Sunday, 10 June 2012

Night Visions Back To Basics 3012 Part 1

About two months ago, I was privileged to take part of another Night Visions Back to Basics festival. The intimacy of classic festival years has been paved in way of attendance records, and accordingly, the festival has become bigger and bigger each year. Just because there's such a big number of films to cover, this festival report comes in so late. But as most good genre films are timeless, one should be able read reviews of them anytime. Let's remind ourselves how much fun we had, eh?

Haywire (USA, 2012)
Director: Steven Soderbergh

The festival kicked off with Steven Soderbergh's love letter to ultimate fighter Gina Carano. I've long held the stand that Soderbergh is a competent director with plenty of good ideas in each of his films. However, it seems that he's unwilling to concentrate to do them properly, instead opting to direct two films each year. Subsequently, he has a huge back catalogue of films no one has seen, and even his high profile films lack in substance. Even though it's admirable that such a big director is willing to make a straight action film that unashamedly is built on people getting their asses kicked, it would've paid to stay a bit longer in the screenwriter's room.

As it is, Haywire is a blandly clichéd agent thriller. Carano's agent Mallory Kane is on the run from her former employer. The agency and the consequent womanhunt seem to be led by Ewan McGregor's Kenneth. Unlinear timeline shows flashes from before and after Kane was betrayed. Her mission to rescue a hostage in Barcelona went, as in the movie's title, haywire. In her subsequent job in Dublin her contact person (Michael Fassbender) turns out to be a double-crosser. In current time, somewhere in the American midwest, she confides in the regular-seeming Aaron (Channing Tatum) to borrow his car.

Like said, there are plenty of things to enjoy here, from surprisingly good performances (Carano in particular shows unexpected acting abilities) to several good action scenes. A backwards car chase in the middle of the woods is one for the ages, and Soderbergh can stage a fight between Carano and an A-list actor like a mofo. Pity that in some instances he attempts to do a really distracting editing style that's more an experiment than a service to storytelling (or ass-kicking). I would've liked to see more famous actors get their asses kicked by Carano, with Michael Douglas and Tatum in particular being sad to be left out. But ultimately, as the viewer can't be bothered to care about any of the supposedly-clever twists and turns of the plot, and any scene without any action causes big yawns. Ultimately, the film doesn't amount to anything above average.

★★ 1/2

Bloody Pit of Horror (Il boia scarlatto, Italy/USA 1965)
Director: Massimo Pupillo

But wait, actually Night Visions opened a bit earlier than that, at least unofficially. In the Bar Molotow there was a sunday evening showing of two past NV movies followed by reminiscing of the 15-year-old history of the festival. I catched the later one of the flicks, a delicious Italian exploitation flick supposedly based on the writings of none other than Marquis de Sade.

The Castle of the Crimson Executioner was where a notorious madman butchered heaps of people back in the 17th century. A modern-day photographer decides that the castle's the perfect milieu to shoot sexy pictures for covers of horror novels. So, a group of hot model girls and technical people arrive at the castle that they think is empty. However, the castle is owned by the former actor Travis Anderson (Mickey Hargitay) who lives there with his two bodyguards. The model Edith (Luisa Baratto) used to date Travis, so they are allowed to stay. But then the model crew starts to disappear one by one. The spirit of The Crimson Executioner seems to be bent on revenge and to torture each and every one of them to death.

So all of the (pretty formulaic) plot exists solely as an excuse to show several torture devices and death traps. Having sex-hungry models in your film also allows for some steamy nudity. The budget hasn't really stretched too far, as the violence doesn't seem too realistic and the other special effects are frankly ludicrous. The unconvincing giant spider threatening a girl in her web, only to be tossed away like an American football by the rescuing Adonis, is probably the most memorable of these.

The main bad guy runs around in red tights and generally dresses like the pulp comic hero The Phantom, but without a shirt on, which is also a plus in my book. But the film also has a somehow twisted atmosphere where almost anything can happen. Like all good exploitation, it seems to exist in a delirious border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Even though the end result is lame, it is quite inventive and the actors seem to be having fun with it.

★ or ★★★★★

Red Tears (a.k.a. Monster Killer; Red tears - kôrui, Japan 2011)
Director: Takanori Tsujimoto

Each Night Visions seems to need to have a new Japanese gore flick in its program. This time, for a change, it doesn't come courtesy of Sushi Typhoon. But still it shares pretty much the regular quality of these flicks, which is that they have a couple of amusing splatter scenes but the flimsy plot and the overacted characters are usually quite dire.

Red Tears is both a detective story and a love story as well as a monster-hunting action film. A bunch of policemen try to figure out who has murdered a large number of people by decapitating them and sucking the corpses dry from blood. The young policeman Tetsuo Nojima (Yuma Ishigaki) falls for the shy, beautiful girl Sayoko (Natsuki Kato) who takes care of her elderly mother. But the more efficient and determined elder detective Genjiro Mishima (Yasuaki Kurata) soon starts to suspect that the women have some sort of connection to these monstrous crimes.

The plot develeopment is slow as snail nailed to the ground. Sudden shocks of the plot suddenly thrushing forward wake the viewer up, but can't manage to maintain interest for long. The unrelenting, bloody fight scenes towards the end do a little better job, but rely way too much on bad CGI effects. But the film also has a very black sense of humor which makes some body mutilation jokes quite funny in a Braindead sort of way. Kurata is also awesome. Still, by no means essential viewing.


The Innkeepers (USA 2011)

Director: Ti West

Ti West has an unique vision among modern American horror directors, which is why his films feel like they're a lot better than they actually are. He doesn't dwell on violence, postmodernist irony, jokes, effects or gore like so many of his peers. West's films build very slowly and give a lot of room for character development. It's a shame, then, that his films are so clichéd. One would almost wish he wouldn't write his own scripts, but rather use his directing talent to better someone else's fresher ideas. After the quite good House of the Devil, West has decided to show others how a Haunted House thriller should be made.

Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) work at a rundown hotel that's about to get closed. There aren't that many customers so they try to find some ways to keep themselves entertained during long shifts at the reception. They both are interested in the hotel's history, which includes a young bride hanging herself after her fiancée left her at the altar. As amateur ghost hunters they attempt to capture some evidence that the bride's ghost still lurks in the hotel. During the hotel's last weekend they get an old actress Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis) as a guest. She promises Claire she can get in touch with the hotel's spirits. But Sara soon finds out she got more than she bargained for.

The Innkeepers starts off relatively mild, almost comedy-like as Claire and Luke talk trash with each other and ward off boredom. What first seem like stock-clearence horror movie characters turn out to be kind of multidimensional in that they have several motivations, background and thoughts going on. The viewer allowing him-(or her-)self to get entangled in their lives and to learn to care for what's happening to them, finds the film more rewarding as a result. The suspense builds up very slowly, and supernatural elements are almost crept in a film that in the beginning seemed very down-to-earth. Even usually cheesy shocker points feel a lot creepier than in your average cheap jump-scarer. But once the final chase and shock-train starts, it all falls to very familiar horror tropes, like going to a dark basement to get trapped. West should work more to keep his film's climaxes worthy of such long buildup. Nevertheless, it's always a joy to see a horror film crafted well and with care. I hope West's next film won't disappoint.


War of the Dead – Stone's War (Lithaunia/Italy/Finland/USA, 2012)
Director: Marko Mäkilaakso

Here's another fresh new genre film that stems from Finnish mindpower but is actually a multinational production. Mäkilaakso's film is about zombies in the Finnish Winter War (1939-40) and has been on production (shelved) for so long that zombies have gone out of fashion thanks to overexposure in pop culture. But actually I got a real kick out of this film, I liked it a lot better than the more in-your-face, you-should-be-laughing-now -styled Iron Sky. Whether that was the intent of the filmmakers, I honestly can't say.

The American soldier Stone (Andrew Tiernan) fights on the Karelian frontier against the attacking Soviet army, alongside a small group of Finnish soldiers. When suddenly the killed soldiers can't stay dead and keep coming for their flesh, the ragtag group realizes that more sinister powers than the sheer fear of Stalinist gulags is driving the zombie soldiers. The group picks up a Russian soldier Kolya (Samuli Vauramo) on their way to get as far away from the armies of the undead and perhaps also solve the mystery. (Hint: It's because of occultist Nazi experiments)

The film is shot in a dark forest at night, and the editing is so sloppy, it's hard to make out what's happening in the most intense scenes. In the end set in a vast underground bunker system, the editing problems ease out. But by then the film looks like just another amateur zombie film shot in a basement or bomb shelter. The film's flimsy "plot" consists mostly of running away, with some frankly ludicrous character building scenes filling out the time between. But none of those problems matter, because the acting is so goddamn hilarious. The film's Finns have thick accents, reminding the production of some of Mats Helge's finest Swedish ninja flicks. This is probably a conscious choice as Finnish war veterans aren't very well known for their abilities to speak foreign languages. But then again it just raises further questions as to why the hell are they even talking in English anyway. Stone's reasons to fight in Finland's own war are familiar to anyone that has read some cheap Boy's Own war comics. Come to think of it, the plot altogether doesn't probably have a single fresh idea in it (save for one zombie horse/car chase). But it's all made with such deadpan seriousness, that the film tricks the audience into laughing at it's ineptdness. The funniest joke is the one where you can't be sure whether the one telling you it is joking or not. Frankly, I don't want to know whether they were serious or not making this, which is why I skipped the Q&A with the makers after the screening. I remain more satisfied that way.

★ or ★★★★★

The Brides of Fu Manchu (UK/West Germany 1965)
Director: Don Sharp

Christopher Lee was not only known as Dracula in the 1960's. He's also one of the most profilic actors to play Sax Rohmer's fiendish supervillain Dr. Fu Manchu, having done the role five times in his career. Night Visions presented the second one of these adventure flicks, with Douglas Wilmer's Sir Dennis Nayland Smith having to match wits against a nefarious plot to conquer the world once again. Because this is a sequel, the film starts with a frankly baffling (for newcomers at least) and explosive scene set on some Asian mountains where the previous film's ending is undone to release Fu Manchu into the world once again.

This time his plot relies on kidnapping daughters of scientists around the world and locking them in a cage in his secret underground lair. Then he blackmails the scientists to build him the technology he wants, the most sinister being a death ray capable of destroying Great Britain's most notable tourist attractions (and the home of some monarchs as well). He keeps the scientists at bay with his hypnotism skills, which can make even the sweetest of scientist daughters the most ruthless of assassins. Smith and the Scotland Yard must find clues and deduce where on Earth Fu Manchu is hiding before his plans come into fruition.

The film has not aged particularly well and multiple things in it look quite silly from today's perspective. First of all, Fu Manchu as a racial stereotype seems quite un-PC, even if this film doesn't make a big scene out of his heritage, making the villain interested in mythology from all over the world. Second, the film relies quite heavily on technology, which by today's standards looks quite primitive. The limited budget has caused many of the most impressive machinery to be described, rather than shown. Manchu's ninja minions working in a computer room also looks quite stupid. And then thirdly, for a film that's set in the modern times of 1960's, some of the threats and perils the film present seem quite out of their sell-by-date, too. Fu Manchu's greatest death trap is a snake pit, which features a couple of quite friendly-looking pythons. If someone is dropped there, the film soon cuts to the pythons squirming amongst a plastic skeleton. But nevertheless these flaws, it is always a joy to see Lee in a villainous role (even so subdued as here), and the international game of cat-and-mouse is, for the most part, fun enough to follow.


Star Pilot (a.k.a. 2+5: Missione Hydra; Italy, 1966)
Director: Pietro Francisci

This goofy Italian sci-fi gem owns its logo and title to the Star Wars craze, but it was actually made over a decade before George Lucas' Big Ideas, and re-released during that space craze. In actuality it owes a lot more to the Space Race going on during that time, and American 50's sci-fi movies, which often featured a professor, a couple of quarterbacks and the cute and useless girl exploring brave new worlds.

The plot jumps all over the place. We begin in the 18th century, when a spaceship crash lands in Sardinia. There's really no good reason why this sequence needed to be shown. "Why the heck not" seems to be a recurring motif with a lot of things about this film's plot. In the modern day professor Solmi (Roland Lesaffre), his assistants, and his ravishingly beautiful, but ditzy daughter Luisa (Leontine May) are investigating some strange natural phenomena. They find the crashed spaceship inside a cave, but soon find out that they have been followed by chinese communist spies. But no matter, as they all have to witness the attack and subsequent shut-down of the ship's robots (?!). There are also other ones alive inside the ship, and the whole crew is soon kidnapped by Captain Kaena (Leonora Ruffo). They all are kidnapped and flown out of Earth to fix her race's spaceships and find their way back home.

One really can't say that Star Pilot is a non-stop thrill ride, as there are plenty of frustratingly slow-moving scenes in the film. The incredibly slow-moving spacewalk scenes in particular seem to last for ages. But it still offers such large quantities of cheesy dialogue, baffling plot points and groovy 60's era space fashion (with large boob-windows for the gals), that it's impossible to not love this thing. A woman's place is to fix coffee for the working men, whether they want to drink it or go to bed instead. In the last 10 minutes of the film, there are so many plot twists and turns that the film borders on incomprehensible. But it has a strong anti-nuke message to the world - all the more impressive when considered that it was made before the likes of Planet of the Apes.

★ or ★★★★★

Redneck (Senza ragione, Italy 1973)
Director: Silvio Narizzano

The Italian title of this crime/on-the-run flick means Without reason, which would have been a more fitting. Both titles refer to the mentally ill bank robber Memphis (Telly Savalas), who seemingly portrays some of the most crude stereotypic habits (and the thick accent) of gentlemen from the American Bible Belt. He is also prone to killing a whole lot of people just because he feels like it. Hence, without reason.

Memphis has two partners at a big gig, Mosquito (Franco Nero) and his girlfriend Maria (Ely Galleani). But they botch the jewel shop heist operation bad (particularly because they allow Maria to drive the getaway car). While switching to another car, they don't realize a small boy, Lennox Duncan (Mark Lester), is hiding in the back seat. When they find out, they decide to kidnap him. It turns out that they didn't get much money from their heist after all, which sends Memphis into lunatic rage. Mosquito attempts to save the boy from Memphis's wrath, which makes Lennox idolize him and see him as a sort of a father figure. But since law is on their tail, they need to also trust the murderous Memphis until they can get across the border.

Redneck is as cynical and nasty as Italian flicks come. The attitude towards women is quite misogynistic (just look for the scene where Memphis attempts to hire hookers) and dismissive. It's the sort of film that will show happy German children dancing around the tree and the next moment drown them in a sinking trailer. The film's humor is quite black, is what I'm saying. And a bit odd, too. Mosquito spends time shaving naked in front of a mirror, with Lennox looking admiringly. When Mosquito leaves, Lennox checks whether his penis is as big. The film goes all the way with its craziest ideas, which is also why particularly Savalas' scenery-chewing overacting as a total maniac tends to get tiring. But it's a tough, hard flick with very unexpected plot developments and as such it's very much worth a look.

★★★ 1/2

Dragon on Fire (Guai quan guai zhao, Hong Kong 1981)
Director: Joseph Velasco

The most hilarious moments I've ever had in Night Visions (or really, anywhere else for that matter) have been with several incredibly stupid bruceploitation flicks. It's been a few years since we saw Bruce Lee clones at the festival, which makes it all the merrier that the first full night ended with a flick with no fewer than three of them! Yes, Bruce Li, Bruce Lei and Dragon lee all star in this bonkers kung fu epic. Pity that they are never on screen together.

This is the sort of bargain bin martial arts film that has been created by stitching together leftover pieces from previous films. Or at least that's what some friends with expertize on these films figured. That's why it makes little to no sense and trying to sum the plot reasonably is a fool's errand. There are several Bruce Lee-looking martial arts masters arriving to a small village to save it from ruthless gangsters. Plenty of hijinks ensue. The first half of the film in particular has multiple comedic subplots from running away from the landlord in fast-motion and whatnot.

It doesn't seem to be enough that all the lead actors look like Bruce Lee, the film also deliberately tries to confuse the audience with them. That's why one of the protagonists is named Dragon Young and the other Dragon Hung, which is mentioned in the dialogue over and over again. The third Bruce is Hung's brother and creatively named Bruce Hung. While the first two fight gangsters, he spends most of his time arguing with a Buddhist monk about whether it's OK to beat criminals to death. Surprisingly, the monk seems quite liberal on the subject. My whole view of Buddhism has been shattered! I like how the film is completely unapologetic in its shamelessness and extremely un-PC. Bolo Young makes an appearance and is being called "a large body with a very retarded mind." The fights aren't as bad as the storytelling and the goofy comedy in this one, but aren't that spectacular either.

But these kind of films can only be rated on whether they are boring or not. Dragon on Fire is not boring. In fact, even though the plot makes no sense, people appear and disappear to various locations with odd cuts and it's generally a very stupid basic western plot, the film can pace its humor, action and general insanity in suitable doses and thus it never frustrates the viewer. The end fight does take 20 minutes, but the best tricks are saved for it, and with cross-cutting two fights, the thing works quite well, too. Even if it could use even a little trimming. Talk about finding gold in the trash can.

★ or ★★★★★

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