Friday, August 28, 2015

Short Film: Fétiche Mascotte / The Mascot (France, 1933)

After the meta-post-mod CGI extravaganza of last month's Short Film of the Month, Kung Fury, here's some (real) Old School: a pioneering masterpiece written and directed by the sadly underappreciated Władysław Starewicz aka Ladislas Starevich aka Vladislav Starevich aka Владисла́в Алекса́ндрович Старе́вич (8 August 1882 – 26 February 1965).
Despite the short's simplistic plot (a toy dog seeks to fulfil a child's request), The Mascot, with its numerous ape-shit situations and characters that include a horny monkey, a lady of easy virtue, a decapitated clown, the devil and a knife-wielding thief, is definitely not for kiddies. (Though we also wouldn't be surprised were someone at Pixar to one day admit that the short was the original inspiration to Toy Story [1995 / trailer].)
In regards to this roughly 26-minute-long flick, which we stumbled upon rather accidentally and then went on to read about, Terry Gilliam pretty much hits the mail on the head in every way — though he is wrong about the short being the director's last film; Starewicz made many more after The Mascot, including another fours shorts featuring the stuffed dog of this one — in The Guardian article in which he lists "The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time": "[... Ladislas Starevich's] work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers would do subsequently. This is his last film, after The Tale of the Fox from 1930 (full film, while it lasts); it is all right there in this cosmic animation soup. It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began."
Over at mubi, they offer a valid interpretation of the short: "The protagonist, a puppy, wanders into the Bosch-like landscape inhabited by the relics of a hedonistic society in decay. In its quest to capture an elusive orange, (Starewicz's symbol of virtue) the hapless puppy must contend with an environment that is unrelentingly bleak and threatening." Still, all's well that ends well...

Monday, August 24, 2015

House of Ghosts / Pisaj (Thailand, 2004)

The original Thai title, Pisaj, which translates into "Ghost", is perhaps the more fitting title, for though there is more than one ghost in the movie and in the house, House of Ghosts concentrates for the most part on a singular ghost, that of a former hired girl prone (both when alive and dead) to sadistically mistreat a young boy named Arm.
The movie, which seems to be the directorial and screenplay début of Chookiat Sakveerakul is both atmospheric and at times effective, but in the end it is more interesting for its setting in and reflection of contemporary Thai working class culture than it is as a solid slice of horror. But face it, sometimes it's simply fun to watch a film, no matter how flawed, in which the prelude to a scary scene is the directive "Clean up my Buddha room" and not "Take this up to the attic / down to the basement."
One of the strongest visual shots is the film's opening, where we see the daily activities of what seems to be a successful Thai print shop: in the distance, at the shop's entrance, we eventually see a slight figure of a female with a suitcase appear at the door, and long does she stand there before she finally enters. The lonely, timid figure turns out to be Oui (Pumwaree Yodkamol, also found in Ong Bak [2003 / trailer]), a young woman who looks more like a young teenager than a young adult, and who, alone in the world after experiencing the double shooting of both her parents, has turned up at the doorstep of the print shop run by her aloof and severe Aunt Bua (Ammara Assawanon, also seen somewhere in The Ghost of Mae Nak [2005 / German trailer]). Aunt Bua takes Oui in, perhaps less due to familial love or responsibility than the need for someone to care for her grandson, Arm (Alexander Rendell), a young boy who, to put it simply, sees dead people...
For the most part, House of Ghosts pursues a subtle path, raising the tension primarily through bangs in the dark, reflections in glass, Arm's obvious fear of the night (or aversion to specific foods), the mystery of the deserted top floor and the disappearance of the previous woman who took care of Arm, the tales of the print-house workers who seem almost amazed that Oui is still there every morning, or Aunt Bua's distant attitude, piercing eyes, and supplementary position as a medium. This subtle approach is occasionally pushed to the side for a bloody hallucination or two (which Oui suffers as a result of the death of her parents), and then jettisoned at the end, to mixed results, when the director and narrative descends into a confusion of killer apparitions and a crazed, seemingly unstoppable Aunt Bua out for blood, before the movie almost peters out with a somewhat open-ended, overly rational final scene that leaves the future corporal fate of the three survivors rather unresolved.
House of Ghosts intrigues through its foreignness and characters, and does manage to build a certain sense of dread and unavoidable fate, but the script reveals a slight lack of clear direction and not only tosses in a bit too much but also fails is in its inability to tie all the loose strings together. Who are all the ghosts and why are they there? And where do they all go to when the shit hits the fan? In the end — at least until an unexpected revelation in the final scene — it appears that the only ghost truly out for blood is that of the sadistic former house girl. (Perhaps the second strongest scene in the movie is when she appears in Arm's hiding place under the sink and begins crawling towards the terrified young boy.) The whole bit about Oui's hallucinations is also a bit out of place, for since the viewers never truly doubt that the ghosts are real, the hallucinations come across as unneeded; likewise, while Oui's hallucinations might be good for a nasty scene or two, they also confuse — at one point, one hallucination even briefly leaves the viewer unsure whether or not Oui might not actually be dead and not know it, much like the daughter in season one of American Horror Story [2011 / trailer]).
It also seriously annoys when the character of Mai (Theeranai Suwanhom of Headshot [2011 / trailer] and Happy Inn [2005 / trailer]), the deus ex machina of the grand finale, has absolutely no problem getting into the house (after it's made more than clear that it is locked up and Oui & Arm are trapped in it), but subsequently cannot get out. At least Aunt Bua's sudden conversion from a distant and unfriendly old woman into a blood-thirsty wacko with almost Terminator-like unstoppableness is slightly foreshadowed — the question "Where are the Buddhas?" actually does portend a lot — and is then revealed to have precedence, but why she should even return home in the first place is one of many natural questions that never get answered.
More interesting than good, House of Ghosts has atmosphere and a decidedly leisurely pace until the havoc explodes at the end — and then the mayhem ends almost as quickly as it begins, with the movie tapering off with a final that is particularly prosaic and open (what happens to everybody thereafter?). We recommend it with reservations.
Director/scriptwriter Chookiat Sakveerakul, by the way, went on to do the screenplay to the far more consistent if ridiculous [and entertaining] action flick Chocolate (2008 / trailer).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Route 666 (USA, 2002)

(Spoilers.) OK, we'll admit it: the only reason why watched Route 666 is because many, many years ago, when we were but a young spud — so long before this flick was even made — we sort of found Lou Diamond Phillips hunkadelic. So when we stumbled upon this obscure flick, which also heralds the eternally eccentric Lori Petty (of Tank Girl [1995]) as co-star, we figured it might be worthwhile to catch a gander of the kind of flick two interesting thespians make when their respective careers have landed firmly in a slump.*
* Although, in truth, even if their projects might not be as notable as the ones that initially brought them fame — La Bamba (1987 / trailer) and A League of Their Own (1992 / trailer), respectively — as both have remained in steady employment since they first entered the biz, and neither has suffered an unending nadir like that of someone like, say, Richard Grieco (Webs [2003 / scene in Spanish] and Raiders of the Damned [2005 / trailer]), perhaps it is unjust to say their careers were ever truly in a slump. 
Contrary to what one might think, considering how tainted the number 666 is in the Western world, there have been and are a variety of Route 666s in the US. (There is even a Route 13 out there, but we'll skip that tangent.) The Route 666 of this movie, however, is clearly derived from what is now Route 491 (it was renamed in 2003), a north-south US highway that originally started at a turnoff on Route 66 in Gallup, NM, and enjoyed the nickname of "Devil's Highway" due to its numeration and the supposed (former) high fatality rate of certain segments. In the movie, however, Route 666 is an old, condemned highway running more-or-less parallel to Route 66 that the characters end up taking as an out-of-the-way shortcut to California.
And why do they need the shortcut? Well, though a horror film, Route 666 also utilizes the tropes of the traditional action film: the basic plot involves a group of government agents that capture a government witness on the run, Fred "Rabbit" Smith (Steven Williams), and to get him to court on time and alive — there are hitmen at work — they take the forgotten by-way, whereupon the flick goes horror and they are confronted not only by the killer ghosts of four murdered chain-gang convicts, but kill-happy police officers led by the one who killed the convicts in the first place (character actor L.Q. Jones of The Brotherhood of Satan [1971 / trailer] and The Beast Within [1982 / trailer]) as Sheriff Bob Conaway).
If you get down to it, it is easy to understand why director/screenwriter William Wesley (born Jose Rolando Rodriguez) hasn't been the most active of filmmakers. He seems to be a one trick pony, and his trick isn't all that memorable. Route 666, his second and at the moment still last project, made 13 years after his first, Scarecrows (1998 / trailer), is basically a rehash of his first film in a new setting. (In Scarecrows, you have criminals caught in a graveyard surrounded by killer scarecrows, while in Route 666 you have 7 marshals & a smart-mouthed criminal trapped on a road haunted by killer convicts.) Unluckily, it is also in no way better.
Route 666 begins pleasantly enough, once you get through the oddly annoying and overly long credits sequence, in that the great Dick Miller (of The Terror [1963] and much, much more) appears for all of 5 minutes in the opening bar scene. He quickly disappears, and the movie goes downhill real quickly. The badly staged and shot shootout that soon follows is truly indicative of all that is to come: half-assed, nonsensical, and sort of dull. Aside from the fact that the whole scene is so typical of the typical movie shootouts in which hundreds of bullets fly as people run for cover and never get hit, the viewer is actually subjected to Agent La Roca [Phillips] suffering augural visions of the ghostly convicts — despite being miles from Route 666. (He gets a lot of visions along the way because — Well, wouldn't you just know it! — his long-lost daddy is one of the four undead.) And then the agents hit the road without a map and only an old tourist guide at hand for directions, which is how they end up on Route 666. (We can't help but wonder what kind of guidebook bothers to tell where condemned highways lead.)
To point out what's good in Route 666: Fred "Rabbit" Smith (Steven Williams of The Fear Chamber [2009 / trailer]) has a lot of good lines, including one meta-reference to The X-Files (1993-2002), whence most people know him; the acting is more than adequate, occasionally even good; aside from the opening shootout, the blood and violence ain't Miller Lite; the drive-in theater set is sort of groovy; and... and... and... OK, guess that was it.
In turn, if we were to point out every flaw of the flick, we'd have a novelette-length review here, so we'll keep to the main ones: Lori Petty is totally wasted and sometimes even looks lost; every time the chain gang attacks or violence hits, the cinematographer develops epilepsy and the camera jumps all over the place like a spastic sitting on a vibrator — not good; the editing gets a little confusing now and then, especially around the time the overweight shaman (Gary Farmer of Dead Man [1995 / trailer]) shows up; at one point in the movie, La Roca drinks peyote tea and basically stands up and walks away ready for action; La Roca actually says "Father" to one of the killer ghosts, who in turn becomes the deus ex machina that saves the butt of the final good guys; and — ah, shit: basically the whole story is all over the place, predictable but for one kill, doesn't hold any water at all, and falls apart by the end. Worse, it has no atmosphere — not even a sun-burnt one — and isn't even scary.
Over at imdb, William Wesley is quoted at saying "I like my horror real scary and I like to lose a lot of sleep when I see a horror film. It's a really hard thing to accomplish." The fact of the matter is, he didn't accomplish it in Route 666, which, in the end, is truly one of those films that justly deserve their obscurity. Totally unessential viewing, Route 666 makes it easy to understand why William Wesley has so few directorial projects to his name.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Trailers of Promise – Films We Haven't Seen: Aroused (1966)

Written & Directed by Anton Holden.
"Aroused reminds us that the grindhouse, the slaughterhouse, and the nuthouse were occasionally so close together as to be the same squalidly satisfying place." (DVD Verdict)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Romasanta (Spain, 2004)

Released as "Werewolf Hunter" in the U.S., this movie is the second feature-film project of the Spaniard Paco Plaza, who went on to create the original [Rec] franchise with Jaume Balagueró, a director whose work does not normally enamor us, and with whom Plaza co-directed the excellent first installment of the franchise in 2007 (trailer), the crappy sequel [Rec]2 (2009 / trailer), and the pointless but fun [Rec]3: Genesis (2013 / trailer). He seems to have bailed for Balagueró's flogging of a dead horse, [Rec]4: Apocalypse (2014 / trailer).
In our childhood, we were big fans of those wonderfully lush if illogical period Gothic euro-horrors of the 60s full of beautiful damsels in distress who, struggling hard not to become the next dead nightgown, would (usually) survive all their trials and tribulations to see the light of day and, at the end of the film, ride off with some dull man of romantic interest. Romasanta is very much lush in color and costumes and set design and setting, not to mention often illogical, but — unlike, say, Julian Sands' other turn in costume horror that we've seen, Argento's Phantom of the Opera (1998 / trailer)* — it is nevertheless mostly successful and wonderfully entertaining for fans of costume or period horror. It also has a somewhat surprising if period-inappropriate feminist stance in that the final girl takes an exceedingly active role in the resolution of the events — far beyond that which would've in any way been possible during the period the movie is set. (She also doesn't ride off with her romantic interest, either.)
* We saw that Sands disaster, with its equally miscast Asia Argento, and hated it sooooo much we didn't even bother reviewing it.
Romasanta is inspired by a true story, the same one behind the earlier and far more grimy and obscure Spanish horror flick, El bosque del lobo / The Ancines Woods (1970 / Spanish trailer). In real life, "the Werewolf of Allariz" — Manuel Blanco Romasanta (18 Nov. 1809 — 14 Dec. 1863), who is considered Spain's first known serial killer — was a travelling salesman that killed an indeterminate amount of people (he admitted 13 killings, but was only charged for nine) and made soap from their body fat. His defense was that he suffered from lycanthropy, and while he was eventually granted a reprieve from the death sentence by Queen Isabella II, it is believed that he died in prison.
Unlike in real life, where the bearded, dark and short killer of yesteryear was known to be between 1.37m [4'6"] and 1.49m [4'11"] in height), in Romasanta the travelling salesman is the blonde Julian Sands, who comes across as taller than his mere 1.80m [5'9"]. That said, if the film succeeds it is not due to his participation, for as an actor he remains for the most part as ineffectual and weak as ever, or at least he is whenever he isn't homicidal. Whenever he goes sinister or wacko, he's truly threatening and effective, but the rest of the time, especially whenever he goes nice guy or passive, his demeanor and voice becomes boneless and almost annoying. Even if this is surely a conscious thespian decision meant to convey the second side of the man, when he's boneless he is so inexpressive that instead of conveying any sort of personality — wimpy or split — he conveys an inability to act.
Though the movie does have flashes of the visceral — there is a brief shot of what's left of a dead deaf girl's eyes that is particularly shocking, one of many instances in which director Plaza displays a notable and more reality-bound disdain of the Speilbergian rule of not killing children — on the whole the director takes a rather subdued and atmospheric approach. In fact, Plaza often sacrifices logic and reality to the lusciousness of the production and visuals, and the excessive length of time certain scenes last also results in an uneven rhythm. (Indeed, as beautiful as the Spanish landscape might be in the movie, and as delicious as the final girl might be, some of the horse riding scenes are simply interminable.)
That the movie might suffer this tendency of beautiful visuals trumping logic is already foreshadowed in its opening segment in which Manuel Romasanta (Sands), riding through the countryside in his coach, takes on a severely injured fieldworker (but not his two companions) to transport the man to the nearest village. Not only does day go into night without a village in sight during the long ride, but the interior of the covered wagon is suddenly awash with the light of countless candles lit most definitely not by the fatally injured man. The fieldworker, oblivious to the passage of time, dictates his final words for his beloved wife to Manuel, whom we quickly learn in quick succession, is both a man of no morals and a violent killer — but whether or not he is truly a werewolf or simply a man with a severe personality disorder is long left open to question. (We know for sure at the latest during a slimy scene in which a wolf changes back into a man, but it is hard to say whether the film might not have been better had this question never been answered. And, indeed, the whole transformation might just be in the man's head.)
Manuel leaves a long trail of dead women and children behind him (we don't see all the murders) before finally deciding on Bárbara (Elsa Pataky of The Art of Dying [2000 / Spanish trailer], Beyond Re-Animator [2003 / trailer] and Snakes on a Plane [2006 / trailer]), a capable and beautiful woman who can obviously throw a whole farm alone on her own. She might be willing to steal her sister's man — which involves the obligatory nude and actually rather erotic scene — but definitely wants, uh, justice (?) when she learns that while she is no longer alone on the farm, she is now alone in the world. But could it be that her love is stronger than her desire for revenge?
Elsa Pataky is truly effective in the movie. Yes, she is beautiful, but her effectiveness and affectiveness — shall we say presence? — goes beyond her basic babeness. Whether terrified, beset by doubt, overcome by lust, or simply determined, she conveys her state of mind and emotions far more believably than Sands, and definitely walks all over the tertiary character Antonio (John Sharian of The Machinist [2004 / trailer] and, supposedly, Lost in Space [1998 / trailer]), who, despite being US-born, displays all the conviction and believability of a badly dubbed foreign actor. (In this way, actually, he is oddly appropriate to the Euro-gothic film.)
On the whole, Romansanta is a truly uneven but, ultimately, satisfying ride. Beautiful images like flaming bonfires in front of the farmhouse or Bárbara's unplanned escape in a burning coach defy common sense but look fabulous; others, like any time someone gets on a horse or starts talking mumbo-jumbo science, are way too long. Nevertheless, the film remains intriguing, and there are enough shocks and horrific scenes — few of which can be labeled gratuitous — that anticipation and suspense is forever present. True, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers didn't really know how to end the movie, but when one keeps in mind that the true end of Manuel Romansanta is no longer known for certain (all records have been lost), the ending at least works with popular legend.
If you're a fan of wonderfully lush if illogical euro-horror films, this one's for you. And if you're not, well, in all likelihood Romansanta is the kind of horror film you can at least watch with your "woman's film"-loving other half. It truly deserves to be better known than it is.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Misc. Film Fun: Friday the 13th

Thanks to Stacie Ponder's eternally entertaining blog Final Girl, we were exposed to this fun little sampling remix of a kill in Danny Steinmann's Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985 / trailer). And while those seen here (Miguel A. Núñez Jr. ["Demon"], of Shadowzone [1990], and Jere Fields ["Anita"]) are not the first Afro Americans  to die in the original franchise — that honor belongs to two relatively faceless Afro Americans motorcyclists in Friday the 13th Part III (1982 / trailer) —  they do possibly have the honor of enjoying one of the series' least-ennobling locations to die, an outhouse.* (We haven't seen the original film yet, but we doubt it is a highpoint of equality in film. For further ignobilities, take a look at the website Black Horror Movies.)
* Wanna see white folks die in outhouses? Women — we will reserve from quoting John Lennon and Yoko Ono at this point — meet their ends in or close to them in both Reeker (2005) and Dead Snow (2009). 

Speaking of locations of death, or to be more exact, slasher deaths in general, the monologue to the first trailer that hit the little screen for MTV's new TV series Scream (2015 / later trailer) featured a statement that we find applicable to all slasher movies:  "Sure the reason you watch ... is because you fell in love with the characters, but maybe deep down you know the reason ... is to watch them die." With that basic fact in mind, let us share with you a roughly 20-minute collection of almost all of Jason's kills* in all the Friday the 13th films of the original franchise plus one: the maker of the clip skipped a lot of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993 / trailer) 'cause "the film was dumb" but, oddly enough, includes the death of the recent reboot (2009 / trailer), which was truly a shitty, boring flick.

* The astute will notice that only one of the deaths of the first film (1980 / trailer) is included, but then, the astute will also remember that Jason didn't have any kills in that movie — even the last scene, after all, though included here as the opening kill, proved (later, and theoretically) to be a dream sequence.
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