Sunday, 31 March 2013

Deep Freeze

Director: John Carl Buechler
Writers: Robert Boris, Dennis A Pratt, Matthew Jason Walsh
Producer: John Carl Buechler
Cast: Goetz Otto, David Millbern, Alexandra Kamp
Year of release: 2003
Country: USA/Germany
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Prism)

How many Antarctic horror movies can you name? Howard Hawks’ The Thing, John Carpenter’s remake of, um, The Thing, and Dan Berk’s Frozen aka Sometimes They Come Back for More. And now let’s add to that list Deep Freeze, the latest movie - as both director and producer - by effects legend John Carl Buechler.

A company called Geotech has set up a big base on the Antarctic ice shelf to drill for oil. Staffing this base, which extends down at least eight storeys, are sultry Dr Monica Kelsey (Alexandra Kamp-Goreneveld, credited as Alexandra Kamp: Sumuru, Dracula 3000), pill-popping Schneider (Goetz Otto: Tomorrow Never Dies) and six workers, including two called - in a possible Simpsons homage - Lenny and Carl.

There’s a storm raging but a small helicopter carrying seven people and their luggage (which must be a squeeze!) heads out to the base because an even worse storm is waiting in the wings. This is a ‘research team’ employed by Geotech to study what’s going on (including what’s causing frequent tremors) before a United Nations team arrives in six weeks to possibly shut the base down.

Team leader Professor Ted Jacobson (David Millbern: Slumber Party Massacre, Sanctimony, Amanda and the Alien) is romantically linked with Dr Kelsey. With him are four postgrads: studious, environmentally concerned Arianna (Karen Nieci), UCLA football star Tom (Howard Halcomb) who is really there to make out with his party-loving girlfriend Kate (Rebekah Ryan, who had a bit part in The Brotherhood) and black computer geek Update (David Lenneman). Stetson-wearing Curtis (Allen Lee Haff: Altered Species) is also young but he’s there because his dad is a legendary oil-driller. Making up the numbers is the chopper pilot (Tunde Babalola).

We’ve already seen Lenny (Robert Axelrod, voice-actor in Power Rangers and the English dub of Zeram) get killed in the prologue. Right down at the lowest level is a large, circular pool of icy water, apparently connected to the outside in some way and called (for no reason that’s ever explained) the Moon Pool. Something is in there and when Lenny falls in - he’s a goner.

Carl and Lippski have also disappeared - possibly for a crafty drink but really, what do you think, viewers? - which leaves Dean Munson (Norman Cole), Clyde Strickland (Billy Maddox: Spiders, Dark Breed, Life Among the Cannibals) and Jack Krieger (Brad Sergi who was in Yonggary!).

Kelsey and Jacobson are up to something, but Kelsey isn’t going to tell us because she rapidly falls prey to a nasty black beastie. It took twenty minutes to appear (albeit for about a quarter of a second, but that’s what DVD freeze-frame is for) but it wouldn’t be a John Carl Buechler movie without a deadly rubber monster puppet. Kelsey, incidentally, gets attacked after taking a nice relaxing soak in the black whirlpool bath with which her large, comfortable, private living quarters is equipped.

One by one, the rest get picked off by the monster, of which we are shown a little more each time. It looks for all the world like a very large trilobite and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s what it turns out to be! Well, now I’ve seen everything. Giant snakes, yes; giant ants, fair enough; giant mosquitos, why not?; giant octopi, no problem; giant spiders, bring them on. But a giant pre-Cambrian trilobite? Words fail me...

Of course, it has to be considerably more deadly and carnivorous than trilobites are believed to have been.

Who will survive and what will become of them (to coin a phrase)? Well, it won’t be Tom and Kate because they’re young kids having sex, though their tryst does lead to an excellent and deeply gross prosthetic effects shot. There’s also a great scene of the trilobite chasing one character into a lift. But to be honest those are the highlights in what is otherwise your standard Monster on the Loose in a Confined Space movie.

Schneider provides a red herring, for the characters if not for the audience. The biggest bit of misdirection for the viewers is during the autopsy on Lenny’s body, when Robert Axelrod clearly blinks! Since the cause of the deaths/disappearances hasn’t been determined by then, I was expecting him to suddenly sit up on the medical bay table...

Without wishing to spoil the plot, the finale sees an even bigger and more deadly threat, which gets blown up, as is traditional. In an acknowledgement of how copperplate the ending is, one character actually screams, “I guess you haven’t seen the end of Jaws, you bastard!” The whole base goes up in a series of enormous explosions and fireballs - except apparently for the particular corridor that the ultimate survivor(s) is/are in. (Look, I’m trying to keep some suspense here.)

Shot in Germany in 2001 (Schneider and Kelsey speak subtitled German for a couple of lines in their opening scene), Deep Freeze was written by Robert Boris (Steel Justice), Dennis Pratt (Kickboxer 3, Leprechaun 4) and, interestingly, Matthew Jason Walsh (The Sandman, Bloodletting, Witchouse I and III, Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy; he also did some effects work on Werewolf Reborn and some soundtrack work on Vengeance of the Dead) from an original story by Boris. But three credited writers doesn’t necessarily make for a good script and this one’s a clunker, full of lines like, “Our highest priority is getting those samples back to the mainland and covering our collective tracks.” and, “The gear’s pretty complex but I guess anybody could operate it in a pinch.” and “A trilobite. It’s like a cross between a worm and a mosquito. A parasite. There’s no other explanation.”

‘Special make-up and creature effects’ are unsurprisingly credited to Buechler’s own Magical Media Industries, while ‘special effects’ are by Ultimate Effects. To be fair, the trilobite is a well-done effect, especially when seen scuttling across the floor. It’s just such a dopy concept for a monster! The scariest part of the film is when Munson takes a shower because Norman Cole is the hairiest man I have ever seen! His chest, back, arms and shoulders are covered in what comes perilously close to being fur. Is this for real, or is it JCB and his make-up effects crew at work again?

Where Deep Freeze really falls down is in the production design. The GEO-1 base just doesn’t look lived in. A few nudie pictures pasted on the wall of the men’s dormitory and a couple of notes stuck on the fridge do not give the impression that half a dozen or more people have been living there in isolation for many months. Everything in every room looks like it has been carefully positioned by a set-dresser rather than just being a naturally developing arrangement of stuff. Nothing looks like it has just been left somewhere until someone gets round to putting it away.

Also disappointing is the sloppiness of the credits. The actor playing Tom is ‘Howard Halcomb’ in the opening credits but ‘Howard Holcomb’ at the end. Even stranger is that Brad Sergi is sixth-billed in the opening credits but not mentioned at all in the closing ones! And Otto’s character, called ‘Schneider’ all the way through the movie, is listed as ‘Nelson’ in the credit roll...

This lack of attention to detail continues on the sleeve, with cheapie label Prism Leisure managing to misspell Geotech as ‘Geotek,’ cinematographer Tom Calloway (Doll Graveyard) as ‘Tom Galloway’, and poor old Howard Whatever gets a third variant of his name as he’s now called ‘Halcom’! In addition, writers Robert Boris and Dennis A Pratt are credited as ‘Bob Boris’ and ‘Dennis Pratt’, apparently because otherwise the final line of the credits block would be slightly too long and the whole thing would have to come down a pointsize.

Prism’s disk has a generous 18 chapters, properly labelled, and a gallery of 13 'stills' which are (a) only shown in a tiny frame taking up less than a quarter of the screen, and (b) all just portraits of the cast. The sound on my disc was awful and made some of the German accents hard to understand; I’ve no idea whether that’s a duff disc, a transfer fault or a dodgy master.

Deep Freeze (which was retitled Ice Crawlers for the USA) is okay if all you want is 80 minutes of by-the-book monster movie. It’s got a few thrills, a few unintentional laughs and a bunch of exterior stock footage from The Thing, but there’s a certain amount of depth to the characters and there are no wannabe scream queens in the cast, which is a blessing. And for five quid, you can’t really complain.

MJS rating: C+
review originally posted before November 2004

Decadent Evil

Director: Charles Band
Writers: 'August White'
Producer: Charles Band
Cast: Phil Fondacaro, Debra Mayer, Raelyn Hennessee
Country: USA
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: R1 DVD

From the man who brought us all those great straight-to-video Empire movies in the 1980s and all those great straight-to-video Full Moon movies in the 1990s, comes the first title from his new straight-to-DVD company, Wizard Entertainment. (I must just say that, while 'wizard' probably isn't an adjective in the States, here in the UK this company sounds remarkably jolly and delightfully exciting: "I say, you chaps! This entertainment is absolutely wizard!" Anyway...)

Decadent Evil is a curious title to lead with. It's not really typical Charles Band fare, lacking both killer dolls and flying heads, although it does have a sort of puppet monster. Three other films are in post-production as this one hits the streets - Doll Graveyard, Dead Man's Hand and The Gingerdead Man - and all sound more like what one would expect (the last one seems to have been shot pretty much back-to-back with this film as the crew is largely identical). But of course, each film has to stand or fall on its own merits.

The other curious thing about this movie is the way that the publicity and packaging play up the character of 'Marvin the horny homunculus', who is really a subplot in the film itself, and make little if any mention about the main story which involves vampires and would, one would therefore think, be more marketable. There are plenty of Dad-can-I-borrow-the-camcorder 'films' out there which have shown that some people will watch any old piece of crap so long as it features a sexy woman with fangs.

In this case we have three such women: Morella (Debra Mayer: Prison of the Dead, Hell Asylum, The Gingerdead Man, Voodoo Academy) and her two acolytes Sugar (Jill Michelle) and Spyce (Raelyn Hennessee) who both work at a lapdancing club in LA. At the club, Spyce picks up Bruce (Roger Toussaint) and his rather reluctant girlfriend Tami (April Gilbert); Bruce can't believe his luck when Spyce takes them back to a big old mansion and it looks like he's in for a threesome, then when Morella appears his eyes go wide as dinner plates and for a moment he is the happiest guy in the world - until she rips open his throat and drinks down the spurting blood.

Although Spyce is a nasty, nasty girl, Sugar is quite sweet and has fallen in love with Dex, the appropriately named DJ at the club (played by Daniel Lennox who starred in the US/Thai co-production The Black Magic). Such a relationship does not meet with Morella's approval of course and it also raises a bunch of moral questions that are never touched upon. Presumably Sugar also requires human blood to survive and therefore her only chance of happiness with Dex is to continue as a serial killer and make him her accomplice. However, at the moment Dex is unaware of his girlfriend's haemavorous habits because her fangs only become visible when she gets hungry.

According to vampire lore (we are told), the most important blood is the first spurt of arterial blood after the victim's throat is slit, the 'primal blood.' Any vampire who consumes 10,000 spurts of primal blood will reach a new level of being which will make them not just immortal but actually indestructible. Over the past century or so Morella has consumed 9,997 primal blood spurts - she keeps them listed in a damn great book - so after Bruce and Tami she needs just three more to win the prize. Spyce later meets up with a guy she met in a chatroom although typically 'studboy' turns out to be an overweight, middle-aged guy (John F Schaffer, who was in a great-sounding martial arts movie called All Babes Want to Kill Me and also had a bit part in the Garfield movie!) rather than the hunky young athlete which he claimed to be. Spyce doesn't care because all she wants is his blood but when Morella tracks them down and discovers that she has missed out on the primal blood she is none too happy, although Spyce makes up for this by bringing home a hooker to be victim number 9,998. (The idea of drinking down spurting fluid has an obvious sexual connotation which isn't explored at all, though that may be a good thing.)

The other interesting aspect of Morella is that she keeps a homunculus in a bird cage - you see how much of the story we have covered before 'Marvin' becomes relevant? This is an ugly little red humanoid, about 12-18 inches tall, wearing a sort of sacking smock, who grunts a lot; he is described as "a tiny, prehistoric human, half-reptile like all men." Marvin is a rather stiff and immobile rod puppet, although he does have blinking eyes, created by (and voiced by) Christopher Bergschneider (Witchouse, Blood Dolls, Voodoo Academy, Totem, Bram Stoker's Legend of the Mummy 2). He was, we learn, Morella's former lover but she is such a man-hater that she turned him into the form we see now (apparently you can make someone a homunculus using homunculus blood - this will become relevant later).

Into this situation comes Ivan Burroughs, played by Band regular Phil Fondacaro (Troll, Ghoulies II, Dollman vs Demonic Toys, Addams Family Reunion) in a wide-brimmed Fedora. He played a vampire in The Creeps but here he's working for the other side, lugging around a bag full of garlic powder, wooden stakes and other assorted vampire-hunting paraphernalia. Fondacaro really is one of the best short actors out there. Like Warwick Davis or the late David Rappaport, he's an actor who happens to be short rather than a short guy who acts. His presence in any cast is always a bonus.

Burroughs explains to Dex what Sugar really is and the two of them head over to the mansion. Dex wants to sneak his girlfriend away, Spyce wants to curry favour with Morella and Morella wants a brace of kills to hit that magical number - and Ivan and Dex will do nicely, thank you. Complicating matters slightly is the fact that Ivan recognises Marvin as... well, I'll leave some plot for you to find out yourselves.

For a movie shot in six days, Decadent Evil isn't bad. The direction, production design (by the brilliantly named Elvis Strange: Puppet Master: The Legacy, Dr Moreau's House of Pain) and cinematography (Keith J Duggan: Delta Delta Die!) are all competent without being exceptional - and in these days of shot-on-video cheapies competency is a major plus-point. The blood effects are pretty good and there is one digital effect towards the end that stands out because, well, you would expect more of them in a Charles Band picture. All the actors acquit themselves well apart from the wooden actress who plays the hooker. James Sale (Deathbed, Dr Moreau's House of Pain, Haunted) provides the music; as orchestrator/conductor he has worked on Rugrats Go Wild, The Hitcher II, a Lord of the Rings video game and Herbie: Fully Loaded! Hell Asylum/Deathbed director Danny Draven handles editing duties.

The main problem with Decadent Evil is that there really isn't very much of it. The running time is 70 minutes but that includes a staggering eight minutes of very, very slow end title crawl which is really a bit of a cheat, especially as there is no additional footage woven into it or tacked on the end as a bonus. The film starts with about five minutes of voice-over and stock footage from The Vampire Journals explaining how the vampires got to LA, but that is entirely superfluous to the actual plot. Without the prologue, nobody would be saying "Wait a minute... vampires in LA? How the hell did they get there?" The opening titles run for about three or four minutes and the opening scene in the strip club is about five minutes of 'atmosphere' with a few lines of characterisation from Bruce and Tami. Writer/director C Courtney Joyner (Trancers III, Lurking Fear) can be spotted in some of these shots.

What all this tots up to is that very, very little actually happens before the 15 minute mark and the movie wraps up at 62 minutes, giving us an actual 'film' not much long than Frankenstein Reborn! (and incorporating several brief stock shots of night-time LA, at least one of which is repeated as a distinctive car drives past). With a tight budget and only six days to shoot the piece, presumably the script - by 'August White' (a pseudonym for Domonic Muir: Critters), from a story by Band - was deliberately kept down to about 45-50 pages but it's still a bit dodgy to market a film this length as a feature. On the other hand, the DVD format gives plenty of room for extras including a short 'making of' - talking heads and a little behind-the-scenes footage - directed by Jethro Rothe-Kushell (associate producer on the feature) and entitled, in defiance of punctuation rules, Blood, Sweat, and Fears.

There is also a message from Band himself in which he explains about Wizard Entertainment and his plans for the rest of 2005, which he cheerfully admits might slightly confuse people buying this DVD a couple of years from now. (Curiously this consists of a mostly static shot of Band in front of two posters depicting a range of Full Moon titles, but there are a couple of close-ups that were obviously shot separately because there is a reproduction poster for The Mummy visible behind him. That's a really trivial thing, but if the word 'Karloff' is in frame, people are going to notice!)

There are trailers for this film, the compilations When Puppets and Dolls Attack! and Monsters Gone Wild! and Band's six-DVD Cinemaker 'how to make films' package. Plus there is a 'blooper reel' which is really just some unused takes; I imagine that there's very little time to joke around when you're shooting a movie, even a shortish one, in less than a week. And there is a brief look at the in-production Doll Graveyard.

So there's plenty of stuff on the disc, but I can't help feeling that some viewers would prefer slightly more of it to constitute the actual movie. Why not at least stick the blooper reel and/or the preview of the next Wizard movie in among the end credits to make them worth sitting through?

Full Moon fans will probably enjoy Decadent Evil, especially as it is loosely connected to the popular Subspecies series via The Vampire Journals. But bear in mind that this was shot in less than a week on a minuscule budget. This is no Trancers, Dollman, Castle Freak or Puppet Master - frankly it's not even a Trancers 5 (although it is, mercifully, not a Bad Channels). It does at least have a story, it isn't packed with tedious softcore sex scenes and Fondacaro is as great as ever. But it's hard to see this movie converting any new fans to the work of Charlie Band. Then again, maybe it's not intended to. Band has been making movies long enough (and has made enough of them!) that he knows his audience and the freedom of internet distribution means that he can target them directly and accurately.

As for the marketing emphasis on 'Marvin the horny homunculus', that is probably due to his imminent appearance as an action figure. His 'horniness', presumably derived from years of sexual frustration in his cage, only really comes to the fore in the final gag shot and in a sequence when he escapes from his cage and finds the hooker strapped to a bed. Shots of this creepy puppet licking the girl's nipples are the only real 'horror' part of the story. (An unfortunate continuity error in a conversation between Marvin and Ivan means that the homunculus' hands, which are fixed to the cage, are positioned differently in the forward and reverse shots.)

On the whole Decadent Evil (subsequently released in the UK as Decadent Evil Dead!) is a reasonable start to Wizard Entertainment and I'm still very much looking forward to Doll Graveyard and the other titles. Let's have some killer toys, some flying, disembodied heads, maybe a few stop-motion effects and about ten minutes more of actual footage in each film please.

MJS rating: B-
review originally posted 22nd July 2005

Thursday, 28 March 2013


Director: Ross Boyask
Writers: Ross Boyask, Cecily Fay
Producers: Ross Boyask, Cecily Fay
Cast: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson and (bizarrely) the guy who made Tweenies
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: online screener

Warrioress (I’m not convinced that’s a real word) is a low-budget British fantasy martial arts epic from the director of action thrillers Ten Dead Men and Left for Dead. I will admit to not having high hopes based on the trailer and indeed for the first half an hour or so I was more entertained by its unintentional comic value than anything else. But gradually it won me over and there can be little doubt that it improves considerably in the second half.

Petite firebrand Cecily Fay stars as Boudiccu who is chosen to travel from her village with two mystical, ancient swords and face an opponent from another village. In the trials to select the village champion she is the only woman against eight or nine generally fairly beefy blokes including her boyfriend Finnvarah (Christian Howard). The prophecy, apparently, is that once in a generation champions from these two villages will meet and battle it out. If, by sundown, both champions are still alive then it will be deemed that they are equal warriors and the prophecy will be fulfilled. And, presumably, everyone will live happily ever after, or something.

What lets the film down overall, but especially the earlier stuff, is a frankly terrible script by Fay and director Ross Boyask full of lumpen, pedestrian dialogue. It’s all prosaic statements of fact. Character A tells character B something about one or other of the pair - “I am this” or “You are that” - or explains something about the tribe or the village or the prophecy which the other person already knows. There’s no subtext. Nothing is implicit. I listened carefully for any sign of multiple layers of meaning, and found none. There’s no delight in the dialogue, no character interplay, the words don’t dance around each other the way that they should. Not a single line to make me think “I wish I’d written that sentence.” On the plus side, at least there are no cod-medieval aphorisms. No thee or thou. ‘Yes it is’ not ‘that it be’ - to quote Edmund Blackadder.

One of the joys of good dialogue is stuff that means two things at the same time. If a character says, for example, “It’s my birthday” the audience really doesn’t mind whether that means “I’m gonna kick your arse” or “I’m gonna refrain from giving you the arse-kicking you obviously deserve” or, frankly, anything that’s not to do with birthdays. But if a character says “It’s my birthday” just to let us, the audience know that it’s their birthday, that’s lumpen and stodgy. No-one in Warrioress (still don’t think that’s a word) says “It’s my birthday”, I offer that merely as a hypothetical example. Although lots of people do get their arses kicked.

Which is where the film scores. The fight scenes are mostly very impressive indeed (ironically the weakest is the one in the prologue, before we have grown to care about - or indeed, met - any characters). The choreography (by Fay) is top-notch and the editing (by Boyask) is fantastic. What really sells them though is the sincerity. Fay, and other actors, put their all into these scraps and look like they not only want to win, they want everyone else to die. There’s aggression here. Frankly, there’s savagery. And it’s what a story like this needs, rather than just people striking martial arts poses. I also really appreciated that this isn’t just a lame kick-boxing movie. There is a certain amount of martial arts leg-work but there’s a lot more, including some great use of weapons: daggers, bows, staffs - even a Klingon bat’leth! I really, really loved some of the sword fights which are clearly influenced by Japanese samurai movies. A few swift moves and then one character topples over, gushing blood. Great stuff. What is more, Boudiccu has no qualms about jabbing a knife or sword into any wounded opponent lying helpless on the ground. The lives of men and women in this world are nasty, brutish and short.

This is all, I guess, as it should be, in that most people who watch this film will do so for the action sequences, not for the plot (which is pretty simplistic and mostly fairly obvious) or the characterisation (which is pretty sparse) and certainly not for the dialogue. However good action direction and a good script are not mutually exclusive; the one does not preclude the other. Nevertheless, the second half of the film is better than the first because it contains a lot more fightin’ and a lot less gabbin’. Also, without naming names, some of the actors in the early scenes are just awful. It’s clear that some of the cast are actually pretty good actors but even they can’t do anything with the lines they’re given, so the bad actors stand no chance.

Here is a brief scene (between three people) picked at random by jabbing a pin into the screener. I think it ably demonstrates the problem. (I've spoiler protected the next section but, to be honest, it doesn't give away any significant plot points.)

“I have long feared these tombs, yet now I see them with my own eyes I think they are tombs not because our ancestors were buried here but because they died here.”
“It is said they had weapons that could shoot fire over great distances.”
“If they were anything like arrows, these narrow slits would be very useful.”
“Yes, they have the design of of function and battle, not the reverence that a tomb should have.”
“Rumour has it the Falonex have fearsome weapons, that no-one can defend against them.”
“Then these tombs would make a good start. They have stood here for so many generations and time has barely touched them. They could be used to develop a defence against the Falonex.”
“But our people have feared such places for so long.”
“We have seen the tombs now. We know they are not to be feared. When we return, we will tell our people to come here. They will believe us.”
“It could be too late.”

You can see how it’s all just statements: I have ... I think ... it is said ... they would ... they have ... rumour has it ... these would ... they have ... time has ... they could ... our people have ... we have ... we know ... we will ... they will... Where's the dance? More to the point, why are all three characters having the same response to these ‘tombs’? Where’s the character conflict? Let’s try that again, only this time let’s have one person afraid of the tombs and their reputation, one person intrigued by something way beyond these people’s technology and one person considering practical uses:

“We should not be here. It is wrong in so many ways. Let’s go now.”
“It is just stone.”
“It is not just stone. This has been made. Made by gods or demons but not by the hand of man.”
“It was made by our ancestors.”
“Then our ancestors can keep it. Now can we please go?”
“Something is wrong here...”
“I keep saying.”
“No, not spiritually wrong - wrong with the design. How is this a tomb? I think... I think this is a defensive structure. It’s not a tomb at all. This is a small castle.”
“From the old wars?”
“The old wars are a legend.”
“My grandmother told me about the old wars. She was told by her grandmother.”
“My grandmother told me that my face would stick like that if the wind changed. Grandmothers are not to be believed.”
“Hush now. Look around you. This has clearly been designed to defend against attackers. Who cares if it was made by gods or grandmothers? It has been built for defence and we can use it for defence.”
“Against the Falonex? They have weapons beyond anything we can produce.”
“Then we need defences beyond anything we can produce. We have neglected these structures because of foolish legends when they could be our salvation. As soon as we get back to the village, I am calling a meeting.”
“Well then, let’s hope we get to there before the Falonex do or none of this will matter. Now, are we done?”

That’s a first draft. I’m not saying it’s great. I’m just saying it’s better, and it’s not difficult to be better, and it’s a shame that the dialogue and characterisation didn’t receive the care and attention that went into the fights.

Although nominally a fantasy film, there is nothing magical or supernatural or fantastique on show here so don’t expect any wizards or elves or dragons or whatnot. Warrioress (still having my doubts) is set in a non-specific quasi-medieval world but there are plenty of anachronistic elements - a guitar, a five-bar gate and buttons on clothes spring to mind - which betray the film’s low budget. Some of these can however be justified by the far from surprising revelation that we are actually in the future and this is some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario. Much of the film is based around old, concrete Nazi gun emplacements in Guernsey which are brilliantly used locations, although I didn’t for one moment buy the scene where Boudiccu and friends find an old chest with a book, a rusting Luger and a surprisingly good condition pocket telescope.

Also on a Nazi theme, there is an enemy tribe called the Falonex whose flag has a capital F that couldn’t look more like a swastika if it tried. There is some sort of steampunk thing going on with them although this seems to be more of a set-up for a potential sequel. As it stands the Falonex themselves don’t seem to do much apart from occasionally send in some helmeted goons to be beaten up. But there are also bad guys called Raiders and we are told that the Falonex are not yet in the area, even though some of them plainly are (one of the Falonex warriors is martial arts champ Zara Phythian).

There are some nicely played scenes between the Falonex Emperor (Will Brenton - writer/producer/director of Tweenies, no honestly) and a messenger with repeated bad news (Simon Feilder, who was Nobby in Jim Jam and Sunny) which emphasise another way in which the second half of the film beats the first 45 minutes. Actually two ways. One is that villains are always more interesting than good guys. They have more character and clear goals. Plus there is real tension in watching our heroine and her allies struggling for their lives against people who want to kill them, rather than a slightly lame knock-out competition in the middle of a village.

The other improvement is a touch of humour. For the first part of the film everything was being taken so seriously. And you can’t do that when you’re dressed up like a bunch of live-action role-players running around with pretend swords. There is a nicely played scene in a tavern (you always have a tavern scene in these films - it’s a tradition or an old charter or something) with John Rackham (Bloodmyth) as one of two drunken lechers. And in a later scene two comic relief losers who think their luck is in when they find a necklace on a grave are given a sound kicking and sent on their way but not before displaying more characterisation than most of the other characters put together.

One of the few main characters with any depth is the warrioress (now I’m using it - I’ve got to look this up) who sends these two rogues packing. Joelle Simpson plays White Arrow, a wandering slab of bow-for-hire muscle who teams up with Boudiccu, providing a fine contrast in personality and fighting styles as well as physical appearance. Her character falls apart a bit right at the end, as does the film as a whole, but most of the time while she was on screen I was happy. And when Boudiccu and White Arrow lay into a whole bunch of bad guys, fighting to rescue White Arrow’s sister and some others from her village, the film really comes to life. If it could have been that good all the way through, it would have been awesome.

One reason I love the fight scenes is because characters (good and bad) get hurt. These aren’t superwomen and they are facing neither supermen nor faceless goons (well, some of them are faceless goons). Boudiccu and White Arrow get battered and beaten but win by superior fighting skills. The knocked-about concrete locations help enormously too because they look used, they look lived in. Whereas Boudiccu’s village and all its inhabitants look desperately clean. Not one character in the early scenes has a hint of shit about them. Or their clothes. Or their hair. They look like tour guides in some medieval recreation theme park. The men are all clean-shaven, the women all have mascara and lippy. The village is tidy. There’s no grunge. But people who live in little wooden huts live grungy lives. They don’t bathe, they don’t shave. And I know the budget’s low, but how much would it have cost to borrow a couple of ducks or chickens to run around the place?

I ended up liking Warrioress (my spellchecker says no) despite myself. The pros outweigh the cons. I will give special props for one particular character death which I don’t want to describe but when you see it you’ll know which one and why I was impressed: it’s an audacious move and something rarely seen in movies of any budget size.

Although there are quite a few titles on her CV, Cecily Fay hasn’t really got too many she can actually be genuinely proud of. She did stunts in Prometheus (which was big budget and shit), costume work in the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie (medium budget and shit), an unnamed role in Intergalactic Combat (low budget and unbelievably shit) and a named role in an episode of sub-On the Buses sci-fi ‘comedy’ embarrassment Starhyke. She was also in Boyask’s earlier films (as were many other cast and crew) plus UK-shot Asylum silliness Dragon Crusaders, and she did stunts for BHR entry A Lonely Place to Die. Oh, and she and Joelle Simpson both appeared in dramatised scenes in a Lucy Lawless-narrated Discovery Channel documentary called Gladiatrix (oh come on, that one’s definitely not a real word).

Simpson (no relation) has fewer credits but as two of those are 28 Days Later and Doghouse, her average credibility is higher I feel. Christian Howard, who doesn’t have much to do except make out with Fay, was in Dominic Burns’ aliens-invade-Derby epic UFO as well as Dragon Crusaders and he also played Ken in a Street Fighter fan film.

Elsewhere in the cast are Keith Eyles (The Kingdom of Shadows, Bloodmyth, The Shadow of Bigfoot), Penni Tovey (Zingzillas), Aidan Cook (Horrid Henry), Josh Elwell (Zingzillas again) and several experienced stunt performers who have been in Bonds and Harry Potters and, well, pretty much everything. Rounding out the surprisingly high number of pre-school show stars is CBeebies legend Sarah-Jane Honeywell (also in The Eschatrilogy) although I must admit that I didn’t spot her on screen.

On the technical side, the cinematography is shared between Boyask and Darren Berry (Jenny Ringo and the Monkey’s Paw). Stefan Ashdown (The Thompsons) is credited with special effects and Starhyke creator Andrew Dymond provided the visual effects (but not the jokes, fortunately). Fay herself provided the atmospheric music which never becomes obtrusive or clicheed.

But beyond all that, beyond the great action sequences and the awful dialogue and the imaginative use of World War II bunkers and the absence of farmyard fowl, one surprising thing stands out about Warrioress (okay, I’ll let it go) when one takes a step back and considers the movie as a whole. Despite being a film which is primarily about fit women fighting each other (nearly forgot to name-check scary goth Diana J Sigston who is terrific as one of the Falonex killers), despite the fact that Cecily Fay spends much of the film wearing a little metal bra that looks like one of Princess Leia’s cast-offs, despite the occasional unavoidable crotch-shot, despite Boudiccu’s dangly ear-rings which no-one in their right mind would wear during a fight, indeed despite introducing us to Boudiccu when she is starkers, showering under a convenient waterfall - despite all this, the film does not objectify women. It would have been really, really easy for this to be some salacious T&A fest where the crotch shots, the metal bra and the women’s bodies were the main selling point, but they’re not. And for that, we should applaud Boyask and Fay. This is girl power without descending into girlie power.

In summary, Warrioress (alright already) is not a brilliant film but it’s also far from terrible. It is ambitious, interesting and worth 90 minutes of your time. Frankly, in the short list of low-budget British fantasy movies this is probably the best there has ever been, maybe the best we’ll ever get. Don’t watch this expecting Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones, or Xena, or anything with a budget. In absolute terms, this is closer to hokey 1980s Italian schlock like Throne of Fire or Ator the Fighting Eagle, but with better fights, fewer cheesy special effects and less dubbing. Take those low expectations in with you and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The two mystical swords, by the way, though played up several times as significant, have no relevance to the plot whatsoever that I can see.

MJS rating: B-

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Death of Poe

Director: Mark Redfield
Writers: Mark Redfield, Stuart Voytilla
Producers: Mark Redfield, Stuart Voytilla
Cast: Mark Redfield, Jennifer Rouse, Kevin G Shinnick
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: DVD (Alpha)

There is a reason why this film is not subtitled ‘A gay romp with Edgar and Ginny’. The Death of Poe is a dark film, sometimes intense, often morose. It’s an hour and a half of a slightly bonkers bloke dying slowly in black and white. Not a great date movie. But it is also a remarkable artistic achievement and, as one erudite critic (quoted on the DVD sleeve) observed, “a fascinating, hallucinatory journey into the mind of the author who invented the modern horror story.”

The title is not metaphorical or obtuse: this is a film about Poe’s death, not his life. As most viewers won’t have read a biography of Poe recently, the film cleverly skims through the major points of his life in italic captions which float across the opening credits. Pay attention to these because they tell you things you will need to know, like Poe’s child bride having died and his having enrolled in the army under a different name.

This is a defiantly non-narrative film, jumping backwards and forwards in time, without a clear narrator; Poe himself can’t be relied on as our point of focus because he consistently finds himself doing things that he has already done (as in a series of nicely played scenes with his landlady and her son). In any case, Poe is unconscious in bed for most of the third act, which unfortunately gives the film an unbalanced air as the audience must start sifting through a new group of characters most of whom we have not previously met.

It’s not all doom and gloom. A triptych of vignettes in the first act see Poe trying to drum up investment for his proposed new journal, The Stylus, from three wealthy Baltimoreans, all of whom prove unsuitable in different ways. These scenes are wonderfully underplayed for dry comedy, and the aforementioned landlady and son provide some wry humour in their tolerance of Poe’s eccentricity.

But by the midpoint, such lightness is jettisoned. Poe encounters an old army buddy, is beaten and kidnapped and ends up in a hospital bed where he lies for a week before pegging it - though this makes the plot seem far more more linear than it is. What holds the film together is a stunning performance by Mark Redfield (aided by make-up, hair and costume which completely transforms him into the very recognisable author). Other cast members are all good, though some play their parts naturally and others go for a more stilted, mannered approach. Notable among the players are Kevin G Shinnick (Flesh for the Beast, Screaming Dead and a contributor to Scarlet Street magazine) as the doctor who treats Poe and Jennifer Rouse (also credited as composer and associate producer) as the doctor’s wife. Cinematographer Jeff Herberger, shooting mostly in black and white, does a terrific job and kudos also to editors Sean Paul Murphy and Jay Carroll for excellent work on what must have been a difficult job.

But I won’t mislead you: The Death of Poe is a difficult film to follow and understand. Despite the helpful précis of Poe’s life at the start of the film, we’re left to find out about his death from the movie itself, if we can. Most viewers will, I suspect, come to this film with little knowledge of the mystery surrounding Poe’s final days beyond what they can glean from the few sentences on the DVD sleeve and a one-page insert. Consequently significant parts of the story which, once known, can be spotted among the drifting, dreamlike miasma of images and ideas on screen, are likely to go unnoticed (or, if noticed, will be meaningless).

There are, apparently, more than twenty theories as to what happened to Poe. The one that Redfield uses here is that Poe was roughly rounded up with other drunks and misfortunates as part of an election day fiddle. Thrown into a cellar, those with decent clothes were dragged to the ballot box and made to vote - for whoever - and then they exchanged clothes back in the cellar with the tramps in rags so that they too could pass as Baltimore citizens doing their democratic duty. This explains why, when Poe was found wandering the streets, he was wearing tattered clothes which conspicuously weren’t his own.

But who, apart from Poe biographers and fanboys, knew that he was discovered in another fellow’s trousers and coat? Or that he disappeared on election day? Or indeed that such underhand practices went on in 19th century America? Not me. Similarly, the identity of the journalist Griswold whose dictation of Poe’s obituary provides bookends to the story was a mystery to me until I looked up the character’s name on the net and found he was actually a significant opponent of Poe.

Maybe these sort of details are better known in the USA, maybe they’re common currency in Baltimore itself, but I fear that Mark Redfield has spent so long immersed in the minutiae of Poe’s demise that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what the average horror fan knows about the man, which is basically: high forehead, trim moustache, gloomy bloke, drank too much, died too young, wrote ‘The Raven’, ‘The Premature Burial’ etc. etc. As a biographer myself, I know the situation. You think: well, everyone knows he was X but I’ve discovered he did Y, which is fascinating. And then you find the punters and/or critics writing: wow, according to this book/film, he was X (and completely ignoring Y because it means little without a knowledge so specialised that you could have written the book/script yourself anyway). One must always remember that one's audience want to find out about one's subject precisely because they don't know much about him.

So I strongly recommend boning up on Poe before watching this film, at least as far as Wikipedia or a quick Google. The story will start to make a lot more sense. You can glean a little of Poe’s life and times from The Haunting of Poe House, a ‘featurette’ on the DVD which turns out to be an episode of Creepy Canada, a sort of ‘Most Haunted’-type TV show. The first half of this is a potted biography of Poe and his connection with Baltimore, illustrated with clips from Redfield’s movie but you can turn off halfway through as the second part is a bunch of looney tunes wandering around a graveyard claiming they’re picking up spirits on their multimeters. (Picked up some spirits in a bar more like.)

Poe’s Baltimore is a three-minute travelogue through the city’s history, breathlessly narrated by Mark Redfield while The Making of The Death of Poe is a twenty-minute interview with Mark intercut with clips from the film and occasional behind-the-scenes shots. There’s some mention of the project’s origins but much of this is taken up with discussing cast and crew.

It seems churlish to criticise the extras on a package which runs to three discs and retails for a kibblesworth under ten bucks but a carefully constructed independent movie such as this, a real artistic and technical achievement, surely deserves a proper Making Of documentary, or at least a film-maker’s commentary. The package also include two silent Poe films - The Avenging Conscience and The Raven, with music by Jennifer Rouse - plus a 74-minute audio disc of Mark Redfield reading stories and poems by Poe.

The Death of Poe is an impressive and imaginative piece of independent film-making, available at a ridiculously low price and thoroughly worth the time, effort and cash of anyone who has ever enjoyed reading (or watching films based on) the words of Edgar Allan Poe. But it is a film that makes you work. Unless you know the Eddie Poe story well, you really need to read up on him, not in depth, but at least make a trip to Wikipedia. That still won’t make this an easy film to watch and understand but it will make it considerably easier to appreciate - and that’s something that is very worth doing.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 6th February 2007

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Deathless Devil

Director: Yilmaz Atadeniz
Writer: Secil Erok
Producer: Yilmaz Atadeniz
Cast: Kunt Tulgar, Mine Mutlu, Erol Tas
Country: Turkey
Year of release: 1972
Reviewed from: DVD (Mondo Macabro)

The Deathless Devil has everything that you would expect from a 1972 Turkish film. Masked hero? Check. Over-the-top villain? Check. Dolly birds in miniskirts? Check. Moustachioed henchmen in polyester suits? Check. Crap fists fights? Check. Nonsensical plot? Check. Music stolen from other films? Check. Plot ripped off from a creaky old Hollywood potboiler? Check. Leading man with hilarious name? Checkeroonie!

In other words, this is brilliant.

Professor Dogan is a respected inventor who has devised something called a ‘Tangait mine’. He has a daughter, whose hairdo is considerably larger than her skirt, and she is enamoured of Tekin, the handsome, two-fisted son of the Professor’s friend and colleague Mr Yilmaz. He is played by an actor named Kunt Tulgar and I know it’s infantile to laugh at foreign names that sound rude (check out any Thai film and you’ll find somebody called something like ‘Pisspot’) but nevertheless: Kunt Tulgar. You’ve got to smile. Also in the mix is the Prof’s glamorous assistant Ayla and a friend of them all named Bitik.

Bitik is the movie’s comic relief and for those of you unfamiliar with the basic principles of Turkish pop cinema, this means that he gurns and mimes and jumps about and does enormous double takes. This is the sort of ‘comic relief’ that would make a Bollywood producer say, “My goodness, that is a bit unsubtle and not terribly funny.”

Yilmaz explains to Tekin that he is not his real father but has raised him as his own since Tekin’s real pop died. He was a masked crimefighter named Copperhead who wore a copper-coloured Santo-style mask (it’s meant to be chain mail but is probably knitted) and always left a small statue of a snake where he had been at work. These he now gives to Tekin, shortly before being killed by a moustachioed henchman (Tekin is one of the few people in this film - of either sex - without facial hair). Tekin finds the henchman standing over his late not-really-your-dad and has a fight with him. They throw each other around Yilmaz’s office until eventually Tekin holds the bad guy over the parapet of the roof, at which point he agrees to give in and talk.

You might wonder, if they’re fighting in an office, how are they able to reach the parapet? The answer is: by the miracle of no-one-gives-a-shit editing. They lunge off-screen to the right in the office and in the next shot they lunge on-screen from the left on the rooftop. Then they go back again. My guess is that the original script called for the thug to be held out of a window and, when that proved impractical on the set available, they simply said, “Hey, let’s shoot that bit up on the roof!”

So anyway, Tekin decides that he will adopt the mantle of ‘Copperhead’ to right wrongs, starting with the murder of his father which was carried out on behalf of ‘Doctor Satan’ (who kills the thug before he can spill any more beans by exploding a device strapped to his chest). The same archfiend and his remaining thugs then kidnap the Professor on board a train but Tekin and Bitik get wind of this and set off in a car to intercept them, pausing only for Bitik to change into a crude Sherlock Holmes costume which he wears for the remainder of the movie.

That’s right, Holmes completists. If your completism extends to including spoofs, homages and movies where characters dress up as Holmes and call themselves ‘Bitik Holmes’ - then you need to add The Deathless Devil to your collection. Sorry.

Tekin leaps off a bridge onto the top of the speeding train and is then seen walking along the top of a clearly motionless carriage. Inside, he changes into his Copperhead costume: black jumpsuit and boots plus a red scarf round his neck and another round his waist, and the mask of course. The costume is pretty skin-tight so it’s a mystery where he keeps the metal snake statues that he likes to leave lying around.

From this point on the already barmy plot becomes increasingly complex although - to be fair - it does make some kind of twisted sense and effect follows cause in true narrative style. I have seen plenty of more modern, more expensive films where things happen that completely contradict the rest of the film, just because some producer decided that they would appeal to some section of the audience. In this movie, everything happens to progress the plot, just as it should. And what a plot!

There are kidnappings aplenty. Bitik is kidnapped and brainwashed into kidnapping the Prof. When the Prof refuses to work for Doctor Satan the swine kidnaps his daughter too. Ayla doesn’t get kidnapped but that’s because she turns out to be working for Doctor Satan all along. Tekin has a softcore sex scene with femme fatale Ayla (he is fully clothed, she keeps her panties on) then hides in the boot of her car in order to discover the whereabouts of Doctor Satan’s secret lair, which is an old factory somewhere.

Among all the action, sex and ‘comedy’ there are also a few sci-fi elements to the movie. The Professor’s invention isn’t actually a mine but is some sort of remote control system for aeroplanes (something which was actually in use with all the major air forces in the world well before 1972). There is a wonderful scene in which he demonstrates this, while Tekin/Copperhead is actually stowed away on board the unmanned plane because he suspects that one of Doctor Satan’s goons will try to steal the device. And indeed, that’s just what happens. A henchman climbs down a rope ladder from another plane to board the unmanned one, something which the Prof and his friends can see on a telemonitor even though, as so often with these things, there is no camera that could show them this (and if there was, it would not cut between long shots and close-ups).

But the unbelievability of the remote viewing situation is not what leaves one astounded at this sequence - it is the difference between the plane and, well, the same plane. The aircraft which Tekin boarded and which we saw taking off was a small private, prop-driven plane, a Cessna or something. Both the aircraft visible on the Prof’s monitor, however, are World War One biplanes(!) in black and white footage lifted from some old 1930s Hollywood picture, though I don’t know enough about such movies to identify it. This cavalier attitude to continuity is only matched by the cheap and cheerful and illegal way in which all the music is lifted from western film soundtracks, including some very recognisable James Bond music and even the Pink Panther theme!

And I haven’t even mentioned the robot. Yes, folks, there is a robot and it’s a belter. Apparently made from silver-painted cardboard, it consists of a square torso and a square head plonked onto some bloke in a silver suit, with lights in the eyes and mouth and tubes as sleeves which give every impression that, when the camera stops rolling, they will simply slide down the actor’s arms to the ground. It is both terrible and completely brilliant at the same time. I have been pondering whether this is worse than the ‘Droid Police’ in last week’s crap robot film, Lorca and the Outlaws - and, you know what, I don’t think it is. The turkish film-makers have at least put some effort into their creation. It may look shit, in fact it is laughably shit, but at least it is recognisably and irrefutably a robot, whereas the Droid Police seemed to just be blokes in doll masks and crash helmets. Give me Doctor Satan’s creation any day.

Some of you may have spotted that this was not the first film in which a hero called Copperhead battled a villain named Doctor Satan. That was the 1940 Republic serial The Mysterious Dr Satan (or Dr Satan’s Robot as it was rechristened when condensed to feature length for TV screenings in the 1960s). Eduardo Ciannelli (Bulldog Drummond’s Bride, The Mummy’s Hand) played the title role with Robert Wilcox (The Man They Could Not Hang) as Copperhead, a role that was apparently originally written for Superman! (Neither the American nor Turkish Copperhead exhibits any superpowers.)

A whole bunch of ideas have been pilfered from the serial, including a scene where Doctor Satan’s goons (one of whom throws deadly playing cards) collect a wooden crate which they think contains the robot (which clearly couldn’t fit inside) but which actually contains Copperhead - who, unseen by us, climbs out before the crate is incinerated. The serial also has the father-to-son Copperhead inheritance, the ‘chain mail’ mask, the remote control device as McGuffin and an almost-as-goofy robot (originally constructed for Undersea Kingdom in 1936). In both the 1940 serial and the 1972 film, Doctor Satan’s plan is to conquer the world using an army of such robots once he has discovered the secrets of the remote control system.

However, whereas Ciannelli played the original Doctor Satan as a clean-shaven, suave mad scientist, in the Turkish version he is a pantomime villain, a huge man with a booming laugh and a moustache that probably has its own postcode. His slanting eyebrows and the dragons on his costume suggest he may actually be intended as some sort of Fu Manchu-style oriental mastermind but if so he is the most Turkish-looking Chinese ever born.

This is a bonkers movie, the sort of film for which the word bonkers was surely coined. It’s a complete mishmash of action, sex, sci-fi and comedy, with mad old Bitik dressed in his cape and an approximation of a deerstalker, play-acting his detective role like he has just wandered in from a Turkish kids TV show.

Mondo Macabro have done a superb job in releasing this, not least in making the difficult decision of which film to release from the hundreds of similarly OTT, weird movies that flowed from Istanbul in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the chapter on Turkish cinema in the book Mondo Macabro (from where the label takes its name), there were 301 films produced in Turkey in 1972. Unfortunately many of the other 300 are lost, along with plenty of other Turkish films, because who would ever have thought they would be of interest to people in the UK and USA thirty years later? The print quality varies a bit - unavoidably - but is generally very good and the sound is okay bearing in mind that this seems to have been shot silent then had its complete soundtrack added in the dubbing studio. The subtitles have obviously been translated by somebody with a knowledge of British idioms as they include phrases such as “Shut it!” and “Look at the arse on that.” An unfortunate technical hitch has left timecode numbers in a couple of the subtitles but that’s no great distraction.

According to Mondo Macabro (the book), the film was shot as Yilmayan Seytan, then retitled Yilmayan Adam and sold to an Italian company without the knowledge or permission of its producer/director (there is a poster for Yilmayan Adam in the book and one for Yilmayan Seytan in the DVD documentary). The Italians released it as L’Invicibile Bedman which is not as kinky as it sounds, ‘Bedman’ being their name for ‘Batman’. However, as we have seen from the likes of Mars Men, Italian distributors were fond of presenting films from foreign markets as if they were American - and that’s just what they did with this, giving it the English title The Deathless Devil. A Turkish distributor then saw the film and was impressed enough to import it, unaware that it had in fact only been made just up the road. And poor old Yilmaz Atadeniz knew nothing about any of this, of course.

Not that he received an on-screen credit. The director of this version was ‘Robert Gordon’ and the star - well, you couldn’t have an ‘American’ actor named Kunt Tulgar, could you? So they changed it to... Kunt Brix!

Tulgar was a very popular actor in Turkey and in his later career moved into producing and directing (through a company called - what else? - Kunt Film), his films including Tarzan Korkusuz Adam, Ejderin Intikami, Üc Süpermen Olimpiyatlanda, Gizli Kuvvet and 1979’s Süpermen Dönüyor which is an unashamed rip-off of the 1978 Superman movie. Atadeniz’s other films include Killing Ucan Adama Karsi, Killing Soy ve Öldür and Killing Istanbul’da, about a skull-masked super-villain named Killing, which spawned a number of unofficial sequels in this country where the copyright situation makes Italy look like a tightly controlled regime of intellectual property obsessives. He also made a couple of Zorro pictures in 1969.

Most recently, Atadeniz was producer of the Turkish-Hungarian co-production Sir Cocuklari, a drama about homeless children which has the English title Children of Secret. His brother Orhan, who wrote Tarzan Istanbul’da, is credited with the screenplay for The Deathless Devil on the Inaccurate Movie Database even though he died in 1953. In fact, the script was written by Secil Erok. Assistant director Sergio Comani is the only other credited member of the crew although the IMDB lists Sertac Karan (Tarzan Korkusuz Adam, Biyonik Ali Futbolcu) as cinematographer.

Also in the cast are Mine Mutlu (Mandrake Killing’e Karsi) and Muzaffer Tema (Bozkirlar Sahini Targan). Cast members credited on some websites but not on-screen include Zeki Sezer (Süpermen Dönüyor), Ahmet Karaca (apparently in the cast of Ucan Kiz, although I had always assumed that to be the Turkish title of The Wild World of Batwoman as it rips off the Mexican film’s poster; presumably it rips off the script too) and the astoundingly named Mustafa Dik, who was in both Kanunsuz Kahraman - Ringo Kid and Ringo Gestapo’ya Karsi.

Mondo Macabro have packaged The Deathless Devil as a ‘Turkish pop cinema double bill’ with Tarkan vs the Vikings. The disc also includes a half-hour documentary on Turkish pop cinema and a montage of clips from other Mondo Macabro titles (though no actual trailers). No home should be without a copy of this film.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 25th November 2005

The Eschatrilogy

Director: Damian Morter
Writer: Damian Morter
Producer: Nicola Morter
Cast: Tim McGill-Grieveson, Paul Collin-Thomas, Sarah-Jane Honeywell
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener

In recent years Britain has produced some stunningly good zombie films: Colin, Zomblies, The Dead to name just a few. Also a certain amount of generic silliness of course; this is a subgenre which lends itself to genericness (genericity?). Now say hello to The Eschatrilogy, a film which definitely sits in the former category. This is a thoughtful, imaginative, moving, finely-crafted zombie movie with something to say, and it is very definitely deserving of your attention.

Which is slightly odd because the actual zombies here depicted are about as generic as they get. Dozens of locally recruited extras in old clothes with pale faces, staring eyes, dribbling mouths, outstretched arms and shuffling feet. They do everything you expect, except moan “Bwaaaiiins!” But here’s where the husband and wife team of Damian and Nicola Morter have got it right. They clearly know that zombie films aren’t about zombies (unless it’s something odd like Colin or I, Zombie). No, zombie films are about people. The zombie hoards are a force, like a storm or a tidal wave or an earthquake. It’s the people that matter: how they are affected, how they react, how they cope.

The Eschatrilogy reminded me a little of The Zombie Diaries, not in stylistic terms - no camcorder footage here - but in the way that it tells three stories which illustrate three stages of a zombie outbreak. Our first tale ‘Dead Inside’ (the titles are in the publicity but not on screen, not even in the credits) concerns a painter-and-decorator who goes off to do one last job and gets bitten by a freshly turned zombie. His wife and young daughter are alone in their house when the exponentially growing undead hoards come calling - including Daddy. Is he a threat? Is he a monster? Does a spark of humanity still burn within him? Will he recognise his daughter and understand what she once meant to him?

‘Dead Inside’ is a story about family, about parents and children, about love and responsibility. And what surprised me as I watched The Eschatrilogy is that these themes are in fact at the core of all three tales. Being a parent of a young tyke myself, I have a certain attitude towards this approach which might not be so overt in someone without offspring. I don’t know if the Morters have any kids themselves*, but on the basis of this film they would probably be great parents. And how cool would that be in the playground? “What does your dad do?” “He writes and directs horror movies.” “Flippin’ 'eck, what does your mum do?” “She produces the horror movies for my dad.”

Anyway, the second story is ‘The Dying Breed’ and takes a different approach to the subject. Where ‘Dead Inside’ questioned the extent to which the zombies are like us, ‘The Dying Breed’ asks how similar we might become to the zombies. A young man named Alex is forced to kill his girlfriend. Baseball bat in hand, he sets out through the rubbish-strewn, deserted streets (tremendous art direction, although weirdly there seems to be no credited art director or production designer). When Alex sees a father trying to protect his little boy from the undead, he refuses to get involved. His humanity expended, is Alex now a monster? He searches out his mother, finds his sister and discovers his nephew - more family relationships torn apart by the apocalypse - before facing his nightmares. Is this vengeance, justice or irony?

The first tale told of the start of the zombie plague, in story two it was already established. Our third tale, ‘A Father for the Dead’, is set later still, when there are only a few survivors, desperately searching the countryside for non-existent help. Another father with a young son; this time the child has been bitten but has not yet transformed. It will happen; it’s just a matter of time.

Pausing for a rest at an isolated building, they encounter two people with differing views on what should be done with the boy and also another ‘father’ - a priest with his own strange ideas about what is happening to the world. As with The Zombie Diaries, the greatest threat to humanity in a world over-run by zombies is not the undead, it’s other survivors. (This story was originally shot as a short film; then, when the Morters decided to expand the idea into a feature, they worked backwards, asking where the zombies in this tale originated. The feature was then shot in 2011/12, including a remade version of ‘A Father for the Dead’.)

These simplistic plot descriptions only touch the surface of three stories which, despite each only being 20-30 minutes long, are character-led, thought-provoking pieces. Some of the acting in the first story is a little wooden, which is a shame as the script is clearly well-written with naturalistic dialogue, but things rapidly pick up in that area and in fact most of the performances are top-notch. In particular, Paul Collin-Thomas (also in the Morters’ first feature Bicycle Day) is magnificent as Alex in the middle-story, carrying the first part of the tale with no dialogue at all and then powerfully presenting the moral and ethical chaos of an ordinary bloke caught up in a nightmare, torn between personal survival, family values and the honourable option of helping strangers.

David Frampton (who was in Steve Balderson’s UK-set comedy caper Culture Shock) also impresses as the dad in the third story, a middle-class parent who contrasts with the predominantly working class characters featured in most of the film. Flynn Allen, who does a grand job as the infected son, was also in Scar Tissue. (Young talent props also to Francesca Turton, the daughter in the first story.)

If The Eschatrilogy was just a straightforward portmanteau film, it would be a good movie. What raises it to the level of a great movie is the framing story, set at a later date still. Tim McGill-Grieveson (a production assistant on Bicycle Day who gets a 2nd AD credit here) plays Matthew, a young man who has built himself a forest camp and keeps himself sane, in his far-from-splendid isolation, by collecting and burning bodies. A long (but not overly long), atmospheric title sequence introduces us to Matthew’s post-apocalyptic life. Then, staggering into his camp, comes a gaunt stranger, played by the director. There is a brief - but gloriously succinct - exchange of dialogue before the stranger collapses. Matthew ties him up, just to be on the safe side, then find a thick hardback book in the stranger’s bag.

It is in this book that Matthew reads the stories which make up the main parts of the film. But how have they been written? Did the stranger write them himself? Are they fact, fiction, or something inbetween? And what about the mysterious figure referred to as being the cause of the zombie plague?

This tall, brooding, faceless, silent figure (on the poster/DVD sleeve) provides a distinctive and intriguing mystical angle to what might otherwise have been an off-the-shelf zombie apocalypse. He causes the first dead to rise, he directs them in their mission of destruction and death. Is he in fact Death himself? A fallen angel? With long hair, a big, long coat and a leather cowboy hat, he could be mistaken for the lead singer of Fields of the Nephilim. Or Alan Ronald. Whoever and whatever he is, and whether or not he exists or is just part of the stranger’s fictional world, or even if he is just a metaphor on the part of someone, somewhere, at some level of reality, the simple fact is that his presence in the story elevates The Eschatrilogy to the level of something special.

Rather wonderfully, the film weaves little clues and asides into the script which indicate links between all four stories. Characters from one tale appear briefly in others. This is an enigmatic, fascinating film which doesn’t provide all the answers but gives us plenty to discuss and debate. In other words, the sort of film I love.

Dean Hinchcliffe’s digital photography is absolutely fabulous throughout the movie, in both day and night scenes, complemented by Damian Morter’s own fine editing. And the Carpenter-esque score by Rob Wingfield will have soundtrack fans grinning with delight. A small army of credited make-up artists, marshalled by Anne Derbyshire, provided the ghouls’ pasty faces and all the injuries. And a tip o’the hat to stills photographer Oliver Kershaw whose publicity photos are a level above what one usually sees with low-budget productions like this.

Among the featured cast are Stuart Wolfenden (Dead Man’s Shoes), stunt co-ordinator Sam Cullingworth (Silent Cradle, Freight), Clay Whitter (The Turing Enigma), Neil Adams (Tash Force), Anna Batho (who was in Philip Gardiner’s One Hour to Die), Chris Knight (Strippers vs Werewolves, Cockneys vs Zombies), George Newton (Dead Man’s Shoes, Inbred), Val Monk (Philip Gardiner’s Dark Watchers: The Women in Black), Clare Roters (Wraith), Kris Sommerville (Cockneys vs Zombies, Jack Falls, The Warning) and Eirian Cohen (a Gardiner regular, in Dark Watchers, Awesome Killer Audition and Exorcist Chronicles, also Twisted: The Devil in her Mind).

But the stand-out bit of casting for me, being a dad with a kid of a certain age, is Sarah-Jane Honeywell as one of a group who arrive at Matthew’s compound in an epilogue. For a few years, Sarah-Jane was in the Simpson household every day on CBeebies, presenting Tikkabilla or Higgledy House (great slapstick show!) or just the interstitial bits between programmes. I recall seeing Sarah-Jane and the legend that is Justin Fletcher hosting the first ever CBeebies tour in Nottingham. Tweenies, Bob the Builder, Pingu, Postman Pat - my god, it was like the Live Aid of pre-school television. Now, Chris and Pui are okay, and Justin is a comedy god, but there was always something about Sarah-Jane Honeywell. She came across as a minx, an imp; you found yourself adopting a Yoda voice and musing “Hmm, feisty one, this presenter is.” Or was that just me?

Last year, Honeywell got some tabloid publicity for some slightly risqué photos, confirming her status as one of those female kids TV presenters - like Konnie Huq on Blue Peter, Maggie Philbin on Swap Shop or Jenny Hanley on Magpie - with definite dad-appeal over and above her actual televisual talents. She obviously has an acting background, and now here she is, faced caked in mud, traipsing through a post-apocalyptic woodland and telling one of her companions that if he touches her she’ll “rip his fucking balls off.” You go, girl! (In fact SJH has two horror credits as she is also in Chris Clark and Richard Dutton’s as-yet-unreleased supernatural chiller Shadows of a Stranger, which I’m very much looking forward to.)

So anyway, that’s The Eschatrilogy. It’s great and I have no doubt it will go down a storm at festivals and find distribution. My one concern is... the title. I assume it’s a sort of pun on ‘eschatology’, which the OED defines as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things’: death, judgement, heaven, and hell.” Yes, that sort of sums up the film. But I honestly can’t see a distributor, or at least a UK distributor, sticking with that title. Distributors don’t like titles that don’t actually mean something. Or ones that look hard to spell and pronounce. And they really, really like zombie films to have the word ‘zombie’ in the title. Or at least ‘undead’. That’s why Horrors of War was released here as Zombies of War; why Battlefield Death Tales was released as Nazi Zombie Death Tales; and why Zombie Undead sailed through the whole distribution minefield with no problem.

Truth be told, I’m not sold on ‘The Eschatrilogy’ either, despite its Google-friendly distinctiveness. I don’t know what else the film might be called. But whatever it’s called, it’s a belter. I can often judge what a film will be like, ten minutes in (though not always), by what I’m saying to the television. Of the last couple of indie features I watched, which I didn’t review, one had me telling the TV: “This is just boring. I’m bored.” The other prompted constant comments along the lines of: “I have absolutely no idea what is going on here.” At the end of each, I was still respectively bored and mystified.

But when I watched The Eschatrilogy a few nights back, ten minutes in I told the television: “This is really good. This is terrific.” And I wasn’t wrong.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 25th August 2012
*I have subsequently learned that they have five.

Death Code: Ninja

Director: Tommy Cheng
Writer: Frank Lewis
Producer: Tomas Tang
Cast: John Wilford, Mike Abbott, Kent Poon
Year of release: 1987
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed from: UK video (HBL Video)

This movie was one of several apparently cobbled together by Tommy Cheng (sometimes spelled Cheung) and Tomas Tang in the late 1980s, including Ninja Death Squad, Ninja in Action, Ninja: American Warrior and Another Load of Old Crap with the Word Ninja in the Title.

Basically, what you have here is an unidentified Hong Kong action thriller from the late 1970s, topped and tailed with some piss-poor, unconnected ‘ninja sequences’ shot in HK several years later. The plot concerns a young married couple - hitman and hitwoman - known as ‘the Killer Couple’ who want to retire but find themselves mixed up in an affair centring around an incriminating list of mob bosses. When the husband is killed, the wife seeks revenge, hindered by the local cops.

It’s an okay HK crime movie with a certain amount of kung fu and some nifty swordwork. An early scene shows two mob bosses falling out over a deal involving a ‘strategic Star Wars map’, something which the video sleeve synopsis claims is central to the whole plot. As one boss makes his getaway, his car is attacked by black-clothed ninjas, who are in turn attacked by a white-garbed ninja, clearly played by a white guy. He eventually fools them by hurling his costume over a cliff while hiding, showing that ninjas wear boxers!

A sequence in the middle of the film has four KGB goons killed off by another white guy dressed as a ninja, in this case swathed in yellow. At least some attempt has been made to integrate this and the earlier sequence into the film, however hamfistedly. But the final showdown between the white and yellow ninjas comes right at the end, after the original 1970s story has finished, and has no connection with anything.

I’ve only bothered reviewing this (a) to show my amazement that such a piece of bastardised tat exists, and (b) to mention that the ninjas seems to have some sort of magical teleportation powers, appearing and disappearing in a puff of smoke. Tomas Tang had previously been associate producer on the dreadful Firefist of Incredible Dragon.

MJS rating: E
review originally posted before November 2004