October 31, 2011

The Manster (1959)

Ever since first published 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's popular novel "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde" has served as inspiration for numerous works dealing with the concept of "split personality". Beginning with the 1887 stage play (by Thomas Russell Sullivan), the classic novel has been adapted dozens of times, all with different degrees of faithfulness to the source story. However, perhaps the most interesting versions are those that are not exactly typical adaptations of Stevenson's novel, and instead opt for a different angle that often carries only the splitting of the personality. Examples of this are 1963's screwball comedy "The Nutty Professor" and the comic book "The Hulk". Amongst this kind of versions is a Japanese American co-production realized in 1959 titled "The Manster", a tale of horror and science fiction which has earned a reputation as a schlocky camp classic due to its tacky special effects. However, it also has some pretty interesting elements that elevate it from being the typical monster on the loose story.

In "The Manster", Peter Dynley plays Larry Stanford, an American foreign news correspondent who has spent the last few years working in Japan. Tired of being far from home, there's nothing that Larry would want more than to return to his wife Linda (Jane Hylton), so he is eager to finish what will be his last assignment: an interview with the reclusive scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura). Larry travels to the volcano where Suzuki has his laboratory, and soon becomes friends with him. However, what he doesn't know is that Suzuki has found him to be the perfect candidate for his ultimate experiment in evolutionary change. Dr. Suzuki drugs Larry and injects him with his new formula. When the reporter awakes, he doesn't remember anything, and eagerly accepts Suzuki's invitation to spend a week of vacation with him and his beautiful assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern). Vacationing with Suzuki, Larry soon forgets about his wife, and enjoys a life of alcohol and women. However, he is also changing physically, and something horrible is growing in his shoulder.

Written collaboratively by director George P. Breakston and William J. Sheldon, "The Manster" is by all accounts, a pretty much typical horror story of the 1950s. There's the general distrust of science that was common in Atomic Age horror, reflected in the science fiction origin of the monster, and in the person of Dr. Suzuki, who fills the "mad scientist" role. However, there are also certain elements that make it quite atypical for its time. For starters, the frank depiction of sex and violence the story has which, while by no means graphic (at least not for modern standards), it's certainly there: an uncontrolled sexual libido is the first thing that awakes in Larry as his transformation begins. Larry has been, in his words, "a good boy" all the years he has been in Japan, but after meeting Suzuki, he becomes a frequent visitor in brothels, and begins an affair with Tara. And this is related to the other element that sets the film apart from the rest: its "Jekyll and Hyde" theme makes it work as a thinly-veiled allegory of alcoholism.

Directed by George P. Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane, at first sight "The Manster" looks also typical in its execution, which is certainly quite simplistic; however, the directors also make some really good choices. To begin with, there's a real care in its portrayal of the Japanese culture. In "The Manster", it's more than just an exotic location, it adds up to the feeling of isolation and loneliness that the lead character begins to experience (the scene at a Buddhist temple is specially haunting). The sombre black and white photography by cinematographer David Mason is actually pretty good, and actually closer in spirit to film noir; something that's particularly appropriate, as the film deals with themes a bit more lurid than the usual fare. The degeneration of Larry is well-handed, for the most part, and the personality change the character undergoes isn't that far fetched. It's only when the remarkably poor special effects appear on the film when "The Manster" shows why it earned its camp classic reputation.

The acting is just slightly above the average, though for the most part the performances are good. As the lead character, Peter Dyneley makes an acceptable job in his portrayal of Larry Standford. Initially a somewhat stereotypical All-American husband, as Larry descends into his life of debauchery there's a good chance for Dyneley to showcase his talents, and often he does. Certainly he is not a great actor, though within his limitations Dyneley doesn't make a bad job. As Dr. Suzuki, Tetsu Nakamura is pretty mediocre, though his role is certainly the most clichéd in the film. Now, as his assistant Tara, the alluring Terry Zimmern is perhaps the film's highlight. Strangely, Zimmern never did any other film and vanished from the spotlight, so "The Manster" remains a testament of what could had been. The rest of the cast is pretty average, though Jerry Ito shows some passion at playing the typical detective a film like "The Manster" must have. Unfortunately, he receives the worst lines in the film.

And bad lines of dialog is a common flaw in "The Manster", which despite having a particularly original angle to its storyline, can't avoid resorting to common places and clichés in its screenplay. And this includes its ending, which is of a moralist nature, though this is hardly a surprise, considering the overall theme the film has. This double face, on one side a lurid tale full of eroticism, and on the other a moralistic story of the Atomic Age, is certainly fitting for a horror tale about a split personality, though one wonders how much would had helped a better constructed climax. Because the ending does feel unfortunately rushed and somewhat incoherent, a huge contrast to the first half, which chronicles Larry's degeneration with such a great care. It feels so different in tone and pacing that is as if the directors had been forced to do it just to meet the deadline. And of course, the film's great bane: it's incompetent special effects. It's true, "The Manster" can't help but looking awfully schlocky with those cheap make-up effects.

Certainly, it's difficult to talk about "The Manster" without discussing the camp value of its silly effects. It's certainly one of the most notorious aspects of the film, and one of the most unintentionally funny as well. Nevertheless, beyond its trashy visuals, "The Manster" is still a sombre tale. As a metaphor for the destructive effects of alcoholism (or any drug in general) the film makes pretty good points; and as a sci-fi tragedy, the movies does work nicely if one gets past its cheap visual look. More ambitious than its budget allowed it to be, "The Manster" is by no means a great film; however, despite its many obvious flaws, this offbeat "Jekyll and Hyde" tale is certainly worth a watch.


Download "The Manster" (1959)

October 28, 2011

Santo en El tesoro de Drácula (1969)

It's probable that when the young wrestler Rodolfo Guzmán took the name of "Santo" in 1942, he never imagined that he would become one of the greatest icons of Mexican cinema. As his popularity in the ring rose, Santo soon got offers to make films, and it would be in the silver screen where the masked wrestler would face his most bizarre foes. Vampires, international criminals, mad scientists and even aliens would be the sort of enemies that movie star Santo would have to defeat. Count Dracula himself challenges Santo in one of his most famous films, 1969's "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula", however, the film's cult status is due to the fact that there was a rumour of an alternative cut, one that added scenes of Dracula's harem of nude vampires. Titled "El Vampiro y el Sexo", this version was lost for years and its existence was source of constant debate amongst fans; until 2010, when the missing cut was finally found. Unfortunately, the discovery of the legendary lost version allows to find even more shortcomings in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula".

In this adventure, Santo is not only a successful wrestler, but also a talented scientist, and with the help of his friend and colleague Dr. Sepúlveda (Carlos Agosti), Santo has made an astounding discovery in his research. Dr. Sepúlveda invites other scientists to his house, in order to hear about Santo's invention: a machine that allows its user to "experience" a past life. Naturally, the group demands proof of this theory, but Santo has not tested his machine with a human yet. Defeated, Santo laments his lack of proofs, but Santo's girlfriend Luisa (Noelia Noel), daughter of Dr. Sepúlveda, decides to test the machine herself and is sent back in time to Colonial times, where in a previous life she was the victim of Count Drácula (Aldo Monti). Unfortunately, her ancestor was turned into a vampire and faces destruction at the hands of vampire hunter Professor Van Roth (Fernando Mendoza). Santo manages to bring Luisa back to the present before she's killed, and she returns now knowing the location of Drácula's treasure. Santo and his friends, decide to go and find it.

The films of Santo do not have a straight forward continuity between them (like the James Bond fims), they exist most of the time as stand alone adventures with the basic theme of Santo being a wrestler whom also fights evil when he's not in the ring. This explains why sometimes he is a mystical warrior of unknown origin, others a suave Interpol agent, and yet sometimes he is a proficent scientist. "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" (known in English as "Santo in: The Treasure of Dracula") belongs to this last category, and it's also one of his "horror themed" movies. Written by prolific horror writer Alfredo Salazar, the movie can be divided in two parts: first is Luisa's adventure, which is basically an abridged adaptation of Stoker's "Dracula"; and the second part is the typical Santo adventure set in modern times. Unfortunately, as interesting as this storytelling device could be, "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" shows the worst vices of Salazar's writing: clichéd dialogue, ilogical actions and chaotic storyline.

Director René Cardona, one of the most prolific directors of Mexican cinema, had already directed many horror films at this point, including several Santo films. While perhaps not the most inventive of filmmakers, Cardona had proved to be an efficient craftsman able to tell a good story. Sadly, little of this ability can be seen in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula", which he tackles with such a blandness that feels like the director wasn't really interested in the film. As written above, the film is divided in two parts, and it certainly feels like different two movies. The first half, the more decidedly horror one, is easily the best of the two, and even works like a small homage to Méndez' "El Vampiro" (1957) and Browning's "Dracula" (1931). The second part, which should be the best being that it's the one where Santo is actually involved, is tragically where Cardona opts for silliness, and where the chaos that is Salazar's story becomes all the more apparent.

Rodolfo Guzmán, Santo himself, was always better when playing his Santo persona as a more human character, and in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" he is able to show this. Away from the one-dimensional role of mystical warrior, Santo finds more freedom to built a true personality beyond the masked crime fighter. In this film, Santo is able to make jokes, feel despair, ambition and pain, all in all a more dimensional role than what he had done earlier in his career. And while the rest of the film points to absurd, Santo actually makes a great acting job, and manages to add dignity to a film otherwise marred by lack of interest. Despite not being a professional actor, Santo is the only one who seems to be serious about his job. Young comedian Alberto Rojas isn't that bad either, but his role as the over-the-top comic relief is so awfully written that he ends up being odious instead of funny. Noelia Noel plays Luisa, and while not exactly a good actress, she adds some vitality to the cast, and seems to be sincerely enjoying the film.

The rest of the cast is a lot less impressive. Italian actor Aldo Monti gives a terribly hammy performance as Dracula, and doesn't seem to be interested at all in the film. In fact, with the exception of Santo and perhaps Noelia Noel, it would seem as if nobody in "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" was really interested in the film. Cinematographer Raúl Martínez Solares, another seasoned veteran from Mexico's "Golden Age", makes one of his worst jobs in this horror film. While the film's "normal version" can be found in black and white, the film was actually shot in color, and the "El Vampiro y el Sexo" version survives in the way it was intended. While in black and white the film could feel atmospheric, in color the lighting gives the film a bizarre style. The odd camera angles Cardona and Martínez Solares use through the film add another level of weirdness to this movie. On a final note, the nudity of "El Vampiro y el Sexo" version is actually an odd addition, as it contrasts badly with the ridicule silliness and childish naiveté of Alberto Rojas' character.

Now, all this elements certainly make "Santo en el Tesoro de Drácula" sound like a huge display of incompetence, but oddly, it's actually not that bad. Mediocre perhaps, but never downright bad. And the saving grace responsible of this is none other than Santo himself. The enormous charm and presence of the legendary wrestler actually, completely true to his own character, manage to give some sense to the whole thing. A sense that borders surrealism, but a sense after all. "Santo en El tesoro de Drácula" is an oddity amongst Santo films, and not only because of the infamous "El Vampiro y el Sexo" cut. It is odd because despite lacking coherence and despite not being really the best Santo film (far from it), it's actually entertaining. It just has a weird charm that for some reason, makes it work. Perhaps only Santo could pull this off.


NOTE: All this DVDs are for the "normal version" in black and white. So far, no DVD has been announced for the "El Vampiro y el Sexo" cut.

October 27, 2011

Joey (1985)

German director Roland Emmerich is nowadays best known as the man behind Hollywood blockbusters such as "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow", big budget science-fiction films where he has shown a taste for using a heavy amount of visual effects, a style that has earned him his fair share of detractors. While certainly Emmerich may not be the most original or artistic director in the history of cinema, it's hard to deny that his films have a very particular style of his own, a style that he had been developing from his early films, and that owes a lot to his "spiritual guides", the great masters of fantasy cinema of the 70s: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (reportedly, watching "Star Wars" in his youth made him decide to become a filmmaker). Lucas' influence is clear in Emmerich's first movie, the sci-fi adventure "Das Arche Noah Prinzip", but his second film makes Emmerich's devotion to Spielberg all the more evident: the little fantasy film named "Joey".

Better known in the U.S. as "Making Contact" (where it was had 20 minutes cut), "Joey" is the story of its titular character, a 9 years old kid named Joey (Joshua Morrell) who after the tragic death of his father, begins to experience strange psychic powers. This powers allow him supernatural abilities like moving inanimate objects with his mind or setting things on fire. Joey soon even manages to apparently make contact with his dead father. Naturally, Joey's sanity is questioned by those around him, but the kid really doesn't mind. However, not everything is good for Joey as his newly found powers accidentally awake an evil supernatural force that had been contained inside the body of an old ventriloquist's dummy that Joey had found in an abandoned house. Flecther (Jack Angel) the dummy, possessed by the ancient evil force, claims to be the ghost of the ventriloquist and shows pretty similar powers to Joey's. Soon Fletcher puts the lives of everyone near Joey in danger as the evil Dummy has dark plans for Joey's special powers.

Written by Emmerich himself, along with scriptwriters Hans J. Haller and Thomas Lechner, "Joey" is has many classic elements of a supernatural horror movie on the lines of Tobe Hooper "Poltergeist" (a Spielberg production released three years before "Joey"), but done with the approach of a fantasy movie for children pretty much on the style of "E.T.", another Spielberg film. To be fair, while there are many elements and reference to classic sci-fi, the premise has its fair share of originality and in fact results in several pretty good scenes. Sadly, the script's overall development is quite typical of its time, and resorts far too much on the genre's clichés to work. Focused entirely on Joey, the film works more as a creepy adventure film than as an strictly horror movie, mainly because the story is written in a way that highlights the main character's fight versus the evil force over the horror created by the Dummy. This is not to say that there aren't any horror moments, they are there, and some actually work really good.

While done with a relatively low budget, Emmerich packs his film with very good dark visual imagery, and even in this early film there are signs that forecast Emmerich's taste for big budget special effects. It's really interesting what he achieves with his minimal resources, and it could be said that even at this early point in his career the director already knew the kind of films he wanted to do in the future (visual nods to George Lucas abound through the film). Cinematographer Egon Werdin crafts some nice atmospheres, particularly when the film veers towards horror territory, where the visual style gets closer to the afore mentioned "Poltergeist", a similitude that certainly can't be exactly unintentional, as "Joey" could be seen as Emmerich's ultimate tribute to Spielberg and Lucas. Unfortunately, "Joey" also shows what perhaps has been the downside of Emmerich's style through his career: the scenes with special effects work, whereas the ones without them show his shortcomings as a director.

The cast in "Joey" is sadly, really average in their work, and this is actually one of the film's weakest points (perhaps in fact "The" weakest). Unfortunately, the lack of experience of the cast (specially in the case of the kids) becomes increasingly notorious as the film unfolds, and given the fact that the director was also unexperienced at this point did not help (and honestly, directing actors has never been one of Emmerich's strengths). Anyways, the only actress with real experience, Eva Kryll, plays the role of Joey's mother and delivers easily the best performance of the film. Unfortunately, her character is really a small part and doesn't have enough screen time to allow her to display her talent. Josua Morrell, who leads the cast as Joey, could be the case of inspired casting, as the boy looks pretty natural in front of the camera. His delivery is a tad stiff, but actually manages to carry the film. The rest of the cast is where the problem gets evident, as most look pretty artificial in their delivery, even those in smaller roles.

An unexperienced young cast paired with an unexperienced young director is many times a deadly combination for any film, and "Joey" has this as one of its biggest flaws. The actors' delivery is pretty poor and Emmerich's uninspired direction (when there aren't special effects to support the action) results in a pretty bland storytelling. In fact, the film gets dull many times when the special effects are gone, as Emmerich fails to keep a good balance between the action scenes and the more expository, dialog-based ones. The screenplay is not without its problems, as there are times where serious plot holes show up, and it becomes clear that the three scriptwriters were unable to make a cohesive work that tied up every of their ideas (interesting plot points are introduced and later abandoned). Nevertheless, despite all this flaws, director Roland Emmerich manages to pull off an entertaining adventure out of this messy ingredients and, while definitely troubled, has some good elements for a children's horror movie.

Perhaps the best use "Joey" (or "Making Contact") can have is as an introduction to the horror genre for young children, as with its touch of fantasy and adventure, it could be attractive despite its darker imagery. Unfortunately, more experienced horror fans won't enjoy it as much as kids, and won't find things to like in Emmerich's first entry in the horror genre. "Joey", like Emmerich's other early films, certainly shows the young talent of a master of visual effects that, while probably not a very accomplished artist, still manages to make entertaining and attractive films that deliver good doses of entertainment. While lacking in many aspects, "Joey", or "Making Contact", is definitely a good tale of horror to enjoy with the kids.


October 26, 2011

Choking Hazard (2004)

Ever after American filmmaker George A. Romero reinvented the concept of the living dead in the silver screen back in 1968 (with his milestone classic "Night of the Living Dead"), hordes of flesh-eating zombies ravaging the land have become a recurring theme in horror films. The renewed interest in zombie films spawned by Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later..." in 2002 (which despite technicism, works like a zombie film) proved that the zombie subgenre was still more alive than dead, and soon a new generation of horror filmmakers brought more flesh-eating corpses to roam the screens. Czech filmmaker Marek Dobes belongs to this generation of horror directors decided to experiment with the zombie genre, and his 2004 film "Choking Hazard" is his take on the living dead. A comedy-horror in the vein of Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead", Dobes' movie takes a jab at intellectuals by having as characters a group of philosphers trying to find the meaning of life. Certainly zombies know a lot about finding that.

In "Choking Hazard", a group of young people travel to an isolated hotel located deep in the woods, to join famous philosopher Dr. Reinis (Jaroslav Dusek) and take his course about finding the meaning of life. The group consists of nihilist slacker Verner (Jan Dolanský), the naive student Hanusova (Eva Nadazdyova), nymphomaniac Lefnerova (Anna Fialkova), and the course organizers, Nedobyl (Kamil Svedjda) and Krenovcova (Eva Janouskova). After introductions are done and the course begins, the group is joined by Mechura (Roman Izaias), a male porn star who got lost looking for the shooting location of his next film. Interested by the course's goal and seeing it as an opportunity to share his particular set of beliefs, Mechura decides to take the course. However, he is not the only one who will join this disparate group of characters, as a group of zombie woodsmen is on their way to the hotel, and they are hungry. The philosophy course will have to become a crash course in survival when the zombies arrive to the place.

Dobes' regular collaborator, scriptwriter Stepan Kopriva, working together with Martin Pomothy, wrote the screenplay for "Choking Hazard", in which they use as basis the most common plot for zombie filmes (group trapped in isolated location, surrounded by zombies) to conceive a comedy that aims to pokes fun on pseudointellectuals, theme that Dobes and Kopriva had tackled before in their previous short comedy film "Byl jsem mladistvým intelektuálem" ("I was a teenage intellectual"). In "Choking Hazard", Kopriva and Pomothy have built a good set of well-defined characters that, while certainly being based on stereotypes, prove to have a clear identity of their own. The style of comedy is that of ironic satire, with a decidedly preference for the absurd. While the theme of balance between instinct and reason appears constantly through the film, "Choking Hazard" opts for a visceral approach to comedy rather than an intellectual one. This doesn't mean it's stupid, as Kopriva and Pomothy achieve genuinely funny moments in their absurd way.

Using a stylish and pretty dynamic camerawork, director Marek Dobes crafts his film with refreshing creativity and a pretty good eye for the visuals. Cinematographer Martin Preiss makes a terrific job working with digital cinema, and makes great use of his indoors location (exterior night shots aren't that good, being sadly poorly lit). Dobes as well takes good advantage of the digital medium to enhance his visual narrative, and keeps his camera moving all over the place. With an aesthethic inspired by rock music videos and a joyful willingness to experiment, Dobes plays with editing techniques, visual effects and narrative devices that result in a postmodern, self-referential mash-up that enhances the absurd comedy of Kopriva and Pomothy's screenplay. The low production values the film had to work with are unfortunately notorious, particularly in the make-up department, which is really poor. However, the ironic comedy tone employed by Marek Dobes allows to ignore this and most of the rest of the film's technical issues.

In many modern low budget zombie films, acting tends to be pretty average in many cases (as naturally most are newcomers) but fortunately, acting in "Choking Hazard" is above the average of the genre. Leading the cast as nihilistic hero Verner, Jan Dolanský shows the talent and charm that makes an enjoyable protagonist. An all-around slacker constantly annoyed by Dr. Reinis' unstoppable philosophical babble, Verner is not an easy character to like, but Dolanský gives him a vibrant energy that sets him apart. Though the highligh of the film is certainly Jaroslav Dusek, fantastic scene stealer with his deadpan delivery as the blind Dr. Reinis. The rest of the cast is less stellar in their work, resulting in a mixed bag. Kamil Svedjda is somewhat effective as poseur pseudointellectual Nedobyl, but the female cast is pretty weak. With the honorable exception of Eva Janouskova, the women in "Choking Hazard" aren't particularly good (though to be fair, their roles are badly underwritten).

Nevertheless, the film's weakest link isn't any of the female cast, but musician-turned actor Roman Izaias. While having probably the most interesting character in the film (the male porn star with spiritual inclinations), Izaias appears terribly wooden and emotionless in his delivery. Anyhow, "Choking Hazard" may not have the best acting in a zombie film, though this is hardly the film's greatest problem, and taking into account the ansurd style the movie has, it is not really a bad thing. What truly does harm the film is the unfortunately uneven pacing director Marek Dobes gives to his story. Being at times too fast to catch everything, and at others too slow to the point of boredom, Dobes fails to keep his film moving at the proper rhytmn. Another point is his lack of good comedy timing: the ideas are there (and Kopriva writes genuinely funny ideas), but often the effect is killed by the botched delivery of the joke. Czech humor is famous for its use of ironic absurd, though "Choking Hazard" exaggerates a bit in this and comes far too close to ridicule at moments.

"Choking Hazard" is perhaps a mixed bag: a collection of great ideas marred by the shortcomings of inexperience. Perhaps that sounds like the typical justification for many independent horror films, but in this case it's genuinely true: through the film there are sparks of brilliance that show that the team of Dobes and Kopriva had the right mindset when crafting "Choking Hazard". Its absurd humor is perhaps hard to digest at first, but all in all, this Czech effort is indeed a nice comedy-horror entry in the zombie subenre. It is far from being in the levels of "Braindead" or "Shaun of the Dead", but it's a lot better than many similar movies. The team behind this one surely had a blast making it, and it shows.


October 25, 2011

Senki (2007)

In 1994 Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski debuted with "Before the Rain", a British-French-Macedonian co-production that went on to earn multiple nominations and awards across the globe (including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film), and made Machevski to become the most famous Macedonian filmmaker. Seven years later Manchevski returned with the offbeat Western "Dust", and even when it had a much less enthusiast response, cemented Manchevski's career as a director and landed him a job directing a chapter of the popular TV series "The Wire". For his third film, Manchevski returned to more familiar grounds and went back to his homeland, the Republic of Macedonia for inspiration. The result was "сенки" or "Senki", a tale of horror and mystery grounded in Macedonian folklore in which Manchevski attempts a more traditional narrative style, making it perhaps a more accessible job than his previous output. Still, despite "Senki" being a genre-film, Manchevski's style is still present and true to itself.

"Senki" (literally "Shadows") is the story of Dr. Lazar Perkov (Borce Nacev), a young doctor that seems to have everything: a great job at his mother Vera's (Sabina Ajrula) clinic, and a beautiful family with his young wife Gordana (Filareta Atanasova) and their little child. Nevertheless, Lazar lives under the shadow of his domineering mother and at odds with Gordana, whom is dissatisfied with their marriage. One night an angered Lazar leaves home for a night drive when he has a terrible car accident. Miraculously, Lazar survives, and begins to reconstruct his life. He moves to Skopje in order to start again, a decision that bothers Gordana who prefers to remain at their beach house. Alone, Lazar receives strange visits of a mysterious old lady (Joana Popovska) who speaks to him in a strange dialect. Lazar goes to the university to find someone able of translating the words, and finds help in Menka (Vesna Stanojevska), assistant and wife of an etymology professor. But the message hides a dark secret, and Lazar's trip through the shadows is about to begin.

With a screenplay written by director Milcho Manchevski himself, it could be said that "Senki" follows the classic pattern of ghost stories, with Lazar trying to discover exactly why is he being visited by ghosts, and what does he need to do to stop it. Strictly speaking, in terms of storyline there is no new ground here, but a close attachment to the traditional way; however, Manchevski spices this closeness to the classic formula with nice tidbits of Macedonian folklore, a rich set of well defined characters, and quite a puzzling and ambiguous mystery. To put it in another way, Manchevski's originality is in the details rather than in the plot. And in fact, ambiguity could be named as the key element in "Senki", as the intricate plot twists and turns making Lazar's journey more and more confusing with every plot twist. To be fair, Manchevski manages to keep the plot interesting despite this, but unfortunately, it does reach a point where the plot gets a tad too messy and convoluted for its own good.

But, if the story feels typical and formulaic, the work of Manchevski as a director gives "Senki" a very distinctive visual style that sets it apart from other ghost stories. With the beautiful work of veteran Italian cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti, Manchevski captures both the magnificent beauty of Macedonian countryside, and the gritty urban landscape of Skopje. Visually, Manchevski makes the point of having a sharp contrast between the abandoned natural life of the countryside and the nightmarish, overcrowded madness of the city. Interestingly, while resorting to traditional clichés of the genre (jump scares for example), Manchevski's deals with the supernatural forces in a less shocking way, a more lyrical or naturalistic one. Instead of having the ghosts noticeably otherworldly, the spirits in "Senki" walk the world as if they were still part of it, without any great display of special effects. Whether this was a budget limitation or a stylistic choice, the bottom line is that it does give "Senki" with a quite distinctive atmosphere of its own.

While perhaps not the best leading man in a ghost story, actor Borce Nacev makes an efficient job for the most part, capturing nicely the essence of his troubled character. Capturing Lazar's alienation, Nacev carries the film skillfully, though at moments he does seem a tad wooden and stiff. Nevertheless, his work is benefited by the revelation that is actress Vesna Stanojevska, who plays Menka. A classical musician making her acting debut, Vesna shows an enormous natural talent and a great ability to portray her intriguing character. Ambiguous, mysterious, and complex in nature, Menka is perhaps the character that would make or break "Senki", and fortunately, Vesna's performance is truly a wonder. Sabina Arjula, as Lazar's domineering mother is another strong figure in the cast, as she practically steals every scene she is in with her commanding stage presence. Less fortunate is actress Filareta Atanasova, who plays Lazar's wife Gordana, though to be fair, her role is underwritten to the point of being almost a mere caricature of the unfaithful wife.

As written above, "Senki" is not exactly the most original film in horror cinema, and on top of that, its traditional linear narrative may be a surprise to those expecting something akin Manchevki's previous films. Nevertheless, that's far from being a flaw being that Manchevski plays with the formula to make it his own, dressing it with his stylish visual style to give it a different flavor. While formulaic, "Senki" looks and feels unlike most ghost stories, despite being essentially the same tale, and that's perhaps the mark of a skilled storyteller. Now, the true problem in "Senki" is that at times it seems to ramble on for too long, reaching the point of getting a bit tedious. It is one of the cases where the story would had been benefited by some editing. This becomes all the more noticeable as the convoluted plot leaves a couple of loose ends untied, as if there had not been enough work in tightening the screenplay. However, this doesn't diminishes the enjoyment, though it prevents it from being truly great.

Perhaps "Senki" will go on history as one of Manchevski's "lesser films", but as a genre film, it certainly offers a different kind of ghost story that proves that a known formula can receive a breath of fresh air. It's definitely a film that follows that idea of "style over substance", though fortunately, Manchevski's style is a lyrical one that certainly guarantees a visual joy. In the end, "Senki" faces the problem of its audience's expectations: those expecting art-house exoticism may find it too Hollywoodish, while horror fans may see it as too unoriginal and tame for the genre. One should forget these preconceived judgments and enjoy "Senki" for what it is: not a masterpiece, but a ghost story with a different flavor.


October 24, 2011

Sauna (2008)

Traditionally, Saunas are specifically the Finnish bathhouses and the traditional baths that take place in them. It is certainly one of Finland's oldest traditions, where the sauna was considered a place not only to cleanse the body, but the mind as well, and even the spirit. It was also a place where Finnish women went to gave birth, and when the dead were washed and prepared for burial. It was more than a refugee from the outside cold of Finland, but basically a holy place where life and death got together and where a spiritual connection could be felt. For the Finnish, saunas became a highly important part of daily life. Many ancient beliefs exist around saunas, most of the related to the spiritual aspect of the bath: the cleansing of the spirit, and the washing of the sins. This ancient tradition serves as the basis for Finnish filmmaker Antti-Jussi Annila's film "Sauna", an atmospheric tale of horror set in the aftermath of the brutal Russo-Swedish war of the 16th century, in which Finland (being part of Sweden) was the battlefield.

"Sauna" is set in 1595, after the war between Russia and Sweden has just concluded and the borders between the two countries have been changed once again, making necessary to chart the new map of the territories nowadays known as Finland. Two brothers, Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen) are part of the Swedish commission assigned to the mission, Eerik as an experienced soldier, and Knut as the main's cartographer. Their relationship isn't exactly amicable, with Eerik feeling disdain of Knut's pacifist views, while at the same time Knut feels uneasy around his ruthless older brother, who keeps a tally of how many people he has killed. Traveling through the devastated Finnish land, the group begins to experience strange events, and the brothers are haunted by the dark sins of their past. Their sanity is put to the test, haunted by the spirit of a girl (Vilhelmiina Virkkunen). Confused and exhausted, the group arrives to a strange village. In the village's sauna, the brothers may be able to wash their sins, but there is a terrible secret hidden in it.

Written by screenwriter Iiro Küttner (who also penned director Annila's feature length debut "Jadesoturi"), "Sauna" is an interesting horror film that takes the concept of guilt as its central theme. Both brothers are guilty, and the guilt affects them in different, yet horrifying ways. The sauna of the title is the catalyst for the horror that will be unleashed on them, as their guilt begins to overpowers them, personified in the figure of the young woman. And yet, both brothers' personalities have been shaped by the war they just lived. Even Knut, whom perhaps wasn't as directly involved as Eerik, has found his life changed by the dehumanizing effects of the brutal war. In "Sauna", not only war is hell, but also leaves its surviving participants in a hellish purgatory. The difficult relationship between the brothers is also an interesting element that Küttner tackles in "Sauna", as both brothers are resentful of each other's different views on the war. In "Sauna", Iiro Knütter has achieved to write a strong low key horror film based almost entirely on character development.

Perhpas the greatest asset of "Sauna" is the ominous atmosphere of dread that director Antti-Jussi Annila conjures for his film. Giving great use to the remarkable work of cinematography done by Henri Blomberg, Annila captures in "Sauna" the strange beauty of violence, in the shape of the desolated Finnish lands ravaged by the war. Desolation is the key word of the film, as the vast cold outskirts of Finland seem to mirror the infinite desolation of the brother's souls. Through the woods and the swamps of Finland, the characters' journey mirrors a trip through a lonely purgatory with hell as final destination. Annila's film moves at a slow pace, but it feels all the more appropriate to discover the hidden secrets of these two characters, which are like two sides of the same coin: the scientist and the warrior, both dehumanized by the war and transformed in different yet similar monsters. In more than a way, their filial hate (which is more than mere rivalry) represent the Finns torn between Russian and Swedish domain.

The film is also benefited by having two great performances in the lead characters, particularly the case of Ville Virtanen as the tired soldier Eerik. Ville truly makes a haunting portrait of the tortured Eerik, whose only skill seems to be to kill people, and who feels tired and obsolete in times of peace. Fully dehumanized by the war, Eerik is a man without purpose, and Ville captures this desolation in a dramatic performance. While the film is seen through his brother's eyes, it is certainly Ville who carries the film with great strength, making him easily one of the highlights of the film. As Eerik's younger brother Knut, Tommi Eronen makes for a nice counterpart, playing the bookish scientist who embodies guilt and confusion as their damnation approaches. While apparently a pacifist, Knut has his own sins to wash, and Eronen manages to showcase the complex feeling of guilt that Knut has. The rest of the cast, while a lot less prominent, are truly up to the challenge and for the most part make a great job.

Highly atmospheric and slow paced, Annila's "Sauna" is not the kind of horror that's based on graphic shock, but instead it aims for a different kind of fear. An unnerving sensation of dread that's more disturbing than downright frightening, yet at the same time ultimately fascinating. Contemplative and even metaphysical, "Sauna" has a somber tone and, while not resorting explicitly to the old Finnish myths, there is an implicit spiritual connection to the supernatural at the heart of this tale of horror and madness. If there's any flaw in "Sauna", it must be that its plot line may get a bit too convoluted and ambiguous for its own good, and it certainly would had been benefited by some more minutes of runtime. Granted, this ambiguity is part of the film's charm, but the climax is a tad too rushed and short to be completely satisfying. However, despite this minor quibbles, "Sauna" is a wonderful journey to the darker sides of the human soul, and an unnerving story about two souls being consumed by guilt.

While sharply different in tone and style to his previous film "Jadesoturi", Annila's second film "Sauna" (alternatively titled "Filth" or "Evil Rising") showcases again the same vibrant originality showed in his debut, yet coupled now with greater maturity and a brilliant sense of aesthetic. Haunting and owner of a strangely captivating beauty, "Sauna" is a powerfully disturbing horror film that, despite not being particularly graphic or shocking, truly captures the horrific, nightmarish images of a soul tortured by guilt. Perhaps "Sauna" is not exactly a masterpiece of horror cinema, but it's a remarkable achievement by its own right and shows that director Antti-Jussi Annila and scriptwriter Iiro Küttner truly make a promising team. This tale of medieval horror is certainly, a beautifully haunting experience.


October 11, 2011

La Casa Muda (2010)

The cinema of Uruguay is not exactly known for its ventures into the horror genre, as outside the work of independent filmmaker Ricardo Islas (whom by the way, works and lives in the U.S. since 1997), the horror production of the South American country is exceedingly rare. So, with this in mind, the mere release of a new example of Uruguayan horror, Gustavo Hernández' "La Casa Muda", is certainly an event that creates lots of expectations. However, beyond its genre and nationality, "La Casa Muda" is a movie that has a couple more of interesting particularities that make it a unique film: it is one of the very first films in the world that are made using a handheld high-definition digital single-lens reflex camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II to be precise), and on top of that, the majority of the film consists of a single continuous take (78 of a total of 86 minutes). Certainly, those three elements make "La Casa Muda" an interesting experiment to witness but, while Hernández succeeds in many aspects, "La Casa Muda" also has important shortcomings.

Translated literally as "The Mute House", but better known in English as "The Silent House", the film is the story of Laura (Florencia Colucci), a young woman who travels to an old cottage located deep in the woods, in order to help her father Wilson (Gustavo Alonso) to repair the place. Wilson has been hired by the own Néstor (Abel Tripaldi), as he wants to sell the house. Néstor gives Wilson the keys and leaves to the city, as father and daughter will spend the nigth there, and the work will begin the following morning. The two of them prepare to sleep when a loud noise is heard in the upper floor of the house. Wilson knows that the upper floor is too damaged and it's dangerous, so he asks Laura to wait for him while he goes upstairs to check out. Laura waits for her father, but something or someone viciously attacks Wilson and apparently kills him. Alone and in the dark, Laura begins to look for her father, knowing that something else is in the house with her, waiting, stalking, in silence.

Inspired by an unsolved case of the 1940s, director Gustavo Hernández and producer Gustavo Rojo wrote the story for "La Casa Muda", which writer Oscar Estévez adapted to the screen. In "La Casa Muda", the story follows Laura as she wanders through the house in the dark, looking for her father and trying to make sense of what's happening. The key is the mystery, and the writers play it well, leaving just enough clues to keep the ball rolling, and the plot twists with a touch of subtlety that aims to keep the film ambiguous until its revealing (and problematic) conclusion. And all the classic elements for a scary movie are there: creepy sounds, nursery rhymes, an abandoned house and a terrible dark secret. Certainly, "La Casa Muda" doesn't offer something new or original in its story, but that's never its intention. Instead, "La Casa Muda" is entirely based on the execution: the precise use of those clichés and atmosphere to tell its tale. And precision is key in this particular case, since the execution pertains one single long take.

And well, speaking strictly in purely technical terms, the execution of this feat is absolutely remarkable. Director Gustavo Hernández truly manages to tell the mystery of the silent house in apparently one long take, with his limited budget and his DSLR camera. Hernández' builds up his tale with great care, and a great emphasis on purely visual narrative. His great eye for compositions result in a real accomplishment for this kind of experiments: no shot (or better said, movement) is a waste. Instrumental for this achievement is without a doubt the remarkable job of cinematographer Pedro Luque, who must had faced a great challenge in bringing to life Hernández' vision. Specially the use of light and darkness (at times, only a candle lights the place). Certainly, not an easy feat to accomplish, though unfortunately, "La Casa Muda" is one of those films where the gimmick overshadows everything else. And sadly, not only because of the gimmick is amazing, but because everything else isn't that good.

Nevertheless, the work of actress Florencia Colucci truly receives praise, as she's the one who drives the film, with the camera following her wandering through the silent house. Coluuci looks pretty natural, and her reactions to the events in the house feel so real that add a lot of verosimilitude to her character. Granted, certain actions that Laura are more than questionable, though that's more the fault of the scriptwriters, because Colucci never feels artificial or over-the-top. Like Hernández and Luque's technical achievement, Colucci's performance as Laura is worhty of great praise, as she manages to add a lot of verosimilitude to a problematic screenplay and an underwritten character. As Néstor, Abel Tripaldi is effective and natural, though nothing really too amazing. Granted, neither Abel Tripaldi nor actor Gustavo Alonso (who plays Laura's father Wilson) are on screen that much compared to COlucci, so it could be said that both do their work efficiently given their limited roles.

Sadly, beyond its merit as a technical achievement, there is little to find in "La Casa Muda". Certainly director Gustavo Hernández creates a haunting atmosphere of dread, playing with silence, light and darkness, and he aims to the ancient fear of the unseen. However, he never really dares to go for something beyond and the story limits most of its time to follow a scared woman as she wanders through the somber house alone. And when it finally goes beyond, it opts for a dissapointing conclusion that not only is contrived, but ultimately betrays everything else that has taken place before. The ending credits include photographs that attempt to justify such twist but just make it worse. Anyways, even this unfortunate finale would be more forgivable if the journey to reach it had been more enjoyable, but sadly it's not. While Hernández' camera captures the actions with a certain dark beauty, the actions are tedious, as following Laura wandering around in the dark soon gets tiresome and boring.

British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once said that "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out". Perhaps those dull bits are the greatest enemy of films that attempt to be done in one single long take. Despite its haunting beauty, "La Casa Muda" fails to avoid that dullness, and leaves its character underdeveloped and alone. It's undeniable that Hernández achieved a lot with his very limited resources but, while it is true that pretty often "less is more" in filmmaking, Hernández' film went to the extreme and ended up at "not enough". In the end, there is enough "good" in Hernández "La Casa Muda" to make it worth a watch, but at the same time enough "bad" to make impossible to call it a satisfying experiment.


October 10, 2011

Bleed (2002)

During the decade of the 90s, producer Charles Band found great success with his studio Full Moon Entertainment, a company aimed to the production of low budget horror and fantasy films. With the "Puppet Master" series, the "Subspecies" series and films like "Shadowzone", Full Moon survived through the decade, despite the increasingly low budgets and production values. However, by the year 2001 the market had changed a lot, and Full Moon was forced to evolve. Full Moon became Shadow Entertainment, and following requests from the market, it abandoned fantasy horror to make an slasher film (due to the late 90s resurgence of the subgenre). To fulfill this request, one of the new names at Full Moon, Devin Hamilton, was commissioned to the task, in his debut as scriptwriter after having been involved in administrative positions in previous Full Moon projects. Co-directed by Hamilton himself along Dennis Petersen, "Bleed" was the name of the slasher that would start a new era in Full Moon, now as Shadow Entertainment.

In "Bleed", Maddy Patterson (Debbie Rochon) is a young woman that finally feels liberated from her oppressive home: she's moved to Hollywood, found a good apartment and has just landed the job of her dreams. And not only that, but it seems that Maddy has also found a nice boyfriend when she meets Shawn (Danny Wolske) at her new job. It seems that life finally smiles for Maddy after a long series of sad events in her past. One day Shawn takes her to a party with his old friends, Chris (Allen Nabors), Tillie (Orly Tepper), Peter (Ronnie Blevins) and Laura (Laura Nativ). After one too many drinks, the group tell Maddy about their secret club, a "murder club" where members have to kill somebody to enter. Naturally, they are just joking about it, but Maddy believes they are being serious and, hoping desperately to fit in, Maddy actually murders someone. As this happens, a mysterious masked killer begins to kill the members of the "murder club" one by one. Maddy will have not only to figure out who's the killer, but also to deal with the demons of her past.

Devin Hamilton's screenplay for "Bleed" follows the most typical and basic pattern for modern slashers with the addition of one interesting little twist: from the start of the film, the main suspect of the murders is the film's protagonist herself. All the clues seem to point to her, and in fact, her desperate attempt to join her boyfriend's "Murder club" actually makes her a killer for real. She has to prove not that she's not a murdered, but that she has only committed one proved killing. This twist makes of Maddy quite an interesting character, as it's far removed from the classic model of pure and virginal slasher film heroine. Her backstory also offers several points of interest that make her even more suspicious. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren't as developed as Maddy and are reduced to the classic stereotypes; and in fact, the whole screenplay feels tragically underdeveloped, with glaring plot holes and inconsistencies marring the film. A real shame, as the basic premise was not really bad.

The tandem of Hamilton and Petersen in the director's seat doesn't really do much to save the film, as they employ a pretty basic and raw approach to cinema that gives the film an outdated dull style, closer to early 90s television than to film. While some scenes in "Bleed" are actually interesting and even funny, the execution of them leaves a lot to be desired, with its simplistic narrative and unoriginal editing, and the overall look is pretty amateurish. Cinematographer Mike King has a couple of good shots (the jacuzzi scene for example, or the flashbacks to Maddy's youth), but for the most part makes a pretty poor job, particularly during night time; though to be fair there was probably no budget to get the appropriate lighting equipment. Nevertheless, not everything is bad about "Bleed", and Hamilton and Petersen achieve some good moments that feel like brief sparks of genius. Unfortunately, those sparks are rare through "Bleed", and end up overshadowed by what's bad about the film.

Leading the cast is the always reliable Debbie Rochon as the troubled Maddy Petersen, and to be fair, Rochon actually makes a remarkable job considering the material she had to work with. Easily the best thing about "Bleed", her performance is actually subtle and restrained, and she truly manages to make her character believable as both victim and murderer. It's actually a shame that the rest of the film fails to be up to the same standards. Her counterpart, Danny Wolske, is the whole opposite, looking wooden and fake, and perhaps landed the role based on his looks only. Allen Nabors fares a lot better, and his role as the jester Chris actually feels natural and believable, appropriately annoying or restrained according to the occasion. Orly Tepper also has pretty good moments, though her role ends up limited to a stereotypical caricature. Brinke Stevens, Lloyd Kaufman and Julie Strain have cameos, with Stevens completely stealing her scene as Maddy's domineering religious mother.

Given its low budget and poor special effects, it would be easy to rip apart "Bleed" on the basis of its cheap look. However, the main problem of Hamilton and Petersen's film is not its flawed execution, but a more basic one: its underdeveloped story. As written above, Hamilton gives his story a twist by having all the clues pointing to the protagonist, Maddy. However, while the plot has certainly good twists and manages to keep the mystery, Hamilton leaves huge plot holes that cheapen the story to the point that one could feel cheated by it. The lack of development of the rest of the characters doesn't help, as all that is known about them is that they are all a bunch of cruel and unsympathetic yuppies. Not exactly a group easy to like. Another problem would be the way the story unfolds, as directors Hamilton and Petersen give their film a pacing that feels quite slow at times, to the point of becoming a tad tedious. Nevertheless, the big problem of "Bleed" remains that sad feeling of watching a great idea wasted on a bad movie.

Beyond its flaws and virtues, there's one thing in "Bleed" that's impossible to deny: the filmmakers, Hamilton and Petersen, put a lot of heart into the project. Despite its many obvious problems, there is a certain sense of fun that shows that there was a lot of passion to make of it a good horror film. Certainly, the lack of experience and budget damaged the result, but "Bleed" seems to have more heart than many horror films, including many of Charles Band's newer releases. Hamilton's posterior effort, the mix of comedy and sexploitation "Delta Delta Die!" is a better crafted and funnier film, an overall improvement over "Bleed", which unfortunately may be interesting only to fans of Debbie Rochon or fans of independent no-budget films.


October 07, 2011

Semum (2008)

According to Islamic theology, the Jinns are mystic creatures made from smokeless fire by Allah, just like humans were made of clay. Like angels, they were ordered to bow to Adam, but Jinn were created with free will, and not every Jinn obeyed. Iblis was the first to disobey, and became expelled from Paradise, becoming Shaytan (Satan), the name for the beings who rebelled against Allah. Being frequently mentioned in the Qur'an, Jinns have an important place in Islamic folklore, with many stories being told about them. Turkish filmmaker Hasan Karacadag, disappointed by the horror cinema of his country, decided to create Turkish horror films that could reflect his Turco-Islamic vision and used the stories of Jinns as inspiration for his work. His low budget horror film "D@bbe" showed Jinns entering the modern media, in a story reminiscent of Asian modern horror. For its follow-up, 2008's "Semum", director Karacadag decided to tackle a classic theme in religious horror films: the exorcism.

In "Semum", Volkan (Burak Hakki) and Canan Karaca (Ayça Inci) are a young couple looking for a new house to start a family. The Karacas find a large new house in Istanbul that fascinates them, and decide to move. Everything seems normal and the Karacas begin their new life without problem; however, Canan begins to sense weird things happening in the house. Strange noises are the first sign, but soon she also experiences hallucinations and the terrible feeling that something else is in the house with them. Volkan is worried, but unsure about what to do to help Canan. Things deteriorate to the point that it's more than clear that Canan is not herself anymore, but the victim of Semum, a powerful servant of Shaytan decided to torment and destroy Canan's mind, body and soul. The initially doubting Volkan will now have to discover a way to help his wife before its too late, as Semum will destroy her without mercy. An exorcism will have to be done, in order to expel Semum from Canan's body, but the battle will not be an easy one.

Written by director Hasan Karacadag himself (and supposedly based on a real case), "Semum" follows the usual pattern for demonic possession films, but with the added element of being firmly based on Islamic mythology. Naturally, comparisons to William Friedkin's classic "The Exorcist" are inevitable, and yes, "Semum"'s plot indeed borrows several elements from Friedkin's film (in fact, Karacadag takes the comparisons as pretty valid), perhaps not to the point of being a carbon copy of it (like Turkish seventies film "Seytan"), but enough to make it feel derivative. Nevertheless, the Islamic elements give a quite different flavor to this tale of an exorcism, and Karacadag includes enough details to give his movie a distinctive personality of its own. Also, it is commendable Karacadag's effort to show a more realist vision of modern life in Turkey, away from any traditionalist view on Muslims. The characters are actually well defined, though the story tends to drag at times, which perhaps is the film's biggest problem.

Despite having to work with a low budget, director Hasan Karacadag manages to create a very good atmosphere of dread in "Semum", particularly during the first half of the film, which chronicles Canan becoming aware of the demon and her subsequent possession. Certainly, Karacadag employs clichés, but the use he gives them is more than appropriate and the result is quite satisfying. The work of cinematographer Seyhan Bilir is effective, nothing spectacular but does a fine job in creating a distinctive atmosphere for the film. Director Karacadag puts this to good use, and makes the most of it in some interesting set pieces, though it must be said that his visual narrative is perhaps too slow for its own sake, and while it never reaches the point of getting tedious, it does drag a bit. Unfortunately, this subtle style gets progressively abandoned for a more shocking one, a change that wouldn't be that bad if it wasn't for the fact that the digital effects in "Semum" are pretty poor, and its overuse in the climax cheapen the film enormously.

The acting is for the most part good, nothing spectacular but not too bad either. As Canan, actress Ayça Inci is perhaps the film's highlight, as her performance is pretty good, even when her character is possessed by Semum. With great talent and remarkable intensity, Inci creates two very different personas: the calm and sensitive Canan and the wild and hateful Semum. Easily the best actress in the film. Her counterpart, Burak Hakki playing her husband, is sadly less fortunate in his role, as his Volkan feels at times wooden and emotionless. Hakki certainly adds a strong presence to the role, and has pretty good moments, but for the most part he feels unsure. Certainly, his character is much less developed than Inci's, but his work is still unimpressive. Sefa Zengin is particularly effective in his role as a creepy and mysterious gardener, and achieves a lot with his strong screen presence. As Canan's friend Banu, Nazli Ceren Argon is also pretty good, though her character is a tad underdeveloped.

Perhaps the most biggest problem of "Semum" is that it's impossible not to see it as derivative and unoriginal in its structure. Certainly, the Islamic angle is a quite interesting one and gives the film an identity of its own, but Karacadag stays to close to the formula to avoid his film ends up being seen as unoriginal. It's clear that in "Semum" director Hasan Karacadag not only tried to make an Islam-based horror film, but an Islam-based horror film that would appeal to a global audience. Unfortunately, in doing so he may had abused a bit too much of clichés. This also explains the degeneration the film has from subtle horror to an over-the-top display of special effects, which as written above, wouldn't really be bad if the compute generated special effects were good, since their low quality downgrade the value of the film. And this is a shame, since director Karacadag's vision shows a different face of Islam. one that's rarely seen, as it's often overshadowed by the ardent fanaticism of terrorists.

Like most films about demonic possession, the comparison to "The Exorcist" is a heavy burden for Hasan Karacadag's "Semum", as it's hard not to see it as a rip-off of Friedkin's film, with Islam instead of Catholicism. Nevertheless, despite its problems "Semum" manages to be interesting and entertaining during most of its runtime. Certainly, it's slow pace drags a bit, and the special effects are poor, but it's still manages to be a watchable horror film. Karacadag's "Semum" may not had been resulted the new model of Islam-inspired horror its director intended, but it's an interesting film that shows a promising future for Turkish horror. It certainly erases the memory of "Seytan" when talking about Turkish horror films about demonic possession.


October 05, 2011

Another 15 Overlooked Horror films for Halloween...

Back in 2007 (when this blog first came to life), I compiled a humble list of 15 overlooked horror films to watch in Halloween, listing 15 scary movies that could make for a nice creepy night instead of the better known film series of "Halloween", "Friday the 13th" or more recently, "Scream" or "Saw". Not that there is anything wrong with watching those movies, but certainly there is more in horror than the classic mainstream films, so those 15 films could be taken as an "alternative option" to discover (or rediscover) some gems.

Now, almost four years later, here are another 15 overlooked horror films that, in the opinion of this humble writer, deserve to be better known, not only by hardcore horror fans, but the general public as well, as there are great material to enjoy during a dark scary night of Halloween.


15. Las raisins de la mort (1978, Jean Rollin)
While better known for his surreal horror films about vampires, French director Jean Rollin also tackled the subject of the living dead, and in "Las raisins de la mort" ("The Grapes of Death"), Rollin made the very first French gore film. Inspired by Romero's "Night of the Living Dead", Rollin tales the story of a young woman whom during a vacation in the French countryside, discovers that the entire population of a village has been transformed into flesh eating monsters. A blind girl, two zombie hunters and a beautiful but mysterious woman will be part of her dangerous trip into zombie madness.
Buy "Las raisins de la mort" (1978)

14. La torre de los siete jorobados (1944, Edgar Neville)
Offbeat, haunting and strangely funny, Spain's first horror film still stands as a wildly entertaining tale of fantasy and mystery in which a young man is contacted by the ghost of an archaeologist, and receives the mission of protecting the late archaeologist's beautiful daughter from a mysterious gang of hunchbacked men. The plot thickens as the underground lair of the gang is discovered. Done under Francisco Franco's regime, this fascinating film was based on a novel by Emilio Carrere and features a striking set design obviously inspired by German expressionism.

13. Der Student von Prag (1926, Henrik Galeen)
A Faustian pact in which the young student Balduin wishes to be rich in order to be able of courting a young rich lady. The devilish Scapinelli fulfills his wish, in exchange for Balduin's mirror reflection. At first Balduin enjoys his new found wealth greatly, but of course, you can't always get what you want. A remake of the 1913 film, this version of "Der Student von Prag" reunites Werner Krauss and Conrad Veidt, as Scapinelli and Balduin respectively. With beautifully designed set pieces and a more decidedly expressionist style, this remake is truly a joy to watch.
Buy "Der Student Von Prag" (1926)

12. Sauna (2008, Antti-Jussi Annila)
In 2008, Swedish horror "Låt den rätte komma in" caught the spotlight everywhere, however, it wasn't the only remarkable horror film of that year. Finnish horror film "Sauna" was a low key entry that plays heavily in atmosphere and tone to tell a story of impending doom. Set in 1595 after the brutal wars between Finland and Russia, two brothers lead an expedition to chart the new borders of the country. One of them is a ruthless army man, and the other the scholarly chartographer in charge of making the new map. Their visit to a mysterious town lost in the woods will make their dark past resurface again, and the horrors of the war will prove to be no match for the horrors of the human soul. Moody, slow, yet implacably unnerving, "Sauna" is a great watch for a cold Autumn night.
Buy "Sauna" (2008)

11. Murders in the Zoo (1933, A. Edward Sutherland)
Grizzly sadism is not something one thinks when dealing with old cinema, however, before the days of the restrictive Hays Code there were horror films that truly pushed the boundaries about what could be shown in a movie. "Murders in the Zoo" is one of those films, in which Lionel Atwill, the beautiful Kathleen Burke and a quite young Randolph Scott are involved in a murder mystery in the zoo. Far from the fantasy realms of 19th century locations, "Murders in the Zoo" is a very urban horror film that is full of several brilliantly staged horror set pieces. Brutal for its time, "Murders in the Zoo" is a rarely seen gem that deserves a lot more of attention for its boldness to go further.
Buy "Murders in the Zoo" (1933)

10. Veneno para las Hadas (1984, Carlos Enrique Taboada)
Mexican director Carlos Enrique Taboada crafted a series of films through his career that earned him a reputation as master of horror. Titles like "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", "El Libro de Piedra" and "Más negro que la noche" cemented this reputation, but the fourth and last one, "Veneno para las hadas" is definitely a lesser known gem. Unlike his better known films, "Veneno para las hadas" is not a supernatural horror, but the chilling tale of a twisted friendship between two girls, a friendship grounded in fear. And yet, it carries the same Gothic style than his previous three. Certainly, this Mexican horror tale is one that can't be missed.
Buy "Veneno para las Hadas" (1984)

9. The Walking Dead (1936, Michael Curtiz)
The sole idea of Boris Karloff as a resurrected corpse looking for justice should be enough to make "The Walking Dead" an interesting flick. However, "The Walking Dead" is much more, as this classy monster movie is not only a top notch tale of revenge from beyond the grave, but also a surprisingly powerful meditation on melancholy, philosophy and justice. Directed by Michael Curtiz (of "Casablanca" fame), this forgotten gem features one of the best performances by Karloff, who truly proves that he was the king when it came to make horrible monsters with a human heart.
Buy "The Walking Dead" (1936)

8. Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma (1990, Nikos Nikolaidis)
Weird. Bizarre. Insane. Definitely unique. This Greek hybrid of film noir and horror certainly defies convention. Taking the plot of Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944) as a basis, director Nikos Nikolaidis crafts a trip to the darker corners of the mind: torture, sex, sadism and incest are part of this mystery, all shot with a gorgeous black and white cinematography that truly captures the spirit of the film noirs that inspired it. While probably not everyone's cup of tea, "Singapore Sling" is an offbeat oddity that seems to demonstrate that even extreme films can have class.
Buy "Singapore sling: O anthropos pou agapise ena ptoma" (1990)

7. Felidae (1994, Michael Schaack)
In "Felidae" our young hero arrives to town and discovers a series of grizzly murders taking place in his new neighborhood. Decided to investigate further, he'll begin to experience terrifying visions in his nightmares as he uncovers the horrible truth. Sounds like the plot for an interesting yet typical thriller, right? However, the fact that it's animated and the characters are cats instead of humans elevates "Felidae" from a typical thriller to a masterpiece of horror in animation. Half film noir and half horror film, this tale of mystery literally believes that curiosity killed the cat. Definitely not an animation for kids.

6. Angustia (1987, Bigas Luna)
Horror receives a postmodern take in Bigas Luna's "Angustia", as the film begins following a lonely man dominated by her psychotic mother, who controls her son to use him as serial killer. However, this is a movie watched by a packed theater where a real serial killer is on the loose. To tell more would be to spoil the film, but what can be said is that the way the story is constructed, with real life intersecting "movie life", is a quite interesting narrative exercise. Taking as basis the serial killer concept that was being done to death in the 80s, Bigas Luna makes a loving homage to the experience of going to a packed theater to watch a scary movie.
Buy "Angustia" (1987)

5. Misterios de Ultratumba (1959, Fernando Méndez)
While "El Vampiro" is certainly the most famous film in director Fernando Méndez' filmography, his crowning achievement is a film unfairly less known. "Misterios de Ultratumba" (or "The Black Pit of Dr. M") is a masterful tale of Gothic horror that borrows elements from film noir to create a marvelously atmospheric story about two doctors and their bet to prove that there is life after death. With a beautiful work of cinematography and a stylish narrative, Méndez crafts a stunning film that never refrains from its atmosphere of doom. "Misterios de Ultratumba" carries a certain Lovecraftian vibe, and ranks amongst the best Mexican films ever done.
Buy "Misterios de Ultratumba (1959)

4. The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson)
"Beauty" is not always an element one expects from a horror film, but when it appears, it's more than welcome. British film "The Queen of Spades" is certainly a film full of beauty, from its breath-taking photography to its subtle classy style, this sadly neglected gem directed by Thorold Dickinson is one film that screams "beauty". Based on a story by Alexander Pushkin, the film is the story of a countess who has sold her soul in exchange for ability to win at cards. An officer also wants the secret, but discovering it will haunt him forever. A real jewel of Gothic horror at its best.
Buy "The Queen of Spades" (1949)

3. Captain Clegg (1962, Peter Graham Scott)
While better known for their new adaptations of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein", British company Hammer Films also ventured in different kinds of costume drama films, like pirate films. "Captain Clegg" (or "Night Creatures" as it was known in America) was an attempt to mix both genres in a pirate tale with horror elements based on the famous "Dr. Syn" novels by Russell Thorndike. Legendary Peter Cushing stars as the Rev. Dr. Blyss, the vicar of a small English coastal town where there have been reports of "Marsh Phantoms". Captain Collier is sent to investigate the mystery, but he'll discover more about the humble Reverend than what he expected.
Buy "Captain Clegg" (1962)

2. ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (1976, Narciso Ibañez Serrador)
"Who can kill a child?" is the question that Spaniard director Narciso Ibañez Serrador poses in this deeply unnerving film based on a simple yet disturbing premise: if the children were out to get would you kill them? A British couple, Eve and Tom, are traveling through the Spanish islands and arrives to a small island, only to discover that no adult seems to be around. Only the children remain, but they don't tell anything. So, Eve and Tom suspect that something is wrong, and begin searching. They'll discover that the children have a secret plan for them. Deeply atmospheric and powerful in its delivery, "¿Quién puede matar a un niño?" is a classic of Spain's horror cinema.
Buy "Quién puede matar a un niño?" (1976)

1. Hangover Square (1945, John Brahm)
German director John Brahm is perhaps better known by his work in television, where he directed famous episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", "Thriller" and "The Twilight Zone" (notably "Time Enough at Last"). However, during the 40s Brahm directed an eerie mix of horror and noir set in Victorian London: "Hangover Square". With a marvelous work of cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, the ominous music of Bernard Herrmann, and a masterful performance by the ill-fated Laird Cregar in his last role. Subtle, classy, yet undeniably creepy, "Hangover Square" is a remarkably atmospheric tale of madness.
Buy "Hangover Square" (1944)

October 04, 2011

Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1981)

By the early 60s, the Mexican film industry was beginning its slow but constant decline after the Golden Age ended. After a brief resurgence in the early 70s, the country's big financial problems and the stronger competition from foreign industries left the Mexican industry in its darkest hour during the late 70s and early 80s. It is during this difficult period when director Alfredo Zacarías crafted two ambitious horror films starring American actors: 1978's "The Bees" and this film, 1981's "Demonoid: Messenger of Death". Not exactly a newbie in the Mexican film industry, Zacarías began his career as a writer under the guidance of his father, director Miguel Zacarías, and later with legendary director Gilberto Martínez Solares. Soon Alfredo Zacarías started making films on his own and found success directing the light comedies of Gaspar Henaine "Capulina", however, Zacarías had big plans in mind and attempted to enter the American market with horror films. In the case of "Demonoid: Messenger of Death", the outcome wasn't really what was expected.

Also known by its Spanish title as "Macabra, la Mano del Diablo", "Demonoid: the Messenger of Death" stars Samantha Eggar as Jennifer Baines, the young wife of wealthy American entrepreneur Mark Baines (Roy Jenson), who is visiting the mining city of Guanajuato in Mexico as her husband owns an important mine that promises to be very rich. At the time when Jennifer arrives to Guanajuato, Mark is facing the refusal of his workers to go deeper into the mine, as they believe the place is haunted. Thinking it's all mere superstition, Mark and Jennifer decide to enter the mine on their own, and discover that the workers had dug out an ancient altar to the Devil, with the Devil's Hand as a relic. Mark doesn't really take the altar seriously, and grabs the Devil's Hand as a trophy for the triumph of man conquering superstition. However, soon he'll discover that the Devil's hand has a mind of its own and transforms it's owner into a psycho killer. Jennifer will have to escape from the Hand, that keeps possessing people in its attempt to kill her.

While the screenplay is written by Amos Powell (of Roger Corman's "Tower of London" fame) and David Lee Fein (who later would write "Cheerleader Camp"), the film is the brainchild of director Alfredo Zacarías himself, being that he wrote the source story the script was based on. The concept of a transplanted that controls itself is not new (any version of Maurice Renard's novel "Les Mains d'Orlac", like "Mad Love", proves it), but Zacarías adds interesting ideas to the mix, like the demonic possession angle and the transference of the demon from person to person so, unlike his previous work in "The Bees", it could be said that Zacarías succeeds in giving his story some originality. Sadly, the premise gets wasted as the plot lacks the coherency and the sense to put all the elements together and the result is a bizarre story that never really takes off. Ultimately, the plot degenerates into a series of vignettes where the hand goes from host to host, that only have the purpose of being excuses for having many scenes of severed hands.

Alfredo Zacarías' direction is tacky, sloppy, technically effective yet horribly slow and tedious, owner of an unpolished narrative style that feels outdated and unimaginative, as if the movie had been done for television and was 10 years older than its true age. To Zacarías' credit, he makes a couple of really interesting set-pieces for some of the film's goriest moments; however, the unfortunate work of cinematography by Alex Phillips Jr. (far from his best work), together with the notorious low-budget and the contrived and ultimately incoherent plot, end up diminishing the power those scenes could have. While Zacarías had proved to be good at handling with comedy, in "Demonoid: Messenger of Death" there seems to be a great difficulty in handling the dramatic tension and the suspense of the film. The few action sequences of the film are actually well done given the film's low budget, although again, with a somewhat archaic style in the execution. Nevertheless, Zacarías greatest problem arises from his inability to make the awful script work.

"Demonoid: Messenger of Death" has two pretty good actors in its cast, and both deliver some of the worst performances in their careers. To be fair, Samantha Eggar seems like she did her best with what she had to work and manages to carry the film despite the movie's more than obvious problems. The development of her character is almost non-existent, but Eggar at least makes her Jennifer a likable character. Still, her work is far from her delivery in Cronenberg's "The Brood" (1979). The experienced Stuart Whitman is sadly a lot less successful, playing the tortured Priest that tries to help Jennifer against the Devil's Hand. Certainly, his character is a bit more developed, though Whitman's acting is uneven, to the point of changing between different accents though the film without any apparent reason. The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to downright awful, although it's hard to tell if it's completely the actors' fault given the poor way in which the script is developed.

It would be tempting to put the blame for the many flaws in "Demonoid: Messenger of Death" on the low budget the filmmakers had, or in the cheap looking special effects, or in the inability of the director to translate the story to screen competently; however, the real problem in "Demonoid: Messenger of Death" is the poor way the script was built. Everything else is just an extension of that. Contrived, rushed, and ultimately absurd, the story not only fails at fulfilling the potential of its premise: it never really goes somewhere. While the ideas thrown into the mix definitely look good on paper, the film's poorly developed screenplay contains bizarre scenes that are unintentionally funny at best, and ridiculous at worst. As written above, Alfredo Zacarías' work is good on the technical side (and it's remarkable what he achieved with low production values), but pretty poor in a purely narrative way. Zacarías has done better films when he has a good script to work with, but in "Demonoid: Messenger of Death", the lack of coherency of the plot simply make the film boring and tedious.

"Demonoid: Messenger of Death" is the sad case of an interesting and ambitious idea wasted by an awful story and subpar execution. While released in 1981 (on the wake of the release of Oliver Stone's similarly-themed "The Hand"), Zacarías' film was done a couple of years before, which may explain its relatively outdated visual style. Despite its many flaws, "Demonoid, Messenger of Death" is not without its good things (technically, it's not that bad of a film), though they are certainly overshadowed by its problematic screenplay. It certainly can be entertaining at times (and some absurdities are unintentionally comic), but in the end, "Demonoid: Messenger of Death" results being another good idea that was just badly developed and poorly executed.