Friday, January 24, 2014

Visible Secret

A young, handsome Hong Konger has a one-night stand with a beautiful woman with a bizarre secret: she sees ghosts and other strange apparitions. More and more, their two lives become intertwined, pulling him into some strange supernatural mystery.

Ann Hui is a beloved HK director that I've been meaning to check out more. Her recent A Simple Life is an incredible film, and her earlier film Boat People is haunting and powerful. Visible Secret is the least serious and most lightweight of her films I have seen so far, but it is strange and interesting and displays her usual technical cinematic elegance. And it shows that she is a lot more varied than I realized.

Visible Secret isn't a straight forward horror film, more some weird hybrid supernatural comedy/drama/romance that uses the visual language of horror movies while only occasionally having scenes that feel like something out of a more traditional horror movie. The tone of the film is a little perplexing (and it runs out of a little steam by the end), but it's all so deftly handled by Hui that I was willing to go along with the ride even though I didn't always understand the directions.

Rating: B

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll

A drifter with a violent past gets a job doing work for three beautiful, nice, but strange sisters (two of them crippled; one missing a hand and the other wheelchair bound) and starts to have weird sexual tension with them. Soon after his arrival, a mysterious killer begins murdering local blonde women and stealing their eyeballs.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll is basically a giallo, right down to the ridiculous title, with the only difference being that it was a Spanish film. I checked it out because last year I watched Horror Rises From the Tomb, which featured the same star and same director. That wasn't exactly a good film in the strictest sense, but it was strange and fun and delivered the trashy goods. I expected this to be more of the same.

Instead, it actually turned out to just be a pretty good giallo-ish horror/thriller. Although a little slow in the early going and occasionally a little formless, it's atmospheric, has good characters (some of whom you actually kinda care about!) and a nifty plot, has some solid set pieces and also doesn't skimp in the trash department. It's a far cry from Tomb's laughably bad dialogue/acting and incoherent story.

I very much appreciated that they go full-giallo with the story, taking some very crazy twists and turns. I'm not sure the solution, involving hypnotism and multiple personalities and psychosomatic injuries, makes a damn lick of sense, but it's freaking awesome and completely satisfying.

Rating: B

Horrors of Malformed Men

Hmm. Um. Not sure how to explain this one. A former mental patient impersonates a rich man he happens to be identical to, and after some intrigue he ends up on an island full of strange, beautiful & grotesque freaks made by his mad scientist father. Or something?

I had really wanted to get to more Edogawa Rampo adaptations in October, but sadly only managed to catch this one and Watcher in the Attic. But at least the two films turned out to be a nice fit; like Watcher, Horrors of Malformed Men is an amalgamation of several Rampo stories.... including "Watcher in the Attic" and at least one other story that the Watcher film incorporated into its narrative. I watched this one with roughly the same group that saw Watcher, and it was a real kick during the protracted finale when one character tells a story that is essentially the same plot as the other film, even doing its own version of the same "poison string" set piece. Only this movie came out first.

This is some groovy, nightmarish, cult-movie type shit. Even before the movie reaches the island and its strange and fantastical freaks, it takes all sorts of weird stylistic chances. It's an odd, grotesque, eye-popping film that occasionally feels sort of like a Japanese Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

Rating: B+

Return of the Blind Dead

Instead of picking up with the kinda cool ending of the original, as the name might imply, Return of the Blind Dead hits the reset button. This time, a small, isolated village celebrating a local holiday about the undead knights templar (who have a slightly different backstory this time, for some reason) must face off against the dreaded blind dead after the local retarded rapist/murderer decides to bring them back to life for some reason.

Tombs of the Blind Dead was not really a good movie, but it had a few cool parts, and since the director ended up making a whole series of them, I thought maybe the sequel would be worth checking out. On the plus side, unlike the somnambulant original, this one moves a lot quicker and gets to the action a lot sooner. On the downside, whatever atmosphere and suspense the original had is lost here, and the actual story and major set pieces are too dumb for words.

After the initial full on assault on the town, the movie focuses on a group of survivors hiding out in a house. I can understand how a lot of people got killed during the first attack, as no one in town was really expecting a bunch of zombie knights on zombie horses to come barreling in out of the blue. But these blind dead guys are seriously unscary and unthreatening and there is no excuse for what a shitty job the main cast does of surviving. Not only can these zombies not see, their hearing seems very selective and when they aren't on their horses they slowly waddle around at approximately turtle speed. They make Jason Vorhees look like Prefontaine. All you have to do is walk fast and relatively quiet and there is no way these dudes could catch you. Yet somehow these dipshits keep managing to get caught and murdered by these stumbling oafs, often by helplessly flailing around and moving as slow as possible until the knights surround them. It's like they are going out of their way to get killed. Yeesh.

Rating: C-

Kiss Of The Damned

A handsome, young screenwriter becomes infatuated with a sexy local, who turns out to be a vampire trying to live peaceably in seclusion. They fall in love, and he convinces her to turn him. Complications ensue when her vicious, less enlightened sister comes to town.

I watched this because Netflix described it as "Styled after the glossy vampire flicks of the 1960s...". Well, if that's true, then there must be some subgenre of vaguely comedic, meandering vampire dramas that look like run of the mill modern day indie movies back in the 60's that I totally missed.

Kiss of the Damned isn't bad, it's even kinda fun in places. It has some fun trying to show the audience vampire culture; a long sequence set at a cocktail party for vampires is a highlight. But the story is a non-starter, the film doesn't really have any new or novel ideas about vampires, it's prone to tangents that lead nowhere and ends on a stunning note of "oh, is that all there is?" The plot doesn't so much conclude or resolve as it does stop once the film hits feature length.

The director is apparently the daughter of John Cassavettes, one of America's most important and grossly overrated independent filmmakers. I'm not seeing much similarity to her father's work except that neither had much of a knack for story structure.

Rating: C+

Poison for the Fairies

A little girl claims to have magic powers in order to assert control over a friend, who believes her fantastical claims. This leads to a weird power struggle between the two, and ultimately to... tragedy?

This is a far more interesting and satisfying version of the "young girls who form a deadly relationship" type of movie than something like Don't Deliver Us From Evil. Poison for the Fairies is a peculiar, artful drama with the atmosphere of a horror film that doesn't actually become a horror film until the end... or maybe never at all. When you look at it on its face, it's a movie where next to nothing really happens until the very end. But the film has an implacable quality and works in a lot of unsettling details, like how the adult's faces are never shown. These girls aren't overtly scary, but they aren't sweet or lovable either, and the film sustains a nice sinister feeling to it even as the story stays mostly innocuous.

Rating: B+

Ghost Watcher

After a young woman is violently assaulted, she becomes a shut-in too afraid to ever leave her apartment. She begins to experience bizarre & aggressive supernatural phenomena and calls in her tough girl friend and a con woman ghost hunter/cam porn model to help her get to the bottom of it.

This is another film I watched in October that wasn't so much bad as it was way too cheap to accomplish what it's trying to do or to be taken seriously as a real movie. It mostly looks like a bunch of friends shot it in their apartment, and not in a charming way, in a "this seems barely above the quality of a home movie" way. They smartly try to keep it minimal and simple for the most part, so it's not egregious in its cheapness, but while it's not inept it's a far cry from even looking professional. Additionally, the 3 leading ladies are all likable, but give awkward, over emphasized non-actor type performances.

Its mainly standard issue (with arguably a few interesting twists) ghost movie plot doesn't really help matters; typically vengeful spirit who can do whatever the fuck it wants based on what's "scariest" at any given moment so you don't really care because you don't even know what you're supposed to be afraid of. And yet, like I said, this isn't a bad movie. It's never boring, there are a few fun ideas here and there, the cast seems to be having a good time. As far as microbudget horror goes, this is lightyears beyond the unfathomable abyss of unwatchable crap. It is, in fact, adequately watchable, which I suppose is something.

Rating: C-

388 Arletta Avenue

A mysterious weirdo stalks a man and his wife (Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner), video taping them from outside there home and eventually installing cameras in their house. He begins messing with the couple in various ways, trying to make them lose their shit. In a nice twist on the "found footage" subgenre, the whole film is from the perspective of the stalker's cameras.

388 Arletta Avenue is a straightforward but solid thriller that takes an overused gimmick and squeezes a little extra juice from it. Although the filmmakers don't use the "found footage" style to stage any interesting one-take suspense scenes like some of us keep suggesting (in fact, there's not a lot of classic "thrills" in this mostly dialogue driven film), it does use it to build a nice, creepy sense of voyeurism and paranoia.

The biggest problem the film has is its story structure. It's kind of like a more mainstream version of Michael Haneke's Cache, where the threat of being watched causes a seemingly normal guy to reevaluate his past and become paranoid about something he did before. But here they blow the story arc a bit. The stalker does something pretty major early on that I won't spoil, but instead of kicking the movie into high gear it settles back again and goes for a slow burn. The result is a long stretch in the middle that feels pretty slow; knowing that this stalker is the real deal just means you grow impatient waiting for him to do something really bad again.

They tried something a little different here, and though far from perfect (it stretches credibility a lot and the obvious ending lands with a thud) it was a worthy attempt and a worthwhile experience.

Rating: C+

Jug Face

Okay, so like this backwoods, isolated community worships some sort of magic, sentient mud pit/god that demands sacrifices in exchange for its miracles. The town knows who to sacrifice because the local idiot goes into trances where he sculpts clay pots with the face of the sacrificee on them. When one local girl, coincidentally pregnant with her brother's child, sees her face on the newest pot, she hides it to save herself and sets off a chain reaction of tragedy. Got that?

Jug Face is the kind of movie I respected more than enjoyed. It's an offbeat, unique, character driven low budget horror movie that is reasonably well-made, very well acted and really tries to do something new. It's just that this new thing they came up with isn't a very satisfying movie overall. It's nice that you don't always know where the story is going, but not so nice that you stop caring because it doesn't really matter. I guess we are supposed to fear for the safety of the heroine, but her actions are constantly leading to more and more easily avoidable tragedy that it's hard to stay on her side.

Also, it kind of runs into the same problems a lot of horror movies with a religious slant have. It's clear from the get-go that this hole-y holy monster is the real deal; the film isn't playing with any ambiguity or examining notions of faith or leaving you wondering about anything that happens. That might actually make the movie seem tragic and unfair. Instead it's just... if their god really does have these powers, why would the heroine go against it and why would we as an audience want to see that? And in the end, the implicit "message" really seems to be that, yeah, don't cross backwoods gods, it will lead to bad news.

But I respect the effort and, hell, it reunites 2 cast members from Lucky McKee's great The Woman, plus it throws Larry Fessenden and the terrifying beast that used to be Sean Young into the mix, so I can't complain too much.

Rating: C+

Black Candles

A young couple go to stay with the man's sister, only to slowly discover that the sister is part of a coven of witches trying to ensnare them.

I knew I had to see another Jose Ramon Larraz movie after watching his Vampyres last year. Vampyres was a strange and slow horror/softcore porn movie that should have been terrible except that it had an effectively haunting, dreamlike atmosphere and some legitimately hot sex scenes. Although not exactly scary, or gripping as a story, it was artful horror and decent pornography. It felt sort of like a Jean Rollin movie, only well-made and watchable.

Black Candles is not Vampyres good, but it shares some of the same qualities. It might even be a less eventful and more sex-filled movie, straying even further from full-blooded horror, but manages to evoke some of the same weird, hard to define atmosphere. It's a story about passive protagonists sloooooowly being ensnared by the world's least pro-active villains, but I found it weird enough to enjoy the ride.

The sex is is still pretty good and more plentiful, but Larraz threw me a pretty fucking major curveball during the surprisingly graphic (though not hardcore, thankfully) and really long bestiality sex scene between one of the witches and a goat. Nothing else about the movie is particularly disturbing and the rest of the sex is, I think, supposed to be hot, so I was not really sure what was going on here. Hopefully he didn't put that in there thinking it would turn his audience on.

Rating: B-

The Comeback

An American pop star, planning his comeback, goes to a secluded British estate to work on his new material. Instead, he's drawn into a late 70's style slasher-y/mystery type deal.

Slowly but surely I'm getting around to seeing the films of Pete Walker, a British horror director who had his heyday in the 70's. Walker's films are distinguished by being a little sleazy, provocative and exploitation-y while being surprisingly beautifully crafted on a technical level. My favorite so far is probably House of Whipcord, about a group of right-wing psychos who run an illegal women's prison (!) where they abduct and punish those whom they deem to be delinquent. It's got all the sick and pervy and lurid stuff you'd expect from this sort of weird twist on the women's prison genre, but it's wonderfully constructed, has some excellent suspense sequences and is a pretty engrossing offbeat horror movie. It even sneaks in some sly social commentary.

The Comeback is a pretty good slasher/mystery/thriller from the era, mostly held back by slowing down too much during the middle and losing whatever suspense it had been building. It also doesn't help that the main character's music is some awful, unlistenable, sub-Barry Mannilow bullshit that the audience is forced to hear just a little too much of. I mean, how can we like this guy and want him to survive when he's making the world a worse place by writing and releasing this horrible, dickless, Christopher Cross horseshit? Seems like if the killer bumps him off, it'd be a net win for humanity.

Rating: B-

Devil's Nightmare

Seven tourists, each coincidentally representing one of the seven deadly sins (uh, sorta), fall victim to a succubus when they stay overnight at a creepy, old castle.

Another victim to my terrible memory, I recall Devil's Nightmare not really being any good, but at least providing some sleazy fun. At the very least, there's some gratuitous lesbian action and some silly, gimmicky murders.

What's odd is the seven deadly sins angle. All descriptions of the movie really play this element up, and its obvious who a few of the tourists are supposed to be, but the other folks I watched this with and I could not figure out most of them. Even the deaths, which are supposed to ironically mirror the victim's particular sin, become confusing and seemingly unrelated after a while.

Rating: C

Fear in the Night

The young, pretty  new employee at a boarding school believes she has been attacked by a one-armed man, but there's no proof and everyone just seems to think she's paranoid. Conveniently, Peter Cushing plays the headmaster, and he's missing an arm.

Well eff me, I recall enjoying Fear in the Night when I watched it a few weeks ago (edit: now months!), but it's been long enough that the actual details of the film are getting hazy. It seemed to me a well-made, slightly slasher-y mystery/thriller that, while having a mostly standard issue plot, was well constructed, atmospheric and suspenseful. Guess I should have taken some notes, because I don't have a lot to say about this one other than it struck me as one of those British horror movies that feels giallo-influenced; it has similar style and plot mechanics but just doesn't go as far with the weirdness or surrealism.

Rating: B


In this Indonesian slasher-y flick, a group of friends give a stranger a ride home, accept her offer to come inside... and of course find out that her family is a bunch of crazed cannibals.

Macabre co-director Timo Tjahjanto was on my radar for directing a not very good but memorably gross segment in ABCs of Death and for co-directing the only good part of VHS2. Macabre is, in story and structure, an unremarkable Texas Chain Saw-y slasher movie, but it's pretty darn effective nonetheless. It's slickly shot but does not hold back on the gruesome violence, contains several effective set pieces, has a sort of brutal knock-down-drag-out spirit to it, and gives the heroes and villains enough personality that you're more invested in the outcome than you might be in a lesser film.

My main complaint would be the inclusion of an unnecessary supernatural element; the killers are cannibals because for reasons I do not understand it makes them super strong and immortal. It doesn't really make the situation scarier (the whole dismembering and eating people thing is villainous enough), and leads to a lot of scenes where the bad guys seem unkillable until one of the heroes, like, kills them extra hard or something and they die for good.

This is a really good slasher movie if and only if you already like slashers. I don't believe it would win any converts. But if you normally dig the genre, this is a well-made, brutal and intense film that delivers the goods better than most of its peers.

Rating: B

The Dead Pit

Years ago, a doctor at a mental institution caught performing grisly and fatal experiments on his patients is killed by a colleague, who covers up the crimes. Now, a young amnesiac patient (with psychic powers, natch) is receiving strange visions showing that the evil doctor has returned from the dead, bringing a resurrected zombie army of his victims with him.

From the director of the execrable The Lawnmower Man comes an actually pretty fun bit of late 80's silliness. The Dead Pit is a miasma of cliches from other movies about zombies, mental hospitals, mad scientists and psychics all rolled up into low budget-ish but stylized cheap special effect extravaganza. It's one of those movies that, while not bad, you'd hesitate to actually call "good." More importantly, though, it's clearly a movie where they tried, and if the ideas behind it are dumb, they are usually fun as well. Unlike Beyond Dream's Door, the budget is large enough to basically pull off what they are going for, which is sort of a poor man's Stuart Gordon/Sam Raimi/Dan O'Bannon 80's horror with less overt humor.

Rating: B-