Monday is Columbus Day

Hmmm… Since Monday’s a holiday (happy Columbus day everyone), no mail, no Netflix. No matter, I do have a film to review for Wednesday’s Midnight Movie Madness. Woof!

Meanwhile: the postman always shoots twice.


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Behold, a pale van

The horseman” – (96 minutes, Australia 2008)

Not to be confused with “the horsemen” (USA2009)

I’m really not a fan of revenge movies, I don’t particularly care for the “Dirty Harry” series, much less “Death Wish”. You can guess by extension, that the so-called “torture porn” movies are even less my thing as far as entertainment goes.
The Australian film “the horseman” seems on the surface to fit in neatly with at least the first two, but “horseman” is more of a Western for me.

Watch the trailer:

Strange? Maybe, but would you consider “the searchers” (John Ford, 1956) a revenge movie..?
The language of Westerns is spare, and plain. Surviving in the face of great odds and hardships, natural or otherwise, dictates humility and economy.

Some films have clever dialogue and good one liners. It is telling that the imdb page for “the horseman” has no ‘memorable quotes’, not one, and that is a really good thing. This isn’t Schwarzenegger or Tarantino territory.
I will not include spoilers in this review. The premise is that a man receives news of his daughter’s death under more than questionable circumstances. We understand from the first few minutes that she was a runaway, and had taken part in some cheap, semi-underground porno.
The man (Peter Marshall) wears a pest control uniform with his name, Christian, on it. Make what you will of the occupation or the name.
When Christian finds out about the porno film, he sets out to find the people who made it and kill them. The majority of reviews call this a revenge movie, and again, I don’t see this as Christian’s motivation. Rather, I see a man needing cleansing from the filth that reached him through his daughter.
He was done and ready to go home about mid-way through the film, there was no desire to keep on killing, especially after having bonded with a runaway (Caroline Marohasy) the age of his daughter, he’d done what needed doing.
The cinematography is stark, shadows are intense and light feels at times like a harsh glint. In fact, watching Christian’s face is like watching the planes and contours of a steel hammer. Reading his expressions is noting the imperfections in the metal, Marshall’s performance is minimalist and perfectly suited and nuanced.
His violence is purposeful, as opposed to the sadism demonstrated by another later in the film. And for realism, simply keep in mind a scene involving a handcuffs’ key, and later on, the way a man sounds after getting stabbed in the chest (no, not with the key).

There is nothing pleasant about “the horseman”, thankfully. It is however very well acted and suspenseful, a proper and very distinct descendant of “get Carter” (Mike Hodges, 1971) and should make first time director Steven Kastrissios someone to keep an eye on. The same certainly applies to the cast, Marshall in particular.

The horseman” gets 4 jellybeans.

4 beans


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Midnight Movie Madness

Rogue” – (99 minutes, Australia 2007)

Somewhere deep in Australia’s Northern Territory, a group of tourists embarks on a tour boat piloted by guide Kate Ryan (Rhada Mitchell). As they prepare to turn back in the late afternoon, the group notices flares going up somewhere deep in sacred aboriginal land.
Reluctantly, they push on in search of the distressed party.
As they consider returning to town, in a wider part of the river forming a lake with a tiny mud island at the center, they come upon a small boat partly submerged and nothing else. Before they have a chance to discuss their next move, their boat is almost lifted out of the water by a huge crocodile hitting them from below.
With the hull breached and rapidly taking water, Ryan steers towards the island and beaches the craft.
With the tide rising and ill-equipped tourists far away from civilization, the group’s survival comes in serious doubt, especially as the huge crocodile begins to pick them off in an inexplicable display of aggression.

Watch the trailer:

Director Greg McLean describes “Rogue” as an old style horror film and I suspect he refers to his suggestion of violence rather than graphic displays. In fact “Rogue” uses both and it’s a good blend. Some reviewers took issue with the pacing, others with a perceived lack of gore. There are several things which set “Rogue” apart from other entries in the so-called killer-croc sub-genre.
One of these are the locations. The setting of the film, the Northern Territory, is one of the main characters, absolutely stunning from the features of the landscape, waters, sky and shifting colors beautifully captured by Will Gibson, the director of photography. Sadly, he passed away in March 2007, and from what I’ve seen in the extras and the way he shot the film, I’m sure he must be dearly missed.
Anyone who loves the outdoors owes it to themselves to check out “Rogue”: footage of this quality and of this part of the world is all too rare.

The music score, written by Frank Tetaz, is excellent: while I was always aware of it, I never felt it intruded, as others have.
The extras have him describe how he integrated certain tonalities to not only ‘support’ the action and mood but define characters: tapping strings on violins and violas, using wooden and metal containers immersed in water as percussion instruments and a simple piece he composed as a foundation for improvised Aboriginal vocalizations.
Very well thought out, and best: it works great, not unlike the soundtrack designed for “winged migration”.
As mentioned above, McLean effectively ‘suggested’ some of the kills, using clever editing and scene set-up rather than showing people getting chomped. This gave those kills he did show more impact. And those were complex scenes to design, between stunt work, CGI, mechanical crocs and editing. What gore there is has more of an impact, not just because it looked very real, but because there wasn’t that much of it throughout the movie. He had a fairly solid group of actors as well, with some unspoken characterization notes, glances, looks and smiles which actually worked better than much of the dialogue, which was on the weak side.
Where McLean avoided gratuitous gore, he gave in to gratuitous cussing, which was unnecessary and ‘jarred’ a little.
Given the shooting conditions, heat, humidity, flies, having real crocs and snakes around, not to mention spending a fair amount of time in murky waters, the actors pushed themselves. As Michael Vartan, who plays American travel writer Pete McKell, says in the extras, he did not have to act afraid, he was terrified. There is a real element of danger shooting a movie in an uncontrolled environment, especially doing take after take in the water as Sam Worthington had to do, knowing a three meter crocodile had been seen in the area. Sure, there are security guys with rifles around, but as they told the actors: “if we have to use the rifle it’s too late.”
And the mechanical croc head with chomping jaws? You can hear them clamp shut hard in the final confrontation in the crocodile’s lair, as Vartan humorously put it, he ‘peed a little’, you’ll know why once you hear that sound: special effects or not, that mechanical croc head could take a limb off.

This was a work intensive production for sure. The island on which the tour party seeks refuge was man made for the movie, in an artificial (and large) lake. The croc’s lair was a set on a sound stage, and the CGI and animatronics were complex blends of real and digital.
I don’t know how much of a return was made on this movie but it deserves to have done well: it is superior in most respects to others in the genre and I would rank it up there with “jaws”.

Rogue” gets 5 jellybeans.

5 beans


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Nein, nein, nein… Oh well…

Inglorious basterds” – (153 minutes, USA 2009)

By now, most everyone reading this is likely to know what this movie’s storyline(s) is (are): a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) operating in occupied France during WWII, spreading terror amongst Germans, by using unconventional methods. Scalping, beating with baseball bats, etc.

There is another arc involving Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), sole survivor of a Jewish family hiding at a neighbor’s farm in France, massacred by colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) and his men.
Both arcs converge towards a final conflagration at the cinema run by Dreyfus under a different name toward the end of the war.

Watch the trailer:

There have been times, in other films, when Quentin Tarantino had me laughing out loud, or really involved in the action. He reportedly said he would be interested in directing a James Bond film, and I would look forward to that. But there are enough issues with “inglorious basterds” that I wish I could have the 2 ½ hours from my life back.
It’s actually closer to 3 hours, seeing that I had to replay certain scenes as it stopped making any kind of sense to me.

I read in some critical reviews that the violence and brutality was such that the reviewer(s) felt sorry for the German soldiers. The scalping of dead soldiers? The beating to death of another with a baseball bat? Really? This points to a failure on both parts, to me: let’s remember German troops decimated entire villages in countries they occupied in retaliation for attacks by resistance movements. “Inglorious basterds” shows precious little of that, however.
Tarantino’s depiction of what the basterds did does not begin to equal what the Gestapo and SS did by a long shot. But then, perhaps some people draw a distinction he does not between the Wermarcht and the SS and Gestapo. No matter.

Eli Roth I felt was miscast as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, “the Jewish Bear”. The actor playing Hugo Stiglitz would have been better. But then Brad Pitt and his inconsistent accent (his character is supposed to come from Tennessee) wasn’t all that inspired either, actually looking… Constipated throughout. There is a saying about grabbing the viewer/reader’s attention right off the bat (no pun intended), with the first scene or lines of a film or book.
The first chapter of “inglorious basterds”, since Tarantino decided to use the chapter format again, introduces Hans Landa, during his “visit” of a French farm, looking for a Jewish family in hiding. The dialogue is well written, Christopher Waltz delivers the lines well, but it’s clearly not the best scene Tarantino’s ever written, and it probably would have benefited from more close up shots.
As it is, I feel that what Tarantino was going for was for the audience to see Landa as a boa constrictor, slowly coiling around the farmer he questions, until he squeezed truth and tears out of him.
As a display of psychological violence, I found it lacking in that the scene did go on too long, and that Waltz as Landa lacked any form of “glee” that I could recognize. Hannibal Lecter, he’s not. Far from it. It felt to me as though Tarantino was actually holding his punches, perhaps because the material was rooted in history, and I suspect, Tarantino actually may be burnt out on violence not just in its physical forms but also in its psychological aspects. Some of you I hear go: “What-the-f***?!?”
Here I suspect there may have been more conflict off screen than on.

Inglorious basterds” opening scene also features music by Ennio Morricone, and as the movie is intended as an homage to Spaghetti Western, that would seem to make sense. Except I began to disconnect right then and there instead of being pulled in. It didn’t belong there. I didn’t time how long it took Landa and his men to reach the farm, but I had to get up and start a pot of coffee.
And so it went on and on and on.
Tarantino I think gets blamed and praised for the same reasons: his reverence and references to the movies. And many of the reviews I’ve read of “inglorious basterds” tend to swing between extremes. I do wonder whether this film is a turning point for him, seeing how he wrote the two female characters (Shoshanna Dreyfus and Bridget Von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger) and what happens to them…
As it is, I hope his next choice of material will suit him better. If you’re even on the fence about Tarantino, skip this one, and watch, say “army of shadows” by Melville instead. But if you’re a fan… Well you’ve already seen and loved “inglorious basterds” by now, haven’t you?

I’m giving “inglorious basterds” one jellybean for ambition.

1 bean


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Midnight Movie Madness

Dark portals: the chronicles of Vidocq” – Reflections before the lights (98 minutes, France 2001)

“One man struck by lightning is an accident. Two men struck by lightning is a conspiracy.”

Word of advice: the dubbing is pretty bad on this one, so you may well want to listen to the French soundtrack with English subtitles… And dark as the movie is visually, you’ll want to wait after Midnight.
Paris in 1830, capital of a country in turmoil, with a regime installed by the Prussians.  Francois Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu), former creator and head of Napoleon’s secret police, sacked under the current government, is now France’s most famous detective.
Someone has been killing French notables with no discernible link between them, stumping the chief of Parisian police. Worse yet, the assassin used lightning to set them ablaze!
Hot on the mysterious killer’s trail, Vidocq chases him into a glass factory. Deep into the bowels of this place, Vidocq fights this “Alchemist”, as he is known, who seems possessed of super-human abilities, with stamina and acrobatics which Vidocq cannot match. And indeed, the detective falls into a furnace pit, seemingly to his death.
As the paper men all over Paris shout that Vidocq is dead, his former partner Nimier (Moussa Maaskri) receives an unwelcome visit from young journalist Etienne Boisset (actor-film maker Guillaume Canet), who claims to have worked with Vidocq on his biography. Boisset now is intent on discovering everything about Vidocq’s last case, the pursuit of the Alchemist.
In flashbacks, we retrace the steps which led Vidocq to the glass factory, through the darkest chambers at the heart of the City of Light, and the hellish plot the “victims” were involved in.
This is an interesting story with layers. Vidocq is part of French history, a former convict, whom Napoleon did in fact utilize to great effect in reforming French police. That in itself is worth researching. This film has an interesting look and atmosphere as well, part video game, part graphic novel, dark with vivid colors, shot entirely in digital with Sony’s 1080 p, 24 fps camera before even Star Wars episode II.
Written and directed by Pitof, “Chronicles of Vidocq” also profits from Marc Caro’s character design. Caro used to collaborate with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on comic strips and “City of lost children”. Bruno Coulais’ music suits the mood perfectly as well.
This is a dark tale, which will put viewers in mind of “from hell”, though very distinct. A lovely trip to take past midnight.

Dark portals: the chronicles of Vidocq” gets 4  jellybeans.

4 beans


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Thrice upon a time, far from the West…

The Weather Underground thingamajig in the top right corner reads 88 degrees Farenheit as I’m about to post this. How appropriate.
Please be sure to comment below, and let us know what you think..!

This past week, I decided to check out three foreign Westerns, the third of which I’d already seen a while ago, to add some balance perhaps: “the good, the bad, the weird” from South Korea (2008), “Renegade” from France (2004) and “800 bullets” from Spain (2002). All three are over two hours long.

There was one revelation: “the good, the bad, the weird”… It’s especially rare to laugh out loud as I did watching this, and to hit the back button on the DVD player to replay a scene.
I enjoy bathroom humor. I do. It was funny when I was a kid, it’s still funny now. One example is when the weird, Tae Goo, kills two men in the same way, by use of a rod kicked up their nether region with farting sounds and a weird expression of… Delight on one baddy’s face.
Yeah, I cringed too, but seeing as this was in a fight, not some torture scene, fair is fair.
But it’s not all off color jokes. Matter of fact it’s not all jokes, there’s quite a lot of bloodshed, shootings, stabbings et al. There is some excellent stunt work as well, horsemanship and gorgeous scenery which they shot mostly in Manchuria, in the desert.

There are three main characters, a bounty hunter named Do-Wan (the good), a ruthless psychopathic gun for hire going into business for himself named Chang-Yi (the bad), a train-robber with more lives than a cat named Tae-Goo (yes, the weird), and some strong supporting turns throughout.

During a train robbery, Tae-Goo (the weird), “acquires” what appears to be an invaluable treasure map, and from then on, he has both Do-Wan (the bounty hunter) and Chang-Yi (the killer) on his heels, as well as the Ghost Market Gang, Manchurian bandits, the Japanese and Manchurian armies, plus a few spies.
I’m hoping for a sequel because this Tae-Goo has mucho comedic potential. The bounty hunter’s more two dimensional (he’s supposed to be a good guy, and as we’ll see with Renegade, that can be a problemo).
As to Chang-Yi the bad guy, interesting look, with a dark pinstripe suit and hair covering half his face, Manga-style.
And yet, it all works. Maybe because director Kim Ji Yoo keeps the action moving fast, maybe because the score, evocating Ennio Morricone and the Gypsy Kings at times, is rousing, especially when the story veers into Road Runner and Coyote territory on an epic scale, and it works very well indeed.

This movie gets 5 beans

5 beans

Renegade”, the French Western, also uses an ancient map/manuscript as a ploy to bring villains in search of gold to the Sacred Mountains of the Chiracahua. Beyond that, “Renegade” becomes a convoluted mess.

The basis for this movie is a Belgian-French comic book which ran from the sixties to about the mid seventies, following the adventures of Mike “Blueberry” Donovan, a Southerner who joined the U.S. cavalry after the Civil War, and has a much more interesting character arc. In this adaptation, Blueberry (Vincent Cassel) has been transformed into a kid from a relatively well-to-do Cajun family, sent West to an uncle’s ranch to “straighten” out some. This was meant to “explain” Cassel’s French accent, but is a pretty big deviation from the original, and a questionable one.

Young Blueberry is involved in a fight at a whorehouse with Wallace Blount (Michael Madsen). Blueberry and Blount survive, but the girl Blueberry spent the evening with gets a bullet in the head and burns in a fire. Wandering outside the town, a wounded Blueberry is rescued and nursed back to health by Chiracahua Indians. He remains with them for a few years until we flash forward to the present, which finds Blueberry as town marshal, still haunted by that fateful night years ago.
No. He hasn’t gotten over it.

Meanwhile, the local big rancher (Jeffrey Lewis) sends two “adventurers” into the mountains to find gold: Woodhead (an underutilized Djimon Hounsou) and “Prosit” Luckner (Eddie Izzard with a dodgy German accent). Prosit Luckner’s made deals of his own, with Wallace Blount, who is after something more than just Indian gold.

Now, a few reviewers have been turned off by a couple of scenes using special effects, first to depict Blueberry’s vision quest with the Chiracahua, and secondly to show Blueberry’s surreal spiritual fight against Blount after they both drink some potion in the Sacred Mountains’ treasure cave.

Renegade” has a number of problems, not the least of which being that the good guy is just about as vapid as the bounty hunter of “the good, the bad, the weird”, only more so. That is really a waste of Cassel’s talent. This makes the villain, Wallace Blount, the real center of gravity of the story, even though Michael Madsen is doing the same schtick he’s been doing since “reservoir dogs”.

Juliette Lewis (Jeffrey Lewis’ daughter in real life) is miscast as the rancher’s daughter, saloon manager and Blueberry’s love interest.
Lewis’ persona is too modern, but then…
Then the film makers sinned.
They sinned by having her belt out “Danny Boy” in her saloon, very badly slaughtering the song. And “Danny Boy” is really not something you caricature if you don’t want your audience to groan in pain.
It gets worse. She sings a few bars of it again later on, trying to bring Blueberry back to the living. That-actually-hurt.
There is beautiful scenery. There are some very good actors. But in this “baguetti Western” as Izzard called it, their talents are mostly wasted and the better scenes are actually the special effects sequences, which drag on a tad too long, especially the second one. Pass.
If you are interested in surrealism in a Western, check out “dead man” with Johnny Depp or “El Topo” with Alejandro Jodorovsky instead.

This movie gets no beans

totally redone beans red 0

A movie about movies is how director Alex de la Iglesia described “800 bullets”. The story takes place in modern day Spain, where we have a family torn by tragedy, as well as the land-grabbing scheme familiar to Westerns. Julian Torralba (Sancho Gracia) is a movie stuntman decades past his best days working on American Westerns shot in Almeria. Some years ago, his son died performing a stunt on a Russian backed Western. Julian now spends his days performing with his troupe for the occasional car load of German tourists, eking out a living, getting drunk and reminding everyone of his glory days doing stunts for Clint Eastwood or George S. Scott (sic).
His daughter in law Laura (Carmen Maura) is an executive at a real estate development firm in Madrid, living with her 10 year old son Carlos (Luis Castro) and her mother in law Rocio (Terele Pavez).

During a family move, Carlos discovers photos of his late father and of his grandfather, Julian. Laura refuses to answer his questions, but Rocio tells him about Julian before swearing him to secrecy. She and Laura get along icily. It’s summer recess and Laura puts Carlos on the school bus taking him to a ski trip. Carlos instead hops in a cab and ends up in the desert of Almeria wearing mountain clothing, looking for Julian.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the above, but “800 bullets” is a clever and fun comedy. It is mostly the lively dialogue and interaction between the very flawed (read ‘human’) characters which make this highly enjoyable. This is one to watch in Spanish with subtitles.

Julian is not a nice man, either. When Laura decides to buy the Western village where he and his troupe live and perform to build an amusement park, he visits her in Madrid to change her mind, promising he’ll never see Carlos again, and that he would put his grandson on the bus back to Madrid himself if Carlos tried to visit him in the future.
Laura’s not having any of this and the firm’s plans go ahead, prompting Julian to lead an armed resistance with his troupe of misfits.

800 bullets” reminds me of “I sell the dead” in that you sense the enthusiasm and love of movies throughout the entire film. It’s also typical of Alex de la Iglesia’s movies in the rich tapestry of characters: it’s not just leads and supporting actors, virtually all of them have good lines and are funny and  a unique depiction of who they are.
Take the cab driver who takes Carlos to Almeria (he also played the perv neighbor dressed as Darth Vader in de la Iglesia’s “la comunidad”). Or the undertaker, who years ago was hired on a Spaghetti Western which folded because of rain: throughout the movie, he cusses in Italian. The only thing he ever got out of that deal…

This movie gets 4 beans

4 beans

It’s good to sample foreign made Westerns, “the proposition” being a prime example. France has a couple more which are also derived from a comic books series: “Lucky Luke”. They are not yet available in region 1 (unless in Canada but probably without subtitles), but hey, let’s hope for the best.


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Midnight Movie Madness

I sell the dead!” – A Man Could Go Quite Mad (85 minutes, USA 2008)

“Never trust a corpse…”

Amongst the various genres, horror, and I suspect humor to a lesser extent, fans have quite an eclectic variety of interests, from zombie movies to vampires, slapstick to satire, but they are quite passionate about them, perhaps even… Picky.
So blending genres is always tricky, especially when dealing with a public who knows what it likes. Quite the balancing act.
The exceptions are rare enough to be noted and recommended, such as the Sam Raimi-Bruce Campbell “team”, Neil Gaiman-Dave McKean or the craftsmen behind “I sell the dead”. Larry Fessenden has been at it a long time, and knows film making in and out. He both produced and acted in “I sell the dead!”, Glenn McQuaid’s true directorial debut, even though “I sell the dead!” was developed from a previous, shorter effort, “the resurrection apprentice”.

Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) sits in a prison awaiting his execution after being convicted of grave robbing. There, he is visited by am Irish priest (Ron Perlman), who has a curious interest in criminals such as Blake and his partner Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). In flashbacks, Blake describes his adventures from street urchin to businessman-corpse supplier in association with Grimes, against strong competition from the Murphy clan, a ghoulish collection of killers.
Along the way, increasingly horrific supernatural encounters seem to promise the rivals riches, but at a terrible price.

When dealing with a low budget genre movie made by hard working enthusiasts who know their craft and share real affection for film, as well as each other, the result is… Infectious. There usually are aspects to forgive given budget constraints, but not here: the decors, costumes, music and McQuaid’s script and direction all blend with and support the actors.

And what performers… Ron Perlman, Dom Monaghan, Fessbenden are of course excellent. But John Speredakos is devilishly creepy, as is Angus Scrimm , of course. Heather Robb and Brenda Cooney are remarkable, and James Godwin’s got to be seen to be believed.
The interplay between the two grave robbers Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) make me wonder about Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

There is ambition which shows through, from producers Peter Phok and Fessenden, to McQuaid and this talented crew, but there is also experience: the film is consistently good to great without anything for the audience to ‘forgive’, as I stated earlier.

Watch it after Midnight, with a bottle of Scotch or Whisky. Then the next day, when you can’t remember how it ends, shave your eyeballs and watch it again.

“I sell the dead!” receives 4 jellybeans.

4 beans


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Midnight Movie Madness

“Malpertuis” – alternate title ”the legend of Doom house” green nose and blue eye shadow (director’s cut 125 minutes, France-Belgium-Germany 1971)

“And those eyes! I’ve got a whole tin of eyes, but none like yours!”

Based on a book by Jean Ray of the same title, adapted for the screen by Jean Ferry, directed by Harry Kumel. This movie is available on a two disc DVD set: disc 1 is the director’s cut with a Flemish soundtrack and English subtitle.
Disc 2, referred to as the Cannes version because it appeared at the Cannes festival, is dubbed in English.
So, if you have trouble watching a movie with subtitles, be aware… The English version has been heavily cut and is missing some significant material.
Speaking of material, there is a lot of it, and I don’t just mean in the film. Both DVDs have extras well worth watching and the book itself, written by Jean Ray in 1943, answers some questions necessarily left out by the adaptation.

Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the early part of last century, in the house of Malpertuis lives a strange assemblage of people, some of whom are related, on the surface constituting a dysfunctional family headed by the dying and evil Uncle Cassavius (Orson Welles). Cassavius’ young nephew Jan (German actor Matthieu Carriere) returns from years at sea, and is tricked into seeking his sister Nancy (Susan Hampshire) who has gone to live at Malpertuis after some family misfortunes.
Cassavius’ testament dictates that Malpertuis’ inhabitants will inherit his considerable fortune, on condition that they never leave the domain, until their death.
Seduced by his cousin Euryale (also played by Susan Hampshire), Jan changes his mind and decides to stay, slowly unraveling the house’s mysteries.
Most of the people living at Malpertuis are forgotten gods of ancient Greece captured long ago by Cassavius, a master of the occult.
It is somewhat difficult describing a movie which unfolds like a dream, and that’s exactly how “Malpertuis” develops. It helps knowing that the source material, Jean Ray’s book, has in tone and style been compared to H.P. Lovecraft among others. And for those who enjoy Lovecraft’s stories, “Malpertuis” can be a thrilling experience.

Technically, shooting this turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. First of all, the cast includes Dutch, Belgian, British, German, French, Canadian and one American (Welles) actors. There were scheduling issues due to availability, scenes shot in two languages between actors who did not understand the other’s language, and then the major headaches caused by Orson Welles.
These difficulties are discussed at length in the discs’ interviews and commentaries by Kumel, director of photography Gerry Fisher and some of the actors.

It’s worth noting here, not simply because Kumel himself expounds on them at considerable length, but because in a real sense, Welles’ behavior as described, egotistical demands and tantrums, sabotaging the other actors’ performance, meddling with the shooting schedule, mirrored the way the “Malpertuis” characters interplayed.
The drunken hubris, pettiness, the wondrous but by then waning reputation of Welles, turning the performers’ awe and respect for him into resentment and into something likely close to hatred. He was their god, once.

Kumel credits his DP (director of photography) Gerry Fisher with much of the atmosphere and artistry of the film, and more. Fisher, in preparation for the shoot, visited as many museums as possible, even after shooting began, to immerse himself in paintings of the Flemish and Dutch masters.
This shows throughout, but Fisher also worked around issues presented by Orson Welles’ demands. As I remarked in a review of “Daughters of Darkness”, Kumel uses color as symbols and character/mood definitions.
Welles insisted on using his own clothes and doing his own make-up, due to his theater background.
Two issues came of this: in the scenes set in Cassavius’ bedroom, Kumel decided on three colors to dominate: black, red and white. In the commentary, he attributes to these an oppressive quality, apparent in “fascist”, specifically Nazi, flags. In contrast, Jean Ray in his book refers to red, black and white as characterizing the various types of magic. Red represented also sin and passion, blue represented virtue and white, purity. We’re made to understand Jan is a virgin, hence the blue eye shadow worn by Carriere. Well, at the beginning anyway.

Problem was, Welles arrived wearing a green house robe over his white shirt, and as was his habit, a fake nose made of green colored theater putty. Fisher devised a lighting combination which made the robe look black and gave the nose a leaden complexion, very much as described in the book. Terrific creative work, also seen in the individual lighting he gave each character, even as they appeared together or in groups, truly remarkable work, as was his mastery of shadows and their projection.
Welles was not the only obstacle Kumel had to overcome. The actor playing Abbe Doucedame disappeared for a few weeks, screwing up the schedule.

Kumel gives credit where it’s due, and not just to Gerry fisher who is owed a lot. His cast performed admirably. By today’s standards, the character of Jan may well be annoying to the point of exasperation. In the book, he is a product of the bourgeoisie, spoiled and subject to mood swings and tantrums, drawn between two strong female characters, who are goddesses after all. Strange then that screenwriter Ferry decided to make him a sailor returning after years on the oceans, essentially combining Jan’s character with that of his father.
Another issue is that of the scene in the tavern of the red district where Jan follows Bets (Sylvie Vartan). It does not work, the song supposed to be an homage to Dietrich in “Blue Angel” sounds like bad late ‘60s pop, which it is. Vartan was a popular French pop singer.

This brings me to the other jarring scene, toward the end of the movie, when Jan turns out to be a modern day computer engineer who is released from a mental hospital, after being “cured” from his hallucinations about ancient gods captive in Malpertuis.
That scene, which Kumel says critics hated but made sense to him, suddenly pinpoints the action in time to the early ‘70s, with the wide ties, bell bottoms, sideburns, cars of the era, even shots of Biafra which was much in the news at the time.
This is way too specific, too mundane after we were lured into the unspecified era of the tale. Like the helicopter appearing at the end of “Donkey skin”, it feels like a bucket of cold water.
There are many nice twists and touches throughout, visual and otherwise, which make “Malpertuis” a must see. One of my favorites has to do with the quote at the top of this review, spoken by Philarete to Jan, taken from the marionette maker of “the tales of Hoffman”.

Because of this, as well as the originality of the themes, explored later by Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman, about the nature of divinity and destiny, “Malpertuis” gets four jellybeans.

4 beans


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Midnight Movie Madness

Daughters of Darkness – Fateful encounters (100 minutes Belgium/West Germany/France 1971)

“I was wrong, after all… What you did wasn’t foolish, Stefan, it was merely… Unrealistic.”

Almost 40 years on, “Daughters of Darkness” shows even better than when it was first released. This is not a gore-fest, and while I wouldn’t call it a character study, it certainly has more layers than the Horror genre typically leads you to expect. It means neither to blow the viewer away, nor to titillate.  It is absorbing, somewhat like “let the right one in”. But more on this later…

When this movie came out, the vampire sub-genre was waning: “Daughters of Darkness was book-ended between Roman Polanski’s “the fearless vampire hunters” (1967) and “Dracula and son” (1976), a French spoof starring Christopher Lee.

I remember the early ‘70s as a sort of “either or” proposition, in terms of cinema: serious films (at times overly so, veering into pretentiousness) or exploitation flicks, with little in between. On the face of it, and given when “Daughters of Darkness” came out, I suspect it was wrongly perceived as exploitation, with elements of horror and soft-porn. Many reviews tend to label it as “lesbian vampire horror” or “erotic vampire” story, and while this is not entirely inaccurate, it tends to lessen the scope of the film.

Yes, there are several shots of full frontal nudity, and female characters kissing, but… Vampires by nature are sexual beings seducing their prey before feeding on them. The need defines the skill.

There are really two main story arcs in “Daughters of Darkness”, as well as two predators. We begin with the young newlyweds, Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) and Stefan (John Karlen), and soon realize Stefan is essentially a sadistic child in a man’s body. He remains emotionally detached from Valerie, only reaching out to her after she is hurt by his behavior: he appears to feed on her vulnerability and attraction to him, and keeps testing her. Much of this is like watching a kid pulling the wings and legs off a fly.

Such behaviors are more widely understood nowadays than in 1971, thanks in part to self-help literature and talk shows, but in retrospect John Karlen’s role and his performance were highly unusual for the day and accurately portrayed a fractured individual swaying between fear and rage, projecting his need for control upon his bride.

A revealing influence on Stefan’s character is the personage referred to as “Mother” and “Lady Chilton”, who turns out to be an older man growing orchids in surroundings of green and purple (director Kumel also relies on color to define characters and events): more sugar daddy than mother as it appears, and something Stefan is desperately trying to conceal from Valerie. Appropriately enough we are introduced to them as they travel to Ostende on a train, appropriate because Stefan is compelled to compartmentalize his relationships.

They arrive at the Palais des Thermes during the off season, the sole guests in this oppressive looking structure. Shortly after sunset, another couple arrives: the countess Elizabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her companion Ilona (Andrea Rau). Dressed in 1930s fashions, the countess appears to the stunned concierge in exactly the same way as she did 40 years prior, to which she replies he probably remembers her mother. That is until she calls him by his first name, “Pierre”, toying with his apprehension with a jab at his fear. You see, Pierre remembers a series of unsolved murders which took place in the region 40 years ago. This is unspoken and slowly revealed as the story unfolds.

In real life, countess Elizabeth Bathory was in fact a historical figure from, of all places, Transylvania. Born in August 1560, she died sometime in August 1614 at the Cachtice castle where she was walled in.  During the Long War against the Ottomans, while her husband was away, she provided for and defended the peasantry of their lands.

Sometime after her husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, died in 1604, four of her servants were tried and executed for participating in crimes which she was rumored to have ordered, the torture and murder of hundreds of young girls. The crimes were said to involve mutilations, sexual abuse, and baths taken by the countess in her victims’ blood for the purpose of maintaining her youth. Later on, allegations of vampirism took place. For political reasons, she was not tried, but imprisoned at Cachtice until her death.

Now, in the neighboring town of Bruges, the bodies of young women drained of their blood raise old fears.

Stefan and Valerie witness the body of such a victim being taken away by ambulance and a retired policeman takes note of these foreigners.

He follows them to the hotel where the familiar figure of the countess is waiting for them. What unfolds is a sinister game of musical chairs between the protagonists. Ilona wants to leave the countess, eventually getting her wish. Stefan, who bound Valerie to himself, already yearns to be free from those ties and also gets his wish. Perhaps more than companionship, the countess herself was looking for a “vessel”.

They all may get theirs, but only the countess through power and dark skills, found satisfaction.

Is there any form of retribution at last?

To quote Francis Urqhart, F.U. to his friends, “you might very well think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Listen closely to Valerie’s last words…

“Daughters of Darkness” gets 5 jellybeans.

5 beans


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Midnight Movie Madness

Dead Alive – Everything you always wanted to know about zombies but were afraid to ask (97 minutes New Zealand 1992)

They’re not dead exactly, they’re just… sort of rotting.”

In the pantheon of horror-comedies, “Dead Alive” easily ranks up there with “Evil Dead: army of Darkness” and “Shaun of the dead”. I’ll say right now that you probably shouldn’t eat custard or strawberry ice cream when watching this early effort from Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”, “King Kong”, “the frighteners”), in the days when special effects included stop motion and gallons of movie blood. Lots of movie blood. So much blood, that “Dead Alive” is reputed to be the bloodiest movie of all time.
1957: the latest acquisition of the Wellington zoo is a rare and dangerous Sumatran rat-monkey, whose bite causes humans to turn into ravenous zombies. The creature looks suspiciously like Kitsune, by the way. Unfortunately for Lionel (Timothy Balme), his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is intent on sabotage as he tries to enjoy his first date there with Paquita (Diana Penalver). Standing too close to the cage, Vera gets bit and stomps the rat-monkey to squishy bits in her rage. Lionel takes her home and tries to hide her horrific condition from everyone, leading to problems growing as fast as the body count.
Virtually everything in this gem is outrageous and the carnage is way past the top, into the stratosphere. It also provides answers to vital questions about zombies:

–         What happens when two zombies fall in love

–         Why you shouldn’t take the resulting offspring to the park

–         How to feed a captive zombie when its head is halfway off

–         How to immobilize a zombie with a garden rake and a vise

–         Why animal stimulant shouldn’t be used to poison zombies

And much, much more… Jackson and writers Stephen Sinclair and Frances Walsh (Jackson’s spouse) packed a lot of chuckles and groans in what may be the definitive splatter-fest.

Jackson’s camera work and skillful direction  keep things lively and all the efforts spent recreating the look of the fifties, with cars, clothes and even hair styles of the era greatly enhance the movie’s charm. Performances are above the average for the genre, especially from the leads, but Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) fighting off zombies in his graveyard is a classic (“I kick *** for the Lord!”), well worthy of Bruce Campbell’s best, as is Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) showing a lot of spine as the zombies overrun Lionel’s house. Also keep an eye out for Peter Jackson’s cameo as the undertaker’s assistant pumping Vera with embalming fluid…

The JBoD rating for this movie is 4 jellybeans (out of 5)

4 beans


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