Monday, 31 October 2016

100 Feet (2008)

This is the film for which I actually purchased this "Horror 4 Pack" and I'm pleased to say it turns out to be a pretty good little ghost story.

Marnie Watson killed her abusive husband Mike in self-defence and served several years in jail as a result.  She's now been released into house arrest.  She has to wear an ankle bracelet than can never be more than 100 feet from the detector in the hallway of her home, which means she can just reach the front door, but no further.

As you might imagine, it makes for a rather lonely existence.  The only people Marnie speaks to with any regularity are the young man who makes deliveries from the local market - who seems rather taken with her - and her husband's former partner on the police force.  Who it is safe to say is no fan of Marnie's.

Of course, Marnie's life would probably be bearable, if a bit tedious, if being isolated in the house was all she had to worry about.  Unfortunately for her, there's also the matter of her husband's ghost.  It seems that dead though he may be, Mike plans to keep on smacking his wife around.

100 Feet is not a movie that mucks about.  Mike-the-ghost makes his first appearance less than twenty five minutes into the film, and Marnie doesn't take long to try and fight back as best she can, given that she's up against a ghost.  This is a smart decision, I think, as is the fact that the film's back story gives obvious reasons why the ghost wouldn't simply kill Marnie.  Perhaps Mike is simply continuing his previous abuse, without real awareness that he's passed on.  Perhaps if he kills Marnie he'll actually cease to exist.  This haunting is a very personal one.

While it is not free of missteps, this is on the whole a well put together ghost film.  You should definitely check it out if that's your sort of thing.

Friday, 28 October 2016

A Haunting in Salem (2011)

A Haunting in Salem continues the "slightly better than the last one" pattern of the first two films from this quartet.  And it turns out that comparing this movie to The Amityville Horror is pretty apropos, because they have strikingly similar scripts.  Both feature a house that was once associated with killings; both have a family moving into said house; both families have a father who is suffering from PTSD; both families are plagued by a supernatural menace.

Fortunately for this film, it is executed better on pretty much every front.  For instance, the script actually mentions that the dad has PTSD, rather than just having him act like a crazy person - and his behaviour is much less over the top and nutty.  The film also eschews the whole 'found footage' thing, which is a good call, not least because it means we don't have to put up with all the "corrupted video" nonsense the last two films used so much..

Then there's the cast.  The four actors cast as the family are all solid, particularly Bill Oberst Jr, who plays the dad.  The supporting actors are a bit more uneven, but they're not actively distracting at least.

Of course, we're still talking about a cheapie horror film that was filmed in a brisk 12 day shoot.  Artistry is bound to give way to efficiency in such circumstances, particularly when you consider the film was shot in Native 3D.  The direction is functional but humdrum, kind of the IKEA furniture of film-making.  The script also doesn't really manage to change gears well as it escalates the supernatural shenanigans.  For instance, there's quite a nicely creepy scene early on, involving a shower drain.  It works because it is quite low key.  Later, when we get to much more overt "ooga booga!" type stuff, the sense of creepiness actually dissipates.

So yeah, this is not good enough that I would actively recommend it, but it is still easily the best movie of this set so far.  Hopefully the last film (which is actually the movie I bought the pack to get) will be better again.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Arthur & the Invisibles 3: The War of the Two Worlds (2010)

This film begins with a 60-second recap of the first two movies that mainly serves to underline how superfluous the second film really was.

I'm pleased to say that this third entry in the trilogy is a significant step up from the middle chapter, but that is frankly a very low bar to clear.  I mean you'd probably have to dig a bit before you could set the bar up.

So Maltazard has grown to human size and is at loose in our world, while Arthur and his friends are stuck in the tiny world of the Minimoys.  Apparently that makes them two millimetres tall (about 1/12th of an inch, for you American types), though the films are kind of inconsistent on how they actually scale things on screen.

Anyway, Arthur and Co set out to find his grandfather's potion, which can make a Minimoy grow to human size, but said potion is also in Maltazard's sights, as he wants to enlarge an army of Mosquito warriors to take over the human world.  Quite why he had the last film's highly complex plan to get himself embiggened when there was a potion for it all along, I don't know.  The film appears to hope you won't think to ask that (nor, presumably, are you supposed to ask about the shrinking potion they later introduce, what with "it's really tough to get to the Minimoy world" having been a major plot point of the last two flicks).

There are some decent action set pieces in this final entry of the film, and even a few moments of comedy that work.  They tend to belabour those few moments into the ground when they do happen, of course, but a few hits on the funny bone are better than none.

This film is not terrible, but it really isn't in the class of your Pixar, Disney or Laika films.  There are plenty of better options for entertaining your wee ones (and yourself, for that matter).

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Amityville Haunting (2011)

A reviewer at Dread Central said "a part of me wonders if the only reason The Amityville Haunting even exists is because someone made a bet that they could dethrone Amityville 3D for the title of worst 'Amityville' movie of all time".

Bear that in mind when I tell you that this film is superior to Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes.  Both films are utterly unconvincing "found footage" affairs, but in this one the acting's a little less dire, the script significantly less dull - not good in anyway you understand, but gonzo enough to deliver a few moments of amusement - and there's not that whole bad taste element of making the victim into the monster, as was done in Anneliese.

In case you've been living under a rock for the past forty years, the whole Amityville thing started in 1974 when Ronald DeFeo Jr shot and killed his family.  Probably, anyway.  DeFeo initially blamed a hit man, then confessed to all the killings, and has offered several other versions of events in the years since (generally blaming his sister Dawn for a lot of the deaths).  The first people to move into the house after the killings left it after only 28 days, claiming they had been terrorised by paranormal phenomena.

Although no-one else who has subsequently lived in the house has noticed anything unusual, the whole thing has led to the production of no less than seventeen supernaturally-themed films as of the time of writing (this movie was the ninth).

So basically the premise of the film is that a family moves into the house, and "spooky" stuff ensues.  Some of this spooky stuff seems to involve the ghostly presence of Ronald DeFeo Jr, which seems a bit odd since he isn't dead, but like I said - the script is kind of goofy.  For instance, the father's behaviour throughout comes across as somewhat imbalanced.  I get the feeling the writers may have been aiming for the idea that he's a traumatised veteran; certainly he talks almost entirely in military terminology; but they appear to have overlooked the need to actually establish this fact about the character at any point.

I got some unintentional amusement out of The Amityville Haunting, but as an actual scary movie, it's definitely a failure.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Orphan Black, Season 1 (2013)

Ten months after running out on her life, Sarah Manning returns home with only one thing on her mind: getting custody of her seven year old daughter Kira.  A task that, given her 'colourful' past, may not be possible within the confines of the law.

Her quest gets rapidly derailed though, when a woman commits suicide right in front of her.  Because if seeing someone deliberately step in front of a train wasn't shocking enough by itself, there's also the fact that the woman and Sarah share the same face.

Sarah grabs the woman's discarded handbag and gets out of the station.  Initially her main thought is to impersonate the woman just long enough to clear out any bank accounts her doppleganger might have possessed.  However, there is an old military adage that plans rarely survive contact with the enemy, and Sarah is about to discover that she has a whole bunch of enemies she never even dreamed about.  Fortunately, she may also have some friends: her foster brother Felix, for instance.  And well ... if there are two women who share the same face, should Sarah really be that surprised to discover that there are more?

Orphan Black is a fine work.  The scripts in this season are fast-paced and engrossing, and do a good job of handling the balancing act between maintaining the sense of mystery and providing a sense of progress.  Whether they'll manage to continue that into future seasons is yet to be seen, of course, but at least for this one, they do it very nicely.

And then there is Tatiana Maslany, who plays Sarah, and the suicide victim, and several other characters in the show.  Her work here is astonishing: her voice, attitude and even body language change depending on who she is portraying, and every time - whether she's being feisty punk Sarah, or tightly-buttoned soccer mom Alison, or tightly-buttoned soccer mom Alison doing her best to pretend to be feisty punk Sarah, or someone else again - she owns the role.

Frankly, Orphan Black would be worth checking out purely for Maslany's performance: it's that good.  But on top of that the show also offers a great mix of action, intrigue and humour.  Recommended.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes (2011)

Anneliese Michel was a young German woman who suffered from epilepsy and psychiatric conditions.  She and her parents were convinced she was afflicted with demonic possession, and appealed to the Catholic church for an exorcism.  Their requests were refused ... at first.  Eventually the local Bishop authorised the rite, on the proviso that it remained secret.  Two priests spent ten months attempting to exorcise Anneliese, before her death from dehydration and malnutrition.  Her parents and the priests were subsequently convicted of negligent homicide (though their prison sentences were suspended).

This film presents itself as "real footage" of the exorcisms, and I have to grudgingly admit that the people behind it have gone to some lengths to maintain the illusion that it's real.  There are no actor credits, for instance.  Of course, the illusion isn't very hard to pierce: the footage clearly isn't 40 year old film stock, there's a (single) very ill-advised special effect involving CGI insects, and they can't keep their dates in order (if "day 1" is the 13th, then "day 16" is the 28th, not the 29th, guys).  Plus you know, there's the whole "performed the exorcisms in secret" thing, which is pretty hard to do if you've got an international film crew camped out in the subject's bedroom.

I have to say that even if this film was good, I would have pretty mixed feelings about any movie which takes the unfortunate death of a mentally-ill person and then makes them the villain of the piece.  In depicting Anneliese as having definitely murdered at least one person, and strongly implicating her in the death of another - neither of which events, of course, has any basis in fact - the film does exactly that.  "Fortunately" the movie is terrible, so I don't need to feel conflicted at all.


Friday, 21 October 2016

The Beyond (1981)

George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was an international hit, and given that the Italian cinema industry has never been shy about jumping on the latest bandwagon, it should be no surprise that a slew of Italian zombie films soon followed.

Lucio Fulci directed 1979's Zombi 2, a financially successful "sequel" to Romero's film which is memorable mostly for two reasons.  The first is a particularly gruesome moment involving an eyeball, the second a fight between a zombie and a shark.

Yes, zombie vs shark.  A bout for the ages, I am sure you will agree.

Fulci would then go on to make a trilogy of zombie films, all based around the premise that the gates of Hell had opened.  This is the second of the three.

The film begins in 1927, with a lynch mob bursting into a hotel to murder an artist named Schweik, whom they believe to be a warlock.  Maybe they were right, because nothing untoward happens for over 50 years, until the now-derelict building is purchased by a young woman from out of town.  She sets about having the place renovated, but this quickly proves a cursed undertaking: first a workman suffers a nasty fall, and then a plumber has his eyes torn out while working in the basement.

Now I think you can probably write off the first as bad luck, but alarm bells really ought to be ringing over the second.  Particularly when a blind woman turns up issuing all kind of dire-albeit-not-very-specific warnings about the danger that lurks in the hotel.

The Beyond was heavily cut during its original US and UK releases, due to the graphic scenes of gore it contained.  There are no less that three eyeball-related bits of gruesomeness, for instance, though regrettably no zombie vs shark smackdowns.  Or zombie vs octopus, which is another aquatic-themed adversary I could get behind.

Unfortunately once you get past the gore, there's little substance here.  The basic script is pretty thin, the zombie horde is deeply mediocre, and plot elements get introduced and then forgotten without any ceremony.  It's mentioned, for instance, that when our heroine purchased the hotel, it came with two staff attached (despite being a dump).  The local doctor is perplexed by this, as he didn't know of anyone associated with the place.  Is there some sinister significance to the characters?  Well, apparently not, since they just get eaten by monsters later on.

If you really have to check out an Italian zombie film, either go for Fulci's Zombi 2, or track down Bruno Mattei's dreadful Zombies: The Beginning, since at least then you have the fun of watching a transparent rip off of Aliens.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Arthur & the Invisibles 2: Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard (2009)

A challenge faced by the middle entry in any movie trilogy is that it needs to not only be a satisfying film in and of itself but it also has to do a lot of work in setting up the themes and conflicts of final chapter of the trio, as well.

It's not easy to achieve both these goals, and the people behind the Arthur and the Invisibles series appear to have tackled the issue by simply not bothering to try.  This second chapter of the franchise is entirely about setting up the third.  As a self-contained work ... well, it isn't one.  It exists entirely to get Arthur back to the flea-sized realm of the Mnimoys, and enable the escape of archvillain Maltazard into the human world.  Those goals accomplished, it promptly ends.

What's particularly galling about the film's failure as a standalone movie is that there's no reason these two goals couldn't have been achieved while still delivering an entertaining experience.  Have Arthur go back to Minimoyland because of some new crisis, then he and his love interest Princess Selenia battle this menace for the bulk of the film before the believed-defeated Maltazard is revealed to have engineered the whole situation in order to facilitate his escape.

Instead of this, the script devotes the bulk of its time to Arthur's efforts to actually reach the Minimoys' realm in the first place.  This mostly involves lots of supposedly humorous shenanigans involving his family (it's a recurring problem with the film that the bits that are meant to be funny aren't, while those that are meant to serious come across as goofy).

Once Arthur finally makes it to Minimoyland, we get a long info dump followed by a chase scene sequence, then not one but two additional long info dumps.  Princess Selenia finally makes her appearance in these latter info dumps: first as the subject of a flashback, and then because she's been captured (off screen) by Maltazard and is Big M's hostage to ensure no-one stops his escape.  Sigh.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Howl (2015)

Joe is having a pretty rotten day.  He returns from his shift as a train guard to discover that he's been passed over for a promotion, and the jerk that did get the job is forcing him to pull a double-shift.  That means he'll be working the midnight train.  About the only positive is that he'll be sharing the work with the attractive Ellen, for whom he clearly has a Thing.

Alas for Joe, his troubles are just beginning.  The train hits a deer while passing through some woods, damaging the engine, and then the driver - who is investigating the damage - vanishes.  Which is when the fecal matter really rains down on poor Joe, since the reason for the driver's disappearance is werewolves.  Now Joe, Ellen and the train's passengers must fight to survive against these most unexpected of dangers.

So basically what we have here is Dog Soldiers on a (stationary) train.  This film even casts Dog Soldiers' Sean Pertwee as the aforementioned train driver, going so far as to put his name on the cover of the DVD.  Don't be taken in, though: Pertwee doesn't get so much as a line before he's gobbled up.  It's the stuntiest of stunt-casting.

Howl is not devoid of virtues: it does a decent job of introducing its cast and said cast does a fine job with the roles they are given.  I also give it points for doing something different with the visual design of the werewolves, even if I am not actually a fan of said design.

But as you might imagine of any film where I say "it's not devoid of virtues", there's quite a bit wrong here too.  Mostly in terms of the writing.  Pretty much every attempt at humour in the script is a bad idea, for instance, and the conclusion doesn't seem to be quite sure what tone it is going for: Is it tragedy? Heroic sacrifice? Schadenfreude?  It seems to be including a bit of everything, and therefore fails to really achieve any of them.

Basically, if the premise of this film sounds like something you'd enjoy ... you should just (re-)watch Dog Soldiers instead.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Lie to Me, Season 3 (2010)

I found the second season of Lie to Me to be a bit of a slog.  It dropped the pleasing ensemble structure of the first season to focus heavily on Tim Roth's character, Cal Lightman, and he's a rather abrasive chap.

Season three also focuses on Lightman, but it sensibly directs most of his abrasiveness at unsympathetic characters, and when he does snark at characters we like, they generally get to snark back.  The interplay between Lightman and his daughter in this season is particularly fun.

As this season starts, Lightman's organisation has severed its relationship with the FBI (which ran through all of season two) and is rather struggling for money in the aftermath.  A struggle Lightman's not really helping since he (a) insists on taking cases that interest him even if there is no money in them and (b) is conspicuously failing to write a book he's already had the advance for, and which the publisher is now threatening to sue over.

Alas, Lie to Me was cancelled after 13 episodes of this season.  As it did not receive a back 9 order, nor a fourth season, the money/publishing troubles storyline will forever go unresolved.  That the people behind the show hoped to be continued is pretty obvious: they introduce a new character (who looked to be a lot of fun) to the team in the final episode that did air, as well as finally taking a big step in a major interpersonal storyline in that same episode.

Even cut short as it is, though, Lie to Me frankly provides a better concluding episode than season six of The Sopranos did.  And the thirteen episodes to get to that conclusion are pretty good fun.  It definitely helps to approach things with a not-too-serious frame of mind.  If you treat this as light entertainment that happens to use investigations as a framework for character-based dramedy (kind of like Castle or - even moreso - Leverage) you'll probably like it more than if you approach it as a "proper" mystery show.  Lightman & Co pretty much have magic powers of lie detection and persuasion, and the bad guys always fall for their schemes, so the "whodunnit?" is generally the least compelling part of the show.

Enjoyable bubblegum TV.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Babadook (2014)

Amelia's husband died driving her to the hospital to have their son, Samuel.  Seven years later, she still struggles with grief, as well as with the demands of being a single mother.  Samuel is a rather highly-strung youngster, quite possibly to the point of suffering from an undiagnosed condition.  Among other things, he's obsessively concerned with monsters, to the point of building weapons such as a backpack-mounted catapult and a hand crossbow for "protection".

Things start to spiral out of control when Samuel takes the latter weapon to school.  This is not the first time he's done something the school can't tolerate, and the principal wants to have him assigned to a full time mentor.  Instead, Amelia withdraws him from the school, planning to place him somewhere else.  But Samuel's continued behavioural issues, and the arrival of a strange, macabre picture book in their home, spark an escalating series of stresses and strangeness.  Samuel is terrified of the villain of the picture book, a creature called "Mister Babadook".  Amelia initially discounts his fears as foolishness, but soon things start happening that she can't explain ... could they really be the target of some supernatural menace?

The first hour of The Babadook is very tense and creepy: great stuff.  Even the "ordinary" parts of Amelia's life feel oppressive and frightening.  Social Services are calling, wondering why Samuel's not in school; and Samuel's behaviour is becoming steadily more aberrant, which is driving away their friends and extended family.

Unfortunately, I don't feel that the film's last act quite follows through on the promise of the first sixty minutes.  The conclusion aims for some ambiguity about what's happening, which is fine in principle but which I didn't think really added anything in this particular case.  More importantly though, the actual climactic scenes lacked the tension of the first two acts and kind of straggle on for too long.

While overall I do feel like the film overall falls a bit short of its early promise, this one is recommended if you're a fan of spooky movies.  When it is good, it is very good.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Fly 2 (1989)

I excluded Tremors as one of my horror reviews for October on the basis that I never felt it was really trying to be scary or distrubing.  The Fly 2 on the other hand, clearly wants to be both these things.  It just fails utterly in that ambition.  Fortunately for its makers, or possibly me, this doesn't disqualify them from counting toward my 'thirteen tales of terror' for the month.

This film tells us that Veronia Quaife was not only pregnant with Seth Brundle's child after The Fly, but that she was somehow persuaded or coerced into carrying the child to term.  She dies in the delivery room, but the child survives.  He is bestowed with the name Martin by his new guardians at Bartok Industries, and placed in a laboratory for study.

Two things rapidly become clear.  First that Martin has inherited at least some of his father's genetic abnormality, as he matures at roughly four times the normal rate.  And second that - while some of them are better at hiding it than others - the people at Bartok are not interested in Martin as a person, but purely as a scientific resource.

Things are inevitably going to become very messy then, when two things happen in quick succession: the now adult Martin both falls in love, and begins to exhibit the first signs of the hideous transformation that befell his father.  Naturally he wants nothing more than to find a cure and save his lover and himself, but the people at Bartok Industries have no intention of letting go of their investment, and will stop at nothing to control him.

Now "sinister organisation turn someone into a weapon and then find themselves as the target" is a perfectly valid story idea.  It's basis for numerous Jason Bourne films after all.  But it's not really a horror narrative.  You can throw all the gore and goop at the screen you want, but if we're cheering on the "monster" that's causing it then none of it is actually scary.  And it's not like the film makes any bones about the fact that Martin is the hero.  I mean heck, it even has him take time out of his face-melting fly monster rampage to pet a dog.

If you feel like seeing what a Bourne film would be like if you replaced Matt Damon with an eight foot humanoid fly, you should check out The Fly 2, because you'll probably have as much fun with it as I did.  Otherwise, tell it to buzz off.  (Yes, I went there.  This film deserves it.)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Lobster Man from Mars (1989)

I imagine that the danger inherent in deliberately making a film bad for comedic effect is pretty obvious: if you fail to make the film funny, all you have is a bad movie.  Larry Blamire's Lost Skeleton of Cadavra does a good job of avoiding this particular pitfall.  Alas, the makers of Lobster Man from Mars, while they clearly share Blamire's love for cheap 50s Science Fiction, do not have his knack for hitting the funny bone.

The plot of this film is that a movie producer has a cash flow crisis when Uncle Sam comes knocking for $4 million in back taxes.  He needs a floptacular film, ASAP, to act as a tax write off and keep him out of jail.  Enter amateur film-maker Stevie Horowitz, with his passion project, "Lobster Man from Mars".

And that's pretty much the whole plot of this film, since 90% of the run time is given over to the movie within the movie.  We see the entirety of Horowitz's supposed creation, in all its schlocky, low-budget 'glory'.  Though frankly, having seen a few real "one person passion projects", it's pretty obvious that this is nothing of the sort.

The film within the film is a pretty standard tale of the kind it is aping: hideous alien mutant comes to Earth and runs amok, but is ultimately stopped by plucky humans.  It's got some pretty broad references to true examples of the genre.  The monster being lobster-like and having a gun that skeletonises its victims are obviously drawn from Teenagers from Outer Space for instance, while the monster's sidekick Mombo is a clear riff on the infamously terrible Robot Monster.

I guess you could check this out if you are really desperate to see Tony Curtis and Patrick Macnee sacrificing whatever was left of their dignity at this time.  But if you want a parody of 50's SF, you'd be better off with Blamire's offering, and if you want the real thing, then I suggest you track down Them!.  Both are vastly more entertaining.

Though honestly, so was Teenagers from Outer Space.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Curse of the Crows (2013)

Five prisoners are held in a dank prison, where they await sentencing from a Judge they have never seen.  Only three fates are possible: imprisonment without hope of release; death; or pardon at the cost of a sacrifice.  "Maybe they'll only take a finger; maybe a hand ... or both hands." we're told.

The movie pretty soon makes it clear that these folks deserve to be incarcerated, as they are all murderers of one stripe or another.  It also hints very broadly that this is no mundane place of punishment.  None of the inmates remember how they came to the prison, for instance.  Plus three of them remember killing a woman, and the victim is played by the same actor in every case.  This could just be a cost-cutting measure, of course, but no attempt is made to hide it in the film, so I think it is meant to be noticed.

The final and most obvious hint is there's the newcomer among them, a sixth cellmate who quickly demonstrates supernatural abilities such as telekinesis.  Such powers should of course let her escape without much difficulty, but she seems to have no interest in doing so. It's hardly a surprise that the original group quickly come to suspect that she is somehow associated with the prison, and may even be the Judge herself.

So the first thing to point out about this movie; other than it's alternate title is Wrath of the Crows; is that it likes itself some gore and brutality.  I wouldn't call it outright torture porn, but if you're squeamish about such stuff, you should probably stay away.

The second thing to point out is that feels like a film where the writers genuinely wanted to engage with themes of sin, punishment and redemption but weren't really up to the task of clearly articulating what it was they wanted to say or of integrating it into the gorefest they were otherwise delivering.  It ultimately ends up coming across as rather muddled.

I could only really recommend this one for ardent fans of B-movie scream queens Debbie Rochon and Tiffany Shepis, both of whom have major roles.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Life of Mammals (2002)

Although he was in his mid-70s by the time it was made, The Life of Mammals finds Sir David Attenborough once more travelling around the world to explore the many and varied forms of life on this planet.

As the title makes obvious, this time the topic at hand is the class of organisms that includes ourselves, as well as those species that were are most familiar to us from their roles as pets or livestock.

As usual with the Life series of documentaries, Attenborough takes a structured approach to the subject.  He begins with a basic overview of what mammals are, and then further explores the distinguishing features of the three main types: monotreme, marsupial and placental.  From there he explores the various diets that mammals can have, giving over an entire episode to herbivores or carnivores, for instance.  Once he reaches omnivores, he diverts into looking at the specialised examples of aquatic and arboreal mammals, before turning to monkeys, apes and humans to round things out.

I didn't find The Life of Mammals quite such compelling viewing as some of Attenborough's earlier series, but I think that was at least in part because of the familiarity I mentioned before.  Even animals we've likely never encountered outside of a zoo, like lions or leopards, are pretty well-known to us from media.

Which is not to say that this is in any way a bad show.  It's very informative, Attenborough remains an enjoyable host, and modern technology allows them to get footage of things never seen before - such as the interior of a platypus burrow, or the nocturnal hunting habits of a lion pride.  It's just that (with a few exceptions like the desman or the naked mole rat) mammals seem a little less weird and wonderful, on the whole, than birds or plants were.

Overall, if you've an interest in the natural world, this is worth your time.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Horde (2009)

A French policeman is found murdered.  His colleagues believe this to be the work of a Nigerian gangster named Adewale Markudi.  They plot to infiltrate the near-derelict apartment building where Markudi has his base and execute him.  In fact, most of the cops seem pretty intent on executing every member of the gang: only one of their number wants to limit the bloodshed to the boss alone.

The cops' plans pretty quickly go awry.  This is in part because Marduki's people are more alert than they expected, but it's mostly because a zombie armageddon starts while they are still inside the building.  Now these erstwhile enemies must band together if they are to have any hope of survival.

I've seen La Horde (as it is known in the original French) described as "the Die Hard of zombie films", but really the only thing they share is that they're set in high rises.  I think that comparison with Assault on Precinct 13 is more accurate.  Both films are based around the idea of cops and crooks teaming up to face an implacable third enemy, and both make considerable mileage of the mistrust and antagonism that inevitably arises in such a reluctant alliance.  The Horde is a rather more pessimistic film than John Carpenter's 1976 offering though: at least in that film the cops are basically decent people caught in a terrible situation.  It's bad guys and good guys teaming up, whereas this film is more a case of bad guys and worse guys.  The cops were in the tower to commit murder, after all.

The Horde is a solid zombie action film.  It has a decent cast, a convincing look, and well-staged fight sequences.  I'm dubious about the sheer amount of firepower that's apparently stocked in the apartment block, but I'm willing to accept it for the purposes of the tale.  My only real complaint is the absence of any sympathetic characters.  When the most moral person on screen is the guy who "only" wanted to commit one murder, you're setting a very low bar.  I do think that the awfulness of the characters is quite intentional, though.  There are definitely comparisons being drawn between the unthinking, instinctual violence of the undead and the quite intentional, vindictive violence of the humans.

I'll also add a specific content warning: there's a scene where the group incapacitate a female zombie that then goes in a very ugly direction.  In the scene's defence, it's not portrayed as being anything but foul, and it stops short of turning ugly talk into ugly action.  But it's still very unpleasant and may be a deal-breaker for some viewers.

If you're a zombie fan, and neither that content warning nor the film's nihilistic depiction of human beings are off-putting to you, then The Horde is worth your time.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Fly (1986)

Given teenage-me's love of Alien and Videodrome, I'm not sure why I've never previously seen this renowned David Cronenberg film,  Whatever the reason, I was reminded several months ago to correct that oversight, and picked up the DVD.  Even then I had plans of an October horror theme for the blog, though, so I waited until now to watch it.

The basic plot is simple enough: scientist Seth Brundle reveals to journalist Veronica Quaife that he's discovered how to teleport inanimate objects from place to place.  She's understandably impressed and wants to write a magazine article about it, but he persuades her to do a book on the project instead, with the final chapter to come once he's successfully teleported himself.

Unfortunately, when Brundle comes to that climactic experiment, he unintentionally traps a fly inside the teleporter with him.  Now he emerges from the other end of the experience with no signs of any ill effects, but I'm sure it's no spoiler to say that this will not lead to good things.

The Fly is widely considered one of the great horror films, with critics and audiences alike being hugely impressed by Jeff Goldblum's performance and by the film's special effects.  Having finally seen it, I can confirm that its reputation is deserved, though it was quite a different film from what I expected.

You see, somehow I had it in my head that this would be a "monster movie", where Brundle would transform into some kind of abomination and then go on a rampage.  And this is not that film.  Yes, Brundle is gradually transformed into an abomination, but it is that transformation that is the primary source of horror.  Which given Cronenberg's frequent exploration of body horror themes should probably not surprise me.

This is definitely not a film that everyone will like.  If you're squeamish or not into horror in general, for instance, you should definitely stay away.  But if you do like horror films, and have a fairly strong stomach for grue and gore, then this movie definitely deserves your time.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Cyborg X (2016)

So in 2017 something goes wrong with a secret government project.  An AI program goes rogue, creates an army of cyborg killing machines, and unleashes them upon the world.  12 months later, the scattered remnants of humanity are hiding wherever they can, and facing the choice of a quick death at the hands of the machines, or a slow one from lack of food.  But then a small group of survivors discover that the man who created totally-not-Skynet is still alive.  Hoping that he might have some insight into how to fight back, they resolve to rescue him from the cyborgs who just captured him.

Now that's hardly an especially novel premise for a film but in the right hands it could be entertaining.  Alas: these are not the right hands.  Imagine a 14 year old boy's Terminator fanfiction about the Skynet War.  Now imagine that someone made a fan film of that fanfic, but clumsily edited out all the recognisable names to protect themselves from legal action.  You're probably still imagining something considerably better than Cyborg X, but you're starting to get the basic idea.

I know some of the people in this film can act: I've seen them do it elsewhere.  But in Cyborg X I'm guessing the only direction they ever got was "more ham! more!", since they just tend to shout their lines at each other.  In fact a lot of the film's problems can be traced to the direction.  The "action" sequences for example tend to consist of people standing in place and gritting their teeth while CGI muzzle flash erupts from their gun.  Check out Danny Trejo in the image above and you've pretty much scene every gunfight in the film.

Speaking of the CGI, most of this stuff wouldn't have cut it twenty years ago, let alone today.  The physical effects aren't much better.  Certainly don't expect to see anything that looks as slick as the DVD cover.

I have seen worse films than Cyborg X - Zombie Hunter comes to mind, as I saw it recently and it also features Mr Trejo - but that's a frighteningly low bar to clear, and should not be taken as any kind of recommendation.  If you absolutely must watch a low-budget Terminator knock-off, try something like Hardware instead.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Body Snatchers (1993)

This was apparently Roger Ebert's favourite adaptation of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers.  I prefer the 1978 version myself, but I'd definitely call this a strong second.  Or third, if you want to count The Faculty, though that's not officially an adaptation of Finney's story, nor of Robert Heinlein's similar-and-earlier Puppet Masters, both of which it name-checks.

Teenager Marti, her dad, stepmom and much younger half-brother arrive at a military base where Marti's dad will be doing some work for the EPA.  It seems there are toxic chemicals stored at the site, and the EPA wants to make sure there are no unexpected leaks.

Leaks there may not be, but there are certainly unexpected things afoot at the base.  Marti gets an intimation of this when she's accosted by a wild-eyed soldier who threatens her with a knife, then releases her when he sees that she is scared, while ranting that "they get you when you sleep".

Now look, this is a Body Snatchers film, so obviously what's going on is alien replicants taking the place of the human beings on the base.  Pretty much the only way to spot the aliens; unless you walk in on one in the middle of absorbing its human counterpart; is by the fact that they possess no emotions.

Of course, that means that if you display any emotions, they'll know you're not one of them.  And it's pretty hard to stay poker-faced when aliens are trying to consume your body and take over your life.

This adaptation sets a much faster narrative pace than the 1978 version, being a good twenty minutes shorter.  That gives less time to establish that whole sense of creepiness and wrongness that pervades the earlier film.  This offering also features a lot more in the way of action sequences, too, so tonally it's quite different.  Not that the film eschews scares and creepiness completely, of course.  I mean it is a film about your identity and individuality being stolen from you, and that's bound to be a bit creepy.

If the basic "alien infiltration" premise appeals, this is definitely a film worth checking it.  Yes, even if you have seen the 1978 film.  They're different enough that I think they can both be enjoyed on their own merits.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Tremors (1990)

A couple of years ago there was a thread on Reddit, "What is your favorite Kevin Bacon movie and why is it Tremors?".  I'm not a Redditor myself but the thread was was mentioned to me by a friend and it prompted me to finally pick up the film on DVD.  After all, I'd been hearing for twenty-some years that it was a good flick.  And finally, twenty-some months later, I've actually watched it.

The premise of the movie is simplicity itself: the inhabitants of an isolated town in the American desert find themselves targeted by a previously undiscovered race of massive subterranean worm-monsters, and must battle to survive.

Now you may have heard Tremors described as a "comedy horror" film and be wondering, given yesterday's comments about my October schedule, why I'm reviewing it on a Tuesday.  Well, frankly it's because for all this is a monster movie, it's no more a horror film than Starship Troopers is.  Horror movies do not feature synchronised pole-vaulting scenes, for example.  And no, you don't get any context about why that scene exists: watch the movie if you want to know more.

Honestly, "watch the movie if you want to know more" is pretty much my call on Tremors.  If the basic premise of the film appeals to you at all - or if you're simply intrigued by the idea of seeing the dad from Family Ties as a crazy survivalist gun nut - then you should check it out.  It's a rollicking good time with a strong cast, solid physical effects, and a script that expertly delivers its chuckles without ever making the monsters themselves a subject of ridicule.  It's not hard to see why it is was critically well-received on its release, or why it inspired that reddit thread twenty years later.

Fun stuff.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Skeleton Key (2005)

So it's October, which means Halloween will soon be upon us.  Many movie review sites get into the seasonal spirit by doing an entire month of horror film reviews.  I'm not going to go that far myself, but I will be featuring horror movies in my Monday, Wednesday and Fridays reviews over the next 31 days.  Which makes for thirteen tales of terror.  An apropos number, I'd say.  Tuesday and Thursday reviews will be for non-horror tales.

This little experiment gets off to a rather shaky start with The Skeleton Key.  The movie's got a strong cast, some nice direction, and it doesn't cop out on its ending ... but the script is problematic on a number of fronts.  We'll get to how in a moment.  First, some story context.

Caroline is a hospice nurse who answers a newspaper advertisement for a job as the on-site carer at a grand old estate in Louisiana.  Her patient is an elderly man who has suffered a stroke.

The initial interview doesn't go that well.  The man's wife doesn't seem to much like her.  But the family lawyer promises to smooth things over, and Caroline takes the job.  Of course, in the manner of such things in movie-land, she'll soon be wondering just what dark secrets the estate is holding.

So the biggest problem with The Skeleton Key is that it's not all that interesting.  It kind of ambles through a bunch of bog standard horror movie tropes.  Ooh, thunderstorm!  Aah, dream sequence!  Eek, strangers with foreboding warnings.  Yawn, seen it all before.

The second problem, for me at least, was that it became transparently obvious to me what was going on - not in all the specifics, but in the important particulars - at about the halfway mark, and it felt like the protagonist was more than a little bit thick for not twigging to it as well.

The third problem is that of contrivance.  I'm perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for voodoo and ghosts, but when you have large chunks of the story that work only if one character accurately predicts multiple actions on the part of another character ... well, then I start to get a bit twitchy.

At the end of the day, this isn't terrible, but it is also not good enough to recommend.