Saturday, 31 August 2013


Director: Guddu Dhanoa
Writers: Sanjay Masoom, Sutanu Gupta
Producers: Guddu Dhanoa, Santosh Dhanoa
Cast: Tabu, Mukesh Tiwari, Grusha Kapoor
Year of release: 2003
Country: India
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (Far Out 2004)

Imagine if you will an Indian version of Poltergeist - I like to think it would be called Baltigeist, but maybe that’s just me.

Sanjana (Tabu, who played Lady Macbeth in a 2003 Bollywood version called Maqbool) moves into an isolated new house with her brother (Imran Khan - no, not the cricketer!) and two young daughters (Baby Hansika and Baby Bhavika) and strange things start to happen. Sanjana works in an antiques shop in the city and one day a weird old Tibetan woman gives her an amulet, urging her to always carry it with her - but Sanjana almost immediately sells it to a visiting American couple.

The weirdness builds nicely in this entertaining, non-musical Bollywood production: the family’s dog is acting strangely, something unseen is moving around outside, doors and windows are found open which were previously closed and locked. Problems with the family car cause it to break down on the bridge which crosses the river to the new house, a bridge so narrow that the car doors won’t actually open. Also, Sanjana sees the Tibetan woman sitting on a bench near the road and on checking finds her dead. She calls the authorities but when they look for the body they find nothing.

Eventually, Sanjana herself is attacked by an invisible being. She takes the children to stay with her friend Pooja (Grusha Kapoor) but Pooja's husband (Vishwajeet Pradhan) wants the visitors gone. Back at the house, Sanjana is attacked again - twice - and finally some sort of doorway to the netherworld opens up in the closet in the girls’ bedroom and the younger one is sucked in. As Sanjana and her elder daughter escape from the house, an exorcist (Mukesh Tiwari) arrives who reveals that the place is built on ancient burial pits. It’s the old ‘house built on old Indian burial ground’ schtick that we’ve seen in hundreds of Hollywood horror movies - but this time it’s a different type of Indian!

The final confrontation finds Sanjana (who has fortunately been given back the amulet by the American couple) descending into the uncovered burial pit to rescue her daughter and coming face to face with a terrifying giant semi-skeletal demon which I assume is an amalgamation of all the restless souls in the place.

Hawa is a terrific film, with a spooky first act and a scary, exciting climax. It’s only in the middle where the movie drags and one does literally find oneself thinking, “Oh no, she’s being raped by an invisible ghost again...” Which is a shame because Tabu gives an excellent performance in a series of frightening and powerful scenes. At 129 minutes, the film could stand some trimming, but it’s already short by Bollywood standards so that was never going to happen.

Production values, including the final CGI monster, are good (Ashu Trikha is credited with special effects, Sripad Natu with cinematography) and the acting’s fine. The story gets a little confusing in places - it’s not really clear where the exorcist suddenly appears from and Sanjana’s brother seems to disappear arbitrarily halfway through - but among the new wave of Indian horror films, like Bhoot and Makdee: The Web of the Witch, Hawa stands up well.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 2nd January 2005

Haunted Prison

Director: Kevin VanHook
Writers: Kevin VanHook, Rick Glassman
Producer: Karen Bailey
Cast: Jake Busey, Stacy Keach, Scott Whyte
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener disc

The Inaccurate Movie Database listing calls this film Death Row, with no alternatives listed. The opening and closing credits both call it Death Row and the screener disc has Death Row printed on it, but then somebody has crossed that out and written Haunted Prison, which is the title under which this was, I believe, shown on the Sci-Fi Channel and is hence the monicker I’m using here. My guess is that the title has been changed at the last minute to avoid confusion with another Death Row, currently in production, directed by the Quiroz brothers (Hood of the Living Dead, San Franpsycho).

What we have here are two groups of people, at loggerheads but both trapped in a building full of supernatural terrors - a fairly standard concept which has been used in films like, for example, Junk. In this case, the first to arrive are six jewel thieves on the run, led by blond, mouthy, amoral Marco. He is played by Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, The Hitcher II, The Frighteners), son of Gary Busey (The Gingerdead Man) and by golly, Jakey-boy looks like his old man. Someone needs to cast Busey pere et fils in a movie called Psycho and Son. They’d clean up.

Anyway, Marco’s gang includes Hector (Reynaldo Gallegos: Bad Boys 2, Voodoo Moon) and his girlfriend Jasmine (Jamie Elle Mann, who had an uncredited role in The 40 Year Old Virgin and a big role in an earlier film called The 24 Year Old Virgin!) plus Ron (Marco Rodriguez: Unspeakable, Toolbox Murders remake), Anibal (Russell Richardson: Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy - not the British actor of the same name) and injured Vincent (James Leo Ryan: Species III) who has a minor bullet wound in his leg. This sextet arrive, by some means and for some reason, at a deserted island prison, Isla de la Roca, where they plan to hide out until Vincent either recovers or dies.

Also arriving on the island is a five-person documentary crew, consisting of tall, nerdy Brian (Scott Whyte: Dead Man’s Hand, Reeker, Voodoo Moon, The Fallen Ones) whose T-shirts says ‘Han Shot First’, long-haired Keith (Kyle Schmid: The Covenant, A History of Violence), ponytailed Lisa (Shanna Collins: Sublime), blonde Missy (Claire Coffee: 13 Graves) and Hispanic Angel (Danny Arroyo: Lethal Weapon 4 and a Predator video game). Now, I say ‘documentary crew’ because that’s what they say they are; when the two groups cross paths we get several exchanges of “What are you doing here?” “We’re shooting a documentary.” and I honestly can’t tell if that’s meant to be as funny as it comes across.

Also, we saw some of this lot in a prologue interviewing a former guard, John Elias (Mike Hammer himself, Stacy Keach, who of course also plays a warden in Prison Break), in an old folk’s home. He tells them of the horrific, bloody riot which closed the prison down, a flashback indicating (though we have no idea how reliably) that he himself was the psycho warden who kickstarted the whole brouhaha. We also learn that he escaped by hacking off both his legs with an axe although it’s not clear why he had to do that nor how he survived the consequent blood loss, nor indeed how he got away once he had done it.

Anyway, about that documentary crew. The reason that I find this an unbelievable description is because between them this lot have precisely one, small video camera. It appears to be a standard domestic camcorder. They have nothing else: no sound equipment, no bags, no lights - which, apart from anything else, makes one wonder why they choose to arrive on Isla de la Roca in the middle of the night. I’ve come across this in other movies; for some reason, one thing that film-makers are very bad at representing believably on film is... film-makers.

The next question is: how big a gap is there between the crooks arriving and the video kids turning up? I think it’s supposed to be the same night - a tragic coincidence - but there’s a huge editing flub about twenty minutes into the film which leaves one in doubt. The crooks arrive in pitch blackness and put Vincent on a table in the prison canteen, then we get two consecutive scenes - Jasmine goes outside to tell Marco that Vincent’s leg is getting worse, then they both go back into the canteen - which are in daylight. Then we get the video kids arriving in more pitch blackness.

I tried to get my head around this. Distracted from the film itself, I tried to work out what was going on. Was this clever editing which used this brief sequence to jump us forward 24 hours? Do the video gang arrive on the crooks’ second night on the island? If so, why has no-one from Marco’s gang done anything, like switching the power on? Why have we not been party to whatever conversations they must have had? No, it’s no good, I can’t justify this. The bright sunlight beating down on Marco and Jasmine and then flooding in through the canteen windows is a symptom not of clever editing but of bloody awful editing. It strongly suggests post-production - or mid-production - tinkering with the storyline, shifting these two scenes forward from later in the plot.

Did nobody notice? Or did they notice but think it didn’t matter? It does matter because, apart from making a mockery of continuity and making the film look like amateur hour when it has barely started, it also, as I say, distracts the audience. While we’re trying to work out why it’s night, then day, then night again, we’re not concentrating on the plot and the characters, which is where our attention should be raptly fixed.

It makes sense for the scenes to be at this point - I can’t really see where they would fit in later. But folks, this sort of matter should be fixed before you start shooting. If these scenes were later in the plot and didn’t work were they were, that should have been remedied in Final Draft, not on an Avid. All that would be needed is a quick cut-and-paste and the judicious alteration of EXT. DAY and INT. DAY to EXT. NIGHT and INT. NIGHT - bingo!

Sorry to harp on about this, but I can’t recall the last time I saw such an amateur cock-up in a professional film. (Of course, if I’m being unfair and it genuinely is an attempt at clever editing, then it simply doesn’t work because it still looks like a flubb and it still drags the audience out of the movie. For an example of how the passage of a whole day can be shown in a few seconds with skilful editing, see my review of Footsteps.)

Anyway, let’s get back to the rather skimpy plot. Basically, the prison is haunted by all the guys who died in that riot and they take their revenge - well, it’s not really revenge, it’s just mindless violence - on the young people who have disturbed their home. The ghosts are represented with a sort of blurry effect - sometimes blurring in or out of existence - and seem to be able to interact with solid objects. But it’s entirely unclear who can or can’t see them. Marco clearly can see them but chooses not to mention them for some reason, but the others... well, it’s just not really clear. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t, and occasionally we get shots - not POV shots, mind - of people being attacked by ghosts that we ourselves can’t see (at least, not in that shot).

There’s a scene in a prison workshop where one of three people gets dragged by several blurry ghosts into a machine that makes license plates and is gorily chopped up. It seems that these ghosts are visible to the other two, if only because they don’t express incomprehension at how and why their associate is being crammed into a license plate machine by something invisible, but there is no comment, then or later, about precisely what happened.

In fact, this has just occurred to me. I don’t think any character at any point ever actually mentions seeing ghosts. This adds to my suspicion that only Marco can see them, but some characters definitely do see the ghosts who kill them just before they die. It’s all very confusing and inconsistent.

But anyway, die they do. Fear not, gorehounds, the main thing that Haunted Prison has going for it is some truly grizzly and frankly quite original deaths, of which the license plate hack-up is a typical example. People get cut up into pieces in ways that will have you squirming in your seat, groaning, “Oh God, no...”

But gore isn’t enough, is it? I know it’s enough for some folk but discerning horror fans expect more than just a sequence of unpleasant deaths strung together in sequence. So why is this movie so unsatisfying? Well, there’s precious little by the way of character development. Angel and Jasmine get off on the wrong foot but later have a scene (in a toilet) which indicates acceptance of each other’s differences. But neither survives much longer after that, so it feels a bit peremptory.

And there doesn’t seem to really be any plot, apart from ghostly inmates killing off the eleven intruders one by one. Even the concept of escaping - which ought to, you know, drive the whole story - is dealt with rather peripherally. The prison goes into lockdown with big steel shutters on doors and windows but then doors are opened (no flubb this, it’s inexplicable but commented upon as such) and people go outside. However, they can’t get past the electrified fence which runs in a perfect circle around the prison. And the one time that four of them do make it to the water’s edge, the video gang’s boat has disappeared. So they stroll back into the prison, ready to be trapped again. (While at the shore, one of the gang tries their mobile and declares that the whole island is a dead spot. ‘The whole island’, from trying in one spot? Anyway, we saw two crooks talking on their mobiles earlier in the film...)

There just doesn’t seem to be any reason why the people in this movie do many of the things they do. Above all, no-one seems at all surprised or concerned about the fact that they are being hunted and hideously despatched by demonfiends from beyond the grave. That’s not to say the characters are calm or confident, but it’s all ‘Help I’m being chased!’ when it should be ‘Jesus Christ, I’m being chased by undead ghouls!’ There’s a big difference, or at least there should be.

All this has something to do with Marco’s father and/or grandfather, who were both guards at Isla de la Roca. Brian and Keith find a completely undisturbed administration office - funny how the rioters missed that - replete with a convenient Chief Warden’s diary, convenient newspaper cuttings about the Chief Warden on a notice board and convenient, easily searchable files on every prisoner. From this they deduce... something. God knows what. I think the idea is that the prison itself is evil, but why that should be is not explored. It just is.

The finale .. gah, I have no idea what’s going on in the finale. The surviving video kids find themselves in what I suppose is meant to be the boiler room, as there are massive pipes and steel walkways. It looks like a factory, to be honest. And smack in the middle is some sort of evil-looking, giant furnace with twenty-foot-high CGI flames leaping out of the top (someone later leans over this, only about 20-30 feet above the flames, without even breaking a sweat). What is this thing? What part of a prison would have a massive, open-topped furnace, even if we allow that supernatural forces have rounded up some ghoulish kindling and got the fire roaring again after all these years? I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this, in a prison or anywhere else. What purpose does it serve? It’s not as if it’s heating water or supplying power, it’s just roaring away and there is a mention that the only way out of the building is up the chimney above it (but then you would still have to deal with the fence).

Maybe it’s meant to be a crematorium, but why would a prison have a crematorium and why would a crematorium be a massive room, two storeys tall, full of pipes and walkways? It just makes no sense and once again drags the viewer out of the plot (such as it is) in order to try and understand what is going on.

Anyway, the video kids shout for Marco - and he’s there, on a walkway above them. How did they know to look for him here? Who knows? It’s just one more inexplicable thing which should have been fixed on the page. And here’s something else I don’t understand: if Marco is the cause of all this - because he is somehow linked to the prison through his father and grandad - why have the ghosts made no attempt on his life while killing off his innocent comrades? Even when he does eventually die, it’s not by supernatural means, so what sort of revenge or justice is that?

Oh, and in this scene Vincent, who had quietly died a while back, returns, possessed by Marco’s grandfather. This is yet another supernatural turn of events which is simply accepted without question by all those present. There is some waffle about the prison requiring the death of an innocent man in order to, I don’t know, achieve peace or something, but this is rather tacked on and doesn’t make any more sense than anything else. In the end, the survivors race off down a corridor past lots of gruesome ghosts who simply ignore them and, as they make it out through the now-open gate the prison explodes then implodes, dragging a bunch of flying, screaming CGI skeletons down to Hell with it. Just to knock things on the head, when the survivors reach the water’s edge, there is a boat within hailing distance, which turns towards them and that’s the end.

Eh? It’s like the film abruptly stops about forty seconds before the real end because the meter ran out or something. Apart from the sheer deus ex machina of a boat being there, the audience is left expecting some sort of final shock. Or at least some sort of comment from one of the survivors. But no, the film just cuts to black and the end credits. (You can sit through them if you want but there’s no gag shot at the end, although you will get to see comics legend Bernie Wrightson given the unusual credit of ‘additional ghost designs’.)

Bits of Haunted Prison work very well - the gore and some of the dialogue - but the film as a whole fails to work and some parts of it are frankly embarrassing. Far too much is not only unexplained but actually ignored. The characters are, admittedly, mostly sympathetic - apart from Marco, obviously, a cracker of a role which is played with clear glee by Busey. In fact the acting throughout is consistently good, although don’t be fooled into thinking that Danny Trejo (Spy Kids) will turn up - he is in the film for about thirty seconds as a former prison chaplain interviewed in a clip of the so-called documentary.

George Goodridge’s production design is suitably grim and prison-like - according to an interview with Scott Whyte, real prisons were used for the locations - apart from that bizarre boiler-room place. But much of it is lost in the cinematography by Keith J Duggan (Decadent Evil, The Gingerdead Man) which is often simply too dark to see anything. Special effects are provided by Jason Collins and the wonderfully named Elvis Jones, who between them have worked on the likes of Big Bad Wolf, House of the Dead 2, Frankenfish, Bubba Ho-Tep, Spiders and both Jeepers Creepers films, as well as The X-Files and Buffy. Chadd B Cole, whose credits include Hellraiser: Hellseeker and Dracula II: Ascension, was Visual Effects Supervisor.

Producer Karen Bailey first worked with director Kevin VanHook as an actress in Frost: Portrait of a Vampire before producing his features The Fallen Ones, Slayer and Voodoo Moon (she also produced the Harry Connick Jr-narrated animation The Happy Elf!). VanHook is probably better known for his work in comics, both as artist and writer, which includes Solar: Man of the Atom, Bloodshot, Jack Frost and something which I can’t even imagine - a three-issue adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! Co-writer Rick Glassman’s only other produced credit seems to be 976-EVIL II, fourteen years earlier.

I didn’t hate Haunted Prison, in fact I quite enjoyed parts of it - but it could have been so much better. Now, I have enough experience in this industry to know that low-budgeted films like this often suffer unexpected exigencies of budget and schedule at the last minute, leaving directors and producers to make the best of what they have. So I’m prepared to cut this film some slack. It does its job in filling 90 minutes with gore, chases, shocks and a little black humour. But the things that are wrong with it - such as the bizarre location of the finale, the night/day/night editing problem, and the characters’ total disinterest in escaping for much of the film - are big things that simply spoil what could have been a fun little movie.

Maybe there’s a director’s cut somewhere that would sort some of this out. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of problems simply lay in the script - that this was filmed before it was ready. This looks like a film for which a script was put together, rather than a carefully created script which has then been put on film. It’s a shame, it really is, because there was a lot of potential in the basic scenario and the remarkably adroit cast.

Watch Haunted Prison for the gruesome deaths and for Jake Busey’s glorious hamming, and if you’re the sort of person for whom character motivation, credible locations and consistent timelines aren’t important, you could have a ball.

MJS rating: C
review originally posted 20th October 2006

Haunted Night

Director: Teratorn Siripanwaraporn
Writer: Watinee Orakorn
Producer: Ongart Singlumpong
Cast: Suvinit Panjamawut, Manusnun Punlertwongsakul, Tawut Tutsanapolpinij
Year of release: 2004
Country: Thailand
Reviewed from: Thai VCD

Here is yet another in the seemingly bottomless well of Asian ‘high school ghost movies’. It all started, I guess, in Japan then spread to Korea with films like Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori, and shortly afterwards reached Thailand. 303: Fear, Faith, Revenge was the first Thai high school ghost flick that I saw; I don’t know how many others there are but I would imagine a fair few.

Haunted Night (Pom Lon) concerns three friends: Danthai is a good-looking guy (Suvinit Panjamawut from Jan Dara, Ong-Bak and Three), Yadfon is a good-looking girl and Kong is a slightly geeky-looking guy. Back when they were about nine or ten they went exploring a haunted house on a rainy night, together with hulking school bully Tongkon. On discovering a trapdoor, Tongkon insisted on exploring the cellar alone. The others latched the trap after him then left and Tongkong was never seen again.

Seven years later, the bully they killed is back to haunt them, still looking like his ten-year-old self and still wearing the same green rain mac that he wore on that night. The film flicks between the present day and seven years ago, and kudos to the casting director (or possibly the make-up artist) for finding three child actors who look so much like their teenage versions.

There’s a nice spooky opening as two teenage girls walk along the balcony of an apartment block. As Girl A is chatting, the camera zooms in slightly on her and we lose sight of Girl B. Girl A turns to her friend - and she is nowhere to be seen. The balcony is empty, but a glance over the side and there is Girl B spreadeagled on the concrete three floors below. Girl A runs down the stairs but when she reaches the spot, the body has disappeared and as she looks around in bewilderment, Girl B runs up to her, breathlessly, having chased her downstairs.

During the opening conversation, Girl B’s dialogue was muted slightly with no background noise and I wondered if this was simply bad ADR work, but in fact there is a narrative reason for this which plays out right at the end. The three teens are seeing premonitions of how they will die - or at least, how Tongkon will try to kill them.

There are some nicely creepy moments with the ghostly version of Tongkon, whose pudgy build and green pac-a-mac make a pleasant change from yet another girl with long black hair, and the horror and tension is racked up considerably towards the end. When the teens return to the house they open up the basement to find a small skeleton and from that point Tongkon’s spirit becomes an even bigger threat, including taking possession of people.

Most intriguing of all is the moral ambiguity of the situation. Tongkon was a bully, that much we see, and like many bullies he is friendless and angry, which does not in any way excuse his taunting of the kids (especially Kong). But he is not violent or vindictive and even if he was, would that justify leaving him to starve to death, trapped in the basement of an abandoned old house? And if such justification is not forthcoming does his hideous, tragic, drawn-out death in turn actually justify his posthumous attempts to kill his killers?

This idea may well be explored in the script, but as this VCD - purchased as usual from eThaiCD - was unsubtitled I have no way of telling (there is also a DVD but I believe that has no subs either). The screenplay is based on a story by Sorajak and the music is by Verapong Supornprasert. The Tales from the Thai Crypt-style opening and closing sequences suggest that this TV movie may be part of an ongoing anthology series.

Producer Ongart Singlumpong is also a director (Friendship Breakdown is one of his films) while director Teratorn Siripanwaraporn helmed Where is Tong? (a non-supernatural kids adventure with some minor horror elements) and one third of romantic comedy anthology Promise Me Not.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 25th April 2005

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Harsh Light of Day

Director: Oliver S Milburn
Writer: Oliver S Milburn
Producer: Emma Biggins
Cast: Dan Richardson, Giles Alderson, Sophie Linfield
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: screener (Left Films)

When Left Films released The Dead and the Damned in the UK, the title was cheekily changed to Cowboys and Zombies to ride a little of the Cowboys and Aliens promo-wave. Left are releasing this UK indie into selected cinemas a couple of months after big budget Bruce Willis actioner The Cold Light of Day but there’s no title change here. Young director Oliver S Milburn called his film The Harsh Light of Day - and it’s a great title for a vampire picture. (Also worth noting that neither film has anything to do with the boring, Richard Driscoll-produced Dennis Nilsen biopic Cold Light of Day.)

This is an impressive debut, an original twist on the vampire subgenre which pulls several other types of horror films into the frame too. Dan Richardson stars as Daniel Shergold, a writer who has just completed a book on the occult, with Niki Felstead as his wife Maria. Richardson has subsequently made Vamlet, a Canadian production which isn’t actually a vampire version of Hamlet, it’s a mockumentary about an attempt to make a vampire version of Hamlet.

On the night of Daniel's book launch party, the couple’s home is broken into by three masked men who throw Daniel downstairs then attack Maria. Paralysed, Daniel lies in agony screaming to his so-close-but-so-far wife, then forcefully drags himself upstairs, too late.

Milburn (and editor David Spragg) do a great job with this set-up sequences, cutting between the launch party, the drive home, the evening in, the masked figures approaching and the start of the attack itself. The film (which runs a nice, tight 80 minutes) then wastes no time in moving on to some time later: Daniel is in a wheelchair, attended by a helper named Fiona (Sophie Linfield: Underground, Never Play with the Dead).

Voice-on-the-phone McMahon (Lockhart Ogilvie: Demon) was a vital source of info for Daniel’s book and now offers to help, via an intermediary, so into Shergold’s life comes a character called Infumari who is, we fairly swiftly deduce, a vampire. Not that the V-word is ever used in this movie. This is Giles Alderson, possibly the busiest male actor in the British horror. He was previously a vampire in Night Junkies and has also appeared in (or will appear soon in) E’gad Zombies!, Till Sunset, The Torment, The Nephilim, Stalled and Tales of the Supernatural.

So the basic schtick here is that Daniel becomes a vampire and is able to use his new powers to hunt down the bastards who murdered his wife. But this is no cheesy B-movie. These vampires (like Alderson’s turn on Night Junkies) are living beings, not supernatural entities, and don’t have those silly, impractical teeth. What they have is increased strength, a thirst for human blood (or raw meat, at a pinch) and immortality, which translates into extremely fast healing of wounds - including Daniel’s broken spine.

There’s plenty of angst and introspection in this middle act, courtesy of a fine, often wordless performance by Richardson. What’s less effective (and less clear) is the means by which he actually identifies and locates his quarry. A certain amount of animalistic sniffing, even at this late remove, somehow brings up a combination of smells which lead to a search for a butcher’s shop, a pet shop and a brothel all in close proximity. He also somehow remembers the face of one of the men, even though they wore masks.

Even if we scoot over the basic problems with this section, it’s difficult to see why the three establishments must all be within a few hundred yards. I mean, I buy meat from the butcher just up the road, but I get the guinea pigs’ hay from a pet shop a couple of miles away, near where my brother-in-law lives. And if I was ever going to frequent a house of ill repute, it certainly wouldn’t be round here or round there.

It could be argued that, once he has remembered a face, Daniel could have just gone straight back to the police. But little things like his working legs and his photophobic, forced nocturnal existence somewhat prevent this. No play is made of this irony, but then I’ve only just thought of it myself.

The tracking down of the thugs (and the guiding hand behind them) is suitably satisfying and makes The Harsh Light of Day a revenge thriller too. A decent, middle-class man taking violent, remorseless revenge on those who attacked his family. It’s a scenario we’ve seen all too often in horror cinema but rarely in Britain and very rarely over here in recent years. The rationale behind the attack moves the film into another horror subgenre, which I won’t identify here, and there’s even about five minutes of found-footage style camera-work where we see everything that happens through a camcorder.

The film stumbles towards the end, climaxing too early and then hitting the brakes for an overlong and misplaced conversation between Infumari and Daniel about the pros and cons of the vampire life. This should have happened earlier in the story so that we could move swiftly from the violent denouement to the poignant epilogue. It could also have done with a few more passes because this (and some of the other dialogue, to be honest) is a little prosaic. Things are described and explained instead of being alluded too. It’s all a bit too Q&A. Here’s the secret of good movie dialogue: instead of Q&A, structure your conversations as Q&Q or A&A. It always sounds zippier. Or if you must have Q&A dialogue, the characters need to be doing something unrelated, not just sitting in a living room.

The impression I get is that Oliver S Milburn is stronger as a director than as a writer, though let me stress that I’m picking nits here. While I’m at it, Samuel Stewart’s photography is good but suffers a little from a touch of the old video-look; more a technical than artistic problem, I think. But the sound quality is excellent throughout and Jeremy Howard provides a fine score.

The Harsh Light of Day is a storming debut and a gripping, thought-provoking, serious, very British horror film. Recommended viewing, and let’s see what Milburn comes up with next.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 18th April 2012

Harold's Going Stiff

Director: Keith Wright
Writer: Keith Wright
Producer: Richard Guy
Cast: Stan Rowe, Sarah Spencer, Philip Gascoyne
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener

Within the British Horror Revival, the Postmodern UK Zombie Film (or PUZF) is a distinctive subsubgenre. It can be traced right back to Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain in the late 1990s, one of the ur-texts of the BHR.

Then we can find high-profile, distinctive examples of British directors playing with the tropes of the zombie film - Shaun of the Dead, Colin - as well as more obscure or esoteric examples: The Zombie Diaries, Zomblies, The Invisible Atomic Monsters from Mars. Which is not to say that there aren’t straightforward, conventional zombie pictures, ranging from the name-cast-medium-budget (Devil’s Playground) to the cheap-and-cheerful (Zombie Undead).

Harold’s Going Stiff is definitely a PUZF, twisting the ideas and iconography of undead cinema to extremes. To the extent, in fact, that what Keith Wright has made here is a zombie film for people who don’t like zombie films, but which most zombie fans will, I fear, probably turn off after ten minutes [I got this one completely wrong! - MJS]. It’s a bold and uncompromising move by a talented and skilled director for whom the easy, commercial route is clearly not an attractive option.

Except insofar as it has zombies in it - and people do use the Z-word, unlike, say, The Zombie Diaries - you would be hard-pressed to consider Harold’s Going Stiff a horror film. It sits on the completist fringe of British horror, much like Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. It’s really a love story with an ambience of wry Northern comedy, though certainly not a rom-com. And definitely not a rom-zom-com.

There has been an outbreak of a condition called ORD - Onset Rigors Disease - which ‘zombifies’ people (actually just men - it doesn’t affect women). The three stages are a stiffness of the limbs, then confusion and mental breakdown, finally aggressive and violent behaviour. However these zombies apparently don’t go as far as eating people’s brains. In fact, we don’t see anyone get eaten but that’s because these are slow-moving zombies, not 28 Days Later-style runners.

That’s the thing about shuffling zombies: they are only dangerous en masse. One on its own is easy to run away from and even easier to run up to and destroy. In Harold’s Going Stiff, we only ever encounter individual zombies, who are merely stiff-legged, angry and inarticulate. But not really dangerous. And not living dead. As so often nowadays, these are merely folk suffering from a disease - in this case, the pre-death onset of rigor mortis, basically.

The eponymous Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe, who was one of the background artists at the Brits when Michael Jackson did ‘Earth Song’ and Jarvis Cocker jumped on stage!) was the first recorded case of ORD and also, for some reason, the disease is developing in him much slower than in other cases. So while we are told (not shown) that hospitals are overflowing with ORD patients, to the extent that community centres and similar establishments are being used to house them, and while we encounter individual third-stage ORD sufferers out on the moors, Harold still lives alone in his house, visited only by the local community nurse.

This is Penny Rudge (Sarah Spencer, whose time as a drama student included an appearance in one edition of Celebrity Wife Swap!), a warm-hearted, lonely lass on the lookout for a Prince Charming but perpetually disappointed. She visits Harold regularly to check on him and provide physiotherapy sessions to ease his stiffness.

Harold is old and a widower. Penny is young and probably a virgin. Neither is looking for sex or passion but both are looking for love and they, not unexpectedly, gradually find that their special, platonic friendship provides the companionship that both are missing. Both actors give bravura performances, rendering an offbeat romance which could - let’s face it - have seemed creepy or weird into a sweet, sad tale of two people who are right for each other despite their differences.

Intercut with this is the tale of three vigilantes, have-a-go idiots taking advantage of officially sanctioned public action which allows citizens to kill ORD sufferers if they attack. Jon (Andy Pandini, who was in Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit and a TV show called Tales of the Living Dead that turns out to be a History Channel archaeology-based drama-documentary) and Mike (Lee Thompson) are experienced zombie-hunters drive around Yorkshire with the gormless Colin (newcomer Richard Harrison) in tow. Colin is determined to score his first kill but is not only always too slow, he’s also the butt of endless slightly cruel jibes and japes from his two so-called friends.

The three vigilantes provide the limited violence and gore but the main focus is squarely on Harold and Penny - and this is where the film will lose zombie-philes. Because, with the best will in the world, Harold isn’t a zombie. He is basically an old guy with arthritis and the early stages of dementia (there’s a nice running gag about undrinkable cups of tea). If the Jon/Mike/Colin stuff was edited out (and you didn’t see the poster) this would seem to be an entirely mainstream gentle quasi-romance between a kind old man and his young nurse.

After a preview for cast, crew and friends, director Keith Wright shot some pick-ups to increase the ‘horror’ content of the film but it doesn’t change the essentially non-horror main plot, which is not only not horrific but has the exact shape of something which isn’t even genre but solidly mainstream. Good mainstream, excellent mainstream even - but presumably not what Keith was looking for, especially bearing in mind his decision to shoot those pick-ups.

Richard and Penny move together into a community centre where some more advanced cases of ORD are kept. Their hands tied behind their backs, growling and barking and eating food by sticking their faces into plates and bowls, these scenes are actually quite disturbing in their redolence of old-fashioned styles of ‘treatment’ for mentally disturbed people.

And that’s what ORD sufferers come across as: people with mental health problems. Sure. there’s some visual comedy as they run with stiff legs but for the most part the patients come across as simply ill and pathetic, in the word’s truest sense. Even the ones that lunge at the vigilantes seem to present no serious threat and to be nothing more than mentally ill. Which makes the violence meted out to them, especially given the official sanctioning of such violence, actually quite upsetting. There are connotations to this comic-book violence which contrast unpleasantly with the sweet relationship comedy-drama that is the A-story.

It pains me to say it but, for me, Harold’s Going Stiff doesn’t quite work. And the more it promotes itself as a zombie film, the less it works. But then, if it were too present itself as a gentle, Northern, cross-generational romance, the zombie-hunting sequences - which do become relevant to the main plot later and aren’t just token horror window-dressing - would be anomalous and bizarre. The denouement when the two storylines eventually cross is powerful and emotional but not enough to stop the film overall being a movie of two intercut halves.

The essential problem is Harold. He’s just not a zombie. If you showed any Harold-Penny scene to someone unfamiliar with this film and asked them to describe Harold, they would just say he’s a lonely, gentle old widower with arthritis and a poor memory. He’s not a monster, not even a human monster. We only know he’s a zombie because we’re told that in the publicity and occasionally in the dialogue.

There’s a tremendous irony, it occurs to me, in the fact that on the one hand we have a film like The Zombie Diaries where the film-makers are careful to never refer to the threat on screen as zombies even though that’s what they obviously are; and on the other hand we have here a film where the only way we know that Harold (or any of the other ORD sufferers) are ‘zombies’ is because other characters describe them as such.

They don’t really act like zombies, they certainly don’t look like zombies. Cinematic zombies, in all their variants, are distinguished by rotting or diseased skin (not a predominant symptom of ORD although late-stage sufferers do look slightly icky) and a craving for human flesh, which we never really see here, despite the warnings that Mike and Jon give to Colin.

There’s no explanation of why Harold is developing the symptoms so slowly while people who started later have already reached stage 3 though we meet Dr Norbert Shuttleworth (Phil Gascoyne) who is studying Harold in the hope of finding answers. Nor do we ever feel that Penny might be in the slightest danger from Harold, even though we should because he might eventually reach stage 3.

Harold’s Going Stiff is a frustrating film because the two halves, each perfect in itself, just don’t fit together. It’s beautifully acted, wonderfully directed, with fine indie-British production values that belie its low budget. Naturalistic performances, visually appealing locations, excellent camera- and sound-work. Can’t fault any of that. But if it’s a romance, there’s too much violence in it. And if it’s a horror film there’s way too much romance and the circle just isn’t squared.

The characters are believable and likeable - even the vigilantes - and it’s clear from this and Keith Wright’s first film Take Me To Your Leader that he has a touch for characterisation that many other writer-directors would kill for. But, with the exception of the gormless Colin, there’s not much of the cheerful Northern eccentricity that populated Keith’s previous film.

Take Me’s Roger Bingham turns up in a few TV news sequences as exactly the sort of overweight, middle-aged male reporter that UK regional television still sometimes employs while the rest of the broadcasting world fixates on teeth-and-tits dolly birds. And Eleanor James (Colour from the Dark, Bordello Death Tales) of all people appears in an advert for a type of addictive sausage which is identified as the course of the outbreak, although that gag is never developed and seems somewhat shoe-horned in.

Among the cast is Molly Howe, a teenage actress who was in a few episodes of fantasy kidcom Jinx but, despite what the IMDB claims, probably isn’t the same Molly Howe who was in a Todd Solonz movie in 1995. Jane Hardcastle, who was a security guard in the Day of the Triffids remake and a businesswoman in an Autoglass ad, plays the owner of a charity shop where Harold buys a present for Penny. There’s also Lucy Wilkins (who played Bob in a stage production of Blackadder Goes Forth!) as the daughter of an ORD sufferer.

Composer Tom Kane (Surviving Evil) scored two zombie films in 2010: this one and the Ian McKellen-narrated historical zombie short E’gad, Zombies!. He also provided the soundtrack for an extraordinary-sounding version of The Tell-Tale Heart - a silent short starring Matthew Kelly!

Searching around for a suitable analogy, it struck me that Harold’s Going Stiff is actually very like the zombies which it portrays, in that it sincerely attempts to present a horrific threat but ends up just wobbling stiffly - albeit without losing any of its innate humanity, warmth and charm.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 17th April 2011

Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice

Director: Mark Withers
Writer: Mark Withers
Producers: Mark Withers, Mike King
Cast: Alex Constantine, Pano Masti, Tom Clutterbuck
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener

Did you know that there are now so many spoof documentaries - ‘mockumentaries’ - being made every year that they actually have their own genre-specific film festival? It’s called Mockfest, it’s held at the Vine Theatre in Hollywood and the debut event screened 23 films in June 2007. Among them was Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice (subsequently retitled Bare Naked Talent).

Essentially, this does for porn what Spinal Tap did for rock music as documentarian Linda Boreman follows aspiring film-maker ‘Jack Innov’ (Alex Constantine, also in SF thriller Anamnesis) in his efforts to produce a sweeping romantic porn epic, Assanova. Jack has adopted his pseudonym in order to protect his identity when he eventually progresses onto the ‘real’ films that he wants to make, his real name being a fun in-joke. Boreman, who is uncredited, can occasionally be heard and appears once, briefly, towards the end in a development that marks Hardcore out as a mockumentary with a plot and characterisation, not just a collection of jokes. (It’s actually first AD Lucie Phillips Browne doing Boreman’s voice; she also worked on Simon Rumley’s magnificent The Living and the Dead.)

Jack faces several problems in his quest to film Assanova, including a minuscule budget, an eclectic, eccentric cast and crew, and his own sexual inexperience, highlighted in a pre-production scene when his request to the crew for suggestions of things that could be in the film rapidly descends into a list of specific perversions and acts, none of which he has ever heard of.

In the fly-on-the-wall sequences, the to-camera interviews and a few ‘self-filmed’ video diary pieces, Constantine gives a stirling performance as Jack, his mixture of ambition and naiveté recalling Ed Wood at his finest. Tom Clutterbuck is less convincing as his friend Derek ‘Tinto’ Brass, a thoroughly unreconstructed slimeball slacker who nevertheless swiftly takes control of shooting when Jack is indisposed, but that may be because the character is less sympathetic.

Greek actor Pano Masti (Martyr, Crooked Features, Little Deaths) has an absolute ball (as it were) playing hirsute Italian leading man Thom Cruz, a jobbing porn actor who is as over-endowed with heart and bonhomie as he is with moustache and cock. The various actresses include a pair of lesbians who have problems using explicit language (Shavonne Stevenson and Martina Goodman, who was in Mark Withers’ short My Mum, the Wrestler and is now Martina Goodman-Withers); a Scottish blonde who cheerfully recounts how her father abused her as if it was a major achievement on her part (Marysia Kay: Forest of the Damned, Colour from the Dark); and a librarian with a hankering for a different life (a nicely observed performance by Trudi Jackson: The Libertine). The crew includes a naked German cinematographer (Mike Busson, who was one of the AA men in that ‘You’ve got a Friend’ TV ad), a junkie continuity girl (Sonja Morgenstern, who was in a Chemical Brothers video), a second cinematographer with a fabulous moustache (Paul Preston Mills), a cynical soundman (Bruce Lawrence, the voice of Captain Black in the Captain Scarlet remake) and a gaffer who looks so much like me that I had to pause the disc and briefly wonder whether I had actually appeared in this film and forgotten about it.

The whole thing is bank-rolled by two gangsters, Ron and Reg, one of whom is obsessed with big tits while the other obviously prefers a more masculine chest. Along the way we also meet Jack’s chain-smoking mother (Hazel Kayes), his Tourette’s syndrome brother (James G Fain: Stag Night of the Dead) - whose un-PC, potty-mouthed outbursts are used for more than just shock effect - and a petty thug who shares Jack’s community service when the director is arrested for lewd behaviour. Daz Kaye (High Stakes) is one of several performers giving their all in an audition montage.

For a low-budget indie, Hardcore looks (and sounds) great, indicating that the real film-maker, Mark Withers, has put a great deal of effort into creating this fakery, not just taken an easy and cheap option. The script is terrific, developing characters, progressing the plot, never dragging or wasting time - and above all it’s funny. While rarely laugh-out-loud hilarious, Hardcore is genuinely funny throughout and that is rare in feature-length indie comedies; in fact, let’s be honest, it’s rare in comedy films full stop.

There’s a warmth to this film which could very easily have been cynicism in other hands. We desperately want Jack to finish his film, we want the camaraderie of the cast and crew to create something, however cheap and lascivious it may be. We care about these people and we believe (for a few moments) that they are real. That, surely, is the sign of a good mockumentary.

It would be impossible to make a movie like this without nudity - and all credit to the cast members who disrobe - but sensitive audiences needn’t worry as all genitals have been covered with superimposed graphics. If it goes to the BBFC I doubt if this would get more than a 15 and that would be for the occasionally profanity.

It is evident from reading the film’s website that Mark Withers has endured trials and tribulations in his career so far and that these have influenced this movie, making the character of Jack Innov somewhat autobiographical (there are some neat clips from the character’s earlier films). With Hardcore, Mark has achieved magnificently what he set out to do and perhaps this will get him the break he deserves.

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted 15th October 2007

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Little Deaths

Directors: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley
Writers: Sean Hogan, Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley
Producers: Andrew Parkinson, Simon Rumley, Samantha Wright
Cast: Luke de Lacey, Jodie Jameson, Tom Sawyer
Country: UK
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (Monster Films) 

‘Little death’ is a literal English translation of petite mort, the French term for orgasm. In 1996, Ellen Datlow edited Little Deaths, a literary anthology of ‘erotic horror stories’ including contributions from Clive Barker, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane. That book has no connection with this film. (Incidentally, I used to also own a 1980s anthology of erotic horror called The Devil’s Kisses whose anonymous editor hid behind the brilliant pseudonym ‘Linda Lovecraft’! Anyway...)

Little Deaths is part of the recent resurgence in British horror anthologies which also includes Bordello Death Tales, Nazi Zombie Death Tales, Three’s a Shroud, The Eschatrilogy, The Forbidden Four, Grave Tales and Tales of the Supernatural. Like the first three in that list, this is a team effort: three directors each making a half-hour short then bolting them together. The film has taken a couple of years to appear on UK DVD (the US release was back in December 2011) which is why, in the Making Of, the directors observe that there hadn’t really been any anthologies recently.

I’ve been waiting and wanting to see this film for a while now and have been studiously avoiding any detailed reviews. All I knew was that the three tales of sexual horror are quite extreme, and I was braced for some serious unpleasantness. It therefore came as something of a surprise to find that this isn’t just a film about extreme cruelty and suffering: two of the three stories actually have some element of the fantastique to them, and all three are powerful, grippingly-told tales which fascinate rather than repel. Maybe I’m just inured to this sort of stuff but my stomach wasn’t turned and I didn’t look away. Although, to be fair, it’s a lot easier to accept stuff like this watched from one’s own armchair than it is in a cinema surrounded by horror fans.

NB. If you want the same experience that I had, then stop reading this review now as there will be some details in the ensuing descriptions, although I will try to avoid actual spoilers.

We kick off with ‘House and Home’, directed by Sean Hogan , whose debut feature Lie Still is positively reviewed by me in Urban Terrors and whose sophomore effort The Devil’s Business is in my TBW pile. Sean is the only one of the three directors I don’t know personally; indeed, I’ve known the other two chaps since the 1990s.

‘House and Home’ stars Luke de Lacey and Siubhan Harrison as a middle-aged couple who invite a homeless young woman (Holly Lucas: Holby City) into their home on the pretext of Christian kindness but actually to use her as a sex slave. something which they apparently do on a reasonably regular basis. This occasion however is not like before, and to say more would be a spoiler. I will say this, spoiler-free: although the characters, story and narrative development (call it a twist if you like) are well-handled, there was no need for the epilogue sequence, which didn’t really add to the horror or the story. I would have ended this with the car scene.

Curiously, I had exactly the same problem with Lie Still: an unnecessary epilogue which lessens the ambiguity - and hence the effectiveness - of what has gone before. Sean Hogan makes terrific films, he just needs to wrap them up a little sooner.

If I didn’t know that the second segment, ‘Mutant Tool’, was an Andrew Parkinson joint, I think I could have guessed. Way back in 1998 or so I first met Andrew when I saw I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain at the Festival of Fantastic Films and covered it in SFX. Or at least, I think I did. I know I wrote something for Fangoria. Actually, it’s all so long ago that I can’t remember what I wrote. You want to know how long ago this was? Well, I recently found, in my filing cabinet, some black and white 8x10 publicity stills from I, Zombie. It was a time when publicity images for films were still routinely sent out as monochrome prints. It was like, the palaeolithic or something.

Andy P followed the brilliant I, Zombie with Dead Creatures, then a few years later made the utterly bizarre (and sadly never released) Venus Drowning. Three and a bit films in 15 years or so is not exactly a factory production line but we are assured of quality and it’s certainly good to have Mr Parkinson behind the camera once again.

‘Mutant Tool’ is borderline science fiction, because it does actually have a mutant person in it. The story also involves psychic connections, organ bootlegging, dodgy drugs (narcotic) and dodgy drugs (pharmaceutical). Jodie Jameson is an ex-hooker, shacked up with her former pimp (Daniel Brocklebank: The Hole): wow, there’s a solid foundation for a stable relationship. She deals drugs for him now but he doesn’t know that she’s also still on the game, working through an agency. Meanwhile Brendan Gregory (also in Venus Drowning and Dead Creatures) is the dodgy doctor at the centre of proceedings, while his two employees are played by Steel Wallis and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’s Christopher Fairbank (whose roles in MindFlesh, Anazapta and The Bunker make him something of a BHR regular).

It’s not difficult to see parallels with Venus Drowning here (which also starred Jameson) though it is of course very difficult to see Venus Drowning. This is a body horror film, but not Cronenberg-ian body horror. This is Parkinson-ian body horror, which is scuzzier, more prosaic, less about shock and more about bleakness. Very much the British Horror Revival approach, which is appropriate for the man who kick-started the BHR.

Finally, we have another old mate of mine, Simon Rumley, who I first encountered when I reviewed his extraordinary talking-head debut feature Strong Language in Total Film. More recently, Simon made the amazing The Living and the Dead which is featured in Urban Terrors (as are Andrew Parkinson’s two zombie films). Simon’s story is called ‘Bitch’ and it has rightly been left to the end because it is the strongest of the three tales.

Tom Sawyer (Soldiers of the Damned) and Kate Braithwaite (who was in a couple of Bollywood pictures) are the couple here, their relationship based around a dog-related fetish that will make your eyes stick out on stalks. You will wonder: do people really do this? If they do, how does Simon Rumley know? And if they don’t, what sort of sick mind has he got to come up with this sort of stuff?

Tom Carey (Exorcism) plays the third wheel which prises the couple’s relationship apart, leading to an extended sequence of revenge - planning and execution - set to a brilliantly selected piece of music. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from the last ten minutes or so (assuming they are back in their sockets).

Aside from the slight over-extension of ‘House and Home’, it’s hard to find a fault with any of the segments or indeed the feature as a whole. Acting is top-notch, including a number of perverted sex scenes which must have been either very upsetting or difficult to do with a straight face. All three gentlemen are bang-on in both their scripts and their direction.

Rumley’s regular cinematographer Milton Kam (Red, White and Blue, The Living and the Dead) photographed all three segments superbly. Kudos also to Kajsa Soderlund (Tower Block) for some top-notch production design (I love the sly inclusion of an Emmanuelle chair in one scene!). It is interesting that essentially the same crew worked on all three stories: in these multi-director anthologies it’s more common for all three pieces to be shot separately but Little Deaths has been made as a cohesive feature, swapping it’s head at regular intervals.

Also in the cast are James Oliver Wheatley (A Dying Breed), Scott Ainslie (The Zombie Diaries), Errol Clarke (A Day of Violence) and stunt man Rob Boyce (as the mutant). Richard Chester (The Living and the Dead) and Andrew Parkinson composed the score. Dan Martin (F, Sightseers, The Devil’s Business) oversaw the special effects.

Among the various executive producers is veteran Canadian producer Pierre David - yes, the guy who directed Scanner Cop! Over the past 40 years he has been involved with such notable titles as The Brood, Videodrome, The Vindicator, Dolly Dearest, The Dentist, Wishmaster and, on the BHR font, Gangsters, Guns and Zombies. Mostly though he has executive produced scores of DTV thrillers with interchangeable titles: The Wrong Woman, Never Too Late, Marked Man, Alone with a Stranger, Her Married Lover, Living in Fear, Blind Obsession, A Woman Hunted, The Rival, Demons from Her Past, My Daughter’s Secret, A Lover’s Revenge... I wonder if even Pierre David can tell these things apart.

So, to conclude, what themes can we see in Little Deaths? Well, obviously these are stories about sexual transgression, but each takes a different tack. The sex in ‘House and Home’ is straightforward, even if non-consensual: the transgression there is a moral one. In ‘Mutant Tool’, the transgression is physical: what sex acts we see are actually almost incidental to the story but the mutant himself is physically transgressive. In ‘Bitch’, the transgression is behavioural: these two people do some very odd things, but they’re not hurting anyone.

Then again, we could consider the three central relationships. The middle-class couple in Hogan’s story are the happiest, enjoying a stable sexual relationship until that fateful night. In Parkinson’s tale, the central relationship is in tatters and there was little enough there to begin with. Rumley’s couple start stable, or at least they think they are stable, but we watch them fall apart. All three couples share secrets, but not necessarily all their secrets. Only the first couple are open and honest with each other, trusting each other and working together as a team. the second couple don’t trust each other, they each have other activities that they don’t tell the other about. Once again, Rumley’s segment is the most complex: it chronicles how trust breaks down, creating new secrets that are not shared.

It’s all good stuff, it really is. Don’t be put off by the rather alarmist marketing that seems to sell Little Deaths as some ultra-extreme hardcore nastiness. It’s actually a trio of imaginative, thought-provoking, dramatic stories skilfully told by three of the best indie directors working in Britain today.

Incidentally, the marketing image of a woman with glass shards in her back, like some sort of S&M stegosaurus, is just that - a marketing image - and not related to any of the stories.

MJS rating: A-

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Happy Hour: The Movie

Director: Anthony P Azar
Writer: Anthony P Azar
Producer: Anthony P Azar
Cast: Crystal Louthan, Tonya Hall, Anthony P Azar
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener

Three slimeballs - two corrupt politicians and a corrupt judge - visit a bar for drinks after one of them is handed a flier on the street by a hot chick. The place is empty apart from the barmaid (Tonya Hall) until that same hot chick (model and backstage wrestling interviewer Crystal Louthan) enters. One of the men unsubtly approaches her and they head off together, leaving the other two men impressed and jealous.

One week later the two remaining slimeballs visit the same bar for drinks. The place is again empty apart from the barmaid until that same hot chick enters. The men discuss how they have not seen their friend for a week then one of them unsubtly approaches the hot chick and they head off together, leaving the other man impressed and jealous.

One week later the last remaining slimeball visits the same bar for drinks. The place is again empty apart from the barmaid until that same hot chick enters. The man ponders (in voice-over) how he has not seen his other friend for a week. Eventually, he plucks up the courage to approach the hot chick and they head off together.

Out in the parking lot, he discovers what happened to his two friends.

That’s the basic plot of this just-over-half-an-hour short film and if you think the synopsis is repetitive, that’s a deliberate ploy on the part of this reviewer to accurately reflect the film. Because, despite it’s short running time, this could easily lose fifteen to twenty minutes.

The opening scene, that’s fair enough, but we then get the whole damn thing repeated at full length twice with a progressively fewer number of men.

Anecdote time. Some years ago there was a British comedy show called Saturday Zoo and one week the special guest was Christopher Walken. Dressed in a colourful jumper, he read the story of The Three Little Pigs in his own distinctive way. It’s hilarious and a quick Google or a search on YouTube should bring up a copy.

After describing what happened to the first little pig, Walken got a huge laugh by summing up the next part of the tale thus:

“Pig two - same story.”

The point is that the audience can grasp that the same thing is happening without being shown the whole thing again. In fact, once we’ve clocked that this is a repeat of the previous scene we become impatient, waiting for it to finish so that we can get on with the plot. And an impatient audience is not an appreciative audience. Then - damn me - we have to sit through the whole thing again.

Which is a shame because, although this is clearly shot cheaply, director Anthony Azar has a definite knack with the camera. There is real skill and imagination in the direction including difficult, effective and memorable shots: viewing our protagonists through a glass or keeping the actors off camera to concentrate on their shadows. The individual shots are great but the redundancy of the second and third scenes detracts from them.

The other problem which Happy Hour: The Movie (not to be confused with the 2003 feature film starring Anthony LaPaglia) is that the ‘twist’, when it comes, is exactly what we expect, one of the hoariest old clichés in horror movies. Not only that but what little impact it might have is let down by some of the worst joke-shop vampire fangs I have ever seen outside of a Jean Rollin movie. Oh, and the ‘twist’ is also given away on the Truth in Creativity website. Maybe it’s not meant to be a twist but in that case, what’s the point? We’ve been kept waiting through three variations-on-a-theme scenes, expecting some sort of payoff for our attention and unless that payoff is clever or surprising in some way we are bound to be disappointed.

This ‘revelation’ scene is followed by an entirely unnecessary (and extraordinarily long) epilogue in which three different slimeballs enter the bar in what is effectively a replay of the first scene. I assumed this would finish when they sat down at the bar, then I kept on assuming it would finish any moment now as the scene dragged on and on, adding absolutely nothing to the story and losing more and more dramatic impact with every line of dialogue.

We get it, all right already. Three more little pigs - same story.

Technically and artistically, bearing in mind the nickel-and-dime production values, Happy Hour: The Movie is highly commendable. The acting’s all pretty good (neither the hot chick nor the hot bartender chick has any dialogue) and it’s nice to see the use of actors of an appropriate age; many low-budget film-makers would have cast their twenty-something mates, irrespective of whether they were actually old enough to be politicians or judges. Craig Chamberlain’s other roles have included a ‘psycho father killer’ in Unforgotten Past and a ‘vampire serial killer’ in Body of Evidence.

One of the slimeballs is played by Florida-based writer/director/producer Anthony P Azar who is pretty much a one-man band although he has the good sense to disguise some of his credits, such as ‘special effects’, behind his company name, Truth in Creativity Productions. Azar also handled the camera and the editing and provided some frankly corking guitar music. A couple of the actors are among the ‘production assistants’ credited with help in the lights/camera department and the main other credit seems to be for Eric Emerick who assisted with cameras, lighting and some suitably unpleasant sound effects.

All well and good but it is, as so often at this level of film-making, the script which lets the side down, with four very similar scenes all played out to their full-length instead of being judiciously trimmed. There’s an old scriptwriting maxim which says that one should always start a scene as late as possible and leave it as soon as possible. There is simply too much dead wood in this film - but it could be fixed.

Scenes two and three both need some judicious editing and the epilogue needs a single snip of the scissors as soon as the audience has realised that we are watching the start of the story repeating itself with three new characters. (There is one other problem with the epilogue: two extras sat further along the bar whose presence is irrelevant - I suspect they might be investors making a cameo appearance in a film devoid of opportunities for cameos - and who actually spoil the scene. Surely the whole point is that this is an empty bar where the only people present are the two predatory women and their three slimeball victims.)

Thinking about it, there is also a script problem in the idea that the first three scenes happen at intervals of one week (indicated through unnecessary captions). Are we really to believe that a politician has disappeared and, one week later, the only repercussions is that two of his drinking buddies are idly musing where he is? The scenes would work better as consecutive nights.

I’ve been hard on Happy Hour: The Movie despite its promise and Azar’s evident talent because it doesn’t live up to that promise or support that talent. The script simply hasn’t been developed properly. A tight, ten- or fifteen-minute film might get away with such a clicheed central premise but when the film drags like this, audiences are less likely to forgive a revelation which can be seen coming from about five minutes in. Less is more is the nub of what I’m getting at here.

The screener included a long trailer for Azar’s Lloyd Kaufman-starring feature The Cops Did It which features many of the same actors and which I’d like to see, if only to judge whether the writer-director can construct a full-length story. On the basis of this one short (admittedly completed two years ago) my belief is that Azar is spreading himself too thinly and should devolve some of the work to other people, especially the scriptwriting.

MJS rating: C+
review originally posted 30th May 2008

Happiness of the Katakuris

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kikumi Yamagishi
Producer: Hirotsugu Yoshida
Cast: Kenji Sawada, Naomi Nishida, Keiko Matsuzaka
Year of release: 2001
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (Far Out 2002)

Takashi Miike first came to western attention (or at least, this westerner's attention) with Audition, a slow-building, atmospheric, deeply nasty tale of psychological and physical torture. Two films more different than Audition and Happiness of the Katakuris it would be hard to find. Because this, my friends, is a musical!

In a nutshell, this is The Rocky Horror Picture Show crossed with The Shining and shot in Bollywood by Terry Gilliam. Kenji Sawada (Hiruko the Goblin) stars as middle-aged ex-shoe salesman Masao Katakuri, who starts up a guest house where he hears a new road is to be built. Helping him are his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), their divorced, lovesick daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida: Godzilla Millennium) and her little girl, their ex-con son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), and Masao’s father Jinpei (Tetsuro Tamba - who was in Kwaidan and You Only Live Twice!). And Pochi, the dog.

They wait for their first customer, and he eventually arrives in a thunderstorm, goes to his room, carves his room-key into a point and stabs himself to death. Knowing that calling the police would mean the end of their business before it has begun, the family dispose of the body, while suspecting unenthusiastic slacker Masayuki of stealing the man’s missing wallet.

Further guests arrive, in dribs and drabs, most notably a randy sumo wrestler and his petite teenage girlfriend; he has a heart attack during sex, and she is found crushed to death beneath him... Meanwhile, Shizue has met and fallen in love with a rogue in naval uniform who claims to be an illegitimate member of the British Royal Family. The story climaxes with an escaped killer and a volcanic eruption.

In any other film, a story like this would be an amusing, Fawlty Towers-esque sitcom, but Miike goes crazy with several song and dance sequences, which range from the endearing non-coordination of the six Katakuris (including the little girl) to full-blown Bollywood-style fantasy scenes. One romantic duet between Masao and Terue is even done with on-screen subtitles and the to-camera exhortation to “join in with us”!

And as if that wasn’t enough, parts of the film are animated! The opening sequence, entirely unconnected with the rest of the film, is an amazing piece of Svankmajer-like clay animation following a little angel/demon-thing and is reminiscent of nothing less than the titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At various times later during the film, characters become clay animations too - but not always everyone on screen. On the other hand, another stylistic device, shaky handheld camerawork, doesn’t add anything to the scenes in which it is used.

On the basis of this and Audition, it’s hard to identify anything specific about Miike’s style as a director, except that he clearly does what he wants and isn’t afraid to go to extremes. He also makes a lot of movies. Between Audition in 1999 and Katakuris in 2001, he also made MPD Psycho, The City of Lost Souls, The Guys from Paradise, Dead or Alive 2, Family, Visitor Q, Agitator and Ichi the Killer - apparently. Whatever, he’s clearly a busy guy. (Earlier Miike films of note include Fudoh: The New Generation and Full Metal Gokudo.)

An absolutely bonkers, laugh-out-loud, must-see film - with, it must be said, a great zombie dance sequence - Happiness of the Katakuris is unreservedly recommended to anybody who likes offbeat cinema.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 3rd December 2004

Hanuman vs 7 Ultraman

Director: Shohei Tojo
Writer: Bunko Wakatsuki
Producer: Sompot Saengduenchai
Cast: Hanuman, several Ultramen
Year of release: 1974
Country: Japan/Thailand
Reviewed from: Thai VCD (Tiga)

Technically of course that should be Hanuman vs 7 Ultramen but it seems that Thai, like Japanese, does not distinguish between plural and singular. And there’s no concept of ‘vs’ here either. Unlike the previous team-up between Japanese and Thai giant superheroes in Mars Men, there is no element here of ‘fight each other until we realise we should team up to beat our common enemy’. No, Hanuman and the Ultra-brothers are pals from the off. But the most amazing thing about this film is that, well, let’s be honest here - there are only six Ultramen in it. Well, six at any one time anyway.

I love what little I have ever seen of the various incarnations of Ultraman (produced by Tsuburaya Productions, Japan’s greatest special effects house). But as my VCD of this film (obtained from the ever-reliable eThai CD) is in Thai I am indebted to the sorely missed Absolute Ultraman site (AU) for some of the finer details.

We start with a five-minute sequence explaining about the home of the Ultramen - some great Tsuburaya footage of futuristic city miniatures though presumably stock shots from one of the previous Ultraman films or TV series. Then we get a rollicking title sequence which is all footage from the movie’s climactic fight, but don’t worry about ‘spoilers’. It’s Hanuman and some Ultramen fighting some monsters - you were expecting anything different?

In an ancient ruined temple, a bunch of kids are dancing, one of whom, Piko, wears a mask based on Hanuman, the Thai monkey god. According to AU they are doing a rain dance because the sun has moved closer to the Earth causing a global draught - with that simple bit of info, a lot of odd things in the movie start to make sense!

Also in the group is a smaller boy named Anan, who may be Piko’s brother. Anan’s mother (and possibly Piko’s) watches over them. (AU gives Piko’s name as Kochan but perhaps that is in the Japanese version. He’s certainly Piko in the Thai dub because Anan spends a good part of the movie shouting his brother’s name.) Three crooks turn up in a jeep and steal the head from one of the temple statues - Piko spots them and gives chase but they give him a bloody good kicking. There was never violence like this in Children’s Film Foundation movies! But worse is to come: Piko recovers, takes a short cut and leaps aboard the jeep, only to be shot in the head at point blank range! Anan and the others find his body and carry it back to the temple (presumably his mum has left by this point).

But up on M78, where the Ultramen live, the Ultra-mother notices Piko’s death and reaches down through the clouds to him, much to the amazement of the assembled kids. The subsequent scene, in which Piko is restored to life as Hanuman, is apparently re-edited footage of Ultraman Taro being born, which is why as well as the Ultra-mother there are only five Ultramen on screen. AU says these are Ultraman, Ultraseven, Ultraman Jack, Ultraman Ace and Zoffy, and who am I to argue?

Hanuman is all-white with a scary monkey face and lots of superfluous Thai detail in his costume, as opposed to the smooth futuristic lines of the Ultra-brothers. He generally flies upright with his limbs bent, sometimes carries a short trident, and has a tendency to jump about scratching his armpits, on account of being a monkey god.

Back on Earth, Anan collapses from the heat. Hanuman talks to the Sun God - you can tell he’s the Sun God because he’s in a chariot - and endlessly chases a talking flower up and down a mountain before extending his tail and grabbing it.

The three crooks (remember them?) are amazed to see Piko jump out in front of their jeep and do a monkey dance at them. They take a few more potshots but the bullets bounce off him, then he magically transforms into Hanuman and grows to giant size. The crooks run off on foot but Hanuman treads on one, crushes another under a fallen tree, and picks up the third before squashing him in his hands! He then flies back to the Sun God, receives the magic flower, heads back to Earth, turns back into Piko and uses the flower to revive Anan. The stolen statue head, meanwhile, floats back to the temple and reattaches itself.

But that’s just half the story. Elsewhere we have a huge rocket base where a bunch of scientists (including Anan’s mother in an attractive pink dress) are hard at work on a scheme to break the drought. The first rocket launches successfully and explodes in the upper atmosphere, somehow causing rainfall. Much rejoicing. But the second attempt goes wrong, the rocket explodes on the launch pad and sets off a chain reaction among all the other rockets. I am pleased to report that from this point, about halfway through the 85-minute movie, until the end there is non-stop action. There is always either somebody fighting or something exploding or both. It’s fantastic!

The crashing rockets cause an earthquake and from the fissure emerge, for no adequately explored reason, five giant monsters. AU tells us that they are all, unsurprisingly, left over costumes from old Tsuburaya TV series and that they are called Gomorrah (epic!), Tyrant (scary!), Astromonse (impressive!), Dorobon (mighty!) and Dustpan. Dustpan? Surely they could come up with a better monster name than Dustpan? Is there also a monster called Brush? Perhaps one called Duster and one called Broom? What are they going to do, clean us all to death? (One of the monsters, incidentally, has Godzilla’s distinctive roar.)

Anan and his mum go in search of Piko and find him doing his monkey dance in the forest. He swiftly changes into giant-size Hanuman to battle the monsters, which have various scary appendages and can blast beams of stuff from eyes, mouth or horns. But he needs help. Fortunately here come the six Ultra-brothers (the five we saw before plus Ultraman Taro) to help him kick some monster arse.

The last 40 minutes really is one huge fight and it’s bloody great. There’s an unresolved subplot when one of the monsters chases after Anan and his mum which is a bit odd and means we only ever see four monsters destroyed, but they do go in style. Hanuman fires energy bolts from his trident which slice the heads and arms off two of the beasts. The decapitated bodies then run in circles before crashing into each other and, as seems to be traditional with Thai monster flicks, exploding. Another monster is defeated when Hanuman magically turns his trident into a staff which fires a vertical energy bolt that cuts the monster in two vertically down the middle! (Both halves, naturally, explode...) But the best death is when Hanuman and Ultraman rip the skin from the head of a monster, leaving only a skull. They then rip the skin from its arms like pulling the sleeves off a jacket. Finally Hanuman blasts a bolt of energy at the monster and all the rest of its skin dissolves leaving a goofy looking skeleton. This is what we pay our money for!

With all the monsters disposed of (apart from the one last seen chasing Anan and his mother...), it’s time for Hanuman to do one last monkey dance, give each of the Ultra-brothers a kiss and a hug, and wave them bye-bye as they fly back to M78.

Traditionally Ultraman and his brothers have time-limit devices in their chests which keep all their fights down to three or four minutes. But not here. Non-stop giant-size hero-vs-monster action for more than half an hour - bloody hell!

The effects, credited to Kazuo Sagawa (who was still overseeing Ultra-FX as recently as 2001’s Ultraman Cosmos: First Contact), are well up to Tsuburaya’s usual standard, despite the use of some stock footage for the outer-space sequences. The rocket base miniature is excellent and the explosions would put an episode of Thunderbirds to shame. The limited usage of mattes and green screen to mix the giant characters into scenes with real people is also very effective (considering the time and the budget).

Shohei Tojo also directed episodes of the 1971 TV series Return of Ultraman as well as shows like Dynaman, Goggle 5 and Zyu Ranger (the original source of the Japanese footage in early Power Rangers episodes). He was also AD on Toho’s Lost World-style romp The Last Dinosaur. Writer Bunko Wakatsuki was one of several credited scribblers on the cobbled-together TV movies Star Force and Fugitive Alien, both of which were released in the UK by Xtasy Video.

Oh, and according to AU, when Hanuman chats with the Sun God he persuades him to move further away from the Earth, thus ending the draught.

So are there six or seven Ultramen in this thing? Well, I suppose there are seven altogether but only six at any one time. Ultraman Taro is missing from the M78 sequence - because he’s actually Piko/Hanuman in that bit, if you follow me - and Ultra-mother doesn’t come to Earth and fight monsters. The Japanese title (this was made in 1974 when Ultraman was big in Thailand but not released in Japan until 1979) is Ultra Roku Kyodai Tai Kaiju Gundan - ‘roku’ is Japanese for six - and many sources list this under the English translation Six Ultra-brothers Against the Monster Army. But the Thai title is Hanuman Pob Jed Yod Ma-nud and 'jed' is Thai for seven; in fact it actually has the title in English on the VCD. (The Chinese dub gets round this problem by using the title Fei Tien Cha Jen - ‘The High-Flying Supermen’.)

Allegedly there is a re-edited version called Hanuman Pob Sib Et Yod Ma-nud - ‘Hanuman vs 11 Ultraman’! - and my initial assumption was that this was just the original title translated into English then mistranslated back again. After all, the screen is so full of Ultramen, it’s difficult to see where you could fit another four of them in! But such a beast does in fact exist as proved by the gloriously colourful poster.. (Some footage from Hanuman vs 7 Ultraman was reused in a 1985 US-produced ‘spoof’ called Space Warriors 2000.)

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted before November 2004
Many thanks to Ultramong for the pictures