Saturday, 31 December 2011

5x5 Grindhouse Style

Calvin Lockhart

Baha-born Calvin is probably most recognisible for performances in Predator 2 and Coming to America with Eddie Murphy when he was entertaining for all the right reasons.  He was however the Roy Keane of Blaxploitation, by that I mean always putting in his best performance and a stablishing force in every outing.  Football analogies aside here’s Calvin’s five 5 star films.

1. Cotton Comes to Harlem
In supporting role as Rev. O’Malley alongside St. Jacques & Cambridge in this excellent tale of two hard edged cops working the mean streets during a time when hardcore narcotics were becoming commonplace and big business in Black America.

2. Halls of Anger
The tag line reads “you’ve got 3000 black kids, 60 white kids, and a war going on” and co-starring Jeff Bridges.  It’s Dangerous Minds before there was a Michelle or Coolio and it’s so much better as Lockhart leaves a perfectly good school to take on the troubled youth.

3. The Mercenaries
Not only does this movie have Rod Taylor as the wonderfully named Captain Curry but it’s also got Jim Brown and millions of dollars in uncut diamonds just waiting to be “saved” from those folk from the Congo.

4. The Baltimore Bullet
Lockhart in support as the brilliantly Snow White in this tale of hustlers and trying to con a con starring James Coburn and Omar Sharif.

5. The Beast Must Die
The prince of the gimmick movie, it allows the audience a break in the action to decide who they think the werewolf is.  Lockhart is excellent alongside Peter Cushing, Charles Gray and fellow 5x5er Marlene Clark.

Lockhart’s talent was never more evident than when he was performing alongside actors who may have not considered the Blaxploitation titles he appeared in to be “proper” films.  They did afterwards as he always shone brighter than anyone else.

Next up…

<Sid Haig

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Assault Girls

Certificate: Unrated
Running time: 65 mins
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring:  Meisa Kuroki, Hinako Saeki, Rinko Kikuchi, Yoshikazu Fujiki
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

It’s testament to how much the world loves Mamoru Oshii that none of us hold him responsible for influencing James Cameron or Zack Snyder and therefore responsible for Avatar (and it’s two…count them, two sequels) and the bitterly disappointing Sucker Punch.  In Assault Girls Oshii offers us up more of the world he has created to call his own (a virtual world) and a sequel to Avalon.  Now it’s worth pointing out that you don’t need to have seen Avalon to watch Assault Girls, it will enhance the experience but is not necessary.

The world is a dystopia which has affected the population to such an extend that most people live their lives inside an RPG called “Avalon”.  Four highly skilful players who team up in order to advance to the next level and in doing so face a world of monsters and creatures that must all pass by their crosshairs.

It goes without even saying that the film looks beautiful, of course it looks beautiful.  This is Mamoru Oshii, the camera is his brush and he is masterful with it.  He has an amazing eye for capturing the simply sublime.  The rough terrain of the games setting is framed extremely sensitively.  It’s never flashy, which seems counter intuitive to the genre but works so well.  If it wasn’t for the heavy arsenal the film would look, at least in parts, like The Story of the Weeping Camel as it’s absolutely gorgeous landscape and scale simply engulf you leaving you nowhere to go but deeper and deeper into the film.  The juxtaposition between what would be the “natural world” created inside the game and the “artifical” objective based environment is brilliant.  In Avalon Oshii understood that gaming graphics are great but they are not perfect and this is a technique he has utilized to wonderful effect again.  Whether it’s the spheres in the background of the way in which the giant carnivorous worms shatter when killed it leaves the audience under no illusions.  This is a game and as such will be interacted by performer and audience member alike.  The key to this ethos is Oshii’s understanding of how sophisticated and involved gaming has become.  Many people look down their noses at the medium but these people haven’t seen a video game since Pong and are way out of touch.

There’s very little dialogue performed in the film, though there is a narrator and the return of the  Game Master, which is probably a good thing as the Japanese actors delivery of English always comes out a little rushed and creates the impression it’s been learned phonetically.  You can’t really blame the actors for this, can you imagine Keira Knightly starring in a Japanese language version of Pirates of the Caribbean?  There’s something genuinely interesting about this decision (not just to speak English but to limit the dialogue).  It means that so much of the actors performance must be physical and played out through gestures, when you think about this choice you realise that it actually strengthens the idea that Oshii makes purely visual cinema, art even.  Narratively Japanese is forbidden inside the game as it’s a “local language” and implies an occupation of some sort.  It strikes a beautifully Orwellian notes as to limit language is to limit imagination and creativity.  Where Avalon ran parallels with Poland during the Second World War the American of Assault Girls speaks to the cleansing of language and coverage of the decade long war in Iraq and how we have been limited politically by the creation of an unnecessary conflict. 

Meisa Kuroki (as Grey) is great in what you would consider to be the lead role.  She’s come a long way since One Missed Call Final and isn’t hampered in the slightest by the lack of character development in the script.  The world is a dystopic mess so it’s obvious she has a back story and it’s bound to be sad otherwise she wouldn’t be in Avalon and though it would be great to actually get some of it so we can care about the character it isn’t necessary for Kuroki as she wears it on her face during several key scenes in the film, one in particular in which she’s debating about the pros and cons of joining a gang.  Fujiki (as Jager) is also extremely strong, the long shots of him traversing the terrain, half hunched but strong carrying his rifle hints at a life before this, one that was comfortably with the rocky landscape.  All this is implied, of course as Oshii’s film has little interest in the past of his characters or their reasons for being who and where they are.  The likely outcome of this is that Oshii fans will read what they can into it while the rest dismiss it.  Kikuchi (as Lucifer) and Saeki (Colonel) are giving brief spotlights in which to showcase but without any real dialogue or dare I say story they’ve got little to do other than play the game.  It’s difficult to gauge how good they are, as their time is limited, but they’re most certainly not bad.  Saeki’s a little annoying though.

The score is as grand as the cinematography, it creates a huge wave that carries many sequences and is as lyrical, beautiful and poetic as any score in Oshii’s work. 

There are problems with the film though and they’re too obvious to be overlooked.  The pace of the film is a little sporadic as it exits lavish action sequences and slips into a dragging spiritual mode that isn’t really necessary, jars with the rest of the film and just feels completely out of place.  The biggest issue with Assault Girls is the complete lack of story, the film has a feeling of improvisation.  It’s as if the director has given his actors and cameramen a scenario and told them to run with it as there’s little more than what’s outlined in the opening paragraph.  There's no fear of consequence or tension or drama or drive.  This is a crying shame as it’s what hampers Assault Girls from being an excellent film.  It’s already insanely enjoyable imagine if there was an actual story.  It's cinematic art, the Japanese renaissance but what's the point if you can't really care about anything?   Ghost in the Shell was 1995, there’s only so many times you can either go back to that well or live off the back of it and as entertaining as Assault Girls is it leaves a bad taste behind when you consider the possibility that a genuinely brilliant director might be coasting.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011


Certificate: 15
Running time: 107 mins
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring: Malgorzata Foremniak, Jerzy Gudejko, Wladyslaw Kowalski
Genre: Sci-Fi, Action
Country: Japan/Poland

After a wait of six years Mamoru Oshii returned to the genre that he re-defined with the groundbreaking and visionary Ghost in the Shell.  A lot had changed in his absence but Avalon sees Oshii take control of the reins for a trip back inside the machine.

In a bleak future the youth of society are escaping reality and into an illegal RPG called Avalon to work out their tension and disillusionment.  When top player Ash (Foremniak) discovers there are advanced levels unknown to anyone before she decides to team up with others in order to complete the game and venture into the uncharted territory of Avalon.

Unlike the neon world of Tron and the glossy Matrix trilogy Avalon exists somewhere between an ultra realistic (and devastated) warzone and an expressionistic manifestation of the players discontent.  It manages to feel real and yet beyond real at the same time and to Oshii’s credit it never treads too deep into either side.  The shattered architecture and heavy set shades are reminiscent of German Expressionism and adds a level of rich subtext to the narrative.  There are subtle links and references throughout to the second World War and cinematographically the chiaroscuro lighting means that Germany is still casting a shadow over Poland.  The use of imperfect computerised graphics to create elements of the gaming world is a wonderful touch.  Where Tron’s visual effects look dated now they were cutting edge for the time, the CGI in Avalon is intentionally out of date as it’s an illegal game that’s been roughly coded by rogue gamers.  What makes the film look and feel realistic to the audience is the marriage between the gritty, emotionally realistic cinematography and the raw and edgy CGI.  Oshii has not just created a physical but a psychological landscape you can believe in.

Foremniak (as Ash) is great, unfair comparison have been drawn (due to physical appearance) to Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix trilogy but Ash is a much darker, much more complicated and distant character than what would be acceptable in Hollywood cinema.  Foremniak plays her with a great balance between the lone wolf of the early film and the driven competitive gamer of the later.  Her gesturality and characterisation all hint at a turbulent past but this is never dealt with narratively.  Like the shattered landscape of Avalon her past is heavily shadowed and is filled with danger, loss and despair.

Gudjeko (as Murphy) gives an extremely strong performance in the role that is, effectively, key in Ash’s progress within the game.  Like Robert Shaw in Jaws he has the skill set, knowledge and experience to guide Ash to where she needs to be.  He is also, crucially, a match in regards to strength, determination and wit for Ash and the relationship between the two is one of mutual admiration that plays like combat chess to the benefit and delight of the audience watching.  The real driver of the narrative (arguably) is that of the Game Master (Kowalski) and it’s an excellently subtle performance.  With the game being illegal the role of Game Master is one of law maker amongst the lawless and there’s a degree of sympathy for him but when Ash makes her move for the advanced levels Kowalski stiffens as the role of Game Master becomes that of the authoritarian in a world set up to escape the authority and in turns transforms not just the performance of the Game Master but also the status of the game.  Politically it’s a situation a lot of countries find themselves in, the only way to control a past time or drug is to legalise it in order to legislate and tax it.  Again the theme of World War Two returns to the undercurrent of the film and the political nature of the allied decisions to get involved.  It works on this level and on a pure cinematic narrative level adds the necessary tension to carry the film into the final third.

Like the cinematography the score is a beautiful marriage between two worlds.  The use of both Polish and Japanese orchestras to create a unique and fanciful score that somehow manages to sit alongside the rough and dystopic visuals beautifully.  It’s worth an added note of interest that the analogical connection to World War Two continues in the scoring of the film as both countries weren’t just involved but arguably came out having been dealt the hardest blows (Poland having been invaded by Germany and Japan having been decimated by U.S nuclear blasts).

There are some blemishes on an otherwise strong film, the script is typically (for Oshii) underwritten and at points falls into some clearly sign posted clichés that are shockingly untypical of Oshii.  The biggest issue though is the sensibilities of the Japanese director as some of the more spiritual moments, though work well in Anime, are problematic in live action and jar severely with the gritty mise-en-scene created.

Avalon is a welcome return for a director with limitless vision and a true love of storytelling.  An interesting and challenging take on a time of great conflict carefully crafted by a group of individuals who are steeped in genuine understanding of the word.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Deconstructing the Ho-Ho-Horror

The season of good will towards all men is upon us and in the run up I’ve been watching a lot of alternative Christmas films as I’m sorry but I can’t watch Arnie tug it out with Sinbad over a crap toy or Master Culkin outwit Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas.  As it turns out the majority of alternative Christmas films that ended up winging their way towards the DVD player were of the horror persuasion.  Now it interests me (and probably others, I can’t be the only one who thinks about things) that the two polar opposites that are Christmas and horror can mix together not just well, that’s a relative generalisation, but comfortably.

The Christmas horror, or the Ho-Ho-Horror for the purpose of discussion, seemingly boils down to three very distinct sub-genres, ‘the slasher’, ‘the golem’ and ‘the lore’ (as in folklore) and it’s in the origins of folklore that the relationship between horror and Christmas exists as this is where the audience make the unspoken connotative connections that allow the films to interact with the audience. 

It’s no big revelation to point out how the tradition of Christmas is a co-opted pagan holiday and that for the purposes of conversion to Christianity the church deemed it important, necessary even, to integrate these festivals into the Christian calendar.  For the most part this understanding of the pagan origins of Christmas go unspoken of during the season itself and in the more traditional Christmas films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street but that understanding and the broad connotative understanding and psychological connections between audiences and paganism, especially paganism in cinema, are what’s required to successful ground a ‘lore’ based Ho-Ho-Horror.

Paganism in cinema is a rather simplistic notion and for the most part is the belief of the antagonist and centres around the rituals of human and animal sacrifices, blood letting and the swearing of allegiances to the devil.  You need to look no further than The Devil Rides Out, Ride with the Devil and The Land of the Minotaur to see what the cinematic realm has decided is appropriate characterisation for paganism and pagans alike.  Ho-Ho-Horror’s like Santa’s Slay and Saint refer to texts, both actual and fictional that pre-dates the Christian celebration of Christmas and therefore establishes the connection between the audience, the pagan origins, the cinematic pagan and finally the film they are constructing.  It is this cognitive relationship that allows for a film like Saint, which delves back to the Dutch origins of the modern day Santa Claus (then St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas to Dutch immigrations and going back even further some of the stories surrounding St. Nicholas can be traced to Norsk mythology and Odin).  With this pagan connection grounded in the audience’s realm it is easy for the film to create whatever fictional motives and back story they require.  Saint has St. Nicholas as an almost Zombified reaper who prays on Amsterdam every December 5th (the day of his death) with a full moon.  Santa’s Slay goes one further and takes the pagan origins to a quasi-logical conclusion in having Santa (Bill Goldberg) being the miracle child of Satan who has been forced to live out the modern day understanding of Santa as a curse, his true nature so old it has been lost to time and text.  Even Rare Exports : A Christmas Tale uses the idea of a co-opted understanding of Santa Clause to establish it’s origins in a realm that is open to evil, to darkness and the deadly.  Rare Exports’s Santa himself has been (like St. Nicholas) co-opted to a Coca-Cola friendly jolly old man where in actually the text that’s read through in the opening moments shows him as a (with a little help from his elves) kidnapper and eater of children though he does do it all in one night.  When viewed like this the rituals surrounding Christmas take on darker connotations. 

The intrusion of Santa Claus on to private land is one that is accepted as he is a passive and friendly guest who is expected.  What can be seen in Santa’s Slay is an unauthorised crossing of a formerly significant threshold (both Greeks and Romans would place offerings in the fireplace to appease the Gods and bring prosperity to their house) and violating one of our basic human safety needs.  Maslow shows how without this we are unable to move up the pyramid to the most advanced needs and towards self actualisation.  Likewise the sequence on December 5th in Saint sees the Black Petes entering house and slaughtering families via the chimney and in turn the fireplace.  One of the fundamental requirements for a horror film is the unauthorised use of a threshold by one who is not invited.

The first Christmas tree can be traced back to 15th century Livonia where the Brotherhood of Blackheads would erect a tree in their brotherhood house in the run up to Christmas.  On Christmas Eve the tree would be taken to the town square and the brothers would dance around the tree.  The modern day Christmas tree is essentially an alter, the gifts below are offerings and the inference is there for all to see.  St. Nicholas (in Saint) is seen going door to door collecting offerings from the residents of Amsterdam, echoing the behaviour of Caesar.  We purchase gifts for our loved ones and attribute them to Santa Claus in order to keep the mythology of his existence alive meaning, effectively, we purchase these presents (or offerings) for Santa, for his existence and for his continued prosperity.  The tree becomes a pagan alter, the gifts offerings and the act becomes a ritual like that of the pagans.  Suddenly a simple tree, a decorated home carries darker connotations that are quantifiable and firmly establish the ‘lore’ based Ho-Ho-Horror in a way that’s unrivalled.  Even the gifts are dangerous as they are unknown and we always fear the unknown (evolutionarily it’s a pre-requisite).  This is why we ask (in horrors) “who’s there?”, “what’s under the bed?” and “what’s in the box?” the answer is never good.  You only have to looks at Billy’s present under the tree in Black Christmas [2006] to know this.

This leads us on to the ‘slasher’ Ho-Ho-Horror which is a less sophisticated horror but traditionally wields some of the best results.  The premise of these horrors are simple and can be adapted to fit any Hallmark occasion.  In Black Christmas [1974] and [2006] and Silent Night, Deadly Night the emphasis is less on the connotations that are directly related to the origins of the season and more to do with the psychological scares of the individual due to an assault, murder, rape during the festive period and the antagonist (Billy in Black Christmas, other Billy in Silent Night, Deadly Night) making psychological connections between the environments and surroundings and the resulting trauma to create the ‘slasher’ Ho-Ho-Horror.  Billy (Black Christmas) has been sexually assaulted by his mother and fathers a daughter/sister if you follow the legend from 1974 to 2006.  The resulting trauma leads to him being locked in the attic of his house before escaping one Christmas and murdering his Mother (for abusing him), his Daughter/Sister (for reminding him of what happened) and his Father (for failing to protect him).  In 1974 he has spent four years in the attic as the house changes from family home/site of sexual abuse/murder crime scene into Sorority house but the physical landscape of the house is unchanged and it’s no surprise that at Christmas, when the décor is most similar to how it was when he kills his family, Billy is unable to curb his desires and begins the murder spree all over again.  Years later he escapes from an asylum only to return home for Christmas (a notion that we are all familiar with).

The third, and most problematic, sub-genre of Ho-Ho-Horror is ‘the golem’.  The golem is a well established genre in horror and goes back as far as 1818 when Mary Shelley first released Frankenstein.  Cinematically it’s been a source of much variation, two of the best being James Whales’ Frankenstein and Carl Boese & Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam which demonstrate how the supernaturally created humanoid will always goes wrong.  Jack Frost is a variation on this for two reasons, first as he’s made from a mixture of chemical waste and snow (no human parts here) and secondly it’s by accident.  The ‘golem’ Ho-Ho-Horror takes the biggest leap with the audiences ability to accept the realm you are being presented with and is largely the playground for the 'slash' genre (ie. Horror/Comedy).

The Ho-Ho-Horror is a delicate sub-genre of horror, as displayed above, it relies heavily on a relationship between the audience and the cultural significance of the day (then and now).  It’s been interesting analysing and deconstructing what makes these films work and more importantly what connects on the deepest level with the cinematic audiences.  I hope it has been enjoyable to follow (though I doubt it) if nothing else it’s set a deep dark mood for Christmas and surely that’s the most important thing. 

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope that the quality of cinema in 2012 surpasses that of 2011 and we all get to add a bakers’ dozen of films to our favourites.  Or at the very least Michael Bay stops doing what he’s doing and does something else instead.  I hear there's a job opening in North Korea.

John Baxter

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Black Christmas [2006]

Certificate: 15
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Glen Morgan
Starring: Michelle Trachtenberg, Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert, Oliver Hudson
Genre: Horror
Format: DVD
Country: USA/Canada

It wouldn’t be Christmas without someone going back to the table for seconds.  This time around the gorb is director Glen Morgan (Willard) to go back Bob Clark’s classic for something that strives to be something between a remake and a sequel. 

Crazed Sorority killer Billy (Robert Mann) escapes from an asylum for the criminally insane to return to his childhood home on Sorority row.  Once inside he begins to call the sisters from the cell phones of those he has just killed.

The construction of the script is one of interest, the exposition of Billy’s childhood explains a lot of the rationale behind what made Billy the special little boy (and man) he is.  The flashback sequences detailing the abuse of Billy by his mother and ultimately the revenge he extracts works really well.  There’s a case to be made that says Billy (as a character) is a lot more interesting when there’s mystery to his back story, all you have to do is look at Heath Ledgers Joker in The Dark Knight to see how that argument works but it’s almost a requirement in the horror genre.  For the most part the flashback film is of interest and enjoyable, it details Billy’s disease that left his skin yellow and the scene in which he kills his sister and parents is both brutal and has really guts (pun only slightly intended on that one).  The problems arise when time catches up on itself and we return to present day and Sorority row.

The casting of the film is, at least for some, problematic.  I’ve never warmed to Michelle Trachtenberg (Melissa), in Buffy The Vampire Slayer I found her whiney and annoying and in Black Christmas though she’s a number of years older she is still whiney and annoying, similarly Lacey Chabert (Party of Five) doesn’t have the believability to be studying in University let alone in mortal peril.  It’s damn near impossible to hope for their safety when the Sorority sisters are all in high pitch ‘whatever mode’.  The bright sparks are Katie Cassidy (Kelli) who though plays to a broad Sorority type has range, as witnessed in Supernatural, and Kristen Cloke (Leigh) who most Sci-Fi enthusiasts will recognize from just about…everything.  Painfully though these two actresses are hampered by the bland, unimaginative and other dreadful dialogue.  Case in point one, if you line up the Sorority sisters retort to their phone calls alongside that of Margot Kidder (as Barb in the 1974 version) and you realize just how ridiculously timid this film actually is, point two “until I see that she is dead she is alive” (Schrodinger’s sister anyone?).

The score of the original was one of the most atmospheric, simplistic and yet perfect pieces of scoring horror cinema has ever had.  The same could be sad for this film…but you’d be lying.  The score is a hatchet job from the ‘Horror Film Scores for Dummies’ including an arrangement that sounds, at one point, like it’s been taken straight from Psycho.  The rest of the score cheats in that terrible Hollywood horror way that has the audio go deafly silent before ramping up the volume to score a cheap fright from the audience.  It is cheap and unappreciated and weakens any claim to this being a legitimate horror.  In fact it only goes to highlight further (pretending that further highlighting was required) the absolutely and definitive lack of atmosphere and tension this film actually has.

The camera work is fine, there’s nothing especially exciting about it but more important there’s nothing terrible about it.  It’s conservative and by the book and we’ve seen it before.  One of the great things they achieved with the cinematography in 1974 was the ability to achieve tension at a split second by the use and reinforcement of the point of view short from Billy.  A smart director would look to build on that but it’s sadly one of the first things that’s abandoned which is odd when you consider the amount of bland horror motifs the hung on to during the making of this film.

It would be interesting to hear what Bob Clark has to say about what they (Hollywood) have done to his little bundle of terror as not only have they made a terrible film but have also risked devaluing one of his finest moments as a director.  Being that he served as Executive Producer he might not be able to look you in the eye.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Certificate: 18
Running time: 79 mins
Director: Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero, Robert Brian Wilson
Genre: Horror
Format: DVD
Country: USA

There are some films that genuinely have more to them that what’s expected, even more than what was intended.  There’s always room for academic reading of a film but every once and a while a film comes along that’s so Freudian you could set your complex to it.  The sixties had Psycho the eighties were awash with pseudo science horrors (including two Psycho sequels) and the most Freudian of them all Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Driving home from visiting his mentally unwell Grandfather Billy’s parents are assaulted and killed by a man dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve.  Traumatized and orphaned Billy is sent to live with some exceptionally strict nuns including Sister Margaret (McCormick) and the tough Mother Superior (Chauvin).

The script has some seriously heavy psychoanalytical undertones throughout the film.  Billy witnessing the murder of his parents and the exposed breasts of his mother leave him psychologically fractured.  He is frightened yet aroused by the sight of his mother’s breasts which is evident when he witnesses two people having sex as a child and later as an adult when he dreams of intercourse with Pamela (Nero) it is interrupted by a brutal attack on him and again when Andy attempts to force sex with Pamela in the store.  This trauma has also created a deep routed fear and hatred towards the idea and representation of Santa Claus, evident when he attacks the Santa at the orphanage.  When made to dress up as Santa he is forced to direct his hatred towards himself and, as Freud would say, because he is unable to do such a damaging thing to his already fragile psychological state, projects the hatred, fear and violence outwards into the world.  All this plays out under the surface of the highly theatrical classical narrative that is the costumed horror slasher.

Notionally the idea of evil is one that has been explored countless times in horror cinema.  Where Silent Night, Deadly Night differs from the vast majority of horrors is in it’s basic level of debate.  How many times have you heard that someone was “born evil” in a horror film?  Billy (Wilson) is most definitely a creature of his experiences and has been made ‘evil’ through nurture (or the lack of to be more specific) and it’s definitely a more interesting take on it as the “born evil” antagonists are usually two dimensional and a little disappointing.  This is where the originality ends however as the story of SNDN treads the ground with the greatest traffic on it’s way through the Christmas rampage.  This is not necessarily all bad though, it’s comforting to know what your horror films are going to deliver it allows you to trust that you will be taken on a thrill ride.  Regrettably the majority of what’s visually great about the film is diluted and bludgeoned to death by the overwhelming, overpowering and over audible score.  What started out as acceptably theatrical transforms (in moments of what’s supposed to contain horror) into ear drum injuring thrashing of whatever instrument was used to blow any and all tension possible.

Lilyan Chauvin (Mother Superior) is a remarkable piece of casting, the woman has a cast iron look that could tame a demon child and is exceptional in the small role she has.  Robert Brian Wilson (Billy/Deadly Santa) is unfortunately horribly miscast, he would probably be better suited to playing the pool room boyfriend type as he doesn’t have the depth you’d like to see in the role.  Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees have a certain screen presence that allows them to strike fear into the audience, even in the most hyper-theatrical scenarios (in the early outings of their respective franchises).  Place Billy alongside these horror antagonists and you see just how far out of his depth he actually is.  Place him alongside Chucky and he’s still coming up short.  Toni Nero seemed to be a good idea only for her to check out stage left early on.  The rest of the cast put in good performances and help to round off the film nicely.

Having bah-humbugged all over the film it’s worth pointing out the qualities that Silent Night, Deadly Night have as there are some.  The theatricality of the film, with the exception of the score, works well for the film.  It’s obvious it’s a slasher and the director makes no illusions towards being anything else, you can clearly see the fun that was had in the making of the film.  With it being the 1980’s there’s some excellent dialogue and the innuendo one liners in the pool room make you laugh and cringe at the same time.  The greatest thing about the film is the killings.  Whether it’s death by Christmas lights, deer antlers or bob slay limbo it’s comforting to know that it’s not just the sociopaths in the audience who are laughing at murder.  They also go a long way to helping you to identify with Billy as the best horror films allow you to connect with the antagonist and even cheer for them.  Not everyone will feel good about it but there’s always a handful of scenes were you want the ‘baddie’ to win.

This is the bit were it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  There’s a great deal of problems with Silent Night, Deadly Night but for all it’s faults and shortcomings Charles Sellier Jr. has made a film that’s extremely entertaining in it’s violence.  It has a lot in common with The Spider Labyrinth, New York Ripper and just about all the best Giallo films in that respect, events that would be terrible in actuality have a beautifully comedic touch to them that endears the film to you.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Black Christmas [1974]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 98 mins
Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
Genre: Horror
Format: DVD
Country: Canada

One of the founding members of the Christmas horror club, Black Christmas sees a sorority house including Jess (Hussey) and Barb (Kidder) under siege during the Christmas break.  One at a time the sisters are targeted by a brutal and insane killer.

Black Christmas is a change of pace from the Christmas slasher we (as audiences) are now used to.  The films is, narratively, one degree of separation from the horror films that have been traditionally centered round Halloween and all the superstition and mysticism that surrounds October 31st.  It’s this quality that allows the film to age better than most that weren’t made in 1974, in fact, with the exception of the clothing Black Christmas holds up to the scrutiny of modern audiences surprisingly well.  It’s quite something that a film that has been so heavily referenced, mined and stolen from over the four decades it has been in the public eye that the trappings and cinematic tricks used in the film still carry tension rather than appear simplistic and uninspiring.  The use of cinematic point of view shots from the killer is a touch of beauty as it allows for two things.  Firstly it places the audience in the position of the antagonist which creates a degree of tension between the audience and the films protagonist (Hussey) as we are privy to more information than she is.  This is a classical technique used in horror and film noir and is timeless.  Secondly it’s use allows for any and all ‘voyeuristic’ type shots in the film to be interpreted as that of POV and therefore create tension throughout the film regardless of whether it pays off or not.

Clark’s use of the camera is understated and excellent.  Every inch of the shot is inhabited with layers of light and shadows and warmth that initially makes the sorority house look comfortable and appealing but as the film progresses and the calls persist it turns this inviting nest into a claustrophobic prison with too many rooms and far too many dark corners that are under lit by the houses open fire.  Similarly the original picturesque Christmas snowfall transforms into an obstacle to their escape from the house as the terrain outside (at night) can prove just as danger as asking “who’s there?” before examining an unlocked room.

John Saxon (Lieutenant Fuller) gives a comfortable performance, it’s great and all but it’s the police performance you expect from him.  It’s a performance of a (then) twenty year cinematic veteran and a performance he would deliver ten years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street.  He is incredibly watchable though and makes the most of the scenes he is given.  Olivia Hussey is a wonderful piece of casting, her physical attractiveness shines through in every moment and is what is traditionally used in horror films to suggest a weakness in the protagonist as someone that pretty can’t defend themselves properly.  Her performance has a few cracks in it, mainly with the delivery of dialogue but a certain amount of slack has to be given to her for being able to carry a film at the age of 23 in her second language.  How many of us could do that?  Be honest.  Kidder (as Barb) is phenomenal, so good it’s impossible to remember a performance she was more natural in or performs better.  The way in which she plays the fun, smart talking but slightly dark Barb is a masterclass in acting, you simply don’t see this in horror anymore.  Every college-centric film needs a lovable smart ass, Kidder is that and more to Black Christmas.  The key to any film is the casting and outside of the trinity above Clark populates the screen with genuinely good actors in the supporting roles.  All of these performers would be able to carry a share of the films narrative if asked and it’s this quality that goes a long way to keeping the levels of tension high.

The best horror scores are simple, Halloween is a perfect example of this and it’s something that Black Christmas adheres to.  The ‘strings of revelation’ are haunting, like a tense yet beautiful signature that resonates on an emotional level.  All music touches an emotional level but the best leap passed the cognitive process and straight into your instinctive self and it is this instinct emotion that Black Christmas captures so well.

It’s not surprising that Bob Clark made such a wonderful, tense and lasting horror, he is the director of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things after all.  What is surprising is that for some reason a skilful cinematic craftsman like Clark is no longer given the opportunity or funds to deliver films of this caliber anymore.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Movie Bar - On Demand

Christmas is the time of year when we all pack on a couple of lbs.  The new Movie Bar On Demand double bill is dedicated to the cautionary tale not to over indulge during this festive break as you never know where it might lead.  An exploitation double that will shock some sense into you.  Let's celebrate Jesus' birthday the right way.

Reefer Madness 
Come along and learn the dangers of the dreaded marijuana in this fantastically melodramatic film that only the Daily Mail could call understated.


Sex Madness
Yes the beast with two backs can lead to many social diseases.  The good folk from 1938 hope to remind you of it's dangers.

Click [here] to watch the movies for free and follow the tips at the bottom for best results.

Merry Christmas

Jack Frost

Certificate: 18
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Michael Cooney
Starring:  Scott MacDonald, Christopher Allport, Stephen Mendel
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Format: DVD
Country: USA

For the alternative Christmas it was a toss up between this film and the one starring Michael Keaton of the same name for scariest film starring a snowman.  Tails never fails so Michael Cooney’s seasonal serial killer is up. 

For five years Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald) has terrorised five different states, now en route to his execution when a tanker carrying “genetic material” crashes as does the prison transit.  As Jack attempts to escape he’s killed by the flowing acid and returns as a snowman with a mean streak.

There are a lot of reasons why you should hate this film.  For one the script is (perhaps) two thirds of a first draft with the most implausible horror device in a very long time.  It’s probably a lot to do with the construction of the opening act as it’s quite similar to Child’s Play yet it jars with every instinct.  The storyline is classically horror and never really tries to push the boundaries, serial killer with supernatural ability, Federal Agent who brought him in back on the trail and a town full of slaughter victims to be.  The cinematography doesn’t push the envelope which always seems to make a cheap looking movie that little bit cheaper yet there’s definitely some positives to take from it.  Pound for pound it has to have the most amount of one liners any film has ever had and unbelievably they all hit the mark…it’s actually worrying just how much fun you’ll have quoting them later.

The script, though simplistic, doesn’t take itself seriously…at all really.  It’s actually endearing in an odd and often hilariously wrong kind of way.  Jack Frost gave Shannon Elizabeth, arguably, her break and also probably the crown king of Christmas killings ever committed to film which includes a tub, a crotch carrot and a sexual assault on Miss Elizabeth (Jill).  It shouldn’t be funny at all but the outlandish and daring nature of the scene puts it firmly in the stable of John Waters and Frank Henenlotter and for that praise can’t be high enough.

Scott MacDonald gives a rather wooden performance (while in his own skin) unblinking Manson eyes included but really comes into his own when he’s voicing Jack the snowman.  Stephen Mendel (as Agent Manners) is an actor that’s been around the proverbial block (The X-Files, 24, Night Heat, The Terminal) and in him is a face of experience that the film desperately needs.  Every evil antagonist needs a strong and powerful protagonist and even more so when your antagonist is a snowman with a bad attitude.  Mendel has to compensate for the lack of realism Jack adds to the film and for the most part he achieves it, though at times it’s a really close call.  Similarly F. William Parker (Paul Davrow) is used to playing to the absurd with Falcon Crest and his experiences are called upon here again.  It’s difficult to tell whether Parker gets it, clearly Cooney and MacDonald get it and are enjoying themselves making the film but at times Parker seems to phone it in.

Jack Frost is a real movie of two opinions.  On the one hand you see the problems, the shortcomings in script and budget and the fact that from start to finish it’s generic and uneven.  Yet there’s something fantastic about it, Cooney’s script has been penned with tongue firmly placed in cheek and he has passed  this on to cast and crew alike.  An ethos of fun has clearly been instilled in every moment of the film and it shines through.  Honestly it’s not a film that’s going to stay with you any longer than the amount of time it takes to watch it, it's not original and it all too often fails will leave you wondering what you're doing watching it but it does exactly what it sets out to do which is entertain.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Certificate: 15
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Jalmari Helander
Starring:  Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi, Onni Tommila, Joanthan Hutchings
Genre: Action/Comedy/Horror
Format: DVD
Country: Finland/Norway/France/Sweden

Deep in the Korvatunturi mountains a group of Finnish miners have excavated something that will change not just their beliefs but their lives as they know it.  The trailer for Rare Exports was one that was met with genuine excitement as it looked to capture an interesting and original premise at the heart of it’s story and deliver it in a way that was typically Scandinavian in it’s humour.

Rauno Kontio (Jorma Tommila) and his crew have unearthed a mystery nearly 500 metres down in the Korvatunturi mountains before all the reindeers mysteriously die and the children go missing.  It’s only when Rauno’s son Pietari (played by actual son Onni) discovers a book detailing the Santa legend that the arrival of a bearded old man take on a sense of menace.  Like most alternative Christmas films Rare Exports establishes the groundwork for the story in the origins of the Christmas period and the (well understood notion) that over time Santa Claus, Christmas and the rituals surrounding him have been sanitised for public consumption.  This is done rather well, the montage sequence of Pietari reading, shots of illustrations of Santa making Christmas stew (out of children) and the magically festive score by Juri & Miska Seppa with undertones of the best of Danny Elfman.  It all ties together to create a darkly rich setting that’s oddly in keeping with the festive spirit…sort of.

Onni Tommila (Pietari) is fantastic, not only is the best child performer in the film but he holds more than his own with all the adults in the film and carries the evil Santa narrative on his little shoulders extraordinarily easy.  The scenes in which Pietari tries and fails to get his fathers attention when Juuso’s son goes missing is a scene specific to the Christmas movie (as children typically know more than their adult counterparts) is frustrating and heart felt.  The fact that father and son are actually father and son gives the scene a little something extra and helps with the establishment of a realistic world that the film needs.  Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa (Juuso) and Per Christian Ellefsen (Riley) are all very good also.  The fact that these three men are bearded and a little rough around the edges helps sell the movie.  There are moments of camaraderie that are genuine and extremely well played but their performances are hampered by two dimensional characterisation that could have really been fleshed out with an additional draft.  It’s difficult to understand sometimes why when screenwriters are working on scripts that put their main characters in peril why they don’t consider the fact that we need to care about the characters for the peril to work.  The casting of Jonathan Hutchings (as Brian Greene) is probably the best thing about the film.  As the unquantifiable Claus he’s extremely terrifying by simply doing nothing and adds a level of suspense to the film that it needed greatly.  It only improves when you realise not who he is but what he is.

Cinematically the film is gorgeous.  It has all of the richness in colour that it’s European rival Saint contains but with an extra something as it can’t help but pass a nod towards John Carpenter’s The Thing.  It’s impressive that a film can create a genuine feeling of claustrophobia in a wide open range in the middle of Lapland and credit belongs Mika Orasmaa (who’s work on next years Nazi sci-fi Iron Sky looks simply beautiful).

This is, unfortunately, where the praise ends.  Jalmari Helander (writer and director) is an experienced creative force who has worked predominantly in short films which explains almost everything that’s wrong with the film.  Rare Exports lacks any real suspense or terror beyond the initial premise as it doesn’t have a second act and therefore is seriously lacking in the classical idea of a narrative triadic structure.  When it’s established that Santa Claus is a kidnapper and eater of children this is an opportunity for the film makers to change gear and ramp up the tension and the claustrophobia that comes from the isolation of the region.  Where The Thing excels not just in creating claustrophobia but also the idea of a predator meticulously picking off members of the crew, Rare Exports only really threatens characters we have never really met and therefore don’t care about.  The revelation that their hostage is in fact not Santa and that Santa is a lot greater in stature than the mythology indicates is the perfect opportunity to unleash him and push the killer Claus element of the narrative forward.  Rare Exports is pitching itself as a monster movie but we are never actually shown the monster.  Imagine Troll Hunter without the troll, Godzilla never being seen or Jaws without the great white popping out of the water and you’d be right on course for the level of disappointment you’ll experience.  The film then jumps to the third act of the structure to restoring order but the order was never properly been disturbed and rather than feeling glad that the protagonists have survived it feels more like they’ve been the antagonists of the piece having detonated explosives in an expansive part of the region and “resolved” a problem that never really existed.  The entire film is one tone, flat and uninvolved.  It’s a thriller lacking any thrills, a horror without any moments of horror and missing an entire hours worth of conflict to justify the ending of the film. 

Rare Exports looks extremely well, the trailer promises the most enjoyable and alternative Christmas film but is thoroughly disappointing.  As an idea it still has a lot of promise but the film would need to be re-written by someone who understands the importance of creating conflict and drama in a narrative film and an actual revelation of everything that was promised in the opening exposition featuring Onni Tommila.  Underwhelming and disappointing are two words you don’t want associated with your Christmas or your films but are, unfortunately, the only two words needed to describe Rare Exports.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Certificate: 18
Running time: 121 mins
Director: Renny Harlin
Starring:  Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Cox, David Morse
Genre: Action, Drama
Format: DVD
Country: USA

You never really know what you’re going to get when Renny Harlin offers you up a film, Die Hard 2 was by the book but solid and enjoyable, Cliffhanger was passable then you have Cutthroat Island, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 : The Dream Master, Deep Blue Sea and Mindhunters all of which are absolutely terrible…especially Mindhunters…terrible!  It’s in the midst of the Cutthroat Island hangover that Harlin attempted to win us over was The Long Kiss Goodnight with then wife Geena Davis and the (then) darling of Hollywood Samuel L. Jackson.

Samantha Caine (Davis) is the picture perfection of a mother and wife who, when pictured at a Christmas pageant, is thrown into a life that’s eight years gone and she doesn’t remember.  As she battles amnesia the true nature of her past life becomes more and more prevalent and dangerous.

When watching The Long Kiss Goodnight you might notice that lack of plodding, pedestrian dialogue that usually co-stars in all Renny Harlin films this is because it’s penned by one of the best writers with the greatest ears for dialogue Hollywood has ever been smart enough to recognise, Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Last Boy Scout).  Black has the ability to write with all the feel of a Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard, fast paced and wonderfully wordy yet always filled with the more colourful words the English language possess and Black has in his arsenal.  He has the ability to write characterisation in his dialogue effortlessly and in doing so saves you so much time in unwanted exposition.  When one of his characters quips in retort to a pick-up line “no thanks, I’m saving myself ‘til I get raped” you know more of the character than you could ever need to.  So strong is his writing that each character has the same snappy intelligence yet they are individuals in their own right.  It’s a real talent to be able to do that, there’s possibly only Black and David Simon working in Hollywood who can write this well and make it sound so easy.

Geena Davis (as Samantha/Charlie) is brilliant, because of her height she (like Uma Thurman) has been able to play some of the more hands on cinematic females but the steel her characters spine is made of is not only amazingly refreshing for a Hollywood action film but has gave her a lot to work with in future projects.  The art of transformation Davis portrays as she plays Samantha recalling nothing, then recalling Charlie, and then allowing Charlie in, then becoming Charlie is fantastic and a lot more difficult and praise worthy than what has been bestowed upon her.  Placing the two characters side-by-side highlights the differences in performance.  Everything from tone of voice to gesturality has been overhauled as the fog of amnesia is lifted to reveal a highly trained killer.  Samuel L. Jackson (as Hennessey) is worth savouring as it’s probably the last time he actually acted in a film rather than simply turn up because they promised to make an action figure out of him.  His character is interesting, cinema has seen many cops, many dirty cops and many repentant dirty cops.  The great thing about Black’s writing and Jackson’s performance as Mitch Hennessey is that though he regrets it, he’s able to laugh it off and is happy to admit his faults.  At times he’s tough but Jackson plays the character in a way that highlights his shortcomings and emphasises how out of his depth he is; which is wonderful.  It’s human and imperfect and very uncharacteristically Jackson.  At time he’s super smooth and is able to hold his head high only for him to miss the banana skin and land on his ass.  Brian Cox (Dr. Waldman) is awesome, obviously, he’s always awesome and is the best Hannibal Lector (just thought that needed said).  He has the most amazing natural timing and this coupled with the writing gives him not just a wonderful character but something he can have fun with.  I don’t think I’ve seen Cox have as much fun on screen as The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Unbelievably for a Renny Harlin film TLKG looks gorgeous and there are even a few beautifully surreal touches that work so well his track record should probably be amended.  The scene of Samantha talking to Charlie in the mirror while a thunder storm kicks off in a typically psychological representation of a landscape is excellent, you’d probably even say brave as it’s completely against the world constructed to this point and runs the risk of derailing the audiences relationship with the film.  It works though.  As does the backdrop of Christmas as the juxtaposition between the crisp white family filled background of the festive season and a woman who has essentially lost everything but gained a life of danger is bite sweet and great.  Similarly the soundtrack is brilliant, Jimmy Cliff, Muddy Waters, Marvin Gaye all ease an effortless amount of cool and reinforce the tip of the hat that Harlin and Black have placed towards exploitation cinema.  The strong female lead who’s able to dish out the punishment as good as she can take it is a fundamental character of exploitation cinema and the role of Charlie is exactly this.  It could be played by Pam Grier, Jillian Kesner, Marlene Clark or Christina Lindberg  it just so happens that it’s Geena Davis and she’s perfect for it, she should really do it more often.  Likewise Jackson channels the great males of the Blaxploitation movement and mimics them so well that you believe he could be Rudy Ray Moore or Calvin Lockhart or Fred Williamson and just when you’re about to believe him he screws it up and it’s hilarious.  The action sequences are big, bold and unashamedly enjoyable.  To his credit this is something that Harlin does as good as anyone.

What’s wrong with the film is that it’s predictable, you almost take pleasure in the predictability of it but it’s by the book.  Black, when writing in the action genre, has the ability to write some of the most interesting and original dialogue and characters but seems unable to push the boundaries of the genre.  It was only really in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with the self aware narration of Robert Downey Jr that he was able to turn this adherence to formula to his advantage.

Fifteen years ago, when this film was released, I didn’t like it.  I found it showy, obvious and very self aware but over the years there has been time to clearly hone my taste in cinema and upon reflection, and another viewing, I get to admit that I was very wrong.  The Long Kiss Goodnight won’t make any difference in the action genre, it’s a loyal follower rather than a leader, but what it will do is entertain you with a modern (and amazingly still relevant) action film while at the same time echo some of the best qualities that exploitation cinema had to offer.

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