Monday, 19 September 2016

Zombi 3 aka. Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Director: Lucio Fulci (with Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso)
Screenplay: Claudio Fragasso
Cast: Deran Sarafian (as Kenny); Beatrice Ring (as Patricia); Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (as Roger); Massimo Vanni (as Bo); Ulli Reinthaler (as Nancy)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) # 25

Synopsis: A military project to resurrect the dead, a chemical contagion called Death One, breaks out into the public and even when the military themselves deal with it, their method of disposing of one of the bodies both makes the contagion stronger and spreads it over a wider area through the smoke created. In the midst of the resulting chaos and attempt to clamp down on the new epidemic, a group of soldiers, friends caught by the contagion infecting the wildlife, and a woman called Patricia (Ring) with her infected boyfriend find themselves having to survive the rampaging zombie hordes and the military trying to cover it up violently.

Zombi 3 is as much effected by your attitude to its production history as much as the content itself. At this point the Italian genre industry was in severe decline in the late eighties, though considering my opinion on this film, it wasn't that bad if you could still appreciate the cheese factor, the likelihood that whilst the industry could still churn out films it couldn't survive by the nineties, killing it off (sadly) to this day baring an occasional film getting into international festivals. Zombi 3's history is interesting in itself, and that's not even including the (unofficial) sequels to this afterwards that weren't necessarily even zombie films. For those that don't know, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) was co-produced by Italy in the midst of their genre renaissance,  recut for Italy and dubbed Zombi, doing extremely well and leading to an unofficial sequel called Zombi 2 (1979), known famously as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK. Made by Lucio Fulci it did extremely well around the world and lead to a boom of Italian zombie films into the eighties. By the later eighties there's not even that many zombie films in existence, barring one or two, from even the US and Fulci's career was slowing down as his health was declining. Fulci gets to make a sequel to his film, only for his health to be at its worse during the production shot in the Philippines, and the result Zombi 3 having to be drastically fixed to be releasable.

It varies how much Fulci actually shot for final work, but at least fifty minutes or so of what is seen is his work, the other thirty minutes having to be made in collaboration with screenwriter Claudio Fragasso and his longstanding colleague Bruno Mattei, having worked together many times before in the early eighties. It's confusing how to judge what was Fulci's work or not, as a Frankenstein creation of three different voices, because Fulci before Mattei even got hold of the footage decided to make an action horror film. The result feels like an odd sequel to one of Mattei's Strike Commando films with Reb Brown fighting zombies, a more manic tone as you have characters having to actually run away from an occasional undead who can run, alongside Return of the Living Dead (1985) enough evidence that the argument about whether zombies should run or not is pretty pointless even in terms of the historical canon of these films.

Some of the old Fulci magic is still here, his obsession with fog machines and bold colour lighting reminiscent of his best horror films with their ominous moods; particularly with this film transitioning from a grimy Vipco release version I first saw to Blu-Ray quality, it's amazing how good the film looks despite the late eighties being when the money was bleeding out of the Italian film industry. What's a flaw is that it's not remotely scary or eerie, not even haunting or visceral like other Fulci films, instead the entertainment to be found in its various bursts of energy that defy the fact Fulci was violently ill during the entire production. Famously Zombi 3 is known for the zombie head in the refrigerator scene - utterly silly but succeeding by not caring about logic whatsoever - but there's plenty of manic moments throughout the film to like. Such as a zombie failing a machete about with surprising intensity or a gruesome, nicely set up shock with a pool of water behind a motel. Then there's the truly bizarre sequence, never evoked again in the narrative, of birds dying and coming back from the dead as zombified contagion carriers, clearly part of Fragasso's obsession with ecological issues throughout the film but a truly strange moment from Italian genre film history that, in hindsight, is one of the few cases of a zombie film showing non-human entities being infected.

The film does have a rollercoaster structure in terms of when its well paced and when it suddenly staggers along like a drunken men, its history visible in how messy the pace is, but when its paced well its amazingly swift in how the scenes play out. The other thirty or so minutes of Zombi 3 had to be built on by Claudio Fragasso and Bruno Mattei which is a lot of this reason. I once made a very cruel opinion of them, worse having barely seen the films of theirs, that they were amongst those responsible for killing the Italian genre industry. A lot of that was from suffering through the latter's Cruel Jaws (1995). Nowadays its clear they were working filmmakers who find themselves in the position of not being amongst the best (Dario Argento, Fulci, Mario Bava, even someone underrated like Enzo G. Castellari or Sergio Martino) but gaining a personality and reputation from their more infamous work, people who made films but were between them more drastically effected by their budgets then most and with Mattei notorious for using other people's material. Fragasso here at least comes off as an entertaining screenwriter who never feels boring, from the zombified birds to something he openly admits to taking from the carsploitation film Vanishing Point (1971), a blind African American radio DJ who is also the narrator in Zombi 3 as a strange stylistic quirk. He is, alongside Mattei, responsible for a lot of the moments, while fun, that, ironically their work to salvage the production leading to the tonal problems with additional footage of the military and frustrated scientists discussing the outbreak of Death One. The resulting footage is surprisingly naive in tone, such as the naming of the contagion written into these scene "Death One", a charm of a fifties b-movie in them which redeems them even those such scenes cause the film to loss its swift pace immediately. The other moments - action scenes and helicopter shots without the main cast - come off a lot better.

Technical Details:
Not a great deal to go through as I've covered a lot of the production history already, but it's worth repeating how a Blu-Ray transfer really redeems a film many would call trash. It's not up to the aesthetic style of Zombi 2 but it's still distinct, its Philippine locations and tropical look giving it some distinction alongside the late eighties aesthetic.

The music as well is worthy of mention. Yes, the main glam metal song is utter gorgonzola, memorable if just for its mid-song voice echo, but Stefano Mainetti's score aside from this is a nice dread inducing synthesiser work that makes up for the lack of scares. I'll likely uncover some of the worst Italian genre films from this period and nineties, but generally there were always bad films from the country even in the golden period, usually ones never talked about or unlikely to get Blu-Ray treatment like Zombi 3 has. Particularly against some of the terrible horror films from this era not from Italy, than this is still a bar higher in quality than I first viewed it as. Its definitely better than some of the worst of zombie cinema within the last decade if anything.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque
In terms of their collected filmographies, this is far from the weirdest film in either Fulci's or Mattei's careers. (I haven't seen enough of Fragasso's yet to make comment). The only true disappointment returning to this, and why I hated it originally, is that it has none of the strangeness of Fulci's best films even when it came to some of his none horror films. He had a knack for the irrational in his work that was compelling and incredibly well made, of decay and the illogical, that is almost non-existent here baring the briefest of moments.

Abstract Tropes: Body Parts Used in Inappropriate Ways; Decay; Fog; Rich Coloured Lighting

Personal Opinion:
Considering my original low opinion of Zombi 3, if you accept its flaws it's still an entertaining Italian genre film. I don't find it a disappointment like before, the fact that the genre industry of the country was declining no longer an issue now especially as, when these films are getting releases you couldn't fathom just a decade ago, I release that even on their declining period films like this one are still so much more entertaining and better made than more modern horror films in the same template. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Ghost Ship (2002)

Director: Steve Beck
Screenplay: Mark Hanlon and John Pogue
Cast: Gabriel Byrne (as Captain Sean Murphy); Julianna Margulies (as Maureen Epps); Ron Eldard (as Dodge); Desmond Harrington (as Jack Ferriman); Isaiah Washington (as Greer)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #24

There's a form of tragedy for me discussing the production company Dark Castle Entertainment as, at the right age when they were first founded, I grew up with the first initial films and the potential promise they had at that point in American horror cinema over the Millennium. Originally they were meant as a tribute to William Castle, the legendary showman horror director, but only after two films (House on Haunted Hill (1999) and Thirteen Ghosts (2001)) they stopped remaking Castle's filmography and started producing both original films and even non-horror movies like Ninja Assassin (2009) until they stopped in activity since 2013. Unfortunately most of the films I've seen from the company weren't rewarding in the slightest, and particularly with their first two films, Castle remakes that had immense flaws but a distinct ghoulish style to them, there was a hope for the company to have a distinct personality to make things more interesting in mainstream horror cinema at the time, when the slasher revival was going into decline and a strange aesthetic - think Limp Bizkit, pop punk, plots were you wished you had the original Playstation console controller in hand instead - took over American films for a youth audience in general.

The disappointment was immediately found in Ghost Ship, the third film out the gate, and revisiting now it's also a disappointment in terms of squandering a nautical horror premise that would've been great if done well. Growing up in a country that's an island, entirely unconnected to our nearest neighbours Europe baring an undersea subway tunnel, the symbology of the coast and especially the sea, with Britain's history of boating and ships travelling the world, has a great depth to it. Particularly when you're father used to build model boats of such ships like the Bounty, this becomes even more significant for me, the sea one of the only areas on planet Earth which is still very hostile for human beings to try to survive on. The premise allows a perfect ghost story, where a group that finds and claims lost ship wrecks encounters a legendary Italian cruise ship that was lost in the early Sixties, only to find themselves stuck on a haunted ship surrounded by hundreds of miles of fog covered sea. 

If there's one virtue to Ghost Ship it's the production design. The first two films of Dark Castle's, while riddled with flaws of modern American horror cinema, had such distinct personalities and production design that I've effectively come to like them as guilty pleasures I have no shame in liking. House on Haunted Hill, while very dated to its era of Marilyn Manson-like imagery, is an incredibly creepy and lurid film with a surprising amount of grotesque material for a mainstream American film. Thirteen Ghosts had an incredible production design and background mythology to it that, while squandered by the generic plot, still gave it some credibility. Ghost Ship has at least an interesting ship location to its plot even if its wasted, a waterlogged and abandoned ship that has a personality and menace to it to compensate for everything else, an inherent haunted eeriness to claustrophobic corridors which had splendour only to rot away. This is also a film famous, before it slips into tedium, for a great opening set piece that starts as a pastiche of the sixties, down to even the type of title font for the title, before an incredibly gruesome splatter scene takes place to shock the viewer. Sadly the film fails to capitalise on this beginning, the exotica or the incredible splatter set piece, but it's a great way to have started Ghost Ship anyway.

Aside from this, it's an incredibly generic horror film full of one dimensional characters trading quips rather than dialogue before cheap jump scares fill out the rest of the time. What's more annoying, as this is a common flaw still today, is that modern American horror films have quite an admirable trait of casting the protagonists as women who do not fall into the stereotype of damsels or even the glamour queens of old fifties b-movies, only to fail the actresses by giving them little to do and, with Julianna Margulies here, forcing her to gawk at a generic ghost girl that appears to her constantly as an exposition dump with a crisp English accent. The film is so predictable in how its presented that even Gabriel Byrne cannot spark a moment of interest anytime he appears onscreen let alone anyone else. The worst part is how the plot itself is exceptionally rubbish as well by the end, wanting to evoke Satan in its idea of a cruise ship trapping souls but without any courage to reference Satan or religion barring convoluted vagueness. By the third film, Dark Castle Entertainment already lost a personality that allowed me to forgive the first two films for their problems as a teenager and help them to stand out from what was being released around this time, none of the beautiful gruesomeness of House on Haunted Hill to the originality and obsession with clockwork and glass of Thirteen Ghosts. Ghost Ship barring its moments of style is colourless like a lot of horror cinema at this time onwards into the modern day, blasting a nu metal song at its end credits as if the whole thing was merely meant to be a placeholder to appeal to teenagers; the song itself isn't that bad, making me want to re-evaluate the band Mudvayne who play it, but it's completely out of place when exotic lounge music or an orchestral score would've been more appropriate, little mistakes like this that kill any personality in the film and spread to major issues for it altogether.


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008)

From https://thereservoirblogs.files.
Director: James Nguyen
Screenplay: James Nguyen
Cast: Alan Bagh (as Rod); Whitney Moore (as Nathalie); Adam Sessa (as Ramsey); Catherine Batcha (as Becky); Janae Caster (as Susan); Colton Osborne (as Tony)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #23

After viewing Birdemic, I've proven to myself unequivocally that I hate ironic film viewing. Admittedly it doesn't help I watch like this or Samurai Cop (1991) by myself, films which only really work in group situations preferably with alcohol involved, but the idea of celebrating bad technique in cinema to merely mock it is problematic and regressive. I openly admit to liking technically bad films myself - from the Canadian oddity Things (1989) to Batman & Robin (1998) - but I love them sincerely as much for their fuck-ups as for the few virtues they have, their failures causing me to laugh but also look on with delight as they go into strange, irrational directions either because of the technical decisions or the scripts. Birdemic makes Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) look technically proficient in comparison and just a painful experience to sit through. A modern day bastardisation of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), in which a small US town is invaded by CGI eagles, it felt better to just lift bullet points rather than try to make a cohesive set of paragraphs.

+  The experience was so tedious I immediately rewatched The Birds afterwards. It's completely unfair to compare the two but it's impossible not to when it comes to how long each takes to establish the characters and their drama until, forty plus minutes later or so, the killer birds are on them. Kicking Birdemic when its down is unfair but it's amazing how colourless and lacking the personality the dialogue is. The first forty minutes is meant to be a romantic film but most of the dialogue is about environmental concerns or the most rudimentary of content, short characterless verbs which don't lead to any colourful dialogue from the characters as it should in real life or a film with a fun script. None of the oddness sincerity of something like Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is there either to help avoid this robotic tone from these empty platitudes and statements making it worse.  

+ As someone who has watched a lot of low budget films, and can get wisdom from those who've watched even more of them such as the No-Budget Nightmare podcast, one of the biggest issues with very low budget films is how they build up an entire feature length beyond the main set pieces to link them together. Dialogue and establishing scenes can be the death of high budget Hollywood films let alone the likes of this, one of the biggest dangers especially in horror or thriller cinema like this when characters merely stand around discussing exposition without rhythm or dynamics to the glue of these scenes to connect set pieces.  Birdemic for a great deal of its length before and after the CGI eagles start to attack filled with non-entity dialogue either meaningful or funny to gain from them. A large part of it is that no one really wants to hear characters talk about their plans to set up a company to develop solar panel technology or be involved in software company meetings, but if you have to do so, it helps (which James Nguyen) doesn't if you actually have some depth to these conversations that sounds like the characters actually have knowledge on any of these subjects, not merely the most vague surface words about the topics.

+ The sound is an irritance in this fact as, while clear and audible, you can heard the transition in background noise from each shot being edited together to the point of irritance. In fact the constant abrupt changes in noise bring out the fact the film uses way to many edits just for single scenes.

+  Because of this, I have sympathy for the actors especially the leads Alan Bagh and Whitney Moore, who seem like likable people but are struggling without hope against dialogue that really doesn't allow them to even show charisma onscreen, turgid to sit through as a main plot threat is about environmental concerns and the lead hero wanting to create pioneering solar panel technology. Considering they are supposed to have a romance, even terrible purple prose romantic dialogue would've been a benefit and more rewarding, the more soppier and melodramatic the better.

+ A huge problem, which has been frequently talked of already, is the film's laborious, empty headed pro-environmental message which has no actual depth to it, merely screaming at the top of its voice about saving the environment but sounding like it's from someone who has no idea how to or what the subject involves. It actually comes off as a best-worst example of how not to do polemic messages in cinema. I'm the stereotypical left wing liberal but I hate follow liberals with probably more vitreous at times than even the extreme right, because of their lackadaisical, hypocritical and howled viewpoints, simplistic and misguided points on subjects that need greater tact to them to improve the world for the better. One of the biggest problems with messages in cinema, barring the fact that I find most social message dramas a waste of time and overrated, is that if the film is bland or terrible no progressive message within it, even if its applaudable morally, is of worth as its been compromised and squandered. This is more significant now as big companies in Hollywood, whether they have any progressive views in mind or are cynically doing so, are becoming more progressive on the surface in their choices, such as the plan to cast an African American actress as Mary Jane Watson in the next Spiderman film, applaudable ideas but in danger of being empty gestures if they're compromised by a bad film around them. Birdemic's the kind of film that'd put people off environmental concerns if they took it seriously at all, probably what some people think all those with environmental concerns actually sound like.

+ When the CGI eagles do actually appear after what feels like two hours already, the result isn't that spectacular still, most of it consisting of actors waving their hands randomly in the air with eagles superimposed afterwards. Even the inclusion of wire coat hangers as a self defensive weapon only lasts for a brief moment, not enough time to stick out, exceptionally disappointing when that was an "iconic" moment in terms of the film's cult reputation.

+ There were some virtues. The music by Andrew Seger at the beginning was surprising in how good it was considering the film's reputation. Unfortunately the film drags so much the music starts to feel the effect and became bland as the plot goes along, but at the beginning its surprising in quality.

+ There's one vaguely funny character, a tree hugger living in the woods, who reminded me of a low rent Woody Harrelson. That Harrelson has played a character like this in Roland Emmerich's turkey 2012 (2009) added humour to this fact.

+ The two children the leads rescue are comically absurd in their behaviour. Most of Birdemic as the CGI eagles attack consists of the characters going shopping and driving on country roads. Despite the dead bodies and people trying to rob them at gunpoint for petrol, there's no sense of trauma especially from the children and the only clear danger is that gasoline now costs $100 dollars because of this freak natural disaster. The children's complaint near the end, when they have to catch fish and fresh seaweed to sustain themselves, that they want a McDonald's instead is one of the most unintentionally spoilt and deluded things ever utter from child characters, so much so that even a viewer with no malice in them would want these fictitious characters to have their eyes poked out by the CGI eagles regardless of their ages.

+ The viewing experience altogether reminded me, while its be a long time since I've seen it, that there's a potentially more rewarding rip-off of The Birds from Mexico that should've had more attention. Beaks: The Movie (1987), directed by Rene Cardona Jr., the same man who made the Video Nasty Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), was far and away more entertaining back when I saw it, having the same delirious tone of the genre films the Italians were making in the eighties (being a co-production) and had, even if through crude effects, real birds involved. The idea of a character being mauled by a savage canary bird, one of many quite inventive scenes in the film, is a hell of a lot more rewarding than the CGI eagles in Birdemic.

In any other circumstance I'd have rated this merely a 2/10, never someone to condemn films any lower in rating, but the context and background behind Birdemic's public popularity and its tone as a movie is so disappointing to me that I have to call it a 1/10 film and one of the worst I've seen in content and attitude. It's not the technical deficiencies that stand out but its general mediocre attitude to being bad filmmaking, not even rewarding for its failure, and not having any of the charm of older infamous films. That there films made with less budget that are better than this, but this one got the cult status, is another reason I hate this film, something like Jennifer Help Us (2014) shot on an iPhone and managing to be a little gem in spite of its few flaws more deserving of this film's popularity. That it feels so pleased with itself in its hollow environmental message and cribbing of Alfred Hitchcock's film is utterly obnoxious and detestable. 


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Witch (1968)

Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Screenplay: Kimiyuki Hasegawa
Cast: Yuko Hamada (as Yuko Nanjo); Sachiko Meguro (as Shige Kito); Yachie Matsui (as Sayuri Nanjo); Mayumi Takahashi (as Tamami Nanjo); Sei Hiraizumi (as Tatsuya Hayashi); Yoshirô Kitahara (as Goro Nanjo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #22

With this film I get to enter the world of Kazuo Umezu for this blog. Unfortunately he's not as easily accessible as Junji Ito is in terms of his manga being available in English, much of it only published in the USA and now out of print, but he's a very important name in horror manga. As memorable for being Where's Wally's (Waldo's) cousin, obsessed with the colours of barber shop red and white stripes, as he is for his work Umezu has been penning ghoulish horror stories since the fifties. This isn't the first time I've personally seen an adaptation of his work - having to thank obsessive Western anime fans for making a VHS rip available on the net for The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990), a straight-to-video anime of sixty minutes based on two of his stories, with English subtitles - but this is the first one which has the added delight of being a live action Japanese genre film during the golden era of the sixties. From the multi colour nightmares of Jigoku (1960) to Nikkatsu's gangster films, the sixties were an exceptionally strong decade for Japanese cinema both for art and entertainment, the strangest of films having as high a technical quality as the artistic minded dramas.

With this in mind, appeal also found in the high aesthetic quality being also met with films with logic defying plots, Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Woman is a strange, frankly convoluted piece of delirium, combining two of Umezu's stories into an adolescent horror film with an edge. It feels like the kind of film targeted to a young female audience with its fairytale qualities - it follows a protagonist that's a sweet and likable young girl called Sayuri Nanjo (Matsui), adopted back to her real family but finding herself, when the father has to go on a business trip to Africa, with an older sister Tamimi (Takahashi), that's kept a secret from him. Things become more macabre when there's a possibility that she's a literal snake girl, already jealous of her presence but possibly with intentions of also eating Sayuri when she has the chance. The film is surprisingly gristly, a woman killed in the first few minutes from pure fear when a snake is thrown at her, and from there there's a peculiar blend of a murder mystery drama with horror tropes, enough snakes terrorising Sayuri in her sleep if it isn't spiders swarming on her bed to give a viewer the jitters, and enough sinister atmosphere to match it as the housemaid doesn't believe anything she says and Tamimi acts more and more hostile to her. Then there are details such as introducing disfigurement, a mother with severe amnesia, an acid bath with intentions for Sayuri to be dunked into it, and convoluted plot twists to make the film intoxicating over only eight minutes. That's not even explain when the silver haired witch comes into the plot to also terrorise Sayuri, suddenly appear and causing the film to get even more stranger.

The plot does get confusing but it's able to get away with this because a great deal of the film plays off as a psychodrama. A lot of its tension actually taps into a real human emotion that would appeal to a lot of viewers, how the older sister who is kept secret and locked away hates Sayuri's prescience, treating her with contempt and only wanting their mother's love for herself. Even if there wasn't the threat of her being part snake, her contempt including encouraging Sayuri to sleep in the attic is effecting by itself. The film's also extremely beautiful to look at, the monochrome adding a grace to it. It has a dream-like tone that literally leads to dream sequences for Sayuri, none of them explained in why she has such nightmarish images in her sleep,  adding to their weirdness.

Filmed in a distorted reality, the first immediately raises the bar when the doll Sayuri is given, comes to life by way of an actress superimposed to be tiny next to a prone girl. Even when the effects are incredibly dated by today's standards - a snake girl stand-in that comes from the same school as  the hag in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959) - they add to the weird effect of the dream sequences by them being dreams and the incredible style of the whole film in general in spite of said effects. The quality of Snake Girl and Snake Haired Witch is why it was so watchable, a gleefully odd horror movie which yet has a wonderful sense of aesthetic sadly missing in a lot of modern horror cinema. As someone who still desperately wants to read Kazuo Umezu's original manga, something like this nonetheless feels like a successful adaptation, even if it may have taken extreme liberties, because of its macabre tone and how it encourages me to want to read those original stories it took inspiration from.


Dead of Night (1972)

Directors: Don Taylor (The Exorcism); Rodney Bennett (Return Flight); Paul Ciappessoni (The Woman Sobbing)
Screenplay: Don Taylor (The Exorcism); Robert Holmes (Return Flight); John Bowen (The Woman Sobbing)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #1

[Note: Following on from writing mini-reviews of horror films that don't fit the abstract categories of the site, it felt like sacrilege to ignore horror television. With this in mind it was worth devoting a spin-off just for horror television; it'll be more sporadic in quantity, especially from how long television can be, but it'll offer a special one-off once in a while.]

Not to be confused with the 1945 Ealing Studios anthology horror film of the same name - which is for another day's blog post - Dead of Night is a BBC horror anthology series that barely survived into the current day. The less than inspiring take on archiving televised productions that was sadly common at one point with British television has led to potentially important archival materials being lost, from early episodes of Dr. Who to most of Dead of Night, only three of this series' episodes said to still exist out of seven. We can all be grateful for having the surviving episodes because by themselves they are exceptional creepy chillers.

Out of the trio The Exorcism, heavily advertised on the British Film Institute DVD cover and rescreened on television, is the high point of the three stories. Set at Christmas, a couple Rachel (Anna Cropper) and Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) invite another, Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay), over for dinner at their new country home only for a building series of eerie and disturbing events to take place. I have a tendency to slag off British horror cinema from this period for being overrated and low quality, but British horror television is growing into a great capsule of creativity for myself which puts the theatrical releases mostly to shame. Even though I have a preference for visually distinct works, the stage set production here is helped by the quality of the acting and how strong the script is (and how strong they are for all three episodes). Particularly with viewing these three episodes I've pinpointed a major problem with certain horror films, including the British ones I've hated, in how one of the best virtues of The Exorcism like the rest of Dead of Night is how it's more of a character drama that has supernatural content directly connecting to it, emphasising the pre-existing drama alongside the chills in the mixture.

The Exorcism is actually a politically minded short work, based on the director-writer's own political leanings, an incredibly socialist viewpoint which takes a dark view of how people distance themselves from others' poverty especially on festive holidays, its placement at Christmas having a macabre and brutal critique at its century where the truth of the haunting taking place involves the  old effect of a person being mistreated and downtrodden as others spent time in lavish celebration. Alongside an incredibly sinister nature of the haunting, where the two couples become trapped in the house in its own dimension, the tone also is a fitting part of British horror which would lead to the hauntology moment, how the reverberations of the past still haunt the living and can be tapped into if a certain thing is triggered. Fitting The Stone Tape (1972), a great work penned by Nigel Kneale that encapsulates this idea further, was meant to be an episode of Dead of Night before it was spun-off as a feature length TV film by itself.

In comparison to the impact The Exorcism will have on viewers especially by its bleak ending, Return Flight is mellower and the weakest of the trio.  It's still a strong episode in its own right however. About an older passenger jet pilot Captain Rolph (Peter Barkworth) who wonders whether he may have encountered a ghostly pilot of a World War II Lancaster bomber during a flight, the most interesting and rewarding aspect of the episode in the modern day is how it tackles the effect of WWII on people the age of the protagonist and Britain in general at that time. Dealing with the two World Wars in popular culture is far more pertinent when the creators grew up in the aftermath of it, for example Pink Floyd's The Wall (both the album and the film) from the perspective of Roger Waters as a child born in 1943, and it's clear with its tale of a man old enough to have served in the war but unable to, living in the shadows of others who died during the Battle of Britain period of the war, that the drama in Return Flight has greater bite as older male characters reflect on their lives with a real sense that the emotions of the war are being shown by the writer. That the character drama in this episode hinges on far more ambivalence than the other two, blurring whether it's actually supernatural events taking place or stress confusing the protagonist's reality, really helps Return Flight stand out even if sandwiched between two gems.

Out of the three, A Woman Sobbing manages to be the bleakest of the trio, and even if television now is more explicit in sexual content and tackling adult issues like failing marriages, this episode is still sobering in how much it tackles for an early seventies television programme, actually more adult and willing to take on taboos than a lot of the Hammer horror films at the time could ever dare to.About a wife Jane (Anna Massey) slowly disintegrating from the stress of midlife crisis, a loveless marriage with her husband, and hauntings in their new home including a woman crying at night that only she can hear, the show is very surprising in how blunt it is in its themes of illness, adultery and sexuality. The wife openly admits to hating her children at one point and the discussions on sex are on the nose, particularly going as far as have two dream sequences, one of the wife fantasising about a crude speaking plumber that briefly appears, the other for the husband involving actual nudity with a naked Dutch au-pair straight out of a British sexploitation film of that time. Because a lot of this television at this point had a stripped down, economic cinematography and style, the scripts and acting had to take centre stage, the quality of it here particularly distinct with Massey in the lead, her character a woman sympathetic in her plight but becoming more and more broken down close to insanity by its ending. None of the three episodes take easy ways out with their finales but A Woman Sobbing does have an ending that is just piped as the best by The Exorcist out of the trio.

Altogether the three episodes are rediscovered treasures that were thankfully rediscovered. The obvious tragedy is that the other five episodes have been lost (as of current knowledge) permanently. There's a sense from the strength of this trio to suggest that this series had a few gems amongst its seven episodes that will sadly never be seen again, leaving mere speculation of what the others were like, alongside archival materials the anecdotes of the series' creators and the opinions of people who hopefully first saw this series when it was first screened left to learn about the show from. The three here certainly emphasise that, even if I commit blasphemies by claiming the British horror cinema disappointed in this era in terms of quality, the television from that era however is becoming a tantalising era of material I'll gladly search more out of.


Monday, 29 August 2016

Baccano! (2007)

Director: Takahiro Omori
Screenplay: Noboru Takagi
(Voice) Cast: Masaya Onosaka (as Isaac Dian); Sayaka Aoki (as Miria Harvent); Akemi Kanda (as Czeslaw Meyer); Atsushi Imaruoka as (Dallas Genoard); Chiwa Saito (as Carol); Daisuke Sakaguchi (as Jacuzzi Splot); Eri Yasui (as Lua Klein); Hiroyuki Yoshino (as Firo Prochainezo); Keiji Fujiwara (as Ladd Russo); Kinryuu Arimoto (as Szilard Quates); Marina Inoue (as Eve Genoard); Masakazu Morita (as Claire "Vino" Stanfield); Mitsuru Miyamoto (as Maiza Avaro); Ryou Hirohashi (as Chane Laforet); Sanae Kobayashi (as Ennis); Yu Kobayashi (as Nice Holystone)

Synopsis: Surrounding a select number of years in early thirties New York and the East Coast of the USA, Baccano! chronicles an incident involving a train from Chicago to New York called the Flying Pussyfoot where a massacre takes place, the gangsters, miscreants and terrorists on the train connecting to other events before and after in time. From the younger daughter of a wealthy family Eva Genoard searching for her older brother Dallas, a ruffian who has vanished, to an elixir of immortality which makes it incredibly difficult for someone to stay dead, everything connecting to the train incident as a group of journalists try to collect as much information on this as they can.

Baccano! - Italian for ruckus for anyone who was interested in knowing what the title means - is a prime example of how a television series can be inventive just in terms of its structure and how it tells its story. A Japanese animated series that pays tribute to American gangster films by way of its own fantastical spin, it throws the viewer into an off-beat world full of exceptionally colourful characters. Thieves Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent, who are so blissfully stupid that most people immediately love them on first meeting. Firo Prochainezo, a young man being introduced into the world of organised crime by way the older and wiser Maiza Avaro. Ennis, a mysterious suited woman Firo meets whose existence is conflicted and connected to the sinister Szilard Quates, an elderly man with malicious intents. Ladd Russo and his timid fiancée Lua Klein, a sociopath who loves to kill people and decided to take his men onto the Flying Pussyfoot in white suits to slay the passengers only to bump into a gang wearing black suits, terrorists who want to hijack the train to release from jail their leader,  whose mute daughter Chane Laforet is amongst their mission. Czeslaw Meyer, a young boy who is acts being innocent and naive. Jacuzzi Splot and Nice Holystone, romantically connected leaders of a pack of good anti-heroes attempting to steal cargo from the train, and countless other characters including the Rail Tracer, a legendary monster that haunts the rail lines that turns out to be real, only seen as a streak of red flash before picking off figures violently.

The plot could easily become complicated but a huge advantage to Baccano! is how carefully structured it is. Instead of a chronicle structure, including Eva Genoard 's search for her brother and other time periods, including how characters got onto the train and how some can't even die, the show shuffles the situations out of order, the end of the train massacre shown in the first episode but the events within that situation amongst other time periods shown in more and more detail throughout the series. Based on a light novel series by Ryōgo Narita, the result is a puzzle box which expands incidents with greater amounts of information as the story is deepened. Baccano! is a series that was clearly planned from the beginning to its end; unfortunately anime series can be effected by not planning out the endings or issues that can alter a production as they go along, particularly when the source material hasn't ended when the adaptation starts, leading new material being written quickly, leading to shows becoming very erratic as they reach their final episodes, and a lot of disappointed viewers who are heartbroken by shows they're getting into failing by their endings. With the show only covering a small arch of the original light novels that was already completed, Baccano! is incredibly organised and manages to keep an eye on every little plot point carefully, playing games with the viewer even on rewatches because of how planned out its storytelling clearly was.

Bookended by the man who runs the journalist group, with him discussing in the first episode with a very young female assistant about who the lead character should be or whether one is actually needed, the show has no qualms with usurping one's expectations with events and characters in each episode, dripping feeding the missing parts of the chronology as it goes along. The show even goes as far as dropping a major plot conclusion in the opening credits sequence which plays in all the episodes just to mess with viewers, taking a complicated story and purposely plots it in a way that's clever when you carefully examine it all. On rewatches, information still appears in ways in terms of plotting that you didn't expect, which helps you come to appreciate how economic the show is for such complicated storytelling, simple and to the point when it covers the information it needs to. Thankfully the show makes sure one is never confused as long as you're alert, recapping pieces of information in fact for episodes which specifically adds more to that plot point, and making sure each time change has a chapter page of the year its set during every time to make things easier to follow.

It helps as well how memorable the characters are. Even if some of the names are utterly silly for what are supposed to be mainly Italian-American or at least American characters - Jacuzzi Splot and Nice Holystone the most extreme - it helps greatly that everyone is distinct visually, and in their dialogue and mannerisms. With this show in fact this is some of the best voice acting from Japanese cast I've probably heard in a television programme, particularly when you get to the more flamboyant characters like Ladd Russo (voiced by Keiji Fujiwara) who get some of the most memorable dialogue, the script for this (if the English subtitles are accurate translations) one of the best I've also seen for an anime show in terms of having personality and fun to it alongside the characters' behaviour, its more flamboyant dialogue and monologue far from the stereotype of exposition and bland dialogue that can plague other anime but with artistic and funny flourishes to it that gives all the characters memorable things to say, allowing them to steal scenes from each other as actors in live action films can.

In terms of subverting expectations as well, the show does so as well in terms of the viewer's moral compass. Baccano!, in a warning for some readers of this, can be gruesomely violent at points especially when you have characters who can come back from death constantly; moments in the show are absolutely not for the squeamish, justifying the 18 certificate it has for UK physical releases and its emphasised by the show getting away with making its outright sociopaths in the cast charismatic and even likable. For characters who are absolutely pure - Isaac and Miria more likely to steal the door off a museum than rob an innocent bystander, or target a bad person in their childish view of heroics - there's plenty like Ladd Russo himself whose twisted view of the world manages to make them fascinating even if they are sadistic to an extreme. One even gets a romantic subplot alongside a skewered high moral code to enforce this, leading to one of the strangest moments in an anime, out of a rom-com, where they ask a female character on romantic advise despite the other having seen them previously cover in gore. The series manages to get away with this especially as, in terms of the plot, the true villain of the piece Szilard Quates is shown to be even more evil especially in what he does throughout the plot.

Technical Details:
Tonally, despite its fantastical story and absurd characteristics, Baccano! is depicted as realistically as possible with certain flights of fantasy allowed. Researched locations of old New York are depicted with realistic looking character designs populating them, an exaggerated take on American culture but one that gets the vibe right for classic gangster films right down to the classy jazz score. The only issue is the visibility of some of the animation's seems at places, particularly where CGI is used for dimension, which can be distracting once you notice it, but the rest is beautifully depicted, fitting the tone with its back alley streets and the claustrophobic nature of the Flying Pussyfoot train. As well with the complicated plot structure, the style helps in terms of making sure everyone sticks out as unique, alongside their personality quirks, and keep the viewer from becoming confused in terms of where each event that takes place is located.  

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Story wise, Baccano! is normal. It's a peculiar take on American gangsters which brings in fantasy tropes into its plot, going as far back as a few centuries in the plot for one episode; the kind of genre mixing I can fall in love with easily, but it's not strange in terms of a plot choice in terms of the overall tone, fitting its logic and never coming off as strange. What's more significant is the way this plot is structured, causing it to be extremely difficult to talk about without spoiling too much but also leads it to having abstract qualities. The structure leads to a constant shifting in time back and forth, and even leads to the reality of two different places being compacted together - Chane's father able to communicate to her telepathically from his jail cell a far way away - purposely wrong footing viewers as a result as it drip feeds new details in what you see, replaying scenes from different angles or purposely clipping parts of them off until later in the episodes. What makes this style work is that Baccano! makes sure all its plot points are covered; even if it takes three bonus episodes to finish it all, introducing the memorably deranged character Graham Specter for a tiny story, it covers all the main plot points fully in the first thirteen and uses the straight-to-DVD episodes brilliantly to cover every small detail to could've lead to plot holes and allows full closure for the world (something that could benefit quite a few anime television programmes, Kill La Kill (2013-4) another greater example of a show using one bonus episode to wrap a tiny bow around everything).  Because of this perfectly made structure, it qualifies as abstract because it's able to undermine expectations of what a plot should be chronologically with its unconventional tone and makes it rewarding in its presentation.

Personal Opinion:
Viewed as a gem of late 2000s anime, Baccano! is a very rewarding work. Unconventional even next to a lot of anime series - anime that's western set and influenced is more of a niche even if Western fans have a habit of celebrating the best of them - its mix of an unpredictable plot style and its extreme moments of violence does make it stand out. A lot of why it succeeds as well is its charisma not only in terms of the characters depicted themselves but the tone, always even when someone's head gets pushed into moving railway tracks to have a jaunty, playful style to it able to get away with its unconventional presentation. Particularly now as the original light novel series is getting translated into English for release, I hope that the fan base Baccano! starts to grow over this next year or so as it's an inventive, even innovative, work that's an absolute riot to view.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Street Trash (1987)

Director: J. Michael Muro
Screenplay: Roy Frumkes
Cast: Mike Lackey (as Fred); Bill Chepil (as Bill The Cop); Vic Noto (as Bronson); Mark Sferrazza (as Kevin); Jane Arakawa (as Wendy)

Synopsis: The streets of New York. Cheap, spoiled hooch sold in a liquor store causes anyone who drinks it to melt into multi-coloured goo, and at a local car junkyard a sociopath named Bronson (Noto), a former Vietnam war veteran, rules with violence causing a local cop Bill (Chepil) to be snapping at his heels. Amongst such atrocities as a severed penis being used as a catch ball, spontaneous human meltdowns and a gangster Nick Duran (Tony Darrow) wanting revenge for his girlfriend being found dead at the junkyard, two brothers Fred (Lackey) and Kevin (Sferrazza) attempt to survive in vagary in their house made of tires.

Street Trash is a film which requires caution for anyone not used to this type of exploitation cinema that deliberately strives for bad taste. While the retrospective documentary The Meltdown Memoirs (2006) does ease its more controversial content knowing a great deal of the cast looked back on the film with fondness, that should not deceive potential viewers that the experience is exactly like drinking a bottle of the tainted hooch in terms of how raw it can be. In terms of American cult cinema, I am finding myself drawn towards a unique period that, while there were similarierly grimy films to be found in the sixties and so forth, really starts in terms of the specific mood I'm interested in from the late seventies to the end of the eighties, or at least to Frank Henenlotter's Frankenhooker (1990). Particularly with New York set films, before the mayoral election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor lead to what many documentaries on grindhouse cinema called the "clean up" of the city, this type of cinema which were blurry in what genre they all existed in had a potency to them, feeling like taking a stroll on the real streets with the pimps and small hoods, and occassionally even a swan dive into the gutter of humanity whilst they were there. Technically films existed before including highly regarded works like Taxi Driver (1976), but in terms of genre cinema which was thriving at this time, something like Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer (1979) is the start of it for me. Ferrara himself and the aforementioned Henenlotter were putting out a lot of films in this style, amongst other directors, but you also have one-offs plotted through the eighties like Buddy Giovinazzo's Combat Shock (1984) and Street Trash itself, films which even in lurid plotting and exaggerated realities still filmed on real run-down streets and dealt with subjects like traumatised Vietnam War vets and the sex industry, even if glibly, that serious dramatic cinema were.

Street Trash is superficial with its subject of homelessness, something that has to be pointed out after that paragraph to avoid confusion, connecting more to the splatstick subgenre of splatter and humour that came about in the mid eighties with a really sick humour. You cannot argue like with a film like Combat Shock that this has more on its mind. But with all these films I've mentioned, even the fact that they bring in this type of content and grime laced atmosphere still gives them a credibility, enveloping the viewer in the environments and dirt of the locations here as it wallows in its own filth. Unusually, Street Trash is largely set in the broad daylight, but that doesn't stop the (clearly real) dilapidated locations and wasteland from feeling like verité realism even with its deliberately schlocky subject matter taking place in the locations. This is definitely the case with how Street Trash is freewheeling in terms of plot as well, more of a variety of characters - the rundown, the physically disabled or drink stuporous, the ones with frayed sanities  - and strange atrocities rather than a clear narrative drive, very much the thing that will also put off people alongside the content itself. Unlike other films which are deliberately arch and gleefully mucking around in tastelessness however, there's a greater sense of personality here even in its exceptional crass even in end credit names. It's a film where the cast feels like they've walked off the streets which many actually did, from Bill the cop being played by Bill Chepil, an actual former cop, to former nightclub performer Tony Darrow as a gangster who with James Lorinz, playing a doorman and also the lead in Frankenhooker, steal the film whenever they're onscreen with largely improvised dialogue. Unlike some of the mainsteam genre films from this time, this film even with an absurd premise feels far more realistic in tone through its casting, the low budget and on-location choices.

Street Trash has a lot that could easily offend still. The melt sequences while gross are actually gleeful spectacles of practical effects and rainbow slime; no matter how gross they are, they're far more humorous in an incredibly twisted way especially with the ingenuity with depicting them onscreen.. It's the other infamous moments which are likely to be problematic and difficult to defend, such as a woman (Miriam Zucker) being brought to the junkyard drunk for a casual sex romp, only to be (off-camera) gang raped and killed, her body involved in a gruesome joke afterwards. This sort of scene is understandably problematic, even if it's meant to deliberately transgress. A great deal of this issue is that a film like this is stuck swimming against the tide with what else was taking place in this era, works with not helped by being part of the tide of works from this era with far less qualities and little to defend unlike Street Trash which had worse attitudes about women and did similar scenes; Street Trash even if defendable stuck in the current alongside the literal trash by covering the same ground. Whether you could defend the scene or not, a film like Street Trash that desires to offend everyone on purpose suffers from the social context of when it was made when people made comments seriously that were reprehensibly misogynistic without, making the act of defending a film like it even more difficult. It does soften the blow and put an entirely new perspective on the entirety of Street Trash having seen The Meltdown Memoirs though, both in how actress Zucker has a prominent role in the doc as a talking head, with no shame about the small role, and in small details of how, when she had to lay naked on the side of a "toxic" river in the gruesome after scene, women in the film crew were stood on a hill off-camera to make sure she was okay during the filming. It complicates what these troublesome scenes mean, both in their desire to attack the viewer through transgression, and how in this case the production filming the scenes with actors role-playing and the scenes in context on-screen contrast drastically from each other, complicating the morality involved. This as much applies to other potential problematic issues such as how the homeless are depicted and the various forms of mutilation and chaos that are likely to offend people throughout the movie.

Technical Details:
One of the most pronounced aspects of Street Trash as an exploitation film is its technical quality. Notably, director Jim Munro invested in a Steadicam before the film started to be pre-produced and honed his own skill in handling one when such technology was new for cinema, he himself using the camera and leading to some incredible moments involving gliding camera moments you never expect in this type of cinema. Munro, after only directing this film, went on to become one of the most prolific cinematographers and Steadicam operators in mainstream cinema, from the films of James Cameron to Kevin Costner's Open Range (2003) as a result of the practice he shows here. Generally, for a low budget production, pains were clearly made to bring a high technical quality to the whole film. From storyboarding scenes to the elaborate and incredibly gross melt sequences, Street Trash is a whole calibre higher in quality than a lot of this type of genre cinema; compare it to something from around the same time like Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986) - flat cinematography, constant blaring of cheap glam metal, lack sure presentation - the carefully crafted nature of this film, even if it's just as grimy, is incredibly noticeable.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
The one debate with rating this is whether "weird" has to qualify as a mood that disorientates the viewer or if seeing a hobo melt into a toilet is enough to qualify for the list. The issue with the latter is that this has to be a consistent, constant experience, were sights never expected to be seen on-screen are seen, to be "abstract". For a person who has never seen a film like Street Trash before, it would be an incredibly weird experience in parts not to mention shocking. But the series of events that take are is more shocking that bizarre to experience, merely the poisoned hooch leading to anything remotely strange consistently particularly with how the melting is depicting in bright primary colours specific to each victim's scene, by themselves memorable just for their bright coloured gristliness. The rest is far more a gritty and sickly hilarious series of memorable characters and events, such following the likes of Burt (Clarenze Jarmon), a friend of the main brothers who tries sneaking chicken and food from a grocery store in his trousers in a memorable scene, to Bronson the main villain, who keeps a knife made from a human thigh bone and has the only other moment that could be close to "abstract", a nightmare about Vietnam where he's attached by vampire Vietcong and has erotic desires for a captive he finds, the film managing to make a location in the East Coast of the US look like an appropriately nightmarish location for a battleground.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic
Abstract Tropes: Body Horror; Transgression; Melting Body Parts; Genital Mutilation; Bad Taste; Wallowing in Filth

Personal Opinion:
Unless you're prepared to see Street Trash or have been warned what to expect, I advise caution with viewing the film even for splatter fans. The film was intended to be like scrapping the bottom of the barrel and whilst there are moments that are cheesy, there's still a lot of this which feels like inserting one's head into an un-flushed toilet in a public bathroom even in the present day. It was a film I didn't like at all when I first saw it, but Street Trash has gained a grimy quality both for the charisma behind this seediness and the exceptional technical craft that put it all together. The likes of Street Trash could never be made again and a great deal of this is to do with the character of these films in appearance and tone; rundown, economically effected environments could be found to film at, but it would have a different tone to it from the cultural and social changes that have taken place since the eighties, let alone the influence of technology, leaving a film like this one as something utterly distinct even if it has a bitter taste to it.