Saturday, 16 June 2012

Night Visions Back To Basics 2012 - Part 2

Finally, here is the latter part of my report on this year's Night Visions festival. I also saw two additional films,  The Raid: Redemption and Ninja Turf, which I won't be reviewing here because this has been a big effort otherwise as well, and I also did reviews of them for the web site Elitisti. If you don't speak Finnish, rest assured, I will come back to talking about The Raid at least. It's the most kick-ass action film of the year, and I'm quite sure it has guaranteed a spot on my top 10 list of this year. But let's go into the films I have reviewed.

The Cabin in the Woods (USA 2011)
Director: Drew Goddard

Is there a more boring horror trope than a group of teens going to a remote cabin for a weekend to party only to end up being killed one by one by a mysterious evil force, serial killer or a bloodthirsty monster? Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard seem to think there isn't, which is why their madcap horror-comedy may be seen as a cry for originality in the horror genre. And from a very clichéd setting they themselves end up making something quite original indeed. But much of the film's originality is determined by its ability to surprise. So I although I won't go too deep into the plot, I'd still advice to skip the next paragraphs and you to go see the movie as unspoiled as possible.

The strong-minded, but lovelorn Dana (Kristen Connolly), the book-smart jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his happy-go-lucky girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchinson) and nice guy Marty (Fran Krantz) are all persons that have more than one dimension, and reasons for acting the way they act. The most hedonistic of them, the stoner Holden (Jesse Williams) is the exception. The pot-head is only interested in weed and various conspiracy theories. Once the teens arrive at the cabin (owned by Curt's cousin), however, they all start to show more goal-oriented and simple-minded characteristics. Unbeknownst to them, they are also being monitored by the mysterious middle-aged suited men Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) in some sort of a secret high-tech base. They await eagerly for a some sort kind of a monster to appear and to kill the more and more like the  teen archetypes in these sort of films.

I feared this would be the sort of film that would steer too closely into Scream-type self-conscious postmodernism. Although poking fun at horror clichés brings much of the comedy here, it's not too in-your-face or cute about it. The characters inside the film aren't intertextually savvy, and can't compare what they are going through with some handy references to other horror films. Paradoxically Sitterson and Hadley then act like a couple of horror aficionados watching a new film. They make bets on who will die first and what the story's monster will be. With such a scattershot approach, it's great that the third act can distance itself from the tropes and throw a few very tasty bones to both fans of classic horror flicks and goofy comedy. The film also manages to tie the old tropes into some other ones, more familiar in books than on film. That's why it almost interwovens a whole new universe of horror, where every horror story you have ever heard could be true. The film also questions what is the greater good, and turns the tables on its protagonists. As the plot reveals itself, we viewers start to root for a different party. The ending is quite good too (if the final shot is a bit too much), as the film practically guarantees there can never be a sequel. Even though this has been a very successful yarn.

★★★  1/2

Ronal the Barbarian (Ronal Barbaren, Denmark 2011)
Directors: Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen, Philip Einstein Lipski

Barbarian films aren't actually known to be the smartest of the subgenres. I know, shocking, right. That's why as far as parody is concerned, it is quite an easy target. Nevertheless, a raunchy Danish animation on the subject might have been a good idea in the right hands. Unfortunately, Ronal is way too nice and shy about the subject. To properly make fun of barbarians, one should up the sex and violence ante, but the film resorts to just allude to both of those things and titter while doing it.

Ronal is the weakest young barbarian in his village. His foster-uncle attempts to train him to at least have the warrior's code of courage (and also the sort of weird nobility I myself have a hard time figuring barbarians to possess). Neverthless, the timid and feeble Ronal fails to warn his villagers in time when the vengeful warlord Volcazar and his troops do a surprise attack on the village. Crushing the barbarians is one step in Volcazar's evil plans to use ancient magic take over the world. Several barbarians are taken as slaves and it's up to Ronal to rescue them. On the way, he gets help from the eager young troubadour Alibert, the fierce bounty hunter Zandra, and the fruity and pompous elf Elric.

Ronal goes through the basic clichés of sword-and-sorcery fantasy like a checklist without having much funny or insightful to say about anything. The aim is for heavy-metal loving teenagers, even though the film comes at least 25 years too late to appeal to Manowar's biggest fans. The animation is quite good, however. It's not super-accurate Pixar quality, but good enough to forget at times it was all zeroes and ones. The characters' faces are express in almost Brad Bird-style vividness. The only problem may be in several scenes where the pre-rendered background and the characters don't seem to quite fit. The film's attempts at humor are practically pitiful, and the bland message of courage and believing in yourself is familiar from countless Disney films and their knockoffs. On the positive side, Zandra is, for once, a strong female character that's not over-sexualized (although she has some emotional baggage). The way her Red Sonja-like logic is utilized in the film may be the best part in the film, until the final reel when she becomes another damsel in need of a stronger male to save her.


In Search of Dracula (Vem var Dracula?; Sweden/France/USA 1975)
Director: Calvin Floyd

This Swedish TV documentary benefits of having no lesser man than Christopher Lee at narrating duties. The attempt is to go to the bottom of the myth about vampires, the history of Vlad Dracul Tepes of Romania, and of course, the roots of Bram Stoker's classic novel. The film's narrative is flimsy at best, jumping back and forth between topics. Some areas that don't connect to Dracula are also covered, such as the history of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The film crew has visited the real places in which events have happened, such as Transilvania, Hungary and the Lake Geneve. In some parts Lee's narration is pictured with him in role costume. But these inserts don't tell much and seem to be nothing but filler. As Vlad Tepes, for instance, Lee merely takes a stroll through a forest back to his castle in a costume that looks more like a native American hippie than the iron-handed prince who enjoyed watching his enemies impaled. The film's major problem is that it scarcely offers any new information to horror buffs. The clips in which Lee plays Dracula are taken from some of the lesser Hammer vampire films, such as Scars of Dracula. The film is worth watching if one doesn't know too much about the subject. For curiosity's sake there is a curiously staged scene where an actual vampire bat attacks a guinea pig.

★★ 1/2

Some Guy Who Kills People (USA 2011)
Director: Jack Perez

This film sells itself with its posters and such to be an outrageously cartoonish splatter comedy. The comedy is quite black, but there's very little blood and gore in this thing. Comedy, too, as this is more a story of a psychopath trying to come into terms with his world. It's a dark film, reaching all the way to its cinematography. Scenes seem to be set at night more and more as it progresses. The titular character, the 34-year-old Ken Boyd (Kevin Corrigan) is released from the mental institution. The timid young man can't seem to get his life straight, living with his mother (horrifyingly botoxed Karen Black) and working as a mascot for an ice-cream parlor. He has been picked on and made fun of all his life. When bullies harass him at his new work, he decides to get rid of everyone who has made his life a misery.

The gruesomely murdered bodies seem to be killed fast, and with scarcely any link between them. It will take the local sheriff Walt Fuller (Barry goddamn Botswick!) all his mental power to get on Ken's tail. The plot is further complicated as Ken's 11-year-old daughter Amy (Ariel Gade) comes into his life. The smart little girl starts to dig into his dad's past and doesn't like everything she finds. The resulting film is a navel-gazing feel-bad movie that goes into the psyche of the serial killer and questions his rights in the same way that the hit TV series Dexter has been doing. Unfortunately the plot develops glacially and there lacks some sort of a carrot to keep the viewer interested in all these shenanigans. I prefer James Gunn's Super which could deliver the laughs and the colorful imagery as well as the despair and the gloom of a lost individual.

★★ 1/2

Fight For Your Life (USA 1977)
Director: Robert A. Endelson

This 1970's exploitation flick works as a sort of commentary on the social changes of that time. And then again, just as a nasty retread of mean thrillers of that time such as The Hills Have Eyes. Three psychopath criminals are on the run from the law, and take shelter in the house of the Turners, a middle-class African-American family. Particularly their leader Kane (William Sanderson) finds nothing but contempt for the Turner's race, and is willing to say it out loud too. It is hinted he doesn't treat his Mexican and Asian comrades equally either, but they stay along for the ride because the job allows them to do some good looting and pillaging, and the occasional murder. Kane finds pleasure in humiliating the Turner family members, particularly family head Ted (Robert Judd). The worry for his family makes even the proudest, most progressive man take all sorts of mental punishments. But when the shoe switches to another foot and the Turners have the advantage over the thugs, the sound in the bell switches.

Even though it's obvious the film is heading towards a final confrontation of good and evil, or black and white, the film has quite a few surprises in its bag on how it will get there. Some plot threads, such as the 10-year-old boy's blood oath to protect each other, are started just to be shockingly and abruptly ended. The film does good job in building up suspense and pressure to its characters. By the final reel it truly feels as if they all have their backs against the wall, and thus the way they act is the only reason. The film doesn't symphatize psychotic rednecks one bit. They are just as bad and perhaps even more trigger-happy and unremorseful of all the lives they take or the sorrow they cause. There's also a healthy dose of black humor laced all through the film.

In the end, the film doesn't say anything particular about racial politics or social conditions or anything that deep. It's just a tough, uncompromizing exploitation flick, good for catharctic viewing of those inner-city black youths at that time that felt white people treated them like trash. This film doesn't emphasize the view, as it has positive white characters in as well. But it shows that even the most meek of ministers must be prepared to, yes, Fight For Your Right.


Tokyo Emmanuelle (Japan 1975)
Director: Akira Kato

I had a strong feeling before this movie that I wouldn't last through it without falling asleep. Erotic films in the small hours of the morning usually mean sleepy Night Visions attendees. But as it happens, the film was one of the craziest of the whole festival and well worth keeping one's eyes open. From the surface it just looks like one of the many, many cash-ins of the famous French softcore erotica that was so popular around the world in the early 70's. The heroine in this isn't even called Emmanuelle, and the title is used to tell audiences that yes, they have bare boobs and softcore sex on show here.

The heroine Kyoko (the decidedly European-looking Kumi Taguchi) is unhappily married to a French diplomat in Paris. When her husband hasn't shown up and eased her sexual urges for four days straight, she decides to travel back home to Tokyo. The city reminds her of the tragic love affair with a race car driver, when they used to have sex in the bushes during races (He did come to the finish line in another way, then. HEY-AWWW!) The sister of her ex blames her for his consequent death, which haunts Kyoko somewhat in between her intercourses with the locals and naked trips to the gym and dolphinarium. She also goes to see a famed sex therapist, who preaches that sex between two people is so normal as to be boring. The real pleasure should come from unnatural, kinky stuff, and attaining this pleasure should be the only reason for living. Kyoko takes this message to her heart (and bangs the therapist in several odd ways). But her trying to patch things up with her ex's family and seeing a sex therapist there is just an excuse to loosely hinge together a group of scenes of Kyoko having sex with various men, women, groups, and possibly even animals (!).

Let's say it bluntly, the movie is bugshit insane and possibly one of the most misogynistic I've ever come across. The film's director Akira Kato has stated that he was influenced a lot by the ancient Roman erotica. One must ask what purpose could there be to bring such old fantasies to screen, particularly as plenty of the things in it are either illegal or immoral nowadays. The film features not only several rape and gangbang scenes which show the woman liking and wanting it, but also the use of (underage) rape as a way to solve social problems. But this was in fact released in Europe uncut, for no matter how sleazy and disgusting the film's world view is, there actually isn't any graphic imagery. Basically you can't see more than a nipple or two. This just goes to show how wrong censors most often were than not.

The end of this review could go on describing various sleazy scenes from the film. Early in the movie we have a troublingly long scene where Kyoko watches a woman eating a popsicle lovingly and slowly, which makes her think of oral sex, which is visualized as bluntly as possible. Another scene sees her in a ski lift with three men. Two of them ogle her from the moment she gets in. Once the lift takes off the ground, they proceed to attack, grope and rape her. The third man in the lift seems terribly uneasy about having to watch this this. Once the two other men have had their go, #3's encouraged to try some himself, which he reluctantly accepts and has a quickie rape with Kyoko. Nevertheless, Kyoko seems totally at peace after all of this and is seen in the next scene driving a bicycle. I did fall asleep once during the movie, only to wake up having to see naked Kyoko having sex with two men (one in the back, one in the front) while they're all riding a horse on the beach. The film ends at Kyoko's attempts to build bridge between herself and her ex-fiancée's sister. She accomplishes this by drugging her, taking advantage of her, and then allowing her boyfriend to rape her.

One simply cannot defend the world view this film offers, which is frankly disgusting. But it's improbably and sleazy scenes do have a certain weirdness factor in it, which make the film worth gasping at during those weird hours in the morning when you can't tell what is real and what is a dream any more.


The Room (USA 2003)
Director: Tommy Wiseau

Night Visions usually doesn't fail with the choices for their final film, and this time around Finnish audiences were treated to the country's premiere of a thoroughbred cult film. That's not to say, of course, that anyone attending hadn't seen it before, of course. There were plenty of aficionados of The Room present in the audience, and they had the film memorized and had a string of comments to throw in each part. Usually I don't like this sort of behavior, but now this made the whole thing seem like a true cult classic screening, which I've experienced way too few during my lifetime. And the comments were quite funny, too, pointing some extra flaws within the ludicrous film that wouldn't be apparent to first time viewers concentrating on its obvious mistakes and odd choices.

The Room is a melodrama about the extended family of a successful San Fransisco broker Johnny (Wiseau) and his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Their penthouse door is always open for their friends to pop by. Johnny is not only bringing in the dough for his wife-to-be, he is also a happy-go-lucky fellow who's super nice to his friends. The repetitive scenes emphasizing his lovability make it seem like Wiseau is compensating for something. Lisa eventually gets bored with Johnny, and decides to want to start an affair with his best friend Mark (Greg Serestro). The initially reluctant Mark finally agrees to this. Elsewhere, also other of Tommy's friends and family are having troubles, and his world view comes crashing down.

You're tearing me apart, Lisa!
This plot synopsis makes it seem like there is a proper plot and some sort of development in this film, which is by far not the fact. Wiseau starts a huge number of plot threads that seem important but are immediately abandoned and never resolved. The main infidelity plot doesn't go anywhere until in the final 10 minutes. The film was in the making for a long time, during which at least one actor got fed up with the whole thing and left. That's why in the end scenes a completely new friend takes his place without any introduction or explanation. There are also some baffling scenes like the whole group of friends dressed up in fine suits and going to throw a football around. This scene doesn't go anywhere. It's by far not the only one who seem to exist only to baffle the audience and make them laugh.

The most loved thing about the film is the frankly ludicrous dialogue, spoken either robotically stupidly or with such hammy overacting, Calculon would take note. Characters come and go through the apartement door constantly, but Wiseau never fails to greet them. "Oh hai Mark!"
Then there are the sex scenes. As if one scene where disgusted audiences have to look at Wiseau's wrinkled butt and veiny arms isn't enough, after another 10 minutes the exact same sex scene is shown again! All in all, it is quite clear why this has become such a huge cult hit. There is the lingering suspicion that Wiseau may have some sort of a mental syndrome or slowness. That's why I feel a little guilty about laughing at him and his film, which he has clearly put a lot of effort in. But at least audiences do love what he's come up with, and with a passion that's rarely reserved for any other film.

★ or ★★★★★

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