Pacific Rim 2013

PACIFIC RIM

All giant monster movies have some merit in my books so Pacific Rim gets a pass, but god-damn-it, only just. What fan of horror/ sci fi/ Godzilla wasn’t excited by the prospect of big mecha suits, enormous beasts from beneath the sea and Guillermo del Toro?  God knows I was and I almost worked on the thing. But the end result is really less than the sum of its parts, and that mostly is to do with the age old problem: a boring, sub-standard script.

Now a lot of people seem to think a good script is just about whether the dialogue is well written or not. Of course that is partly true (and the dialogue here certainly is not), but it is also about creating interesting characters and setting up a solid and yet motivating structure for the story. Pacific Rim manages to mess up both of these, while trying to do the opposite. The first thing the script does is skip the beginning of the story. We only have a brief recap as to the origins of the giant monsters, or Kaiju as they are known, their arrival on earth and the ensuing human resistance using Jaegers: big fat mecha robots controlled by two pilots. This isn’t a totally bad idea; it passes by what could have been a long old process before we even get to the first fight. Instead we are treated to a big old bash-up in the sea between our heroes and an ugly looking behemoth. So far so good but then we jump forward a few years and times have got tough, the humans are loosing and the fight back must begin anew. Or some such bollocks.

This is the section of the film where things go quite wrong. The lead hero, Raleigh Becket (a movie moniker if ever there was one) played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam is your standard troubled loose-cannon and his new partner, Mako Mori played by Rinko Kikuchi, is so weak and wishy-washy you want the monsters to win. Raleigh also has a rival, kind of a Val Kilmer in Top Gun type, but for some reason the film makers have chosen to cast someone who looks almost identical to Hunnam. It’s really weird when they have one of their meaningless scrapes because it looks like really good effects created to show doppelgangers fighting. Not that I could work out what they were arguing about in the first place; it was almost as if they were doing it to create some kind of human conflict because the big monster threat wasn’t enough. Or they were trying to drag out the film before the real action starts.

Honestly this section seems to go on forever. And while I’m all for giving a film a chance to breathe and giving the audience time to get to know the characters so we care about them when the shit hits the fan, these guys are cartoon-like in their simplicity. We meet two scientists working on an unnecessary sub-plot involving two good comic actors failing miserably to raise even a smirk. And I haven’t even mentioned Idris Elba. Idris Elba! A man who is able to convey charm, charisma and depth while frozen in a suit made of gold in Thor has nothing to work with here, just a boring old military/father figure type. God it’s depressing.

Okay, so, well into the second half of the film things suddenly pick up: there is a terrific section involving a fight in and around Hong Kong, the lashing rain and neon lights creating a wonderful backdrop for some truly spectacular imagery. The effects cannot be faulted, though maybe some of the choices can. Why are all the fights at night? There’s a small glimpse of a daytime fight in Sydney which really shows off the size of the monsters and robots, but a lot of this is lost in the dark. Worse, the final battle is deep under sea, so now we lose all sense of scale in what is essentially an alien world. Then there are the Kiaju themselves; sure, they look okay sure, but there isn’t much variety in them, a few extra legs and wings here and there, but I’d have liked a larger selection of rogues to slap about.

But those are only minor problems; the real trouble is the script, with its bland dialogue and one dimensional characters and that long, long section where nothing of note happens. On the positive side at least I am thankful that the script isn’t overly convoluted and the action is nicely framed, edited and clear, unlike the dreadful Transformers movies. Maybe I’m being too harsh on the film, based on my own expectations; but when you spend this amount of money and effort making it look good, and it really does look terrific, maybe spending a little bit more time on the foundations ain’t too much to ask.

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Fiend Without A Face 1958

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A film about an American airforce in Canada but shot in England with many Scottish people putting on funny accents, Fiend without a Face is not your typical 1950s creature feature.

Back in the heady days of drive-ins when the Americans ruled the world as far as monster and sci-fi B-movies were concerned it was difficult for anyone else to get a foot in. So when us Brits decided to make a sci-fi horror movie, to stand any chance of competeing with the yanks we had to play them at there own game. Oh and pretend we were American. But in this case we took it too far, and made one better.

Fiend without a Face starts off as an average U.S. B-movie. It has all the standard tropes: a tough jawed American soldier, a glamorous girl, a nutty professor and, of course, experiments with atomic energy. But there’s all sorts of weird details. For example, the hero Major Cummings (!) hardly has any sleep because he’s so busy, so keeps himself awake by taking speed. He freely admits this to his work collegues who all seem to think its perfectly fine, although he doesn’t talk too much or grind his teeth so maybe it’s only the mild stuff. Also, the heroine’s brother dies early on but on the way back from his funeral she is already flirting outrageously with the emphetamine addicted major. Is she not bothered at all about her loss? Maybe they do it different in the English country side, I mean the Canadian countryside. Because really, this isn’t fooling anyone. The farms that are attacked by the fiends without their faces couldn’t be in anywhere but Britain. putting a sign up saying “Canada 2 Miles” aint gonna fool anyone.

So the first two thirds of the film rumble along at quite a slow pace. The creatures are invisible so you just feel cheated by them, there are various US Airforce experiments which mostly consist of gerenals looking at  spinny dials while we cut to stock footage and it’s only the comedy accents that seem to keep us going. But then the truth about the monsters is revealed in plain sight, as indeed are they, and the final act suddenly shifts into high gear.

Now we are in a cottage-under-seige film, not unlike a precursor to Night of the living Dead. But instead of zombies we have stop-motion brains with stalky-eyes that push themselves along snake-like with their vertebrae. And they’re great. They wrap themselves around people’s necks, throttling them to death, they launch themselves through windows, and when they are shot they split open in a bloody splattering of brains and gore. In fact between the excellent stop motion, design and outragious violence it’s like we’re watching a different movie from a different era.

For the final act alone this is a film worth hunting down if you like this kind of thing. Just say no to the speed though.

 

Secret Window 2004

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There is a lot of talk about Johnny Depp’s performances of late. About how they fall into two catagories: The serious roles like Donnie Brasco and Blow, and “turns” like The Pirates movies, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, etc. Recently, people seem to be falling out of love with his turns, if not the great man himself. Especially the much hated The Lone Ranger with his take on Toto. But I think people are forgetting how hugely entertaining his over the top performances can be. Or maybe we’re just getting too many of them.

Anyway, on paper Secret Window should certainly fall into the catagory of Serious Johnny Depp. He plays Mort Rainey, a successful author who’s wife left him six months previously for another man. He now spends his time at his log cabin the woods, failing to write anything new and talking to his dog. Then up pops a southern drawling John Turturro claiming that Depp has stolen one of his stories word for word and he wants what is due to him, else he will get revenge on him one way or another.

So we have a classic thriller set up, but this is based on a Stephen King novel so things are never quite what they seem. It also has that attention for detail that King has in his stories so well: the small town mentality, the self destructive writer (something King really knows about) and an understanding of the nature of a marraige. The scenes between Depp and his ex wife (Maria Bello, fantastic as always*) are bristling with tension and underlying anger, made all the more amazing by the fact that they are often done over the phone. Also John Turturro makes for one creepy son-of-a-bitch, dressed in black with his high pilgrim hat he echoes Robert Mitchem’s preacher in Night of the Hunter, always a good thing.

But this is Johnny Depp’s film and rather than being serious Johnny he goes for one of his turns. He’s constantly gurning and talking to inanimate objects, at one point he even comedy walks into a glass door. It’s kind of odd. You would think that a thriller based on a Stephen King story would need a straight performance from its leading man, but for some reason, Depp playing it quite off-kilter really elevates the material. Maybe because the story might be a bit bog standard if he wasn’t going for it. It is nicely shot, tightly directed and isn’t over long, but it might just be a tad too unoriginal and maybe even a little dull if it wasn’t for Depp lighting up the screen whenever he’s on it. And he’s on it a lot, he’s in pretty much every scene. In fact a large chunk of the film is just him banging around his cabin by himself. And its a testament to his screen presence that sometimes when you have a great actor, that can be all you need.

*Except The Mummy 3. Poor Maria, what was anyone thinking? Casting a blonde, very American, American as Rachel Weiss? Madness I tell you.

 

 

The Keep 1983

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I bet when Michael Mann was making his second feature a lot of people thought it would be his equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Alien. Unfortunately what we ended up with was the equivalent to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

Like Alien, it is the sophomore effort from an obviously talented director. Also like Alien it is a beautiful, atmospheric horror epic. However, like Prometheus it also makes little to no sense and is also a load of old bobbins. It’s also bloody brilliant.Here, let me explain, before you dismiss what I have to say as the ravings of a mad man.

The Keep concerns a garrison of Nazis sent to occupy an ancient fort in the middle-of-nowhere Romania where the local villagers are your standard-issue horror village types, though no pitch forks in sight as the Nazis would shoot you dead if you raised one to them. Anyway, things really should be apparent that all is not well with the building of the title when the Nazis, led by Das Boot’s Captain, Jurgen Prochnow, realise that the keep is built inside out, as if to keep something in, rather than anyone out… Soon German soldiers are being decapitated, burnt and exploding all over the place, often in slow motion, usually in thick mist, and once in a while with a disco laser in the background if we’re very, very lucky.

But this is only the start of the story, soon the SS show up, and these guys are real bastards. Led by Gabriel Byrne with one of the severest haircuts in cinema history, they torture, shoot and rape their way about like it was The Third Riech Christmas party. Then Ian Mckellen is wheeled in, literally, as an Old Jewish expert on the Keep. And we haven’t even met the Hero of the peice. Scott Gleen plays an enegmatic mystery man charged with fighting the creature in the keep because, er… because, okay, I have no idea why, he just does.

See the problem is that while the first half of the film sets up the grim atmosphere really well, the second half just seems to start jumping through the story as if big chunks of it hadn’t been filmed. Rumour has it that this really is the case. The production went well over schedule and well over budget and various compromises had to be made, a lot of them to do with narrative it seems.

But for all that The Keep remains a unique bit of film making. The atmosphere is incredible, helped no end by Tangerine Dreams weird and haunting score. And the villain, Molasar, while looking a bit rubbery here and there, is an imposing presence, especially when he’s in his giant smoke monster mode. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side, even if he does threaten the entire Earth. Well nobody’s perfect are they.

Basically, it really is like Prometheus: striking to look at and hugely entertaining if you are prepared to accept certain (okay loads) of problems with the story telling. And on top of that, it has one big thing over Ridley Scott’s epic folly, it (spoilers) ends with an electronic rendition of Walking Through The Air – The theme from The Snowman. Why? Why? Who cares. It’s genius.

The Darkest Hour 2011

THE DARKEST HOUR

 

I’m not sure if this is definitely a horror movie, but then alien invasion movies are usually pretty horrific aren’t they? From the blood injectors in War of the Worlds to the weirdo aliens in Xtro there have been plenty of scary-ass invasions over the years. In The Darkest Hour our fragile Earth is invaded by, er, electrical glows from another dimension. Can you see the problem here? We’re dealing with an ill defined threat. In fact, most of the time they are completely invisible… Ooh, look we’re watching people being attacked by nothing: this is not exciting.

Worse, when people do die at the hands of these transparent chaps they burn up a bit like a cross between the vampire deaths in the Blade films and the heat-rays in Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. It’s all sadly derivative and un-ambitious. Similar I suppose to Skyline, but lacking that film’s craziness the story centres on a group of Americans on a night out in Moscow when the world is invaded by the glowing and/or invisible thingymawhatsits. This is really the best aspect of the film, Moscow looks amazing, all the empty Red Square stuff and other tourist attractions have a lovely, almost beautiful, haunting quality about them when no one is around. Much like London in 28 Days Later, but here we are again, being derivative.

Wasting talents such as Emile Hirsch and especially Olivia Thirlby (who do their best bless ‘em) on a story that goes nowhere seems like madness to me. Was the script just not developed enough? Or were there once interesting bits, ironed out as it headed towards production? There are a few nice details, like how the aliens make electricity switch on when they are near, so the survivors scatter light bulbs everywhere as early warning signs. Plus there is some fun to be had with a cat, but these elements are few and far between.

The trouble with criticizing the horror genre is that it gets an awful lot of shit from the mainstream critics as it is, I feel like I’m kicking a puppy when I pick on a small film that at least tries. This, on the other hand seemed like a fair-sized studio picture that should have been more ambitious, or at least more interesting than just glowing see-through aliens, the Moscow setting and Olivia Thirlby, although the last two are very interesting indeed.

 

Horror Movie Monsters I Have A Soft Spot For

I’m not keen on being garrotted, torn apart, possessed or dragged to hell at the best of times, but sometimes you’re watching a movie and instead of worrying about the protagonists you just can’t help feeling a bit of pity for some of the poor old sods who have to do all the horrible stuff. Some of them are having as miserable time as their victims, some are just misunderstood, and some are just wild and crazy guys. Here are my favourites, or at least ones I can relate to, if one can ever really relate to an eighty foot tall Hell Demon.

TARMAN FROM RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD

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The tar-man zombie type thing from Return of the living dead is one of the greatest depictions of Zombiedom ever committed to film. He is also one of the silliest. The moment he is released from his sealed barrel after 20 years and exposed to the atmosphere, his skin disintegrates into a dark, melting mess. You can see his bones sticking out everywhere, his eyes bulge in craziness and a big fat tongue slobbers about, licking his non-existent lips. He’ll not hesitate to dive straight into a punk’s head and munch into his lovely brains; he’s a truly horrific creation. Plus he’s smart, witness him using a chain pulley system to break open a locker door to get to the heroine and her tasty grey matter. Better, he’s also got a demented, twisted charm, livening up proceedings whenever he’s on screen. He walks about like the top half of his body is going to drop off at any moment, dribbles bits of himself everywhere he goes and seems genuinely happy to see people – albeit for the wrong reasons. Finally, when his head is departed from his body with a well timed baseball bat, you get the feeling that the best character in the film has departed too.

BUB FROM DAY OF THE DEAD

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While initially similar to Tar-man, in that he’s also an incredible depiction of a zombie, in many ways Bub is the polar opposite of the funky fella above. Taught to follow simple tasks and maybe even be controlled a tad by the nutty Professor Logan, Bub takes genuine pleasure in listening to music, using a phone and reading a book (okay so the book is upside down but hey, he gets the idea). Like a puppy he seems to genuinely care for his teacher and when the professor is gunned down, it is a genuine emotional moment. Not because of the death of the professor, who was a bit of a mad git to be honest, but Bub’s heartbreaking reaction to finding his master’s corpse (which he doesn’t eat by the way, just moans over).

MOLASAR FROM THE KEEP

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Okay, so Molasar from Micheal Mann’s second, hard-to-find WW2 set movie is an ancient evil force held within a Keep to prevent him from taking over the world with, I don’t know, some bad stuff. And yeah, he may be about eight foot tall, with burning red eyes and a skull-like face, oh and have the ability to tear a man in half with his breath. But the only people he kills are a regiment of Nazis, plus he heals Ian McKellen from being a life-long cripple, and he saves his daughter from being raped. But really, just let me repeat: HE KILLS NAZIS. We could have done with him on our side. I think he’s alright; damn that stupid Scott Glenn for ruining it all by coming along and sealing Molasar back into The Keep for all eternity. At least I think that’s what happened: the film is almost incomprehensible and the climax involves Tangerine Dream providing a cover of The Snowman’s Walking Through Air. I’m not even making that up.

SAM FROM XTRO

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Another film for the ‘WTF?’ generation: I have no idea if Sam is the man who is abducted by the aliens in this low budget British cult, or if he is in fact the alien who does the abducting, or maybe even a mixture of the two. The film makes little to no sense with scenes like a woman giving birth to a full grown adult and an old lady being killed by a life-size Action Man. All I do know is he’s a bizarre, nightmarishly unique monster, made up of a man in a suit walking backwards on his hands and feet.

RAWHEAD REX

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Look at him! He’s a lunatic! A cross between an angry pig and a predator, I remember seeing Rawhead Rex photos in Fangoria magazine when I was a confused teenager and being so excited to see him move. Unfortunately, when I finally did get the VHS that’s the one thing he didn’t do: move. The mask used in the film has no moving parts, the upshot of which is that he has this constant look of surprise and anger on his face, as if he’d just discovered something horrible in his pants and is blaming God for the mess. The upshot for me was that is I felt kind of sorry for the poor fella.

HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP

I don’t feel sorry for these guys though. A pack of half-man/half-salmon (!) mutants, they are determined to kill our men and rape our women. Well, I say ‘pack’, but I’m pretty sure you only see one or two at a time, I think budget constraints meant they only had one proper suit. They also look like they’re either going to fall out of their costume or drown at sea due to the demands of pretending to be Humanoids from said Deep. So it’s not the Salmon-men I feel sorry for at all, it’s the guys playing them.

NIGHT OF THE DEMON

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Famously (okay famously to me and about ten other people) there wasn’t meant to be any demon in Night of the Demon at all, Jacques Tourneur’s classic was originally meant to be all about the power of suggestion. However the producers had different ideas. The moment Tourneur delivered his film they went back on set and shot this wonderful beast. I think he’s great and unlike some others on this list, he has moving parts and everything. He’s a bit of a Godzilla in that in that you can tell he’s a bloke in a rubber suit, but whether he’s chasing someone through the woods, stomping on someone’s head or throwing them under a train, you’ve got to admit he’s got character. And that’s alright by me.

CHATTERER FROM HELLRAISER

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It’s a miserable time being a Cenobite. You almost certainly have lots of long metal things inserted into you or wrapped around your private parts making it difficult to sit down. Plus you can guarantee that your nipples will be exposed with rods thrust through them, which must chafe terribly when you’re going for a jog. Then there’s all the chat about eternal damnation and soul burning. It’s all got to get incredibly dull after, well, an eternity. But all this is multiplied by a million if you are Chatterer. He can’t see (his eyes have gone who knows where), you can’t hear (ears cut off and wired up) and your mouth is pulled back so all you dentistry work is exposed for everyone to see. Every time you eat a meal, standing up of course, Pinhead is there going “You’ve got something in your teeth. There. And there. And there. And there.” etc etc. Plus you’re obviously cold, hence the name Chatterer. It’s a miserable afterlife, and that there’s no denying.

PYRAMID HEAD MAN FROM SILENT HILL

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This guy makes Chatterer look like the lucky one. The Pyramid on his head is obviously far, far too heavy for him; I mean seriously he can barely look up. Add to that the fact he has a selection of unfeasibly large weapons to deal out death (which is his job, he’s not doing it for fun) which he seems to be struggling to lift. If ever there was a man who needs a career change, Pyramid Head Man is the one. Although being called Pyramid Head Man probably helped him when getting the job in the first place: “WANTED: Man for unholy human execution in live-in haunted town. Must be able to provide own Pyramid.” Poor bloke.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE

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Okay I don’t have a soft spot for the guy at the front, but the middle and back parts have all my sympathy.

Dracula 1979

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At last! I’ve had a right old dearth of decent horror films to watch of late. Someone was asking me the other day if I even like horror films, as I seem to be negative about all of them. Finally though I’ve found a good one, and from an unexpected corner of the horror genre: the big budget studio gothic horror romance.

Okay, let’s get one thing straight, I like my vampires like I like my spiders, creepy, living in dark spaces and as far away from me as possible. As a young whipper snapper I was terrified by the floating vampire boys scratching at the window in Salem’s Lot and can you blame me? What doesn’t frighten me is the vampire as the tragic romantic lover. From Twilight to Angel to Francis Copplella’s Dracula, vampires are swanning around like midnight lotharios, all misty eyed about their great immortal loves. It gets right on my nerves. I want my blood suckers to hideous undead fiends of the night with weird contact lenses and terrible breath.

This big budget studio effort from 1979 is probably the origin of the vampire as sexy bastard, and yet despite that I kind of had a good time with the old rascal. Frank Langella stars as the aforementioned count, giving his best come-to-bed eyes to anyone who’ll look at him. The film plays fast and loose with the original story, starting aboard the Russian ship, The Demeter, we skip out the whole Transylvanian fun, as The Count, mysteriously only survivor of the voyage, washes up on the shores of Yorkshire and proceeds to get jugular with Lucy and Mina, plus a dirty old man for some weird reason. Okay, so its Renfield who’s in the original book, but I never understood what Dracula saw him. He’s useless as a right hand man, and in this sexy take on Dracula, ain’t much of a lay, so to speak. Jonathan Harker (played by the great Trevor Eve, in his first screen role) is still as massive a drip as he’s always been. However, this time you genuinely feel his jealous hatred towards the count, once he works out that Dracula is taking away his girl. In fact this angle on the story, of loosing the person you love to an overwhelming power, be it to love or addiction or both, gives the story a nice extra layer: Harker and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy, not just because the monster has kidnapped the girl, but because the girl wants to be kidnapped.

The film looks absolutely fantastic. The sets, from the mental asylum where Lucy lives with her father (an always welcome Donald Pleasence) with it’s twisting metal staircases and filthy walls, to the castle Dracula shacks up in, have a macabre gothic theatricality that are brilliantly shot. The colour hues are desaturated to almost black and white (apparently tweaked for the DVD release but still) with only the odd splash of blood red at pivotal moments to set the tone. There is one mad, incredibly dated moment when Dracula and Lucy first make out in front of a red disco laser and smoke machine that looks like its stumbled out of a James Bond titles sequence, but even that has a weird, beautiful charm. It also has some great dark imagery: when Van Helsing unearths his (SPOLIERS) dead daughter’s grave only to find she’s dug her way out into the mines below, he finds her horrible undead corpse waiting for him, blood red eyes and rotten teeth ready to bite her old man.  (By the way Jan Francis is great in her role as the wide eyed innocent corrupted and transformed into a hideous baby-eating monster). Also, there are some truly beautiful old-school matte paintings of the castle and its surroundings giving the film some excellent, epic scope.

Then there’s the music. Written by John Williams just before his work on The Empire Strikes Back, it’s all suitably cinematic, although you do occasionally expect Darth Vader to come round the corner. But hey, we’ve got another villain in a black cloak. And Frank Langella is bloody brilliant in the role. It’s funny that, despite this version being based on a Broadway production, Langella plays it pretty low key for much the time. Unlike poor old Lawrence Olivier as Van Helsing, who despite being one of the greatest stage actors of all time, can’t seem to tone it down for the silver screen. He’s all rolling eyes, hand grasping and an outrageous high pitched German accent. You got to kind of love him for it though.

There is a problem though, and it’s a big one. In fact its huge. It’s Frank Langella’s hair. Its an absolutely giant back blown quiff making him look more like an insane cross between David Copperfiled and Neil Diamond. It looks completely late seventies, not in the slightest bit from the Edwardian period the film is set in. Whenever Dracula turns up, for all of Langella’s steely-eyed intensity you keep on expecting him to burst into song or for some old ladies to throw their nickers at him. I mean, I’m not exaggerating here, it’s really, really big. And really, really blown dried with a lot of hairspray. And its really, really stupid.

But on the other hand, fuck it. Dracula is also a lavish, entertainingly epic, grand studio spectacular. It is pretty dated, but a lot of fun for it, and I haven’t had enough fun watching horror movies of late. So while Bram Stoker’s story may have been told a hundred times, and this version has been quite forgotten, maybe it’s worth remembering. Not just for the look and sound of it, but also for the big, big hair.