Monday, June 27, 2016

I Found Benjen Stark! He’s In The Hallow!

Perhaps it's the Game of Thrones influence, but Ireland seems to be putting out a nice supply of well-made horror films, including the recent The Canal and The Citadel. Add The Hallow to that growing list of quality horror flicks whose title starts with “The” and whose cast generally includes at least a few Westrosi power players. 

Quick Plot: Adam is an arborist living deep in the woods of Ireland with his wife Claire, infant son Finn, and dog Iggy (note to the sensitive: don’t get too attached to the latter). Locals are none too happy with this arrangement, as they fear both the mythical monsters haunting the forest and the threat of industry moving in and taking their long-protected home. 

Bricks-through-the-window and ominous townie-issued threats aside, it’s clearly an idyllic time for the young couple. 

Well, for the first fifteen minutes of the movie that is.

Before you know it, aforementioned mythical monsters have made themselves known, infecting Ada, wiping out Iggy, swiping Finn, and terrifying Claire.

The Hallow takes place entirely over one horrid night, as Claire must try to protect Finn from the array of forest creatures and the transformed Adam, now fully convinced that the baby in his wife’s arms is actually a changeling. As Adam’s condition worsens and the locals lock their doors, Claire must survive the night on her own.

Written and directed by first time filmmaker Corin Hardy, The Hallow is a very solid little foray into horror. It does little to rewrite a working formula or bring anything that new to it, but the actors connect, the setting dazzles, and the monsters are genuinely interesting to watch onscreen. This doesn’t break any mold, but it’s a creepy and effective little blend of fairy tales, sieges, and nature strikes back horror. 

High Points
The actual design of the hallow creatures is quite interesting, using the idea and form of branches and other woodsy elements to form a unique spin on fairy tale monsters

Credit goes to some adorable credits, that follow the standard “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” with the less common but earnest “No changelings were harmed during the making of this film”

Low Points
I can’t quite put my finger on what’s missing in The Hallow, but there’s just something that keeps this film from crossing over into truly special territory. It’s well-acted, well-shot, and well-written, but there’s just nothing that unique or surprising to make it overly memorable. 

Lessons Learned
When your friendly neighborhood policeman is played by Ben Wheatley regular Michael Smiley and your closest neighbor is Roose Bolton, you should probably know that you’re not in the best hands

Iron bars might not be the most inviting way to decorate your windows, but if they keep the evil wood monsters away from your baby, perhaps you should get over your HGTV snobbery and deal with it

There are different sorts of boogeymen in Belfast

The Hallow is currently streaming on Netflix Instant, and it’s well worth a watch. This isn’t necessarily on the highest tier of new horror, but it’s a quality outing that demonstrates some promising potential from filmmaker Corin Hardy. I look forward to seeing what else he can do. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Before There Was Grayscale, There Was the Black Plague

Is there a better source of horror than the devastating plague that killed almost half of the European population in the 14th century? I sometimes wonder why there aren’t more medieval set genre films that use this event as a springboard. Paranoia, cool beak masks, much potential.

Quick Plot: It’s 1348, and everybody is dirty and gross. The least grossest is, of course, Lena Headey’s Matilda, the lady of a small isolated village awaiting the return of her knight husband from a war with France. When the rest of the soldiers (including her husband’s nephew, Nicholas) return without Lord Walter but with a handsome and valuable hostage named Jacques, Matilda is understandably disappointed. When she meets with the obese and lecherous bishop holding sway over her and her town’s future, she’s understandably grossed out.

Matilda is given ten days to come up with tax payment or else she’ll have to do some very carnal things with a man she despises. Things get much more complicated when the cruel Nicholas bullies Jacques only to end up dead, possibly via plague-related complications. 

At Nicholas’s funeral march, the town steward is struck with some kind of curse, flashing back to witnessing a horrible event while also succumbing to the same plague. Once again, Jacques seems to have been some kind of instigator but only Matilda’s loyal servant Randall seems to notice.

There are plenty more twists and turns in Black Death, but to go too much further starts to a) give some things away and b) get a little laborious. Director Alberto Sciamma moves a little too slowly in unfolding his film’s mystery, making the the film feel far longer than its 115 minute running time. It’s something of a shame, since there’s a very strong concept at the heart of Black Plague.

Little by little, we learn that the village once endorsed a terrible sin twenty years earlier. Is Jacques the literal or figurative child of said sin, and do the townspeople deserve the boil-filled plague they may inherit? It’s a great concept, and just a minor shame that the film isn’t quite tight enough to fully make it work.

High Points
Lena Headey may have been born to wear velvety dresses from centuries ago. It’s also quite nice to see just how different her most famous royal character is from the more romantic and well-meaning Matilda

Much like the similarly titled and themed (and also Game of Thrones actor-filled) Black Death, Black Plague ends on a note that helps to put the entire film in a fascinating perspective

Low Points
There certainly should be an epic quality to The Black Plague, but that doesn’t quite excuse what feels like an interminable running time

So, you might have suspected from the DVD cover that Lena Headey looks a lot like Cersei Lannister in this movie. Well, actually, she doesn’t. She’s not blonde, nor does she ever sit upon an iron throne-ish chair. Clearly someone designing the newer cover art saw an opening and went for it. 

Lessons Learned
Feudal lords and ladies were not well versed in CPR

A real man knows how to pick any lock, particularly one sealing a chastity belt

Not being able to read or write makes a pretty good alibi

The Winning Line
“I wanted my husband and you bring me a monkey.”

If you thought your Mondays were tough, just imagine what they were like in the 14th century

I enjoyed Black Plague, but I tend to enjoy anything that’s set in that time period or that deals with that kind of widespread devastating sickness. The film is ill-paced and too long, but some of the ideas it plays with regarding sin and penance are quite interesting. Don’t expect a Sword of Storms-like romp, but if this is your kind of jam (as it is mine), it’s certainly worth a watch. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Mummy Madness

I’ve never been the biggest fan of mummies in horror cinema. While the subject has great potential, I’ve just never found the representation onscreen to be all that interesting and more importantly, far from scary. The glorious ridiculousness of 7 Mummies aside, it just ain’t my monster.

Naturally, I’ll keep testing that theory.

Quick Plot: In 1948, an archaeology team led by the one and only (in so many ways) Christopher Lee has just uncovered a long-lost tomb on an Egyptian expedition. Before you can give Brendan Fraser a haircut, the team falls victim to some kind of toxic wind gas that causes terribly rendered late ‘90s CGI to turn their bodies into ash or, in a more fun manner, turn parts to ash and therefore lead to a moment where Sir Christopher Lee’s torso separates from his upper half and he continues to crawl.

Fifty years later, Lee’s granddaughter, Sam Turkel, has rediscovered the dreaded cave with her own team. Among them are the always welcome Sean Pertwee as somewhat psychic named Bradley, the more money-minded Claire, and Sam’s fiancee vaguely recognizable under a spacesuit as Gerard blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Butler. Don’t blink, because he dies in a rather stupid way pretty quickly.

The cave is once again sealed, but not before a sarcophagus with some tell-tale gauze inside is found and sent to be displayed in a museum. It doesn’t take long for said artifact that I don’t feel like misspelling again emits a powerful screech, swiping key organs from a few bystanders. 

Enter no-nonsense Detective Riley (Jason Scott Lee) and his surly partner (played by Smash’s Jack Davenport, and yes I know he was also in 9000 Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but his legacy is and will always be the fascinating mess that was NBC’s two-season Smash). When a few more mysterious murders start to emerge with the same pattern, Riley suspects the now insane Bradley. 

Of course, things are never quite what they seem when an ancient Egyptian tomb is in play. Bradley gives us the scoop on Talos, the evil prince who ruled with a fury centuries earlier. Before he could be assassinated, Talos had his wife and followers eat his organs to help preserve his spirit (apparently, that’s a thing). Now that his mummy wrap has been unearthed, it’s only a matter of time until he collects enough innards to be reincarnated. 

Thusly do we get plenty of attacks via animated gauze. Pity poor writer/director Russell Mulcahy (the father of Highlander) could clearly only do so much with the cheap CGI materials afforded by his era and budget. Most of the effects--and therefore scares--are laughably digitalized to the point of comedy. At the same time, Tale of the Mummy itself isn’t terrible. The movie’s never boring, and some of the ideas behind the creature designs are quite neat. I suppose if you think of it as an early Asylum reaction to the Brendan Fraser flick, it’s more than satisfying.

High Points
One can’t argue with any cast that includes Sean Pertwee, Shelley Duvall, and the sorely missed Christopher Lee

Sorry, but I can’t not talk about one of the greatest twist endings to ever happen in a mediocre mummy movie. Turns out, out stoic male cop hero is actually an ancient Egyptian princess reincarnated in order to eventually host the evil spirit of his/her former lover. I mean, come on: that’s neat

Low Points
Seriously, is there an excuse?

Lessons Learned
Be careful: friendly stray dogs just might be evil mummy incarnates

An automobile provides no protection against real or CGI gauze

Drinking Fosters in a gay club will make you incredibly desirable to evil mummies

I watched Tales of the Mummy via Netflix, but it looks like it’s since expired. The shame is that a free stream is definitely the best (maybe only) way to catch this one. This is far from a good and even farther from a scary film, but it’s paced well and has enough wackiness to make for an enjoyable 90 minutes. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Loony Bin? More Like a BOOBY Bin

My Netflix DVD queue has become something of a weekly grab bag. With over 300 films on the list and full access to both Instant Watch and Amazon Prime, I tend to just shuffle the rarer, harder to find or "Very Long Wait" titles to the top and let myself be surprised by what arrives in the mail. More often than not, I have no memory of adding something to that queue, possibly because in my 34 years, I've slaughtered quite a few brain cells watching, well, the kind of movies like Slaughter Hotel.

Is that such a bad thing?

Quick Plot: Welcome to Europe's sexiest mental asylum, aka a "rest home" for attractive women with lots of money, some mental issues, and very little clothes. Among the scantily clad patients are:

- a shy young woman trying to get better and counting on the help of a sexy new nurse

- a nymphomaniac who seduces the resort's gardener as a way to help her deal with being madly in love with her brother

- an unhappy wife whose brutish husband stops the car just long enough for her to exit before speeding away without a word

- a married business owner whose relationship is in question due to her newfound, totally professional, totally understandable love of her psychiatrist, played by Klaus Kinski

Yes, you are correct in immediately saying, "You know your mental hospital isn't quite the best if the doctor in charge is played by Klaus Kinski." The fact that the entire place is decorated with medieval torture devices is an additional clincher, one made even better by the presence of John Karlsen.

I know, most of you are swooning with glee, providing you paused long enough to read this in between chapters of your John Karlsen erotic fan fiction. For the few out there who don't recognize, the name or soul-piercing eyes, John Karlsen played Blossum in 1966's The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, easily one of the weirdest/greatest holiday specials to ever include a plot about Santa Claus not paying his rent and singing a not creepy at all song called "What Are Children Like When They're Wide Awake?" More fittingly, Karlsen played the English king in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Yes, the same man who ordered that titular pair to be put in the IRON MAIDEN.

Guys. This movie has an iron maiden. And John Karlsen opens it. 

I can't adequately express how happy this makes me.

Anyway, patients and nurses are brutally slaughtered (mostly in their naked sleep) by a cloaked figure. We have boobs (many), we have blood (a fair amount), and indeed, we do have black gloves touching both. Slaughter Hotel (or any of its other more fitting titles) is indeed a giallo. A very messy, occasionally quite labia-filled one. 

Thankfully, the film and its director, genre regular Fernando Di Leo, are well aware of its shortcomings. It never feels like Slaughter Hotel is trying to do anything but shove attractive women and grisly murders in your face. You don't realize there's a mystery about the killer's identity until the final act brings in a not-so-genius plan to unmask the murderer, and even then, the reveal is less rewarding than the continued chaos and violence that comes after it. Bava, this ain't. Fun trash, it certainly is.

High Points
Between aforementioned iron maidens, ancient swords, arrows, and a handy mace, Slaughter Hotel's murders are quite a varied batch

Low Points
Oh come on. The movie is terrible. What more do you need to know?

Lessons Learned
In the 1970s, it was totally acceptable for a nurse to seduce a mental patient providing foreplay involved a two-hour bath and extended dance party

One can still shed tears after being shot in the head

When trying to trap a violent serial killer in a hospital filled with dozens of civilians, consider blocking all exits or at least hiring faster police officers so that you don't end up with another half dozen murder victims thirty seconds AFTER you've caught the serial killer

Listed as Slaughter Hotel on RareFlixx DVDs, this was a "Very Long Wait" on Netflix's DVD portal. Was it worth it? Not particularly, but if you're a giallo completist or just really like female breasts, this is certainly one to find. I found myself chuckling through most of it, so it's certainly entertaining in one way or another.