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The Thing from Another World

An intellectual carrot ... the mind boggles!
An army captain leads his unit to investigate the landing of a mysterious object in the icy wastes of the North Pole.

The structure of this story is sound, and I expected to cozy up for an enjoyable viewing, but the unnecessary characters and throwaway dialogue make for a horrible mess. So clumsy was the production that it hung ripe for a remake, and Carpenter plucked it up in style by returning to the original form.

The writing is all over the place. Scene one has pally banter between the captain and two soldiers who seem suspiciously concerned with his love life, and already the beams are creaking. The love interest tries desperately to pull off a femme-fatale insouciance, and then we switch to an airplane scene with a godawful joke that turns on the repetition of the serial number of a service manual. Near the end, one jokey character sets up a story about an execution - right on time to deflate the tension of the final conflict - and then just ... trails off with a cleaver under his arm. Awful writing, when all that screen time should be spent ramping up the terror.

On arrival at the base, we discover enough actors to cast two teen slashers and still have left overs for another sequel. Every time the captain and the scientist (Nobel laureate, of course) discuss their top secret discovery, they attract a curious crowd: a dozen boffins, a convenient journalist who delivers over-ripe wisecracks and pitches in with the military duties, the love interest intruding with tense laughter and always ready with a beverage and an arch remark about wedding bells, and, leggity last, a spare dame who utters one word which probably wasn't even in the script.

The direction is pedestrian. George Romero once pointed out with a cackle of delight this movie's endless sequence of doors opening and closing - sure enough, we get ten in the first ten minutes, and the only exception is when the Thing exits by the window. There is one genuinely cinematic scene when they investigate the hole in the ice, but even that is overloaded with dialogue when the scientist describes in words the thing we can see before our own bloody eyes. Generally there's so much information, I decided at one point to simplify: "Doctor, you're limited to your room, the lab and the mess hall ... in other words, you have the run of the place."

The performances are fine, but sometimes the dialogue overlaps. I noticed this too in the superior contemporary chiller The Abominable Snowman - the effect can be realistic, but here the set is so busy the actors end up bumping into each other or squeezing the lines in as quick as possible.

There is a serious theme in the engagement with the alien world through science, but that collapses in a ham fisted clash with good ol' fashioned survival, and a final warning that must have raised the hackles of every apocalyptic loon across America: Keep watching the skies!

The photographer manages some quality images of the attacks by flame and electricity, and for a '50s production the score is unobtrusive, so that's a relief. Can't say much about the editors, as I imagine they took one look at the endless, pointless dialogue and gave up already.

Overall, truly so bad it's good, and I kinda enjoyed puzzling over the dreadful decisions taken by the producers. But the real reason we esteem this movie is that its cry for a remake was heeded.


Obey the title
A pretentious stoner struggling with the aimlessness of life finds his filthy apartment invaded by a disturbing presence ...

Well, I didn't get this, and I suspect there was nothing to get. It starts out promising, with clever observations of the post-modern kind and an unsettling, atonal soundtrack. Then there's some quick-fire dialogue with a heart-of-gold whore, but even at that stage the promise fades.

Even allowing for the micro-budget restrictions, there's not a lot of craft on display: framing of shots and editing are very basic, and the sound design is disappointing given this is the baby of a movie composer. The figure of the disturbing presence is simple but original, yet so over emphasized that it loses its disturbiness. There is a theme in the replacement of the musical work with distressing noises, but not well worked out.

Biggest problem is the screenplay has little structure, doesn't play with structure, and uses way too much dialogue - I actually didn't care how it ended. The role of the whore, who was well played by the actor, fizzles out mysteriously and without pay-off. The story doesn't even serve as a plain tale of substance abuse, so it's very much a work in progress and shouldn't have had a green light from the producers. I recommend a look at Wild In Blue to see how to lay down substance for this kind of project.

I watched The Sonata a few weeks ago in the hope it would address the musical tritone in a visual way, but it didn't even go there. Same with this experience, which I twigged with the line: "A something ... F something."

Overall: a try, but not a nice try.


When a grandmother goes missing, her daughter and granddaughter turn up at her isolated home to begin the search ...

Unsettling drama that presents us with an eerie absence, then an uncanny presence. When I heard dementia, I expected to compare this to Deborah Logan, but the experience is entirely different.

The editing and score/sound design are excellent, with good performances and skilfully laid clues, so the story is atmospheric, well paced, and sets up promising developments. Also, the dialogue is smart, as you find out the relationship between the three women without being told. The dementia is gentle, with the odd flash of insanity, and what really seems to drive the story are the relics of a dark past.

Does it elevate into horror? The dream sequences definitely lay the ground, and at about the hour mark we go through the looking glass - but that sequence feels like a climax, with 20 mins still to go. My guess was we'd calm down, then suck it up and go again, but the whole thing just glides to a comforting end. It is a touching reflection on death and the generations, but I was really puzzled by the restraint, and by the failure to follow through on the other dimension foreshadowed by the dark secret in the cabin in the woods. Maybe I missed it - or maybe the resolve was absent. There is the comparison with The Babadook, which I found too metaphorical and shying away from horror's freedom to make things literal - to go from thinking about it, to screaming over it. Here, the metaphor is brought to life - how convincingly depends on your taste.

I noticed the cinematography was also restrained, with a few lighting effects passed over - the christmas tree should have revealed the ghostliness of the figure, and the reveals from switched on lights had no effect. No jump scares either - I know, I know they're cheap, but they do get the adrenalin going, especially with skilful sound design. But then there's an excellent effect in a scene descending the stairs, where it feels every moment a fall is going to come, and when we go through the looking glass the light switches to candle and torch.

You could compare this to Hereditary, which has a similar family dynamic. In that movie they do lay on the horror effects, but overrun the tarmac with the engine roaring. Here, it's like they took the key out of the ignition and ended up on the side of the road.

Overall: Quality drama that dips its toe into horror, then shakes its head.

Angel Face

An ambitious working stiff is drawn in by a scheming daughter with unpleasant plans for her wealthy parents.

The opening scene is quite efficient, as we see an ambulance depart Beverly Hills hospital with sirens blaring: trouble in paradise. The two leads quickly encounter each other, but it's underwhelming, and even at that point my entertainment was coming from the laughably patronising tone toward women.

The plot is simply disjointed, and by the halfway mark I wondered just what was at stake for the characters and why they'd gotten themselves in so much trouble. The court room drama is fairly rigorous, but it still doesn't offer insight or heighten the passion. On top of this, the lead actress is uninteresting - it must have been difficult to get into the role, and her first appearance is wrong in many ways, so that I began to doubt the lead actor too. I've noticed this in Out Of The Past as well, where Mitchum's femme fatale left me unstirred. This time I put it down to the script, which doesn't erect the pillars to support a tale of wanton murder.

Otherwise the performances are fine. The score is good, not overdone. Didn't notice anything special about the cinematography or editing. So - not a stinker, but with the talent available it should have been much better.

Overall: Misjudged characterisation and plot make for a weak story.


Rosemary's Babadook
An ungrieving daughter becomes a grieving mother, and her family descends into madness ...

Opens on a skilful shot to take us seamlessly inside a doll-house that opens into domestic reality. All about family, and we hit the Babadook vibe from the off, with difficult children in tense confrontation with a difficult mother, as the distress ebbs and flows. At the hour mark we go through the looking glass into horror, with a coven vibe similar to Paranormal Activity (very different style) - or I suppose Rosemary's Baby is the obvious influence.

Cinematography is excellent, with an odd effect I haven't seen before, where the sky switches on and off like an electric light. Editing is fairly snappy, so the pace is good, and the score is uneven - very heavy and brooding in the first part, then almost disappears, only to come brooding back at the end. Strong performances all round, with Collette playing a strange and disturbing role.

I did have a problem writing the logline for the review, and I don't feel the story is fully integrated. More committed to the supernatural than the Babadook, more explicit than Paranormal Activity - and somehow we end with an odd climax, where the most extreme moment is underplayed, and the set-piece that follows is overplayed. Hmmm.

Some of the horror images are great, others very good. And there are some ideas "floating" around, but I'm not sure I get them. Why the miniatures and the doll-house? How does the history of psychosis tie in with the supernatural? Does the sky effect suggest a world separated from time? Why isn't the father key to the secret, how did he get on with the grandmother?

Overall: Stylish, intense horror, but doesn't hang together.

The Hunt

Hiding behind identities
A group of American strangers awake in the wilderness to find themselves lined up as prey for wealthy hunters: how will they survive?

All grisly action from the get go, and the film takes its rhythm from cartoonish violence and choreographed punch-ups. There's a running tease in the delay to the introduction of the hero, and when she turns up she proves to be interesting and likeable, yet delivering some odd lines.

Performances all round are fine, but the plot often undermines everything with implausibilities about the competence of the hunters. Even their "consultant" is lame. As for the foreign setting and the episode with the army - puzzlingly unnecessary, with a touch of Yankee paranoia. Yet the pace is good, and we enter a switcheroo about 2/3 of the way through.

Humorous tone, but I didn't get many laughs out of it. In one scene, there's a great idea involving a stake-pit, but the direction and editing didn't drive the joke home. Later, during a set-piece fight, the tongue-in-cheek humour oversteps the bounds. But the biggest problem is that as a political satire it can't even identify its target. Ask anyone outside the US about the American Left, and they shrug their shoulders and say, What Left? It's right-wing all the way, with two brands arguing over the public relations strategy of capitalism. Maybe it's impossible for a mainstream movie to understand that the politics it seeks to satirise is a big, fat void and doesn't really exist.

One reviewer made a good point, that this is like the embodiment of social media rage, where fallacies are preferred over genuine debate. That clicks with the Toasted Cheese speech, which then fails to make a point about the twisted nature of truth, and whimpers about before being gored with a wisecrack.

Only thing to add is that the score is deliberate and insistent, so the audience isn't allowed much room for imagination.

Overall: Well produced and energetic, but empty.

The Sonata

E Thanatos
A brilliant young violinist inherits the music of her estranged father, a mysterious composer, but it leads her down the path to darkness ...

Curious case of an ordinary tale with extraordinary potential. I was looking forward to a cinematic treatment of an evil phenomenon in music, but it didn't go there in the end, although I do think the idea was covered in the score.

Instead, we get a traditional story with a puzzle in the symbolologicaltastic manner of Dan Brown - clever, but not enlightening, and nothing that couldn't have been dealt with in a 60m TV episode.

The performances are good, with an odd difference in height between the two leads. There is material for the actors to get their teeth into, but the characters remain fairly simple, despite the dark past of family estrangement (the mother's story wasn't followed up) and alcoholism. I'm also thinking of the housekeeper, who really just shows up for exposition - in a film noir or in David Lynch she would serve several purposes at once and deepen our unease, focus the drama.

The cinematography is quality. Not so sure about the direction, and certainly the editing and story line are a bit plain. The opening scene is effective, but had the feel of a first person POV sequence in an old video game. The choice of location at the old mansion was way over the top, immediately raising all sorts of irrelevant questions - it's not Dracula's Castle!

The evil phenomenon in the music is the Devil's interval, which the lush score hits repeatedly - that unresolved discord made familiar through so many genres of disturbing music, and I hoped the story would somehow turn on this. Hard to say how to do it without ending up as '60s psychedelia, but I think it would need a shift of perception, a shift in the story-telling itself, to provide an interval in reality through which we slide down to Hell. Ahem. You know what I mean. But not this time.

Overall: Good production, but lack of depth in the story.

The Silence of the Lambs

You're safe now!
A rookie FBI agent on the trail of a perverted killer must follow the clues left by the mind games of an evil genius.

Impossible to overpraise this movie. The score, the performances, the sequence of scenes, the choice of scenes, the structure of the scenes, even the segues between scenes are beautifully judged. Direction and editing nice and tight, cinematography contributing so much to the tension. Some nice touches too, when the FBI trainees jog past and look back at the girls, and in the final scene the Caribbean palm trees blowing in the wind of an incipient hurricane.

Loads of thoughtful reviews on this, so I'll just make a point about the dialogue, because it delivers so much exposition under cover of the emotional push and pull between Starling and Lector, Starling and Crawford. In many bad movies the writer throws Q&A dialogue into the script just to get the characters interacting, but to no purpose. In Silence, the quid pro quo sucks us into Starling's tense conflicts even as the information rolls along to keep us up to pace with the story. And the close ups make it all the more fascinating. Just excellent.

Overall: Perfectly paced thriller that takes us through the looking glass and in to horror.

Paranormal Activity 2

Dip in form
A family celebrates the arrival of a new baby in their home, but a malevolence from the past comes seeking payment of an old debt ...

Decent sequel to a good original, in a series that relies entirely on suspense through editing and suggestion. This time they elaborated the cast of characters and extended the run time, but didn't manage the same level of scares.

The performances are good, but the production forced in too much and allowed repetition and slow editing to deflate the effect. Often the frights come with a taste of trickery, but there are still a few good jump scares. The sound design is effective, and the lesson there is to keep it simple.

This series was never going to match the clever depths of Blair Witch, but the concept is perfectly good. In this case, they tried a little too hard, and ought to have shaved it down to 85 mins.

Overall: quality horror.

The Blair Witch Project

Lost in unreality
A documentary crew enter the woods to investigate the legend of a local witch, but find themselves in uncharted territory ...

Just about my favourite horror. There have been plenty of thoughtful reviews, so I'll leave one idea that I've grown to appreciate over the years.

There is a meta theme, raised when the documentary director is challenged for hiding behind the camera: she uses it to filter reality. This is reinforced with her handling of the map even as the crew becomes hopelessly lost. The thought that springs to mind: "The map is not the territory" - life is not what you expected. Even in the final scene the theme comes through, where the camera belongs to the director, yet her voice is distant - who is behind the camera? That gap within reality gives us a dark and spooky depth.

A final point - the tension is largely created by the distress in the voices of the victims. Not once do we hear the voice of the witch. Just victims.


Sweet Smell of Success

After his gossip-columnist master cuts off his means of living, a press agent is forced into the dirty deed of splitting up his master's sister and her fiancee.

The intro to this is full of promise, with neon-lit Manhattan beaming in black & white while a jazzy Elmer Bernstein score sweeps us around a hectic night in Times Square. The sense of location and period is really strong - sleazy and vibrant.

Sadly, the characterisation is a let-down. The press agent's situation doesn't make sense: he operates out of an office with a bedroom in back, yet he has a secretary, yet he's down to his last cent, yet he has the trust of a powerful man, yet he can't cover the simplest jobs, yet he's got everything it takes to succeed in a dirty business. Confusing. And he starts off sleazy, carries on being sleazy, and gets a bit of cheap redemption in the end. He is the main character, so everything flows from that, and it's all a bit off.

The other problem is the highly mannered dialogue - hard bitten, sometimes obscure, never believable. The actors do deliver it well, but I ain't buying it. The columnist is an interesting character, but the lovers are pretty plain, and in the end we just get a jerky old melodrama with nothing true about it.

The one part I did enjoy was the subplot with the stage comedian, where the hero's nerve and trickery shone through. So, although impressed with the atmospherics, I was left cold by the rest of the story.

My guess is this movie's reputation really rests on the surprise of Lancaster's performance. Overall: big production built on a flawed screenplay.

ps. I've read the screenwriter was drafted in very late, and ended up ripping fresh pages out of his typewriter on shooting days. Lancaster was not happy.


Top of the second division
As a mother and her two incompatible daughters take possession of the remote house of their late relative, they fail to realise someone has been following them ...

This kicks off with a terse opening scene, full of character and plot and tension, so you know you're in the hands of a good storyteller who sows the seeds. The conflict soon arrives and it is full on, the violence harrowing, but alleviated by a Lynchian deception that throws up interesting possibilities.

The performances are good, with unsettling makeup, and the music and set design are lavish and effective. The camerawork could have been more imaginative, and I found the metaphor laid on too heavy. Combine that with a far fetched story that needs cops to sort itself out, and we end up more in James Wan territory than David Lynch as the possibilities pan out in safe moralising. Also, some of the early threads aren't really tied up - we were given information on the late relative, but nothing came of it apart from the doll collection. So it does pack a punch, but not a horror of the first order.

The Martyrs influence only occurred to me late on, and afterward I realised it's the same director. Also a Chainsaw influence.

Overall, quality horror that is the sum of its parts, but no more. Definitely a good watch, and the dismissive early reviews are plain stoopid.

Impossible Horror

Intriguing, yet ...
Disturbed by ghostly movements in her apartment, a failed film maker teams up with a stranger to investigate the nocturnal screams coming from outside.

Extreme snazzyness in the film making techniques, with the interrupted reaction a signature of the director, and even some brief stop motion thrown in. The editing is snappy, so snappy that sometimes it prevents the horror from lingering and seeping in - although they did take more time as the story progressed.

This feels like a tour de force by a top-of-the-class student who sees the horror genre as a convenient debut feature. So the first 20 mins is a sequence of neat tricks, but then the story gains some substance by the introduction of an interesting character with some comedy in her clipped delivery. But still the story is a self-conscious mimicking of video gameplay, without bass notes or suspense or sustained fear. The director has fun with mock fight sequences, but goes too far in one scene where a cuddly toy comes into play, stripping the horror out of comedy-horror. Also, fun with real effects gore, but still like an exercise.

Music and sound design are good, and the atmosphere of a strange, enclosed world is well done. Performances are mannered, but that's the kind of movie it is.

There is an interesting departure with the flashback to those who have travelled this path before, and we enter a heavier, surreal phase of the story, with a blackly funny montage of ghastly suicides - the burned out eyeballs was my pick. After that I think there was a tribute to the two gals in the blue niteclub in Mulholland Drive. A bit cheeky, because that classic scene is the gateway to harrowing emotion and true horror, whereas here we've just got a reflection on the agony of creativity.

I found it intriguing but a bit light, and in the end confusing, as the film makers spent too much on trickery to earn the weird climax.

The Endless

Three Moon Junction
On receiving a video suggesting The Ascension has arrived at a cult they escaped from years before, two brothers return to the scene to investigate the truth ...

Cult/UFO horror is not my genre, but I got into this. It's a substantial film, well performed and edited, so the pace is good. Everything tinted yellow in what looks like the scraggy location for a '70s California TV series, and an atmosphere of eerie isolation is created. Performances are good too, although the dynamic between the characters never really gets the story going - that depends on a time loop concept, with a ticking timebomb in the cycle of the weird moons.

There is one well executed scene where a doomed couple - a random guy looking for his wife and a drying out addict chained to the wall - carry the exposition of the nature of the threat with good humour. But then, the story telling lets itself down with what I'd call emotional exposition plonked right into the climax as the brothers push their car away from danger while figuring out how they feel about each other.

There's also a few problems, like the non-connect between the random guy and his wife, and the practicalities of the cult being trapped yet relying on the outside world. Also a reference to abuse that isn't carried through in the plot - a similar throwaway line was used in the directors' earlier movie Spring to no purpose.

I definitely don't consider this horror, and I doubt it's really sci-fi either but more of a metaphysical adventure. American cults seem to stem from the problem extreme protestantism has in dealing with a reality that doesn't reflect what scripture says. In that vein, this is a thoughtful speculation on a world dominated by a higher power, where even time is a myth, and life is for preppers bewildered by the coming Apocalypse. Does it hit the right emotion? Hmmm - that end scene in the car kinda clouded it for me.

Overall - big improvement on Spring, and although not a completely integrated story it got me thinking, so well worth it.

The Day of the Locust

Jeepers Creepers!
An apprentice set designer moves in to a crumbling Hollywood apartment complex, where a wannabe starlet neighbour catches his eye, and the adventure begins ...

Promising story, with a host of interesting characters introduced in fine style. We have the classic normal guy thrust into sleazy surroundings, but with the prospect of glamour to generate contrast, the tension of lust and romance, and a well created period style that drips of film noir. So at 40 mins I was really engaged in this, but it kinda slacked off for me.

One reviewer says the characters are too likeable compared to the novel, and so the effect of the satire is lost. I can understand that in an American Psycho sense, but I just couldn't get behind any of them, and the baddies had no thrust. Everyone is simply dissolute and earnestly frustrated with life. The hero unaccountably develops alcoholic rage, and the rest are so uninterestingly doomed that it sapped my enthusiasm.

One complaint I had early on was that the hero was taciturn, which is not good in romantic terms, and there's really no decent dialogue in the entire thing, even with so many odd characters - no sparkle, no memorable lines. The performances are fine, with Burgess Meredith the stand out, but poor Donald Sutherland having to crack his knuckles to force some tension into his limp character. There is one energetic scene, but it involves religious mania rather than anything Hollywood - interesting but disappointing. And a cockfight, which is milked for lame metaphor.

Some good music, but a bit timid in the sound design, which should have created more atmosphere. The climax? Shocking, but only because it's ludicrously heavy-handed.

What this does have going for it is an obvious influence on David Lynch, who gave us in similar vein the so-good-it's-from-a-different-galaxy Mulholland Drive, and also echoes of the apartment complex, and the weird house party in Blue Velvet. Is there also an influence on Michael Jackson's Thriller? Another thing to enjoy is the use of extras, and they even have an interesting scene where the extras are picked out of a line.

In the end, an aimless story and a bit of a chore.

Stanley a Man of Variety

A prisoner seeks release on the anniversary of his daughter's untimely death, but first has to find out what his crime was with the unwelcome assistance of the variety acts who fill his mind.

First! An amazing spin on the whirligig of madness. Beautifully conceived and produced, and performed by a wonderful actor. Reminded me of Beckett, Gilliam, Kafka, Dickens, but it comes out uniquely grotesque. For something so difficult, the editing keeps it clipping along, and the sound design adds layers to the atmosphere, so I just lost myself in this and enjoyed it all the way.

Plenty of references that were new to me, but that just means it's worth watching again, and while I did get it, I don't pretend to have understood it. Just a little criticism in that there had to be two bits of written exposition on screen.

Some of the impersonations are more enjoyable than others, but they're all batty and sometimes chilling, with weird close ups and exaggerated facial movement. There's very black humour in a bathtub murder, and no sign of a body in a second murder - just spatters of blood: a heavy-handed event delivered with a light touch. In the end, the madness is an unsolved riddle.

Great movie, but with poor reviews. Obviously, I'm right.

The Wretched

A teen moves in with his Dad to take a summer job, but begins to suspect there's something up with the neighbours.

As other reviewers have noted, this is well made and produced. Cinematography makes good use of light, the make-up (by Eric Porn?) and effects are stylish, and the experience up to about 40 mins is unsettling, with some well timed jump scares and a creeping fear that made the hair on my arms stand up. Music is elaborate, with plenty of minor keys ever present. The performances are pretty good too, although the bully-boy scenes don't help the story.

Overall, though, the experience was middling. There's a phase switch, when the plot self-consciously moves to Rear Window (that's why he's wearing a cast!) with a Body Snatchers vibe, and from there on the fear subsides as I realise everything's gonna be alright. The problem, I think, is the story - a basic quest to slay a monster and rescue the damsel in distress. I think there's a couple of shooting stars in a nod to Spielberg, and he would feel right at home in this world, where a disturbance in the surface of suburban life must be put right even as the uncomprehending adults frustrate the instincts of the insightful hero.

There is a strange attempt to enter reverse-domino mode, where a montage reveals a deception in the story telling, so we're forced to re-evaluate everything we've understood so far. But it's so rushed and feels like they're trying to wrench more significance from the story when it isn't there, especially with such simple characters. So, this has lots of resources, but can't get over the fact the premise doesn't have the depth of myth to keep our nightmares alive.

In the end, the pointless title sums this up in a way the creators didn't intend. Still watchable.


An obscure vintage from the Carpathian Mountains
Public information film from the 1970s about the dangers of drink driving. So what? you may ask. But wait ...

The producers decided to go with the idea that while pissed, middle-aged men bleed out over the steering wheels of their vintage cars, having just dodged a sheep on a West Country back-road and smashed into a tree, they enjoy a dying fantasy that a beautiful vampire they gave a lift to brings them back to her gloomy palace, pours wine down their throats, whips out her tits, and with the help of her nymphet companion sucks them dry of blood. Although not the worst way to go, it is nevertheless a fate to be discouraged if one can help it.

A devotedly soft-porn experience, with gorgeous actresses, an isolated location, and plain plotting, cinematography and editing and direction. What elevates this are the odd moments of spookiness, with a particularly effective dispatch of the most irritating character as the nymphet pops her head in the passenger window. The sight of two models tottering around the English countryside in high heels and black capes is strangely affecting, and in the end we're served up with an efficient little bleaker.

Marvellous vintage, ladies!

I See You

Ms Hunt to the Intensive Care Unit
During an investigation of the disappearance of a local boy, the detective on the case finds disturbances in his home life getting in the way.

Interesting movie, but kinda heavy handed. The opening brings us to small town America, and I was just settling in, checking the sound, the camera work, the location, when ... Whoa! What was that? A very odd introduction to a mysterious world that from thereon drips with tension and menace.

The music especially is unsettling, even using timpani drums to give a sense of occult malevolence. And then ... a great big switcheroo! The pace had been a bit of a drag up to that point, but the plot puts its skates on to get us to the climax through clever story telling. Is it contrived? I guess, but it is worth piecing the whole thing together in the end.

The acting is good, but there is one odd feature others have remarked on: what's happened to Helen Hunt? Her face really does have as much expression as a burn victim, and there's one shot where the cinematographer fully exploits its dead fleshiness while she's sitting in a car. Don't ask me.

Overall: heavy thriller, a bit overcomplex.

Edge of Darkness

A stolid cop senses something amiss with his daughter, and when she dies in his arms after a violent hit he goes in search of justice.

Well produced thriller, but with a wild plot that makes cheap points. There are a couple of things going for it. First up, it couldn't be made today, because it portrays the security state as murderous and exploitative - no way would the finance be approved for something like that now. Second, the lead actor adds a mystical element early on, with nods to his Catholic background, and there are hints of ghostliness that promise to elevate this thing beyond its theme of Revenge.

Everything is pretty good, but Revenge is the dish of the evening, and you know you're getting the cheap stuff as the plot forces you to feel satisfaction when a baddie gets popped in the head. Also the sight of Gibson staggering about like a 9 year old who's just been shot in a game of cops 'n robbers. The end is so excessive you'd need Tarantino to make a silk purse out of it.

Ghost Stories

Reverse dominoes
A professional sceptic takes over three unsolved hauntings from his ailing idol, and finds himself drawn into a life and death struggle.

Is it an anthology with a framing story? Hard to say. The first story is a perfect fright, with excellent lighting design to deliver the chills. Second story has a really disturbing set up, although not much follow through. And the third takes us through the looking glass, to wrap up in a tumult of revelations about what has gone before.

The lead performance in each story is strong, and the role of the sceptic keeps us focused even as the narrative grows complexity out of the simple elements. The music and sound effects are good. The jump scares work. They ought to have been able to build a good female role, but for whatever reason that wasn't pursued.

But does it work overall? This is a reverse-domino narrative, where everything flows into place as you look back in wonder with a dawning realisation. It certainly works in the final scene, but I still can't pin down the opening montage - so I dock a point.

Good, stylish chiller, but not completely integrated.

Jojo Rabbit

Free the Rabbit-Hutch One!
An earnest boy in a comically violent society finds himself in a dilemma when he discovers one of the enemy a bit too close to home.

Unusual comedy that swings between Gunther Grass and Mel Brooks, with a touch of Terry Gilliam, but finds its own peculiar rhythm. I think its main strength is in taking familiar aspects of the end of the war in Germany and giving them a unique angle. As for the comedy, plenty of fruitful set pieces. but only one genuine scream of a laugh just before the final scene. And there is a very touching scene involving shoes and a gallows.

Thematically, the only disappointment is that it didn't nail the lie of race - while it impishly mocked Aryanism and Aryan notions of Jewishness, it shied away from Jewish biblicalism.

There are some problems with the casting, because they use a few known comedians who aren't really film actors, and the lead actor starts off a little wobbly before hitting his stride. Even so, the imaginary friend device works perfectly. Otherwise, the performances are very good, with Rockwell the pick of the bunch.

There is the novelty, for me, of two famous songs performed in German by the original artists, and overall the soundtrack is excellent, not obtrusive. The cinematography is fine, with the Czech urban locations dominating the visual feast.

Overall: light touch on a heavy subject, but the only true movie on this subject remains Come And See.

ps.for fans of J-horror, I think there was a Ju-on joke in there, but it didn't quite work.


They're not laughing now ...
In a city seething with class antagonism, the mental illness of a struggling clown flourishes into messianic and murderous insanity.

Woah! That's a bold story, and the lead role does it justice, as the character becomes a sort of hall-of-mirrors reprise of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, with uncanny poses and dance moves. And of course, de Niro is present too, with shades of The King Of Comedy.

But you can see the problem right there, with all the emphasis on the actors and not so much on story or theme. It is engaging, and well paced and edited, but a bit linear and simplistic. Maybe comic book heroes are fit only for comic books, and expecting them to take on the injustices of the American Way is to ask too much. At least they had the guts to go for it.

On reflection, I think maybe the concept started in too low a gear - if you state that we live in a crazy, mixed-up system, the audience is already with you. What we really want to see is the dawning of the Age of Joker, as the mantra Life Is A Joke infects everything, even the most innocent thing, until we realise Joker is an inevitable outgrowth of the jokers who run this system.

The sound is very good, with a constant hubbub of tinny TVs, the guy in the apartment upstairs shouting, "Shut up!", and the din of Gotham's chaotic streets. Also, the music keeps reminding you of Sinatra's genius for hitting unexpected notes that are just right. Most interesting part of the cinematography is the giant architecture.

Overall: Interesting, not awesome.

ps. The best line is a clever gag nicked from Bob Monkhouse: "When I was growing up I told them I wanted to become a comedian. They laughed at me then ...."

Black '47

Shpaghetti Weshtern
After deserting the colonial wars to return home, a lone warrior finds his family destroyed by the colonisers and sets out for revenge, pursued by a troubled comrade.

Stylish revenger, which takes on the difficult task of a picaresque journey through famine ravaged Ireland. My benchmark for this kind of story is the Soviet movie Come And See from 1985, bursting with savagery and weirdness, and very dark humour mixed in. This doesn't quite create a bizarre hell on earth, but it does provide a classic western in alien surroundings.

Not quite alien, because if you read the details of English colonisation of Ireland from the 1550s onward, you'll be struck by the similarities to what went on in the American west hundreds of years later, with all the pistols and boots and saddles and horses and wenches and whoring and skirmishes and cattle droving and bible bashing and whiskey swilling, and on and on.

As usual, the Irish landscape is a star in itself, with the camera making its way on a cold and strange journey. The details of location and costume are good, just enough to show we're at the very edge of civilisation - although I thought the Irish famine would have thrown up some utterly weird scenarios for travellers of the time. The closest we get are the poor frozen bodies, and the incident of the pig that will get eaten in any event.

The music captures that spirit better, I think, with a mixture of singing and marching tunes. The performances are all good, although maybe the dialogue could have done with a couple of Clint Eastwood teeth-gritters. Also I enjoyed the fumbling gun play - the pauses allowed the panic to grow.

Very enjoyable, and a shame to see such poor box office in America.

Hail Satan?

An Abomination in God's Eyes
Let's not pussyfoot around here. These people are freaks. They walk around naked in their stupid clothes, they wave banners that disrespect others, they manipulate the media, they play music with disguised messages celebrating some shadowy supernatural figure, and they just think they're better than everyone else. And then there's the Satanists.

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