Monday, 31 May 2021

To your Last Death & Max Reload and the Nether Blasters - Grimmfest May Madness

 To Your Last Death

Jason Axinn

2019, USA

Writers: Jim Cirile, Tanya C. Klein

Originally conceived as alive action, it seems, but ‘To Your Last Death’ being an animated horror distinguishes it in a way it probably wouldn’t have been otherwise. Dysfunctional siblings are summoned by their psychopathic and obscenely wealthy arms dealer father and unleash death traps and cosmic malfeasance in equal measure. The animation is the style familiar from ‘Archer’, the characters are the antagonistic kind and there are enough bonkers and outrageous touches – ‘Saw’-style death traps; reprehensible Russian henchmen; a little time-travel; comic-book style omnipresent beings for which we are just playthings; but surely missed out on a killer robot – to make this entertaining throughout. The faintly clunky animation only makes the pulpy excess and ultra-gore more amusing.

Max Reload and the Nether Blasters

Writers & directors: Scott Conditt & Jeremy Tremp

2020, USA

And here it is, the 80s homage that always pops up at a genre festival. This follows features such as ‘Beyond the Gates’ (homagey fun) and ‘Game of Death’ (playing things straight and nasty) in gamer culture unleashing demonic apocalypse; one might even include the delightful ‘Deathgasm’ in this playpen with its metal nerdiness.

Comic book colours – red lightning! – likeable young protagonists, retro-synth score, genre favourite cameos playing to the gallery – Kevin Smith! – thick messaging about the power of friendship, nerdiness and lots of retro-video gaming love. Although it has to be said that neither Max’s (Tom Plumley) proclaimed asshole lone-wolfish and the apocalypse are thoroughly convincing, but it’s light, funny, fun and exudes a lot of goodwill. It also contains one vivid and creepy moment where our heroes travel through a city where all the people have glowing red eyes.  And it’s all resolved with gameplay. 

Sunday, 30 May 2021

A Perfect Enemy & The Nest - Grimmfest May Madness

A Perfect Enemy

Kike Maíllo

2020, Spain-France-Germany

Screenwriters: Kike Maíllo, Cristina Clemente, Fernando Navarro

Slick and often slippery thriller where a successful architect apparently obsessed with “perfection” finds himself harassed by a young woman after a conference in Paris. Despite the expanse of their locale, it’s a chamber piece where they talk contentiously against the backdrop of an airport lounge, storytelling and memories.

Perhaps if you are versed in this kind of psychological thriller, you may guess the answer to the mystery long before it comes – there are certainly clues – but there’s enough feints this way and that to keep doubts and interest. There’s a nice European feel and an airport lounge proves a winning central location. Mostly, there’s a lot of chemistry and good stuff between Tomasz Kot as Jeremiasz Angust and Anthena Strates as Texel Textor – both great performances – and the writers have a lot of fun with the unreliable narrator and cement imagery.

James Suttles

2021, USA

Screenplay: Jennifer Tudrung

A horror allegory for the disintegration of a family that sinks itself in unremarkable family scenes and then genre clichés that outstay their welcome long after we have the point, ending with thin horror pay-off.

(Also, IMDB has it listed as ‘The Bewailing’, which surely goes on the list of most desperate and clumsy naming.)

And my previous review of the enjoyable 'Vicious Fun' is here.

Lapsis: Grimmfest May Madness

 Another virtual festival from Grimmfest, streamed straight into my home. It has been these film festivals that have offered respite from the routine of lockdown, for which I am grateful. I’ll be sad if they don’t keep the virtual option going.


Writer  director: Noah Hutton

2020, USA

As a kind of science-fiction Mike Leigh, ‘Lapsis’ provides criticism of the gig economy with just a few genre trimmings. It centres itself on the fake empowerment industry phrases we are all familiar with, the kind that are all about giving everything to your job whilst pretending to be about bettering yourself as an individual ("The best cablers are the ones who aren't afraid to challenge their status quo"). Ray (Dean Imperial) needs cash for his unwell brother’s treatment and gets caught up in cable laying for a telecommunications company, which promises rich rewards as employment, but he gets the job from a shady source and something doesn’t seem right. 

Turns out that trying to negotiate through a new job, learning the language, rules and equipment for a new role works is akin to solving a mystery narrative, and is just as compelling. Everyone knows something but the protagonist, who’s also been saddled with a contentious work identity, and there’s a conspiracy to uncover as well. Exploitation is of course the target, and how technology is used to monitor and ensnare workers. An indication of the subtlety is the fact that Dean brother’s fatigue illness is suggested as made-up at tone point, surely aligned with the social mindset that not working is failing or shirking. It’s one of those near-future scenarios that speaks directly to contemporary experience, and if it falls into seeming anti-climax – a second viewing to fully piece the puzzle and resolution together is undoubtedly required - it’s always smart and relatable. It’s also grounded in Dean Imperial’s similarly smart and relatable performance as unfussy Ray, who’s motivation, endearingly, is solely to do his best by his ailing brother. His chemistry with Madeline Wise is also a high point.

Bonus points for the simple imagery of cables trailing through the forest, quickly symbolising business technology’s desecration of nature. Subtle and low-key rather than polemical, although the questions it posits are likely to remain vivid and gather weight long afterwards.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder

2021, USA

Screenplay: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten & Joby Harrod

There was a moment where Zack Snyder seemed all zeitgeisty. His rendering of cliché with pop-conviction and some cine-smartass pzazz was simultaneously exciting and camp. Even ‘300’ was a pretty confection and laughably preposterous, not necessarily good but bizarrely winningly camp. ‘Watchmen’ brought all the Snyder’s tics in a positive light: with a proper meaty script, he delivered a bold interpretation with his aesthetic, which – at that moment – was perfect for comic book narrative. There was the darkness there mitigated by camp and colour, this was before Snyder became tediously po-faced with his later superhero offerings. But ‘Suckerpunch’ was just bad.

‘Army of the Dead’ doesn’t have enough pzazz or camp to lift it above its clichés. All its explosions signify very little. It starts off with a lady wobbling her cleavage at a man that causes a crash on a desert road (?) with a military procession that causes the release of a zombie that causes the apocalypse in Las Vegas. Vegas is quarantined, etc, but there’s a lot of money still in there that a band of variously desperate and bored survivors think they can get before the city is nuked. A premise that promises fun, but the writing is weak and rather than something poppy and amusing: three screenwriters, but it’s rudimentary stuff. ‘Oceans Eleven’ meets ‘Planet Terror’ surely sounded a winner on paper, but we get tired characterisation, tired odd buddy banter and father-daughter stuff that is too rudimentary to be engaging and yet keeps interrupting all the time. A female cigar-chomping helicopter pilot; some cast-off ‘Aliens’ types; tedious stubborn daughter (eh, you know she’s going to run off); a stoic guide with a conscience; a German safe-cracker that screams high-pitched, and therefore like a woman and that’s apparently indicative of his cowardice and therefore funny* - but he actually proves to be the most engaging character (Matthias Schweighöfer). Oh, and Dave Bautista whose presence and charm are wasted.

Here, being a zombie gives you cool monster vocal effects and athletic abilities. Perhaps having our heisters face a pack of intelligent zombies was a mistake: trying to be clever and smart surrounded by a hoard of mindless cannibals might have been a better conflict? These here could just be any post-‘Mad Max II’ post-apocalyptic gang. The best zombie epics are about the thin threads of civilisation and humanity revealed by the outbreak; when zombies are just cannon fodder, it’s dull and is not so dissimilar to watching someone play a video game, but with less at stake. In ‘Army of the Dead’, they even recruit someone because of his social media presence where he treats the living dead as a shooting gallery, but this is apparently just proof of his skill and never once is his empathy questioned. Yes, it’s not that film but there’s not enough elsewhere to mitigate the anti-zombie genre criticisms that it’s just an excuse for conscienceless shoot-em-ups. For comparison, Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ had exploitation on its side. But there’s apparently an ‘Army of the Dead’ franchise intended … and it’s not truly an army either, because they’re not fighting any opponents or …  It’s the kind of film that, with a Google search, there’s clickbait like “How Did Th Zombie Queen Get Pregnant?” 

I mean, even going into “a forbidden zone” has echoes of ‘Stalker’ and ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Annihilation’, but the mystery and/or threat here don’t really ramp up, however much the zombies screech; ‘World War Z’ had far more vivid zombie visuals. ‘Army of the Dead’ does have a zombie tiger, who provides the film’s best head-chomping gore moment, but that’s one engaging gross-out in a sea of mediocre zombie fighting (and the tiger is just distractingly fakery CGI).

We also have the use of incongruous pop-tunes which Snyder helped set the modern trend for (I’ll never forget the rush of suddenly hearing Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’ in Snyder's ‘Dawn of the Dead’) but now it’s just old hat (the best use in ‘Army of the Dead’ is of Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ as elevator muzak). But the pop soundtrack does fit the heist movie genre. The most striking sequence is that trick that Snyder is great at, in using the opening credits to squash in an entire movie or two (my favourite is the guy parachuting into a mob of zombies). But that’s the dramatic high point and, despite the budget, it’s thin blood and loose change and not enough fun.

·    *   I read a Twitter thread recently that discussed how in the ‘King Kong’ spider pit sequence, there’s a lot of high-pitched male screaming and that, over following years, men screaming was presented as a lot lower in tone. High-pitched male screaming is still a trope of amusement, something about immasculinisation, I'd presume.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Cat People - Tourneur and Schrader


Jacques Tourneur

USA, 1942

Writer: DeWitt Bodeen

Tourneur’s alternative were-tragedy is a svelt and elegant tale about how sexuality and jealousy makes one woman dangerous. Certainly, Irena is quite charming, sweet, smart and endearing at first – Simone Simon barely seems capable of raising her voice – and that means she is appealing intellectually and disarming. And she’s a Serbian immigrant and therefore exotic, so it’s easy to see how a decent enough all American chap might fall for her. She has a warmth and vulnerability that commands empathy throughout. But this foreignness also comes with troubled ancestry and a delusion that, when this exotic sexuality is tapped, she’ll become a lethal panther. This becomes a problem when she senses her husband falling for another.

But there’s nothing mean to our central love-triangle: there’s a definite maturity to DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay. When Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) must tell Irena that he’s fallen for someone else, he doesn’t blame Irena for being difficult or stringing him along, but it’s with regret and acceptance of responsibility. Also, Alice (Jane Randolph) isn’t some love rival drawn bad, but often suggesting the more sympathetic actions when dealing with Irena. Moira Wallace writes that “Simone Simon seems by nature to be more kitten than were-wolf”, but that is surely the point, that Irena isn’t a siren seductress, a femme fatale to anyone but herself. After all, “She never lied to us.”

It’s a text wholly built from fear and phobia, from a woman’s fear of her ancestry and sexuality, and of her loneliness and her place in social convention. Undoubtedly also due to budgetary constraints, it nevertheless evokes the eerie and uncanny with a success that a film with more resources probably would not have achieved. Secondarily, it’s the male fear that a woman’s troubled sexuality can’t be trusted, perhaps especially if it’s foreign and exotic. And there is also the hint of lesbianism, not least when a stranger calls Irena “Sister”. It’s also notable that it’s Alice that first believes in the threat and powers of Irena, without much hesitation when she’s confronted by weirdness, while the men mostly patronise, disbelieve and consign Irena to insanity. The men can’t quite see pass their own agendas, and in Dr Judd (Tom Conway), his assumption that his privilege and gender trump all is a wrongheaded arrogance. There are forces at play here that the very straight characters outside Irena are barely aware of.

The film’s major laziness is in suggesting some makeshift cross and Christian declaration might fend off something so primal, as if the film thought it was a somewhat more traditional supernatural monster movie fighting off a pagan threat (and although this can be attributed to Oliver’s beliefs, the film does seem to play along). But the bus moment is one of the genre’s great jump-scares, and there is something truly primal and fearsome in the similarly iconic swimming pool set piece. Rob Aldam writes, 

 “Largely overshadowed by Paul Schrader’s inferior remake, The Cat People is a milestone in horror movies. The way Lewton and Tourneur use shadow in lieu of an actual monster completely revolutionised how films are made. There’s so much more malice in a fleetingly glimpsed silhouette than revealing all your cards to the audience.”

The use of shadows and light are exemplary throughout, shadows becoming bars and obscuring the monster and monstrous so it is always lurking and pending. Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca worked on film noir before and put the chiaroscuro to the best evocative use for horror. ‘Cat People’ successfully conjures the uncanny and abstract anxiety, those elements that touch the everyday, perpetual engine of the genre.  The monster revealed is our own fear of ourselves. It’s certainly a text for those who feel like outsiders, even surrounded by decent, sympathising people.

 Paul Schrader

1982 – USA-Japan

Screenplay: Alan Ormsby

Paul Schrader doesn’t think of this as a remake of the Jacques Tourneur classic, which he doesn’t seem to rate, and seems to think the inclusion of a mysterious lady saying “My sister!” is his homage to the original; but it riffs on the swimming pool scene and the famous bus jump-shock and in that way follows similar beats to the original. Schrader’s take is very different and earns that contentious label as a “re-imagining”, but to reject it as a remake is surely a little disingenuous.

What it does do, like Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ and Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, is to take a beloved source material and update it successfully, bringing what was all allusion and suppression in the originals to the surface. For ‘Cat People’, that means all the kink and sleaze and dodgy sexuality is front and foremost. And surely Natasja Kinski nude was a selling point, although this was also in McDowell’s nude period. Oh, and to add incest too. Kinski’s offbeat sexual appeal where she goes from innocent to seductress when discovering she turns into a panther when primal urges are released by sex certainly centres the film. She hangs between Malcolm MacDowell’s sleazy incestuous perversity and John Heard’s wholesome All American machismo.

This was slightly side-stepped in the shape-changing cluster including ‘An American Werewolf in London’, ‘The Howling’ and ‘The Thing’, perhaps because it wasn’t funny or satirical or outlandish, but I always put them in the same pot. The highpoints are McDowell’s creepy leaping on the end of a bed, the arm being pulled off, the unforgettable desert scenes and Giorgio Moroder’s quintessentially Eighties pulsing synth-score: I even think of the orange tint to the dream-desert sequences as an Eighties orange. The score is one I have listened to ever since. Its weaknesses are a couple of moments with female victims that wouldn’t sound out of place in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, and the iconic pool scene that, here, seems to imply that Irena can transform at will, which isn’t in the rules of this version.

The sexuality in ‘Cat People’ walks a line between arthouse and exploitation and its actual standpoint a little hard to pin down. Sexuality is primal, unleashes the beast and perversion: even the ostensibly nice and normal sex between Irena and Paul leads to bondage. Based on this, Gary Arnold calls a Schrader “an exploitation director with delusions of grandeur”,  but that seems pretty self-evident, and hitting that sweet spot between conceived “high” and “low” art is genre privilege. ‘Cat People’ is a near-miss, but still intriguing.

The ending signals tragedy, and it is conceptually better than the run-of-the-mill monster movie ending that Schrader talks of, but it also symbolises a woman’s sexuality being caged up by a man for her own good, and by her own choice. There’s an uneasy murkiness here, but the elements of arthouse and exploitation tame one another to produce something that is quite unique, and certainly beguiling, despite and because of its crude edges and pulsating Eightiesness. 

Sunday, 2 May 2021