Friday 27 April 2012

Tragic Ceremony (1972)

Here’s an Italian-Spanish coproduction from 1972 that’s meant to be set in England but quite obviously isn’t. It also makes no sense at all, and its original Italian title, ESTRATTO DAGLI ARCHIVI SEGRETI DELLA POLIZIA DI UNA CAPITALE EUROPEA (TAKEN FROM THE SECRET POLICE FILES OF A EUROPEAN CAPITAL) doesn’t help. 
Three hairy hippies (all male, I hasten to add) and Camille Keaton are enjoying the blistering English sunshine on a yacht owned by Bill, one of the hippies, who comes from a rich family and has a rather over-attentive mother, to whom he has given a string of pearls in a flashback. Quicker than you can say “a couple of minutes in is a bit early in a film to have a flashback isn’t it?” we learn that the pearls carry a curse and mum doesn’t want them. So Bill does what any young chap in an Italian exploitation movie would do in 1972 - he gives them to Camille Keaton, once they’re off the yacht and relaxing on the beautiful golden sands of a typical English beach. Soon it gets dark and they get bored, so they hop into their very English mode of transport (a dune buggy) and set off home. 
Unfortunately they run out of petrol, and the only petrol station for miles around might be manned by the devil (we learn that a bit later, although it feels like a lot later). Still petrol-less they get as far as the manor house of Lord and Lady Alexander (the very English Luigi Pistilli and Luciana Paluzzi) who give Camille her own bedroom and bathroom and stick the other hippies in a room with just a table and no lights. Camille has a bath and the hairy chaps play cards as lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, and everyone else in the house prepares for some kind of Satanic ritual. Camille walks down a flight of stairs with curtains billowing in the only really decent shot in the film, and pulls her necklace off.  Pearls go everywhere and Camille goes on the altar to Satan. She’s about to be sacrificed when it’s Hippies To The Rescue! Then everything goes a bit (more) mental. The satanists all hack each other to bits in some over the top gore scenes reminiscent of the Monty Python Salad Days sketch and the hippies plus Camille run away to Bill’s father’s house. It would seem Bill’s parents are so rich they have separate houses so they don’t actually have to see each other, ever. 
Once inside they switch on the TV to see a news report about the slayings. Scotland Yard appear to have arrived on the scene and bagged up the bodies and put them in ambulances quicker than it has taken our heroes to travel a mile or so. The police have also discovered some important clues, namely a necklace that could not possibly have belonged to Lady Alexander (presumably it was the wrong size) and a guitar left behind by the murderers that can only mean one thing: all this death has been the work of hippies! 
But that’s the least of their worries. Secondary to actually being in this film in the first place, our colourfully dressed hirsute heroes are now starting to get bumped off. Bill gets painted all blue and green and falls out of a wardrobe (don’t ask me) while another one cuts his own throat. The third tries to get off with Camille but stops when he sees her face rotting off and instead goes for a ride on his motorbike very fast while looking behind him all the time and not even wearing a crash helmet. Scant surprise, then, that he ends up in the river with both his legs broken and then drowns.
Camille gets taken to the local mental hospital (because there’s always one close by in these films) and ends up skewered to a bed. Then her ghost walks out of the hospital to be picked up in a limousine by Satan the gas station attendant before turning into Luciana Paluzzi who asks to be taken home.
As with so many of these pictures, there are tiny bits of really good stuff in here, and the ending reminded me of the dreamy, classy, rubber reality of Mario Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL, made around the same time. Unfortunately it’s all just a little bit too incoherent, the clothes are just a bit too horrible, and the men are just much too hairy, to make it anything other than a curiosity piece for those so inclined. Riccardo Freda directed this one, and apparently he wasn't too happy with the end result. Sadly, neither was I.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Case 39 (2009)

One of the most frustrating things about being a horror film fan is encountering a film that has an excellent idea at its core, but which either doesn’t know how to develop it, handles it badly, or point blank refuses to run with it in any way at all. Which brings us nicely, if rather sadly, to CASE 39. This is a film that, just over halfway through, turns into a semi-decent possessed kiddie horror. Unfortunately it’s the 45 minutes leading up to it that’s the main problem.
Renee Zellweger plays a movie social worker. At least, I hope real social workers don’t go round breaking into people’s houses on the basis of a couple of things a child has said, don't go giving children their home phone numbers, and don't make promises to those same children they can’t possibly realistically keep. I also assume they don’t then try to adopt said children after their parents have been sent off to the state mental facility for trying to cram their daughter into an oven and burn her alive. 
      Renee’s going out with movie child psychologist Bradley Walsh. At least, I hope real child psychologists don’t reveal their deepest darkest fears to possibly disturbed, highly manipulative children, otherwise one assumes that they would soon be the ones needing group therapy in a soft, quiet, bouncy place. This, then, is the main problem with CASE 39. It spends far too long trying hard to establish characters whose every action is utterly unbelievable. At the same time it's trying hard to present itself as More Important than your average horror film, when in fact it should just shut up and get on with the nasties. No-one could have been more surprised than I was that when it did it wasn’t too bad at all. 
The little girl at the centre of the plot is in fact a demon, and it wants to be loved. Forever and exclusively, at the cost of friends, relatives and anyone who might come between it and the person it has chosen to look after it. It takes ages for the film to get to this plot point, which is actually something that would have benefited from being made clear almost from the outset. It would also have made Renee’s actions a little more believable if we could then have assumed she and her friends were under the control of some ancient supernatural being rather than just people living in a world of stupid.
The demon can only be killed when the child is asleep and so, with Renee’s friends dropping quicker than her reputation probably did when this came out, the scene is set for a fiery, wet, fast-car, everything they could think to fling at it finale.
As I said at the beginning, the most frustrating think about CASE 39 is that the central idea - a horror film allegory about unrelenting and overwhelming neediness - is just great. But sadly it’s not developed properly. There's a great attack by hornets that boasts some pretty impressive CGI and Ian McShane is always watchable, but in the end CASE 39 is for Renee Zellweger completists and those of us who have to see everything anyway only.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The Food of the Gods (1976)

What have we here? Rubber wasps? Giant chickens? Big wiggly caterpillars? All caused by something that looks suspiciously like runny porridge dribbling out of a hole in the ground? And according to the opening titles H G Wells wrote this did he?
Never mind those terrible Alan Birkenshaw Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, or the numerous awful versions of DRACULA that exist - if ever there was a reason for an author to start revolving at speed in his grave Bert I Gordon’s version of THE FOOD OF THE GODS is probably it. 
After an awkward voice over gets us past footage that was presumably either lost, never filmed because of budgetary constraints, or possibly mangled by one of Bert’s giant chickens having a hissy fit, we’re off into the wilds of British Columbia with charisma bypass victim and “star” Marjoe Gortner and his lumberjack-shirted hunting buddies. Rather than burst into song they prefer to hunt defenceless animals until one of them breaks rank and suffers from an attack of rubber wasps on strings that bounce around him in search of his hands so he can grab them and shake them a bit. He’s obviously allergic to the rubber because his face swells up. It’s actually a nice makeup job, by the way - House of Mortal Cinema exists to point out the good bits in horror films and now I’ve done that I can go back to trashing this. Marjoe and his chum set off back to get help while meanwhile slurry speeched businessman Ralph Meeker and pretend American accented Pamela Franklin are on their way to the farm where there have been reports of porridge coming out of the ground. Ida Lupino’s been filling up jam jars with the stuff but leaving the tops off so wasps can get at it (Aha!). The caterpillars have got at it too and it’s turned them carnivorous until Ida gives them a good old bashing. Ralph says he wants to own the rights to the magical formula when actually we know he’s just dying to get down to the off licence before they close, whereas poor old Pamela looks as if she just wants to be anywhere else in the world. At all. Marjoe has already been to the farm, where he has fought the Biggest Rubber Chicken Ever and won! Well done that man! When he comes back with his friend there’s a bit more of a problem: pregnant Belinda Balaski and her ineffectual boyfriend want a lift in Marjoe’s jeep, which is simply impossible because the jeep has to do all kinds of important things like being driven through water even though there’s land close by, executing unnecessarily skiddy three point turns and generally being put through all the kinds of manoeuvres one might see in an advertisement for such a product. Oh, and there’s a load of giant rats on the way as well, although all we actually get to see are some rather small rats attacking some even smaller buildings, some of which closely resemble painted bits of cardboard.
The wasps get their nest blown up in a scene which could be retitled Things Only Very Stupid People Do To An Ordinary Wasps’ Nest Because They Will Get Killed and shown as a public information film; the rats get electrocuted and drowned but not before getting alcohol poisoning from eating Mr Meeker; and the rest of the giant chickens live to cluck another day. I’ll resist saying that FOOD OF THE GODS is clucking awful, but it certainly is one of producer-director-screenwriter and creator of (extremely) special visual effects, Bert I Gordon’s lesser efforts. This review has been written to help those who end up trapped in the room with it but if you’re careful this potentially dangerous and hernia-inducing situation can be avoided.

Sunday 15 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I’ve never done this before on House of Mortal Cinema, but I think it’s reasonable to offer a mild spoiler warning here. While I have no intention of giving away the entire plot of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, it is one of those films that many will get the most enjoyment out of if they come to it cold. So if you’re one of those kinds of people I suggest you go and watch it now, because you won’t be disappointed, and then come back and read this.
I’ve always been a fan of Joss Whedon. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, and while he’s not a perfect writer by any means he has a love and knowledge of the genre that means he is indisputably One Of Us, and that knowledge and love has never been more in evidence than in his latest project, which is a glorious deconstruction of horror movie conventions of the last couple of decades while at the same time never being anything less than affectionate regarding its source material.
Five young friends set off in their camper van to spend a weekend at the title location. They consist of: a hot young thing who has dyed her hair blonde, her athletic boyfriend who is majoring in sociology, a young chap who turns out to be a bit of an academic type, a bong-puffing slacker modelled on Scooby Doo’s Shaggy, and a virginal Final Girl. On the way to the cabin they stop for gas at the kind of place that could have fallen out of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, with a creepy proprietor to match, who warns them that if they head for the cabin, they may well not be coming back. So far so cliched, BUT, and it’s a big one, which is why I’ve put it in capitals, as well as this there is also a separate subplot running alongside this, one that takes up the entire pre-credits sequence, as well it might, considering how important it’s going to be later on. 
      In the kind of undefined highly secure and highly equipped facility that Irwin Allen could only dream of, a group of scientists and engineers are preparing for Something Important, something which involves our bright young things as they are closely monitored on as they travel to, and arrive at, the cabin. By the time they get there we've been given enough information to know that Things Are Not As They Seem.
Once inside the cabin the friends increasingly start to act like the traditional horror movie cliched characters we’ve seen a hundred times before, and before you can say Evil Dead the cellar door springs open. The cellar itself turns out to be home to a thousand and one different horror movie plotlines, and which one they end up choosing then determines the method by which they are supposed to die.
I’m actually not going to say much more than this, except that the film didn’t go where I was expecting and instead turned into a wonderful monsterfest of biblical proportions. In fact, during the utterly glorious climax, the movie I was most reminded of was Anthony Hickox’s WAXWORK, to which this film bears more than a passing similarity. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, however, does the same basic idea so, so much better. It’s thrilling, clever, scary, well-written, and has a climax I wish I could have watched at a horror film festival just to feel the buzz of the room. Fans of Whedon’s filmography will appreciate appearances by Tom Lenk and Amy Acker (always easy on the eye and particularly delightful here in her lab-coated scientist role). Whedon even throws in the kitchen sink in the shape of a huge dollop of Lovecraftian cosmic horror to round things off.
Above all it’s sheer unadulterated fun, and all the more so if you’re a horror fan with a sense of humour. If you are, then you’ll need to watch it at least twice because during the ensuing mayhem of the marvellous climax there are so many horror film references that even I couldn’t keep up. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS is glorious, glorious fun. In fact I can quite safely say it’s probably the most fun you can have without causing the end of the world. It's going to be one of the year's best  and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Apollo 18 (2011)

Here’s another film I really liked when I saw it on its initial cinema run last year and then was quite surprised to read the considerable number of terrible reviews it subsequently received. It’s always a delight to revisit a film on DVD and find that my initial impressions about a movie haven’t changed and certainly that’s the case with APOLLO 18, a low-budget found footage movie set almost entirely on the moon.
Admittedly it’s the ‘recovered film’ angle that doesn’t really work and it’s easy to pick holes in this aspect of the storytelling. However, if you approach it as a 1970s BBC Play for Today where the writers have tried to do a William Hope Hodgson - style ghost story with astronauts instead of sailors and thrown in a dose of M R Jamesian corner-of-the-retina creepy-crawliness for good measure, the chances are you’ll get more out of it than the average cinemagoer raised on Michael Bay explosion-a-minute expectations of movies set in outer space.
The opening captions for APOLLO 18 claim that in 1974 the US attempted another moon shot that was subsequently covered up. Loaded with more cine-cameras than could probably be found in the average branch of Currys at the time, our three intrepid astronauts are launched off into the stratosphere, where, once they reach the moon, one of them remains in orbit while the other two pilot down onto the surface where yet more cameras get set up to allow a few more angles to aid in the storytelling. Once there they discover the remains of a Russian craft and its dead cosmonaut, who appears to have been killed. But by what? The only thing on the moon is rocks, and they can’t be creeping around, can they?
One of the reasons the film has been criticised is because it’s slow, and certainly not a lot happens in the way of scares in the first half an hour of the film’s brief 83 minute running time. But this is very much a slow build of a film, and once the scares kick in they’re very effective. What the film also does very well is convey the sense of absolute isolation of the astronauts, much as the seafaring horror stories of William Hope Hodgson achieved at the beginning of the twentieth century. This, combined with the slowly building creepy scuttling horrors that slowly reveal themselves, mean that APOLLO 18 is probably best enjoyed at home as a quiet night’s viewing rather than a raucous Saturday night out. 
       As I’ve mentioned above, the film has also been criticised for its use of the found footage method to tell its story, and that does require a few leaps of faith that less involved viewers won’t be prepared to make. One of the reasons this method has found favour with horror film-makers is, I’m sure, because modern cinematographic techniques have now become so sophisticated that it’s actually impossible to make a gritty, grainy, grotty-looking horror film anymore without the end result looking horribly self-conscious, post-modern or, to the eyes of the above-mentioned Michael Bay fan, ‘shit’. The good old days of filming something in 16mm and then blowing it up to 32mm for cinema distribution (such as THE EVIL DEAD or pretty much anything by dear old John Waters in his heyday) are sadly long gone. Found footage gets you round this because anyone equipped with an early 1970s cine-camera was never going to come home with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and the shaky, blurry, semi-incompetent-1970s-Dad style of film-making can be easily manipulated to the horror film maker’s advantage. Not all of these films work, but APOLLO 18 is actually one of the better ones and deserves more of a chance than many reviewers gave it, for that and for, consciously or not, actually having more literary influences than the average outer space horror film. 

Sunday 1 April 2012

Bram Stoker's Legend of the Mummy (1997)

Utterly terrible in all regards save that it’s pretty much a laugh a minute for anyone with a predilection for films that are utterly dreadful, Jeffrey Obrow’s attempt (and that’s being kind) to make yet another version of Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Jewel of the Seven Stars’ veers wildly between US TV movie amateurishness and AIRPLANE-style brilliance. 
After a meaningless pre-credits sequence involving a small boy, an Egyptian tomb and a man whose head appears to have been pushed into tarmac, we flash forward to 1990s San Francisco where Lloyd Bochner, a million miles (and almost as many years) away from the big shoulder padded world of DYNASTY, and playing the part of Egyptologist Abel Trelawney, is busy translating hieroglyphs in his study. Something goes horribly wrong for Mr Trelawney but very right for Mr Bochner, as his character’s subsequent paralysis means he doesn’t have to act for the rest of the film. I could say that no-one else actually acts in this film either but that might be considered unfair. Amy Locane, ‘playing’ Trelawney’s daughter Margaret with lacquered hair that’s only slightly more mobile than her expression, calls over floppy-haired hero Eric Lutes to help her out. He gets to meet her chauffeur, gardener and maid, all of whom have appalling affected accents that I think are meant to be English. The sexy short-skirted maid tells Eric about ‘all that banging going on behind closed doors’ while down in the cellar there’s a mummy that spends much of its time hiding behind some old bedsprings when it’s not eating cockroaches or the occasional misadventurer. 
A policeman with another awful English accent turns up and refuses to leave, babbling that ‘Corbeck’ is the only one who knows what’s going on. Corbeck is played by Louis Gossett, Jr channelling William Shatner to the extent you feel he must be doing it as some kind of twisted tribute. He’s currently in a mental institution and, in a scene that would be right at home in the above-mentioned Zucker brothers movie, he reveals that he only lives in his cell by choice before leaving it. Off he goes back to Trelawney’s house where daft things are happening, but not as daft as the reveal that the garden is full of buried mummy parts. While Eric is trying to retrieve his hand that has got stuck down a mummy’s leg Corbeck explains that he and Trelawney were looking for the key to open the tomb of Queen Tera that they have painstakingly rebuilt in the cellar without somehow ever actually managing to get into it. As luck would have it the mysterious key happens to be stuck down the leg Eric has his hand down and so it’s almost time for the finale, where Corbeck puts a helmet on his head that is clearly too small for him while Amy does a reasonable impersonation of the lady from the Scottish Widows adverts, if she couldn’t act. Queen Tera comes back to life, her right hand has seven fingers on it (I’ve forgotten to add that people have been found with seven scratch marks on their bodies) and Amy changes into a little girl. The policeman gets covered in three cockroaches and drowns in sand following a marvellous scene earlier that has shown Eric finding a receipt for ‘Six Tons Of Desert Sand’ in Bochner’s desk drawer, and pretty much everyone ends up dead.
I have spent too much time and too many words on this load of very silly rubbish already, and I still haven’t mentioned such jaw-dropping moments as Victoria Tennant playing a lady who is blind for no good reason and yet is capable of handing Eric a tiny slip of paper with Corbeck’s address written on it, or the very strange appearance of Aubrey Morris playing exactly the same role of a doctor that he does in Hammer’s far superior BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB. The mummy that was in the cellar doesn’t even turn out to be the queen and I have no idea what happened to it or even if anyone involved with making this film remembered it was there by the time they got to the end. There is a sequel out there for people who prefer to spend their evenings doing something more headache-inducing than banging themselves over the head with a mallet but I think I might pass.