Friday, February 20, 2015

The Canal (2014)

It might just be me, but it sure seems like there's been an outbreak of horror centered on parents in perilous situations.  The teens who survived the forest slashers of the 80s have grown up.  Now they must survive dinner parties and child behavior problems and adultery.  It may be an indication of the aging target audience (and horror films 20-30 years from now should be fascinating/hilarious), but as long as the films are good, who cares?  The Canal isn't a classic and resides in one of my least-loved horror subgenres, but viewers who like thrillers and slow-burn storytelling should get a kick out of it. 


Rupert Evans excels as David, a film archivist who's insecure about his wife's job and dalliances with the upper crust.  They move into a house with a rich history of murder and bad things start happening.  It's almost impossible to give a synopsis of the film without spoiling it, but think a less intense, Irish/Welsh Babadook and you'll be near the truth.


I loved how much consideration was taken in setting up the visuals.  The film looks fantastic—scenes are framed and shot with exacting care, and portions of The Canal play like nods to vintage Argento or the more comic book-y parts of Creepshow.  Blues and reds and greens swarm the screen.  The editing's often a highlight as well.


Again, hard to avoid spoiling this, but the final resolution plays out in a way that annoys me personally, though it might be acceptable to other folks.  I was able to predict the ending at the 43-minute mark, if that tells you anything.  Maybe these films really are the inheritors of slashers past and require you to turn off the critical part of your brain while watching?  Still, I don't regret watching this and will keep an eye out for the director's future efforts.  


***

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Razorback (1984)

"Katie, bar the door!" Razorback shouts as it opens with a large pig tearing through a small house and carting off its smallest resident.  A film could do worse than borrow from Jaws, especially when it basically transplants the action to the Australian outback and gives a boar instead of a shark the starring role.  This frenetic opening gives the audience a big jolt right at the beginning, but it also serves notice that this film is not going to be a hack job.  We get gorgeous Suspiria-style red and blue lighting, then smartly-photographed effects and on-point editing work.  


No one believes this grandpa about this pig eating the baby.  This must have burned badly to Australian audiences because of the Azaria Chamberlain case.  But, surprisingly, we now divert our attention from this vengeful old man and meet an American journalist who's arrived to expose animal cruelty.  It's also here that Razorback swings from pure black tragedy (baby-eating pigs) to the oddness of Australia.  Sometimes the oddness arrives as scenes of random quirkiness.


And sometimes it's pretty dark in its own right, like when we meet two hoons who work at a meat-processing plant and spend their spare time shooting kangaroos and raping.  Some viewers might get a Texas Chainsaw feel from the attack below, with its truck-lighting and its murderous backwoods mutants.  So what?  As with Jaws, it's not a flaw to borrow from the best and the movie does gives its villains a nasty Australianess, including ugly laughter that sounds like kids imitating machine guns.


Later, the imitation tables are turned, as we go to the boys' underground lair and get a premonition of similar scenes in Texas Chainsaw 2, which would arrive a full two years after Razorback.  We also get more of the twisty turns of the narrative, as the movie eventually seems to settle on one protagonist after its long search.  I'd say this is one of the movie's main flaws.  If I were making it, I would've stretched the second portion of the narrative out a little more.  There's a little too much of the third act and not enough content to fill it.  What had been relentless and driven starts to show some flab.


Having said that, there's more good than bad throughout the film.  Russell Mulcahy had established himself by directing videos for people like Duran Duran and the best parts of the video aesthetic show up here.  It's visible in the surreal dream scenes and the rapid pace and the very impressive transitions between scenes.  


The human villains also add to Razorback's ambiance with their psychedelic cannibal couture.  


Oh yeah, and this movie also has a pig in it.  Again, wisely borrowing from Jaws, we mostly get flashes of the beast and never really see the whole thing.  What's here looks great, though, except at the very, very end, when it's obviously a stationary prop.  But, by that time, you've already been seduced by the charms of Razorback and will probably be able to overlook such minor details.  This isn't a classic, but it's definitely underrated and still a fun viewing some thirty years after its release.


***1/4

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

The homoerotic content of this movie has been discussed to death, I think.  But it's hard to avoid it when you get an opening scene that serves as a synopsis for everything that this film will contain.  A bus trip to school turns into a surreal nightmare as the vehicle plows across the deserts and eventually lands precariously on some phallic rock formations.  Stay on the pole and live, yield to the hole and die.  


This is Jesse's nightmare.  He's new in town and has moved into the house where Freddy nearly slew Nancy last go-round.  The set and wardrobe choices in this movie are something else.  This sequel manages to somehow be more tragically soaked in the eighties than the original Nightmare.  Bad haircuts and shoutingly-loud shirts abound.  But it's an alternate universe version of the eighties, as you can tell by the popularity of Fu Manchu cereal (way to reach for that gag, movie).  Importantly, probably, it's the pre-AIDS eighties and I think we're gonna have to talk about the gay stuff after all.


Jesse is placed in scream queen position for most of NOES2.  He wakes shrieking from nightmares, is pursued by Freddy, and finds himself in scenes with Freudian symbols.  He also has to deal with the usual teen travails, like a coach who likes to "hang at the queer S&M joints downtown".  He begins to make friends with a girl named Lisa, but, you guys, this movie goes pretty far beyond celebrating homosexuality.  It gets downright intolerant of women at times. 


When we meet Lisa, Jesse opens a door and she has her back turned.  It's not the door that has a NO CHICKS sign affixed, though.  Plus the portrayal of wives in this movie is notably ugly.  They don't actually do much of anything, but they generally look extremely haggard and wear dresses that are like Cracker Barrel tablecloths.  The film even retroactively attacks Nancy by making her indirectly recite bad dialogue through her diary.  Go have a vagina somewhere else!


The homosexual subtext is one of the only reasons that this film stands out.  In plenty of ways, this is a typical Elm Street sequel, with retreads of the original's scenes and poorly-conceived screenwriting.  One of the other things that sort of works are the non-Freddy scare scenes.  These walk the line between complete idiocy and godhood, like when a bolt of lightning directly strikes the dishes in the drying rack.  Or when a parakeet knocks over a heavy lamp and terrorizes the family before immolating out of nowhere.  This leads to a golden Clu Gulager line: "I mean, animals don't explode into flames for no reason!"


That's the level of scripting that we have here.  There are poor lines and poorer lines of thought, as when the movie foolishly tries to insert some comedy during the pool party scene.  The dad loves Benny Goodman and forces these kids to listen to it!  "Lol"!  At least the color choices in these scenes are superb, as the eighties were apparently a golden time for stop sign cosplay.


Sometimes the effects work, but they often don't and that's a killer for a bigger-budget horror film like this.  Any effect can look dumb in a screengrab, but the scene below doesn't work any better in real time and is preceded by an awful eye-inside-the-mouth effect.  


Not that we're talking scads of effects in general.  Freddy's pretty flaccid in this one and few of the kills reach for the Looney Tunes level of absurdity that would happen later in the series.  It's all very dry and unfun, and the end comes with Lisa and Freddy arguing like siblings in family therapy.  Lisa kisses Freddy and, soon after, he dies, like the Wicked Witch of the West.  A strange film with so-bad-it's-greatness in spots, but far too often a typically unimaginative cashgrab.


**1/2

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sister Emanuelle (1977)

Black Emanuelle History Month gets a little botched with this one.  Joe D'Amato hands over the directorial reins to spaghetti western & peplum vet Giuseppe Vari and the results are not inspiring.  Emanuelle, repenting of her sluttery, joins a convent that retrains female juvenile delinquents.  Trouble arrives in the form of a brazen and apparently middle-aged teenage girl (Monica Zanchi, who we'll meet again in the next Emanuelle post).


It's a fine story, to be sure.  But taking the plucky Emanuelle and denuding her of her harlot crown doesn't work well.  I'm not Catholic, thank God, but I can't picture anyone getting excited by Emanuelle spending most of the movie dressed like a fancy napkin.  Her acting actions are mostly devoted to scolding and being shocked, too.  Which means that Monica Zanchi has to provide the requisite amounts of scuzz and she's miscast as a teen and the film also seems very restrained in comparison with the sleazy anarchy of previous Em sequels.


This attempts to be a far more conventional film, devoting lots of time to relationship drama and broad farce.  Parts of it work, like the legit funny stuff involving one nun's bladder problems.  But, please, Sister Emanuelle.  We put down our money with certain expectations and you give us teenage crying and arguments?  Most dreadfully, the movie barely cares about sex scenes.  What we get is shot in ugly close-ups of pale skin rubbing gross hirsute man chest (Gabriele Tinti, who played a different character in Emanuelle in America).  Gemser barely contributes, doing a repeated bored solo disrobing, like the world's sleepiest stripteaser.  It was probably fun for her to do something different with this character, but it's no fun for us to watch.


People expecting an Emanuelle movie are going to be unsatisfied and people who like sophisticated real cinema are going to be unimpressed by the amateur work here.  I haven't seen the next sequel, Last Cannibals, yet, but I'm pretty confident that you can skip this one and move on to the next phase of Black Emanuelle.  


**

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Emanuelle in America (1977)

[Unrelated: I don't waste enough time with this blog, so I've started another one that will cover pro wrestling.  Please check it out here if you wish and thank you.]

Emmanuelle was a very successful 1974 French erotic film starring a white lady.  As happens in our world of commerce, ripoffs and spinoffs emerged.  The most successful ripoff was the Black Emanuelle series, starring the exotic blacktress Laura Gemser.  "Black" as in, yes, that kind of black, as there were practically Emanuelles for every race, like Black Jesus or Asian Santa Claus (cf. Yellow Emanuelle, which is a real thing).  Emanuelle in America was the fourth Gemser Emanuelle outing and, by this time, the series had almost gotten as weird as it was gonna get.  


Look at that set design and ass framing!  That bear literally died from happiness when this scene was shot.  Say what you will about Euro sleazemaster Joe D'Amato, he had a directorial vision.  Even when his films were pretty bad, there was usually some interesting stuff happening visually.  Unless the frame was entirely taken up with close-ups of penises lancing vaginas. 


Look at that, goddamnit!  The 70s!  A table disguised as a cigarette box makes a nice contrast to your vulva fruit paintings.  That's (black) Emanuelle and her beau having romantic times at home.  Em will soon leave on randy adventures, though.  Emanuelle in America often plays like some attention-deficient sitcom where unlikely scenarios unfold, but don't really affect anything else that might happen.  Like when Emanuelle infiltrates a harem of women owned by a rich dick!


This is after she almost gets killed by some model's boyfriend.  He delivers this line—"I'm gonna marry her and she's never gonna have to take her clothes off ever again!"—then Emanuelle gives him a blowjob until he runs away crying.  But then it's time to infiltrate the harem!  The other girls are known only by their Zodiac signs and Em's a Virgo.  Lolcats~ get it?  It's funny because she's a slut!  Anyway, Emanuelle and the girls become fast friends.  At one point, they entice her into the pool by saying, "Come on in!  It's like chicken soup!"  


She also solves the problems of a neglected harem girl while they're both glisteningly naked.  Then another girl masturbates a horse.  Yes, this really happens, unfortunately.  I kept hoping it would be a short scene with maybe just simulated horse/girl sex, but no such luck.  Joe D'Amato, you son of a bitch, you've gone too far.  Fuck the 70s for real.  As with Cannibal Holocaust, I'd counsel getting an edited copy of this if you can, as you're not really losing any of the thematic nuances of Emanuelle in America if you skip the scenes of a horse's engorged cock.


That's a palette cleanser and you're welcome.  But let's go back and ask, even if you did want to put horse masturbation into your film for some reason, why would you put it in the first thirty minutes?  Where can the film go from there?  In this case, we go to Italy, land of gondolas and the incredible Paola Senatore.  Yes, Emanuelle in America is back in Italy before half of this movie has elapsed.  Emanuelle saves a troubled marriage with her marvelous baby cannon, then jets off to a party full of transparent blouses and albino rapists.


Some parts of this movie that try to be light-hearted just play as weird and gross.  Like the girl in the giant cake who is immediately beset by an aged Senator, who apparently tries to snort her tits off.  Senators take quite a kicking in Em in Am, as we will see.


Okay, yeah, so like after the party, Emanuelle infiltrates a brothel full of male prostitutes.  The only women we see are super-attractive, btw, because hot women clearly are the most likely group to pay for sex.  Emanuelle sees something creepy while she is surreptitiously watching people bang.  It's a couple copulating in front of a movie screen, which is displaying a violent snuff film.  Emanuelle investigates this by going to DC and seducing a Senator, who has decorated his Washington home with posters for SUZANNE'S PUNISHMENT SCHOOL.  These scenes have the movie's last great line, "I should allow fluid to be spilled over me more often!"


Turns out that snuff films are real!  And Emanuelle uncovers the story!  But the newspaper refuses to print the story, so she throws a fit and storms out...


...and ends up in a song-and-dance number with some happy tribe ruled by a guy with a seashell bra.  What the fuck, Emanuelle in America?  This movie is the most schized-out thing ever filmed.  Parts of it are a blast, but other parts are extremely boring, especially the lovingly-shot penetrations near the film's end.  None of it is cohesive at all.  It's like they had ten different scripts for this project and just decided to film them all and put them together one morning.  Gemser's hot and so is Senatore and I like the set design, but some of the badder elements here are stomach-churningly bad.  Not even close to my favorite thing, but it's certainly an experience.  


**1/2

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Shadow of Chikara (1977)

Firstly, this has nothing to do with that other Chikara.  Changing its name more than a moody teenager, this obscure western/horror/action thinger is also known as Demon Mountain, The Ballad of Virgil Cane, The Curse of Demon Mountain, and (my favorite) Wishbone Cutter.  Joe Don Baker IS Wishbone Cutter in this film, a Civil War commander who sprints off after the South gets smacked down.  You'll probably know Joe Don from Walking Tall or the MST3K version of Mitchell.  Be assured that his performance style has not changed for this film.


Spoiler: The South loses the Civil War.  We see it here, inexplicably scored with The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".  Informed of a cache of river diamonds by a dying comrade, Cutter heads out with his half-Irish/half-Indian scout Half-Moon O'Brien.  There are some very brief bursts of potential in these scenes, with the Indian delivering lines like "I don't know anything about stones, except arrowheads and flints!"


Along the way, they have all sorts of amusing adventures.  They find a presumably-raped woman in a red dress in the woods and learn that her name is Drusilla Wilcox.  This movie has wrested the absurd-name crown from Bloodsucking Freaks.  They also run into backwoods hillbilly mutants.  Parts of this seem proto-Sharknado in their apparently intentional badness.  But then other parts are just long and draggy.


According to Indian legend, the mountain is supervised by a giant eagle named Chikara.  Bad luck certainly seems to befall them once they start the upward climb.  In one horrifying scene, a bunch of horses and riders pitch off the mountain to their deaths.  Surely this is just movie magic!  If not, this film has wrested the crown of being-a-total-asshole from Cannibal Ferox.


One scene encapsulates the dull heart of the film.  Wishbone and Drusilla sit and stare blankly down a dark hole as their compatriot tries to put a bunch of diamonds in a bag.  But the first bag has a hole in it!  So they have to throw down another bag.  This takes a few minutes.  Then he drops his torch.  This is the climax of the film!  The lol is on you, the viewer, if you watch this.  So take my advice and don't.


**

Monday, January 12, 2015

As Above, So Below (2014)

Yikes, people really hated this one!  It seems found footage has become the Tara Reid of film techniques—first loved, then tolerated, and now the object of inexplicably savage scorn and mockery.  "Why would they keep on filming while they're running away?"  Really, now, would you love this movie if it built up to a monster encounter and then it ended abruptly because someone dropped the camera and ran away?  A: no, you wouldn't.  People who complain about the conceits of found footage are like people who complain about roller coasters because "they all just go up and down and in loops".  Yes, that is what roller coasters are/do!  Found footage horror has people using cameras when they probably realistically wouldn't because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie!  GNARR! 


That's Scarlett, she's an academic adventurer in the Indiana Jones vein.  Her dad died before he could find the Rose Key, but she finds it in the first few minutes of this movie.  Girl power!  Then we travel to Paris, where she enlists the aid of Aramaic expert/old bell repairer George to assist her in locating the legendary philosopher's stone.  This premise is admirably ridiculous and it's capped by a scene that will divide viewers.  George translates an Aramaic document straight into rhyming English couplets on the spot.  !!!  This is so far-fetched that it became charming to me.  I can't believe the moxy of the filmmakers/screenwriter that they just pitched this out there!


So then the pair and a cameraman meet up with some French layabouts and travel into the catacombs beneath the city.  This was filmed in the catacombs for real and the setting really serves to make the film more compelling.  The atmosphere in the dark tunnels is just delightful—you couldn't pick a better place to execute jumpy, found footage horror.  The movie quickly dives into the surreal side of horror, with hallucinatory visions of pianos and firey cars, and also more practical monster attacks.  I'm not screenshotting the monsters so as not to spoil, so enjoy the following derpy faces.


The cast acquits itself effectively, but the film's real selling point is its batty script.  It's like they scanned my brain for things I'd like and somehow put them all into this movie.  Alchemy!  Dante quotes!  Bad Siouxsie and the Banshees jokes!  It's all here.  I loved that the film doesn't explain everything to death either.  There's nothing worse than a film that presents some arcane enigma and then breaks out the PowerPoint and the laser pointers and demystifies it entirely.


This isn't as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark or [rec], but it kind of plays like a mashup of both.  I like the fast-paced action-y side of horror, so I was super-pleased about that.


If you can't stand found footage, this won't convert you.  But if you're tolerant and able to ignore the carping of crowds of critics, As Above, So Below just might find a place in your heart.


***1/4

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Barbarian Queen (1985)

Barbarian Queen gets fancy at the outset, with a girl posed above her own reflection in a limpid pool.  But don't throw your TV out the window in disgust—the movie quickly lives down to its trashy title, as our girl is captured and bondaged by the barbarian version of a Duck Dynasty guy.  I love the framing in this scene, very reminiscent of local commercials for furniture stores or carpet wholesalers.  


Santa and his henchmen attack the girl's village and ruin its day.  Some wacky editing choices give us the arrow version of the magic bullet theory and the film spoons out its first taste of uninspiring battle scenes.  These are generally filmed very close-up and scored with monotonous metal clanging.  


This attack happens on Princess Amethea's wedding day.  Poor, doomed Lana Clarkson gives the titular performance you'd expect from a film of this pedigree.  Some of the rare fun in the movie derives from its loony, dated choices, such as the omnipresent headbands on the barby girls.  


I'm insecure about the amount of time I worried over the female costuming.  Obviously, I appreciate skimpy fur/leather bikinis, but why top that with thick fur pimp coats?  What the fuck climate is this supposed to indicate?


The bad guy costuming is even more puzzling.  Fur-lined all black and hats worn indoors.  Plus these Romans(? It's not that clear who these guys are, but they do have gladiators, so let's go with Romans) don't appear to have any females in their tribe.  We only ever see rapey men, who maintain harems full of abducted ladies.  I hope no future anthropologists ever try to interpret the past using only Barbarian Queen as a primary source.


They will probably be pretty displeased, although they might dig Katt Shea's fun performance and sometimes skimpy outfits.  I'm happy that Shea had a pretty lengthy directorial career after she'd done her time in this kind of thing.  


This is a poorly-constructed story.  In what is nominally an excuse to blend boobs and death, we endure eons of bad dialogue, so when something crazy finally does happen (like a Jewish torture scientist tying a pretty-naked Lana Clarkson to a rack), it's hard to care.  It's like getting rewarded with a French kiss, but only after you listen to a five-hour timeshare presentation.  In the great carny tradition, Barbarian Queen most likely owes its famed name to a cool poster and the reluctance of disappointed attendees to admit they actually saw it.  There's definitely better barby girl fare to be found; don't waste your life on this, pls.


*