wkduffy

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Reviews

The Kirlian Witness
(1978)

Intriguing Product of the "Occult Obsessed" 70s
The movie revolves around two sisters: One is a photographer who is married to an architect and lives a relatively normal life, and the other is a houseplant-obsessed, socially awkward isolationist who lives below her sister in a Soho loft and runs a slipshod plant shop. The weird one (well acted, by the way, as are all the parts) dies within the first 20 minutes of the film, and the rest of the movie revolves around her grieving sister trying to figure out how she died--accidentally or not? And if not, who did it?

Although the production year on this flick is 1979, the film feels as though it was made 10 years earlier and is a quintessential product of that occult-obsessed era. As such, the alternative sleuthing tactics used by the sister-cum-detective involves colorful Kirlian photography of auras (the auras of both plants and people) to determine who has ill intent and who knows what. The twist? Her architect-husband might be the murderer (or not) AND one special plant may have seen everything happen! What is that plant trying to say?!!

The feel of the film is serious and decidedly (and purposefully) muted -- the tone, the acting, the music, the photography. You might call it slow, but someone with the right sensibilities might instead call it "creepy." Indeed, the film strikes many of the same chords as horror films of the time period--we're talking about that atmosphere of hopeless Gothic dread and awful, depressing inevitability that drenches cult horror flicks like "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," "The Pyx," or "The Haunting of Julia" (largely created by the music and sometimes-abstract camera angles here in this film). But unfortunately these emotive moments are far and few between. Most importantly, it should be noted that this really is NOT a horror film at all. Although it has some occult overtones and that atmospheric feeling of dread, the story is a who-done-it mystery.

For someone who can plug into the film from this "atmospheric 1970s horror movie" angle (even though, as mentioned, you'd be hard pressed to call this a horror yarn!), "The Kirlian Witness" might be considered a rare gem--not a stellar flick, but a minor gem nonetheless. I got my copy on Amazon (in 2012), where it is currently available as an "on-demand" DVD-R with full color artwork in the DVD case and also on the disc itself. (For some reason, I half-think it is actually the director who is selling them himself, but this is pure speculation.) The transfer is workable, but as the fuzzy print testifies, this has in no way been remastered. In fact, I'd actually love to see a very clean copy of the film, but considering its relative obscurity, I seriously doubt that will ever happen.

The Shuttered Room
(1967)

Stylistically...May Be Ahead of Its Time?
After two strange attempts to buy "The Shuttered Room/It" WB horror two-fer flick on DVD from Amazon sellers and neither of them ever making it to my mailbox over a two-month span (is Oliver Reed intercepting my packages?), I finally found an Amazon seller up to the job of actually getting this thing into my DVD player.

Anyway, the digital transfer of "The Shuttered Room," as stated by others, is not so bad--some artifacts here and there (so the film for all intents and purposes was not cleaned up), but the flick is anamorphic and fills a widescreen, which is nice. For those who have not seen it (or not seen it recently), the film is very deliberately and carefully made--that means the technical specs are up to snuff for a film shot in the late 60s anyway. The focus is clear and crisp, the colors are sharp and vivid. The settings are very pretty--even with all the "horror" lurking about.

Two random thoughts: 1. For some reason, I remember the chained-up individual (keeping it vague here) as being horribly disfigured. But nope--it's just a regular person having a bad hair day. That was a bit disappointing--guess my memories of this horror are a bit blurry.

2. Last, and most interesting: This film looks much, much closer to an early 1970s horror film than one released in 1966 to me; it always has. The film techniques, use of hand-held perspective shots, extreme close-ups, the very progressive soundtrack, Lynley's "heroine" who is both sad and brooding but not entirely a weakling, and the lyrical, dreamlike extended credits/introduction--all of it adds up to a film that seems, in hindsight, to be ahead of its time. In some ways, the "dreadful feel" of the film, the style of it, the haunting quality of it, seems to predict so many 70s horror films that were yet to come--Zohra Lampert's sympathetic heroine in "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," or maybe the strange isolationist townsfolk in "The Brotherhood of Satan." While comparisons can be misleading, I'll just say this feels like a film DECIDEDLY NOT looking backwards toward the old days of Gothic Hammer horror (although "The Shuttered Room" has its Gothic moments); instead, it tries very hard to be...contemporary, looking forward to the next decade, which would be 1970. And I think it works. I presume credit for that goes to director David Greene. It seems odd then that Greene, who apparently showed a lot of promise early on in his directing career, would not amount to much over time (or, so says Phil Hardy in the Overlook Film Encyclopedia). Strange.

There Was a Little Girl
(1981)

No Accounting For Taste
Taste—and what it reveals about a person--is a funny thing. For example, there are flicks I simply like, regardless of what others say, regardless of critical reviews. In fact, all of us have favorites that might not hold much sway with the general public. In these films, there may be stupendously bad acting, scenery, costumes, sets, and narrative—but nevertheless there's something "ineffable" about them that jibes with our personal tastes and personal aesthetic in some inexplicable way. We just LIKE them, even though those around us say we have no taste at all. (I hear this a lot.)

So, a strange taste-related revelation occurred to me recently as I watched the UK R2 DVD release of "Madhouse" (aka "There Was A Little Girl"—a MUCH better title, by the way). As I watched, I thought to myself, "Sure the 'Crazy Deformed Twin Sister is Going to Kill Me' plot is derivative, but it is nicely composed. As I watched, I also thought the photography was carefully done, with good use of colors, and nice use of the scope format. The mood was unbearably somber and tense. The denouement was appropriate, and I jumped accordingly at a few spots. Finally, I wondered to myself, 'Who made this film?' As I turned the DVD box over to find out, I saw…

Ovidio Assonitis! And that's when I realized my tastes were somehow inextricably linked to this director/producer and his aesthetic. Just about every knockoff horror film he has made in his career, I simply love, love, LOVE! Beyond the Door (Exorcist Clone), The Visitor (an Omen Clone], Tentacoli (Jaws Clone), Who Saw Her Die?—though my friends shake their heads in disbelief, I have that same taste-related, inexplicable, unwilling gut-reaction to all these films: I like this! I like the way it is photographed. I like the pace. I like the way the plot rolls out—or the way the plot disappears entirely in some cases. I like the characterizations, the effects. I like the outrageousness of some of the scenes. The music works just right. I just like his films. Ovidio Assonitis is all-right by me! Not surprisingly, known as the "Rip-Off King," Assonitis is railed against hither and thither. Even those who are appreciative of his films feel obliged to say things like, "You know, it wasn't so bad," or "It wasn't as horrible as I thought it might be" (just look at some of the reviews right here).

But I think I just discovered that I am an unabashed Ovidio-junkie. He makes the perfectly derivative, low-budget (but nevertheless big-minded, carefully-made, professionally shot) crap I absolutely adore. On the surface, the films are nothing but a cash-in on whatever is trendy at the time. No one disputes that. But these films all saw major theatrical release because, simply put, they are extremely well-made, seriously photographed, professionally acted and scored flicks. They take what they do seriously, even though it's all been done before (and with bigger budgets). These films are great products, including "Madhouse." The UK DVD is also impressive and it shows Ovidio at his film-cloning best. As I mentioned, a great use of the scope format; nice authenticity of settings and background actors (the female protagonist who is being stalked by her deformed twin sis works in a school for the deaf, and real deaf-kid-actors are used to incredible effect in the film); nice use of colors; a nutsy ending. Hey maybe, I'll start an Ovidio Fan Club. In the meantime, though, check this out.

And, by the way, when the heck is Ovidio's apocalyptic "The Visitor" (Lance Hendricksen, John Huston, Shelly Winters) ever going to see the light of day on DVD?

Pulse
(2006)

Attack of the PG-13 rating!
I remember watching Kurosawa's original "Kairo/Pulse" a few years ago. For the first 20 minutes or so, I was moderately engaged. AND THEN came the scene where, in the extreme foreground, the heroine/protagonist is snarfing around in her purse for something while far, far away in the background a tiny blip of an anonymous character calmly climbs an 8-story water tower, flings herself from it, and splats on the ground unceremoniously—no big clashing cymbals and violin strikes, no crazy epileptic-style editing. Just one clean, smooth, continuous, absolutely heartbreaking and breathtaking shot.

At that moment, my "moderate engagement" became something else entirely. My jaw dropped open and I said aloud to the empty room: "Oh no, I did not just see that! That did not just happen! What the--?" From that moment, "Kairo/Pulse" became one of my top ten movies of all time.

Sitting in the theater today watching Sonzero's remake of "Pulse," I guess I shouldn't be surprised that my jaw didn't drop open a single time. Like so many of us, when I heard the final rating on the remake was to get the kiss-of-death PG-13-rating, I thought I'd skip this remake entirely, and just stay in love with the original apocalyptic vision of Kurosawa. But I had a free few hours and was able to get into a matinée for cheap. Glad the ticket only cost me $5.

Let's go back to that nonchalant, but heart stopping, image of the water-tower suicide for a second. It didn't exist in the Hollywood remake—not anywhere. I'm not arguing that a single scene makes a movie; but in Kurosawa's original, this was a breaking point in the narrative. This was the image that represented a world that clearly and irreversibly started sliding down the toilet. The image of this "anonymous, nonchalant suicide in the background" was his thesis, I think, on isolation, abandonment, loss. The remake seemed to have no such thesis, anywhere.

When I got home, I (once again) saw the commercial for "Pulse" on the tube (it is in heavy rotation at the moment of course). And what did I see there? A .2-second clip of someone hurtling themselves off a water tower! There it was—in clipped, epileptic, trailer form—Kurosawa's thesis. Yet, that sequence does not exist in the movie, anywhere. What the hell?

'Ah!' I thought to myself, 'Attack of the PG-13 rating once again.' I've got to stop going to these PG-13 rated "horror" movies.

Before I close, allow me to mention two things, one good and one bad. The good thing is that the script/direction/etc. managed to somehow keep that overbearing ennui and restless sadness that Kurosawa's original film is bathed in. I was glad to see that this heavy sadness was still present in the movie—albeit in smaller and more easily-digested doses.

And now to the bad thing: Where did this Kristen Bell person get her acting diploma exactly? Stinko.

The Day Time Ended
(1979)

The Very Poor Man's "Close Encounters"
I recently returned to this film after having watched it 12 years ago on VHS. (This time, I watched the 4:3 frame DVD included in the Brentwood 4-DVD collection "Time Travelers," which, apparently, is the best of the transfers out there; I've read the standalone transfer isn't as good and contains atrocious artifacts.) Anyway, I remembered originally liking the film for its peppy pacing and its honest intentions. I was pleased to see those elements still intact. The film whipped along a brisk pace, the characters were likable and acted well enough, and the late 1970's "desert house of the future" provides a pretty unique setting.

As is evident by the reviews already listed here on IMDb, it seems you are either a fan of the film or feel compelled to hound it for its technical shortcomings--shortcomings, by the way, which are many. (Let's at least be honest while we temporarily kneel at the alter of director John "Bud" Cardos.) I understand the stop motion prehistoric creatures are animated by none other than icon Dave Allen, and there are precious matte paintings by film artist extraordinaire Jim Danforth, but let's face it. The low budget nature of the flick really shines through (in a bad way) during the effects-heavy scenes—which account for about half the film. As many reviewers have pointed out, "The Day Time Ended" does at times feel like a very-poor-man's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Considering this film was screened 2 years after "Close Encounters," the Spielbergian influences can't be hidden. You've got low-flying, multicolored UFOs whipping down deserted highways that stretch through the mountains. You've got the little child (inevitably kidnapped) who is inexorably drawn to the aliens and their technology, etc. (By the way, if this film reminds anyone of "E.T.," remember you are a few years too soon—that film wouldn't be made for at least another two years after "The Day Time Ended.").

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this film was made on the cusp of the made-for-video revolution (my books say 1979, not 1980), so I'm not certain about its actual theatrical release. The film feels as though it was prepared for a major release—though its short running time just barely makes it full-length. Overall, the production values hint at something larger than later Full Moon-era Richard Band releases (Puppetmaster 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 12) which were clearly made for the video-shelf-small-screen. But like many of Richard Band's releases, the ambidextrous Band does the music himself. His orchestral flourishes really aren't all that bad.

But speaking of bad, something VERY bad happens around the 60-minute mark. The film's plot—what little was established—falls completely to shreds. As the family is attacked by every SPFX artist on the set, the story is, literally, tossed into the vortex. By the end, the family (which has been torn asunder in time and space with much crashing of cymbals and whirling of stars) suddenly and inexplicably reunites at the edge of a crystal city glimmering in the distance. They all sort of shrug their shoulders, hop on their horses, and head to their "new home" (a pretty, futuristic matte painting by none other than Jim Danforth). Problem is, none of the family members seem particularly bothered by any of it. They're not bothered by the fact that their house—indeed their entire world and its civilization—has vanished. Heck, they've got each other, and, who knows, "Maybe this was all meant to happen," as Jim Davis, the family patriarch, says. Yeah, right! In fact, this saccharine reunion takes place so quickly after the family members are separated in the "timespace warp," that the viewer never really gets a chance to worry about what is happening—you end up not caring about their plight, or their new circumstances, at all. Of course, you might say, "What do you expect from a below-B science fiction flick?" The problem is that for the first 60 minutes of the film, the characters are believable, likable, rational folk beset by otherworldly forces, and they react accordingly (most of the time). Unfortunately, those established characters inexplicably evaporate at the end, and the story and characters really fall apart as they mundanely saunter their way into the future. This comes damn, damn close to wrecking the entire film.

Of course, this isn't the first time I've seen John "Bud" Cardos do this kind of thing. Maybe it's his shtick—wrecking a film just during the last few minutes.

Naina
(2005)

And I Thought "Eye 10" Was Bad...
Let's be perfectly honest. "The Eye 10" was bad. The fart jokes may have been an excellent opportunity for the Pang Brothers to thumb their noses at the film-making establishment (especially of the genre-kind), but farting did nothing to enhance the ghost story they were trying to tell. Anyone who disagrees...is lost.

But "Naina," a "had to be licensed or else there's a lawsuit a-brewing" remake of the Pang Brothers original "Eye" is a real stinker. Let me qualify for a moment; I'm a sucker for any kind mimicry or remaking, as long as it's good. I'll watch the same derivative sequel-like Asian ghost story over and over and over again (Eye, Ringu, Dark Water, Phone, Red Shoes, Red Eye, One Missed Call 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) as long as it is well done. But "Naina" busts the bank. The film has no fart-jokes, but its got the same flatulent problem--namely, hilarity, that doesn't smell too much like hilarity, that's been inserted into the script with a crowbar made in India.

Being a Bollywood remake of a serious ghost story, the "comic relief" (term used lightly) and distinct style of overacting isn't surprising in "Naina." Watching this film is a bit like watching "The Eye" (a heartwrenching, small, personal film) trying to bust out into a Broadway-style song and dance routine. Oil and water. For example, early on the hilarity comes in the form of Naina's (cornea transplantee's) grandmother. She harasses hospital personnel, inappropriately burns incense in the hospital lobby, and continually barrages the doctors with "hilarious" questions about her poor, poor granddaughter. The "funny" character got tiring real, real fast and completely served to deflate any tension the director may have been trying to attain. Maybe he should watch the original one more time.

The same kind of Bollywood-like, paper-thin character qualities flowed into the protagonist Naina as well. Her eyes bulged out of her head like Popeye when confronted with supernatural occurrences, and the voiceovers were always overacted. For example, check out Naina's string of monosyllables meant to convey horror and exasperation ("Uh-Ah-No-Wha-Uh-Ah-Huh-No") while she witnesses "the other side" from the backseat of a taxi (and her lips aren't even parted). Attack of the voice-over from hell! It is the typical cartoonery found in Bollywood films. No subtlety anywhere.

And yet I am perplexed. Overall, I'd say the film was lensed very lushly. Nice colors and camera angles; on the whole, the photography is top notch. Yet, when the director fills the frame with the baldheaded young-boy-cancer-patient who befriends Naina, things explode into utter wrongness. Somebody seriously needed to check this kid's makeup. As someone else pointed out in a review on IMDb, the skullcap the kid was wearing (head shaved due to brain surgery) wasn't fitted or finished properly. And again, allow me to explain; I'm no perfectionist when it comes to genre films. I'll put up with just about everything. As long as I'm entertained, I can look past the biggest plot holes, rubber monster suits, and rattling background sets. But this skullcap gets the award for the Worst Ever Makeup Job I've Seen In My Life. The color of the cap doesn't match his head; when the child actor emotes by raising his eyebrows, the ends of the skullcap wrinkle up unnaturally; the cutout around his ears is clearly visible, as well as how the skullcap is not properly attached to the back of his head--and I think I saw some hair protruding through the back around his neck. It is atrocious. Unbelievably so, especially when you take into consideration the overall professionalism of every other aspect of the film. Who on the crew had a three-martini lunch that day? Hmmm...

Final word: Even if you are a "I'll watch any derivative film just because it's horror" person like me, trust me and skip "Naina." You've seen it all before, only it was actually good the last time.

Zhai bian
(2005)

This Movie Has 1975 Written All Over It...
I know, I know. Here it is 2006, and who on planet earth is paying attention to Asian horror movies any more? I mean, haven't we all moved onto Spain or France or whoever is the new Korea already? Clearly, if the Asian Wave of Horror has washed itself down the drain, who could be left but a bunch of sixth-generation Sadako wannabees, right?

Actually, scrap all that. I have another theory. If J-Horror has truly gone stale, and no one is paying attention (or money) any longer, maybe the filmmakers still hanging around the soundstage are the true heroes--maybe those directors who continue to unapologetically explore the genre are the truly dedicated artists who believe there's still meat on them thar bones.

If this theory is true, that means "Zhaibian/The Heirloom" offers something to the genre that is decidedly different, new, convincing, or at least creative. And, ultimately, it does just that. More specifically, it creatively turns back the clock on horror films, and transports the viewer backwards in time to the glorious era of classy 1970s horror flicks that relied on plot turns, creepy settings, and characters. Although narratively the film shares next to nothing with American classics like "Rosemary's Baby," "The Changeling," or "Audrey Rose," I couldn't suppress the urge to make the comparison (repeatedly while watching). The problem is, I just couldn't put my finger on why. There's some ineffable quality about "The Heirloom"--maybe the photography, the color palette, the dilapidated mansion as setting, or the wistful music-- that kept me saying, "Jeez, this reminds me of The Omen more than the 2006 remake of The Omen."

I think there's no hiding the fact that this film is awash in that "ephemeral something" borrowed from those 70s classics; the director is clearly influenced by the era and style (even the lead women wear bell-bottoms rivaling those donned by Cristina Raines in "The Sentinel"). And allowing those influences to shine through is what I believe is so striking--and even risky--here. Again, I'll reference the recent remakes of so many genre classics--The Omen, The Amityville Horror, The Hills Have Eyes. What I often see in these remakes is not an understanding or embracing of 70s high-class horror style, but instead mere mimicry (often shot-for-shot). Who cares?

Of course, the flick has its faults--most prominently (at the 1 hour, 15 minute mark) the action slows to a melodramatic crawl with nonstop slo-mo panning shots of people and places, accompanied by sweeping violins. Unfortunately, the film never regains its pace before the end--but it's still eye-candy worth savoring.

Ultimately, seeing a film like "Zhaibian/The Heirloom" is like tripping upon some long lost 70s American horror classic I've never heard of. (It's just that the story is steeped in Buddhist tradition and is peopled by Asian actors, heh.) In so many intangible ways, it's like watching "The Manitou" or "Burnt Offerings" for the first time. For a director to achieve that kind of "seventies something-ness"--I applaud him roundly. On the other hand, I suppose many movie buffs (and especially younger horror buffs) would shrug off this 70s appropriation, saying "That's old stuff. It's out of date, out of step." But I wonder--will they be pining for "Hellraiser 6--straight to DVD" when they turn 40?

Purei
(2005)

No Prayers Here...
I know the Asian Wave of Filmic Horror long ago crashed to shore and receded into the murky depths of mediocrity, but I had pinned big hopes on this flick. On paper, it seemed to have all the right clichés--an abandoned school as a setting, a ghostly girl lurking about the place, questionable characters needing a good supernatural come-uppance.

Well, skip this one. It's weak--the characters are thin and irritating, the setting is samey and gets tiring after 30 minutes, and the ghostly girl isn't ghostly at all. There are some nice choice effects here and there (some blood, a decaying corpse), but nothing surprising or jolting or even impressive. In fact, it occurred to me that this film must have REALLY been shot on a shoestring and very quickly, considering it practically takes place in one uninteresting location and includes very little in terms of atmospheric effects. The ending tries desperately to tug at the heart strings, but it simply comes across as sappy and (transparently) manipulative. The plot goes round and round--the circumlocution is evident as quickly as the 15-minute mark--and it goes nowhere for the entire run.

Hmmm, and I just ordered "Cello" from YesAsia…will somebody stop me, please?

Kraftverk 3714
(2005)

If IKEA made a film...
Being a completely broke film buff with a house to furnish, I'm a big fan of IKEA. My whole domicile, practically, is packed to the brim with the cheap particle-board stuff. And you know how all those stylish household items at IKEA have those funny names--a bookshelf called "Holika" and a bathroom mirror called a "Grundtal"--well, it just adds to the whole Euro-charm.

Like those interestingly-named (but horribly translated) items on the shelves at IKEA, I'd like to provide a bit of translation to some of the reviews I've read about the Swedish-made "Kraftverk 3714."

Original Comment: "For a low budget film, this is pretty cool stuff. It would be great to see what these guys could do on a Hollywood budget!"

Translation: The film stock is crappy, the lighting is pedestrian, the cinematography is uninteresting, the sound recording is hollow.

Original Comment: "David Lynchesque sci-fi drama set in a strange forest town with equally strange characters!"

Translation: These "actors" are acting for free, the storyline is circular and tiring, the ideas that undergird the flick desperately try to be existential but are simply mundane, and the settings (especially the interiors) are dull and filled with ugly wallpaper.

Original Comment: "The editing is well-done, and the conservative use of computer graphics shows that compelling CGI effects don't have to come out of a Hollywood studio!"

Translation: When you've got sketchy cinematography to begin with, hide the imperfections by digitizing all of it onto a Mac and blending vigorously for three minutes. Ingenious!

I took a chance on this DVD because I'm a sucker for independent films, especially those that attempt to tackle the often-expensive and awe-inspiring genre of science fiction. I mean, some of the best sci-fi flicks of all time have been realized with little or no budget, spfx, and specious actors. Take Peter Fonda's eco-warning-time-travel flick "Idaho Transfer" for example! A classic.

But "Kraftverk 3714" doesn't fit the category of "carefully-crafted, low-key, idea-dependent sci-fi." It relentlessly focuses on characters that don't do much and don't say interesting things. It goes round and round in circles. It is much too long (this coming from a major Tarkovsky fan). Worse, its concept of "reality shifting aliens" is Twilight Zone fodder from 40 years ago. It's just not a well-made film -and I really wanted it to be, dammit!

However, being the IKEA fan I am, I did make one ground-shattering observation. First, anyone who has shopped at IKEA knows how their tricky shopping carts work--all four wheels being multidirectional. The carts can spin a perfect 360 degrees, and it takes some familiarity to handle them like a pro, as any avid IKEA shopper knows. Well, I'll be damned, but one of the lead actresses in "Kraftverk 3714" goes to some inky-dinky grocery store in the middle of nowhere and what is she pushing around? A multidirectional shopping cart! So, that's not an IKEA invention after all, but is yet another wonderful invention (let's call it a "Tacklebee" for the hell of it) from the land of hei-doo!

Mausoleum
(1983)

What Nice Muppet Boobs You Have, Ms. Bresee!
A film like this puts everything in perspective. Allow me to elaborate.

Plaintiff's Exhibit A: Consider, if you will, films like "The Children" (kids on a school-bus ride through a radioactive cloud, become zombies, and hug their parents to death), or "The Dark" (William Devane and Cathy Lee Crosby circle Los Angeles trying to find a monster who can't decide if he's a mentally retarded caveman or an alien from outer space). Before watching "Mausoleum," I always considered these flicks to be kitschy, low budget, suitable time wasters. However after watching "Mausoleum," I can confidently say films like "The Children" and "The Dark" are top-notch, creative, creepy, mind-blowing classics.

That's an indirect way of letting you know that "Mausoleum" is dreck. Junk, plain and simple. I'm a forgiving soul when it comes to horror movies of all kinds (revisit Exhibit A if you have any doubts)—I'll give just about any "filmic art" the time of day. But 25 minutes into this empty "Mausoleum," and my attention was already wandering to the fridge. FLAT is probably the best descriptive adjective. The characters, the cinematography, the plot, the setting, the music—the whole package is as flat as an 80s pancake. Even the "Oogily Googily!" mutterings of LaWanda Page as the black maid who "exits stage left" in a "comedy" moment when things turn ugly—even that is FLAT. It's not funny or entertaining; Page's portrayal and delivery is so flat, it's not even a racial stereotype. Even Bobbie Bresee's "demon breasts" that come alive and chew through Marjoe Gortner during a sexy embrace are FLAT.

Well, her breasts aren't flat by any means, but the drooling Muppet-like toothy puppets that her breasts become—the whole thing is inexcusably dumb. And worse, even forgiving the limitations of 80s technology, her puppet boobs look dumb.

Word to the wise: Skip it. You won't be missing a thing.

Defense Exhibit B: Allow me to offer one counterargument. There's a potentially revelatory moment in the film that almost makes it rise to the level of "worth mentioning"—-not "worth watching," but worth mentioning. At the end of the film, as Psychologist Simon and Protag Bobbie stumble out of the titular mausoleum having apparently defeated the evil, Simon turns to a mysteriously hooded grounds-keeper sitting near the gate and says: "You've known about this your whole life and have lived with the secret. For God's sake, don't ever let anyone enter the mausoleum!" As the two speed away, the camera centers on the grounds-keeper who is cutting some flowers. He looks directly at the camera and begins to cackle and cackle and CACKLE and CACKLE and---suddenly, just before the end crawl started, just for one freaking microsecond, I could've sworn this dude was LAUGHING AT ME for having just whittled away an hour and half of my life watching this dreck. I even rewound it and watched again, trying desperately to infer the intentions of the actor, the director, the cameraman. Was that their intention? WAS I BEING LAUGHED AT? If true, this might very well be the coolest horror flick on the planet. Even if it were an accident, that kind of self-referential humor (pointed keenly at the audience) is a mark of genius—a genius I only wish the rest of the film bore out. But ultimately it doesn't.

Anyway, just one last gem of dialog before I go (and I won't make any inappropriate "fish" jokes here—I'll leave that up to you):

Oliver (husband): "What's for dinner?"

Susan (wife): "Poached Salmon...and me."

Beyond Evil
(1980)

Attack of the Special Effects!
I am a sincere horror movie fan. As such, I am extremely forgiving—indeed, my friends would argue I have no standards at all. To shake up this dynamic even more, there is a class of film that forgiving fans feel compelled to huddle around and protect because these "works of art" are so obviously vulnerable to attack—mostly because they suck in every way imaginable. Remember Robert Culp crazily running around naked in "A Name for Evil?" (Whoever says anything nice about "A Name for Evil?") Remember a coiffed Richard Moll attempting to navigate the discontinuity in "The Nightmare Never Ends?" (What dozen or so people ever bothered watching "The Nightmare Never Ends" in its entirety?) How about Trish Van Devere flitting about the badly lit sets in her housecoat in "The Hearse?" Technically, these films are inconceivably bad, plain and simple. They never really gel; they don't scare; the characters are flat or unconvincing; the lighting is poor; the sound is cacophonous; the plot convoluted. These movies always seem to be a collection of medium-range shots pasted haphazardly together—not an interesting angle or lighting effect to be found. These films don't even fall into the clichéd "so bad they're good" class of films.

In my mind, films like "A Name for Evil" are "TV quality" films (if we are talking TV quality of about 30 years ago, of course). In fact, the most effective way to turn me off from wanting to watch any film is by telling me it is of average TV quality. To me, that means artless, white-washed, vanilla, predictable, flat. I'm immediately disinterested.

Having said that, films like "The Hearse" and "Nightmare Never Ends" and even "A Name for Evil" almost supernaturally, are imbued with something greater than the sum of their parts. In the minds and hearts of truly forgiving horror movie fans, these films hold a place that they do not deserve; there's something about the "idea" of the movie—not borne out by the reality of the film itself—that exerts an inexplicable power. I guess what I'm saying is that these movies are never as good as the ideas behind them; but for some reason I, as viewer, seem to remember and connect with the idea, rather than the movie. Call me insane, but it is almost as if the movie doesn't matter. For example, when I spy the DVD cover of "Horror Planet" on my shelf, I think of the "idea" of the film fondly—even though I never really want to watch the film a second time because it is so poorly executed. I imbue it with a power it doesn't really have. And I'm fascinated by that interaction. Maybe I'm just nuts.

Now, having said all that, I'm not sure "Beyond Evil" quite makes it into that mysterious class of films. The ideas in this film (not the film itself) try damn hard to work their way into my subconscious…but ultimately the flick fails in that regard. The acting is adequate, even adequately inspired at times. The music by Donaggio is adequate. The plot is okay. But when it comes right down to it, I think there are three specific things that ultimately do this movie in—things that are so completely distracting, I can't even love the idea of this film, let alone the film itself:

1. Could You Repeat That Please: The film takes place in a large mansion, mostly. Here we get the "one Radio Shack mic placed in the middle of the cacophonous room" effect—often with more than one person speaking at the same time. Remember the award-winning audio in films like "The Ghosts of Hanley House?" Terribly distracting. As someone else also said, this movie is evidence why filming in front of an airport is not such a good idea—did you catch that dialog? I didn't. Planes are loud and noisy. Someone tell the director.

2. The Editor Fell Asleep at the Cutting Wheel: Something bizarre happens in the last 15 minutes of this movie (referring to the UK PAL R2 DVD). Suddenly parts of the film disappear—there are plot elements you KNOW occurred, you'd bet your paycheck on it, but they've been sliced to the point where the narrative starts to literally come apart at the seams. Once again, I am a forgiving fan here and can even appreciate discontinuity on some artful level. But this isn't epileptic enough to be interesting or keep me off balance. No, it's just that somebody let the scissors slip a few times, and the film falls apart—literally—in the last few frames. Why oh why?

3. Attack of the Special Effects: The effects in this movie, as other reviewers have adequately illustrated, are atrocious. Remember, I am a forgiving fan—probably much more forgiving than you are. But when you see something so low--that you start to think you might actually have standards of some kind—you know you've hit rock bottom. The effects are really at rock bottom. They are so bad, they chew into the narrative. While watching, I was having a conversation with myself (as the movie progressed) about how the ghost of the former owner of the mansion could have been presented so much better, and so much more simply. Glowing green laser beam eyeballs. Awful, awful, awful. The silly superimposition of the ghost character that suddenly blinks into life on a dark space in the picture's frame. Awful, awful, awful. I think of all the scary movies I've seen where ghosts were presented simply and interestingly and frighteningly without a special effect to be found. Why would adequate-director-Herb-Freed make such a bad, bad decision?

So there you have it. An unforgivable "TV Quality" movie where ultimately the ideas don't even float to the top. Too bad, too bad.

Bunhongsin
(2005)

It's a Big Cliché, But It's Still Damn Good!
I'm in a quandary over this film. Like many other reviewers have amply illustrated here, this film is like a Korean Klone in lots of ways. It borrows moves from the Ringu play-book, the Dark Water play-book, the Ju-On play-book, The Eye play-book...please stop me. It's got a daughter and mother all alone in the world facing supernatural evil. It's got hunched-over, black-haired teens with bad attitudes and osteoporosis floating around upside-down and showing up in elevators. It's got the cheating hubby, the young love interest, the entrepreneurial "young Asian professional female" slowly losing her mind. Most importantly, it's got the requisite cursed artifact (not a wig, not a videotape, not a pair of transplanted corneas, but a swanky set of pink stilettos that a particular ghost doesn't want any mortal wearing).

BUT GOSH DARN IT, I LIKED THIS FILM! I guess it says something if I feel compelled to excuse myself for this fact, but I really did care for the characters and the serious situation they are hopelessly trapped in. Indeed, I was hooked by the grue--people getting their feet forcibly removed gets my attention. The cinematography is colorful, and artful, and top notch--as we have come to expect from Korean directors. (Did you catch those cool on-purpose-out-of-focus shots? Fuzzy weirdness...) The music is actually pretty unique--the low-key guitar ditty that recurs off and on is melodic, and personal, and not overwrought. Yes, the plot "twists and turns" in terribly predictable ways: Could our protagonist really be the guilty one? Is it possible that we might find the answer to the horrible mystery by rifling through old newspaper copy in the library? Even though we've "properly buried" the red shoes with their owner, is it possible the evil will return nevertheless to wreak ultimate revenge? When we get to the end, will the decidedly downbeat narrative actually make very little sense? Yes, you've seen--and come to expect--it all.

But, darn it, this flick is done with such panache in a very gutsy way. The characters are carefully drawn, the direction is solid. And when you get right down to it, America simply does not make films like this. I don't think America ever will again. We used to make great, sad, horror films, but not anymore. We real horror fans have got to rely on films like "Bunhongsin" to get our fix. In fact, that's precisely why I give this film the benefit of the doubt.

Saint Ange
(2004)

A Great, Sad, Spooky Story!
I too am stunned by the collection of negative reviews here. Do those throwing tomatoes at "Saint Ange" have flicks like "Child's Play VII" or "Halloween XII" on their top ten lists? It would explain a lot. One wonders…

Needless to say, the film is marvelous in numerous respects, many of them already mentioned: The photography is precise, the music is graceful and heavy-hearted, the acting is superb. Most importantly, the characters are smartly drawn against stereotypes; in fact, the most gut-wrenching aspect of this film is Anna herself.

Anna is abused and impregnated against her will; she is the character we are SUPPOSED to sympathize and identify with. She is downtrodden, used up and cast out of society (and cast into isolation). This is the character we are supposed to root for, for God's sake. Anna is the underdog who we hope will escape harm and perhaps even flourish somehow.

But this is a French film. OK, that's not fair, but the film isn't easy, folks. Ultimately, Anna is the one who does evil, in a way; she is the one who has lost her mind and is incredibly manipulative. She is the one who drowns innocent kittens because they remind her of the unwanted baby growing inside her—a baby that she despises so much she punches herself forcefully in the gut to be rid of it. She loses her life, possibly unredeemed, and the life of her baby in the end.

People who want predictability from their films take this sort of character-turn and think the film is betraying their trust. They don't like it.

Indeed, this movie turns most of its characters upside down. Take Helenka, the cook. She is ultimately the very caring, matronly figure we should like. She wants to care for Anna; she wants to listen. She doesn't make Anna curtsy or wear a uniform. She keeps saying to Anna, "Relax, relax. If you want to smoke, then smoke." Yet, from Anna's twisted perspective, Helenka takes on a horrific countenance, and she believes she hears Helenka admit to killing children at the orphanage because of overcrowding. Terrible!

Yet, in the end, Helenka is completely wrecked by the tragic death of Anna. She is deeply saddened, and it is clear that she really does care for the girls and wants the best for them. She is not evil; but Anna almost had me believing she was! But again, people like predictability from their films. They don't want characters who change from evil to good and back again. Like in reality. People don't like reality, I gather.

And here's my theory: It is precisely because this movie turns its characters upside down that some people seem to dislike it so. Face it, people like Hollywood films that serve up the predictable, hot and juicy full of jump scares with big crashing soundtracks. We don't want to see unendurable pain ending in misery—le fin. Yes, maybe Anna does eventually learn to "love" her baby as some of final "nursing" shots seem to suggest—but she's dead at that point!! Dead!! That's not a Happy Meal kinda movie. That's the kind of movie I like. Anna, the character we are supposed to identify with, ends up losing her mind through her self-torment and kills herself and her baby. What a great, sad, spooky story! Gotta love it.

Il medaglione insanguinato (Perche?!)
(1975)

The Little Film That Could...sort of.
Just got finished watching this Omen-inspired, Exorcist-derived, 1970s Italo-American horror-movie-lookalike on the recently released, high-definition, Italian-language only DVD (with English subs). And while I can't say much in the way of the film's originality, I've got to say that this is the little-film-that-could in many ways. Wanna go back to the days of burgeoning, high-budget, high-class, artfully framed 70's horror flicks? Here's your ticket.

First of all this film (which chronicles the somewhat lackluster "adventures" of a BBC documentarist on his trip to Spoleto to do a flick about representations of demons in old paintings—and his young daughter is somehow possessed by an "evil" medallion) is absolutely GORGEOUS to look at. In fact, the film is more an eyeful than all of the American possession-themed horror movies combined. The use of colors is vibrant, the carefully crafted shots are very painterly themselves, and every frame seems bathed in the heavenly filtered sunlight that oddly only seems to exist in 70's films for some strange reason. And the splendid beauty of the Italian landscape is breathtaking—it seeps through in practically every shot. The high-def transfer (distributed by Mostra Internationale d'Arte Cinematografica under the title "Il Medaglione Insanguinato—Perche?") does justice to the vision of both the director and cinematographer. Wow, this movie looks simply awesome.

Of course, the fact that it is solidly stuck in the mid-70's doesn't bother me either. This is one of those films that screams "70s'-armageddon-satanist-Omen-Exorcist-ripoff-era films," with all of the now-new-again fashions and funky furniture intact. But it pulls off the imitation with much grandeur. This isn't a schlocky film by any means; it appears to have been carefully written (the dialogue isn't completely inane) and, as mentioned, even more carefully photographed. And frankly, to shoo away its plot by saying it is simply a replica of the aforesaid America products isn't quite honest. This film actually deals with art, documentary film-making, and a girl who happens to become possessed (yes….but) by a piece of strange jewelry. Derivative, I grant you. But not cookie cutter by any means. The players are a strange quadrangle as well—a father and his young daughter (with saccharine memories of a recently departed mother/wife in a fiery "accident"), the American TV producer love interest, and the super glum Nanny of the little girl. (Either of the latter two could make a possible match for the widower—and that's where things get a little more interesting than standard fare). The acting isn't half bad either—Joanna Cassidy is 70's beautiful, and who doesn't like Richard Johnson in a 70's horror film? (By the way, 2005 must be the year of Richard Johnson, since "Beyond the Door" was also recently—and finally—released on DVD, as "Diabolica," on a Japanese label).

One last good point: Strong score by Stelvio Cipriani. It feels like a reasonable ripoff of a Ennio Morricone score of the same era and for the same type of film. Sad but melodic music, punctuated by strumming guitars, the ever-present harpsichord riff, and sappy violins. Hummable.

But the film is boring. Action? Uh, not really. In fact, even calling it a supernatural horror movie is being generous. The supernatural stuff doesn't happen until the wee last moments of the film. It seems we wait an eternity for the girl's possession-powers to come into full swing—but looking at the scenery (the mountains, the decaying villas, old statues, the gardens, and green pastures) and listening to the unmistakable-genre-defining 70's "sad horror movie music" in the meantime is fabulous. Even when the supernatural stuff starts flying, it is very sedate. Nothing even close to graphic here. Perhaps this movie is really only eye candy and nothing else. But any old crap that whisks me away from today's crap (remake of "The Fog," anyone?) is welcome on my screen anytime.

Hotel
(2004)

Patience, Please...
Before I buy a flick on DVD, I read reviews. First, I come here to IMDb to see what other viewers think. Then, I seek professional reviews to help me determine whether or not I should shell out $20.

Had I listened (as I normally do) to these reviews, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near Hausner's "Hotel" and would've checked in at the Motel 6 down the block. It seems, across the board, the reviews of this film call it "technically adept, but dull," or they complain that "Nothing happens! There's no plot!" Indeed, I almost DID listen to these reviews, but something about the premise of "Hotel" intrigued me. So, I decided to buy it, and I just finished watching it ten minutes ago.

Suffice to say, I feel inclined to come to the aid of this much maligned film. First, I agree with many reviewers about how the film is photographed. Without question, it is technically adept. The cinematography is precise and beautiful; carefully crafted (and often static) shots fill this flick, much like a Tarkovsky film. Colors are both vibrant and menacing--especially the void-like blacks (of the night forest) between the gray bark of the bare trees. Also the sterile greens and grays of the hotel interior. And don't forget the blood reds (of the front-desk-clerk's uniform) as she disappears into those horribly beckoning trees...

Now onto the ubiquitous "nothing happens" complaint. The movie depends much more on atmosphere (and brilliantly so) than jump scares or plot turns. So if you are looking for big action, you will not find it in "Hotel." And (NEWS FLASH!) this is precisely the purpose of the film. Like many great films (and I'm not calling this great, just exceedingly well done and marginally upsetting--in a good way), this film does not tell the viewer what to think. In fact, most of time, it doesn't even show the viewer what happens. Imagine that! Indeed, this is where the IMAGINation of the viewer (if the viewer has ever practiced using his or her imagination) fills in the dreadfully empty gaps.

The hinted-at story of the "forest witch" who used to live in the cave near the hotel (and the accompanying tales of vanishing hikers in the thick forest) is anything but fairytale-like. The cold, black crack in the mountain wall (the cave itself) seeps off the screen as it draws in the new young hotel desk clerk inch by inch. There's a lot of pathos here--the nervousness of beginning a new job for our protagonist; the impersonal darkness and dead-end corridors of the angular hotel; generally unfriendly and persnickety (even zombie-like) coworkers (one of which, in an understated dramatic moment, soullessly tells the protagonist to "Leave the hotel" and begins reciting the Rosary while mechanically cleaning a room); the suggestion of a "disappearance" (or perhaps, supernatural murder) of the previous desk clerk and everyone's unwillingness to discuss it. Yes, there's plenty of pathos.

But a warning is in order: This is not "The Shining." Kubrick's great film had a lot of Big Wheel action and Nicholson's drooling and babbling. Hotel has neither. But to create its own sterile, haunting effect, "Hotel" doesn't need Redrum or Scatman Crothers.

The clincher, however, is the ending of "Hotel." (Editorial: It reached valiantly for similar territory as the ending of Tarkovsky's "Solaris," in my opinion--"Hotel" didn't quite make it, but WOW!) Of course, I read many reviews that complained that "Nothing is explained" in the end. Whine, whine, whine! I guess ever since the "big-splashy-ending-that-explains-everything-in-a-surprise-twist" of "The Sixth Sense" and similar films, viewers are spoiled and need everything explained in a way that knocks their socks off. Well, my socks were absolutely knocked across the damn room, and at the same time NOTHING was reduced to a nugget-like explanation! I thought the abrupt, strange, pushed-off-a-cliff feeling invoked by director Hausner was PERFECT! It will stick with me for a while, and I recommend this film because of it.

And to those of you who "want your money back" from this "boring" film, I suggest you relax. Stop watching movies with expectations of having your entire life (and the lives of those on screen) explained away into absolute nothingness. News Flash #2: You don't know everything; you can't know everything. In fact, you may know very little about ANYTHING. (Just like the protagonist in this film; she knows so little--even about herself--that she may in fact BE the dreaded witch who dispatched her predecessor--who knows?)

You want REALLY SCARY? Here's a suggestion: Try existing in uncertainty. That's where "Hotel" lives. It's probably the scariest of all places to be.

Gabal
(2005)

This Movie Has "It"
Like other critics here, I'll invoke the names of some Korean movies that, similar to Gabal, have a special "shine" to them: Bunshinsaba, Tale of Two Sisters, and especially 4 Inyong Shiktak (Uninvited). Like those flicks, Gabal (The Wig) has that special "it."

What do I mean? Well, the emphasis is on characters, characters the viewer cares about (I did my fair share of both weeping and recoiling while watching); there's a dreadfully heavy sadness draping the entire affair; there's a palpable feeling of helplessness, of futility. And you simply HATE to see these already world-weary characters wrapped in such a futile, and almost randomly violent, circumstance. This is not a movie about a possessed wig leaping off the floor and strangling people. If you're looking for silly Halloween fun, hit the road. In fact, the movie really isn't about a wig at all. It is about how our fragile bodies are susceptible to diseases, like leukemia, that no one deserves to suffer. It is about how our fragile minds are susceptible to false hopes, and about how manipulative, and downright evil, we can be when we are in relationship with other human beings.

The movie confronts forced silence (one of the characters cannot speak, and her voice, when she forces it, sounds like scraping metal or a painfully squeaky door hinge). It confronts death, not in a glamorized way, but a kind of death that is a "wasting away" in an antiseptic hospital bed. The lead character's struggle with leukemia and chemotherapy, and her consequent downward spiral into a supernatural nightmare as she wears a possessed wig to cover her baldness, reminded me, wistfully, of Mann, the main character in the first Pang brothers' movie, Eye (a franchise that has simply gone down the toilet).

As a somewhat jaded viewer of horror movies (I suffered through the remake of The Fog a few weeks ago—MEA CULPA!), I am so surprised and practically gleeful when I come across a serious-minded, carefully crafted, complex horror movie that has that special "it," that ineffable substance that is a mixture of artistically presented dread, sadness, loss, and threat--of course with a few jump scares thrown in for good measure! This movie speaks and lives its dread, perhaps not as loudly or as skillfully as 4 Inyong Shiktak (Uninvited), but it comes damn close.

Eolomea
(1972)

Solid 70s Sci-Fi? Yes. Tarkovsky? No.
Eolomea is a trippy, serious-minded, interesting, Utopian, richly-colored 1970s spaced-out timepiece of a film. But Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" it's not. Indeed, Tarkovsky's "Solaris" it's not. Oh, this East German film strains mightily to compete with either of these epics, but the slightly threadbare production values, the "challenged" model work (apparently shot on 70 mm film), the sometimes circular plot, and strange (incomplete?) visual and sound edits ultimately makes for an inferior product. If you are a lover of 70's era sci-fi, this one has got to be on your list--in one sense it is a real find. Me? I'll gladly put it on my bookshelf right next to "Zardoz," "Soylent Green," "Zero Population Growth," and "Idaho Transfer." (Unlike most of those films, though, "Eolomea" is Utopian in nature instead of dystopian.) The fact that this DEFA film is now available on DVD is a triumph, really. You should snap it up. The widescreen transfer looks great, the colors are nice, the images are carefully crafted.

But the interior of the ships and space stations--though they tend toward realism rather than the fantastic--look tiny and unimpressive (the budget is showing), the robot hardware is quaint (and silly, on purpose), the spacesuits look like pajamas...you get the picture (because you've seen this sort of thing before). At times, the visuals of this film seem stuck 20 years in the past from when it was made; at other times though, it tries very hard to excel (especially in the 70's loungey space rock score and the trippy use of those oil-n-water color gel slides that spread out across the screen in a variety of colors and shapes to represent the liquid and alien "unknown" of space).

My expectations for this film were probably way too high--I thought I was going to be discovering another "Solaris" honestly. But the plot is tension-less and the characters are, ultimately, wooden. (And that's a problem when a film relies mainly on the interaction of characters to push the action along.) If the writers and directors were making a thrilling space adventure, they failed miserably. The story surrounds a group of some 160 cosmonaut-scientists who go off in search of the mythological planet of Eolomea. Oh, sorry, I just gave the ending away. But I haven't really given away very much. Everything that comes before the unimpressive take-off at the end is two hours of bickering about whether or not they should go. Don't get me wrong; there's a whole helluva lot of talking in "Solaris" too. I love a talky, inventive, idea-oriented sci-fi film as much as the next guy. But this didn't even really trade in interesting ideas. The plot: "Should we go look for this planet or not? Yes? No? Why? Why not? OK, let's go. The End." But instead of getting depressed thinking I've seen every cool 70s sci-fi flick that exists, along comes "Eolomea" just in time--with its feet planted firmly in the future and its style planted firmly in 1972. For that fact alone, I am in debt.

Terror
(1978)

Terror: A Downward Spiral...in Quality
I'm a sucker for "Alien" ripoffs, so of course Norman J. Warren's cheesy 1980 homage, "Inseminoid" (a.k.a. Horror Planet), is a fave of mine.

Considering the relatively high production values of that flick, I thought I'd give the rest of his early horror movies a try. I obtained the Anchor Bay UK (R2) coffin boxset, which contains "Terror" (1978), as well as two previous horror flicks lensed by Warren ("Satan's Slave" from 1976 and "Prey" from 1977).

To give proper perspective to "Terror," I think it helps to compare it to Warren's earlier horror films in a chronological fashion.

But in case you don't feel like reading this entire post, here's the upshot: Norman J. Warren's straight-up horror films spiral downward in quality as time goes on; since "Terror" is one of his later films, it stinks the most. Sorry, but the stench cannot be covered up.

Without a doubt, Norman J. Warren started on a high note. His first full-length horror feature, "Satan's Slave" (1976), regardless of the absurd title, is a real gem of mid-70's horror (woman meets her evil uncle for the first time when her parents die in a car crash; uncle decides to use his stranded niece in a ritual to reincarnate an ancient witch). Maybe I was in a particularly receptive state when I popped it in, but it occurred to me that "Satan's Slave" was a real independent 70's gem with some poetic photography and some solid grue. It felt like "Let's Scare Jessica to Death" or even the lesser "The Legacy" at times. The film is caught somewhere between the then-dying Hammer Gothic style and the rise of contemporary horror films. Its carefully crafted and moody jazz-ensemble music, and its isolated, wintry English country manor setting make it a real fun time. They don't make them like this anymore. (And I thought I had perused every worthwhile 70's horror movie ever made. I was very grateful to be wrong.)

Then came "Prey" (a.k.a. Alien Prey, 1977). Shot in a week or two and with little money, the film has an interesting premise (alien with Wolfman Jack fangs crashes on an English country estate; he is here to scout out whether or not humans are edible). It effectively uses some claustrophobic settings, and the plot takes some well-timed twists. But it doesn't begin to stand up to the moodiness, and especially sympathy for the characters, that "Satan's Slave" generates. "Prey" is hampered by only having three players. The conversations seem to go round and round confusingly amongst the two lesbians and the disguised alien, and the tension is very on-again off-again. The film is inconsistent; it drags terribly in places; the photography seems rushed or crudely framed. And there's the infamous slo-mo drowning scene in the dirty pond--that goes on and on and on...

Then came "Terror" (1978), the absolute worst of the lot. The film (witch lays an ancient curse on a family which comes to pass as we watch) is apparently an homage to Argento's "Suspiria" (though I'd never, never be able to tell). Trust me: I live for confusing horror movies pasted together with hoary clichés, but this "film-like product" lacks basic structure. The characters are so thin that they seem to disappear when they turn sideways. I couldn't even remember their names, which is never a good sign. Scenes seem strung together at random; telegraphed red herrings abound. Nudity just thrown in...because. There is a "film within a film" motif used to some effect, but we've seen this done much better by others. The film is populated by characters we don't care about because we don't know them in the most rudimentary ways. I had no problem going to the fridge during this one.

It is interesting (indeed, fascinating) to juxtapose a gem like "Satan's Slave" against Warren's later "Terror" (which actually had a bigger budget; by that time, Warren had earned a bit of a name for himself too, but apparently that had little effect on quality). Take my word for it: "Terror" is by far the weaker film, thinner, less interesting, less nostalgic-feeling, less moody, less filling. It is, without question, the lowest point in the UK boxset.

OK, now that I've fulfilled my IMDb obligation, I can go pop the next DVD of the boxset into my player: A widescreen version of "Inseminoid!"

Yogen
(2004)

"Premonition" Is A Shadow Of What Once Was...
Someone feel free to call BS on this, but it seems that as soon as J-Horror became self-conscious (and subsequently donned the moniker J-Horror), the genre films coming out of Asia have become less and less effective...interesting...engrossing...OK, scary.

For evidence, all you need to do is watch the two self-consciously titled J-Horror flicks, "Yogen" and "Kansen," and compare them to earlier Asian horror entries (any of the Kurosawa films, "Uzumaki," "Temegotchi," or even "Jisatsu Circle"). I guess it's the same cautionary-evolutionary tale of "alternative entertainment" becoming the Walmart-driven norm. (Uh-oh, I've blown my cover; I am a bitter old man after all.)

At the risk of sounding clichéd and nostalgic, once upon a time, contemporary Asian horror was largely uncharted territory for us folks in the US. It was a wild landscape, filled with dread and darkness (and some real characters and some real sadness). As non-Hollywood product that had to be procured carefully and watched on a region-free DVD player that you couldn't buy at Walmart, Asian horror flicks had that ineffable, mysterious WOW FACTOR. I remember thinking, 'Supernatural horror is BACK!' Seven years ago, I called it that "Omigod that longhair chick is not actually going to climb outta that damn television" effect. Horror was new again, it had teeth again, and I could watch a horror film made by someone other than Wes Craven or one of his idiot minions and actually get the crap scared out of me.

YAY!

But I guess all good things must come to pass. For example, I bought this DVD at Walmart. (OK, that is entirely irrelevant.) To its credit, "Yogen" (Premonition) tries very hard to embrace that real Asian horror of a decade ago. It conjures up vulnerable characters as best it can; it slathers in the pathos of burnt-children-ghosts desperately calling out their parent's names at midnight; it infuses itself with jump shots of trucks appearing out of nowhere to pulverize innocent pedestrians; it even has people turning into black, ashy marks on the walls and floors as they mysteriously pass from this world into oblivion (I hope Kurosawa gave permission for that one!).

But regardless of its flawless twists and turns, fine acting, and solid visuals....it just comes up flat. Don't get me wrong: "Yogen" has the melodrama, detailed apocalyptic storyline, and even a little bit of the "ick" factor. But when it comes right down to it, "Yogen" simply does not have the chops. Yes, we've got the wide-eyed male protagonist who is at turns weepy and angry, the steely female lead who is determined to understand the supernatural secret of the "fear newspaper," and the victims who have nasty things happen to them (acts which are never entirely justified or understandable of course--gotta love that hopeless, random Asian horror!).

But "Yogen" ends up being only a shadow of the many truly terrifying films that preceded it. I realize that my comment here may be less a movie review and more a statement about my own jaded plane of existence. In fact, there may be nothing wrong with "Yogen" at all. Those discovering the newfangled-named J-Horror for the first time will probably be swept into its depressing, hopeful, sad, unpredictable realm. But for those of us who have been riding the wave of Asian horror (which some say crashed to the shore half a decade ago)--well, we just need to make sure we don't get pulled down by the undertow. (And Jennifer Connelley was absolutely fine in the "Dark Water" remake; but I still prefer the convoluted original...apologies.)

EPILOGUE: So, I hear that Kurosawa's "Kairo/Pulse" is being remade by an American director and is being cast as a "punk" flick of some kind. Hmmm, I hate to say it, but methinks I've got a lot of heartbreak coming down the pike.

Les revenants
(2004)

If Tarkovsky Returned As A Zombie, He'd Go See This Film
I'll admit, Campillo's "Les Revenants" is several artistic steps below (and two hours shorter than) any Tarkovsky epic. But as I watched the film, I couldn't get Tarkovsky's original "Solaris" out of my mind. The two films share a kind of somnambulist's sadness, a lumbering quality of going nowhere slowly, a dreaminess that falls somewhere between irritating nightmare and ho-hum sexdream. Oh, and both movies are populated with previously dead people, of course.

"Solaris" and "Les Revenants" pose similar questions as well: Are we dealing with actual "returnees," or are we simply struggling with the very palpable memories of those who have passed on? (Think about how "empty" the zombies are in both films and how they just sort of fade away--physically or spiritually--in both films.) Are these returnees dangerous to us? Or are we simply harming ourselves? More poignant, are WE the actual zombies? Hmmmm, hard to say. The film doesn't offer up any easy answers either as we see the crypt-dwellers attempting to return to their lives in the little French village as if things were...just fine.

And regarding the lack of answers, we also never find out what it was like to actually be dead either. If anything annoyed me about Campillo's "avant zombie flick," it's that. I kept waiting, wondering, would someone finally ask their deceased relative or returnee-loved-one lounging in bed next to them: "So, what's the afterlife like exactly? I mean, did that coffin get cramped? Did lying in the ground for ten years get irritating? Did you ever get the urge to roll over but didn't have enough room to maneuver? Would you choose cremation next time around, or would you just take a battery-powered TV with you into your grave next time?" But none of those topics ever came up. Of course, such a conversation really wouldn't have fit the arty tenor of the movie anyway.

But COME ON! ADMIT IT! These are precisely the weighty issues we want to hear about from experienced dead folks, right? I mean if you are having a picnic with a zombie (and YOU aren't the picnic, that is) you're gonna ask. You know you would.

I realize it is unlikely this movie would exist if it weren't for the wonderful Romero and his ilk. But overall, I offer a hearty kudos to Campillo for breathing life into the long-dead zombie subgenre. There are SO MANY zombie films out there (they seem to appear weekly), and I admit that I grew up digesting many of those Italian, German, and English delights. But with age and experience, you eventually tire of fast food, and you realize that the next "Zombie Intestine Massacre" flick is simply and mindlessly repeating itself so that every SPFX guy on the studio lot can keep his or her job. That's fine. But kiddies looking for gut-munching scenes will find none here--let them go elsewhere and leave the adults in peace.

4 inyong shiktak
(2003)

A Real Horror Film
Unlike some other reviewers, I would--and do--situate this film squarely in the horror genre. But it is not the horror of fantasy, of stalkers, slashers, or monsters. A film like this strips away all the puffed-up dread of penciled-in characters like Michael Meyers or Jason Vorhees. No, this film tells the quiet yet overpowering horror of isolation and anonymity in a monolithic, dysfunctional metropolis that is lined with gray high-rise apartments like massive grave-markers; it tells of the horrible numbness and sadness that can lead a mother to drop her wriggling infant child from a 40-story balcony and not even realize what she's done. It shows the horrible reality of another child flattened almost nonchalantly by a dump-truck with a loud pop--but none of the onlookers can rise above their depression (or economic oppression) long enough to even lend a hand. Hence, the infant corpse is simply swept into a manhole and covered over. Now, that's horror. This movie tells the story of many different kinds of horror: the horror of being trapped in a marriage you don't want, the horror of not being believed when you speak, the horror of being belittled and dismissed.

This is a strong and sad movie. But it is a sympathetic movie. It tells of the horrors that can happen when you squarely face your past, as many of the characters do in this film. I've found myself coming back to "4 Inyong shiktak" in my mind again and again, relentlessly. If you give yourself over to it, you will not be able to dismiss (or even forget) the images and the tone of this film. Several times this movie made me--a longtime jaded horror movie buff--actually catch my breath, clench my teeth, and shake my head in wonder.

Lastly, the photography in this film is remarkable. Pay special attention to the opening shot of the lighted subway bridge stretching across the dark water, or the constant and overpowering grayness of the monolithic skyscrapers shrouded in an eternal fog. There is so much art here. Yes, the plot is typically convoluted (which has been my experience with many Asian horror films--I think it is evidence of a cultural gap more than anything). However, I do not hesitate calling this film a modern horror masterpiece in just about every respect.

Gin gwai 10
(2005)

This Franchise Is Out Of Gasssss......
It's clear that "The Eye" franchise has run out of steam, ideas, scares, visuals, you name it. It's over.

The film actually begins at a rather swift and surprising pace (with likable people), and it manages to maintain interest for about 25 minutes before slowly deflating in front of your very Eye. It's a ghost-chasing-teen-romp, unlike the first in the series, which was drenched in pathos, hospital sterility, and Mann's physical disability. In fact, this latest movie references the first Eye quite frequently, especially the haunted elevator scene and the bit with the young boy-ghost trying to find his report card in the apartment stairwell. But this film recreates these once-fraught scenes in a self-conscious giggling way. Unfortunately the effect was to make me want to watch the original outing one more time because it really is such a fine, grave, and startling film.

Alas, this third in the series is none of the above.

Oh, and it's not funny either.

I suppose the Pangs wanted to get away from the dread-filled atmosphere of the first two features, and so they rely on some ham-fisted joking and some outright slapstick between the scares. The real low moment came when the unavoidable fart joke appeared--farting as a means to ward off evil spirits. Hmmmm. I knew at that very moment the franchise had squeaked out its last gassssssp. Goodbye Eye.

Kansen
(2004)

Eye Candy, Yes--but No Characters
As mentioned, the visuals are a big payoff. Super crisp, saturated colors, lots of dingy shadows in the otherworldly hospital and strange reflections around every corner. Good sound as well. I don't mind lack of linearity when it comes to storytelling, so that's no axe for me to grind here.

But this J-Horror does have its problems. First, in some sense, it almost seems like the film is TRYING DESPERATELY to be a clone of an American Hollywood action/horror piece of junk. Though it surpasses anything Wes Craven has made in the last 10 years (not too difficult to do even blindfolded), that's nothing to aspire to as we all know. Hence, the action quotient is pumped way up (for the intended American audience?) and the quiet, subtle creep factor is diminished significantly. Too bad.

A larger problem, though, is the film's lack of characters. The characters are as flat as the colors are rich, if you know what I mean. Opting almost exclusively for Twilight Zone weirdness, the film has flushed any inkling of interesting characters down the goo-filled drain on the operating room floor. We get no back story and no real personalities. Earlier J-Horror outings always had at least one interesting, dilemma-ridden, anguished character (think of the mother in _Dark Water_ or Mann "blind since the age of two" from _The Eye_). No one like that in this hospital, and hence, when the bad crap starts happening to them, you just don't care.

Unfortunately, if I'm right, and there was an intended American audience in the director's and producer's minds, they've probably hit their mark pretty well by upping the goo factor and opting for hyperintense edits. No slowly disquieting shots of shadows lingering in darkened doorways here. (Most American audiences will have none of that.) Again, too bad.

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