Thursday, 19 November 2009

Filmathon - The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Unleashed, The Seventh Seal & Duck Soup

I've got a serious DVD shopping habit as you might have guessed and buy far more DVD's than I can watch, especially considering I work full time and live with my partner who doesn't totally share my taste in films.  One way I have of tackling this problem is by taking any rare free and lonely days that I get and turning them into a full on 'filmathon'.  This brief set of reviews charts my latest session.

I'm going to keep the reviews really short this time because I'm doing four films at once and I'm quite busy at the moment, so apologies for skimming over them a bit.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Year: 1963
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Mario Bava, Enzo Corbucci, Enio De Concini, Eliana De Sabata, Mino Geurrini & Franco Prosperi
Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentia Cortese

The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often considered to be the first Giallo film and is a bit of a cult classic from the Godfather of Italian horror, Mario Bava.  How does it hold up today though?  Well, not too bad, but it's showing it's age.

The plot is full of twists and turns but basically an American tourist, Nora, comes to Rome to visit her mother's friend, who ends up dying (of natural causes) almost as soon as she gets there.  On the way to the hospital Nora gets mugged and knocked out cold.  When she comes to she hazily witnesses a murder before passing out again from the trauma.  Nobody believes her though as all traces are gone as she wakes up.  The film goes on to follow her quest to find the killer herself.

It's all very Hitchcockian as you can gather from the title (although it is called The Evil Eye in the US).  The plot and dark humour running through the film are all reminiscent of the master of suspense, but for me although it's an entertaining film, it doesn't reach the heights of say North by Northwest or Rear Window.  It has dated badly in terms of performance and dialogue.  A voiceover that runs throughout is painfully over the top in it's level of exposition, explaining exactly what Nora is thinking when we can clearly see or figure it out.

Where the film does succeed though is in it's various set-pieces and in it's style.  It's beautifully shot in black and white, using dramatic contrasts and lots of shadows to great effect.  The set-pieces really show off it's look and style, creating some incredibly tense and darkly beautiful scenes that make the film worth while.  A scene in an empty apartment where Nora can hear voices calling her is very effective in particular.

So it's a bit dated and cheesy at times, but it still succeeds in it's scenes of terror and is worth watching for these alone.



Year: 2005
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon

Unleashed (otherwise known as Danny the Dog) was a film I was desperate to see when it first got announced, placing martial arts movie legend Jet Li in a Hollywood film with a solid cast and a writer/producer (Luc Besson) that knew how to make a quality action film (Leon, Nikita etc.)  When it finally got released though it was hit with some quite lukewarm reviews and wasn't massively successful, so it seemed to pass me by somehow.  I finally decided to rectify things and sit down and watch it on DVD four years after it's release and I was pleasantly surprised.

Unleashed throws us into a seedy British underworld where debt collector Bart (Hoskins) has trained a semi-mute slave Danny (Li) to beat the living hell out of anyone he pleases by releasing a dog collar he uses to control him.  Danny eventually escapes his captor and ends up living with a kindly old blind piano tuner (Freeman) and his step-daughter (Condon).  This pair manage to open Danny up to become a real person and not an animal, until of course his demons come back to haunt him.

The film to me seemed to be aiming at replicating the success of Leon, in that it's at times a brutal, stylish action film but at others a touching drama.  Unleashed is not as successful at this it has to be said, but it still does pretty well.  The action scenes are bone-crunchingly brutal and are the strongest elements of the film, with some impressive choreography from the master himself, Yuen Wo Ping.  The scenes with his new family are not quite as impressive, but they're much better than I expected.  Jet Li delivers his finest English language performance, displaying an impressive range and delivery despite the language barrier.  Bob Hoskins makes a great villian and Morgan Freeman is solid as always, but doesn't fire on all cylinders.

It's not a perfectly balanced film and has it's silly and schmaltzy moments, but nonetheless it's an effectively entertaining and well made film that deserves more respect.


The Seventh Seal

Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot

I've been living in fear of The Seventh Seal for a long time.  I've attempted to watch it on around four occasions and never got further than a minute or two into it before I've given up.  I think it didn't help that before recently I'd never seen an Ingmar Bergman film.  I'd always read so much about how serious and important his films were that I just didn't have the patience to sit through any of them, thinking I'd be bored to tears.  Finally, for who knows what reason I decided to watch The Virgin Spring and I loved it, which opened up the floodgates for me, prompting this review as my subsequent Bergman fix.  Speaking of which, reviewing this film is another fear I've had.  What am I, lover of trashy kung-fu films, going to say about one of the highest regarded art-house films ever made?

Lets start with the plot; The Seventh Seal is all about death.  The central element (and most famous) follows a knight returning from the crusades who is having a crisis of faith when he is confronted by Death himself, telling him his time is up.  The knight, who still wants answers on the existence of God before he dies, challenges Death to a game of chess for his life.  The rest of the film concerns the fears and turmoil surrounding a plague that is ravaging the country and casting the shadow of death over everyone and everything.

Well, after finally forcing myself to watch it I must say I was surprised.  Not surprised by how good it is (it is brilliant), but by how entertaining it was.  OK, it's certainly not a laugh-riot and it's a million miles away from the fun I get from a Jackie Chan film, but it's not the tedious, ponderous tosh that I originally expected.  It is about death and religion so is heavy going, but Bergman keeps the running time lean and doesn't waste time along the way.  There's even a bit of farce thrown in there too.  There are numerous main characters with very different outlooks on life which make it easy to find someone to relate to, although the film works best as a thought-provoking piece by displaying how all of these sides to the debate have a point and there are no easy answers.  It really is a fascinating film that probes the darkest but ever-present questions man has of life and death.

It's also a beautiful film, with some stunning use of lighting and locations.  Some of the imagery will stay with you forever, some of course is already so parodied that it's lost some of it's effect, but it still holds its own and the scenes with Death are among the most memorable moments despite bringing up thoughts of Bill and Ted.

The performances are fantastic too, especially Max Von Sydow, who is an awesome presence on screen.  I could go on, but I'm sure you've all read about how good the film is before, just let me tell you that it's not as dull as it sounds.  Be brave and give it a go, you won't regret it.


Duck Soup

Year: 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Starring: Groucho, Harpo, Chico & Zeppo Marx

Duck Soup was the final film the Marx Brothers produced for Paramount before moving over to the more restrictive hands of MGM.  For many it's the pinnacle of their career and I hadn't got round to watching until now, after already getting through most of their later films, which are fun, but a bit formulaic and over-stretched.  Duck Soup though was produced in the days before MGM reigned in the Marx Brothers' madness and it was worth the wait.

The story of course is pushed into the background, but concerns the small country of Freedonia, which is in financial crisis and is forced to borrow a huge sum of money from a wealthy widow (Marx Brothers favourite Margaret Dumont).  In exchange for the loan she insists that control of the state is given to the crazy Rufus T Firefly (Groucho), who through various mishaps ends up going to war with neighboring country, Sylvania.

The set-up allows the brothers to hit on plenty of satire in amongst the slapstick, although it's not as biting as modern offerings.  Nevertheless it's still hilarious and had me laughing out loud at points even though I was sat at home watching it alone.  The gags come thick and fast with Groucho's one-liners firing out like a machine gun, and some of the physical humour is spot on too.  The famous mirror scene in particular is immaculately performed.

As mentioned previously this was also the last film the brothers had maximum control over which means that Duck Soup is without any tacked on love story, without the usual piano and harp solos, and is totally bonkers.  The final war scenes are utter chaos and Groucho's constant costume changes during the battle had me in stitches.

There are still some flat and dated moments when the film tries to maintain it's 'story', but these are few and far between and whenever the Marx Brothers are on screen it is pure gold.


Monday, 9 November 2009


Year: 2009
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone & Abigail Breslin

I wasn't that bothered about seeing Zombieland when I first heard about it.  I like a bit of horror (as you can see by the past month's worth of reviews!), but I'm growing tired of zombie films.  There are just too many of them about and few offer anything new to the genre.  But I have to say, after dragging myself along to watch it I actually quite enjoyed it and thought it did offer something fairly new to the shuffling hordes of the undead.

Zombieland takes place in a world already overrun with zombies and we follow Columbus, one of the few survivors, as he makes his way across America in a vain effort to try and find his family.  Along the way he bumps into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a tough, no nonsense guy who revels in taking down zombies left, right and center.  This clashes with Columbus' strict zombie survival rules, but the pair team up anyway and end up clashing/bonding with Wichita and Little Rock (Stone and Breslin) on their travels.

The core narrative is pretty predictable and it's not a groundbreaking film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's humour and lightness of touch is refreshing for a zombie film.  Yes, there are plenty of zombie comedies out there, but most of them still have that dark edge or horror trappings, whereas Zombieland never particularly tries to be scary or claustrophobic like most.  It just aims for pure, simple entertainment, focusing on what the film describes as the 'little things' that can be fun about the situation, e.g. being able to trash shops, take out zombies in extravagant ways without consequence and being able to get into theme parks for free.

The film has more heart than most zombie films too, although this is where the film gets quite predictable and cliched.  You know from early on what point they're going to be making about friendship, family etc....  It still sort of works though, mainly due to the likeable cast, in particular the two male leads who work very well together.  Jesse Eisenberg proves he can pull off mainstream roles after a number of strong indie performances and handles the film's narration with ease.  I've always been a fan of a Woody Harrelson too and it's good to see him in a decent lead role after a bit of a lull, his next film Defendor looks like it could be good too.

It's not a big laugh out loud comedy, but more of a consistently funny one.  One exception is a totally unexpected (depending on how much you've read into it) and hilariously good extended cameo that appears midway through the film.  I knew nothing about it beforehand and practically did a double take when it came along.  The random silliness of the scene fits in nicely with the irreverent mood of the rest of the film and it's probably Zombieland's high point.  The finale set in a theme park is great fun too.

It's not going to change the world, but Zombieland is a lot of fun and is a welcome addition to the often over-earnest and over-saturated zombie genre.  Perfect beer and junk food fodder with enough heart and humour to entertain non-horror audiences too.


Sunday, 8 November 2009

Red Dwarf - Back to Earth (DVD)

Year: 2009
Director: Doug Naylor
Writer: Doug Naylor
Starring: Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules & Robert Llewellyn

I was a massive fan of Red Dwarf as a youngster when it was first broadcast on TV, but I must admit I lost interest somewhere around Series 7, when the programme started to lose steam.  When Back to Earth was announced, a three part mini-series (displayed on DVD as a feature length film) reuniting the cast and writer/director Doug Naylor after ten years, it passed me by.  For one I don't watch an awful lot of TV these days, and also I'd pushed the memory of the old episodes way into the back of my mind.  When I was contacted by the generous folk at Warner Bros. Entertainment offering me a copy to review though all the happy memories flooded back and I thought I'd give this new incarnation a chance.

Back to Earth takes place nine years after series 8 (ignore the box's claim to be set after 'series x', that'll become clear after watching the DVD), Kristine Kochanski is dead and Lister is still saddened by this.  The crew get attacked by a strange dimension jumping squid-like creature and a new hologram comes aboard to whip the crew into shape.  They use the squid's tentacle to try and open up a gateway to another dimension to send it back through, but end up getting sucked into it themselves instead.  On the other side they find themselves in our world, where of course they aren't real, but merely characters in a TV show.  Learning that they will die in the final episode of the programme they track down their 'maker' to try and amend this.

Back to Earth is a disappointing film/set of episodes that is redeemed by it's DVD.  For one, it's chock-a-block full with extras which increase the value of course, but also I found that listening to how the new mini-series was made helped explain some of it's shortcomings.

I must admit it took me a while to get into Back to Earth.  To begin with the humour just wasn't coming across at all.  One reason for this after watching some of the documentaries on the disc was that this was the first time they'd shot it like a film; out of sync and shot-by-shot, rather than using multiple cameras in front of a studio audience.  You can see the actors struggling to get their gags across without the help of a supportive crowd.  That said, the jokes aren't particularly witty though, with most gags either over-familiar or just childish.  After a while I did warm back to the characters though and began to enjoy myself a little more.

One of my favourite aspects of the original Red Dwarf episodes were the complicated plots, which always had a crazy but logical feel to them, keeping true to it's sci-fi roots.  Back to Earth manages to get there in the end, with some great ideas being revealed in the climactic scenes, but it takes a while to get there.  The first third of the mini-series set on Red Dwarf just wasn't that interesting at all, and when they get to Earth it all just seems like a bad idea at first, but it does kick into gear after a while.  In Naylor's commentary he does make reference to the fact that he wanted the mini-series to be a two-parter and not three as it ended up, so maybe the script was padded out to accommodate this.   The ending does bring the show back to Earth (excuse the pun), not literally but in terms of feeling like the Red Dwarf of old, suggesting that should the programme come back to our screens it might hopefully be more as we remembered rather than the last two series that tried to change the format and failed.

Back to Earth is quite hit and miss in terms of special effects and overall sheen too.  Again, after viewing the extra material on the DVD it's apparent that the budget was much lower than it should have been, mainly because the programme's production was funded by Dave this time rather than the BBC.  Of course Red Dwarf was never one for cutting edge effects though, so the cheapness is part of it's charm I guess.  I find it easier to get sentimental about naff practical effects than naff CGI though.

As you can guess by the plot, the mini-series owes a great debt to Blade Runner, and it doesn't try to hide this.  Several scenes are clear parodies of scenes from Ridley Scott's masterpiece and many of the shots, costumes and sets are lovingly reconstructed.  The production designers manage to use their meagre budget very effectively in this aspect.  My issue though was that these parodies felt a bit overused, and after a while I wished they'd come up with something new instead of just ripping off something we all know so well.

Overall, it's a patchy affair that was disappointing, but I did warm to it towards the end and it suggested that given the chance the show has the potential to get back to it's roots.


I've touched on this already, but thought I should do a mini write-up.  I won't talk about the picture and sound quality because I was given a region 1 copy and my proper DVD set-up doesn't play those.  I had to watch it on my old player through scart which just ruins the picture on my LCD TV.

Features-wise this DVD is brilliant, as I mentioned it actually improves the viewing experience no end.  Contained in the 2-disc set are two commentaries, a two part documentary, deleted scenes, smeg ups, several featurettes, trailers, web videos and a photo gallery.  The box mentions an Easter Egg too, but I couldn't find it.

I didn't sit through the whole of the two commentaries, but I really enjoyed what I heard of them.  The cast commentary seems very enjoyable with the boys on top form, sadly better form than in the mini-series.  Doug Naylor's commentary is very interesting, going into great detail about the making of the mini-series and how it came to fruition.  Most interesting is the story behind the long-planned Red Dwarf the Movie.

The documentary is great and I found myself enjoying it more than the mini-series.  Almost every aspect of the production process is covered and everyone seems very open and honest about everything, which is refreshing after watching the usual tacky love-ins that make up most making of's.  It looked like the cast and crew had fun too and seem to get on like before despite the tight schedule and new methods of production.

The rest of the features aren't as strong but are still entertaining enough and informative, especially the FX featurette that is more enjoyable than most of it's kind.

So all in all it's a case of a weak mini-series on a brilliant DVD.  Make of that what you will.

Film: 4/10
DVD: 9/10

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

CS - Sunday: The Burning, Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl, The House of the Devil & Grace

The Burning

Year: 1981
Director: Tony Maylam
Writers: Peter Lawrence, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Tony Maylam & Brad Grey
Starring: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Jason Alexander & Fisher Stevens

A bit of a cult-classic slasher film from the early days of the genre, The Burning was placed on the Video Nasties list in the 80's. Watching it now, despite a couple of gory scenes, it's hard to see why, but I still had fun with the film.

It's plot is clearly ripped off Friday the 13th (released the year before); a nasty, alcoholic groundsman who was burned in an horrific accident exacts his revenge by stalking a bunch of teenagers at a summer camp with a pair of garden shears. From then on you know the drill; teenagers get naked, do stupid stuff and crazed killer hacks them to pieces.

As I said at the start though, despite it's over-familiarity I still found myself rather enjoying the film. I think one thing that helped was the fairly realistic and amusing banter between the characters. The film's 'hero' Todd (Brian Matthews) is bland and uninteresting but the supporting cast including future stars Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter are mostly quite likeable and I actually found myself feeling disappointed when some of them got killed.

The gore is well handled too by the master Tom Savini. It's not his finest work, but Savini on a bad day is still impressive and inventive. A massacre set on a raft (deleted from some censored versions of the film) is particularly brutal and is the centrepiece of the film, still shocking to watch today.

It's obviously not a perfect film though, as mentioned before some of the lead performances are pretty weak and plain annoying at times. There's also a ridiculous amount of nudity and sexual content in it. I've got nothing against it generally, and I'd never turn my nose up to a bit of T 'n A now and again, but it does start to get pretty silly.

So if you're in the mood for an old-style slasher that doesn't offer much new, but is fun and mindless you'd do worse than dig this out from the archives.


Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl

Year: 2009
Directors: Yoshihiro Nishimura & Naoyuki Tomomatsu
Writers: Naoyuki Tomomatsu & Shungiku Uchida
Starring: Yukie Kawamura, Eri Otoguru & Takumi Saito

Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl, what can I say? It's from the people behind Tokyo Gore Police, Stacy and Machine Girl, so if you've seen any of those films you'll know what to expect. If you haven't seen any of those films, you're in for a treat!

Plot? Er ok, when a new girl (Yukie Kawamura) comes into school and falls for the class hunk, popular girl Keiko (Eri Otoguru) isn't happy and the two become worst enemies. So far so textbook yeah? Did I mention the new girl is a vampire, and somewhere along the way Keiko is murdered and her father reanimates her corpse using various bodyparts to turn her into 'Frankenstein Girl'? Oh and it's set in a high school where students are mainly segregated into groups such as the Wrist Cutting Club and the Ganguro Girls, girls who idolise African Americans and try to dress, talk and look like them - all the way down to colouring their skin.

If you haven't guessed already (the title is a giveaway), Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl is as mad as a bag of squirrels. Most of what occurs in the film is utterly ludicrous and that, added to an insane amount of gore and bloodletting are what sells this film. Basically, take the maddest Japanese film you've ever seen, add in the goriest horror film you've ever seen, multiply it by ten and then you have Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl. It's got everything from a character using her own severed limbs to turn herself into a helicopter, song-and-dance numbers utilising a ribcage as a guitar, to a wrist slitting competition where one girl ends up slashing through her entire arm. It's all done with it's tongue firmly in it's cheek of course and with a makeshift low budget style that means the effects don't look particularly realistic. This works to it's advantage though, as if they did I think it would be much harder to stomach.

It's clearly not for everyone of course - if any of the scenes described above don't appeal to you then you won't like the film. It's crude, offensive, utterly crazy and there's enough blood in the film to fill the Great Lakes; it's not an art piece and it's not safe family entertainment put it that way. Personally I really enjoyed it, it's a hell of a lot of fun and it's insanity knows no bounds, which to me is a bonus. However, being a big fan of Machine Girl which has a similar style and appeal, I don't think this is quite as successful. Quite a few scenes are stretched out a little too far and could have been trimmed. Also, I found the Ganguro Girl's a little too offensive at times and not in the right way. I understand it's poking fun at teenage stereotypes, but it just came across as being a bit racist to me.

Fans of ultra-gory Japanese madness like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police will lap this up, and if you like your films to be truly extreme without getting serious in any way then this should not be missed.


The House of the Devil

Year: 2009
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan & Mary Woronov

The House of the Devil is an affectionately accurate homage to horror films from the late 70's and early 80's, and one that works very effectively.

The film has a simple story; a college student who is hard up for cash takes on a babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse. When she realises that the couple who hire her don't actually have a child, things start to get a little distressing.

The film mimics the style of films from the period mentioned above perfectly. It's not just a flashy gimmick used now and again as a nod and a wink, it actually does feel like you're watching an old forgotten horror film. It also shares the same slow-burning creepy quality of the better films of that era rather than just subjecting the audience to cheap jumps and unnecessary gore. Although very little happens in the first two thirds of the film, the feeling of tension is so effective you can't help but be glued to your seat to find out what will happen in the end.

Unfortunately, I found that when the climax did arrive I felt a bit let down. It's not a bad ending by any stretch, but after such a subtle and engrossing build I felt a little cheated by a more shlocky and predictable ending.

I would still recommend it though, so long as you can appreciate the slow pace and minimal plot. It's a film that's clearly been made with a lot of love and affection for the genre, and a lot of effort has been made to create a film that references the past without sinking into parody.



Year: 2009
Director: Paul Solet
Writer: Paul Solet
Starring: Jordan Ladd, Stephen Park & Gabrielle Rose

Maybe it was the fact that I'd already sat through 12 back-to-back horror films before watching this, but I felt like I wanted to like Grace more than I actually did.

It begins with a couple, Madeline and Michael Matheson, who are about to become parents and their problems in finding a way to bring it into the world in line with Madeline's natural and organic view of life against Michael's domineering mother's devoutly traditional ways. A car accident changes everything though, leaving Madeline a widow and seemingly killing the baby inside her. She still insists on delivering it though and miraculously it arrives into the world alive. Just as things seem to be going well however, Madeline learns that her child, Grace, is not quite normal.

It's a dark and disturbing film with an interesting concept, but for me nothing really settled. It's well made, looks good and is well performed, but it just felt unpleasant rather than powerful and was a little too slow-moving for my liking.

Although the 'evil baby' premise sounds ridiculous, the film takes matters very seriously, and this actually works, only one or two moments felt silly. However, it's seriousness doesn't help the fact that it's a difficult film to enjoy. On a metaphorical level too, the film wasn't quite as effective as it wanted to be, with some ideas handled very bluntly.

It's an odd film, not a bad one, but an unsatisfying and unlikeable experience. I imagine many people will get more from it than I did, but I found it to be a slightly disappointing ending to an otherwise fantastic festival.


More reviews from Celluloid Screams 2009:
Saturday Part 1

Saturday Part 2

Monday, 2 November 2009

CS - Saturday pt. 2: I Sell the Dead, Paranormal Activity, Neighbor & Pieces

I Sell the Dead

Year: 2009
Director: Glenn McQuaid
Writer: Glenn McQuaid
Starring: Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman & Larry Fessenden

I Sell the Dead is (so I'm told) a throwback to the old Hammer and Amicus horror films, serving up thick slabs of gothic, hammy horror without taking anything too seriously. Having barely watched any authentic Hammer horror films (a crime I'm sure in some circles), I'm probably not the right audience or critic to be watching and reviewing this. I'm not warning you that I'm going to lay into the film, I just think that others might appreciate it on a different level. In fact I quite enjoyed it, but anyway, let's get on with things...

The film is told mainly through flashback as grave-robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) tells his grisly story to a priest (Ron Perlman) during the final night before his execution. We learn of his exploits with friend and business partner Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) as they move from petty thieves to dealers in the undead. It's a daft and quite fractured narrative, but works well as a series of fun vignettes. Don't look for logic or character development, just go along for the ride and you won't be troubled.

It's a lightly entertaining romp despite the grim subject matter, with most of the film played for laughs. It's never hilarious, just consistently likeable, which makes for a film that is easy to watch but difficult to really love. The cast all seem to be having a great time, and provide enjoyable performances. Some of the accents are a bit laughable for the wrong reasons (Ron Perlman especially), but it's all part of the hammy charm I guess.

Visually the film looks great, with the attractive period setting making a welcome change to the grimy or overly slick looks of modern horror films. A lot of work has clearly gone into making it look like a classic gothic horror, and the special effects match it by never looking overly realistic, adding to the dated Hammer feel.

At the end of it all though, as fun and pretty as it is, I Sell the Dead never has enough impact to really be all that memorable. It's entertaining while it lasts, but I don't think I'll be rushing to see it again.


Paranormal Activity

Year: 2009
Director: Oren Peli
Writer: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat & Mark Fredrichs

I imagine most of you will have heard about Paranormal Activity by now, but I managed to watch it before I'd really read anything about it, which is always a good thing in my opinion, especially with regards to horror films. In my opinion, the hype is fairly justified. OK so it's no masterpiece, but it really did scare the hell out of me, and to manage that in a weekend of watching 13 horror films is quite an achievement.

Paranormal Activity is similar to the Blair Witch Project in a lot of ways, as I'm sure thousands of people have already pointed out. Like that, Paranormal Activity is ultra low budget, portrayed as 'lost footage', has a minimal cast and locations (all in one house) and is a real 'love it' or 'hate it' experience. It's an incredibly basic film, especially with regards to it's plot, if you can call it that. The whole film really just 'documents' a couple's experiences in a seemingly haunted house. The structure is basically a gradual build up in the severity of the paranormal activity (of course) going on.

It's quite a repetitive film, but the director uses this to his advantage, creating unbearable tension in the night scenes which always open on the same static shot of the couple in bed. Your eyes are forced to scour every pixel of the image looking for the next movement or shadow to appear. This shot burns into your memory by the end of the film, and still sends a chill down my spine as I write this review.

The other key to the film's success, as with all good horror films, is the soundtrack. There's nothing fancy to hear and no music at all, but the location sound feels more real than the over polished audio of Cloverfield, and when things start to go 'bump' in the night you really feel it.

Yes, there is no story, the characters are at times annoying and some of their actions are frustrating, but as an exercise in sheer terror, you can't get better than this. It really is the scariest film I've seen in a long time, and I'd recommend any horror fan to check it out. Just bring a change of underwear.



Year: 2009
Director: Robert Angelo Masciantonio
Writer: Robert Angelo Masciantonio
Starring: America Olivo, Christian Campbell & Lauren Rooney

Neighbor is the latest low budget edition to the 'torture-porn' sub-genre, which I must admit I really dislike. I've got something against going to the cinema to watch someone get slowly tortured, it does nothing for me except make me feel a bit sick and give me a headache. However, I was willing to give this a try despite any misgivings I might have had on reading up on it in the festival programme.

Neighbor tells the story of a young attractive woman (America Olivo) who moves from house to house in a local neighbourhood, torturing and killing the inhabitants along the way. The film mainly focuses on the torture of Don (Christian Campbell), a local bachelor with woman troubles and a basement recording studio used by him and his bandmates - very useful for prolonged loud torture scenes of course.

It's a film with little substance, the characters are given back-stories but these aren't particularly well developed. The writer/director tries to make things a bit more interesting by messing with some time shifting and dream sequences part way through the film, but far too much time is spent on this segment, ruining the tension and drama of the film's core. By the end you feel too confused and short-changed by some twists to really care about what will happen to the protagonist.

That said, the torture scenes are well handled at least, with some really original and very nasty ideas thrown in there. The make-up effects are particularly impressive for a film of it's budget too. Ultimately though, because you don't care so much for Don's fate and because the villain's performance lacks bite, you never feel that horrified by proceedings. From listening to the producer's Q&A after the film it sounds like it was never meant to be all that horrifying though, it's supposed to be nastily entertaining, but to be honest it left me feeling a bit bored. Torture-porn junkies might have a better time, but for me I can take it or leave it.



Year: 1982
Director: Juan Picquer Simon
Writers: Dick Randall, Joe D'Amato & Juan Picquer Simon
Starring: Christopher George & Edmond Purdom

Pieces is quite an experience, and I don't want to go into too much detail here, partly because I'm on my fourth review in a night, but really because it isn't a film to be analysed in any depth. Just turn your brain off, get a few beers and enjoy.

One of the nuttiest trashy horror films from the 80's, Pieces tells the classic tale of a disturbed youth who grows up to be a teen-stalking mass murderer on a college campus. Sounds textbook enough, and in narrative terms it certainly is, but it's just so ridiculous. The dialogue and performances are utter comedy - pure cheese with plenty of absurdities thrown in for good measure. Add lashings of gore, plenty of nudity and a completely random kung-fu scene and you've got all the makings of a grindhouse classic.

There's not a lot more to say about this film without just listing ridiculous moments. Let's just say if you're in the mood for a well constructed, psychological thriller look elsewhere, but if you want to see buckets of blood, random nudity and a bunch of Z-list actors making fools of themselves, then find a copy right now.


More reviews from Celluloid Screams 2009:
Saturday Part 1


Sunday, 1 November 2009

CS - Saturday pt. 1: Coffin Rock, Anguish & Yoroi: Samurai Zombie

Coffin Rock

Year: 2009
Director: Rupert Glasson
Writer: Rupert Glasson
Starring: Lisa Chappell, Robert Taylor & Sam Parsonson

Saturday kicked off with another solid offering from Australia. Coffin Rock didn't blow me away like Lake Mungo did, but it's a taught, well performed, slick thriller/horror.

A couple have been trying for a child for a long time with no success, until a strange drifter comes into their lives, and a drunken fling with the wife throws their lives into turmoil and eventually grave danger.

It's a story that has been told before and there are no surprises in this psycho-stalker tale, but a powerful performance from villain Sam Parsonson and some tight direction elevate the film to higher level than you'd at first imagine. Parsonson creates a wonderfully deranged obsessive who makes Lisa Chappell and Robert Taylor's characters lives a living hell. He has a creepily charming side to him that he employs to get people on his side, but when this drops he turns into something truly terrifying.

So, it's not a film that will change the world with it's predictable story and textbook finale, but it's a well-made effort and shows that first time writer/director Rupert Glasson is someone to look out for.



Year: 1987
Director: Bigas Luna
Writer: Bigas Luna & Michael Berlin
Starring: Michael Lerner, Zelda Rubenstein

Anguish is a mad, long-forgotten curiosity from the 80's that is quite an experience, not necessarily a great film, but certainly something worth seeing, especially at the cinema.

I don't want to give too much away, because the central conceit is such a shock when it's revealed, but basically about a third or maybe half way through the film there is a sudden revelation that turns the whole film on it's head and splits the film in two. The first part tells the story of a troubled optometrist's assistant (played by popular supporting actor Michael Lerner, given a welcome lead role) who is controlled by his overbearing mother (played by Poltergeist show-stealer Zelda Rubenstein) into a vicious killing spree where he cuts out his victim's eyes.

This core of the film is quite effective, with some hammy but entertaining performances leading us through a bizarre and gory slasher story that is pretty mad at times, but still quite effective. Unfortunately, when the 'revelation' occurs mid-way through the film, everything goes a bit wrong. It's an original and very interesting idea, but for me it spoiled the impact of the story that had already been developed, and any tension is lost because from then on the film jumps around too much.

That said, the film is certainly made memorable because of it's eccentricities, and although it doesn't always work, the premise does make it the fascinating curiosity that it is. So as an entertaining experiment it's a film I'm glad I caught before it disappears.


Yoroi: Samurai Zombie

Year: 2008
Director: Tak Sakaguchi
Writer: Ryuhei Kitamura
Starring: Mitsuru Fukikoshi & Issei Ishida

You get the idea from the title, Yoroi: Samurai Zombie is a silly action horror film with surprise, surprise, a bunch of samurai zombies in it! Unfortunately, although I never expected it to be a work of art, Yoroi does disappoint as an exploitation flick.

Written by Versus writer/director Ryuhei Kitamura and directed by Versus star Tak Sakaguchi, Yoroi borrows heavily from their cult classic debut. It's got the same low-budget, all shot in the woods feel to it as well as the over-the-top action and gore quota. It doesn't have the kinetic style of Versus though, or the pace, which means it never excites as much as it should. Also, crazily gory low budget action films from Japan these days have the likes of Machine Girl to contend with, and this never reaches the giddy heights of the king (or queen) of splatter.

At the end of all the daftness, the film has a surprisingly dark ending, which I wasn't expecting. It doesn't quite settle though after watching an hour or so of severed heads and pressure-washer arteries. The bloodiest sequences are where the film works best. The effects are never realistic, and some of the bloodletting looks copied and pasted throughout the film, but most of the humour comes from these crazy moments. If gore doesn't interest you, you'll be lost though, as there isn't much else to enjoy here. The comedy quite often struggles to hit it's mark. A seemingly indestructible gangster character provides some bad taste chuckles, but most of the time you'll be smirking rather than laughing out loud.

There is fun to be had though. It's obviously a very silly film, and if the style is to your liking you'll still leave the cinema with a smile on your face. Unfortunately, you'll also have a feeling of 'been there, done that better before'.


The write-ups for each day of the Celluloid Screams festival are now available:

Saturday Part 2