Thursday, February 28, 2013

JOHN DIES AT THE END: Slacker Ghostbusting and Eldritch Horror

John Dies at the End (2012)
Director: Don Coscarelli
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Rating: 7 / 10

David Wong's John Dies at the End is one of the best horror novels I've read in the past few years. It's a great blend of cosmic horror and puerile humor that also manages to say some profound things about isolation and identity. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me laugh out loud, and this is one of them. Wong is a pseudonym of Jason Pargin, editor for humor site, and the novel is assembled from a series of short stories he originally published online. This results in some pretty scatterbrained source material that might cause many directors to balk. Leave it to Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) to step up to the plate. While cramming a full book's worth of material into a film clocking just over ninety minutes is tough, he manages to reduce the script down to almost all of the best elements of the novel.

The film is framed as a conversation between a young guy named Dave (Chase Williamson) and a reporter (Paul Giamatti) who's interested in the supposed paranormal events to which Dave has been been witness. Dave and his slacker friend John (Rob Mayes) have stumbled upon a drug called Soy Sauce that enables them to perceive supernatural entities lurking just beyond the senses of ordinary humans. After realizing most of these entities are largely malevolent, John and Dave take it upon themselves to become a pair of freelance ghostbusters and assist those plagued by poltergeists, parasitic slugs, or extradimensional beings.

Where the novel managed to strike a fine balance between comedy and horror, Coscarelli chooses to play the film primarily for laughs. It's hard to believe that it's been nearly a decade since his last effort, Bubba Ho-Tep, but this film has the same clever writing paired with witty voice-over narration. It helps that the source material is so strong, and some of the best jokes from the book make it into the film almost verbatim. The focus on humor doesn't completely undermine the creepiness though. This film doesn't tone down the blood and guts, and is populated with a variety of unique monsters. To give you some examples: early in the film, the duo takes on a ghost whose physical form is assembled out of pieces of meat, numerous oversized leeches appear throughout the story, John battles a moustache that flies around like a bat, and a sentient cloud of bugs that dubs itself Shitload possess an idiot teenager. The monsters are a blend of practical effects and CGI, and the old-school effects really shine. The CGI is unobtrusive at best, but shows its seams towards the end, when John and Dave begin dimension-hopping in search of the cause of all these evil manifestations. (Is the decline in production value just a consequence of the budget running thin late in the game?)

It's unfortunate that the film doesn't descend into the dark places that the book occasionally explored. Dave's backstory is absent, which turns the opening quip about a damaged axe into a gag, as opposed to foreshadowing of the extreme identity crisis he faces later on (also absent from the film). The buildup to the final baddie isn't foreshadowed in the film as thoroughly in the novel. The novel's version of Korrok is disturbing because it was massively powerful and had the mind of a disgruntled adolescent. Here, it just shows up as a huge blob of CGI that instantly begins making dick jokes. I can't really pin down how frequently my knowledge of the novel ended up carrying me through the film's weaker spots, but friends who haven't read the book have told me that it held up pretty well for them.

As a whole, the cast is a great fit. Relative newcomer Chase Williamson does a great job of capturing Dave's disaffected outlook on the surreal events he's unwillingly drawn into. Honestly, Rob Mayes would not have been my first pick for John. He's too good-looking; I pictured someone with longer hair, thinner - more pothead than frat guy. Again, this is my own baggage from when I read the novel. Mayes does a decent job overall, mostly because he captures the freewheeling spirit of the character. I'm a strong believer in the notion Paul Giamatti adds a lot to any movie, and this is another piece of evidence backing me up, even though he's just an ancillary character.

Coscarelli's John Dies at the End is a better adaptation of the novel than I was expecting. It's probably the best film that was possible to make, given the nature of the book. It's fast-paced and funny enough to maintain its momentum, even if some individual plot points, effects, and gags aren't that strong on their own. When I saw this at Durham's Nevermore Film Fest, it was with a large, enthusiastic audience, and it was a great time. I have the feeling this film worked much better theatrically than it would have on my laptop. If there's a screening near you, be sure to check it out while you can. Fans of the book can expect the same level of comedy, but with slightly less developed characters and slightly milder existential terror.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Help Kickstart Scottish Pagan Horror Film LORD OF TEARS

If you enjoy atmospheric horror with gothic overtones and a hint of demonology, Lord of Tears is a film to keep your eye on.  This is director Lawrie Brewster's first feature film, in which he blends influences such as the pagan mythology of the Scottish highlands and the Lovecraftian Old Ones into a new tale of psychological horror.

The official summary:

Lord of Tears tells the story of James Findlay, a school teacher plagued by recurring nightmares of a mysterious and unsettling entity.  Suspecting that his visions are linked to a dark incident in his past, James returns to his childhood home, a notorious mansion in the Scottish Highlands, where he uncovers the disturbing truth behind his dreams, and must fight to survive the brutal consequences of his curiosity...

While Lord of Tears is complete, it has not yet been released, and needs your help to see itself through to the end. There's currently a Kickstarter effort underway to raise funds for additional post-production - primarily work to be done on the soundtrack. Funds will also be used to help market the film and to cover festival submission fees.

For me, Absentia was the film that really underlined how Kickstarter can help fund quality independent filmmaking. Lord of Tears is a film I'm looking forward to checking out not only because it looks to be an intriguing new spin on some old ideas, but because - let's face it - the horror world has not yet taken full advantage of how terrifying owls can be.

Watch the trailer below:

To find out more about Lord of Tears, check out the film's Kickstarter page, check out the official site, or head over to the official Facebook page.

Monday, February 25, 2013

BABY-SITTING: A Short Film Showcasing Short Killers

Baby-Sitting (2012)
Director: Lucas Masson
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Runtime: 20 min

Killer kids are a perennial horror favorite of mine, but I have a couple of stipulations: first, I prefer gleeful little monsters above stone-faced mannequins. If they're not enjoying themselves amidst the bloodshed, then why should I? Second, there's strength in numbers. One evil child? No problem, punt the little brat across the room. Once they start outnumbering the adults, that's when things get scary.

Baby-Sitting is a short film written, directed, and produced by Lucas Masson. It focuses on a young woman who's just accepted a job watching a couple of what appear to be very well behaved kids. Too well-behaved actually - they're pretty close to catatonic. After inviting a couple of friends over to keep her company, it appears that this will just be another unusual work-related story to tell. That is, until her friends start poking a little too much fun at the tykes, and the kids decide to start a game of their own...

Baby-Sitting doesn't appear to meet either of my killer-kid criteria initially, but I was happy to find that it quickly turns the tables on the sitters. It's fast-paced, clever, bloody and frequently hilarious. It also throws in a shocking twist or two for good measure. In other words, it's everything I look for in a short film. Baby-Sitting has been showing up at lots of fests recently, and I'd recommend you keep your eyes open for it. It's a very strong first effort by Masson, and is a bloody good time. Vive French horror!

Thanks to the Nevermore Film Fest for screening Baby-Sitting. Watch the teaser here, and check out the film's Facebook page. The Panic Attack films site is still under construction at the time of this writing, but can be found at

Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Seduce Sleazy Men - Get Possessed

Dangerous Seductress (1992)
Director: H. Tjut Djalil
Seen via: Mondo Macabro DVD (R1)
Rating: 7 / 10

After having a complete blast with Lady Terminator and being thoroughly unsettled by Mystics in Bali, I was really looking forward to watching director H. Tjut Djalil's Dangerous Seductress. In a way, Dangerous Seductress is a synthesis of the other two films. It combines action and a killer femme fatale with Indonesian mythology and mysticism. It also has a fascinating atmosphere that lies somewhere in the nexus between glitzy promotional tourism video and low-budget 80s horror (if there really is such a nexus outside of this film). No more stalling, let's dive in and let the bullets, blood, and heads fly!

I. Possession and Seduction

From minute one, Dangerous Seductress does not fool around. After panning across the cityscape of Jakarta while the opening credits roll and an upbeat synth tune pulses in the background, we fly down to street level to follow a car full of jewel thieves on the run. The massive chase scene and simultaneous gunfight that follows has that slightly unhinged feeling that Lady Terminator does so well (the same sort of feeling I get with Hard Boiled), where things unfold so recklessly that you fear for the safety of any bystanders onscreen. The criminals throw around non sequiturs left and right as they blast away with their guns. "Fix me a fucking martini," says the boss as he punches his incompetent driver and leans out of the car to unload a clip into some cops. "Showtime!" the lackey replies.

When the chase finally ends, it does not end well for the lawbreakers. As blood from their mutilated bodies soaks the ground, it also happens to fall onto a magic amulet in the haul from their heist. Now activated, the blood amulet imbues a severed finger with life. The digit promptly scampers over to be eaten by the amulet, which has the power to resurrect a skeleton from the ground. Flesh and bone begin to congeal into a woman. But what's this?

There's not enough blood to reconstruct the whole thing! Anyone who's seen Hellraiser knows how to solve this problem: more blood. Thank god a stray dog wanders by and tries to steal a bone from this ghoul. After turning the tables on the pup, she's ready to go, complete with strategically placed magic lightning.

This is the first 12 minutes of Dangerous Seductress. It makes no sense, and it's great. Afterwards, the pace slows a bit as the consequences of what we've seen begin to sink in.

We cut to L.A., where Suzie (Tonya Lawson) waits in her elaborate apartment for her husband John (Joseph Cassano) to return from work. It's their anniversary, and John surprises Suzie with a ring. Aw, how sweet. He also surprises her with some sex, which she's not really into. That doesn't stop John, and he starts to get violent. She flees the house and calls up her sister, Linda (Kristin Anin) who's a model living and working in Jakarta.

Linda's having her birthday party when Suzie calls. No problem! Of course Suzie can come stay with her! It's Linda's lucky day. In addition to some superb dancing with her husband, two filmmaker friends who are in the country to shoot a documentary about the occult show up with some birthday books for her. One's a book on Indonesian cosmetics (because she's a model, remember) and the other is an ancient occult text (because, well, good question). "Oh, how great," she says to the second, not with sarcasm, just sort of apathy. Little does she know of the destruction that will follow...

It's not long before Suzie shows up in Jakarta, but Linda has to leave for a photoshoot in Bali. That's okay, there's plenty for Suzie to do, such as read the old occult book and get possessed by the Queen of Darkness. The Queen appears to her in a mirror.

Yes! Another flying head! Unfortunately it's the only head we'll see flying for the rest of the film. Remember the skeleton woman? That's none other than the Queen, and she still needs blood so that she can break the last of the magic bonds that restrain her. Suzie is just the one to help, especially now that she's grown these lovely fangs...

Suzie gets all dressed up to the tune of this movie's original theme - a bumping house tune with some killer sax. Where to go to pick up men? The MALL, of course. Judging from this movie, the malls in Indonesia are way cooler than in the U.S.. Rather than Cinnabons, expensive clothes that never fit me, and hundreds of mutant teens, they are full of neon signs, clubs, bars, and sleazy men. And in case you were still wondering, Suzie is now 100% possessed, as evidenced by the Dutch Angle of Evil:

It's not hard for Suzie to use the Queen's powers of seduction to snag a guy at the bar. After the trust-fund baby takes her back to his yacht, she slaughters him with a variety of fishing implements, and drinks his blood. Despite her vampiric appearance, Suzie does not suck blood the traditional way...

That's blood going into her mouth.
What's more, she doesn't drink it, but just stores it until she gets home, after which she transfers it to the Queen of Darkness by cutting her throat and bleeding all over the magic mirror. Seems like with all the magic in use here, there'd be a slightly less messy way to do this.


II. Style

In Bali, we get a montage of 90's fashion courtesy of Linda. Intercut with this is footage that might have been lifted out of some sort of promotional video for a hotel or resort: people play on the beach, parasail, and lounge around the pools of swanky hotels. I haven't mentioned the look and feel of the film too much yet, but it's best summed up in this sequence. It often looks like a tourism commercial.

Like Mystics in Bali and Lady Terminator, Dangerous Seductress was intended to appeal to a Western audience. When the first two failed to do so, Djalil and crew had to come up with some new strategies. First, include as many English speakers as possible to avoid awkward dubbing. Second, import an American effects team to ensure high production value. (It turned out to be the same crew that would go on to produce the even more horrifying live-action abortions of The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas - thanks for pointing this out, Netflix!). And finally (although I've never heard it mentioned explicitly in interviews), showcase lots of glamourous sets, fashion and scenes illustrating just how much fun a girl from L.A. can have in Jakarta. When she's not murdering men for their blood, that is.

Steamy mall-bars!

Rat-faced men who will drive you around in a Mercedes!

It's everything a commercial thinks we want: the sterile interiors shot in soft-focus, the foggy neon cityscapes outside, the slickly modern 80's bars, and most of all, White Tourists Having Fun. Notice how even though we're in Jakarta and Bali, there's hardly any regional flavor on display. The native culture is defined in terms of how the Western world can be entertained by it. We see tourists in all their natural habitats - restaurants, bars, the mall, and the beach. The motive for showcasing this ultra-capitalist picture of Indonesia is to sell the idea of the countries (and by proxy, the film) to a Western audience. It's a film that tries to market itself as something Westerners will love by drenching its story in things Westerners love.

Then there's the music. Oh, wow, the music. It's the kind of synth-pop you could probably recreate with the presets on your old Casio if you gave it a couple hours. I have a strange affinity for this stuff, so I mean this in the best way. It's the authentic soulless stuff of infomercials, hotel lobbies, and the empty music played on the local access channel between shows. Someone looking to break into the vaporwave scene could use this score as a goldmine of samples. It'll sound immediately familiar to anyone who grew up in the 90's.

III. Back to the Plot

Eventually, after endless dancing, photoshoots, and montages, we get back to the story. Suzie continues to seduce and kill men under the power of the Queen of Darkness. Linda is alerted by a Balinese mystic that something is awry, and that her sister is in trouble. Stop for a second and realize this is the same plot as Mystics in Bali. A tourist possessed by a demon that uses her body to kill for blood, ostensibly saved when a local mystic realizes what's going on and attempts to end her spree of death. What defeated the Leák in Mystics is the same thing that's going to work here - a battle between good and evil magic for the soul of the possessed woman. Here's where the special effects really start flying.

What better way to end this film than with a neon lightning battle?

IV. Thank You, H. Tjut Djalil

I am fascinated by this movie. Its style is the most interesting thing about it for me, especially when it flips into tourist mode. That aspect blended with the more familiar B-horror vibe is something that gives it a strange feeling that I can't quite nail down. (Also, aesthetically speaking, I'm a sucker for neon and synths.)

I'm not going to overlook the film's flaws though. The acting is bad, even with the use of native English speakers. The story also meanders in the latter half, when Suzie is stalking and killing men over and over. The montages and dance sequences pad out the film substantially. While I had a lot of fun with them (they're like little in-film music videos), I can also see how they might be viewed as tiresome. This film never quite reaches the insane highs of Lady Terminator, although it shares much of the style. If I've raised your expectations too high, go ahead and take a moment to lower them.

As a whole, Dangerous Seductress has more than enough innate weirdness for me to enjoy the hell out of it. It sits in that space just to the side of all the low-budget horror you've watched, and uses glamour from the fashion and tourism industries to create its own distinct feel. H. Tjut Djali claims to have no pride in his work as a director, saying that he was simply hired to do a job. He asserts that his films were created with marketability placed before artistic intent. Even if this is true, he unwittingly imposed enough of his own style onto these films. Tracking down Djalil's more scarce films may prove to be a challenge, but it's one I'll gladly accept. I can't get enough of this guy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I Should Have Known Better...

Creep Van (2012)
Director: Scott W. Mckinlay
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 2.5 / 10

While visiting my family over the holidays this past year, I was tasked with going to the Redbox across the street and picking out a movie filled with holiday cheer for us all to watch together. When the cover for Creep Van scrolled by, I very nearly stopped scrolling. Because, I mean, Creep Van. It then occurred to me that this was the kind of movie you bring home to the family on Christmas if you want to undermine nearly thirty years of trust. I chose something else.

Nevertheless, the idea of Creep Van kept tickling the curiosity center in my mind. This is precisely the reason we have Netflix Instant, and also precisely the type of movie for which it always seems to pull through. Good taste be damned! I'll see my standards in hell. With a title like Creep Van, it was inevitable that I was going to watch this movie.

Not that you should, because Creep Van is flat out bad.

How else could the film open but with a child playing ball in a quiet suburban neighborhood? Lurking nearby on the curb: a rusty old Ford Econoline. You can almost hear the heavy breathing from inside and see the stinklines seeping out of the doors and windows. When the naïve child ventures too close to the van, his mother pulls him back just in the nick of time. "Stay away from vans. Only bad people own vans," she says. Sound advice (although somewhat weird coming from a suburban soccer mom), but this is not that kind of Creep Van.

This is the kind that's been rigged to slice, dice, hammer, and run down all breed of delinquent interloper. Windows cut teenage bodies in half, doors crush heads, and airbags blow nails into the faces of overly talkative passengers. The owner of this van clearly sprang for the fully equipped model. And if all the gadgets fail, there's always good old-fashioned methods of vehicular homicide - i.e. running some poor bastard over with a ton of rusted metal. This van is designed to kill, and who knows what the motives of this van's owner are. I'll be damned if we ever find out in the film. Personally, I was hoping that the van had become supernaturally sentient. At least that would have made sense. Instead, we get a creepy guy murdering people because the plot needs some action.

Have I not mentioned the actual plot yet? That's because I don't give a shit. There's a poor guy named Campbell (Brian Kolodziej) who is down on his luck and is assigned to work at a car wash by a temp agency. His life sucks, he moans and whines about not having a car, and he tries to impress fellow car wash employee Amy (Amy Wehrell) in a bunch of stilted romance sequences. His roommate, Bob (Justin Kolodziej), does stuff like this:

Because there has to be something to make the reptilian portion of your brain go "huh?" every once in a while in lieu of interesting events occurring on screen.

Why putz around with a guy like Campbell when there's a killer Creep Van on the loose? Well, because a movie must have a protagonist who is not a Creep Van, but is nevertheless connected to said Van in some way. Campbell needs a car, remember? Of course you do, because it's all he talks about. When he sees a for sale sign on the Creep Van, he calls and becomes entangled in the Van's murderous antics so that we can continue to have a reason to watch the Van kill people. The Van is killing people because... right... yeah... Many other questions come to mind when watching Creep Van, such as: "why is the van for sale in the first place?" "Is Campbell's torso as thick as it is wide, or is that an optical illusion?" "Why am I still watching this movie?"

Honestly though, I got exactly what I expected with Creep Van. It's not always boring, especially in the beginning when it appears to be taking itself seriously. There are also a few mildly funny gags mixed in among the groaners. It also boasts a guest appearance by Lloyd Kaufmann, who's always a delight. If you're just in it for the gore, the effects are done by Almost Human, who also was responsible for Laid to Rest, another poorly written and mindless slasher that didn't have as many bad jokes. Make of that what you will.

Still, the idea of an evil van is one I'd like to see executed well, if only due to several van-related memories of my own. If you'll allow me to digress for a moment - I can recall the time in high school that a friend and I "rented" a huge black van from a religious conspiracy nut who ran a chop shop out in the Minnesota wilderness. Our plan was to drive eight hours to Wisconsin for a concert, and by some miracle this van mustered up the structural integrity to get us there and back without dying. By the time we returned home our clothes had absorbed the smell of the van forever, and we likely incurred lung damage that won't manifest until later in life. But the things we saw in the ashtray - oh the things we saw. They were more terrifying and fascinating than anything in Creep Van:

This is the actual ashtray in the van we rented. It's unfortunate a still image like this
can't capture the seething/crawling aspect of whatever evil was inside. 
If you choose to watch Creep Van you probably already know what you're in for. This review is not likely to sway you either way. That's okay - movies like this fill a niche, i.e. "what will we put in this open slot in the Redbox library?" or "I feel like watching mindless trash in the background on Netflix Instant." And for that at least, Creep Van is a screaming success.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The RITES OF SPRING Demand Blood for Wormface

Rites of Spring (2011)
Director: Padraig Reynolds
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating:  4.5 / 10

This post is part of Ryne Barber's Viewer Vomit, hosted on his blog The Moon is a Dead World. Go check it out and read what some other bloggers have to say about Rites of Spring. Thanks to Ryne for hosting and giving me a reason to cross this film off my watchlist!

Slasher films seems to be in a transition phase - struggling to stay relevant in the face of tons of cookie-cutter releases and trying to escape a history that has roughly ten bombs for each success. Last year's Cabin in the Woods was almost a call to arms for horror filmmakers. Splaying the subgenre wide open and retconning essentially every slasher you've ever seen, it attempted to highlight what made the subgenre lovable while simultaneously demanding better. So is this a potential turning point that could take us beyond throwbacks, remakes, and rehashes? What might the next generation of slasher look like? One strategy is to blend in aspects of other genres, which is exactly what Rites of Spring attempts to do. You might guess from the poster (which I really like, by the way) that it's some sort of pastoral horror, but it's really more a blend of crime/suspense and slasher.

Rites of Spring initially follows two very different plot lines, jumping frequently back and forth. One focuses on a pair of young women who are abducted by a strange old man while out on the town drowning their job-related sorrows. The other centers around a nice guy named Ben who's been roped into a kidnapping scheme as a last-ditch effort to pay off a debt. The abduction plot gets very strange very fast. The two girls are taken to an isolated farmhouse and subjected to an assortment of violent rituals. The other story remains grounded in the real world, as Ben is persuaded against his better judgment to kidnap the young daughter of his boss for ransom.

Of the two stories, the kidnapping plot was the one that ended up working for me. AJ Bowen does a great job as Ben and becomes sympathetic in a role where he ends up participating in some pretty despicable events. There are a few twists along the way to keep things interesting, even though it's pretty clear from the start that the crime is not going to end well. The other story, well - it never really takes off. The weird rituals continue, the girls attempt to escape, and it eventually becomes clear that the old kidnapper is using them to summon... something.

It's a mummy. Or maybe a scarecrow? I'm not entirely sure what this monster is. (IMDB tells me his name is Wormface.) Mostly, it just looks like a guy running around wearing a mask. A big problem with the Wormface storyline is that there's too little to the underlying mythology. We get tidbits now and then suggesting this is some sort of ancient pagan blood sacrifice, but nothing establishes the rules or the motivation for the monster. The longer this segment runs, the more hollow it feels, especially once Wormface breaks free and starts dutifully offing the characters one by one.

When the two storylines eventually meet, it's more of a collision than a convergence. I was hoping for a meaningful connection between the two plots, but it literally boils down to the fact that the main characters from each portion used to work for the same company. So what?! The previous plot lines disintegrate as all characters become fodder for Wormface. The ending comes far too abruptly and leaves several loose plot threads hanging.

Despite the eventual collapse of both stories, there are a few things Rites of Spring does well. Setting the climax inside an abandoned elementary school was a great decision. The atmosphere is foreboding and lends credibility to the film even when the bottom falls out from underneath the plot. The cinematography is usually clean and polished, despite a little bit of camera shakiness. It's a shame that it doesn't have solid writing to back it up. In the end, all the prettiness in the world can't un-spaghettify your plot.

So is this indicative of a new direction for the slasher? Can we expect more slasher mash-ups in the future? I'm not intrinsically opposed to the idea. The way in which Rites of Spring gets it wrong is that it fails to draw on the strengths of both its genres. While the crime story is well done, the slasher portion is so derivative and empty that I was disappointed when it ended up being the storyline that dominated the ending. I'd like to see the parts of the slasher that I like the most (such as slowly building suspense and a solid mythology for the villain) used more effectively.

However much I've just trashed this film, I'd prefer its willingness to try something new to another thoughtless remake or something that's tongue in cheek or doesn't even care. Rites of Spring isn't devoid of entertainment, it just doesn't have the ability to back up its ambition.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There Goes the Neighborhood: Revisiting FRIGHT NIGHT

I can't remember when I first saw Tom Holland's Fright Night, but afterwards I concluded that it was the kind of film I probably didn't need to see again. For anyone who might someday need to force me to watch something I don't care too much about, one way to do it is to throw it on the leading end of a theatrical double-feature paired with The Beyond. (Let me add that I'm endlessly grateful to the Carolina Theatre for doing this - Fulci on the big screen is always a cause for celebration.) While I can't say I'm still 100% sold on Fright Night, my opinions of things often double in magnitude after a rewatch, for better or worse. There must have been a seed of goodwill in my heart towards this one, because I warmed up to it a little bit that night. It may also be due to a subtext that adds a little bit of depth to the film, and had (bafflingly) escaped me the first time I saw it...

In Fright Night, all young Charlie Brewster wants to do is make out with his girlfriend and get to third base, just like any hot-blooded suburban teen. But there's a new neighbor next door who's distracting him... "He's got a live in carpenter," says Brewster's mom. "With my luck, he's probably gay."

Not too far off, Mom! But in this film, we're going to code that as "vampire." Enter Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandrige, the foppishly-dressed neighbor who can't seem to saunter into a room without a piece of fruit in hand (get it?). He's the source of much anxiety to Brewster, who can't get the guy off his mind. Not even when his girlfriend is literally taking her shirt off on his bed. Dandrige inspires a panic in Brewster even before the kid suspects he's behind a string of murders that have plagued the area. Any questions about Dandrige's true nature are put to rest when he confronts Brewster relatively early in the film. Dandrige walks (with thundering metaphorical footsteps) out of Brewster's closet to confront him in the night - the same closet into which he'll toss Brewster later on in the scene.

Even though Dandrige proves to be quite friendly with Brewster's mom, most interactions he has with any woman in the film end in violence or death. Traditional relationships implode when this guy is near. This is in addition to Dandrige's corrupting anti-boner aura that seems to sabotage Brewster's relationship with his girlfriend at every turn. This guy has all the magical gay sanctity-of-marriage-destroying powers that every hardline Christian fears. Ready the crosses and holy water!

Where Brewster remains essentially one-dimensional throughout the film, his not-quite-side-kick Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) is more complex. He starts off in an interstitial space somewhere between hero and antagonist, and ends as a flat-out villain. His eventual transformation is telegraphed from the beginning (even beyond his "Evil" moniker) if you're watching for the signs. While he seems asexual on the surface, his constant mocking of Brewster can be read as a thin mask for some genuine feelings for him. As an example, consider the scene when Ed pretends to become a vampire and threatens to "give [Brewster] a hickey." No surprise then, when Dandrige is able to seduce Ed and vampirize him. Seems like Ed was easy prey all along. (Interestingly enough, in real life Geoffreys moved from Hollywood into the hardcore gay porn scene not too long after this film.)

Despite the allure it bestows upon the antagonists, Fright Night still succumbs to the old horror mindset in which "other" in any form equals evil and thus Must Be Destroyed. Otherwise, how can we go home and sleep at night after the credits roll? It's a shame, really, especially when our protagonist is such a beady-eyed whiner. Dandrige's character oozes charisma and dominates every scene he's in. How great would it have been to see Brewster's terror at actually becoming vampirized at his hands? Also, how lame is the loophole that allows his girlfriend to become un-vamped despite having already been bitten? This lack of follow-through combined with some plot drag and the apathy that I feel toward the protagonist are the major factors that bring Fright Night down a notch in my book. Still, this rewatch was more entertaining than I anticipated, even if for me it was mainly a time-killer for the eye-gouging main event.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"I'm surprised that a pretty girl like you would want to learn black magic..."

Mystics in Bali (1981)
Director: H. Tjut Djalil
Seen via: Mondo Macabro DVD (R1)
Rating:  5.5 / 10

Mystics in Bali is one of those filmic oddities whose flaws all somehow align to transform it into something fascinating. The last couple of Indo-action films I've written about mimicked the archetypes of Western genre films and were interesting because of their slight departures from those formulae. Mystics in Bali flips this approach around - it takes a story rooted in Southeast Asian mythology and attempts to restyle itself in a form more suitable for Western audiences. Prior to this film, most Indonesian horror took the route familiar to anyone who's ever watched a Bollywood film: melodrama, comedy, and musical numbers mashed together irrespective of genre that create something more goofy than frightening. Director H. Tjut Djalil wanted Mystics in Bali to have a broader appeal to try and achieve success overseas, so here he excised all but the most serious elements, played the story completely straight, and left the underlying Balinese mythology intact.

Cathy (Ilona Bastian) is a young anthropologist who's traveling the world studying the supernatural practices of various cultures. She takes a hands-on approach to her learning, which can only go wrong when you're studying witchcraft, really. Having already tried out voodoo and found it not to her liking, she's moved on to Bali, where she hopes to learn the ancient secrets of Leyak magic (also spelled Leák). She's accompanied by Mohendra (Yos Santo, who also pops up in The Devil's Sword), a native guide whose feelings for her are more than academic.

Mohendra helps Cathy contact a Leyak witch against his better judgment. The rules of Leyak, which he states early in the film, give us a nice info-dump so that we know what to expect:
  • Leyak witches laugh. A lot. Their presence is usually signaled by awful cackling, of which there is an abundance in this movie.
  • Leyak magic allows its users to shapeshift into animals or change their physical appearance. In addition to providing the basis for some seriously strange transformation sequences later on, it means the filmmakers were able to cast any old lady they could find as the Leyak witch without worrying about continuity. Convenient!
  • Leyak magic is one of the most "powerful and primitive" magical systems of the world. It's dangerously seductive and allows its users to manipulate others without their knowledge.
  • If you kill someone with Leyak magic, nobody will be able to prove the cause. (Not necessarily true, as we'll find out.)

The film's first half consists of Cathy and Mohendra meeting with the witch, who subjects Cathy to several strange occult rituals that will induct her into the ranks of the Leyak. At first the witch just demands gifts of jewels and jars of blood (which she drinks with her long, prehensile tongue). Things take a turn for the unsettling when the witch tattoos Cathy's thigh (again, using her tongue), and begins putting her into a trance during their meetings. It's in these trances that Cathy is truly shown the power of Leyak magic. Her first transformation takes place after she and the Leyak witch do an elaborate dance (while cackling hysterically, of course), then morph slowly into pigs.

The instructional sequences with the witch also mark the appearance of Mystics in Bali's signature feature: the flying witch head. During one of her later meetings with the Leyak, Cathy is placed into a trance and the Leyak borrows her head. That is, she possesses Cathy and causes her head to detach from her body, trailing internal organs as it flies away. If you have heard of Mystics in Bali, it's probably because of this:

While apparently a common feature of Southeast Asian mythology, the flying head with dangling organs is something that is eminently bizarre to my American eyes. It strikes me as grotesque in a way that most other monsters don't. First, it's close enough in form to an actual pile of human guts, and contains sufficient detail for you to be able to pick out individual organs. It's right in the pit of that uncanny valley for gore effects. Second, it's mobile and sentient. Guts as a result of a particularly violent death - sure. A pile of guts that flies around? Sorry, nope. I get creeped out when anything larger than a housefly flies at me. A screaming head dragging an awful meaty dreamcatcher made of organs? No, I'll take exactly none of that, please.

Once the witch takes control of Cathy's head, things get insane. Up until this point I had questioned whether the Leyak witch was actually evil. Really, all she did was look creepy and transform into animals - nothing so bad, right? Well, any open questions were answered when the witch uses Cathy's head to find a woman giving birth and EATS THE BABY AS IT'S BEING BORN.

Here's where that fourth rule of Leyak magic breaks down. It's pretty obvious to all the townspeople what's eating their babies. Especially when they come home to find this flying out of their window:

It's reassuring to see the townspeople reacting so strongly to these events, particularly when Mohendra and Cathy have been extraordinarily even-keeled in the face of these bizarre events. One of the strangest aspects of Mystics in Bali are the non-reactions the two protagonists show to all the varied things that befall them. For example, during the first meeting with the Leyak, Cathy shakes the witch's hand, which promptly detaches and falls to the ground. Cathy and Mohendra just look at it blank-faced while the witch cackles, then continue conversing with her. After transforming into a snake with the witch one night, Cathy pukes up a neon green slime and some live mice the next day. Mohendra's reaction: "Perhaps it was the food that made you so sick." You mean the food she ate and somehow neglected to digest while she was a snake? These disproportionate reactions are prevalent throughout the film. While they sometimes add to the surreal tone, most of the time they come off as a showcase for our stars' acting deficiencies. (To be fair, Ilona Bastian was a German tourist who Djalil found on a beach. He apparently thought having a European leading lady would increase his film's marketability.)

(In case it's not clear, this horrible thing is Cathy as a half-human half-snake.)
As crazy as Mystics in Bali sounds from my description, it's frequently marred by some glaring flaws. There's a lot of meandering in the story, especially during Cathy's early meetings with the witch. It often feels disjointed, especially in the first half. A couple of early scene transitions are indicated only by the change in the actors' clothing. Awkward pauses litter this film, both in the dialogue and the story. As much as I'd like to say that the weird bits sustain the movie's pace, they often remain simply weird little bits. Even during many of these, the non-acting undermines the scares, at least until the flying head makes its appearance. After that, the sheer insanity of the concept kept me interested. It should also be mentioned that most of the special effects are flat-out bad. But as a credit to the film, it never once lets this hinder what it's trying to do. Even when tongues or heads hung from strings are glaringly obvious, or the blue-screen effects take center stage for a little too long, Djalil plows ahead.

Another aspect that works in favor of the film's weirdness is the audio. The long stretches of silence, careless dubbing, and the low-fi soundtrack all blend together to create an eerie aural space. It'll sound familiar to fans of the similarly low budget dub jobs in many Super 8 and 16 mm features such as Death Bed or The Abomination. The soundtrack reputedly features traditional Balinese music, but this wasn't something that stood out to me.

Despite the relatively low score Mystics in Bali gets on my rating scale, it's actually something I'd recommend watching. Flying witch head movies (yes, this is a subgenre) are relatively scarce on this side of the world. For sheer novelty alone, Mystics in Bali is worth seeking out, even if it's often hampered by its low budget and shoddy production. If you're like me, the idea of a flying vampiric head is enough to convince you to keep the windows shut at night, even without all the dangly bits...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Crocodile Warriors, Attack!

The Devil's Sword (1984)
Director: Ratno Timoer
Seen via: Mondo Macabro DVD (R1)
Rating:  6.5 / 10

Deep beneath the sea lurks an evil sorceress who lusts for the flesh of human men, and demands sacrifices to satiate her hunger. This Crocodile Queen has wrought a plague of violence across the countryside, and can only be defeated by one object: a sword forged from the ore of a meteor that imbues its wielder with other-worldly powers. If only there were a hero with the courage and physical fortitude able to brave the cyclops' lair where the sword rests and rid the land of evil for all time...

If this sounds like it could be the story of just about any sword-and-sorcery film, that's probably exactly what the team behind The Devil's Sword intended. Indonesian genre films are notorious for lifting plot elements, imagery, and in some cases entire scenes out of more popular Western films. The Devil's Sword is no different, and attempts to emulate the popular fantasy films of the eighties: Conan the Barbarian, Krull, Beastmaster, etc. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with a lot of fun fight scenes, blood, and low-quality special effects.

...such as this cellophane-wrapped Crocodile Queen lair.
We've already mentioned the Croc Queen, and early in the film, we see just how far she's willing to go for the men she desires. After singling out a local prince as the latest object of her affection, she sends her warrior minion Banyujaga to collect him. Banyu cruises into the village on a flying rock and proceeds to kidnap the prince, right in the middle of the poor guy's wedding. Needless to say, the Princess is not pleased, and begins fighting back while her fiancee just sort of whines like a wuss.

Is that our hero, approaching from afar? Yes, it's Barry Prima again - back for more action as the wandering warrior Mandala, this time hoping for far less mutilation and torture in store for him. Do we need to know much about Mandala? Not really - just look at him. He's clearly the hero. Mandala (like Jaka Sembung of The Warrior) is a comic book character adapted for the screen in this film. If there's more backstory to Mandala's character in the comics, it's not evident from this movie. This is indicative of how The Devil's Sword functions: it provides the barest skeleton of plot, drapes it in bloody fight scenes and leaves you to fill in the gaps in the story through inferences based mostly on visuals and archetypes from other films you've seen. (I'm not even sure that many characters here have names - maybe they're not translated in the dubbed version, maybe they doesn't exist. I don't know, and neither does IMDB.)

But somehow, it scrapes together enough disparate fantasy elements to make a coherent whole. A substantial portion of this film consists of fight scenes, flavored with more martial arts than your typical hack and slash fantasy film. While the choreography never fails in ambition, sometimes the execution is a little choppy. The ambition is what matters though, and in general there's lots of good, violent fun to be had.

It also isn't afraid to fall back on gratuitous violence when the story reaches a lull. This is best exhibited in a scene where Mandala meets his old master to find out more information about his quest for the Devil's Sword. Having been poisoned, his master is close to death, and Mandala is forced to chop off the infected legs. This, of course, after a more conventional healing potion made from glowing mushrooms doesn't work. What might have been a chance for just some dull exposition is now also a bloodbath. Crisis averted!

It's the only way, master. I swear.
Adding to the over-the-top tone are the band of four villains, who make a pact to obtain the Devil's Sword before Mandala can. These villains are all gleefully evil and are constantly bickering with each other despite their agreement to work together. Each has his or her own cartoonish power, including a guy with a razor-edged conical hat that he can throw to decapitate people, a decrepit witch, a warrior called the "Red Snake," and Banyujaga, who's essentially an evil version of Mandala. I'll say it again: I love villains who love being evil. Bad guys are just so much more fun to watch when they're having a blast being bad. These villains are great examples of that, maybe because they're so hard to kill - all are mostly immune to decaptiation and dismemberment. One of the highlights of the film is when the group (inevitably) descends into infighting and Banyujaga has to find a way to cut the evil sorceress into pieces that won't reassemble.

The fights are clearly the centerpieces of the film, and they're often carried out upon some beautiful vistas. It's a shame that the special effects are so jarringly bad sometimes. The crocodile warriors sent by the Croc Queen usually just look like dirty guys in rags with pelts draped on their heads:

But other times they're surprisingly cool-looking:

You'll probably see the general trajectory of the film from a mile away. What you might not expect is how entertaining and colorful it ends up being. There's not much distinctly Indonesian flavor or mythology inserted into the mix, but it mimics its Western counterparts well enough to get by. As a whole The Devil's Sword feels sort of disjointed, but it never slows down and is willing to go all-out with its lengthy fight sequences. It's lurid, cartoonish fun, and is worth a look.

Also, there's a fight scene involving lasers, which is a major plus in my book.