) for being haunted. A DJ from decades before had hanged himself in the studio -- in an incident that begins the film and sets the groundwork for what is to come -- though that is not to say the dead man is responsible for the haunting. Now, in the midst of his broadcast, Shogo finds himself having flashes of memory, memory of culpable behaviour -- and being interrupted by odd noises and a female voice saying: "Liar!" As callers ring in to tell him embarrassing or humiliating things that have been said to them by loved ones (the show's theme for the night), and he dishes out somewhat fatuous advice in response, we become aware that one way or another all the examples of humiliating put-downs or ill-treatment that he hears can be laid at his own door. It all seems to be about him. Worse, lying behind it all is the possibility that he has been responsible for the death of a female co-worker. As his fear and guilt grows, Shogo begins to face the reality that his past may be catching up with him in more ways than one ...

The Booth is tightly and elegantly written, with back-story well integrated into on-screen events, and perfectly structured to draw us inexorably through the experience. Ryuto Sato is engaging as Shogo, skirting around the edge of the "arrogant star" stereotype without ever becoming a caricature or making him hopelessly unsympathetic. As we learn more about Shogo's past behaviour, we find ourselves approving of him less and less, but it is always against a background of personability set up in the initial scenes -- so we "stay" with him during his dilemma. Meanwhile, director Nakamura proves expert at deflecting us, of leading us artfully astray. Truth becomes elastic, and Shogo's interpretation of events more and more subjective, reflecting his basic self-loathing. In the end, reality becomes so internalised that there is really only one path open for the emotionally bankrupt DJ to take ...

In a not-insignificant way, the power of the film lies in the fact that we are never quite sure who or what is haunting the studio. In fact, it is as though it is not haunted in the ordinary sense at all, but rather draws to the surface the ghosts that those entering it bring with them.

7 December 2007

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Night of the Living Dorks (Germany-2004; dir. Mathias Dinter) aka Die Nacht der lebenden Loser

Cross-genre horror films are becoming more prevalent. It's inevitable, really, as filmmakers attempt to break out of the rut of whatever contemporary trend is currently doing the rounds. The German zombie flick Night of the Living Dorks not only goes the route of zombie-comedy (as epitomised most famously in Britain with the now-classic rom-com-zom film, Shaun of the Dead -- made at roughly the same time), but joins teen-comedy traditions of the Revenge of the Nerds kind with those of the zombie film. The result, much to my surprise, is thoroughly entertaining and rather funny.

The story is simple. A trio of typical high-school outcasts ("losers" is a better, and more thematically appropriate, translation of the original German title than "dorks") convince a bunch of goths to help them cast a voodoo love spell so that one of their number can score with the school slut. But it goes wrong and they are dusted with the remains of a Haitian zombie (bought off eBay). When they subsequently die in a car crash, they come back as zombies -- considerably stronger than before and free of pain, if prone to cannibalistic hunger and accelerated levels of decay. Suddenly school -- and revenge -- is looking good. Being dead is cool. Naturally, however, the Good Unlife doesn't last too long before blood flows, the Naziesque gym teacher gets eaten and a zombie plague starts to look likely. It's hard to maintain decent levels of joi de vivre when you're forced to reattach body parts with a staple-gun.

The film could have been awful but in fact the crass sex jokes, though present, are kept to a minimum, the script is funny and sometimes original, the stereotypical characters are well-played and rather endearing, and the direction is spot-on, director Dinter displaying a knowing grasp of both teen-sex-comedy tropes and zombie traditions. Even more: the narrative doesn't always do what you expect it to do, the pacing is generally tight, building to a deliberately chaotic climax (I preferred the "official" ending over the alternate one offered as an extra -- which is completely divergent in tone), and there are a few socio-political undercurrents for those who notice such things. What more can you ask for? Gore? There's even a modicum of that available.

One thing though: watch the original version, in German language with subtitles. The English dubbed version is up there with the worst of the old-school bad dubbing of '70s Japanese fantasy films. Ten minutes of that and anyone in their right mind would eject the disk!

5 December 2007

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The Meeksville Ghost (US-2000; dir. David Lister)

This review contains spoilers

A non-horror supernatural comedy-drama (parts of which suggest Back to the Future 3 in setting and tone, though without that film's budget, dynamism or general panache), The Meeksville Ghost tells a story of past misdeeds, present-day villainy, and the outworkings of a spectral curse.

Meeksville is an isolated and failing township on the verge of final collapse. Judge Reinhold plays the cursed dead-guy from the Old West, Lucius Meeks, who must right a past wrong in order to find eternal rest but needs help to do it -- being unable to directly communicate or even be seen by anyone. Help arrives in the form of Daniel (Andrew Kavovit), who had been adopted as a baby and now returns to Meeksville in search of his biological family. Though it is pretty obvious to the viewer, Daniel little realises that he is kin to the ghost that haunts the place (and whom he alone can see) -- but everything eventually becomes clear for him after he is roped into helping right the wrong and save the town. At the same time he falls for Kate Carter, who, in a Romero-and-Juliet twist, proves to be the descendent of the man Lucius shot during a single crucial event from the past. There is an "evil" landowner, Emily Meeks (Lesley-Anne Down), who is trying to buy up all the town's land -- and who turns out to be Daniel's mother. What Daniel and Kate need to do to defeat her is find the real deeds to the land. The climax, which takes place in the past and ignores the temporal anomalies it creates, brings the past and the present into direct conflict. The film ends with appropriate sentimentality.

The tale is a standard western melodrama, with a ghostly overlay. Yet there is enough in the production to take the edge off any feelings of old-fashioned familiarity. The direction, which can be a little lacklustre, and the at-times overly passive performances, give The Meeksville Ghost the air of a telemovie, which it probably is -- a relatively cheap production, limited in its setting and the number of cast members (so that at times the isolated township seems positively unpopulated). Not that the film lacks style, though; particularly effective are the scenes set in the Old West, which are done in sepia, like old photographs. Filmed in South Africa, it is unfailingly good-humoured and optimistic in its resolution, and its humour is gentle. The SFX, such as they are, are effective enough. Overall, it is rather undemandingly entertaining.

What it isn't, though -- contrary to statements made in some reviews -- is a Western remake of Oscar Wilde's Canterville Ghost. Neither the plot nor the tone bear any meaningful relationship to Wilde's satirical farce.

17 November 2007

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Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane (US-2007; dir. Scott Thomas)

Despite its spoofy -- and rather clumsy -- double-barrel title (which evokes Snakes on a Plane as well as the more relevant influence, Night of the Living Dead), Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane is a suspenseful, gore-splattered rollercoaster ride of a zombie film that takes itself just seriously enough to avoid destroying the effectiveness of its horror elements. While it replicates the general plot of Snakes on a Plane, replacing that film's snakes with cannibalistic undead, it isn't the rip-off that this and the title suggests -- in fact, it was written and began production before its bigger budgeted ophidian rival, under the title Plane Dead. Clearly the distributors didn't have enough confidence in it to let it stand on its own merits.

They should have. Though the film lacks the metaphorical resonances and sociopolitical undercurrents that the best zombie films exhibit (except perhaps in its depiction of international air travel as such), it is an involving affair that easily carries you over its more glaring factual errors -- you know, all that guff about shooting guns in a pressurised cabin environment (see Note below), being allowed to take a putter on board an international flight when in reality even nail-cutters are verboten, and incorrect engine numbering (don't ask). Though it would have been better to have avoided any such errors (if they are errors), the writers did a pretty good job of working the concept. In the end, you don't really mind.

The film is directed cannily, with artful care given to narrative momentum and pacing. Some might argue that the extended opening, which introduces the stock characters and lets them interact for a while, is a bit slow, but the slowness in fact allows the viewer to get involved, so that the undead frenzy, when it comes, is all the more effective. Generally speaking, slow-build works better than bull-in-a-china-shop fury. Either way, by the time the zombies get loose, you're thoroughly caught up in the rush...

Flight's zombies are fast -- like those of the Dawn of the Dead remake -- but inexorably undead in nature. Bloody, rapidly decaying skin and the suggestion of bone and sinew in their make-up is effective, as is the relatively low-budget CGI. Claustrophobia, gore, suspense and the terror of realising that there's no way out all work to make this zombie flick one of the more entertaining of recent times.

And of course the film's ending could be taken to represent the beginning of Romero's zombie apocalypse, the experiment-in-immortality-gone-wrong representing the origin of the living dead plague.

There is a class of horror film that blends horror and humour without resorting to self-parody or extreme slapstick; that runs with the absurdities and makes us believe them; that gives life to stock characters; that knows and loves its subgenre and thus revels in the re-creation. Such films are good humoured without being comedies; horror without being wrist-slittingly dark. The best example of this kind of monster pic is Tremors, which does giant sand worms. Other good examples are Slither (invasive space maggots) and Frankenfish (monster fish). Flight of the Living Dead does it for cannibal zombies.

Note: It’s interesting that one of the big criticisms leveled against Flight of the Living Dead by online critics is the shooting that goes on inside the aircraft. They protest that allowing guns to be used on a plane would result in the walls being punctured and therefore lead to violent decompression of the cabin. Bodies sucked into the void! I wonder if the Mythbusters have tackled this idea. At any rate I came across an article by an aircraft technician that pointed out that it was the idea that there would be a violent decompression that was in fact the Hollywood fallacy. Up until relatively recent times air-wardens carried guns. Moreover, the sky-tech said, there are gaps in the shell of aircraft anyway, to help regulate the airflow. On top of that, he went on, the cabin walls of most aircraft (as well as the windows) were generally able to withstand impact from handgun bullets. So, one way or the other, no explosive decompressions!

13 November 2007

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The Gravedancers (US-2006; dir. Mike Mendez)

The Gravedancers' main addition to cinematic ghost lore is a curse disguised as a life-affirming rhyme. Said rhyme is discovered on a condolence card by the morbidly intoxicated friends of the deceased as they gather around his grave to "see him off", and it tempts them to dance on nearby graves in an act of spontaneous affirmation. The effect of this is to raise a trio of disaffected -- and sociopathic -- ghosts. Over the course of the following month these ghosts will haunt the dancers, it is said, the violence and weirdness excalating until the haunted friends are finally "at rest". As weirdness and finally disturbing spectral violence begins to drive them toward insanity and death, they gain the help of a paranormal researcher and his assistant. Though it is the researchers who elucidate the problem, they aren't quite so effective when it comes to finding a solution and bring their own agendas on board...

The initial narrative premise gives this low-budget haunting tale a big boost and luckily the skill of director Mendez, excellent cinematography, decent actors, an effective script and ambitious SFX all come together to create a film full of carefully paced atmosphere creation, shocks and intelligently integrated action set-pieces. Mendez makes the most of his meagre budget and the result looks more expensive than it had the right to do.

While not about to find a place in the very top tier of ghost movies, The Gravedancers does offer an entertaining and generally engrossing experience that takes it beyond the ordinary run-of-the-mill spook-fest. It's not perfect, of course: the three separate hauntings, featuring three malicious ghosts with slightly different hang-ups, are perhaps a little unwieldy, narratively, though Mendez and crew manage to ride out the bumpy bits, keeping the suspense largely in tact. As well, Poltergeist-like fantasy elements at the climax, especially the giant ghost, push us over into comicbook spectacle -- and this is a little tonally jarring. But by then we're so caught up in the action that it doesn't make all that much difference, except in retrospect.

Meanwhile the ghosts themselves, with their disturbing skeletal grins, were imaged using techniques pioneered by the Japanese -- though Mendez and his designers have adopted the aesthetic rather than simply replicating the imagery. Meanwhile, classic themes of guilt and emotional dysfunctions arising from the past are worked into the plot through the characterisation and the interaction of the protagonists -- and manage to be enhanced rather than nullified by the violent threat of the ghosts. Except for the aforementioned tonal glitches, the film feels well-integrated, artistically.

The Gravedancers was released as part of the 8 Films To Die For® After Dark Horrorfest in 2006. From various comments made in online reviews, it seems that the film underwent further visual enhancement before being released to DVD.

13 November 2007

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The Dead Will Tell (US-2004; dir. Stephen T. Kay)

Anne Heche plays Emily Parker, a lawyer whose life takes a supernatural turn when her fiancé buys her an antique engagement ring that seems to be haunted by its previous owner. Emily's happiness and sanity come under threat as her awareness of a spectral stalker increases and she begins to obsess over finding out the truth behind the excalating weirdness. Her emotional turmoil is exacerbated by a fear that past mental instability is making a comeback.

The Dead Will Tell is an unpretentious ghost story that breaks no new ground, but works well due to an excellent performance by Heche, a taut, low-key script and cinematography that uses a distinctive colour palette and high contrast lighting to great advantage (not to mention the beautiful New Orleans settings). A cast made up of the likes of Chris Sarandon, Jonathan LaPaglia and Kathleen Quinlan -- all of whom put in good work -- gives it considerable authority; and Kay's direction is able to generate effective moments of frisson despite the story's emphasis on drama over thrills.

Though made for TV, The Dead Will Tell never feels uncomfortably restricted or shoddy, and readily engages its audience in the generic events, making them seem fresh.

21 October 2007

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Dead and Deader (US-2006; dir. Patrick Dinhut)

In a "making of" documentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, writer/producer Mark Altman remarks that Dead and Deader is more of a superhero film than a zombie flick. Well, it has all the characteristics of current gut-munching apocalyptic zombie cinema, so the statement is a little deceptive -- but he does have a point. Protagonist Lt. Bobby Quinn (played by ex-Superman Dean Cain) is infected by the zombie virus but due to a get-out clause in the film's zombie creation ethos (which involves a rare breed of scorpion), he ends up dead but not braindead, and able to control his desire for raw meat -- more or less. This has left him with super-strength and super-senses, able to leap tall tables, undead monsters and difficult plot holes in a single bound. Quinn takes it upon himself to use his abilities to hunt down all the less-ethically sensitive of the undead in order to save the world. At one point his non-dead buddies even discuss possible superhero names for him ("Mortis Man"?).

The idea of a zombie superhero isn't a new one. Between 1973 and 1975, Marvel Comics ran a limited comic series called "Tales of the Zombie". Though the titular hero, Simon Garth, was initially a lot less independently minded than Quinn, Marvel's propensity for superheroism showed through -- as the Frazetta cover for issue 1 illustrates:

Nevertheless, the fact that Quinn is half-human, half-ghoul does give Dead and Deader a unique feel -- which lasts for about two thirds of the film, at which juncture all the generic running-around-in-a-confined-space-trying-to-avoid-being-eaten and engaging-in-lots-of-undead-head-blasting tropes really kick in. At this point, if there was ever any doubt, you know you're in post-Romero zombie territory.

Cain does a good job as the half-zombie, aided and abetted by black cook Judson (Guy Torry) -- who provides a modernised version of the humorous nigger sidekick that was so prevalent in C-grade horror flicks back in the 1930s/40s -- and the attractive Susan Ward as Holly, a sexy film student Quinn picks up in a bar along the way. As well as other more physical attributes (and a libido that doesn't seem overly intimidated by the knowledge that Quinn is in fact a corpse), Holly provides a continuous film-history overview ("I may be a movie geek, but I'm really hot!") -- engaging, for example, in a running (literally) argument over the relative merits of the original Romero Dawn of the Dead and the recent remake.

In fact, Dead and Deader is jam-packed with such pop-culture references, both visual and verbal, most of them relating to zombie flicks, but touching on other genres as well (for example, two soon-to-die grunts argue about whether the best 007 was Connery or Moore). All this self-indulgent postmodernism will either amuse or annoy you according to your predilections. I thought much of it worked as a sort of nascant commentary, but that the writers might have done better to show a little more restraint -- in the interests of dramatic conviction. Still, the semi-humorous, "zom-edic" tone of this film is mostly to the point and is maintained effectively throughout -- veering from bloody and suspenseful to wry and wise-cracking with enthusiastic aplomb. Some of the jokes remain stillborn, sure, but Dinhut and the cast pull off most of them.

Though made-for-TV, Dead and Deader is no doubt gory enough for your average punter. There's blood and guts and decapitations aplenty, even if very little of it carries much visceral impact. The rest of the cast (including the effectively nasty Peter Greene as the villain of the piece) do a good job of giving the film texture -- and it is nice to see Dean Haglund of X-Files fame turn up as an undertaker. They all die -- mostly twice -- with tongue-in-cheek conviction. Sure, the film isn't as essentially subversive or as outrageously inventive as its progenitors in the sub-genre, such as Raimi's Evil Dead films or, more-to-the-point, Gordon's Re-Animator and Jackson's extreme horror-comedy Braindead. But it does the job. It kept me amused and minimally critical for the duration. In short, a successful if minor entry in the sub-genre.

The final scene has the three protagonists contemplating how Quinn can continue to use his undead powers for Good. As they walk across the compound, Holly quotes Casablanca to the effect: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Which gives the general impression that Altman was hoping that Dead and Deader might become a film franchise or a TV series. Who knows? There have been worse ideas in the history of cinema.

20 October 2007

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The Quick and the Undead (US-2006; dir. Gerald Nott)

A decent concept, classy cinematography and splatterings of blood and brain matter do not alone add up to an effective zombie film.

It's 85 years after the archetypal zombie plague has swept the world, leaving the countryside rather desolate and flesh-eating undead wandering about, Romero-fashion, looking for a feed. A class of hunter has developed to deal with the problem, scouring the empty fields and small deserted towns for zombies, whom they shoot in the head and whose little fingers they collect as "proof of purchase". Rivalry between a gang of hunters and the archetypal "western" loner result in a revenge scenario, with a touch of conspiracy thrown in -- after all, if you were an unscrupulous bounty-hunter wouldn't it be in your benefit to actually spread the zombie disease in order to maintain your business? But what does it all add up to? The answer: in The Quick and the Undead, nothing much.

The idea of a Romeroesque zombie film with a Western flavour is an appealing one. Here, however, the result is hampered by a lead actor whose Clint Eastwood/Kurt Russell impersonation not only wears thin fairly quickly but effectively prevents the viewer from ever believing in and caring about the protagonist, and a script that doesn't develop much at all beyond the initial premise and is riddled with awful cliché-riddled dialogue. The plot is so single-minded and straightforward as to be as uninvolving as the characters and the whole thing comes over as simply a wasted opportunity.

It's not the low budget that is the problem. The film looks good (clear image, great 2.85:1 widescreen image on the DVD) and with better handling of the narrative and dramatically relevant dialogue could have delivered considerable impact. But it all feels empty and pointless. Nor is there any sign of real background development on the part of the writer/director. Who pays the bounty? What are the rules? How is it managed? Where is the non-zombified populace? Where's the army? All we ever see are zombies and bounty hunters. How do they get food? How do they keep their bikes fueled and running? This lack of a convincing context, combined with poor characterisation, terrible dialogue and an almost complete lack of dramatic pacing kill any chance of audience involvement in this particular excursion into the zombie apocalypse.

14 October 2007

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Severed (Canada-2005; dir. Carl Bessai)

Can't tell the zombies from the trees? Here's the story in brief: a bunch of people run around a logging camp and adjacent forest trying not to get eaten by zombies (largely unsuccessfully) -- and then the film stops.

That's about it.

Okay, I admit there's a bit more to Severed. Leaving it there would be unfair. The film has its good points, even if at heart it's just a typical post-Romero flesh-eating zombie flick made with considerable (to me, unsuccessful) cinematographic style, but with little plotting beyond the running around bit and nothing new added to the mix. There is some back-story, of course – all the stuff that gets the zombie plague going. In this case, the plague is precipitated by ill-considered experimentation on old-growth tree fungus by the company that is logging the forest, and set in motion, inadvertently, by a group of environmentalist protesters. That takes about twenty minutes, and then it's all running around trying not to get eaten. Lots of gore, torn flesh, and bashing in the heads of zombies. The zombies are not of the "crawl-out-of-their-graves" kind, mind you, but of the "killer-plague-that-turns-you-into-a-monster" variety – yet they effectively replicate Romeroesque living-dead behaviour in the way they lurch around as though losing the flexibility of their muscles through rigor mortis while trying to rip throats apart. So for me they were definitely zombies and I approve!

However, none of this is original or even rarely seen. With zombie-fan enthusiasm, the filmmakers have tried to fit as many tropes of the sub-genre into Severed's running time as they could – sudden unexpected attacks, cannibalistic gut-chewing, claustrophobic sieges (first in a small shed, then in a compound), thwarted escapes by car, brutal survivor sub-cultures, non-zombie aggression and betrayal that brings about disaster – and it ends inconclusively and poignantly in a manner that offers the possibility of more to come. All too common.

Part of what differentiates Severed from a crypt-load of 1980s-and-beyond zombie flicks that do all these things, however, are the following positive aspects:

  • Good characters. Despite being stereotypes of the genre, the writing, acting and direction give the protagonists considerable conviction. This particularly applies to the two leads (Paul Campbell as the naïve son of the Big Businessman and Sarah Lind as the Feisty Environmentalist) – both of whom handle the rather shallow requirements of their roles with so much attention to subtle and mostly restrained, yet emotionally true, detail that their characters seem to have depth and occasionally make you care.
  • Compassion. When they have to defend themselves by bashing in the heads of zombies, the protagonists actually get upset about it. These folk aren't celluloid heroes. They are depicted as ordinary people for whom violence and killing, even directed at the undead, is traumatic.
  • Sense of reality. Director Bessai and his crew give the whole thing a look that is neither comicbook nor B-film garish, but naturalistically gritty. The way the characters are depicted is the main driver of this sense of realism, but the set design and cinematography definitely help.
  • Pace. With reservations, Bessai directs the action well.

Sounds okay, right? Well, Severed is certainly not trash cinema. Up to a point, Bessai knows what he's doing and gives it his all. Yet for me there were problems.

Apart from the clichéd, non-event plotting, the insistent striving for style makes much of the film either annoying or simply difficult to sit through. All action scenes, of which there are commendably plenty, are filmed using that hand-held, jerky camera technique we see so often these days. The image jerks and wobbles, action smears into a blur, and the confusion effectively conveys urgency and chaos. This is fine in moderation, but one persons' moderation is another's excess and I found that it rapidly became annoying. You can't clearly see anything and after a while, even if you don't congenitally suffer from motion-sickness, you're likely to start to feel the effects. Nausea set in for me in the climactic stages, where the action is fairly unremitting. It was all too much and I started to feel ill.

Then the film ended. Stopped dead. I can see what effect Bessai was straining for with the poignant last scene, but as a satisfying ending, no, it didn't work for me at all. I came away feeling like the digital transmission had been interrupted. Romero's zombie films – which also involve a lot of running around and trying not to get eaten by zombies – feel like rounded works following a thematically driven pathway and purposeful plot structure. Severed felt like an enthusiastic and competent imitation of the genre, when taken on a scene-by-scene basis. Overall, however, it felt a little pointless.

Still, there's no question that when it comes to cannibalistic zombie pics, this isn't anywhere near the worst of them. If it hadn't made me motion-sick (I don't know about you, but if I want a film to make me feel sick, I want it to be because of the thematic content, not because the camera wouldn't keep still), I would have been reasonably happy having stayed up into the early hours of the morning to watch it.

But then I'm a zombie junkie. Others might not be so forgiving.

One last thing: why is it called "Severed", you may ask? Frankly, beyond some very tenuous thematic possibilities or the general suggestion of dismemberment carried by the word, I can't come up with anything terribly convincing. The DVD subtitle is apparently "Forest of the Dead", which is both accurate and links the film to many of its predecessors. But I guess someone thought it sounded too B-grade and pulpy in light of the film's artistic pretensions.

16 August 2007
Originally published on Horrorscope

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The Return (US-2006, dir. Asif Kapadia)

Be warned -- this commentary contains major spoilers

In a depressing display of obtuse literal-mindedness, one reviewer quoted on dismisses this supernatural drama thus: "The Return gets this year's award for most misleading poster, with its image of an empty-eyed, gray-skinned zombie/ghost that appears nowhere in the movie" (quoted from LA Weekly). Yet despite the fact that there is no literal empty-eyed, gray-skinned zombie/ghost in The Return, the image referred to encapsulates the film's story, atmospherics and themes with considerable visual cannyness. Even the tagline -- which may lead us to resent the fact that The Return doesn't feature a vengeful Grudge-like spectre if we respond to a film on the basis of shallow assumptions rather than what's actually on the screen -- is not inaccurate, despite the lack of a physically objective ghost. The connection between poster image and film is subtler than that. Even accepting that maybe such subtlety isn't the best marketing ploy, it's a bit embarrassing when the publicity department has a more insightful grip on a film's semiotics than a professional film commentator.

Sarah Michelle Geller stars as Joanna Mills, a young woman whose life from age 11 has been blighted by haunting visions of an ominous stalker -- a curse that has lead to restlessness, self-mutilation and problems of identity. Her "return" to a small town in Texas is the catalyst for an escalation in the nature and intensity of her visions -- and leads to revelations that tie together discordant elements of her past and present, allowing Joanna and the victim of a murder to find a mutual resolution in more ways than one.

So on a plot level the film develops as a mystery-based narrative -- as many ghost stories do -- consisting of an investigation into events of the past or, as in this case, into the meaning of disturbances in the present that find their origins in the past.

What the film is not, however, is a horror movie in the gore/violence tradition -- though it contains some violence, more than a modicum of threat and a few splatterings of blood. The hoary old question as to whether its suspenseful, atmospheric approach means that it isn't, therefore, a horror movie is too silly to bother with, as the definition of "horror" as a genre thus assumed is one that would dispossess a rather large number of acknowledged horror films. For me, The Return is indeed a supernatural horror drama, and works its horrors through the occasional "scare" or creepy visual image; but more significantly through atmosphere and implication. If, as I believe, the horror genre deals with the violation of accepted reality and themes of unnatural intrusion from beyond the norm, then The Return is firmly within the genre.

Joanna experiences fragmented memories that do not seem to be her own, though subjectively she is at the centre of them. They involve violence and murder. Hints regarding the identity of the victim accumulate, but it is not until they lead to the murderer himself that the pieces fall into place. It may be that the ultimate revelation does not come as a great surprise to the viewer, but that doesn't mean that the confirmation and the details that inform that climax don't offer a dramatically satisfying conclusion. Indeed for me the unstated realisation that Joanna as she was at 11 is dead and that she was brought back through being inhabited by the murderer victim's spirit resonated strongly backwards into the events depicted in the film and gave me a chilling realisation of what such a revelation might mean, emotionally. Such a realisation is definitely the stuff of horror.

So what about the image in the poster? It gives us an eye blanched of colour, ashen and dead. Inside the eye is a hand, as though someone is inside trying to get out -- just as the murder victim's spirit is inside the body that had once belonged to Joanna Mills (who, strictly speaking is dead). As if that symbolic depiction of the theme isn't enough, throughout the film Joanna looks at herself in mirrors and reflections, as though she doesn't recognise herself; at times she appears to be trying to peer inside her eye, searching for something recognisable. This is why the "present day" of the film generally looks so pale and lifeless -- because it is, at least for the alien life inside Joanna that is struggling to remember where it came from. Only memory flashes of the past are in full, vibrant colour. The fractured memories, the grim tone, the sense of alienation are all direct visualisations of the ghost's dilemma.

The Return is a horror film of considerable style -- not irrelevant style, but style that creates an atmosphere that directly enhances the theme. It isn't a "teen horror" as I've seen it referred to. Apart from anything else, Geller's character is 26, and the film does not have any of the characteristics of the current crop of teen horrors. It asks for a mature appreciation -- and an attention that can pick up visual meanings without having them verbally expressed. Nor is it a feel-good picture; indeed the final "revelation" should leave anyone who has been paying attention and who is sensitive to the nuances being conveyed feeling decidedly unsettled.

I liked this film a lot, and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated its intelligence and artistic coherence. Condemning it on the basis of irrelevant expectations or because Geller isn't playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be a shame.

17 July 2007

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Watch Me (Aust-2006, dir. Melanie Ansley)

If ghost films such as the Japanese Ring, Ju-On: the Grudge, Dark Water and Kairö, as well as various Korean, Thai and, yes, American variants, can be best understood as an aesthetic movement rather than as mere imitation (a position argued by David Kalat in his excellent book J-Horror), then Watch Me is the work of an Australian offshoot of the "School". This is its primary artistic heritage, despite phantom hints of Argento and other horror masters -- including Sam Raimi via one particularly noticable nod to his low-budget classic, The Evil Dead.

The Asian influence (along with others) is freely admitted on the film's website, but anyone well-versed in contemporary horror won't need a primer to see the J-Horror connections. There's the female ghost with long hair, partially hidden features and visually discordant movement (in Watch Me the hair is red rather than black -- and the way this colour visually segues into hints of bloodiness works extremely well -- and the ghost's "nightshirt" yellow). There's the technology-driven mode of propagation (here an email spam video clip). There's the background of violent exploitation (murder in the form of a snuff film). There's the strong female victim who is forced to face up to the viral "curse" and must investigate it in order to stop its spread. There's the relatively subtle and atmospheric approach to horror and the use of various techniques for unsettling the audience that are reminiscent of Hideo Nakata's modus operandi. Then there's the carefully utilised auditory landscape, a source of extreme creepiness...

But like the best of the post-Ring J-Horrors, Watch Me manages to achieve an identity of its own. What it does is take the subgenre's basic conceptual elements and forges its own vision of them, melding a slightly different narrative approach, subtle trope variants and some new thematic elements onto the template. Director Ansley and producer Sam Voutas may not be creating a new aesthetic, but they have produced an effective extension of the old one.

The film is cheaply made, there's no doubt about that, and this shows throughout. Resource limitations affect the depth and texture of the digital image and stops the film from achieving a greater expansiveness, both in terms of setting and narrative possibilities. This results in a conceptual glitch here and there, but cheapness need not translate into shoddy film-making. Ansley makes the most of what's at hand; she paces scenes for best dramatic effect, has a terrific sense of colour and movement and directs her actors well. Lead Frances Marrington is sympathetic and convincing as Tess Hooper (echoes of Tobe Hooper in the name perhaps?), a cinema-studies student whose friends view a spam email attachment headed "Watch Me" and subsequently die, their eyes sewn shut. Tanya McHenry is effectively weird as the redheaded ghost. Sam Voutas, though, is a highlight, giving an unsettling performance in a role that helps make Watch Me different from other J-Horror pastiches and gives it self-identity. His Taku, the "freak boy", is an unlikely "hero", but we believe in him as a character and his strained relationship with Hooper gives the fairly standard narrative line considerable added impact.

All in all, despite some minor narrative weaknesses and in defiance of its minimal budget, Watch Me proves to be an involving entertainment and a more-than-decent addition to the J-Horror aesthetic.

24 April 2007

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Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (US-2005, dir. Mary Lambert)

Though clearly seen as something of a throw-away by its director, Mary Lambert of Pet Semetary fame, this third installment in the Urban Legend series does offer enough by way of B-grade horror schlock to rise ever-so-slightly above its own derivativeness. Unlike the previous Urban Legend films, it is of a supernatural disposition, containing elements of such teen spectral revenge fests as Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II as well as ordinary slasher fare. It also suggests (and makes direct reference to) Candyman -- smugly claiming, in fact, that the "basis" of Clive Barker's tale post-dates the tale of Bloody Mary. At any rate, beyond the "say her name three times and she will appear" urban legend concept, the connection with Candyman is irrelevant -- as is the idea itself, by and large.

Overall, the film has some effective death scenes, develops its narrative in a way that isn't entirely one-dimensional and references the earlier films in the series with some pizzaz. Unfortunately it also succumbs to careless plotting and emotional shallowness -- as in the almost indifferent death of a sympathetic lead character, a death that elicits almost no reaction from the protagonist, who would have been expected to care deeply. Attempting to incorporate a real sense of grief, however, would have muddied the neatness of the film's ending, so it was clearly easier to ignore it altogether. Other significant characters come and go according to convenience rather than logic, as do narrative points, and there is a sense of undigested, on-the-spot pragmatism that doesn't do much to convince audiences that they should take this at all seriously, even on a pulp level.

Bloody Mary herself, however, is effective enough, managing to be both abjective and sympathetic in classic monster fashion. As depicted, her appearance and manner are influenced by Sadako from Ringu, of course, but this is inevitable given that film's current aesthetic dominance within ghost film culture. Nevertheless, she makes an effective antagonist and is largely responsible for making the film as entertaining as it is, albeit at a fairly minor level.

9 April 2007

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The Maid (Singapore-2005, dir. Kelvin Tong)

The Maid is an interesting cultural variant on the current Asian ghost craze. Made and set in Singapore, it tells the story of Rosa (played with affecting innocence by Alessandra de Rossi) -- a young woman from the Philippines who has come to the city of Singapore to earn money as a housemaid in order to pay for her younger brother's much-needed medical bills. She arrives in the midst of the Chinese Seventh Month -- or Hungry Ghost Month -- when the Gates of Hell are said to open and ghosts wander the streets seeking resolution or recompense for past grievances. As the Big City appears to be much more superstitious than her rural hometown, Rosa fails to take due account of the numerous "rules" designed to protect the innocent from the hungry ghosts (such as Never Sit in the Front Row at the Opera -- the breaking of which rule provides one of the movie's best frissons). As a result, Rosa finds herself haunted, unable to make a distinction between the living and the dead, both of which have agendas that become clearer as the film progresses. Events build toward a frightening (and nasty) climax as the past is inevitably resurrected and the motives of the living and the dead dovetail on the question of Rosa's fate.

Though The Maid reportedly received a significant amount of funding from Singapore's Media Development Authority, the film's budget was clearly small and it sometimes shows in the less-than-perfect lighting and the unimpressive quality of the soundtrack -- though it is hard to judge these aspects fairly given the poor transfer on the HK VCD I was viewing. Nevertheless, despite such possible negatives, the movie proves to be an involving experience, with decent acting and carefully paced narrative build-up that may even hold a few surprises for the unwary.

Though it portrays a Singapore that is a scary place to visit in the Seventh Month, a real hotbed of spectral activity, The Maid's cultural background (including its take on the role of imported Philippine maids), and its canny melding of Chinese traditions with J-Horror aesthetics, give it a unique appeal that goes a long way toward circumventing any technical limitations.

5 April 2007

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Sorum [aka Goosebumps] (South Korea-2001, dir. Jong-Chan Yun)

Though its credentials as a bona fide genre horror film will inevitably be a matter for debate, Sorum has definite claim to being a ghost story, albeit one that lacks "objective" ghosts. Its arthouse manner and psychological horrors offer up one of the most haunted environments to be found on film, rivalling The Shining's Overlook Hotel and The Haunting's Hill House and other famous bad places -- as dark, unhappy and soaked in evil memory as any generic celluloid spookhouse. Even if, more so than Hill House, the tenement's haunting originates in the minds and souls of its inhabitants, the dilapidated tenement that is the focus of the narrative nevertheless contains a presence that does what ghosts of a more objective kind generally do: express a lack of spiritual and emotional resolution by imposing the past upon the present. The unravelling of a dire mystery resonating from the past, fear of ill-understood shadowy memories, final revelation of a crucial if unexpected relationship, inner violence erupting in physical attack as the act of remembering activates a terrible "curse": these are all the stuff of ghost stories -- and though no dead wet girls or demonic apparitions are in evidence (except in a passing dream as memories begin to surface), a ghost story is what Sorum most definitely is for me.

Slow-paced and pessimistic, set against a background of almost continual storm and building toward violence made more potent for the earlier stillness from which it grows, Sorum is inhabited by characters who are the living dead, moving through life without connection or joy, yet desiring a connection they may never be able to find. In a way it is a romantic tragedy told using the underlying dynamics of a ghost story. Not a commercial film (though successful at the box office), it is nevertheless darkly rivetting and deeply moving, especially if approached without the sort of genre expectations that demand a standard narrative attitude in which director Jong-Chan Yun shows only a somewhat subverted interest.

30 March 2007

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The Red Shoes [aka Bunhongshin] (South Korea-2005; dir. Yong-gyun Kim)

The Red Shoes is an effective, if not flawless, South Korean ghost film in the J-Horror tradition, inspired, at least in part, by the Hans Christian Anderson fable, "De røde Skoe". There are, however, crucial differences. Anderson's tale reflects, rather brutally, on vanity and the consequences of neglecting proper Christian piety. That being said, the story has its fair share of horrific elements:

And when she danced toward the open doors of the church, she saw it guarded by an angel with long white robes and wings that reached from his shoulders down to the ground. His face was grave and stern, and in his hand he held a broad, shining sword.

"Dance you shall!" he told her. "Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, and your flesh shrivels down to the skeleton. Dance you shall from door to door, and wherever there are children proud and vain you must knock at the door till they hear you, and are afraid of you. Dance you shall. Dance always."

"Have mercy upon me!" screamed Karen. But she did not hear the angel answer. Her shoes swept her out through the gate, and across the fields, along highways and byways, forever and always dancing.

(translated by Jean Hersholt)

Anderson's young protagonist finds salvation only after she begs the local executioner to cut off her feet. But there is forgiveness and reconciliation for her. South Korean director Yong-gyun Kim's killer shoes (in fact, pink rather than red -- as for socio-historical reasons the title of Anderson's fable is familiarly known as "The Pink Shoes" in Korea) provoke (and are provoked by) desire and a sense of betrayal; in the end his protagonist is offered insight but little by way of redemption. In terms of bloodiness, The Red Shoes is even more horrific than the original tale.

Yong-gyun Kim's film draws on Anderson's fable to forge a psychological thriller dressed up as a more generic J-Horror ghost story. The basic idea is this: a pair of haunted shoes are loose in the vicinity of a railway station, cursing those who take them and often displaying a penchant for eating the illicit wearer's feet. On the surface, then, this is standard "cursed object" fare. The result is stylish and creepy, with an impressive splattering of gore and a wealth of beautifully realised set pieces, but stumbles toward the end by including unnecessary and overly familiar contemporary horror elements drawn from such box-office hits as the Japanese Ring.

The story: Sun-jae Hun has forgone her career as an opthamologist to take on the traditional woman's role of housewife and mother -- but it has proven unrewarding. Her husband is unloving, critical and emotionally distant; when she catches him in a premeditated act of infidelity, she takes her daughter Tae-soo (who is less than cooperative), finds alternative accommodation à la the troubled mother and daughter from Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, and sets in motion a plan to re-open her Eye Clinic. In the midst of her personal chaos, she finds something that appeals to her only pleasure in life: shoes. On a train she finds a pair of abandoned pink pumps -- shoes which, we eventually realise, were seeking someone with Sun-jae's precise psychological profile. Taking the shoes results in jealous arguments with her young daughter, who also desires the shoes, bloody nightmares, even bloodier death, growing emotional instability and eventual despairing comprehension. It also results in the appearance of a spooky female ghost and other J-Horror standards.

According to David Kalat in his excellent book on the genre, J-Horror: the Definitive Guide to the Ring, The Grudge and Beyond (Vertical, 2007), some of the more unnecessary and generic elements of the film came by way of director of photography, Tae-kyeong Kim, who had been responsible for the successful Korean-horror film, The Ghost [Ryeong] in 2004. Apparently there is a director's cut of The Red Shoes that was released to Korean DVD in which Yong-gyun Kim restores to the film his original more-psychologically driven agenda. His intent, however, is clear even in the compromised version.

What keeps the film from being a mere J-horror knock-off, in fact, is the fine acting, the effective realisation of Yong-gyun Kim's thematic intent, the film's wonderful attention to telling and resonant detail, and its beautiful cinematography. The ballet sequences and references to the politically sensitive Japanese Occupation that form the ghost's backstory are impressionistic and evocatively visualised, without becoming obsessed with the need for more thorough exposition. Imagery relating to eyes and sight -- particularly faulty sight, as Sun-jae struggles with the re-establishment of her practice as well as her own diagnosed shortsightedness, spending some time with an eye patch -- are often literally reflected in a selective use of perspective blurring and a smearing of the audience's visual field at key moments. This not only focusses our attention on certain elements and hides other information, but also suggests Sun-jae's selective blindness to aspects of her own life. Such layering and translation of the narrative's thematic elements into the aesthetic of the film give it a very distinctive and committed feel.

And as Sun-jae, actress Hye-su Kim's performance is quietly excellent, delicately nuanced and with great retrospective insight, gaining particular power when set against the film's more melodramatic tendencies. It both grounds the narrative in reality and carries a vast emotional load, in a film that is more about a woman's mental state than it is about the more obvious and conventional spectral curse. Scenes of jealous fights between Sun-jae and her daughter over the shoes are particularly strong, too, dramatically.

It's a pity that Yong-gyun Kim felt so little confidence in his own ability to handle the unfamiliar horror genre that he was compelled to artificially dress the film to be more in line with the J-horror template -- because it is the less generic elements of the film that are clearly its strongest assets. It is a good film and a quality horror drama; I liked it more and more as I thought about it and rewatched key moments.

25 March 2007

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Dead Meat (Ireland, 2004) -- dir. Conor McMahon

Dead Meat is a profoundly straight-forward cannibal zombie movie in the Romero tradition, following the template closely, though with a few unique, if superficial variations. Set in the countryside (Irish, in this case) during a single, unified time period (it feels like about two days, but it's a bit hard to tell), the film follows the attempts of a small group of people to survive a sudden upsurge in zombie activity. Essentially it's an extended chase along roads and through woods, fields and abandoned cottages (as well as various historic ruins), with the odd claustrophobic siege thrown in for good measure. Not to mention lots of very decent zombie violence and bloody dismemberment, achieved using make-up FX and prosthetics. Most of the cast doesn't survive and the end might have replicated that of Night of the Living Dead but instead does Romero's The Crazies. Then, over the credits we get to listen to a thematic rock song that might have come straight off the soundtrack of any '80s B-grade horror film you care to name.

So apart from being set in Ireland and featuring some rather strong Irish accents, how is it different from the iconic Night of the Living Dead? The zombie plague is caused by a mutant strain of mad cow disease -- that's it. The fact that there have been many zombie flicks since Night which use disease or a mutant strain thereof to start the ball rolling rather undermines the intended originality of the concept. Still, if nothing else, it is topical.

Not to say that Dead Meat is without value. It's a rather effective cannibal zombie romp really -- bloody, tense and involving. The director slips up here and there, allowing an overfondness for certain camera angles and cliched incidentals to give the film an amateurish air. The sound quality tags it as cheap as well, a fact that becomes significant when you're someone who doesn't harken from County Leitrim trying to make out the at-times-extreme accents. But the actors perform effectively, the pace is relentless, and there's a nicely gore-splattered battle in an old castle at the climax. McMahon offers us some effectively inventive moments to remember it by as well, such as the "sleeping zombies" sequence, as the protagonists make their way through a field of comatose zombies in the middle of the night -- the eerie undead plucked from the darkness by the heroes' wavering torches. Nice.

All up, Dead Meat might add nothing to the genre, but it doesn't diminish it either. It comes over as a well-done, semi-professional homage, and so will earn a place in the inevitable cult following's affections, even if they can't remember it all that clearly a decade on.

18 March 2007

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Mary Reilly (US, 1996) -- dir. Stephen Frears

Though considered by many to be a serious mis-step in the careers of its lead actors, Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, Mary Reilly is, to my mind, an intelligent and engrossing film -- atmospheric, intense, well-constructed and complex in its exploration of the core inspiration, Stevenson's classic novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is, as such, a horror film -- but not of the in-your-face variety. This one -- in appearance more like a period art-film -- works as many of the best works in the genre do, by way of character, atmosphere and thematic implication. It seeks to appeal to thought rather than gut emotion -- and after watching a spate of recent gore extravaganzas, I find the approach entirely pleasurable.

Based on a novel by Valerie Martin, the film shows us the history of Jekyll and Hyde from the point-of-view of an ordinary housemaid in the good doctor's employ. As a result it probably helps if the viewer is familiar with the story, as many of the central narrative elements remain off-stage or at least are only glimpsed from the periphery of the action. This is, in fact, rather in keeping with the novel, which features few of the stark visually-stylised elements played out by way of SFX in the extensive J+H film tradition.

Julia Roberts plays her character as the melancholic, somewhat withdrawn personality that the role requires, offering little by way of Hollywood extraversion. (Many commentators have problems with her Irish accent, but it seemed fine to me -- since when did all accents in real life sound homogenously consistent anyway?) Likewise Malkovich handles his dual role of Jekyll and Hyde with a subtle mastery, basing the differences between the two partially on facial hair, but more significantly on body language and levels of physical presence. He seems more full-bodied as Hyde, who is characterised as youthful and arrogant. As others have pointed out, it is social class that most differentiates between Jekyll and Hyde and hides their relationship from those around them. Class consciousness is very strong in this version of the story -- an effective emphasis, particularly as the theme draws as well on the social improprieties of an emotional attraction arising between the lowly introverted housemaid and the upper-class Jekyll (and his alter-ego Hyde).

Despite the last observation, however, Mary Reilly is not any sort of Tom Jones-styled tale of sexual misadventures between the classes. This is not its emphasis at all. Malkovich's Hyde draws on the tradition, but those who see Mary as overtly attracted to Hyde's fiercesome masculine brutality are simply missing the point. Her attraction is to the troubled and divided, but kindly, Dr Jekyll -- in Hyde she sees a reflection of him that she comes to understand consciously once she learns of his origins. Jekyll's attraction to Mary, similarly, comes through his perception that she is able to understand his dual nature and accept it, much more than the rest of his society -- or even he himself -- is able to do. He is fascinated by the fact that though she was scarred and brutalised by her father as a child, she is unwilling to hate the man. She is predisposed to accept that neither good nor evil come unalloyed --and Jekyll's experiment has made such an awareness vital to the doctor's ability to accept the Hyde in himself.

Overall, I was thoroughly engaged by Frears' film, with its intelligent psychological explorations, its avoidance of horror-film cliché, its stately pacing punctuated by sudden bursts of fury, and its beautiful photography (which is suggestive of old black-and-white films in being monotonal, only the colour red standing out with any great emphasis). It may have been a colossal box-office flop, but Mary Reilly deserves a unbiased re-evaluation.

Addendum: Also worthy of note is Glenn Close's depiction of a brazen brothel madam; Close is superbly unrecognisable and quite memorable in what is a brief if colourful role.

17 March 2007

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Inner Senses (HK, 2002) [aka Yee do hung gaan] -- dir. Chi-Leung Law

In common with many of the most effective ghost thrillers, Inner Senses introduces a strong element of subjectivity when it comes to the question of whether its spectres are "real" or not. Ghosts, it maintains, are internal phenomena, manifestations of emotional trauma given shape by cultural imagery. Though provoked by external realities, they are creations of the psyche. Yet that doesn't make them unreal. On the contrary, the fact that they are so tightly bound to the psychological and cultural engines that drive human beings is what makes them so potent. It's a moot point as to whether this means that they also have some kind of separate existence.

Ghosts as an expression of inner, psychological malfunction is what Inner Senses is about. The film's characters are tormented and unhappy, not just because they see ghosts, but because the ghosts belong to them. The ghosts want resolution, but to find it the characters must face their own disturbed pasts.

Inner Senses stars Kar Yan Lam as Yan, a woman tormented by visions of the dead -- visions that date back to significant trauma in her past. Leslie Cheung, who committed suicide shortly after the release of this film and whose long career includes such genre classics as A Chinese Ghost Story and The Bride with White Hair, plays Law, a psychiatrist who attempts to help Yan face the inner meaning of her ghosts. He frees her from them, but the haunting seems to shift its focus onto him instead – and he is forced to confront emotional spectres of his own.

Inner Senses is an intelligent and often intense psychological thriller that succeeds in creating a style and identity that transcends its connections to Ringu. Though clearly existing in the tradition of modern Asian ghost movies inspired by that influential film, it resonates with its own passions and is rarely less than engrossing – even if the narrative does not always run smoothly and despite some less-effective make-up SFX. Its moments of outright terror grow out of effective narrative and character development and in the end it resonates with chilling supernatural unease.

26 February 2007

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Half Light (Germany/UK, 2006) -- dir. Craig Rosenberg

[Contains major spoiler]

This romantic ghost thriller is actually a conflation of two old tropes: firstly, the mother trying to cope with the death of her child and finding herself haunted by ghosts; and secondly, the bitter and greedy husband plotting to make his wife appear mad by psychologically unsettling her with false ghostly visitations, while planning to kill her in a way that suggests suicide. In many ghost stories, as here, the real and the illusory play off against each other and become the glue that binds the two separate plot threads together, as they move toward a common resolution.

On a production level Half Light mixes the two threads with reasonable aplomb, managing to make the genuine spectral shinannegans meld with the false ones without too much of a bump. Though it moves with the pacing of a naturalistic character drama -- slow and reflective -- the action does build, Australian director Rosenberg dropping in hints of the supernatural early before introducing some decent shocks and offering up a thriller-like climax.

Rosenberg makes the most of his setting, too, the film sometimes looking beautifully if uncomfortably like a travelogue. The spectacular and evocative "Scottish" coastline (actually Wales) provides an atmospheric backdrop to decent performances from Demi Moore (and the rest of the cast), working with a script that never rises much above its own conventions.

Rachel Carlson, a bestselling thriller writer with a $4 million contract, is caught in an emotional mire of grief and guilt over the death of her son. To write a contracted novel that is refusing to even begin, she retreats to an isolated cottage, is haunted by the ghosts of her son and -- maybe -- others, falls in love with a local lighthouse keeper who turns out to be "dead", and finds herself entangled in a murder plot. In the end, though she never seems to start her novel, she at least frees herself of some emo-baggage and can get on with her life. Moore handles the role of Rachel Carlson with ease, emoting grief, melancholy, confusion and release as required.

Unfortunately, the conspiracy elements are not completely convincing, no more than they were in dozens of old "B" thrillers with the same plot that came before this "A" version -- being too complicated and too reliant on factors driven by chance. And that's the problem. For all its glossy surface and its elegant dramatic development, Half Light is at least half potboiler. It might have worked as serious drama or as exaggerated melodrama, but as an attempt to be both it is somewhat unconvincing and a bit flat.

Nevertheless Half Light has atmosphere -- in a slow, picturesque fashion -- and that atmosphere can carry you through the experience, even if there are no edges or real surprises to give it lasting character or ongoing resonance.

24 February 2007

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Devour (US, 2005) -- dir. David Winkler

[Contains spoilers]

Some films try hard, but just don't make it -- not because of any inherent incompetence but because the material simply doesn't manage to transcend its own confused ambitions.

Devour is not a complete failure. It has a decent premise that is nowhere near as stereotypical as those found in many other contemporary horror films, and actors who, though relatively inexperienced, play the sometimes uncomfortable incoherencies of the script with as much conviction as can be expected. The cinematography is of high quality and the narrative does its best to be both intriguing and convincing. Sometimes it achieves the former, but overall the latter remains elusive.

At heart, Devour is a combination of contemporary horror sub-genres: the post-Ringu online-haunting supernatural tale (see, for example, Feardotcom), the Satanic journey-of-discovery/damnation mystery (such as Angel Heart), and the surreal reality-twisting psycho-thriller (as in, say, Adam Simon's Brain Dead -- here a sort of Lynch-lite). Its narrative is closest in spirit to Angel Heart, of which it could be seen to be a teen-horror variant.

Jake (played with personable if somewhat sardonic élan by Jensen Ackles, who has since done well for himself in TV's Supernatural) is marking time in life, without too much bitterness but with an underlying sense of dissatisfaction -- a dissatisfaction he has trouble articulating. A stoner buddy signs him up for an online game called "The Pathway" and he suddenly finds himself being pursued by the controllers of the game, who are bend on manipulating his reality for reasons of their own. His friends turn out to be enmeshed in the game, and this leads to incidents of gruesome violence. Jake, however, seems better able to resist its seductions, but when a distinct demonic element enters into proceedings -- and his visions of bloody wish-fulfilment begin to feature buried memories of his birth and a Satanic figure complete with horns, wings and cloven hoofs -- he starts to lose his grip on what is real and what isn't. Unfortunately, so does the viewer.

In the end, the not-very-surprising revelation that Jake is a child of the demon, who has manipulated these events to draw him back into the fold, doesn't entirely convince. The overlain possibility that all the occult trappings are themselves illusory, fostered in Jake's mind to drive him to bloody insanity by the viral nature of the game or by his own inherent madness, isn't any more convincing but it does make sense of some of the absurdities. What is real and what is delusion -- and more importantly why? We're not really given enough grounded structure to guide us one way or the other. The result is that as the credits roll we easily feel dissatified, and exit the experience without having been offered the sort of imaginative spark that encourages a retrospective evaluation of the possibilities.

That said, while neither a bore nor an entirely satisfying entertainment, Devour does represent a decent attempt to make a film that offers something more than easy thrills.

20 February 2007

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J-Horror Anthology: Legends (Japan, 2005 [2003]) -- dir. Yada Kiyomi, Noumoto Taichi, Yamakawa Naoto and others

Inagawa Junji is a well-known media personality in Japan, starring in game shows and films, as well as writing, producing and directing them. He is also infamous as a teller of ghost stories on radio and in a series of TV anthology films, where he acts as a Rod Serling-like host and narrator.

J-Horror Anthology: Legends is one of two compilations of Inagawa's short ghostly tales released in the West, the other being J-Horror Anthology: Underworld. These two compilations contain a total of 12 short films taken from three original collections, the central one for Legends being Inagawa Junji no densetsu no horaa [which translates as "Inagawa Junji's Traditional Horror"]. The other collections are "True Horror Stories" and "Horror of a Shiver". Traditional Horror offered four stories inspired by Japanese legends and folktales; the four stories from True Horror are divided between this disk and Underworld. The result is an inevitably mixed bag of spooky tales, but if you don't expect them to work as expansively as a large-scale cinematic ghost film, they are fun to watch.

Technically speaking, of course, they don't form an anthology film of the kind that Amicus in the UK made famous (with films such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood, and Asylum) or before them Ealing Studio with their classic Dead of Night (1945). Instead, each episode is a separate film of somewhere between 12 and 16 minutes in length, with opening and closing credits and related philosophising from Inagawa Junji. As the short films don't form a defined unit, the DVD menu appropriately requires you to choose which of them you will watch each time, without the option of a "Play All".

Despite this, the short films of Legends differ from those of Underworld, and gain a degree of interconnection, by being based on traditional tales. This gives them a unique feel, though any resulting synchronicity is watered down by the inclusion of two "true ghost stories" set in modern times.

Cheaply made using digital video technologies, the short films are nevertheless competent in narrative design and cinematography -- and occasionally offer the odd impressive image or two. Overall, the featured actors veer from restrained to stylised to melodramatic, according to the nature of each particular story. Unfortunately Inagawa's lead-ins and -outs suffer from translation problems, the subtitling often coming over as awkward and obtuse, and can't be easily evaluated.

The films themselves are:

Peony Lamp [Botan Dorou]

Based on one of Japan's most famous and oft-told ghost stories (kwaidan), Encho Sanyutei's Botan Doro, Peony Lamp is a tale of love, betrayal and supernatural threat, set during the Edo period. The story has been filmed many times, 1998's Haunted Lantern being the most recent feature-length adaptation. Legends' version is necessarily less complex, both emotionally and narratively, but it offers a summary appreciation of the tale.

She Bear [Kuma Onna]

Based on an urban legend that speaks of a hideous bag-lady who carries a tattered teddy bear and absconds with body parts from those who fail to run away from her fast enough, She Bear is one of the most effective of the films in the Legends collection. It generates a fair amount of tension as it follows the fortunes of a pair of school girls who meet up with the titular She Bear, and has a smattering of the collection's ghastliest images. Though essentially a chase sequence, it is effectively directed and easily draws the viewer in. I loved the penultimate line: "She's just after accessories!"

Yamaba [Yamamba]

Yamamba is a mountain demon with a penchant for human flesh. Naturally the TV journalist and her cameraman who come to an isolated mountain village on the offchance of getting a good story about her aren't left without material for long...

The demon herself is a traditional image (the witch-hag) that will be familiar to anyone who has watched Miyasaki's recent animated films.

Nurari Hyon

This is an odd one, more a comedy than an attempt to unnerve. The titular ghost is a traditional figure with magical abilities and a very strange forehead, who comes to the aid of a boy kind enough to offer him some potatoes to eat. The episode is amusing rather than engrossing. It probably would have worked better if the climax had involved... well... more gore, as the situation cried out for it, and its absence seems anticlimactic.

Heartbroken Trip [Shoushin ryokou]

Supposedly based on a true story, this film concerns a young woman who has been dumped by her boyfriend and who, on the urging of her best friend, goes to a mountain tourist resort in order to heal. Of course the hotel is infested with the ghosts of victims of an historic landslide, and it takes unexpected (or expected, depending on how many ghost stories you've read) intervention to save her from being consumed by their distress. The episode manages to turn the conventional story into a metaphor exploring aspects human emotional attachment.

Lost Souls [Komen no tamashii; Demon of the Lake]

A young couple travelling home late at night stop at a roadside noodle bar near a lake and are faced with the baffling injunction not to look at the family that enters after them. The episode has some nice creepy imagery, though the ending seems perfunctory and somewhat undercuts the involvement generated by the rest of the watery narrative.

Overall these short films are a diverting set of well-presented ghost tales -- nothing revolutionary, but effective in the way they fulfil their modest ambitions.

31 December 2006

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