Tuesday, November 26, 2013

LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995)


Clive Barker: hilarious name for a pet dog (I don't have one or I'd use it), fairly rated as a writer, but probably a little underrated as a director.  Just as HELLRAISER and NIGHTBREED demonstrated an advanced understanding of cinematic techniques, Barker's last major directorial effort LORD OF ILLUSIONS also kicks right off with memorable visuals, including some weird Nazi references.  That might or might not be a swastika made of contrails, but that is definitely an eagle outside the cult's compound...


And that is the leader of the cult, which doesn't really inspire me to sign right up.  But once you see what Nix can do, you might find life at the cult compound a little more attractive.  Beyond ordinary illusions, he's able to tap into supernatural reservoirs and levitate, juggle fire, and other important miracles.  He's opposed by Swann, who apparently does not dig this unsanctioned use of magic.  Swann wins, but that's just the prologue...


Swann, being a winner, exploits his own magical abilities in a Vegas-style stage show.   Later, he ends up dead, which brings detective Harry D'Amour (Scott Bakula) into our story.  LORD OF ILLUSIONS from here on out is a battle royal of character interactions, with D'Amour the unmagical everyman caught between the revenant Nix, a motley crew of magicians and illusionists, Swann's widow, and sundry other personalities.


I had a couple of beefs with LORD OF ILLUSIONS.  For one thing, the casting seemed a little iffy.  I've liked Scott Bakula elsewhere, but I'm not sure he's right for D'Amour.  I'm also uncertain about Kevin O'Connor as a very low-key, embittered Swann.  Problem #2 is the constrained, small-film feel of this.  Not sure if it's stemming from budgetary boundaries or the on/off score or what, but a lot of LORD comes off as very TV-movie-ish, especially the first half.  Which leads to the final complaint, the uneven digital effects that pepper the early goings.  What's here is pretty much on par with LAWNMOWER MAN, which isn't really a compliment.


So, yes, there are flaws, but there are also triumphs.  I loved Daniel von Bargen as Nix, both in terms of his performance and in the character's look.  Generally, the effects and overall efforts gel during the second half of the film, so stick it out and you'll be rewarded.


Unsurprisingly for Clive Barker, there are a few squicky scenes, including a brutal haircut marathon that leads into awesome mass death.  The second half of LORD really exploits the magic conceit for all it's worth.  Good times abound, even if the stuff I liked from the short story doesn't show up (no budget for a tiger, huh?).


Pretty uneven and not that deep, but generally fun and harmless.  Its most unforgivable fault is the Bakula-ass-highlighting wardrobe.  Damn you, Barker!


RATING: 6

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE DEVIL'S PARTNER (1958)

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.  The second greatest trick is a little more elaborate.  It starts with a movie poster with a half-naked lady bullying a centaur with a torch.


"That looks like pure gold!" one would say.  "Satyrs and naked torchbearing ladies?  And it's a Satan movie from the science-mad fifties?  Synopsis sounds Lovecraft-like?  Here, take all my money!"  But it's all a cruel ruse devised by the master of lies.  Worst of all, this movie that no one should watch has a crummy transfer, courtesy of Alpha Video.


This goat doesn't have the kind of bad night you'd expect, given the surroundings, but he still meets a sad fate.  Satan rituals abound, even in the 1950s, and it's educational to see that Satanists can still obtain earthly glory through their rituals, because look at those digs.  This grizzled old Satanist dies, we're supposed to believe, then his nephew shows up in town and receives the traditional "nephew of a Satanist" welcome.  


Prejudice and superstition!  Are, in this case, exactly the right reaction.


Satanic ritual sure looks a lot like bikram yoga, so maybe panicked Christians of our day are right?  Devil powers seem pretty limited as well, mostly overlapping with the powers of the Beastmaster.  Dogs can be spurred to attack their masters and cows to nap in the road, but otherwise Satanists can't do much more than Mormons or Zoroastrians.


Given the wardrobe choices of our young antagonist, it wouldn't surprise me if he were bullied by Mormons in the deleted scenes.  Who tucks in a tie?  So much of this film is the story of talking and arguments, hazardous paths to travel, as we've seen so often.  Voluble dialogue and delusions of grandeur?  Maybe this really is the most authentic portrayal of Satanism in film...


THE DEVIL'S PARTNER makes a big huge cardinal error and inflates it so it can be seen from space.  As pointed out in this Final Girl post, devil people in movies often fail because they seemingly have no planning skills.  This Satanist's grand plan involves working at a gas station and enlisting the local store-brand Torgo as his sole assistant.  How is evil supposed to conquer the world with those kinds of management decisions?


I know that, in 1958, you can't really have the movie working on the side of darkness and lust, but please give the heavy some reason for doing what he's doing.  Our infernal mage here seems to have the same game plan as stoners from my hometown: work a terrible job, try to hook up with the local betty, and hang out with the town drunk.  Not really the stuff of compelling cinema and this sure isn't.


RATING: 4

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

PREY (1978)

An English production with sci-fi leanings and Space Invaders font, PREY recalls XTRO at times, but never hits the highs of that fine film, opting instead for a way more restrained and listless feel until its batshit ten-minute finale comes too late to save the day.


In this movie which was titled ALIEN PREY at some point, an alien comes to Earth.  In his natural form, he looks as much like ManBearPig as the limited budget would allow.  PREY gives us kills early on, to get our hopes up, before dashing them against the rocks of domestic drama and long conversations.


Jo and Jessica are lesbians, living in country seclusion.  Because this is the 1970s and there were no laws about space men rudely bringing their space dicks into Sapphic households, the alien shows up and raises the hackles of man-hating Jo.  He also attracts the interest of Jessica, who is clearly starved for any man at all, since the alien seems baffled by such novel concepts as "water" and "games" and "London".  He also, hilariously, ends up claiming to be named Anders Anderson.


A lot of this film is about talking.  It's cheap to shoot!  But it does render things very draggy, and a child could easily out-hop the tempo of PREY.  Much of the film seems lifted from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although Jo's agoraphobia and the hatred of the villagers for our gal-loving gals are naturally pretty undeveloped compared to the Jackson novel.  Anders's alien nature sometimes exerts itself in active bloodletting, but mostly he stands around looking nonplussed.  The actors are fine, but the material is mostly nothing. 


Bread jars are a thing, I guess.  Only the sex scenes are erected with any esprit.  The shots are more daring and the filmmakers utilize mirrors and headboards to put a little pizzazz into their offerings.  


PREY would probably make a pretty fine, if really weird, piece of erotica.  But, as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, it's kind of lifeless.


Given its homoerotica and dress-wearing aliens, you'd think that PREY would be perfect for our modern GLBT times, but it's too sluggish and bland to be of much use to anyone.  


RATING: 4

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

JUG FACE (2013)


Following the greatest credits sequence of all time, we jump into our story: Ada lives in some backwater holler, where the residents have taken to practicing a freaky religion.  They worship a power that resides in a shallow, watery pit, and seek its healing powers.  The bad news is that The Pit also demands propitiation through sacrifice.  It announces the unlucky winner by guiding the hands of simpleton Dewai, who then makes clay jugs that have faces on them.


It's not a very elaborate story and you can probably guess the plot parts that I left out.  JUG FACE doesn't strive for the heights of storytelling—its pretty simple story has essentially been told before—but instead tries to differentiate itself through its unorthodox atmosphere and solid acting and direction.


As you can probably tell, I was not as enamored of this as some gushing others.  I like aspects of it and I think the premise is interesting, but the execution didn't completely work for me.  I've seen a lot of genre films that feel like this lately and I'm not sure what label to use.  Hipster?  Post-horror?  The common denominator is that they all seem gunshy about aiming for audience involvement in the characters and narrative.  When bad things happened in JUG FACE, I felt like I theoretically should care, but I mostly didn't.  The technical and aesthetic aspects are fine, but it's like the movie was all grossed out about emotional connections, like it's some weird old Douglas Sirk thing.  It was more interesting in an academic way than truly involving.


That aside, the genre attributes here are pretty choice.  The Shunned/ghosts were intriguing and I wouldn't have minded seeing more of them.  I also liked the white-eyed psychic episodes whenever it was time for characters to be written out of the plotline.


The acting's pretty consistently good, too, especially leads Sean Bridgers (great performance) and Lauren Carter.  


I'm really struggling to find words for this.  Well-crafted, sure, maybe even quirky, but I'm mostly cool to its charms.  Ehhh.

RATING: 5

Thursday, November 7, 2013

THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC (1979)

I'm afraid it's all downhill after the swanky Rapi Films logo.


THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC is an Indonesian product, rescued from obscurity by Mondo Macabro.  Like similar regional works (MYSTICS IN BALI, VIRGINS FROM HELL), there are elements here that promise much, but the final result is less than satisfying.  We open with a wedding, which is torn asunder by black magic!  That's half the title in the bag already.  The unknown magician attacks the bride with hallucinations, including this trio of monsters, which is of course led by a super-fakey fake skeleton.


The aggrieved groom, who has a Freddie Mercury mustache and wears periwinkle polo shirts, assumes that the assailant is his jilted love, Murni.  As the film repeatedly tells us, you can't prove black magic, so he and his shantytown colleagues skip a trial and just throw her off a cliff.  Luckily, she bumps off the rocks limply, almost like a dummy, and lands in the arms of a kindly old cave-dweller.  Suzzanne plays this role and ordinarily looks a lot better than this Benedicio Del Toro/Tom Keifer hybrid shot would suggest.


It's pretty clear early on that this guy who adorns his cave with skulls and unlevel shelving is up to no good.


Murni tales her tale of woe in the film's funniest scene.  "I didn't want to lose my virginity here!" she whines as a cow with perfect comic timing wanders across the screen.


So Murni becomes the Queen of Black Magic and takes intermittently gory revenge on her tormentors.  This is a film from a conservative Muslim country, so you don't get as much exploitation excitement as the synopsis might suggest.  It was super-strange to see optical fogging over something other than Japanese pubic hair, but I guess we should be grateful that the film mullahs let us see her naked elbows.


You'll know that this is a film from a Muslim country once you reach the mosque makeover.  A gentleman arrives from town to put a stop to this black magic-ing and exhort the citizens to return to regular prayer.


The conventional morality fits snugly with the conventional storytelling, although there certainly are some of the outlandish Oceanic elements that one would expect.  FLYING HEAD!


Occasional bloody triumphs aside, I doubt this would be a candidate for reissue if it had been made in Indiana or something.  QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC isn't really black magical enough to demand your time over many other contenders.  Drab despite the self-defenestration and fire-shooting girls.


RATING: 5

Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE GORGON (1964)

October has passed at last and our time with gobs of horrible sequels has ended.  So it's back to normal, but some things are changing.  I used IMDB to make a whole big history of horror list, so I hate to waste it, but approaching it chronologically is not working for me.  So I'll be skipping around a lot and maybe one day have "best of" lists for all the decades after 1931.  I'll be periodically covering non-horror fun as well, just depends on my mood.  This is a blog, not a peer-reviewed journal, after all.


Speaking of fun, THE GORGON from 1964 is solid evidence that Hammer fare could be worthwhile even when nothing hit "classic" status.  I heartily approve the use of old-timey monsters like gorgons (and mermaids!) to jazz up your monster movies.  Even when the results aren't amazing, as occurs here, just ditching werewolves and vampers for villains with less exposure and more mythical cachet is a good move.  GORGON features a gorgon, who has taken human form and is terrorizing an English village and turning its residents to stone.  Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing plays the village doctor with a lot more ambiguity than your usual Peter Cushing hero/madman thing.  Also good news!


The acting in this is really impeccable.  My pick for MVP is Michael Goodliffe as the parent of a gorgonized boy.  He's not present throughout the movie, but his scenes are a clear highlight.  He's mighty displeased with the whispering conspiracy in this town (the town is like Amity and the Gorgon is like the shark in this analogy and Michael Goodliffe is Mrs. Kintner).  Note to self: see more Michael Goodliffe.


Guess who else is in this?  Christopher Lee!  Like Cushing, he gets a decidedly non-Christopher Lee-ish role here as a surly professor.  It's pretty rad to see the ordinarily aristocratic hero or vamp Lee barking at people and threatening constables while sporting a shaggy mustache.  


The performances give a lift to what might otherwise be a pretty prosaic, old-timey monster movie.  We do occasionally get swamped by well-designed sets and the directorial choices made by Terence Fisher do not err, but not much in THE GORGON is trying to do anything new.  The plot doesn't waver into new regions and the intent is always a slow-burn spook, using traditional methods.


If we don't get a lot of reaching for new heights, we also don't get a lot of careless falls.  GORGON knows where it's going and steers us there unfailingly.  You could maybe cite some of the makeup as unfortunate, but the worst of it is kept unseen until the absolute very end, and the majority of the stone-turned effects are well done.


GORGON does a great job of keeping its titular monster obscure, too.


This is very much a traditional monster affair, so don't expect buckets of blood to be sloshed about.  That said, GORGON has plenty of kicks for those who are willing to go with its flow.  


"Don't use long words, Inspector; they don't suit you!"

RATING: 6