Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Devil in the Dark (2017)

The Devil in the Dark (2017): written by Carey Dickson; directed by Tim Brown; starring Robin Dunne (Adam), Dan Payne (Clint), and Briana Buckmaster (Sophie): Enjoyable low-budget horror-thriller filmed in and around Kelowna, British Columbia. Some of the locations are a bit too domesticated to be menacing, making an early approach along an extremely worn path/road seem a bit goofy when the menacing music swells. However, the woods are always a good place to drop people.

So maybe I wouldn't have lifted the title from the Horta episode of the original Star Trek. But anyway. Two estranged brothers go camping and hunting in an effort to reconnect after 15 years. Things go badly. What lifts the body of the movie above a standard 'Run through the jungle' horror scenario is the emphasis on the roots of this strained relationship. That and the refusal of the movie to categorically explain what is stalking them and why. It's amazing what a bit of mystery can do for your horror movie -- or at least a refusal to indulge in too much exposition.

The monster, when we see it, is interesting enough. I certainly wouldn't want to meet it when I was camping, which is why I don't go camping. The two main actors do solid work -- the family drama is believably written and believably portrayed by these two. The last five minutes or so elevate the movie from lightly recommended to a full recommendation.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Blair Witch (2016)

Blair Witch (2016): written by Simon Barrett, based on characters and situations created by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard; directed by Adam Wingard; starring James Allen McCune (James), Callie Hernandez (Lisa), Corbin Reid (Ashley), Brandon Scott (Peter), Wes Robinson (Lane), and Valorie Curry (Talia):

Why a sequel? The financial success of a jillion found-footage horror movies since the unexpected +$100 million of The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 suggests that you don't need name recognition to sell these things. You'd also think that the horrible bomb that was Blair Witch: Book of Shadows would have warned the studio off.


Set in 2014, Blair Witch tells the tale of lost documentarian Heather's brother, four years old when she disappeared, now leading his own documentary crew into the Maryland woods (now played quite noticeably by British Columbia). A piece of footage on the Internet has convinced him that Heather is still alive, though how he figures this out from the ghoulish face caught on tape leaves me flabbergasted. Oh, well.

So another group of twentysomethings goes into the woods. In a nod to 'More is better!' there are now six of them rather than three. Things go poorly. 

Director Adam Wingard noted in an interview that Blair Witch is "about getting chased" and not about "getting lost in the woods" as in the first movie. Boy, do they get chased! Loud sound effects crash and thunder, trees are hurled around, and massive structures are built over night. The Blair Witch is back, and she brought a bulldozer and a construction crew!

Somehow, even the advent of wearable recording technology doesn't make this sequel's characters any more plausible than the loyally camera-toting crew of the original. It does increase the chance of getting nausea from all the fast-twitch camera spins, though. This must have been Barf-Bag City in a goddamned theatre.

Unlike the original, Blair Witch has entirely scripted dialogue rather than partially improvised dialogue. Somehow, this dialogue is way stupider and more irritating than anything in the original. And there's no character here to worry about, even slightly. In doubling the number of major characters, the filmmakers also manage to eliminate any empathy the viewer might feel for them. They've become the anonymous victims in a slasher movie.

Do we actually see the Blair Witch in this movie? I'll leave it to you to research that answer. No, actually I won't. The director says, "No." That yellow, long-armed zombie glimpsed on several occasions is a victim of the witch, not the witch herself. OK. That's tremendous.

I'll leave you to discover the awesome excitement of a person with a severely injured foot trying to get a drone out of a tree. Or the sudden appearance of on-screen sympathetic magic of a pretty high order. Or the baffling late scene in which bright lights seen from inside a house (that house!) cause a character to ask, "What the Hell was that?" and me to reply, "I think the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is here to save you. Get out there!"

There's a brief moment of genuine near-horror that could have made for a better movie. At one point, two of the group who've been separated from the others for about 12 hours reappear, talking about being lost in the woods for days in a world where the Sun never comes up. This brief run of dialogue delivers the only frisson of horror this ham-fisted crapfest manages. Then it's back to throwing trees at people.

Alas, those two old guys fishing in three inches of water don't reappear in this sequel. I'm guessing they read the script and said, "Hey, we may have been improbably fishing in three inches of water in the original, but at least we didn't suck." 

In the spirit of the original's horror-deflating fishing sequence, this movie offers us an ominous early shot of insects on the ground. But the insects are bumblebees, the least scary and most endearing stinging insect in the world. This is not a portent. This is a shot of lovable bumblebees trying to fly out of the shot so they don't have to be in this awful movie. Go, bumblebees, go! Not recommended.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Five Million Years to Earth (1967)

Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and the Pit) (1967): written by Nigel Kneale, based on the BBC miniseries of the same name; directed by Roy Ward Baker; starring James Donald (Dr. Roney), Andrew Keir (Prof. Bernard Quatermass), Barbara Shelley (Barbara Judd),  and Julian Glover (Colonel Breen): British writer Nigel Kneale created three television serials for the BBC back in the 1950's featuring British rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, a sort of proto-Doctor-Who figure, albeit a fallible, human one.

All three serials, along with a fourth starring John Mills in the early 1980's, pitted Quatermass and company against various alien invasions of the British Isles. This 1960's Hammer Film was based on the third Quatermass serial, Quatermass and the Pit, in which the excavation of a site in London, England for a new subway line uncovers strangely deformed ancient human skeletons and the remains of what appears to be an alien spaceship.

History reports that strange occurences plagued the site whenever digging or some other form of vibration took place over hundreds of years. And something does indeed seem to be waking up. Will the military and the government do something incredibly stupid, leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of Quatermass and his dedicated scientist friends? What do you think?

This is a very English science-fiction movie in many ways, not least of which is Kneale's WWII-enhanced concern with fascism at home and abroad -- and the fear that fascistic group-think can overcome anyone, no matter how intelligent or empathetic that person normally is. We're the Nazis now.

Five Million Years to Earth is a well-done movie, small of budget but big on ideas and weirdness. It's one of a relatively small number of old science fiction movies that could be improved with just a few minutes of good visual effects, as a key visual effects sequence has to be explained at length to the viewer for any sense to be made of it. However, there's also a truly disturbing visual effects shot towards the end that I don't think modern CGI could capture, simply because modern CGI tends to go for the overly detailed literal rather than the suggestively obscure. In any event, highly recommended.

SiREN (2016)

SiREN (2016): Based on the segment 'Amateur Night' from V/H/S (2012); written by Nicholas Tecosky, Luke Piotrowski, Ben Collins, and David Bruckner; directed by Gregg Bishop; starring Chase Williamson (Jonah), Hannah Fierman (Lily/ The Lilith/Siren), Justin Welborn (Nyx), Hayes Mercure (Rand), Michael Aaron Milligan (Mac), Randy McDowell (Elliott), Brittany Hall (Bartender), and Lindsey Garrett (Eva): Spun off from a segment of the original V/H/S anthology film, SiREN is really good once you get beyond that silly title. A bachelor party goes extraordinarily awry when a stripper at a private (and very odd) club turns out to be one of the mythical Sirens. Or maybe a "Lilith," which is what the club's proprietor keeps calling her (hence the name "Lily"). 

The result is a fairly taut 80 minutes with so much female nudity I started wondering halfway through if this movie had been made in the Go-Go 70's. Nope. The film-makers handle the scares and the grotesque with a grungy, occasionally startling style -- the 'true' appearance of the Siren comes as a nice reveal. The bachelor party members are not impressively delineated as individuals, but the characterization is passable and the performances fairly naturalistic.

The Siren's club is a nicely handled conceit -- the supernatural bar that you should never have entered. Its owner, occultist Nyx, bears a weird resemblance to Paul Williams. There are some solid, fantastic bits involving memories, magic, and Medusa. The film also shows us brief glimpses of all the supernatural events going on at the club without going into them, making the glimpses that much more effective at inspiring unease. Overall, an enjoyable horror movie on a limited budget from Universal's Chiller Films brand. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Horror Detectiveness with Jack Caffery

Skin (2009) (Jack Caffery #4) by Mo Hayder: Skin pretty much picks up where the previous DCI Jack Caffery novel ended, with the disappearance of a minor celebrity still unsolved and underwater recovery unit detective Flea Marley knowing way more about that disappearance than anyone at work knows. 

This thread will continue until the beginning of Wolf (Caffery#7), leading to a certain amount of acrimony and misunderstanding between Caffery and Marley. That the two are both great detectives with screwed-up personal lives makes them seemingly perfect for each other, but theirs is a slow-burn (or perhaps no-burn) relationship.

Mo Hayder mixes things up here with a couple of investigations and a serial killer who isn't exactly a serial killer. Caffery remains an engaging, anti-social, brooding character. Another plot thread from the previous Caffery/Marley novel continues here in unexpected ways with occasional supernatural undertones. And the titular case offers Hayder's near-patented blend of horror-procedural.

Caffery even gets trapped in an empty septic tank by the killer at one point. This never happened to Philip Marlowe! Recommended.

Wolf (2015) (Jack Caffery #7) by Mo Hayder: A plot thread that started way back in Caffery#3 (Ritual) finally ends in the opening pages of Wolf. And a plot thread that began in Mo Hayder's first Caffery novel will also approach its conclusion. 

Wolf is a clever procedural in which Caffery, operating alone, has to find hostages with only a partial note reading 'Please help us,' a dog with neither a microchip nor a helpful phone number on its collar-tag, and a wedding ring attached to that dog's collar.

The third-person narrative POV moves among Caffery, the hostages, and the hostage-takers. An old murder plays a part, as does Caffery's own unanswered grief about his brother who disappeared and was never found when Caffery was a boy. The oracular, often irritating Walking Man plays a part. So, too, that dog. Flea Marley doesn't appear, but she's in Caffery's thoughts.

We go into some unexpected places along the way, including a sort of closure for Caffery, and into the realm of corporate espionage and secret weapons development. All this and serial killers, Goths, and Caffery's endearing blend of misanthropy and overwhelming concern for the safety of others -- and for justice when that safety has been fatally breached. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From Hell It Came (1957)

From Hell It Came (1957): written by Richard Bernstein and Jack Milner; directed by Dan Milner; starring Tod Andrews (Dr. Arnold). Tina Carver (Dr. Mason), Linda Watkins (Mrs. Kilgore), John McNamara (Professor Clark), and Gregg Palmer (Kimo): Some combination of atomic-test fallout and native magic results in a murdered island prince returning as a walking, vengeful tree.

Startlingly wordy and inept, From Hell It Came would be a lot more fun if it were a lot less wordy. An eternity (well, about 40 minutes) drags by until the walking tree we've all been waiting for finally starts killing people. However, either because of censorship issues or the overall clumsiness of the tree outfit, our hero kills people by throwing them into quicksand or down hills.

An early scene impresses because the medium shots of the prince talking and talking and talking while staked to the ground for execution include a chicken in the left-top portion of the frame. The chicken provides quite the distraction, and then another chicken wanders into the frame. 

I do like the design of the tree monster, which is pretty much all face. It's not as scary-looking as the two male leads, however. Jesus, From Hell It Came has the ugliest male leads I've seen in a long time. Well, since The Night of the Lepus, anyway. Apparently, ugliness was no impediment to playing the male lead in a cheap Hollywood horror movie in the 1950's.

The island on which the action takes place is populated by nebulously conceived natives played (mostly) by white people and American scientists sent to investigate the effects of atomic fallout on the island and to treat natives who have 'The Black Plague.' A cultural clash ensues between Western medicine and native medicine. A male and female doctor bicker over her desire to be employed rather than married and pregnant. The usual. I think there's a parrot involved as well. Or maybe not. 

Linda Watkins as Mrs. Kilgore has the thankless role of a comic-relief shop-keeper on the island. Why there's a white shop-keeper on the island is beyond me, as the native population seems to be about 12 people and the only reason the scientists came to the island was to investigate fallout. The film-makers saddle Ms. Watkins with an Australian accent, an accent that is clearly and hilariously way, way beyond her acting range. 

It doesn't help that the screenwriters seem to confuse Australian with Cockney, or that their primary word indicators of an Australian are endless repetitions of the word "blooming" (OK) and "ducky" (one of the WTF bits of Hollywood Cockney). Not recommended, though intermittently funny.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Invisible Invaders (1959)

Invisible Invaders (1959): written by Samuel Newman; directed by Edward L. Cahn; starring John Agar (Major Jay), Jean Byron (Phyllis Penner), Philip Tonge (Dr. Adam Penner), Robert Hutton (Dr. Lamont), and John Carradine (Dr. Noymann/ Voice of the Invaders): One of the places the titular aliens announce their nefarious plans for Earth is at an NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers. All right!

Invisible Invaders is noteworthy for being a pre-George "Night of the Living Dead" Romero example of zombies in formal-wear stalking the Earth and killing the living. Here, they're inhabited by invisible aliens who can also take over dead bodies. And they have a plan.

What is the plan? Kill everyone on Earth.

Thankfully, the always intrepid John Agar as an Army Major teams up with three intrepid scientists to come up with a weapon to use against the aliens. They work fast. That's good because apparently the Moon was once like Earth until the aliens beat the Hell out of it thousands of years ago.

The acting is earnest but inept. The visual effects are pretty much all either laughable (why do the aliens drag their feet when they're invisible, leaving a very clear trail?) or stock footage of things crashing, blowing up, or burning down. I'm pretty sure the only clear shot of a UFO flying has been lifted from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. Oh, well. Invisible Invaders also has a whole lotta narration, I'm assuming to bolster its attempts to look like a documentary. Strange, bad, enjoyable stuff. Recommended.

Mummy Mummy Mummy I've Got Love in My Tummy

The Mummy (1932): adapted by John Balderston from a story by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer; directed by Karl Freund; starring Boris Karloff (Imhotep) and Zita Johann (Helen Grosvenor): Boris Karloff only appears in full Mummy garb for a few seconds in this Universal horror offering. For much of the film, he's slow-moving but recognizably human, having apparently doffed his bandages during the eleven years that pass between the movie's prologue and main story.

Karloff is Karloff, underplaying so as to instill menace, talking in a sepulchral whisper. Karl Freund's first American film as a director, The Mummy looks terrific in its play with shadows and light. The first Universal Frankenstein movie had made Boris Karloff a big enough star by the time The Mummy was released that the legend 'Karloff!' dominated the posters. And Karloff and the set design are really the stars here -- Karloff's co-stars are a terribly forgettable lot. I've forgotten them already. 

Of course, Karloff only appears in full mummy regalia for a couple minutes. For the rest of it, he's sinister but human-looking as the resurrected Egyptian priest Imhotep, mummified alive for the crime of loving the Pharaoh's daughter. But you can't keep a good monster down. 

Inspired by stories of the Curse of King Tut's Tomb, The Mummy sends Karloff on a tour of vengeance and love, as he seeks the reincarnation of his lost love. Yes, reincarnation. Not something the Ancient Egyptians were known for believing in, but what the Hell. Who can tell Hinduism from Egyptian mythology?

Karloff is great as Imhotep. In one of his first full speaking roles as a horror star, Karloff seems to intuitively understand something that a lot of early sound actors did not: Less is More on the big screen. He has that great Grinch Karloff voice, and he knows how to use it -- for the most part, insinuatingly, softly. His movements are slow and patient, befitting a 3700-year-old man-mummy. Every time I see Karloff in a movie, major or slight, I'm again impressed by what a natural-seeming, finely tuned screen actor he was. I can pretty much happily watch him in anything. Recommended.

The Mummy (1999): developed by Stephen Sommers, Lloyd Fonvielle, and Kevin Jarre from the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Richard Schayer; directed by Stephen Sommers; starring Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evelyn Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep/The Mummy), and Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay): Created for people who found Raiders of the Lost Ark to be too realistic, The Mummy is a perfectly disposable popcorn movie that vanishes almost entirely from the memory after you've watched it. The main cast (Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah) pretty much defines affability.

Arnold Vosloo as the titular character almost seems to have wandered in from a different, better movie. He gives Imhotep, a role that originated back in 1932 with Boris Karloff, some heft and pathos. That he's stuck speaking ancient Egyptian (well, whatever the filmmakers decided that was) for pretty much the whole movie seems like a handicap the film-makers needed to fix. The central visual effects image -- the face in the engulfing sandstorm -- was striking enough to be recycled in The Mummy Returns and in the recent Tom Cruise version of The Mummy (2017). Lightly recommended, especially for kiddies.

The Mummy Returns (2001): developed by Stephen Sommers from the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, and Richard Schayer; directed by Stephen Sommers; starring Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell), Rachel Weisz (Evelyn Carnahan), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep/The Mummy), and Oded Fehr (Ardeth Bay): Not so much scripted as assembled from its predecessor and other sources. Those sources include the then-new computer game Diablo 2. I kid you not. 

Stephen Sommers just keeps shoveling as a director and writer, riffing on The Lost World in one scene, Raiders of the Lost Ark in another. He even throws in some gratuitous reincarnation stuff for, um, the sake of character motivation? There's also toilet humour, a precociously annoying boy, a steam-punky home-made dirigible, endless ranks of CGI soldiers, and a horribly rendered CGI Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the Scorpion King, soon to be spun off into his own movie. Enjoyable, just. Lightly recommended.