Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Demon Under Glass (2002)

Dir: Jon Cunningham

A vampire serial killer is captured, taken to a secret government examination room and kept under scrutiny of a team of scientists in this smart slowburning horror. Jason Carter plays the vamp with cool, edgy aplomb and is flanked brilliantly by Garrett Maggart as the sensitive doctor who is ordered to carry out tests, take samples and keep his subject fed with donated blood. At first, the pair keep a polite distance between them but, as the tests become more gruelling, the doctor begins to feel an uneasy compassion for his subject and a deadly psychological chess game begins. "Demon Under Glass" doesn't go for a simple "the real monsters are us!" revelation and instead tackles an array of moral and emotional scenarios with rare restraint and intelligence. The film is engaging, eerie and an admirable example of what can be achieved on a seemingly non-existent budget when you've got a tight script, two strong leads and an original, unpredictable idea with depth. An underrated little gem that's been unfairly consigned to the 50p bargain bin. ***

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Ungodly (2007)

Dir: Thomas Dunn

Wes Bentley stars as a down-on-his-luck documentary maker who decides to follow a serial killer (played by co-writer Mark Borkowski) around New York and, uh, find the human behind the monster? Maybe? It's never entirely clear just what prompted this. However, we're asked to draw awkward, questionable paralells between Bentley's addiction to drugs and Borkowski's addiction to murder and just buy into the two men being pretty much star-crossed as a result. There are one or two nice ideas here and the leads work hard with the material but it's too muddled to ever fully engage. Unfavourable mental comparisons to "Man Bites Dog" do it even fewer favours. This probably isn't a film I'd recommend unless you're particularly in thrall to Wes Bentley's beard. *1/2

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Eye Behind The Wall (1977)

Dir: Giuliano Petrelli

Oddball rare giallo in which a wheelchair-bound man (Fernando Rey) and his partner (Olga Bisera) get more than they bargained for when they start spying on their introverted tenant (John Phillip Law). It's a little bit "Rear Window" and I'm a sucker for that kind of story but "Eye Behind The Wall" takes matters way further down the spiral of morbid sexuality. Every character has some kind of massive perversion and this makes for a fascinatingly sordid story once the whole grim affair has unfolded. There's a creepy atmosphere throughout and a nice twist, but the script's structure is awkward, badly paced and overladen with dead end subplots that go nowhere. At times, its darkness feels a lot like some kind of cry for help from writer/director Petrelli (who's never made another film or been heard from again). He's clearly trying to make a more serious film than perhaps he was asked to. Sadly, his sombre dialogue jars with things like the hilarious naked disco scene and further adds to the film's imbalance. There's real talent and passion here, certainly, but it's a shame Petrelli was never able to develop it further and fulfil the promises hinted at in this flawed effort. **1/2

Demons 2 (1986)

Dir: Lamberto Bava

Sally (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) throws a party at her trendy apartment. She plays The Smiths all night, moans about how hideous her dress looks and threatens to throw her guests out at the slightest hint of a disagreement. Amazingly, she still has an awful lot of friends despite being such a massive drag. This is handy, as they make good victims for some random demons who pop out of a TV that's showing a film about events from the first film, which was in itself a film within a film. Bzzt. Whu-whu-what? If you can deal with the brain-warping lack of logic or reason, there are some gooey rubbery FX treats to be found here but not a lot else. Despite having almost identical characters/structure/plot, "Demons 2" just isn't a patch on the first film. It's a moodier affair, with far more subdued lighting, a lot less gore and goth hits from the 80s in place of the original's rowdier heavy metal. This could be more effective perhaps if the film wasn't so silly but the mix of ANY restraint whatsoever with such a ludicrous plot is ill-advised and much lowers the fun level. It's worth a look for one or two very cool scenes (one of a demon boy giving birth (!?) to a winged demon child is just jaw-dropping) but not a classic like the first. **1/2

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Demons (1985)

Dir: Lamberto Bava

"Demons" may not make perfect sense, I'll warn you. A group of people get trapped in a cinema that's playing a B-Movie about the apocalyptic prophecies of Nostradamus. There's a mask in both the movie and the foyer of the cinema that turns its wearers into demons and, before you know it, bug-eyed monsters dribbling green goo are running rampant and ripping the cinemagoers limb from limb. The place itself is kind of Escher-esque in its baffling, ever-changing layout. Time and space bends way beyond reality and the climactic scenes are absolutely bonkers but I just don't care. I can't think of any other film that celebrates excess in such an exhilarating manner. The pace never lets up - it's a non-stop parade of phenomenal gore effects, bucketloads of fluids I can't even begin to identify, weird-ass creatures, eye-popping red and blue lighting, blistering heavy metal and absurdly OTT action heroics. No matter how many times I watch it, I still find myself cheering, whooping and laughing along. My pulse quickens, I lose my breath, I get all weak at the knees from the excitement. Admittedly part of this could be the rare appearance of a grown-up and suddenly breathtaking Nicoletta Elmi but mostly it's just that "Demons" is the ultimate, no-nonsense distillation of everything that makes horror movies so thrilling and fun. Who knows? Maybe it's too daft for modern audiences. Maybe you had to be there but this is what I grew up on and, for me, it hasn't aged a day. Perfecto! ****

Soul Survivors (2001)

Dir: Stephen Carpenter

A preposterous goody-two-shoes college girl (Melissa Sagemiller) kisses her ex (Wes Bentley) then feels so guilty that she freaks out and accidentally crashes her car, killing her current boyfriend (Casey Affleck). Heavy drama, right? But wait! It's worse! Things are no longer what they used to be. Shadowy masked figures lurk in doorways. Everyone talks cryptically about "letting go" and "finding freedom". Her best friend starts wearing goth make-up. Could it be that someone's already dead/dying? I'm not spoiling the film, honestly, because this SURPRISE TWIST is made inarguably obvious some 20 minutes in, which leaves the remaining 61 to be squandered on moralising, sentimentalising, listening to bad 90s college rock and behaving with increasing implausibility as our heroine sleepwalks her way to the inevitable, mawkish conclusion. If it's worth watching "Soul Survivors", it's purely to remind yourself that as bad as horror can be now, it was worse in the early 2000s. *

Saturday, 21 April 2012

P2 (2006)

Dir: Franck Khalfoun

A hi-octane horror set in the unlikely location of a parking lot. This one pits a busty businesswoman (Rachel Nichols) against a psychotic security guard (Wes Bentley) in a cat and mouse game that, despite being shot almost entirely with two people and one set, never gets boring. There's no question that "P2" is ridiculous. If you're looking for something dark and serious, go elsewhere. This is pure exploitation gold though. Nichols has her cleavage on prominent display for almost the whole run-time, Bentley gives a truly insane performance (including an impromptu song and dance number!), the script is tight and lively (and loaded with classic one-liners), and the gore, when it happens, is unflinching and splattery (although I wasn't fond at all of the animal scene - they could've quite happily ditched that and replaced with a good old-fashioned human death). It's not exactly cerebral but it's a ferociously entertaining slice of suspense that never lets up. I enjoyed this a lot. ***

Monday, 16 April 2012

Simon, King of the Witches (1971)

Dir: Bruce Kessler

This wonderfully psychedelic film begins with the titular character (played by Andrew Prine) living in a storm drain and selling occult trinkets to rich scenesters. As his status among them increases, following a couple of effective spells, so does his power. He becomes convinced that if he can just perfect this one magical working, the entire universe and all the Gods will bend to his will. "Simon" is a very interesting film with a great deal of both intelligent subtext and high camp satire. It doesn't always entirely work but that's not for lack of ambition. With its genuine grasp of matters esoteric (the screenwriter was a practicing warlock), its startling imagery and its rabid lead performance - Prine is at once charismatic, psychotic, lovable, cool, irresistible, terrifying and pathetic - there's much to love here. At times it kind of plays like a cross between "Fight Club" and the Gospel of Christ, only far funnier than either. If nothing else, you've got to give that points for originality. ***

Friday, 13 April 2012

A Black Veil For Lisa (1968)

Dir: Massimo Dallamano

Sir John Mills heads the cast in this early giallo that sees him as a police officer on the trail of a serial killer. This time, our black-gloved, leather-clad friend is bumping off people involved in drug trafficking but poor old Mills is rather too preoccupied to nail the perp. Instead, he's busy worrying if his glamorous, much younger wife (a former drug user herself but surely that couldn't be relevant?!) is cheating on him with half the men in town while he's out working... "A Black Veil For Lisa" straddles the line between the classic film noir model and the then-burgeoning giallo but falls slightly more on the noir side with its hat-n-raincoat-wearing dick, fur-lined femme fatale (Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi) and seedy side-cast of squint-eyed lowlives. It also reveals the killer's identity quite early, abandoning the "whodunnit?" aspect in favour of twisting the character-driven melodramatic sub-plot in a few nice, unexpected directions. Like many of Dallamano's films, this is a tragic morality tale at heart but a gloriously pulpy one, loaded with gritty violence, wonderful tough-talkin' and a masterful lead performance from Mills who brings a pitiable sense of pathos to his hard-boiled character. ***

The Ring Virus (1999)

Dir: Dong-bin Kim

It's very difficult to review this Korean adaptation of Kôji Suzuki's "Ring" novel so late in the day. Having seen the Japanese "Ring" series, the American remakes and the myriad knock-offs that polluted the shelves of the Horror section for the best part of a decade, I feel I know the story too well. A cursed video tape. You watch it and die seven days later. A single mother watches it by mistake and must find out how to break the curse before it's too late. Bring on the soggy dead girls. "The Ring Virus" doesn't offer much in the way of newness in 2012 but this is a shame because, taken on its own merits, it's actually one of the better offerings in the whole dreary cycle. It's really nicely shot (without all the washed-out blue that poisoned many of the other films in this vein), has a decent, coherently crafted script, a few eerie moments (although the special FX in the famous ghost reveal scene are maybe a little ropey) and even a couple of the more daring elements from the novel that were left out of the Japanese version. It's just a shame I didn't see this one first, 12 years ago, before I knew the story inside out. **

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Arcane Sorcerer (1996)

Dir: Pupi Avati

If you're longing for the crawling flesh and rising goosebumps you got the last time you watched a properly creepy ghost story, and it's been way too long, then look no further. Pupi Avati's underrated gem, "The Arcane Sorcerer", is exactly what you're after. Set in the 16th century, a young student is disgraced by a sex scandal and sent away to become secretary to a defrocked priest who lives in a remote country house and is known for his collection of esoteric, occult books and his recently deceased former assistant - an apparent black wizard. I don't want to say too much else about the plot. It's largely a two-hander between the excellent leads - Carlo Cecchi and Stefano Dionisi - and packed with twists and scares. A film of great craftmanship, depth and understated beauty, Avati shoots in warm, earthy, autumnal tones and packs his screenplay with rich exploration of his themes (ol' favourites death and sin, mostly). The gothic atmosphere enhances some very creepy moments indeed and, despite a slightly rushed-feeling final five minutes, this is a strong example of a master horror director at work. If you like ghosts or intelligent occult horror, seek it out at once. ***1/2

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A Dragonfly For Each Corpse (1974)

Dir: Leon Klimovsky

A Spanish take on the then-popular giallo craze, "A Dragonfly For Each Corpse" sees a subdued Paul Naschy (who also wrote the script) playing a medium-boiled cop (he knows kung-fu and thinks all hookers are "garbage" but wears an apron while he cooks and loves presents) on the trail of a serial killer in Milan. There are some amusingly weird red herrings here, including a Nazi, a gay dressmaker, some hookers and a transvestite, as well as a few crazy deaths (death by golf club and death on a ghost train are both fun) but the mystery is quite weak by the time it reaches its lacklustre conclusion. A shame because there are some enjoyable elements. At times, the film almost feels like an intentional send-up of the genre (especially when Naschy is seen boiling pasta, eating salami out of the fridge and making coffee in a Bialetti kettle) but there's enough gore, nudity and fashionable outfits to make this a passable, though by no means essential, giallo. **

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Beyond Dream's Door (1988)

Dir: Jay Woelfel

A student named Ben Dobbs (Nick Baldasare) experiences bizarre nightmares and finds that the lines between the dream world and reality are blurring in this micro-budget, Lovecraft-influenced, experimental horror. He hallucinates giant red monsters, armless janitors, creepy kids with plasticine eyes and topless girls with amazing 80s hair but what does it all mean? Who knows? Director Woelfel clearly has talent and ambition in abundance. The film is superbly shot, considering the money they obviously didn't have, and there are some great ideas here, but they over-reach beyond the script's ability to present them coherently. Granted, the film's nightmares-within-nightmares structure was always going to equal a degree of abstraction but the total lack of characterisation is probably the main sticking point for me. It's very tough to engage in a plot like this when no one has a personality (especially tough given some of the ropey acting) and without that connection, there's not enough to propel the plot forward at a satisfactory pace. It's a shame because some of the imagery is fantastic and a lot of love and hard work has clearly gone into making the best film they could, given a lot of limitations. **

Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

Dir: Steve Beck

This typical early-2000s spookfest marketed to teens sees Monk Tony Shalhoub and his family inherit a crazy mechanical mansion from a wayward uncle who apparently "squandered the family's fortune" and died on a ghost hunt. Obviously (far TOO obviously), the mansion is not all it seems and, before long, there are ghosts running amok in double figures, just like the title promises. This isn't too bad a premise and the production design is pleasant, but the script is a total disaster. It tells everything in an awkward order in an effort to provide "twist" after shocking "twist" but instead just succeeds in sucking out the tension and logic from a convoluted story that was teetering on the edge of nonsense anyway. If they'd kept it simpler (and ditched at least two or three extraneous characters) this would've been better but, even then, you've got the annoying strobe lights, madcap editing and mawkish sentimental streak to deal with. Matthew Lillard and Tony Shalhoub both act well with what they're given but overall this is a pretty poor reminder of a particularly shiny-but-empty period in mainstream horror history. *

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Cat With The Jade Eyes (1977)

Dir: Antonio Bido

(aka Watch Me When I Kill!, The Cat's Victims)

Decent, well-crafted giallo in which a cabaret actress named Mara (Paola Tedesco) goes to buy some aspirin and finds the pharmacist dead on the floor. Worse yet, our ubiquitous black-clad, gloved killer is fleeing the scene! The killer now thinks Mara knows his/her identity and begins to stalk our hapless young lady, dragging her and her sound engineer boyfriend (Corrado Pani) into a web of serial killings and deep-running conspiracy. The film is, on one hand, typical giallo fare and there's nothing particularly bizarre or flamboyant about it to instantly grab one's attention. However, this has a tightly written plot and a good twist that delights rather than puzzles. There's also a sleek, pulsing score by Trans Europa Express and some great one-liners from Pani. The titular cat is nowhere near as sinister as you may expect (although it is significantly cuddlier) but, otherwise, this is a decent way to pass a rainy afternoon. **1/2