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.

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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

Chatterer002_jpg
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.

Dark Skies 2013

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Much like Insidious, Dark Skies takes the approach of using all the familiar tropes of a genre and creating a sort of greatest hits movie. Whereas Insidious went for the haunted house story, here we have alien abduction. So the usual stuff is wheeled out: weird symbols, kids looking up at the sky, long limbed aliens, metal rods prodded into holes, that sort of thing.

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are the hapless put upon parents, struggling to bring up bring up two difficult boys during the current financial struggles. The last thing they need is stupid aliens anally probing them. Actually that never happens. But pretty much everything else you’d expect to happen to them does. They black out, skip a day, nose bleed left, right and centre and scream at nothing in particular. Plus there’s the tricky problem of their kids looking more and more beaten up and no one, oddly enough, believing that aliens did it. You know what, these aliens are a right bunch of bastards. They manipulate this poor family seemingly for no other reason than to freak them out. There’s a good sense of the hopelessness at even understanding this higher plane of evil, let alone fighting back against it. As J.K. Simmons, playing a world weary expert on the matter, points out, we are no more cable of understanding why the aliens are doing this to us, than a lab rat can understand the scientist experimenting on it.

Trouble is we’ve all been here before. Bringing in elements of Close Encounters, Communion, The X Files, etc. Dark Skies, although well put together with solid acting, a few okay chills and the afore-mentioned J.K. Simmons, doesn’t bring anything new to the table. What worked so brilliantly in Insidious was the kitchen sink approach to story telling: just chuck everything at it, and create your own mad tale. Dark Skies settles for just retreading, and so settles for much less.

American Mary 2012

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The latest in an increasingly growing sub-genre of disenfranchised-young-women-who-chop-people-up, this follows the likes of May, Alyce and Excision and I have to say I was really looking forward to this. However it barely hangs together as a story, and as well made as it is, it feels as remote and uninvolving as the main character becomes.

Katharine Isabelle (from great werewolf movie Ginger Snaps) stars as Mary, studying medicine in Vancouver with dreams of becoming a top surgeon. However she is also incredibly broke and can barely make ends meet. Deciding to get a job as a stripper, her initial interview is disrupted when the club owner has a sudden need for on the spot surgery for one of his victims. Mary discovers that there is a better way to make a quick buck, and this event leads her towards some stranger clients, unable to have the kind of wacky body modification they desire in the legal medical system. Meanwhile, the surgeons at her University have different plans for Mary…

The film looks great, it is beautifully underlit, giving Vancouver’s underbelly a lovely sense of a city secretly alive only at night. We also meet some incredibly odd characters, some of which seem genuinely weird, including the twin directors who make an appearence as customers for Mary desperate to have some bonkers alterations. However, almost nothing is done with any of these oddballs. The twins have major surgery, but other than fleeting glimpses of the sketch of what they want to look like, we don’t get to see the result. The most interesting character, Ruby, who wants all her bits lobbed off and smoothed over like a Barbie doll, disappears for most of the film. We have a modified girl whose been altered to look like a freakish Betty Boo who pops up more often, however her performance is so stylised that (and I realise this sounds stupid saying this) she never comes across as a real person. In fact, it seems all the performances have been directed to act in this overly mannered way. No one comes across as real or believable, their deliveries are more like the performance you get from re-dubbed Manga movies. Isabelle, whose character is meant to become more remote and unfeeling as the film progresses, seems to be pretty inhuman right from the word go. Only a small, low key and symapthetic performance from Mary’s bouncer has any emotional impact.

Furthermore, there’s no drive to the story. It might be a bit of a rape revenge drama but the rape is completely underplayed for the horrific event it is (I don’t want to see it, I just want it’s victim to look and act a little more than pretty and distracted) and the revenge happens about two scenes later. It might be about someones decent into depravity, but it’s not depraved enough, or at least you barely see any of the work Mary is doing. It could even be a fuck-the-story we’re going wildly off the rails here to mess you up kind of tale, but even then it’s slow, episodic pace doesn’t give you enough madness to get your teeth into.

So what we’re left with is a pretty but directionless tale about illegal plastic surgery, and, unlike one character’s split-dow-the-middle tongue, its kind of pointless.

 

Wolf 1994

wolf

 

(SPOILERS AHEAD) I didn’t bother with Wolf when it came out because it seemed way too easy, with a bunch of Hollywood execs sitting around a napkin saying “Hey, Jack Nicholson’s a wild man, wolves are wild. What if he was a werewolf?” etc, etc. In fact, Jack Nicholson is probably the best thing about this film, especially in the early scenes which play a bit like a precursor to his amazing performance in About Schmidt. Nicholson plays a highly regarded, but long in the tooth, publisher who gets usurped by the younger, hungrier James Spader; loosing his career and his wife in the process. Fortunately, he’s also bitten by a really bad animatronic wolf in the opening scene and soon starts to get a taste for life, love (with Michelle Pfeiffer) and blood.

Directed by the great Mike Nichols, the film plays like a reverse of his Working Girl, with the audience this time on the side of the old has-been rather than the young upstart. The early set up with Spader doing his best sleazy back-stabbing, as Nicholson tries to fight-back and save his lifelong career, is all quite intriguing. However, once he starts getting all hairy and toothsome the film really looses its way. Numerous sub plots seem to fade-off into the background: what happens to Nicholson’s attempt to start up his own company? Who actually killed his wife? Why was Prunella Scale’s character in one scene at the beginning and never seen again?
Worse still the werewolf effects are terrible. Rick Baker is a legend, arguably one of the greatest make up effects artists in cinema history. His work in American Werewolf in London still stands up today. What happened in Wolf though? The main make-up is little more than some pubic-like side burns and a dodgy under-bite. I suppose the contact lenses are okay. That doesn’t say much though does it? As for the aforementioned fully animatronic wolf – I think there is a reason it’s only seen in two shots, it makes Bruce from Jaws seem like the height of robotic monster sophistication.

By the time we reach the climatic wolf-man showdown, shot in excruciating slow-motion, I was hiding my eyes in embarrassment. It’s all just so overblown and ridiculous. Plus some of the dialogue is really clunky, especially when talking about the werewolf legend. Only a beautifully delivered moment when Jack Nicholson proclaims his pure, instinctive love for Pfeiffer stands out.

To sum up I’m not going to make any wolf based jokes, okay I am! It’s a bit of a howler. Oh god that was terrible. Bite me. Oh, it just goes on. I bet all these puns were made in 1994 when I, rightfully, ignored this film.