Friday, 31 October 2008

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #6 - The Resurrection

October is pretty much done and I've really been enjoying putting the spotlight on my horror viewing. I expect I'll continue some focus on horror films deep into November - though sprinkling in some other recent releases ("Silent Light", the Kaurismaki Eclipse set and the recent Jean-Pierre Melville discs from Criterion to name a few) - but I'm not sure if I'll continue with the Basking posts yet.

Here's a few more recently viewed:

Bay Of Blood (1971 - Mario Bava) - An early slasher picture from Bava that fits into his style (bright colours and great sets) and takes a bit of a different slant on the killer(s). The acting and dubbing is annoying to a certain extent, but in this case Bava makes you forget it. And let's just say the makers of "Friday The 13th" (and many of the other slashers of the late 70s and early 80s) have a great deal to owe Mr. Bava.

Dementia (1955 - John Parker) - Well here's a spiffy little film...First made in 1953, the original "Dementia" was a 56 minute dialogue-free experience of a woman losing her grip on sanity. It shuffles along in the shadows and her dreams and you can never quite tell what is real and what is perhaps something she has just imagined. Released in 1955 to scant viewership, it was recut with added narration to become "Daughter Of Horror" and released again a few years later. Needless to say, I thought the original version was just fine without any further explanation.

Bloody Reunion (2006 - Dae-wung Lim) - Korean horror movie that never seems to execute or follow through on its promise or even on individual moments in the film. Perhaps it was an exercise by the filmmakers to purposely set up so many scenes of anticipation and frame them in such a way that you expect something to happen - and then nothing does. As for the plot, former elementary students of a dying teacher gather together to make her feel loved, but maybe things aren't all as rosy as she initially thinks. There's good scenes and even a few toe-curling ones, but along with a pointless "Ha, we fooled you! Nothing was what it seemed!" ending, it just never quite managed to hold interest.

The Old Dark House (1932 - James Whale) - A bickering husband and wife plus their free-spirited friend are trapped in a huge storm that's wiping out the roads, so they take shelter in an old mansion. The house isn't empty though as it's occupied by the Femm family - brother and sister plus their manservant Morgan (played by Boris Karloff). Two other travelers find their way there and as they try to settle in for the night, some of the secrets of the house and the family get revealed. I'd love to see this in a pristine print as Whale obviously composed frames and shadows in just the right way to lend additional mystery or creepiness to certain scenes. A very fun movie.

Gothic (1986 - Ken Russell) - An imaginative take on how Mary Shelley (technically still Godwin at this point) came up with the idea of Frankenstein during a wild visit to Lord Byron's mansion with her lover Peter Shelley and half-sister Claire. During drug fueled parlour games, ghost stories are bandied about and personal demons are brought to the fore. And pretty much everybody freaks out. The flowery prose of the writers makes for some long winded moments, but the entire film has a sense of fun mixed in with some genuinely disturbing moments.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "I Sell The Dead"

The closing film of the 2008 Toronto After Dark Film Festival was also a North American premiere and the 4th sellout of the week. In only its second public showing, Glenn McQuaid's "I Sell the Dead" was a fun way to close down the festival - particularly due to having not only McQuaid himself present for the Q&A, but also some of the stars of the film: Brenda Cooney, the very enthusiastic Larry Fessenden and Angus Scrimm (best known as The Tall Man from the Phantasm films).

To be honest, I wasn't overly looking forward to it initially...The trailer didn't really grab me and it felt as if it might be somewhat bland. But we've seen trailers bely the film's real content before and this was a good example. A pair of grave robbers (Fessenden and Dominic Monaghan) are captured and sentenced to death. While spending his last night in his cell before his pending morning execution, Arthur (Monaghan) is visited by a priest (Ron Perlman) who wants him to confess all of his dirty deeds. In flashback we retrace Arthur's life of grave robbing - from his first outing with Willie Grimes (Fessenden) through some rather odd encounters with members of the undead (vampires, zombies, etc.). The flashbacks are good fun especially when they come in contact with these beasts who have risen from their graves. They discover that there are quite a few customers who will pay much higher prices for the undead then for the actual dead. You can even do fun parlour tricks with the undead as Grimes shows to Arthur by repeatedly pulling out a wooden stake to allow the beast to come back to life and then pushing it back in to silence it again.

McQuaid mentioned afterwards that one of his influences were classic old Amicus horror anthologies like "Asylum", "Tales From The Crypt" and "The Vault Of Horror". Definitely fine influences in my book and the film certainly has a bit of that episodic feel as it keeps coming back to the wrap around story in the cell with the priest and Arthur. Unfortunately it spends a bit too much time with long stretches of dialogue between the two of them during these scenes - it's not that those sections are bad, but they tend to drag the energy out of the film. It just slows the film down when most of the audience is itching to get to the next story.

So if that's a bit of criticism directed at the film, it's only because those flashback scenes are so well done and quite funny. Between alien corpses getting beamed up and beach zombies being terrified of vampires, the film really brings in several new angles on well-trod territory. But the biggest reason is likely the characters themselves - the duo of Willie Grimes and Arthur make an interesting pair whose continuing adventures might be fun to follow. More than one person after the film mentioned how they would love to see a TV series built around the two characters. I'd have to agree - there's a great deal of potential here.

The only other drawback was that the copy of the film we saw was very dark and lost a great deal of contrast. I'd love to see this again from a real print, especially if they could tighten up the scenes in between the different adventures (though the conclusion to the priest and Arthur story is a dandy one). With luck, this might find decent distribution.

"Treevenge" How great was this short? Dubbed the first ever Christmas Tree exploitation film, it follows through on its promise in spades, spills blood all over the streets of the suburbs, tosses in all sorts of funny business in the background and makes you believe trees can communicate with each other ("You're scaring the saplings!"). Oh, and one of the best final "kill" scenes ever.

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "Lazer Ghosts 2: Return To Laser Cove" (short film)

"Come with me, if you don't want to be dead".

One of the very best things I saw all week was the short film "Lazer Ghosts 2: Return To Laser Cove". Made to seem like a trailer for the film of the same name (there isn't actually a Lazer Ghosts 1 - but dammit there should be), it's really a love letter of sorts to late 70s and early 80s cheesy horror and sci-fi. The goofy green laser effects mix in perfect doses with the cornball script and purposely off-kilter acting.

Made by a team of filmmakers from Canada under the name Astron-6 Video, they have several other videos under their belts with titles like "No Matter What...You're Dead!" and "The Sweatlodge On Skull Rock". Their titles alone scream brilliance. And apparently they are going to release some of this stuff including their only full length feature film "Goreblade: Warrior King Of The Universe" (See? Brilliance!) on DVD sometime soon.

In the case of Lazer Ghosts 2, a pack of evil laser-equipped ghosts led by the even evil-er spirit of Einstein fight against a geeky guy, a cop who follows his own rules and a sexy scientist. Gold.

Here's the whole thing below. It's actually probably longer than any trailer you've ever seen (with like the last half being the actual end of the film that the first half was hyping), but by the end you really wish there was an entire feature film by this name. It's even better when you see it with a crowd on a big screen and just laugh until it hurts.

This short played before "Mutant Chronicles" and put it to shame. In 9 minutes it packed in more entertainment than the feature did in 111.

Update: As James pointed out in a comment below, I forgot to include the name of the director. His name is Steven Kostanski and he has a bunch more stuff available at his web site.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "Home Movie"

The honour of creepiest film of Toronto After Dark this year definitely goes to Christopher Denham's "Home Movie". Under the guise of found footage, the entire film is shot from the point of view of one of the members of a family (whoever happens to be filming with the family camera at a given time) - Dad (a pastor), Mom (a child psychologist) or one of the kids. Via moments taken mostly from holidays or special events when you would want to preserve some memories, we slowly see the children become more and more evil. A very cold-blooded evil. They crush a frog in vice grips. They crucify their cat. Then they set their sights on their parents. And the atmosphere becomes stifling.

Because of their jobs, it seems that the parents don't spend a lot of simple "quality" time with their kids. Adrian Pasdar nails the annoying "I'm such a comedian" father (a little too well - he was starting to bug the hell out of me) who likely is so busy with his congregation that the only time he spends with the kids is when he's videotaping them - so he's gotta make it look great for the camera. Mom deliberates about what to do with other kids and sometimes uses the camera to record her own case files. It's only really after the family has moved to a secluded house do the kids start to act bizarrely. Because of the nature of the behaviour, Dad wants to perform an exorcism, while Mom wants to treat with medication. Their approaches towards their children seem to follow along with how they would treat a patient or a parishoner. They seem to have forgotten how to actually "parent".

The danger with these types of films is that you have to be willing to believe that what is caught on film is all by accident - that someone with a camera would be willing to continue filming even with horrendous things happening around them. In this case it works and it works very well. Several of the disturbing moments are actually cut off as the parent filming suddenly jerks the camera or turns it off at the realization of what they are seeing through their viewfinder. There's likely some moments later in the film where you could probably question why the taping continues, but it doesn't matter - by then you've bought into the concept and you're waiting for what will happen next. Some of the most effective moments are the quick pans to one side of the room followed by a quick pan back to something new in the frame - perhaps both children standing there when moments ago they were lying down.

A walk through a few rooms late at night can be enormously tense and whether it pays off in a sudden fright or not, it keeps you right on the edge. Partially, that's due to the early slowness of the film that takes its time building the behavioural patterns of the children. It's also due to some terrific camerawork which very naturally pulls in the elements required into the frame. The concept's conventions get toyed with even more as the video you are watching will suddenly reverse itself or fast forward to later in a scene. There's even a few sections where another scene is edited in while the initial audio continues. It's a great trick especially when you understand why it's taking place.

But it's all about the atmosphere. The creepy, dread-filled atmosphere.

A reversal of sorts was the theme for tonight's opening short film "Auburn Hills Breakdown". Instead of the fish-out-of-water experience of urbanites being stranded in the back country woods, the film shows a hillbilly-esque family with car troubles in an upscale neighbourhood. They stumble upon a huge suburban style house and are invited in by the typical, if kinda disturbing, man and woman of the house. There's some nice touches that indicate there may be more behind the facades of the homeowners while the humour comes in both expected and unexpected ways as the back woods folks try to understand the environment they are in.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "Tokyo Gore Police"

A few things you might find in "Tokyo Gore Police": 1) Fountains of blood, 2) Rivers of blood, 3) Cascading rapids of blood, 4) Torrents of blood.

And Snail girls, Crocodile women and a guy with a really, really big...uh...appendage that...uh...well, it's used as a weapon anyway. Oh, and a gun that shoots fists! Almost forgot that one...That was cool.

Though this film is at times a sharply honed social satire, I just can't quite bring myself to review it in any normal fashion. It's incredibly absurd and over the top just about anyway you slice it (ouch) - whether you peel away the layers (ow ow ow), chop it up into tiny sections (yipe) or grind it all up into a big stew (aaarrrgggghhh), it's all about the human body getting mutilated and reconfigured while the scenery gets red.

Don't take that as being necessarily bad though. It's actually quite, well, almost beautiful at times. Take the screencap below...It occurs just after Ruka (played by Eihi Shiina of Audition fame) has just completely severed both hands from this one guy and he can do nothing but stand there and spray blood from both open wounds. She slowly walks towards the camera (with her umbrella wide open of course) while the screen is bathed in reds, pinks and magentas. It's almost hypnotizing...

Ruka, by the way, is a cop who hunts and kills engineers (mutant humans who grow weapons from wounds or severed appendages and can only be killed by removing key-shaped tumours from them). There's a bit more to the plot than that, but it's really all you need to set up most of the action. And that's fine since director Yoshihiro Nishimura is best known as the top special effects man in Japan, so it provides a great canvas on which he can work. Taken like that, it can be gloriously fun to watch at times. You just don't know what kind of weird beastly creature is going to show up next and how the next battle will progress. Whose face will get ripped off this time? Eye sockets gouged out? No problem - replaced by guns!

That's a bit of its problem too though...Somewhere about an hour in, it gets kind of repetitive and frankly tiring. After yet more limbs and blood have been left behind by Ruka, you feel like you've seen it before. If there was one film during the festival I would have bet would have kept me awake it was this one, but I have to say I felt a bit weary around this point in the movie. Another healthy dose of jaw-dropping scenes cleared the cobwebs though...

Beyond the head-shaking moments, my favourite parts were the fake commercials running on TVs and the many big screens dotted around the futuristic city. They all focused either on police recruitment or the selling of suicide. The police have been privatized and bring violence to just about every aspect of their work - something the ads play up. As for the culture of suicide mocked in the other commercials, "Wrist Cutter G - It's cute!" pretty much says it all (young girls and their small fashionable pocket knives - in designer colours).

So overall, beyond it being 15-20 minutes too long and a bit repetitive, the creatures, the satire, the gorgeous saturated colours and the excellent pounding musical score all add up to a pretty freakishly interesting time at the movies.

Oh, and the blood. There's a bit of blood.

The evening kicked off with a funny short film called "BumRush". Each of three friends has had a run in with a local bum who, for no reason at all, has attacked them in some way. Since he's faster, smarter and crazier than all three of the guys, they decide that each of them is to take one of those aspects and focus on it so that together, they can defeat him. The film was the winner of the Toronto Film Challenge this past Spring to make a complete film in 24 hours. That makes the result even more impressive.

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "Netherbeast Incorporated"

One of the recurring themes of this year's After Dark festival (ie. it came up in several After Dark Pub conversations) was a lack of effective trailers. A case in point would be the one for "Netherbeast Incorporated" which, as I mentioned in my initial pre-fest thoughts, didn't inspire a great deal of laughter or do a great job in selling the film. But it turns out the film is not only a smart and funny take on shows like The Office (both content and style wise), but also kinda sweet.

It opens with what is apparently pretty much a direct reshoot of the original short film "The Netherbeast Of Berm-Tech Industries, Inc.":

The two main characters in that short are replaced by Darryl Hammond as the manager and Steve Burns as the employee. Hammond plays the role pretty closely to his Clinton impersonation on Saturday Night Live and it's an effective and funny performance - though best in small stretches. I was racking my brains during the film trying to think where I had seen Steve Burns before and had to resort to an online search later at home. As it turns out, I knew him from his old appearances as the host of the kids show "Blue's Clues". I always found him quite engaging there with a friendly way about him and a good sense of comedic timing. And he's managed to keep all those qualities even as a netherbeast. The rest of the expanded cast does a fine job too - Jason Mewes is almost unrecognizable, Dave Foley plays it straight but still has some subtle timing and Amy Davidson is charming as the sole "real-lifer".

While the initial short film ends showing that the co-workers are actually vampires, the film takes that a step further to show that the manager and the entire company are also vampires. Hammond's character is losing some of his faculties and is forgetful about the fact that he and the staff actually live in the building and rarely go outside (except for a rotating schedule of evenings out that are allowed). A rather complicated back story regarding the history of Berm-Tech Industries and its staff (which includes President Garfield and Alexander Graham Bell) is told throughout the film along with some help by a few animated sequences. It's all rather silly, but it works. The complications further set in for the undead employees with two events - the arrival of a Corporate guy (played by Judd Nelson) and the hiring of the first and only actual human employee (during a period when Hammond's manager character forgets himself).

One of the keys to the film is its ability to weave in little snippets of Corporate speak into the dialogue. If you've ever been told "I'm looking for you to take some ownership here", you'll appreciate a great deal of the humour and situations the film tackles. It's pretty well-covered ground by "The Office" as well as "Office Space", but when it's done well, why argue? It's not gut-busting humour, but I rarely didn't have at least a smile on my face during most of the film (though the middle section is a bit slow). The burgeoning relationship between Burns and Dickinson is handled very nicely and is surprisingly sweet.

It looks like a DVD is being released in the next few months (early rumours are a commentary as well the original short film will be included). Though it's not an unqualified success, it sure beat all my expectations going in and I'll likely pick up the disc.

"Ending The Eternal", the opening short of the evening, had a great premise - a vampire is tired of his eternal existence, so he hires several people to kill him. He provides all the necessary elements and steps to do it, but they bumble the job and then pay the price. Neat idea, but it's done on such a shoestring budget with awful line readings from most of the actors that it didn't really come across for me very well. Apparently it did to others though, as it was enough to secure some funding for a feature film based on the lead eternal character. If they can get a deeper set of actors and a bit more polish, I'll be curious to see the result.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "4bia"

As much as I love watching my DVDs at home (avoiding commercials, being able to pause, no electronic devices!, etc.), there's nothing like watching a movie with an audience who is onboard with a film's concept and ready to go wherever it takes them. As I mentioned in a previous post about the Spanish film [rec], this goes double for horror films. It adds so much to the experience when everyone around you is tensing up, giggling in anticipation, jumping out of their seats and then laughing in release at the same moments. And so it went for Thailand's newest horror film "4bia" - an anthology film of four separate stories.

Though the individual stories really have nothing to do with each other, there are actually a few strands that tie them together - a newspaper article that is only glimpsed in one story describes an event that happens in a later segment; a character's death has an effect in a different story; etc. Each story purports to be about a certain type of fear (or phobia), but that's really kind of irrelevant. These roughly 25 minute long stories are perfectly fine stand alone films as they are.

The first is a classic slow build...A young woman is essentially confined to her apartment due to a broken leg from a car accident. Bored, she spends most of her time on the Internet or text-ing on her cell phone. She receives a message from a stranger and decides to respond. It quickly develops into an amusing game that intrigues her, until her new friend gets a bit demanding and tells her he is on his way over. As she becomes ever more fearful and creepy noises start occurring and lights go out, the tension is layered on thicker and thicker. You kinda know what's going to happen, but it doesn't diminish things when it does. And the audience loved it.

The second story wasn't quite as successful, but still contained interesting elements. Its main problem is the absolutely frenetic camerawork, but the choppy editing and overabundance of CGI towards the end certainly don't help either. Similar to some recent North American style action films, it's all too much. But it still provided some scares that earned their seat jumping moments, especially the death scene involving the air conditioner. When you see it, you'll understand...The story itself focuses around a group of teenagers who bully another student. After a particularly nasty incident that severely injures the young victim, he retaliates via witchcraft. His weapon ends up being a picture that will kill you if you look at it. The story even raises a good question - if you don't participate in bullying but still let it happen, are you just as guilty?

The third story is the kicker though...If the crowd wasn't already bought into the film by this point (and the vast majority were), this one sealed the deal. Four young men are on a rafting trip and settling down to go to sleep in their tent. Urban legends and ghostly stories are told and they start freaking each other out a bit. When they have an accident on the water the following day, they begin to wonder how many of the stories are actually true. Though certainly spooky in spots, this one had the audience laughing loud and long. The interaction between all four of the guys was very natural and appealing while they purposely poked fun at each other and dropped movie references all over the place ("how come the ghosts always have long black hair?", "damn Thai movies..."). Their shirts were spectacular statements of devotion to U.S. culture ("I heart E.T.") and the guys were just spot on perfect in their reactions to each other's comments and jibes. The last story which followed this could have been about price fluctuations of soybean futures and the crowd still would've been perfectly happy walking out of the theatre...

Fortunately, the last story wasn't about soybean futures. It was an effective, if relatively straightforward telling of one woman being cooped up with a dead body. The interesting angle is that the woman is a stewardess and the body is that of a foreign princess being flown back for a state funeral. There's some additional background to the story that I won't give away, but the majority of it is the stewardess convinced that the body is still alive somehow and out to get her. Being a princess, they can't simply put the body in a coffin, so the wrapped up corpse is placed in a seat and strapped in. Of course, it doesn't just stay there...The story goes exactly where you think it will, but it's still pretty satisfying and ends a tremendously entertaining ride.

Undoubtedly one of the favourites of the festival given the reactions and buzzing discussion that followed the crowds outside afterwards. This could be a strong domestic release with very good word of mouth if someone would just take a chance and put it out in theatres. Don't remake it - it's just fine as it is.

"Lucky 10" was tonight's short and though not one of the stronger submissions of the festival (hey, it's a tough field!), I probably enjoyed it more than many others. Mostly because I like films that subtly repeat patterns or numbers - in this case the number 10 pops up just about everywhere. We discover some of the reasons for that as we delve into the story of a mysterious silent old man who has been a regular customer of a bar for many years. Through the eyes of a new bartender, we get the details of a curse...

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Toronto After Dark 2008 - "Red"

Of all the trailers I watched for films at this year's festival, the one for Lucky McKee and Trygve Allister Diesen's revenge thriller "Red" looked to be the most by the numbers and one of the least interesting. Nothing overly wrong with it, but it looked a bit like a cable movie with a straight line through the standard stops of a revenge plot. I'm sure several people wondered why this was even playing at the festival. I suppose one could still quibble about whether it fit into the lineup or not, but it's a surprisingly solid little film boosted by a tremendous simmering performance by Bryan Cox and I'm extremely glad I saw it.

While fishing one day, old-timer Avery encounters three teenagers who've been hunting in the woods. Their leader Danny is poking fun at the old man until Avery gets a return dig into him. Danny's uncontrollable anger builds up and he shoots and kills the old man's long time companion - his 14 year old dog named Red. Avery tries to get the boys to admit what they have done, but gets blocked down each and every avenue by Danny's powerful and rich father. Desperate for some kind of justice, Avery can't let go and keeps pushing the stakes higher.

Tension is built up and sustained quite well by the directing duo through all the expected scenes. Little touches like the colour red popping up in the background every so often gives us further indication of Avery's state of mind. He's unable to see the damage that might occur if he keeps pressing and gets to the point where he loses sight of any actual justice. Cox shines as his character - even though he can barely control his anger, he still manages to garner a great deal of empathy and even had many audience members applauding when he chalked up a few small wins by getting under Danny's skin. Of course it helps when the rest of the cast are excellent as well: Noel Fisher captures the obviously emotionally disturbed Danny; Tom Sizemore is the power hungry father; Kyle Gallner is the younger brother Harold who wants to do the right thing and come clean about the incident. The one instance of a less than bright light would probably be Kim Dickens as reporter Carrie Donnel - not necessarily because she performs badly, but simply because her character feels like a plot device to allow Avery to explain his actions via the telling of his family's history (however there's one particular single long take of Cox relating his tale that should be right up there with the better acting moments of the year).

It's actually quite remarkable that the film doesn't feel that it has that many slow sections. If some of the situations, in particular the final confrontation, tumble out of control perhaps a bit too quickly, it's all in service of the character moments. And there are plenty of them and they are very much worth it.

The programmers of the Canada After Dark series (which precedes each film) have been very sharp in slating shorts that complement their features. In this case, they chose the amusing "Vengeance", a tale of the disservice done to a young woman by a magical crab and her chance meeting with it again. It's worth seeing if only for the little magical wand held by the crab...