Thursday, October 31, 2019

John Carpenter’s Halloween

Two films released in the late 1970s had a disproportionate influence on the movie business in the 1980s. Stars Wars was one. This is the other. It inspired an army of imitators, a platoon of inferior sequels, and what is still considered the most violent Atari game ever. Its place in history has been codified by its selection for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry—and its still scary. John Carpenter’s Halloween screens tonight in New York and probably somewhere near you, because its Halloween.

For some reason, all the parents in Haddonfield, IL always choose to enjoy a date night on Halloween, leaving their children in the care of sitters. Ordinarily, that means good money for Laurie Strode and her friends, but this year they will be stalked by a monstrous psychopath who has just escape from a criminal insane asylum. You know his name: Michael Myers. You also recognize his iconic William Shatner mask.

Logically, Myers should not be such a superman, since he has sat silently in an apparent catatonic state since murdering his older sister on a fateful Halloween at the tender age of six. Unfortunately, there is nothing logical about pure, unalloyed evil. Dr. Samuel Loomis understands that. He is a headshrinker with a license to practice and to carry, the latter because Myers so profoundly freaks him out. He will follow Myers back to his old hometown of Haddonfield, where the escaped patient will become obsessed with Strode.

Even in 1978, the screenplay, co-written by Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill, was not exactly revolutionary, but the way the elements combined was like lightning in a bottle. First and foremost, it is impossible to overstate how much Carpenter’s music adds to the overall vibe of mounting fear. It is not just the instantly recognizable opening theme. The entire soundtrack potently enhances the mood and worms its way into your ear.

Halloween also establishes the signature look of Carpenter’s films, thanks to Dean Cundey’s soft yet sinister lensing. In many ways, Halloween resembles an evil Norman Rockwell painting. Frankly, it is weird that there haven’t regular Cundey retrospectives, since he also shot films like The Thing, Jurassic Park, Psycho II, and the Back to the Future trilogy.

Creepshow: Skincrawlers/By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain

Sometimes monsters are a metaphor for man’s inhumanity. Other times, they are just icky, slimy buggers. The first of monster of the Creepshow season finale is both, but they are much more the latter, whereas the episode’s second monster is more about the former. Either way there will be monsters in the first season capper of Creepshow, which just debuted on Shudder.

In Skincrawlers, Dr. Sloan has developed a radical weight loss technique employing a rare form of monster leech he discovered in South America. Yep, you already get the idea. He has no shortage of volunteers to help launch his treatment, but Henry Quayle is still skeptical. Nevertheless, the transformation of a fellow fatty into a hottie convinces him to be the volunteer for Sloan’s big TV premiere, but there will be complications.

is absolutely vintage Creepshow. It is gleefully gory and disgusting, but the blood and slime is all in good tasteless fun. Screenwriters Paul Dini and Stephen Langford serve up big laughs and director Roxanne Benjamin keeps upping the WTF stakes. This is what Creepshow and the E.C. Comics that inspired it were all about. As an added bonus, Dana Gould keeps it all mostly grounded, playing Quayle with sad-clown-dignity—and handling the gallons of practical effects like a champ.

It is therefore surprising the first season ends with the middling By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain, even though it is based on a Joe Hill short story and is directed by Tom Savini (thereby establishing another apostolic link to the 1982 movie). In fact, Lake Champlain follows a narrative course that is very similar to that of Creepshow’s The Companion, based on a Joe R. Lansdale story. In this case, a sea monster replaces a killer scarecrow, but domestic violence still represents a more pressing danger.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

10 Minutes Gone: Bruce Willis & Michael Chiklis Go Head-to-Head

There is a lot of baldness in this caper, but maybe that makes sense. There will definitely be less chance of leaving behind follicle evidence that way. The job still goes down spectacularly badly, resulting in the death of Frank Sullivan’s brother. Bruce Willis and Michael Chiklis star in Brian A. Miller’s 10 Minutes Gone, which releases today on DVD.

Everything was going smooth as silk with the bank vault job Sullivan was hired to pull, until suddenly it wasn’t. The cops just showed up out of nowhere. However, it was probably one of Sullivan’s own guys who cold-cocked him and killed his brother. Rather curious to find out who it was, Sullivan stalks each one of them, so they can have words. Meanwhile, Rex, the contractor who hired the heist specialist wants to have his own words with Sullivan. His client paid to recover a package from the safety boxes. Sullivan and his brother briefly had it, but now it is presumably in the killer’s possession.

10 Minutes starts off pretty promising, but it turns out to be way too simplistic. Frankly, it is painfully obvious who the snake in the grass is, just because the cast of characters is so small. It is also hard to buy Chiklis in his action scenes, because he is such a big target and way too slow. On the other hand, it is amusing to watch Willis chew the scenery as the snarky big boss. He and Texas Battle are more interesting arguing with each other as contractor and client than Chiklis bickering with Meadow Williams playing his brother’s girlfriend, whom he has promised to keep safe.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The World is Full of Secrets: Think of Them as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

For horror enthusiasts, story-tellers sometimes become as important as their stories. Think of the fandom inspired by the likes of Poe and King and Wes Craven and Dario Argento. When done right, the act of story-telling stirs something primal on an archetypal Beowulf level. These girls are perhaps not the greatest story-tellers, but they inadvertently reveal much about themselves as they spin their yarns in screenwriter-director Graham Swon’s The World is Full of Secrets, which opens this Thursday at the Anthology Film Archives (check them out getting into the Halloween spirit).

Clara survived whatever happened that fateful night in 1996, but it had a profound impact on the rest of her life. Her parents left her alone while they took some kind of trip, as they always do, but they had no problem with her inviting a few friends over (no boys, of course). To pass the languid time, Susie challenges each girl to tell the most disturbing real-life anecdote they ever heard. Looking back decades later, Clara can’t really remember the first story itself, but we can see how innocently animated her friend gets in the telling.

Emily’s story might just confuse and discomfort a lot of viewers, because it chronicles the brutal martyring of a young Christian women during the repressive pagan years of the Roman empire. However, Clara drops ominous hints that the horrors the Roman protagonist would later befall the storyteller as well.

By far, the scariest story we hear is the one told by Suzie, who suggested the competition in the first place. It is a brutal tale that describes how easily average people can slip into criminal madness through boredom and peer pressure, but what really makes it frightening is the way Swon and young thesp Ayla Guttman insidiously hint that perhaps Susie was in fact one of the participants in this grisly affair.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Zomboat!: Sailing through the Zombie Apocalypse

Sometimes a zombie apocalypse is like basic training or freshman dorm assignments. People get thrown together and have to make the best of it. Of course, Jo and Kat know each other, but they are not so good at working with each other in an amicable manner. They do not know bickering best pals Sunny and Amar from Adam, but their fates become intertwined when zombies start terrorizing Birmingham in the horror sitcom, Zomboat!, which is now streaming on Hulu.

Kat is the gamer with an encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies, so she thinks she is well prepared for zombiegeddon. Jo is the girly, social media obsessed one, who is pretending to be over her ex, even though she is cyber-stalking and smart phone-tracking him. The thing about him is he owns a houseboat. Kat is convinced they can just sail it through the canals to London. Jo is not so convinced, but she doesn’t have a better idea. Neither do Sunny and Amar, who were hiding below deck.

At this point, zombie spoofs are nearly as abundant and cliched as straight-up zombie horror movies, so any newcomers must overcome a great deal of skepticism. Frankly, Zomboat probably sounds a lot like Cockneys vs. Zombies without the EastEnder accents, which it sort of is, but that film was a lot of film, so we could do far worse.

Friday, October 25, 2019

AFF ’19: DC Noir

George Pelecanos is a master of Beltway crime fiction, but he is drawn more to grittier neighborhoods like Baltimore and Anacostia than tonier Fairfax and Georgetown. That’s where the bodies are—and also quite a few stressed out cops. Known as a novelist as well as a writer-producer for shows like The Wire, Pelecanos adapts his own short stories in the anthology feature-pilot, D.C. Noir, with segments directed by Pelecanos himself, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Stephen Kinigopoulos, and his son Nicholas Pelecanos, which screens during the 2019 Austin Film Festival.

Pelecanos’ first story, “The Lovers,” is probably the most traditionally James M. Cain-ish “noir.” It features a high-powered lawyer who wants a permanent, low-cost divorce from his much younger and consequently unfaithful wife. However, the armed robbery specialist he sought to recruit tries to roll over on the counselor when he is busted by Det. Mitch Brooks, who passes it along to an undercover colleague—with unintended consequences.

Akinnagbe is terrific as Brooks and he also helms the best story of the quartet: “String Music.” It has a distinctively moody, late night vibe, but it is impossible to overstate what the great character actor Jay O. Sanders brings to the table as world-weary beat cop Sergeant Peters (or “Sgt. Dad”). Marcus Craig-Bradford is all kinds of intense as Tonio Harris, a youth getting pulled against his will into a potentially violent rivalry, but what is really compelling is the way Sgt. Peters interacts with the people on his beat. You really can call it “community policing.”

Probably the most conventional tale would be “Miss Mary’s Room,” directed by the younger Pelecanos, in which two friends find their bonds of loyalty threatened by the harsh realities of criminal life. We have seen this sort of thing many times before, but Judith Hoag elevates the material with her poignant portrayal of the titular mother.

Creepshow: Night of the Paw/Times is Tough in Musky Holler

You know W.W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” must be a horror classic when it gets satirized on The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror. Shudder’s Creepshow also riffs on the fateful paw in what could well be its best story of the season. Three wishes lead to some serious monkey business in the latest episode of Creepshow, which premiered last night.

The widowed undertaker Avery Whitlock is not surprised when a mystery woman collapses on his doorstep. It is the power of the paw, after all. Of course, he did not ask for this specifically, but the monkey digits work in mysterious ways. After patching her up, he will give her the full history of his involvement with the paw. It still grants three wishes, but in ghoulishly unexpected ways, as was the case in Jacobs’ original tale.  John Esposito’s teleplay somewhat parallels Jacobs, but it has some fresh twists to offer. Unfortunately, Whitlock’s reluctant patient will miss the most important implications of his experiences, but isn’t that always the way?

“Paw” is a wonderfully macabre yarn that is so aptly suited to the Creepshow/E.C. Comics aesthetic, especially its sinister kicker. Academy award nominee Bruce Davison is perfectly cast as Whitlock, making him a rather weird but tragically poignant figure. Plus, the design of the grotesque paw is wonderfully creepy.

“Paw” is one of Creepshow’s best, but it is paired up with the worst so far. Presumably, “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” was intended to be a commentary on the power of fear to corrode communities, somewhat in the tragic of Twilight Zone episode, “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” but it has none of Rod Serling’s insight or the power of helmer Abner Biberman’s’ stark imagery.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

No Safe Spaces: Prager and Carolla Defend Free Speech

Your rights are in danger, but not from Trump. Our president (for now) has his conspicuous faults, but he really does not care at all what you say or think. That is not the case on college campuses and in major cultural institutions. The right to express dissenting views is under attack with an intensity not seen in this country since the days of John Peter Zenger. Iconoclast comedian-podcaster Adam Carolla and conservative talk show host and part-time symphony conductor Dennis Prager sound the alarm in No Safe Spaces, directed by Justin Folk, which opens tomorrow in Arizona, with a planned national expansion scheduled for subsequent weeks.

Prager and Carolla have an act they like to take on the road to college campuses. If you disagree with them, you are welcome to debate them, as long as you keep cool and civil. Instead, the professional activists at many universities have increasingly sought to have them disinvited and banned from campuses. It is not just Prager and Carolla who get this treatment and not just high-profile center-right speakers who face the wrath of an unhinged leftwing mob. Anyone holding dissenting views can find themselves facing strategically weaponized shame and intimidation.

No Safe Spaces chronicles several orchestrated attempts to silence mainstream dissenting viewpoints. They are all alarming to anyone who values the right to free speech. However, the threats of violence directed against Prof. Bret Weinstein, a self-described “liberal” biology professor (with tenure) at Evergreen State College was the sort of madness you would have expected from Mao’s Cultural Revolution rather than Washington State in the year 2017.

Yet, the most chilling fact reported in No Safe Spaces is the shockingly low level of support for the 1st Amendment among currently enrolled college students. More and more frequently, the desire to prohibit anything that might cause offense trumps our long-held rights of free speech and expression. Of course, a loop-hole that size is just an invitation to censor. Indeed, Prager and Carolla rightly argue on a number of occasions only so-called “offensive” speech warrants protection, because it is the only kind that will ever face censorship.

Admittedly, Prager and Carolla have their shtick worked out, but it would be a mistake to use that as an excuse to dismiss their arguments. It just means they are entertainers as well as commentators. Frankly, Prager gives the other side more opportunities to make their case than any of the usual stilted advocacy documentaries that get endless festival play. He actually engages in dialogue, where he and his discussion partners listen to each other and respond without kneejerk rancor.

The Gallows Act II, from Blumhouse

This play is so depressing, it makes Clifford Odets sound breezy and fun. Yet, it is perversely popular with drama students, because of its body count. Charlie Grimille died in a freak accident during the high school production that opened the first film, so now gothy kids like to invoke his spirit Candy Man-style with internet readings. The so-called “Charlie Challenge” yields plenty of YouTube stats for an aspiring teen thesp, but it is still a very, very bad idea in Chris Lofing & Travis Cluff’s Blumhouse-produced sequel The Gallows Act II, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Nobody takes Auna Rue very seriously, least of all her parents, largely because of her acting ambitions. Nevertheless, she agrees to be shunted off on her older sister, so she can attend a 90210-ish high school with a prestigious drama department. Of course, she humiliates herself in her first monologue attempt, but she rebounds after posting a Charlie Challenge.

Rue’s socials are exploding and the classroom feedback for her Gallows monologue is rapturous. However, there will be a price to pay. Most likely, the spectral hangman stalking her eventually intends to collect. Technically, Charlie Challengers are supposed to hang themselves, but he seems to have no qualms about targeting the people around her.

Horror fans who take the genre seriously will probably find Act II terribly annoying, because of the ways it undercuts the prior film’s mythology. It also refuses to definitely commit to the fundamental nature of the evil at its core. Instead, it tosses out contradictory jump scares, which suggest both supernatural and sinister human agencies at play.

Admittedly, the play-that-kills Macguffin has promise, but the excerpts we hear of The Gallows are so dreary, nobody would want to see a special one-night only production at a horror convention. It is also hard to buy into the enduring fascination it supposedly holds for so many shallow teens. Honestly, looking for logical consistency in Lofing & Cluff’s screenplay is a fool’s errand.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Portals: A Fresh, New SF-Horror-Disaster Pseudo-Anthology

Suppose the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey were evil. That could well be the situation mankind is facing. After scientists successful created the first artificial black hole, there was a massive blackout. Shortly thereafter, these mysterious black obelisks started popping up to suck people into another dimension, or maybe to their death. Nobody really knows, because nobody has made the return trip—yet. It is a global phenomenon that plays out in the inter-connected stories of Portals, a sort of anthology film directed by Gregg Hale, Liam O’Donnell, Eduardo Sanchez & Timo Tjahjanto, which opens this Friday in New York.

People are disappearing at an alarming rate, so in O’Donnell’s “The Other Side,” Adam and his wife decide to retreat to grandma’s house in the countryside. Unfortunately, he accidentally drives right into a portal. However, he somehow comes back, but at considerable physical cost. Of course, he is desperate to see his wife and daughter again, but something is wrong.

Adam’s family are not the only people missing, so it makes sense emergency services operators would be flooded with calls. Their manager runs a tight ship in Hale & Sanchez’s “The Call Center,” but the situation is far outside their experience and well beyond their control. Things really get dire when Stan the slacker operator starts to believe the portals are sending him direct messages.

The action rewinds to the minutes just before the blackout and shifts to Indonesia for Tjahjanto’s “Sarah.” Rather inconveniently, Sarah and her sister Jill are having a bitter sibling quarrel in an underground parking garage when Armageddon unexpectedly strikes. Sarah is angry and probably clinically depressed, but like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, she is better equipped to shake off the apocalyptic punches, whereas Jill is far more susceptible to the portals’ influence.

Tjahjanto’s contribution is definitely the strong segment, but the entire film is pretty strong. There is definitely a consistency of look, quality, and narrative elements throughout Portals. In fact, the various constituent stories work so well together, the film really does not feel like an anthology at all. In this case, that is a good thing.

BHFF ’19: A Night of Horror—Nightmare Radio

When it comes to horror movie radio personalities, Rod Wilson cannot compete with Adrienne Barbeau in The Fog, but who can? The important thing is he connects with his listeners and he can tell a spooky yarn with the best of them (maybe not John Houseman in The Fog, but he is still pretty good). In fact, his framing sequences are the best part of the Onetti Brothers’ anthology film, A Night of Horror: Nightmare Radio, which had its North American premiere at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Wilson produces his own overnight show, so it is just him and a cup of coffee in his converted ranch house studio. Ordinarily, that suits him fine, but tonight he gets a little spooked by a series of crank calls. Obviously, the best way to settle his nerves will be telling his audience the scariest tales he can spin. However, there is very little consistency to his stories, both in terms of theme and quality.

Instead of commissioning new segments, the Onettis just parked pre-existing short films within their anthology framework, so it is not impossible horror fans could have seen some of these before. It starts with one of the more aesthetically challenging, Jason Bognacki’s In the Dark, Dark Woods, which is even less conventional than his head-spinning doppelganger feature, The Mark of the Witch. Arguably, Joshua Long’s Post Mortem Mary is the most traditional, but he wrings plenty of creepiness out of the macabre premise involving a young girl working as a post-mortem photography assistant in frontier Australia.

Probably the best shorts, A.J. Briones’ The Smiling Man and Oliver Park’s Vicious would be tricky for Wilson to actually relate over the air, because they are largely dependent on freaky things seen out of the corner of our eyes or in reflections. Regardless, they are easily the tensest, most effective constituent films in the anthology.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

BHFF ’19: P*rn*

Yes, these kids chose to watch a Satanic smut film that summoned a nasty succubus, but it is hard to blame them, considering their other choices were Encino Man and A League of Their Own. Yeah, yeah, “no crying in baseball,” but seriously, do really want to watch Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna kvetch again? Of course, we would rather see a rude and tasteless horror comedy. Fortunately, that is exactly what Keola Racela’s P*rn* happens to be. The title is slightly misleading (and prone to excite nanny-ware), because the naughty bits are not the least bit sexy, as viewers saw for themselves when it had its New York premiere at the 2019 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

It is 1992, so nobody has cell phones. The staff of this neighborhood first-run theater are all professed Christians in accordance with the owner-manager’s hiring practices, but they are really just as horny as any other horror movie teens. Chaz (as in Chastity) is hung up on Ricky, but he is not so into her, for reasons we can immediately guess. Everyone knows Todd is a horndog because he was busted for window peeping, but it was really the idea of Abe, who turned out to be much fleeter of foot. Meanwhile, Heavy Metal Jeff, the projectionist, clings to his Christian hardcore death-metal dreams.

Their boss lets them have their own private Friday night screening after the last public showing (Mr. Pike is supposed to be complete pond scum, but that is actually a pretty cool perk), but it will be a little delayed when a crazy old dude bursts into the theater and through a drop-wall to reveal a secret screening room and archive in the sub-basement. It is there they find the can of film that will summon Lilith. Of course, when she shows up, all H-E-double-hockey-sticks breaks loose. There will be temptation and some super uncomfortable gore (that happens to be funny, in the darkest way possible).

Even though the film portrays Pike as a hypocritical jerkweed and it skewers the Evangelical mindset in general (especially straight-conversion camp), Prno ironically holds more affection for its Christian characters than most Hollywood movies, in which religion ostensibly should not even play a role. In this case, their belief in Satan, End Times, and fire-and-brimstone evil is certainly vindicated, in spades. Regardless, they are generally good kids, just a little confused.

Sweetheart, from Blumhouse

The list of gill-men monster movies is short, but distinguished: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Humanoids from the Deep, The Shape of Water. One of those even won some awards. Probably Humanoids, because Ann Turkel was the best. Bravely, Blumhouse and the director of Sleight will wade into these waters. The horror is more subtle than you might expect, but it is still very real in JD Dillard’s Sweetheart, which is now available on VOD.

Presumably it really was a boating accident. Regardless, Jenn comes to on the beach of a remote desert island in relatively good health, but her friend nearby will quickly expire. She will comfort him and then bury him, but something will later dig him up. As she explores the island, she finds signs people were here before—and died here before. It is all quite baffling until she catches a glimpse of some sort of scaly monster living off shore.

Soon, Jenn spends all her nights running and hiding from the creature. Fortunately, it does not come out during the day, or at least not very much. It is sort of a frying-pan-into-the-fire situation, but she adapts quickly. Of course, when more survivors eventually wash-up, they assume she is merely showing signs of post-traumatic stress. Right, they will just have to learn for themselves the hard way, won’t they?

Sleight was a very good film, but it was driven more by its talented young cast and their engaging characters. Even though Sweetheart has a smaller cast and long stretches without any dialogue, Dillard is working on a much bigger canvas this time. He captures a vivid sense of Jenn’s isolation and masterfully builds the tension. Dillard also puts on a masterclass on how to slowly reveal a movie monster, for maximum effect.

Monday, October 21, 2019

BHFF ’19: The Yellow Night

Maybe it is a coincidence, but this film produced with funding from Petrobras, Brazil’s petroleum consortium, spends a long flashback in the parking lot of a gas station. At least the behavior of the teen characters makes sense there. In contrast, logic craters into dust when they decide to take a short holiday on a sparsely inhabited equatorial island. Supposedly what happens reflects their fear of the future, but they probably don’t have one to look forward to in Ramon Porto Mota’s The Yellow Night, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

There are not a lot of people living on Arco Velho, but the beaches are nice and Mariana’s grandfather has a house there. Of course, wireless service is kaput and the statue by the harbor has been decapitated, but they remain undeterred, even when their no-show ride leaves them stranded at the nearly deserted dock. Eventually, they make their way to Grandfather’s house, but he is nowhere to be found. By now, we can tell this is a bad situation, but for some reason they can’t. They even stick around after watching a suspicious VHS tape, in which the missing grandpa discusses his quantum mechanical research and how it was driving him bonkers. Instead of fleeing, they revisit happier times in the gas station parking lot.

To give credit where it is due, Porto makes inventive use of split-screens and cinematographer Flora Dias lights it all in ways that maximize the eeriness and the nagging sense of uncertainty. However, the film is maddeningly coy in the way it presents its time loops—at least we’re assuming that is what is happening, since it would be consistent with all of Grandpa’s quantum double-talk.

Films like Benson & Moorhead’s The Endless and Jon Mikel Caballero’s The Incredible Shrinking WKND maintained plenty of mystery and suspense, but they always kept viewers keenly aware of where they were in each loop. In contrast, everything just sloshes around in Yellow Night, like the characters are waiting Pirandello-like, for a stronger editor to come along and re-establish some order.

BHFF ’19: The Haunted Swordsman (short)

Anyone who knows classic Japanese cinema knows there was more to fear during the Edo era than ronin and ninja. There were also Kwaidan-style ghosts and so-called Onibaba demon-hags. A ronin bent on avenging his shogun master will face the latter as the first challenge of his quest in puppetry-filmmaker Kevin McTurk’s wildly cool short film The Haunted Swordsman, which screens during the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival.

Technically, the squared jawed samurai failed his lord. That is why he is now a ronin. However, it is hard to blame him, given the powers of the demonic monster that consumed the shogun. The ronin has pledged to avenge him, but he realizes he will need some powerful help, most likely of a supernatural nature, to get the job done. Fortunately, he has a decapitated death’s head that will serve as his reluctant “Navigator” of the spirit-haunted regions. We had better listen to him, because his voice is supplied (quite eerily) by the great James Hong (and Christopher Lloyd provides the sinister speech of one of the truly monstrous figures).

We can’t wait to see a full feature from McTurk, because Haunted Swordsman and his previous film, The Mill at Calder’s End are two of the most amazing genre shorts we have ever seen. Even beyond the puppetry, which puts most live action filmmaking to shame, the attention to detail lavished on the sets and costumes is quite extraordinary. You can see real world-building in Swordsman. Perhaps the greatest endorsement is the imprimatur of Lisa and Heather Henson (as in the Henson Company) serving as executive producers. They would know puppetry world-better than anyone.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Human Lost: A Japanese Classic Becomes Dystopian Anime

Imagine Holden Caulfield living in a near-future science fiction world. Yozo Oba, the anti-hero of Osamu Dazai’s classic short novel No Longer Human is cut from similar cloth as Caulfield, but he also shares a kinship with some of Dostoyevsky’s angsty protagonists. To commemorate the Dazai’s centennial, some of Japan’s top anime filmmakers have transplanted Oba into the dystopian environment. He must contend with challenges that are far more dangerous than mere “phonies” in Human Lost, directed by Fuminori Kizaki & supervised by executive director Katsuyuki Motohiro, which Funimation will screen in select theaters nationwide this Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the future, human longevity has reached record lengths. Unfortunately, the quality of life has also hit an all-time low. Due to extraordinary advances in technology, the S.H.E.L.L. public health agency can patch up just about any injury or ailment. That means even suicide is no longer an escape from the toil must proles must endure. The only way out is the absolutely horrific phenomenon that afflicts the so-called “Lost,” who become disconnected from SHELL’s matrix and spontaneously transform into rampaging demons.

Yohiki Hiragi serves as both the PR face of SHELL and an agent of the sub-agency tasked with putting down the Lost. She is considered the second great evolutionary leaps forward, after the mad doctor who created SHELL in the first place. However, Oba, the neurotic, under-achieving artist, might just be the third. He will learn he has extraordinary powers when he joins his friend Takeichi, a non-conformist motorcycle gang member (and one of the few recognizable links to Dazai’s original novel) in a pointless and futile gesture of rebellion.

Human Lost will be particularly rewarding for viewers who have read Dazai and understand how it is being faithful to the spirit of his work and in what ways it completely lighting off into its own territory. The very concept seems impressively bold, because it is almost guaranteed to create controversy among purists. Pride and Prejudice with zombies is one thing, putting a character of Caulfield’s stature in a wildly over-the-top science fiction context is something else entirely.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Margaret Mead ’19: Wandering Souls

During the Cambodian genocide conducted by the Communist Khmer Rouge, nobody had time to mourn. People were too busy dying. They certainly could not stage a funeral requiem, because most musicians were executed for their alleged decadence. Yet, according to Buddhist theology, those who died without proper burial rituals would be condemned to linger on as restless spirits, making them victims at least twice over. Decades later, a large ensemble of musicians and performers will try to bring some healing to their nation with ambitious multi-media requiem production. Aviva Ziegler follows the development, rehearsals, and premiere of Bangsokol in the behind-the-scenes documentary, Wandering Souls, which screens during the 2019 Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History.

Forty years after the [partial] fall Khmer Rouge, the impact of their crimes still scars Cambodian society. Classically-trained composer Him Sophy originally conceived Bangsokol as a synthesis of traditional Cambodian and Western classical styles, but the nation still lacks a symphony (or even chamber) orchestra. As a result, Him and the traditional musicians must forge partnerships with Taiwanese and Australian ensembles.

However, Cambodia can boast of an award-winning auteurist filmmaker with international accolades. That would be Rithy Panh (director of the extraordinary Missing Picture), a survivor of the genocide, who will produce and design the production triptych video backdrops. He definitely has the authority and credibility for such a project, but his strong personality and aesthetic judgement will cause some friction with the Western choreographer.

Creepshow: The Companion & Lydia Layne’s Better Half

The Frankenstein motif definitely warns against the hubris of playing god, but it can often be boiled down to something even more fundamental: the monsters we create are the ones most likely to get us. That is certainly true of a farmer who is a little too handy with his hands and a celebrity CEO a little too prone to woke posturing in this week’s episode of Creepshow, which just premiered on Shudder.

Despite its impressive genre lineage as a Joe R. Lansdale short story adaptation, with David Bruckner helming, The Companion is a pretty conventional and unremarkable episode opener. The atmosphere is certainly creepy, but this yarn about a scarecrow that comes to murderous life is a whole lot like any number of films we’ve already seen. Arguably, what most distinguishes it is Afemo Omiliani’s tragically dignified performance as Brenner, the farmer who originally creates the titular straw man during an extended flashback. If you are in the mood for some rural horror, it will probably take the edge off, but you still have to wonder why Brenner’s farm is in the middle of a cemetery.

In contrast, director Roxanne Benjamin (whose credits include contributions to XX and Southbound) serves up a wickedly funny pitch-black comedy with Lydia Layne’s Better Half. Layne is a Ted-Talking feminist CEO who regularly accepts awards for empowering working women. However, when she passes over her lover for a coveted promotion, in favor of a nebbish bean-counting dude, it leads to all kinds of awkwardness. Feeling betrayed, Celia becomes aggressive and starts making threats. Before you know it, Layne has a bloody mess on her hands that she must covertly clean-up.

Better Half is gleefully macabre, diving head first into the one-darned-thing-after-another mayhem it unleashes. Basically, it is like Louis Malle’s Escalator to the Gallows with a gallon of blood splattered over it. For horror fans, it is good clean fun that perfectly represents the spirit of the original 1982 Creepshow film and the EC Comics that inspired it. As a bonus, it lands a few satiric potshots at the preening progressive brand of corporate culture.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Margaret Mead ’19: A Woman Who Paints Thangkas (short)

Tibetan Buddhism is an ancient religion, but it is starting to develop attitudes that are far more progressive than the misogynistic and materialistic ideology of the foreign Chinese military occupying its homeland. Women have only been accepted as thangka painters for a few years now and their ranks are still relatively thin. Nevertheless, a young thangka painter, wife, and mother will do her best to make a living from her art. Ming Xue documents her life in the short but aptly titled short documentary, A Woman Who Paints Thangkas, which screens during the 2019 Margaret Mead Film Festival, at the American Museum of Natural History.

It is not easy for Lutso and her husband (also a thangka painter) to make ends meet. Frankly, she often regrets choosing [thangka] art school over college. Nevertheless, she has slowly but surely made a bit of name for herself with her signature black-and-red thangkas. She also starts to take a more proactive approach to sales and marketing.

Lançamento no Brasil: Morto Não Fala

(Since Nightshifter is currently playing in Brazilian theaters, I'm thrilled to present a Portuguese translation of my review, courtesy of the wonderful Angelica Sakurada. Any judgements you might consider weird or questionable are entirely my own. You can find the original English review here.)

Vocês se lembram quando os personagens de CSI: Miami costumavam falar sobre escutar as estórias que cada cadáver tinha para contar? O Stênio faz isso literalmente. Ele pode se comunicar com o cadáver fresco, como uma pessoa que conversa com cadáveres. Infelizmente, quando ele abusa desse poder, isso acaba levando a todo um problema sobrenatural enorme no filme Morto Não Fala de Dennison Ramalho, que estreia dia 10 de Outubro no Brasil (lançando on-demand nos Estados Unidos).

Stênio trabalha a noite lavando corpos no IML, e volta para casa para encontrar sua mulher infiel Odete e que nem liga pra ele. Seu filho mal educado também não está nem aí pra ele. Somente sua filha Ciça de uns oito anos fica sempre feliz em vê-lo. Felizmente, ele tem um monte de pessoas mortas para conversar.

Obviamente, Stênio tem uma vantagem em relação à identificar corpos e determinar a causa da morte. Ele é sempre respeitoso com a maneira que usa sua habilidade nada normal de comunicação, até o dia fatídico em que ele descobre a traição da Odete com o vizinho rival. Utilizando-se de informação privilegiada confidenciada por um traficante favelado morto, Stênio convence o irmão do favelado que o amante da Odete foi o responsável pela morte do traficante. Entretanto, seus planos saem pela culatra quando o bando de traficantes acaba matando também a Odete. Ela fica possessa com o seu assassinato, como ela explica para o Stênio de maneira bem direta. De fato, ela vai assombrar o assistente de legista pacato, possivelmente se vingando através de seus filhos.

A adaptação do texto de Marco de Castro por Ramalho e a co-redatora Claudia Jovin é sombria e melancólica, com um estilo não diferente de outros filmes de terror brasileiros lançados recentemente, como A Sombra do Pai e Trabalhar Cansa, mas Morto Não Fala mostra o gênero de modo mais direto e energético. Há alguns elemento de O Grito (The Grudge) e O Sexto Sentido (The Sixth Sense) aqui, mas os detalhes da periferia de São Paulo diferencia este filme de outros similares do gênero. Ironicamente, algumas cenas grotescas do filme não vem do próprio terror em si, mas sim do trabalho diário do Stênio no necrotério.

PFF ’19: Leftover Women

Social engineering invariably produces unintended consequences—often times resulting in outcomes perversely opposite from what was hoped for. Nobody is better at illustrating the follies of intrusive social tinkering than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Due to the recently revised One Child (now Two Child) mandate, marriage-age men vastly outnumber their female counterparts. To minimize the imbalance, Chinese society (necessarily directed by the Party, which strictly controls all media) pressures women to wed sooner rather than later. As a result, unmarried women over 27 years of age face tremendous scorn and criticism. Hilla Medalia & Shosh Shlam document challenges three such women face as they try to live their lives in Leftover Women, which screens during the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Make that two of them. Much to her surprise, 36-year-old film studies scholar Gai Qi has recently married a much younger man and started a family. Xu Min (just barely a “Leftover Woman” at twenty-eight, despite her protests to the contrary) seems poised to join her when she meets a rather decent seeming chap at one of the innumerable singles events staged in Beijing. Yet, strangely, she scuttles the relationship before it even starts (for acutely human reasons that will eventually become clear).

Far more complicated—and ultimately much more compelling is the 34-year-old attorney Qiu Hua-mei, who is truly conflicted by her desire for both companionship and independence. She also feels filial guilt in spades, even though her hard-working provincial father is a surprising fount of understanding and compassion. Frankly, viewers will have a great deal of sympathy for Xu Min and Qiu, but the latter is a much more magnetic and thoughtfully mature screen presence. Ironically, Western men would probably trip over themselves to ask out either—a likelihood perhaps not lost on one of them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Folklore: Pob

Ghosts are as important to Thai culture as Buddhism and Muay Thai. Logically, the former frequently plays a role in the nation’s ghost stories. Fittingly, the Thai installment of HBO Asia’s anthology of stories inspired by national supernatural myths and urban legends focuses on a ravenous ghost. Much to his frustration, the spirit’s haunting will become unusually complicated in Folklore: Pob, directed by Thai auteur Pen-ek Ratanaruang, which screens this Friday in DC, as part of the Sackler/Freer’s Thai Buddhist Ghost Stories film series.

Manop is a crime blogger for a news site that apparently does not pay well. He cannot afford to get his car out of the shop and he is behind on his ailing mother’s hospital bills. However, opportunity might be calling when he arrives at the scene of a newly arrived American PR executive’s grisly murder. Much to his surprise and trepidation, Mena the ghost (or pob) offers to explain how John Conrad met his gory demise (Conrad—nice touch, right?).

Presumably, the Pob is responsible, because he is a pob. Yet, initially Conrad throws him off his ghostly game. In fact, the garrulous American does not recognize Mena is a supernatural entity when he awakens, so he offers the spirit a beer and a sandwich. As the night progresses, Conrad pulls Mena into more Earthly misadventures, which causes the pob to start losing his ghostliness.

The opening and closing of Pob are creepily atmospheric, but most of the guts in the middle are quite droll, in a pitch black humor sort of way. As director and screenwriter, Ratanaruang (a.k.a. Tom Pannet, known for Headshot), offers up some sly commentary on East vs. West culture clashes that mostly avoids the typical shopworn clichés. Plus, Chankij Chamnivikaipong’s black-and-white cinematography is eerily stylish.

Toronto After Dark ’19: Bar Fight (short)

Anyone who ever worked retail knows there is nothing more annoying than customers who come in right before closing. That is especially true if they are death-cultists. It is only five minutes long, but this short film has some of the best fight choreography of the year. Indeed, there is quite a bit of talent packed into Benjamin R. Moody’s Bar Fight, which screens during this year’s Toronto After Dark.

It is closing time, but a pack of crazed cultists are giving the bartender no peace. Apparently, killing him is part of their twisted initiation or whatever. However, it turns out the bartender could also serve as the bouncer. He is quite capable of defending himself, as they will soon painfully learn.

And that is about it in terms of story, but who cares? The thing here is the bone-crushing action. Yet, we really do care about the bartender, because of lead actor Aaron D. Alexander’s massive screen charisma. Frankly, Bar Fight is a killer calling card for Alexander, who also serve as the fight choreographer.

We would be delighted to see Bar Fight expanded into a feature, but it would be hard for Moody to top the pure adrenaline intensity of this short. Essentially, he condenses the insanity of the cinematic tradition of Assault on Precinct 13 and similar films down to a lithe and lethal five minutes. It is more of an action film than a horror film per se, but After Dark fans are still sure to dig it.

The truth is most cult movie fans will want to re-watch it many times over, so its screening this Saturday afternoon (10/19) at Toronto After Dark is the perfect time to see it for the first time. Highly recommended, it screens as part of the International Shorts After Dark block.