Saturday, December 31, 2011

Capsule Review: Of Gods and Men (2010)

Near the end of Xavier Beauvois' OF GODS AND MEN we witness the nine Monks who we've spent the entirety of the film with breaking from their usual routine of chanting, studying or working to sit together and drink wine while listening to a section from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. It's a beautiful, sad moment as emotion fills their faces, the realization that their fate may already have been sealed combining with their intense resilience. The monks have lived in peace within a remote section of Algeria for many years, existing peacefully along the nearby Muslim community, but the rise of terrorist extremists has put them at extreme risk. The film covers their decision to stay despite almost certain death, and the quiet dignity that each man maintains as their faith is tested. Whether they make the right decision isn't made totally clear, but it's filmed in such a calm, dignified way that it's hard not to admire the dedication and devotion of these men, even if misguided. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, it's a deliberately pace and perfectly acted film, and one relaying an unfortunate piece of recent history.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Capsule Review: In the Loop (2009)

Armando Iannucci has been creating hilarious, innovative comedy for decades now in television series' like THE DAY TODAY and I'M ALAN PARTRIDGE, but his most impressive accomplishment has been his uproarious satirical series THE THICK OF IT. The choice to make a feature film adaptation/continuation of the series could have been disastrous, but despite adding a few American names and expanding the scope to cover global tensions (as opposed to the UK-centric focus of the show) the core brilliance - exemplified by Peter Capaldi's hilariously foul-mouthed "enforcer" Malcolm Tucker - is fully intact. In fact, the increased resources make for some of the darkest political comedy this side of DR. STRANGELOVE. The screenplay was rightfully Oscar nominated, but the performers deserve plenty of credit for being able to spit out the wonderful dialogue so convincingly. Hilariously brilliant.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Capsule Review: The Social Network (2010)

The rise (and rise) of a social network impresario could have made for dry and flavorless viewing, but the combination of David Fincher's flashy visuals and Aaron Sorkin's verbal pyrotechnics makes for a consistently engrossing experience. Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg is purposely difficult to digest, playing the real-life billionaire as a near autistic obsessive, pushing away even his closest confidants. The rest of the young ensemble is equally impressive, and Fincher uses special FX work (such as in the face swapping of the The Winklevoss twins) to miraculous effect - though sometimes goes a little overboard during the winter scenes. While sometimes tenuously linked to the real life events that inspired it, it plays as the sort of modern morality tale that is almost frighteningly of the moment. Ably assisted by a terrific (and Oscar winning) score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Reviews/Articles at Daily Grindhouse

Just a brief summary of some of my most recent writing over at Daily Grindhouse.

No-Budget Nightmares - A weekly feature containing both a look at a low-budget feature, as well as interviews with those involved in their creation.

No-Budget Nightmares: The Summer of the Massacre (2006) - Oct 31, 2011

Podcast: Daily Grindhouse Presents – No-Budget Nightmares: The Summer Of The Massacre – Nov 2, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares: Crowbar: The Killings of Wendell Graves (2010) – Nov 7, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares: Interview with Crowbar – The Killings of Wendell Graves director Scott Phillips – Nov 9, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares: Las Vegas Bloodbath (1989) - Nov 14, 2011

Podcast: Daily Grindhouse Presents – No-Budget Nightmares: Las Vegas Bloodbath – Nov 18, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares: Panic Button (2011) – Nov 21, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares – Interview with PANIC BUTTON director Chris Crow – Nov 24, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares: Nightmare Asylum (1992) – Nov 29, 2011

Podcast: Daily Grindhouse Presents – No-Budget Nightmares: Nightmare Asylum – Nov 30, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares – 7 Nights of Darkness (2011) – Dec 5, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares – Interview with 7 Nights Of Darkness director Allen Kellogg – Dec 7, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares – Barely Legal Lesbian Vampires: The Curse of Ed Wood! (1999) – Dec 15, 2011

Podcast: Daily Grindhouse Presents – No-Budget Nightmares: Barely Legal Lesbian Vampire (1999) – Dec 15, 2011

No-Budget Nightmares – A Fistful of Nightmares (Year in Review) - Dec 21, 2011

Enter The Fist - A weekly feature showcasing some historically important Kung-Fu films

Enter The Fist - Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer) (1972)

Enter The Fist - Police Story (1985)

Enter The Fist – The Shaolin Temple (1982)

Enter The Fist – The Kid with the Golden Arm (1979)

Enter The Fist – The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

Enter The Fist – Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Take this Waltz (2011)

The 31st Atlantic Film Festival


While I waited for Take this Waltz to begin, I was forced to listen to three quarters of the two old couples seated behind me try to convince the fourth that Sarah Polley, the film's writer and director, is, indeed, famous in some small way. They really couldn't come up with any examples; they knew that she'd done Away from Her, but they were totally blanking on her acting career, aside from mentioning that she was in that film "about the bus crash." I wanted to shout at them: "she's the kid from Road to Avonlea, for Christ's sake!" She is, essentially, the most Canadian actor in Canada. And that's something.

And, indeed, the fact that Sarah was the face of Road to Avonlea from 1990-1996--when I was ages 9 to 15--left me with a great deal of resentment toward her, which, thankfully, I've been able to brush off. For those unfamiliar with the show, it existed in the same fictional universe as Anne of Green Gables ("fictional" because it features the same characters, not because PEI is imaginary). It won four Emmys, which is impressive, since I didn't know that Canadian television qualified for that award. In any event, what seemed like the show's ubiquitous presence led me, at a young age, to the incorrect impression that Canadian entertainment was focused almost entirely on rural, conflict-free period pieces. How awful. If only I'd known David Cronenberg then...

Anyway, Take This Waltz stars the lovely and talented Michelle Williams, and the lovely and talented Sarah Silverman, and, uh, Seth Rogen. The story is nothing especially new: it focuses on Margot (Michelle Williams), a naive and spritely girl, who is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a seemingly well-meaning fellow, who is writing a cookbook entirely on chicken. At the beginning of the film, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), to whom she has an immediately and profound attraction. This is problematic, since she loves her husband and wants to stay loyal to him, but finds herself drawn to Daniel, who lives directly across the street. And also there's Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), Lou's sister, who happens to be an alcoholic. Domestic drama ensues.

Sure, it's not an original story. So what? People are constantly cheating, or tempted to cheat, or unhappy with their life, or happy with it, but wondering if they can be happier. This shit happens. And Take This Waltz is, for lack of a better word, Canadian, and therefore worth watching.

What does it mean, for a film to be "Canadian"? It's hard to pin down. Just being made in Canada, or by Canadians, doesn't cut it. Most of David Cronenberg's films, up to and including eXistenZ, are very Canadian. The ones afterwards are not so Canadian. Most of Bruce McDonald's films qualify, but especially Highway 61 and Roadkill. Early Atom Egoyan. Norman Jewison is Canadian, but his films are not. Denis Villeneuve's films look too good to be Canadian, but one of them, Maelstrom, is narrated by a fish, and that's unbelievably Canadian. Anything featuring Don McKellar or Sook-Yin Li is Canadian, even if it isn't. Ryan Gosling is going to have to reaffirm his Canadianness soon, or I'll gladly strip him of it. Etc. I can clarify in the comments, if necessary. This list is objective.

Take This Waltz is Canadian because it assaults you with honesty. It doesn't let off anyone easy; the three main characters are all complicit in the infidelity (or the possibility of it). It doesn't make it easy on the audience, either; you can see why Margot is in a conundrum. And also, because it's so goddamn Canadian, everyone is really nice and polite while it's happening, and not in some unbelievable way, either. It also does a good job of effectively mixing dramatic and comedic modes, which can sometimes be tricky: "dramedy" is not a term that excites this particular film-goer.

A lot of the film's honesty comes from Williams. I don't know how to explain it, but Michelle Williams has the most honest face in show business. Her face is a raw nerve. That might not make sense, but that's the best way I can put it.

Based on reading the few message boards I lurk at, and speaking to a couple of people in person, I'm lead to believe that people have really soured on Seth Rogen. He gets a free pass with me. Why? Because the dude has remained unabashedly Canadian. He played a Canadian in Knocked Up and Undeclared, even though the fact of his characters' origins were totally irrelevant to those shows' plots. And here he's undoubtedly taking a pay cut to be in a Sarah Polley movie. That's unheard of. I mean, when I think of other successful Canadian comedic actors, I think of Jim Carrey, for instance, who currently seems about as Canadian as Bill Clinton.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but think about how some films, when focusing on human relationships, want you to take what happens in the two hour running time (or even an individual scene) and accept it as an encapsulation of the whole relationship; in other words, if you're shown some scenes of two people in a bad relationship, you should take it as a given that the relationship, as whole, is like this. But some directors, or artists, don't want it that way: what they're offering you is a snapshot, one that might not be representative of the whole. And it's hard to tell, sometimes, which example you're watching. Margot and Lou's relationship seems very immature--they narrate fantastic ways of murdering each other as a show of endearment--and largely sexless. But is that true of the relationship as a whole, or only the moments offered? The film leaves it up to you, and if you interpret it one way or the other, your sympathies could change.

Anyway, support Canadian films and watch this fucking movie.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sleeping Beauty (2011)


The 31st Atlantic Film Festival

Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty has been described as an erotic drama, or even as erotica. I think that description might be misleading. I suppose that any time that you have a film with lots of nudity and implied sex, you feel obligated to warn the audience, in some fashion, about the subject matter, but "erotica" seems to imply that that subject matter will be, well, erotic. The sex (all off-screen, actually) and nudity in this film is usually just kind of sad and depressing.

Lucy (an astonishingly beautiful Emily Browning) is a student who needs money. Or possibly just wants it. She works two jobs--one as an office assistant, one as a waitress (or bus boy)--and she also engages in medical experiments, which I assume she's being paid for. The medical experiment involves a long tube being inserted into her throat, and down into her chest; the doctor (or scientist) then seems to measure how much air pressure he can put into her. It's, obviously, quite weird. Lucy lives at a friend's house, and her friend's boyfriend (friend? husband? lover?) keeps pestering her for the rent. Lucy then answers an ad in the student newspaper, and finds a job doing a "silver service"; dressed up in her undergarments, she joins a group of semi-nude women as they serve rich old people decadent food.

And then it gets weirder. Lucy soon finds herself offering a rather depressing service: she allows herself to be drugged, so that old rich men may do to her whatever they want--except, for some reason, penetrate her. That, apparently, is out of the question. "Your vagina is a temple," the madam, Clara, tells Lucy. "No, it's not," replies Lucy. Certainly she doesn't feel that way; off the job, she picks up men for sex at a club.

Lucy also has a friend named Birdmann, whom she visits on occasion, usually to supply with vodka. Birdmann seems to be drinking himself to death. This makes Lucy sad, but not so sad as to really do anything about it. They have a very close, very intimate relationship, but it's never revealed if they are, or ever were, lovers.

It's hard to know what to make of Sleeping Beauty. It's disturbing, yes; the fact that these old men want to do whatever they feel like to a young, sleeping woman, is obviously unsettling, and somehow the fact that they don't allow full penetration makes it even more so. This opportunity that the men have--to be with a woman, unobserved, even by the woman--creates even more intimate, and obviously more unequal (and ultimately more pathetic) situation. But the tone seems quite uneven. The stilted dialogue of the old man--there is one who gets an extended monologue--seems almost satiric, or, if not satiric, then just actually bad.

But I think that the film does a lot of things right. It never tries to explain Lucy; we don't really know anything about her. I see her actions, but I don't get to know what motivates these actions. I don't know, for instance, why she needs money--she mentions an alcoholic mother, and she does speak to her, once, on the phone, but you only get Lucy's side of the conversation, and, in any event, you never see her sending money anyway (though she does give her mother her credit card number). Is this an important detail, or a red herring? There's no illumination into her relationship with Birdmann, either; how do they know each other? What is there history? And why does her roommate's boyfriend want her out so badly? Like I said, I think that this is the right decision; it would be difficult to explain Lucy's story, her motivations, and even if you did, you'd risk shifting the focus of the movie away from the situation she's in, and instead making it into a sort of melodrama. In any event, knowing and understanding Lucy wouldn't really get us any further in understanding the weird world she enters. It's less important to know why Lucy is doing what she's doing, than to speculate as to why her johns are doing what they're doing--and their motivation is something that you need to consider for yourself.

And I think that this is tied, in a way, to the fact that a movie about sex never actually shows any sex; sure, it shows some graphic scenes of a sexual nature, but any real sex happens off screen. What does happen on-screen would actually be fairly tame (by art house film standards), but the context tends to make it uncomfortable.

The film is beautifully shot, and I couldn't help but notice how few cuts there were in each scene. This is something that, over time, I've really come to appreciate. If the actors are performing one action, it's usually depicted in one shot. Conversations, which aren't overly verbose, but still involve some back-and-forth dialogue, are also shot without cuts. It slows the pace of the film down, a bit, but it gives you a better appreciation of the actual performances, and comes off as much more natural.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)


The 31st Atlantic Film Festival

It still seems weird that Werner Herzog shot a film in 3D. And it was weird--filing into a sold-out movie theatre with a bunch of elderly cinephiles and middle-aged hipsters, overhearing pretentious discussions about Herzog's "ecstatic truth" in Aguirre, or whatever, and donning 3D glasses to watch a documentary, of all things. But despite the 3D aspect, this was, in the end, a very Werner Herzog-like Werner Herzog film. It had everything you've come to expect from him: a remote location, difficult to shoot in; odd, eccentric characters, mugging for the camera; and Herzog's incomparable narration.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams provides the audience with a tour of the Chauvet Cave, where, in 1994, the earliest cave paintings in human history were discovered--carbon-dating shows that some of them are 35,000 years old (take that, Creationists!). While I certainly don't know much about cave paintings, the ones I remember seeing were always pretty primitive-looking; just a step above stick figures, really. These paintings, on the other hand, are quite involved, and quite graceful; the artists understood shading, for one, and they attempted, in different ways, to capture motion in their still images.

And I have to admit that the 3D format really worked, at least for the scenes in the cave. The artists used the shape of the cave when making their paintings, so it makes sense that Herzog would use a medium that allowed the audience to really see these shapes and contours. Plus, it gives you an uncanny sense of the size and depth of the place. As an added bonus, at times it also gives you the sense of being crowded-in or surrounded; if you were claustrophobic, I actually think you'd have a very hard time sitting through parts of this (the fact that I was relegated to the fourth row probably added to this effect). I couldn't help but get the idea that The Descent needs to be remade in 3D. I imagine that I'm the only one clamoring for that, though.

Like I mentioned, you also get your requisite Herzog eccentrics. The three main culprits is an Einstein-looking anthropologist (or archaeologist--I forget) who tries, unsuccessfully, to reproduce Neolithic hunting techniques; a master perfumer, who attempts to locate caves by smelling them out; and another scientist (I think) decked out head-to-toe in furs, who plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a bone flute.

I will say, though, that there are moments when Herzog seems to almost descend into self-parody. Near the end, we're introduced to a crocodile habitat, featuring some mutated albino crocodiles. And this part is, according to Herzog himself, entirely fictitious. Whatever the case, Herzog wonders aloud what the albino mutant crocodiles would think of the cave paintings. He asks, “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?"

That's some wild shit, Werner.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reviews at Daily Grindhouse!

Hello all!

I've recently started writing reviews and articles for the website Daily Grindhouse, and if you like any of my writing on here - particularly my reviews of no-budget films - you'll love what you'll see over there.

Here are the articles I've posted so far:

No-Budget Nightmares - A weekly feature containing both a look at a low-budget feature, as well as interviews with those involved in their creation.

1) No-Budget Nightmares - An Introduction
2) No-Budget Nightmares - So Mort It Be (2004)
3) No-Budget Nightmares: Interview with So Mort It Be director Fabian Rush

Enter The Fist - A weekly feature showcasing some historically important Kung-Fu films.

1) Enter The Fist - Introduction To The Fist
2) Enter The Fist - Come Drink With Me (1966)

Reviews - Reviews for Exploitation/Grindhouse

1) Superfly (1972)
2) Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975)
3) Turkey Shoot (1982)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sha chu chong wei (aka Breakout From Oppression) (1978)

Well, that was unexpected. Despite being featured in a Martial Arts 50 movie pack, Breakout From Oppression (not to be confused with the 1973 kung-fu film Breakout From Oppression starring Gordon Liu) is actually a fairly competent thriller sunk by some of the absolute worst dubbing you're likely to encounter. There is some slashing and chopping action, but the film has more in common with "seemingly normal people are actually insane" films like Psycho (which, of course, gets a tribute here) or Fatal Attraction then the action films that populate the rest of the collection.

Of course, the actual plot of this film might be a little different than what is presented in this dubbed version. Director Karen Yang has no other credits on the IMDB, and the film was credited as written by Godfrey Ho, a man notorious for editing the work of others together and calling it his own. Thankfully, there isn't a ninja to be found here, but the editing is often bizarre and characters' actions equally so. It's fully possible that this is a severely edited version of the original production, though it's equally possible that this was another half-completed film that Ho "rescued".

Fonda Chiu (Fonda Lynn) has recently been released from prison after an eight year stint for the murder of her married lover, and is looking to forget her past by taking an editor's assistant job at a newspaper in a seaside community. While she was lured by a letter from the President of the company, he's currently missing leaving the staff a bit confused by her arrival. Still, editor Simon Chang (Alan Tam) finds her a job in the office where she quickly thrives - despite the irritance of the editorial manager and the jealousy of young Sheena (Lona Chang). While she hides her background, Simon is soon making the moves on Fonda which leads to some odd behavior from Sheena - who fancies Simon herself, but spends most of her time taking care of her grandmother since the death of her parents.

But here's the twist! Sheena is actually the daughter of Fonda's supposed murder victim, and she's psychotically insane because her mother offed herself after the incident. She's actually keeping the newspaper's president in her basement (and, eventually, kills him), and soon traps poor Simon down there as well. Hints of this nuttiness should be fairly apparent to everyone around her - she cuts the brakes on Fonda's bike, she puts glass in her spring rolls, and she kills Fonda's pet monkey - but it takes a final confrontation between the two ladies (which ends with a decapitation!) to bring things to a... head. Yes, I went there.

Despite an odd premise, along with plenty of slow-building melodrama, Breakout From Oppression actually builds to a rather impressive level of weirdness. While the dubbing will continually raise eyebrows - and cuts the tension off at the knees - once Sheena reveals herself as a loony things get a lot more enjoyable. And violent. Actually, while the level of violence isn't so surprising, there are a few shots: maggots on the President's corpse, a brutal stabbing, and the climactic decapitation - which give the film a surprising kick. Acting quality is difficult to judge, but Lona Chang is properly wild-eyed once her crimes are discovered and Fonda Lynn makes for a suitably spunky protagonist.

But let's talk about that dubbing. Chinese films are notoriously difficult to dub, but here we have the lethal combination of stilted, badly translated dialogue ("Your death alone will dispel my hate!") and actors who appear to be reading their lines from cards. You get the usual mix of British and Australian accents (and actors obviously doing multiple roles), but the performances make even serious lines ("What a bitch. She's
jinxed!") laughable. Add to this some choppy editing - again I wouldn't be surprised if Godfrey Ho had a hand in chopping the final product - and you're likely to find yourself baffled by what seems like a fairly straight-forward maniac tale.

Breakout From Oppression has been altered from its original aspect ratio, and it shows. Shots are almost always much too tight, and many scenes feel like a series of close-ups of faces. Image quality is also very fuzzy and dark, though that's almost to be expected when dealing with a pan and scan transfer of an obscure film of this vintage. A lot of the film takes place in darkness, but it only occasionally lapses into being frustratingly difficult to make out.

I do want to mention the bizarre soundtrack by Stephen Tsang, who also composed music for most of Godfrey Ho's ninja epics. It's memorably weird, with soft synth mixing with strange, experimental-sounding noises. It calls attention to itself a bit too often, but certainly adds to the madness on display.

This is from a Millcreek budget collection of public domain titles, so there's certainly no special features available. On the bright side, we at least get four randomly placed chapter stops. Hooray!

Psycho Killer . Qu'est-ce que c'est. I wish this movie was fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better. While building to a properly demented climax, and with gruesome moments sprinkled throughout, a weak presentation and bad dubbing rob most of the enjoyment from Breakout From Oppression. Perhaps in its unmolested original version it would be able to rise above being an average psycho romp, but in its current (and, to my knowledge, only available) form it's simply too slow moving to recommend.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #39: The Witching (1993)

I like Todd Sheets.

There, I said it.

His movies in this collection have run from terrible (Nightmare Asylum (1992)Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City (1991)) to slightly less terrible (Zombie Rampage (1989/1991)) but he was trying something - making shot-on-video horror films and distributing them - at a time when such a thing was a baffling undertaking. Yeah, most end up being a waste of time, but there is a "let's put on a show!" energy that I can't help but find inspiring. It's not going to stop me from giving my honest opinion about these films, and warning people away when appropriate, but I try to go into each of his productions with an open mind. Now, The Witching wasn't directed by Todd Sheets - fellow genre stalwarts Matthew Jason Walsh and Eric Black do the directing and writing on this one - but Sheets' fingerprints are all over it. He produced, did the cinematography, was the assistant and second unit director and even appears as a demonic acolyte, and of course this was all filmed in Kansas City and features most of the cast from Sheets' previous productions. Whew. So, we know what to expect here.

Except.. it's not terrible. There are parts that even skirt the line of good! I know, I'm as surprised as you are. The Witching features all of the issues inherent with the format and budget - the video quality is particularly bad on this one - but the comical tone, some really fun writing and (crucially) the short sixty minute running time all help smooth over these rough moments. Black and Walsh put more time than expected into the areas which count, and it pays off.

Stewart Goodman (Auggi Alvarez) can't go to the Blacktooth concert because his parents are forcing him to watch the house (and his senile grandmother) while they go to the theater to see Bonnie Franklin's off-Broadway one-woman version of Evita. Even worse, Stewart's dad is threatening to send him to military school, and he has to spend his time with the supremely irritating Morris (a supremely irritating Mike Hellman). While bumbling around the basement ("Maybe we could run away to canada and become lumberjacks"), Stewart and Morris find a secret room containing a book written by Stewart's witch-hunting ancestor Goodman Benny (ugh) which - for some reason - contains the text to open the portal to Limbo. Limbo just happens to contain the Queen of the Witches Morgana of Oberon who Goodman had prevented from building her Pazuzu Configuration machine that is meant to enslave the world. Or, something like that.

If you're guessing that Stewart reads the text (which, of course, includes "klaatu barada nikto") and unlocks a portal to limbo through his fridge ("There is a hallway in my refrigerator!"), then you would be right. "When mom and day get back from the theater, they're going to see this and shit dead puppies!", says Stewart before the two head into the portal where they encounter Morgana (Veronica Orr, from Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City (1991)), as well as her minions Beast and Sluggo (and Scully the puppet imp). Stewart and Morris put a padlock on the fridge before Stew retreats to his room to attempt to clear his head. There he meets Morgana's step-daughter Bethany of Oberon (Dianne O'Connell, who is AWFUL) who says that in order to finish the Pazuzu Configuration, Morgana needs three items:
  • a meat that’s not meat
  • a clock that counts the beats of a heart
  • three drops of virgin blood

Meanwhile Morris and Grandma are joined by Vietnam Vet/UFO enthusiast/nutball Mr. Flopchek to watch Nude Mud Wrestling USA. That is, until a witch crawls out of the television ("Holy leapfrogging shit!") and terrorizes the group before being killed by a pizza delivery gal who happens to have a gun. Got that? Good. Because it only gets weirder from here on out. Scully the imp steals Mr. Flopchek's hot dog (a meat that's not meat) and Morris gets turned into a frog-creature by one of Morgana's hexes. The morphing effect is actually rather impressive for a no-budget film from 1993, but the make-up is less so.

Grandma seems blissfully unaware of what's going on, and opens the locked refrigerator - leading to her immediate kidnap by Beast. Turns out that she has a pacemaker (a clock that counts the beats of a heart), and soon the rest of the crew - including the pizza gal and Mr. Flopchek - head into the portal to retrieve her. Oh, and Stewart has a fight with Sluggo using only blow-up dolls. And frog-Morris gets kidnapped as well (three drops of virgin blood). The whole crew eventually get captured, but Grandma fights off Morgana, destroying her Pazuzu Configuration machine and saving the day. Stewart falls in love with Bethany, Morris gets a kiss from the pizza delivery woman (which turns him back into the pony-tailed geek he was before), and everyone lives happily ever after.

While owing a debt to the Troma films of the period - not to mention Joe Dante's classic The Burbs - The Witching stands fairly confidently as a wild, often ridiculous mash-up of monster movies, pop culture references and anything else the creators could throw at the screen. Unlike the efforts of Todd Sheets, this one looks rather carefully scripted, and some beautifully weird dialogue helps overcome some (really) weak performances and iffy production values. It doesn't take itself very seriously, but it comes to a lot of its humor legitimately through dialogue and character.

But the film's biggest asset is its short running time, which means that when the plot starts to pour out it doesn't let up until the final few minutes. I often decry low-budget films for stretching a minimum of plot to 60 minutes, but here there's an overdose of plot - and that means while much of what we're seeing is low rent (particularly that explosion at the end), it's very rarely boring.

But the acting is seriously bad. Auggi Alvarez is obviously doing his all to make Stewart a bit whiny and unpleasant, but he goes way overboard and his dialogue is seriously stilted. Morris is meant to be an annoying doofus, so I suppose Mike Hellman should get credit for pulling that off, but it's still a tough character to tolerate. And Veronica Orr, who was the best of a bad bunch in Prehistoric Bimbos in Armageddon City (1991) seems to be acting in a different film entirely. But the bad-acting award goes to Dianne O'Connell as Bethany, who seems to be reading every line off of a slowly moving teleprompter. She also has memorably terrible early 90s hair.

The Witching is presented in its original full-frame, and this transfer seems to have been taken directly from a well-worn videotape. Tracking problems, fuzziness, pixelation.. you name it, this has it. It doesn't help that the final ten minutes take place in a dark cavern, which can make detail particularly difficult to make out. Many of these issues won't be new to those from the VHS generation, but it's still occasionally rather rough going. Similarly, there's an audible hiss in the background throughout the entire film, though dialogue is (mercifully) competently recorded. Aside from a couple of cheesy rock songs at the beginning and end there isn't a lot of background music, and what is here is forgettable.

Hey! It's a film in the Bloody Nightmares collection! And that means no chapter stops, and no special features. Too bad, since this looks like it was a blast to make.

An insane mish-mash of comic horror, The Witching delivers the goods in a very specific, no-budget way. Directors/Writers Eric Black and Matthew Jason Walsh obviously relished the opportunity to let loose with bizarre dialogue, weird creatures and strange set-pieces and while their budget frequently trips them up (the locations and make-up often look straight out of a high school play) there's a sense of energy that is too-often missing from these productions. It's not going to win any awards, and the transfer is consistently frustrating, but for those in the right mood there's a lot of fun here. Todd Sheets, I hardly knew ye.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #38: Up For Rent (2006)

Hooray! Another anthology! Actually despite the overwhelmingly piss-poor selection of anthologies in the Bloody Nightmares collection, I tend to welcome their arrival. For one, the short running times of the individual segments at least prevent the material from being interminably stretched (a common problem in this set as a whole), and I - being an eternal optimist - can sustain myself through an awful segment in the hopes that the next one will be an improvement. Thankfully, in the case of Up For Rent the final segment is the best by far, though considering the quality of the other two (and the surrounding story) that's not really saying much. Still, at least by having three different directors - Derek Cole, Shane Cole and Kayla Richardson - there is a minor variation on the styles on display, and unlike some other anthologies (like, ugh,  Scarlet Fry's Junkfood Horrorfest (2007)) there seems to be some attempt at building to an eventual twist or resolution in the individual segments. It's still pretty bad, but there are worthwhile bits here.

As the title would imply, these three stories (with one wraparound segment) all focus on a particular apartment. The implication is that it's cursed, though we don't really learn that from the stories. In fact, the actual fates in the individual segments don't seem to connect to the apartment at all. It's simply that a lot of bad stuff has happened there We begin with a young couple being shown around the modest location by a renter obviously aware of its troubled history. Soon we're launched into the first story.

Push concerns Cynthia Caldwell, a young female film director (her friend compares her to Almodóvar. How cute!) pushed to the edge by a suspicion that her boyfriend is cheating on her with his secretary. Haunted by the memories of her own mother's abuse, her mind rapidly deteriorates until she ends up stabbing her dude to death. Of course the bulk of her mental anguish happens in the HAUNTED apartment. But the twist is that he was never really cheating at all! In fact, he was getting her flowers and the rest was all a big misunderstanding! What a nut! 

This first story - directed by Kayla Richardson - might actually have been fairly effective, but is sabotaged by a lead performance that seems completely disinterested. Sharon Savene as Cynthia not only looks a bit like Shelley Duvall, a definite strike against her, but completely fails at showing any of the emotional damage that her character is supposed to be experiencing. Her mental breakdown becomes completely unbelievable, and her eventual insanity becomes laughable. I'd like to believe that the director was at least attempting to make a statement about the cycle of abuse, but by hanging the entire thing on the lead it never ends up coming together. A disappointment. 

The second segment is called Eye to Eye and centers on a twisted necrophiliac serial killer (a believably unhinged Derek Plonka - who looks disturbingly like Robert Sean Leonard) who is being tracked by a pair of frustrated cops. The killer is - of course - staying in the expected apartment, murdering young women and spending his time talking to their corpses (while placing plastic bags over their heads) and just generally being a total nutball. The big reveal at the end is that there's actually a copycat killer targeting the same young ladies and using similar methods, leading to a brief skirmish that leaves one of the killers dead. Which one? Guess. 

This one ends just as things are starting to get interesting, but is a definite improvement over Push. For one, it's less reliant on acting and more focused on the various scenes of murder and the investigation of the killings. There's even a bit of comic relief where the two cops accidentally stumble upon an S&M couple doing some role-playing. Shane Cole handles the direction, and it's a bit more reliant on handheld camerawork than the static camera of the first segment. It's also, unsurprisingly, a bit more grisly. There's more blood than gore in the film, but the sexual content gives this segment a bit more edge.

Wanna-Be Deadly is the third segment of the anthology, and is by far the best thanks to a healthy dose of mostly effective humor. John (Greg Ashamalla) is an office drone who spends his days fantasizing about being a memorable serial killer (these fantasy sequences take the form of a newscast where co-workers talk about how mysterious and effective he is), while his actual murders feature general disdain from the pursuing Detective Smith and being labeled as The Plastic Killer (as opposed to his preferred moniker of The Micron Murderer). This time the twist is that Detective Smith has also been killing people, and has intercepted evidence from John that suggests that some of the killings he's been accused of were committed by someone else.

Ashamalla does a terrific job as the psycho who just wants a little respect, while Ed Cole as Detective Smith brings the proper amount of smarm and dickishness to his part. Even the direction (by Derek Cole) and editing are a step above the other two entries, with small flourishes (like John's inner monologue actually being played by a second actor) working quite well. The humor skirts the line of bad taste but it works, and even the fake newscast (a thorn in my side in this collection) is a bit more palatable when presented as one of John's bizarre fantasies.

The framing story ends with the couple (having rented the apartment) fighting over possible infidelity (just like in Push!) with one contemplating a knife before the closing credits roll. Will the accursed apartment take another victim for some reason? Eh. Who cares?

As with most of the films from the mid-2000s featured in the Bloody Nightmares collection, Up For Rent looks absolutely fine in its full-screen presentation, but features the usual video glitches now common in most of the featured transfers. Much more distracting are consistent audio drop-outs throughout the entire running time of the film, which was particularly noticeable since the sound quality is otherwise quite good with most dialogue being perfectly intelligible. It doesn't kill the entire thing, but proves to be rather irritating once you start noticing their frequency. The soundtrack is all over the place, with moody ambient pieces (by Peter Stone) mixing with industrial music from the bands Bile and Exorcist.

As with all of the films in the Bloody Nightmares collection, we unfortunately are not even treated to chapter stops (which would be particularly useful in an anthology film like this), and there are no special features.

Once again the anthology format proves tough to crack as a majority of Up For Rent, despite moments of inspiration, is simply a waste of time. The creators never really sell the theme appropriately, and the first segment is so terrible it would turn away all but the most patient viewers. Wanna-Be Deadly is the gem here, but even it falls victim to sound issues despite its unique stabs (ha!) at humor and some impressive performances. Inconsistency is simply a reality of this format and while this anthology is better than some in the collection, it simply never hits the mark. Not worth your time.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Capsule Review: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Despite some shaky melodrama and some last-minute moralizing that can't help but come off as trite, Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage is a beautiful and haunting film featuring a collection of unforgettable images. Utilizing a narrative that travels seamlessly into a series of flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks), the film theorizes that when a person dies at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve they are conscripted to spend the year picking up the souls of the dead and placing them in a phantom carriage. David Holm, a real drunken bastard, is killed in a fight immediately after telling this story, and is visited by his friend who died the previous year at the same moment - and has spent the year wielding the scythe. We're then treated to flashbacks of Holm's awful behavior, the dissolution of his marriage, and the Salvation Army nurse who was committed to saving him. Based on the novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Wit­ness! by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, The Phantom Carriage is best known for its groundbreaking special effects, which are eerily effective despite their simplistic nature. An obvious influence on the films of Ingmar Bergman, The Phantom Carriage is not only an essential piece of Swedish cinema history, with its impressive cross-cutting, flashback structure and effects, but equally important to the development of film as a whole.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Capsule Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Audiences can be forgiven for not quite knowing what to expect from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds upon its release in 2009. Perhaps shaken by the lukewarm (and in some cases hostile) response to his (along with Robert Rodriguez) Grindhouse double feature, Tarantino decided to revist one of his most anticipated scripts - ostensibly another genre mash-up in the vein of Kill Bill- but this time taking place near the end of World War II. The (reasonable) anticipation was that this would be a remake of Enzo G. Castellari's film The Inglorious Bastards (it's not), or perhaps a tribute to the "men on a mission" films released after the success of The Dirty Dozen (not really). These mixed expectations certainly contributed to a disasterous Cannes showing, but somehow despite the possible confusion - and a hasty re-edit - it ended up being Tarantino's most successful film, as well as leading to numerous award nominations. Somehow it manages to feel just like a Tarantino film - long, self indulgent scenes of dialogue, bravura camera work, pop-culture references, close-ups of feet - but with hints of a filmmaker ready to jump to an entire other level. As usual he pairs his dialogue with scenes of cathartic extreme violence, but these scenes absolutely crackle with tension - particularly the opening sequence and an attempted meeting at a bar that goes awry. Some audacious choices near the end may have confused some, but this may very well be Tarantino's most wholly satisfying film - thanks in no small part to a collection of wonderful, international performers.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rolling Thunder (1977)

After the critical and commercial success of Taxi Driver (1976), the door was suddenly swung open for filmed tales of damaged Vietnam veterans trying and failing to reintegrate back into American society. While The Exterminator (1980) and First Blood (1982) (as well as dozens of knock-offs) were later able to mine this material for less cerebral thrills, writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and no-nonsense director John Flynn paired the subject with that of the popular revenge thrillers of the time to create an entirely new kind of entertainment. Praised by a slew of directors – chief among them Quentin Tarantino, who named his short-lived distribution company after the film – it has remained underappreciated due to not being easily available since its release, but remains ripe for rediscovery by genre fans.

Major Charles Rane (a steely William Devane) returns home from a Vietnamese prison camp to find a San Antonio that he can barely recognize. While the city treats him like a hero, his wife has moved on to another man and his son barely remember him. His nights are plagued by memories of the torture he received, and he can barely contain his distaste for the world he’s now forced to live in. It’s only after a brutal attack that leaves his family dead and his arm mutilated in a garbage disposal that his life finally regains purpose as he methodically hunts down and kills the men who’ve wronged him, with the help of fellow POW Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and barmaid Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes). The final confrontation in an El Paso whorehouse is rightfully legendary, featuring sudden, intense violence that maintains its ability to shock.

What is most surprising about Rolling Thunder as a revenge story is how deliberately slow it is in getting to its retribution The first half hour plays as a nuanced character study with little hint of the violence that is ahead. These scenes are bravely anchored on the performance by Devane, and he’s fabulous in a role that requires intense restraint with trauma lurking just behind his eyes. This is a man who has learned to embrace the violence and pain of his imprisonment, demonstrated in a telling conversation with his wife’s new beau where he states “That's how you beat people who torture you. You learn to love 'em”. He’s not visibly broken, but his mental state is in shambles.

The eventual attack occurs entirely without warning – Major Rane comes home to find a group of thugs waiting to extort the recent gift of silver dollars that he received from the city – and their attack is brutal. Rane, used to brutal treatment, is completely silent, but his returning family seal their fate by walking in on the violence. Director John Flynn (The Jerusalem File (1972), Defiance (1980)) is wisely restrained during this scene, though it’s still a vicious and disturbing assault. The attackers are a quite a wonderfully sleazy collection, including James Best (best known as Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) as Tex, and the wonderful character actor Luke Askew as the memorably named Automatic Slim.

After a long hospital stay where his wrist is fitted with a hook, Rane begins his bloody search for revenge in Mexico. Linda Haynes as his “groupie” and love interest doesn’t really provide much, but she is a necessary part of his plan for tracking down the assailants. These scenes are notable for their air of menace before sudden punctuations of violence as the Major gets closer to his targets. Discovering that they’ve settled in El Paso, Rane gets together with fellow POW and friend Johnny Vohden – who is more visibly affected by his experiences during the war - who jumps at the opportunity to be part of the assault. Tommy Lee Jones looks shockingly young here, but the scenes of him obviously failing to adjust to his new family life are a highlight. He also gets perhaps the best line when asked by a prostitute what he’s planning after Rane turns the whorehouse (which contains Automatic Slim and the rest of his gang) into a shooting gallery: “I'm gonna kill a bunch of people.”

The film ends suddenly, violently. There is no relief here. No exhale and no victory. You get the feeling that these men simply have no existence outside of the violence they’ve caused. No future to look forward to. Their mission complete, the credits simply roll and we’re left to ponder what years of intense violence can do to the minds of men. Many films featuring traumatized vets were to follow, but few carry the weight and intensity (or, it must be admitted, thrills) of this lost classic. One of the great revenge films, and highly recommended.

The Timeslip (2011)

Confirming much of the potential hinted at in their earlier no-budget zombie epic The Veil, Richard and Jonathan Chance get an opportunity to show off their impressive directing and acting chops in their intriguingly existential science-fiction short film The Timeslip. A visibly shaken and confused "modern man" (played by Richard Chance) finds himself randomly whisked from the busy streets of London - courtesy of the titular timeslip - and placed in a seemingly endless forest where he soon finds himself pursued by a collection of tribesman. Working again from minimal resources, the brothers show admirable confidence in their choice to use nearly no spoken dialogue and instead rely entirely on a wonderful (and diverse) soundtrack and their visual acumen. Tension wrung from early scenes builds to a formidable chase through the woods, eventually dumping the lead quite unceremoniously where he began. Editing is tight and builds to a surprisingly exciting climax, a rarity in any low-budget production. An original and fascinating piece.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Night Moves (1975)

"You mind if I ask you what the set-up is?"

NIGHT MOVES rests almost entirely on the character of Harry Moseby, a retired football player turned cut-rate private eye who stumbles into a complex smuggling operation while tracking a missing girl. Gene Hackman plays Moseby with a weary eye and wounded pride. He's an average operator, often behind on the score. He trades on his lingering sports fame and a kind of blustery toughness to make easy cases. Harry Moseby is no hero. He's too tired, too depressed, and too slow on the uptake to be of any real use to anyone, including his wife and the client he's trying to find.

That we buy into Moseby's character is essential because the plot of the film is deliberately misleading, hiding and revealing in equal amounts to leave both character and audience in the dark: there's a missing girl, some shady stuntmen, sailors, and mechanics, a boozed out mother with a bad history, and a wary ex-stripper whose motivations are suspect only because it seems Harry can't trust a woman regardless of her intentions. These characters revolve around each other in a sort of pointless circling centered around Harry and his inability to make heads-or-tails out of their greater relationship. When the final piece of the puzzle is revealed, the result is only more enigmatic, bleak, and disheartening. There's no answer for Harry, nothing to solve. As he himself stated, Harry Moseby doesn't so much solve cases as stumble into their resolution. In that sense, it's almost classically noir, in that he did a lot of work but little good. Almost everyone involved is dead and Harry's got nothing to show for it except a wounded leg.

Arthur Penn directed NIGHT MOVES as a meditation through genre on the existential ennui of the post-Watergate era. And as an ambitious experiment in that direction, it fails to deliver. A straight forward, slightly nuanced noir would've worked better in keeping the pace and setting out the detail. Instead, NIGHT MOVES feels waterlogged. A sub-plot involving Moseby and his wife starts promising on the thrill of adultery but settles into a mawkish exploration of Moseby's childhood abandonment issues and his resultant false bravado in the face of emotion. This really sidetracks the main premise and undermines the nuanced work that Hackman was doing with the character. All the layering was already there, in his face and movement and terseness. Hackman nailed the character, no explication necessary.

Another fault is Penn's overall direction and cinematic vision. The film is visually unengaging. Aside from a thrilling stunt and some beautiful shots at the finish, the composition, framing, and editing are all sub-standard (even by 70's thriller standards). You'd never guess that such an acclaimed director was at the helm. The entire films looks and feels flat. If it weren't for Hackman's magnetism and profound abilities as an actor, NIGHT MOVES really wouldn't be worth watching. For all it's acclaim, I was left wanting, intrigued more by the squandered potential than by what was actually delivered.

One thing I did like about the film is that it proves that not all noir films need dark alleys and deepening shadows to bring across their brooding cynicism and despair. NIGHT MOVES is so sun-drenched as to be bleached out. There's no room for romance, hope, and optimism under such a bright and unrelenting sky.

NIGHT MOVES (Penn, USA, 1975)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bloody Nightmares #37: Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank (2006)

When pondering these Bloody Nightmares films, I often start to wonder about the motivations that led to them coming into existence. It takes a lot of passion, sweat and teamwork to make a film - not to mention generally (hopefully?) a modicum of talent - so when I see so much obvious work go into something so terrible, it makes me truly curious about the thought process behind it. I know well how the development of a movie can change from the initial writing to the actual production (and post-production), and how you're often at the mercy of factors beyond your control. These issues are amplified when dealing with low (or no) budgets and inexperienced actors and crew. In the end you simply want something you can be proud of, something that hopefully can provide status for everyone involved, and maybe, just maybe, make a little money off of the proceedings. Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank seems to have fairly modest goals - blood and boobs with a few laughs thrown in is a time-tested tradition - but somewhere between conception to birth something clearly went off the rails.

I mentioned some of the issues regarding working with low budgets, and here it appears the filmmakers had to deal with a nightmare situation: a lead actor leaving the production before it was finished. I'm only guessing on this as I haven't read anything confirming it, but when a seemingly major character dies half way through the movie in a scene which makes little sense in context - and the director just happens to hide her face throughout - it's not difficult to work out what occurred. I'll give director Kirk Bowman credit for at least trying to piece things together - another character is quickly introduced and given lines almost certainly meant for the original actress - but it makes an already shaky production nearly incoherent. Even worse, it makes it look unprofessional. It would be neglectful to not mention that the "replacement" actress also bares her breasts, which may have been a contributing factor.

For a film with such seemingly simplistic motivations, the actual plot is baffling, which isn't helped by the massive number of characters introduced at the beginning. We start with the lovely Samantha (Heidi Brucker, who acquits herself well and really deserves better), an archaeology student who finds herself joining a team searching for an ancient jewel-box in the mountains of Burbank. Supposedly the jewels are cursed - a theory quickly confirmed when two of the students wander off before almost literally tripping over them. The gal opens up the box which leads her to immediately strip down to her underwear, rubbing the jewels all over herself and growing some (really terribly looking) plastic fangs. She eats her male companion, while the rest of the party ignores their disappearance and head home.

However, Samantha's dickish boyfriend Gary (Danny Kitz) has (somehow) smuggled the jewels back in the hopes of trading them for some heavy petting. Samantha - offended - runs off in a huff, leading Gary to go to a competing archaeology group who are only too happy to accept the artifact, which rapidly leads two of them to turn into the titular bloodsucking babes. They strip down and eat the gardener, which is displayed in some jaw-droppingly awful special FX. Seriously. Check out this screen shot.

But that's not all! During all of this Chelsea (Christina Caporale), the head of the first archaeology group, is accosted by mountain man Zack (Danilo Mancinelli) - who had been spying on the group and knows how quickly the awful curse can spread. Discovering that Gary has the jewels, the two try to track him down but their efforts are quickly thwarted when - wait for it - Chelsea (or someone that looks an awful lot like her) is randomly stabbed to death in a parking lot. All seems lost, until Zack's friend Felicity shows up and somehow fills exactly the role that Chelsea's death left empty. What luck!

Samantha, searching for Gary, wanders in on the competing group chowing down on their gardener and attempts to call Chelsea for help. But Chelsea is really, really dead (are there no police in Burbank?) so she reaches Zack and fake Chelsea instead, who come to her rescue and explain to her that the jewels (and curse) can only be destroyed by throwing them into the ocean. This bit of exposition comes with the three characters just hanging out at the beach, even though they KNOW that Gary has the jewels. Somehow, a few random characters also dig up a few of the jewels out of the sand - this part is particularly confusing -  which leads to a few more rubber body parts being spread around.

After that there's some exposition, and Gary shows up at a bar with the jewel box leading to MORE people getting eaten. Thankfully, Samantha tracks him down and - after Zack and Felicity have a shag session - the whole bunch get together and toss the jewels into the ocean. But wait! Before all that we get a cameo from the director as someone from the "archaeological society", who proves to actually be an actor hired by the competing archaeological group in an attempt to steal the jewel box. Bowman actually does really well in his brief role before being chased off when our intrepid heroes discover his true motivation. Foes vanquished, the box gets tossed into the ocean - making use of the worst hammer throw ever caught on film - and everyone lives happily ever after.

Actually, there's an eye rolling "trick" ending before all is said and done. Let's never speak of it again.

Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank wants to be something that it's not - namely, a legitimately funny and gory thrill-ride with smatterings of cheesecake nudity. Unfortunately the comedy is almost wholly unsuccessful, and the gore is generally pathetic with a few notably awful "special effects" scenes which look to have been assembled in MS Paint. There are lots of indistinguishable women prancing around in their underwear (and gamely nibbling at rubbery limbs), but there's nothing titillating about the amount of needless padding and confusing exposition shoe-horned into many scenes. There are also some obvious continuity issues - once scene has a character come out of a shower only to have dry hair as she rounds a corner - and sound recording issues plague many scenes, making the whole production seem rough and unfinished.

It's not a total waste, however. While the acting is inconsistent, at least most of the cast give a strong effort, with Heidi Brucker (as Samantha) and Danilo Mancinelli (as Zack) doing an excellent job under the circumstances. The music seems to be a mix of original material (by a number of different artists) and library material, but it's introduced well and punctuates a few scenes impressively. It's also shot in a number of attractive locations throughout Burbank, and the choice to film most scenes in the daytime at least helps avoid many of the lighting issues which affect many low-budget productions.

Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank is presented in its original 1.78 : 1 aspect ratio, though the transfer is surprisingly rough considering it's a comparatively recent film. Obviously shot on digital video, there is constant haloing throughout and the usual glitches and skipped frames that have appeared in a number of these productions. It's important to remember that by attempting to fit four films on a single DVD, the Bloody Nightmares collection doesn't present most of them at near optimum image quality. It's watchable, but unimpressive. There are some significant sound issues in a few scenes with background noise and poor recording making dialogue difficult to hear, but if you've watched up to that point it's unlikely to be the thing that tips you over the edge to stop actually watching.

It's part of the Bloody Nightmares collection, so don't go expecting chapter stops or bonus features. Would actually be quite interested to hear some behind-the-scenes dirt on this one. Guess I'll just have to stalk Kirk Bowman on Twitter instead.

An ambitious, though unsuccessful, attempt at horror comedy, Bloodsucking Babes from Burbank wears its intentions on its sleeve, but is neither funny enough - nor scary enough - to be anything but a confusing mish-mash of genres. While rarely boring, production issues are distracting enough to keep most audience members away, and the story is confusing and rarely engaging. While there are flickers of talent from the cast and director, this one is best left dead and buried. 

Semum (2008)

The weight of professional and personal responsibility has been crushing as of late and it has all but completely denied me the ability to do the things I enjoy most. This malaise I have developed over the past six months is probably the driving force behind my recent focus on broadening my horror movie horizon.

My primary focus as of late has been on Turkish horror films. As formulaic and derivative as movies can often be, I still find foreign films to be fascinating windows into the culture of countries I've never visited and this was my main reason for seeking out these particular motion pictures.

As wonderfully addressed in the ongoing Turner Classic series, Race & Hollywood: Arab Images In Film, the onscreen persona of the Muslim has always been less than flattering and I saw my journey through Turkish horror as an opportunity to see Turkish society and Muslim culture through their lens rather than the lens of Hollywood.

I had heard quite a bit of chatter about a 2008 film entitled Semum, so I decided that this should be the first one I watched. I knew I was in for some rough chop when my research turned up the notion that Semum was "based on actual events."

Hasan Karacadağ's Semum starts off rather ominously as the defiant forces of Hell and damnation (the Djinn in Islamic mythology) issue a direct threat to the more benevolent forces in the cosmos. Their intent is to rebel against the mandate of Heaven by taking out their frustration over being banished from the sight of God by tormenting the beings in the universe most beloved by God.

Naturally, that's us.

Humans... wonderfully oblivious to the machinations of the cosmic forces acting against us...

The very next scene may as well be from Poltergeist as we peep in on Canan (Ayça İnci) and her husband Volkan (Burak Hakkı) as they go through the final bit of financial wrangling needed to purchase their brand new house in the suburbs near Istanbul.

All seems bucolic, but we know that won't last for long. As time progresses, Canan begins to have odd experiences that start off as isolated noises and progress dramatically from hallucinations to wild, out-of-body experiences.

Before too long, poor Canan's mind and body become the battlefields in the war between the forces of good and evil.

My experience with Semum was a mixed bag to be honest; a journey filled with remarkable extremes.

The best thing about this movie is the portrayals of the characters. Semum is chock full of horror staples. Everyone is present including the fearful wife, the doubting husband, and even the creepy gardener.

Derivative though it may seem to be, I found these depictions to be refreshing. Here were folks that, for better or worse, acted like "normal people."

The trappings of stereotypical depictions of Muslims were stripped away and replaced by a husband that loved his wife, a terrified wife helpless against the demon that ravages her soul, and a creepy gardener acting suitably creepy.

Things in Semum started to break down for me at the worst possible time...

When the movie was supposed to be frightening...

What started off as an interesting premise ultimately devolved into a formulaic possession film not quite as horrible as Exorcist The Heretic but not even on caliber with lower range but entertaining fare like the blaxsploitation classic, JD's Revenge.

The CGI climactic showdown between the film's version of Father Merrin and the evil Djinn seems to draw more inspiration from Street Fighter II Turbo than it does the Koran and it is so campy as to be completely laughable.

I forgave this transgression, though. If you expect every horror film audience around the world to accept the same standards as North American gore hounds do, you'd be quite wrong.

Turkish horror is a genre still in search of its identity. Though the genre makes admirable strides to present itself in a more progressive light, cultural forces still hamper its development.

Directors like Karacadağ are fearful of making these films too scary as they might either frighten off a slowly developing fanbase or draw the wrath of fundamentalist schools of thought that are entrenched in Turkish society. Hence, there is always a bit of humor, camp, or "edutainment" thrown in for good measure.

As much as I'd like to consider myself to be a connoisseur of world cinema, I still wrestle with some of the cultural nuances. This is perhaps a bit of hypocrisy on my part as I commend Karacadağ for giving me non-stereotypical Muslim characters yet blast him for not crafting a film more in line with my American expectations of what a horror film should be.

Therefore, as much as I found experience with Semum to be somewhat disappointing, I cannot completely condemn the film. If I do, I may as well write a scathing review of Ring and base my critique on the grounds that Rinko does not act in a manner befitting a person with American sensibilities concerning the unknown.

To fully appreciate the Turkish perspective when it comes to horror films, I clearly need to watch more Turkish horror films.