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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

The film buyers at the UK branch of the Horror Channel have been busy again: this month’s bunch of ‘channel premieres’ even includes a lot of films you could unequivocally describe as belonging to the horror genre, which isn’t always the case. (They are only allowed to show actual horror movies and TV shows after 9pm at night, which leaves the question of what to put on for the other thirteen hours every day that the channel is transmitting. Much of this time feels like it’s filled with commercials for incontinence-concealing underwear – which you might think was an appropriate fit for what’s theoretically the scariest channel on TV, but it doesn’t quite feel that way – while most of the rest of it is occupied with repeats of different versions of Star Trek, unsuccessful-when-new shows like seaQuest and Space: 1999, and drecky Sci Fi channel movies with names like Megaconda and Annihilation: Earth.) This month they have picked up two of the Child’s Play sequels (definitely horror) and Tower Block (yet another low-budget British horror film). There also seems to have been a job lot of John Carpenter movies on offer, for they are also showing Starman (really much more of an SF romance) and his version of Village of the Damned (originally released in 1995).

Of course, John Carpenter is one of those people who deserves a regular slot on the Horror Channel (I would say the same about George Romero and Terence Fisher, amongst others), even though he is one of those people who… well, I’m not going to say he did his career backwards, because in the time-honoured fashion he started off with a brilliant film-school project (which, he acknowledged, did perhaps not look quite so brilliant as an actual movie), then did a low-budget horror film which turned out to be a money spinner, and so on. The thing is that after a few years of producing generally effective movies like The Fog and Escape from New York, he made The Thing: quite possibly one of his best films, but a major disappointment at the box office. Something seems to have gone horribly wrong at this point, for one can only describe his career post-The Thing in terms of managed decline: occasional flashes of inspiration, but a lot of unimaginative, undisciplined hack-work as well.

Still, his name carries enough clout to make it above the title of most of his movies (they are named on screen as John Carpenter’s…) and I suppose there remains the faint possibility of him actually making another really good movie at some point. People probably thought this about Village of the Damned, back in 1995, too. Like The Thing, this is an example of Carpenter giving his own take on a well-remembered film from years past – in this case, the 1960 movie of the same name, directed by Wolf Rilla.

The film opens with various panoramic shots of… well, here’s the thing. The movie is called, obviously, Village of the Damned, but the story has been transplanted to Northern California. Do they even have villages there? Is the term in common use? Because Midwich, as presented here, certainly looks more like a small town than anything else (we should probably not really dwell on whether Midwich is an authentic Californian place name). Anyway, various panoramic shots of the sea and the town, accompanied by what’s intended to be an eerie whispering sound. The implication is obviously that an unearthly force is swooping down onto the place. Unfortunately, despite the sound of the whispering, the noise of the helicopter which took these shots is still quite audible on the soundtrack, making the film seem clumsy right from the start.

The other versions of this story basically start in media res, but Carpenter opts to introduce a few characters before it all kicks off: so we meet stalwart town doctor Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), schoolteacher Jill (Linda Kozlowski), town preacher Reverend George (Mark Hamill), and various others. It’s a lovely day for the school fete, although Alan, like Jill’s husband, has to drive out of town for a bit. While he is out of Midwich, something very strange happens as everyone simultaneously faints – even the pets and the local cattle. The effect seems strictly localised, but the authorities are somewhat flummoxed as hazmat suits and respirators give no protection. One of the first people to encounter the barrier was Jill’s husband, who crashed his truck and died as a result. This sort of weirdness in the mid-1990s obviously occasions a visit by black-clad government operatives, and on this occasion they are represented by Susan Verner (Kirstie Alley) as a doctor from the CDC.

After six hours or so the knockout effect lifts and the town seems to go back to normal (for the most part: there has been some collateral damage someone collapsed onto the barbecue at the fete, although seems to have been included so Carpenter can include a grisly ‘shock’ moment). The really weird thing only becomes apparent a few weeks later, when Chaffee learns he is about to become a father. That’s good news, isn’t it? Well, the doc is not so sure, as lots of other women having been showing up at his surgery in the early stages of pregnancy, including one who is pretty sure she’s a virgin and another who has not been active in that capacity for over a year. All the conceptions seem to date back to the day of the blackout.

In the end there are ten mystery pregnancies (down on the sixty or so in the novel, but I guess there were budgetary concerns) and all the women give birth simultaneously in a hastily converted barn. There are nine live births, with the other child being whisked off sharpish by a shocked-looking Dr Verner (needless to say there is another reveal later on concerning this). The children of the blackout grow quickly, and appear eerily similar, with silver hair. They seem remarkably composed for children, and always seem to get their own way. But then some people just can’t resist kids, especially when they have glowing eyes and psychic powers…

I have written before of my love of John Wyndham’s work, especially the ‘big four’ novels of which The Midwich Cuckoos is one. It is, at heart, a story about a very unusual alien invasion – or, at the very least, an alien visitation. However, Wyndham studiously avoids giving easy answers as to quite what the agenda of the force behind the alien births is, preferring to explore his usual themes of the co-existence (or not) of different forms of consciousness, and the ethics of survival. He disguises all this in a very English and understated story of life in a country village, with – initially at least – a lot of ambiguity as to exactly what is going on. (The Children look a little exotic, but they don’t wear platinum wigs and their eyes don’t light up; they can project their will onto others, but don’t actually read minds.)

The 1960 version of the film is less understated and more straightforward: Wyndham’s narrator vanishes from the story, the number of children is reduced, and they are given the mind-reading power which facilitates a more dramatic ending to the story. The script overseen by Carpenter is really a progression of the same process of simplification, with the additional factor that his reputation primarily as the director of horror movies seems to have pushed the film further in this direction: the story is punctuated by a number of ‘shock’ moments (like the one with the barbecue), but their impact feels oddly muted – even when the film goes into full ‘horror mode’, as in the sequence where Alley is compelled to dissect herself alive, it’s oddly anodyne and lacking in the visceral impact you’d expect. In the end the film is thumpingly unsubtle without ever being much fun. (Carpenter has defended this by saying a movie with a budget of over $10 million can’t be as extreme as one made for less money, as it needs a wider audience to be financially successful.)

What makes this especially odd is that John Carpenter is on record as an admirer of the book and the original film, and was apparently trying hard to resist attempts to alter the basis of the story. The plot point that other parts of the world also hosted similar colonies of unearthly children is stressed here in a way that it wasn’t in 1960, nor in the novel (at least, not to the same extent). Yet there are still changes, some of them more interesting than others. The Children seem pair-bonded, and the death of one of the infants means her intended partner grows up more susceptible to human emotion (this doesn’t go anywhere especially interesting). One thing Carpenter has to contend with that Wyndham didn’t is Roe v Wade, and the film does have to address the question of why the recipients of these strange pregnancies don’t at least consider playing it safe and having terminations. In the end the suggestion is that they are compelled not to by the same force which implanted them, which is probably the neatest available option.

In the end the film just doesn’t quite work, as most of Wyndham’s ideas and the atmosphere of his book have slipped away, to be replaced by undercooked shock moments and a fixation on the imagery from the 1960 film. To be fair, the cast do their best with it – one point of historical distinction I wish the film didn’t possess is that it was the last film Christopher Reeve made before the accident which left him paralysed. He does the best he can with the George Sanders role from the original, but it does feel like a journeyman performance. The same can be said for most of the acting here – the child acting is just about acceptable, but no-one really manages to do much with the thin material they’re assigned. Of them all, Linda Kozlowski probably comes off best, but this is not really saying much.

This is a fairly typical late-period John Carpenter movie, in that there are moments of visual interest but it never really takes flight as a movie – there is no subtlety and few ideas, just a collection of genre tropes being recycled. It brings me no pleasure to say this, but the sense of a burnt-out talent trading on past glories is difficult to escape. Far from a great movie, but – sadly – this is pretty much the case when it comes to a screen adaptation of John Wyndham.

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We tend to think of cinema as an essentially modern art form – Terry Gilliam presented a TV series on the birth of the medium entitled The Last Machine – something quite different from the other visual arts like painting and sculpture. Great paintings and statues go back into the mists of time, usually hundreds of years, whereas most people tend to dismiss any film which is more than half a century old as unacceptably primitive. As time progresses we may have to change our perceptions on this topic. Unless the direst of predictions about the future of civilisation come to pass, a day will come in which people will look at the classic films of two or three centuries earlier, just as we look at the art of the Renaissance and other periods from long before living memory.

There are already films which have passed beyond living memory – I don’t just mean the legions of lost films, known only by their names and descriptions, although there are certainly enough of them. I mean films where everyone involved in their making has moved on to whatever comes next. Realistically, this probably includes nearly everything made since about 1940, by which point commercial cinema was already a quarter of a century old. The oldest of films do seem to come from an oddly different world, their difference and strangeness only heightened by the different sensibility that often shaped them and the differences in production methods.

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem was first released in 1920. Just to suggest the lengths of time involved, this places it almost equidistant between the present day (as I type, anyway) and the Peterloo massacre. It is closer in time to the deaths of Lord Byron and Beethoven, to name but two events, than it is to the present day. Perhaps one is getting carried away by the peculiar, medieval qualities of the story, but it does feel like a strange relic of a lost age. The irony, of course – and perhaps our first inkling that maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might imagine – is that The Golem isn’t exactly The Golem. Rather, it is effectively Golem 3, final film in a loose trilogy.

Survival rates amongst films of the 1920s being as they are, the original Golem from 1915 and the spin-off The Golem and the Dancing Girl have both been lost, and the title of The Golem has now passed to the second sequel, which was originally released as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World). (You can see why people would opt for a less unwieldy title.) Even the 1920 version of Golem was a lost film for some time, eventually being reconstructed from various alternate versions of the negative which survived piecemeal in different locations.

One stroke of luck is that the 1920 version of The Golem is – in the modern vernacular – a prequel to the original film, which had a contemporary setting and concerned the title character being unearthed in the modern era. As the subtitle suggests, this is an origin story, set in the middle ages. The implication is that the story unfolds in Prague, which is the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor (portrayed here by Otto Gebuhr). As the story starts, the Emperor issues a decree announcing that the Jews of Prague are to be expelled from their ghetto, causing understandable consternation amongst them.

One of the community leaders, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), has seen this coming (he is the local astrologer and expert in arcana), and requests an audience with the Emperor so he can try to talk him out of his decision. In order to have a little more leverage at the coming meeting, Loew sets about crafting a massive human figure out of clay. His plan is to use magic of a questionable hue to animate this being, known as a Golem – if nothing else it will be nice to have another pair of hands about the place. (The situation is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the Emperor’s envoy, Florian (Lothar Muthel), instantly takes a fancy to Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and commences to woo her, assiduously but discreetly.)

Well, the rite is performed and the Golem comes to life (the creature is portrayed by Paul Wegener himself), although his initial trips down to the shops are a marginal success at best. The Emperor and the royal court are duly impressed and a bit alarmed when the Rabbi turns up to see them with the Golem in tow, but when the creature saves the Emperor’s life the grateful ruler agrees to think again about his edict expelling the Jews.

All seems well, until Loew discovers an ominous warning that the Golem’s initial helpfulness may not last, and the dark magic that animated it will lead to it eventually becoming malevolent. Bearing this in mind, the Rabbi ‘deactivates’ it. All seems well, and he goes off to a service of thanksgiving for the survival of the community. But then his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers what has been going on between Florian and Miriam, and angrily reanimates the Golem, telling it to get rid of the amorous nobleman…

You can probably guess what happens next, because despite the fact that its production values, pacing, and performance style are wildly different from those in modern movies, this is still very recognisably the progenitor of a noble dynasty of fantasy and SF movies – the similarities to Frankenstein are particularly pronounced, and there’s a scene near the end where the Golem encounters a small child with some flowers which faintly anticipates one from the famous James Whale version of the story. If this film is less successful, it’s possibly because Wegener’s performance as the Golem is considerably less nuanced than Karloff’s would later be – the lumbering about is acceptable, but there’s a lot of eye-popping and pouting which is pretty much guaranteed to get laughs from a modern audience (a lot of the more, er, expressive acting in The Golem has the same effect).

The themes of hubris are less pronounced, however, and Rabbi Loew remains a sympathetic figure despite his role in creating the Golem and his dealings with dark powers. It’s probably a coincidence that for two weeks in a row the Weimar movie season has shown gloomy fantasies about people forced into deals with dark forces in exchange for different kinds of power, but The Golem does acquire a strange historical irony considering the plot is ultimately driven by anti-semitism. The Jewish characters in the movie are sympathetic, as noted, but at the same time everyone takes it for granted that the Rabbi has various mystical powers at his disposal. The movie itself hardly seems anti-semitic, but the depiction of Judaism is probably not one a director could get away with nowadays.

In the end The Golem is another fairly entertaining movie – I would say there is probably a bit too much blather near the start, and not enough rampaging and carnage at the end (by the standards of a modern horror movie it is almost absurdly innocuous). Obviously it is of great historical interest, for both cinema in general and genre movies in particular: not the biggest or the best monster movie ever made, but probably the earliest that’s still with us. Worth seeing if only for that reason; not just because it is so different, but also because much of it is so recognisable.

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We have, of course, previously discussed the question of the Optimum Period Before Sequel, and whatever your personal views may be, I think most people would accept that waiting forty years to do a follow-up is really pushing the boundaries of common sense. Then again, it might be somewhat more excusable if the sequel wasn’t exactly a sequel per se. Which of course brings us to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, based on a novel by Stephen King, which was itself a sequel to his earlier book The Shining. This means that Doctor Sleep is, by some metric at least, a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of the novel. King famously hated the changes that Kubrick made to the story and disregarded them in the second novel. So where does this leave the film? Is it going to stay faithful to King, make the most of its connection to the iconic and very well-regarded Kubrick film, or somehow try and split the difference and risk satisfying no-one?

The prospect of a potentially pedestrian cash-in on The Shining made my heart sink, and it’s not even as if I’m a particular fan of that movie; the fact that Doctor Sleep actually manages to be slightly longer than its sizeable forebear did not help lift my apprehension as I approached the movie. And the opening of the film hardly seems designed to dispel these sorts of concerns – straight away they reuse one of the most famous music cues from the older film, and there is a sequence with a painstaking recreation of the hotel set, right down to that very distinctive carpet (which may or may not intentionally replicate the layout of the Apollo 11 launch pad).

The story proper gets going with young Danny Torrance struggling to come to terms with the frightening ordeal he and his mother went through in the snowbound Overlook Hotel in Colorado, something made only worse by his burgeoning psychic ability. Helping him in this respect is Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the former chef at the hotel. Here, of course, the film hits its first real crunch point – is Hallorann a living mentor or a ghostly apparition? (He survives in the novel, but is axe-murdered in Kubrick’s version.) Suffice to say the early scoreline is Novelists 0, Film Directors 1.

Danny eventually grows up into Dan (Ewan McGregor), a lonely drifter haunted (sometimes literally) by his past, who tries to suppress his psychic gifts through drink and drugs. Eventually he pitches up in a small New Hampshire town, where the kindness of one of the locals (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis) allows him to settle and build a life for himself, using his power while working in the local hospice. (Here he is known as ‘Doctor Sleep’.)

However, he is not the only gifted individual in the world, and the film also follows a group of others: a pack of vicious and sadistic vampire-like killers who devour the souls of psychic children. The fact that they resemble Fleetwood Mac on tour may make them slightly less terrifying, or perhaps not. Their leader, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), eventually identifies a powerful young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) as their next victim.

However, Abra is a sort of psychic pen friend of Dan’s, and she recruits his aid in helping stop the hunters’ reign of terror. Faced with an enemy whose powers may outstrip his own, Dan is forced to choose the ground for their eventual confrontation carefully. Could it be time to make a reservation at a certain hotel he was once a resident in?

Making adaptations of Stephen King books is hardly a time-honoured path to sure-fire success, and doing films derived from Kubrick movies has likewise been a slightly dodgy prospect in the past. This, together with the enormous duration of Doctor Sleep, gave me some trepidation as I approached the film – but, rather to my surprise, it turned out to be a very superior dark fantasy movie, filled with the traditional narrative virtues and with a great deal to commend it. It may not have the magisterial clarity and formal brilliance of The Shining, but neither is it quite as oblique and impenetrable – The Shining is an undeniably impressive piece of work, but Doctor Sleep is possibly a lot easier to like, simply because it is so much more conventional.

I hasten to add that there’s nothing wrong with being conventional when it results in a film as satisfying as this one: the story hits all the right beats, the story is well-told and resonant, and the characters are well-drawn and given space to breathe and come to life. As well they might, given the film is over two and a half hours long – but we will come back to the issue of the film’s duration. Quite how effective it is as a pure horror movie is another question – as noted, it mostly resembles a thriller or a dark fantasy more than anything else, but there are moments where it does get very nasty, and does so very quickly. I imagine there is enough here to keep fans of the genre satisfied.

The acting is certainly of the standard you would hope to find in a reputable movie: McGregor is on fine form, and there is a remarkably self-assured performance from Kyliegh Curran. The only one who really puts a foot slightly out of place is Ferguson, whose performance is just a touch too affected to really convince – then again, she is given a character with a trademark hat, an Irish accent and a lot of hippy-dippy stylings, so it’s hardly the easiest of gigs.

Does it really need to be quite as long as it is, though? Well, frankly, I’m not sure. It certainly gives you the sense of reading a King novel, where a lot of time and space is often devoted to establishing characters and settings before the action proper kicks off, but even so the film sometimes feels like it’s dragging its feet a bit. You know that traditional scene where someone comes to the hero for help, but he initially refuses, before changing his mind and engaging with the story? The one which marks the start of the narrative proper? Well, that one is in this film, it just happens over an hour into it. It’s not like the film actually feels padded or boring, but it does feel like it could have been shortened without losing too much of its impact.

One impressive thing about it is that once the opening is out of the way, it works very hard to stand on its own two feet without constant call-backs to The Shining. This means that when the film does finally head in this direction for its final act, it feels almost as if it has earned the right to do so: it is an undeniably thrilling moment when the nature of the climax becomes apparent. The recreations, when they come, are every bit as good as the ones in Ready Player One. It looks for a long time like the film is going to dance around the whole issue of Dan’s father, but the utterly thankless task of trying to reproduce Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance is eventually given to (if my research is correct) an uncredited Henry Thomas, who does the very best he can in the circumstances.

I have to say that, along with the length, it’s the climax of the film which would cause me to knock off a star, if I awarded such things – it feels appropriate and isn’t ridiculous, and no doubt Stephen King will be delighted by the fact it is partly drawn from the original Shining novel. But something about it just doesn’t quite ring true, and you do get the sense the film is wallowing just a bit too much in the chance to revisit Kubrick’s take on the story. But this is still a fairly minor quibble. Doctor Sleep is still a cut above the majority of Stephen King adaptations, and a very satisfying piece of entertainment. Provided you can handle the nastier moments, this is well worth seeing.

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Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland: Double Tap concludes in a manner which summarises the whole film rather nicely: as the credits roll, Woody Harrelson treats the audience to a full-throated rendition of the Elvis number ‘Hunka Hunka Burning Love’. It is enthusiastic, not actually awful, and indeed sort of entertaining, but it’s also a bit baffling and you do wonder what the point of it is.

It has, after all been ten years since the first film appeared. I did say at the time that a sequel would be welcome, but I didn’t quite anticipate there being quite such a long delay before its appearance – the Optimum Period Before Sequel is something we have discussed here as well, of course, and a decade is really pushing it. Even the film seems to be aware of the distinct possibility that it’s turned up too late for its own party – ‘Hello again! And after so long!’ are the opening words of Jesse Eisenberg’s voice-over. Given that the main players have gone on to bigger and more reputable things in the intervening period, one can only assume they genuinely have come back out of fondness for the material on this occasion, though I note that Emma Stone now qualifies for an ‘And’ in the credits, unsurprising given she is now probably the biggest star involved.

I could take up quite a lot of space listing all the various handwaves the film deploys and the ways in which it kind of demands the audience cut it some slack – the main one is to do with just how much time has elapsed since the original movie. None of the zombies have actually rotted away to nothing (then again, this is almost a convention of the zombopocalypse genre), and there are vague references to ‘a few years’ having gone by. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin was 13 when she made the first film and is very visibly 23 now, so they do have to sort of address this. What it all means is that from the start the film demands the audience be complicit in its silliness and the fact it doesn’t really hold together as anything other than a knowing piece of popcorn entertainment.

Anyway: as the film starts, the quartet of survivors – Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Breslin) – have made the derelict White House their new home, mainly because this is just a funny idea. The plot struggles a bit before managing to contrive stresses within the group that result in the two women departing, leaving the men behind. Columbus is initially bereft by the departure of the love of his life, but then comes across Madison (Zoey Deutch), an epically dim young woman who’s been living in a fridge since the collapse of civilisation. Then Wichita reappears, delivering the news that Little Rock’s rebelliousness has reached the point where she is now heading for Graceland in the company of a pacifist folk-singer.

Needless to say, the group agree to put their differences aside and make sure Little Rock is all right, although the presence of Madison amongst them inevitably causes some friction. A bigger concern is the appearance of a new and much deadlier breed of zombie, which they are bound to encounter if they go back on the road…

When Zombieland initially came out I was rather positive about it, noting the surprising longevity of the zombie boom which was kicked off by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 2002. That was ten years ago, and things seem to have got to the point where the zombie movie has become something of a staple of the horror genre: doing a new zombie-themed TV show or movie or book or comic isn’t really noteworthy anymore – just more of the same. Double Tap acknowledges this when it jokily refers to the wide availability of zombie-themed entertainment these days.

It doesn’t actually try to spoof or parody the zombie genre any more than the original film, though, nor is it a particularly serious attempt at an actual horror movie – there is plenty of gore and splatter in the course of the story, naturally, but it’s only fleetingly scary. Nothing is taken seriously enough to be actually disturbing or frightening. Instead, this is basically just a rather offbeat comedy film which happens to feature a handful of elaborate sequences with the stars blowing the heads off undead extras with impressively big guns.

So how does it hold together as a comedy? Well, I did kind of fear the worst for the first few minutes of the film, as it really does struggle to find its groove, with the various developments in the relationships between the quartet feeling laboriously contrived, and good jokes being rather thin on the ground (the film is set in a world where the Trump presidency never happened – one good thing about a zombie apocalypse, maybe – so any satire derived from the characters being in the White House is only implicit). However, once the plot is laid in, and especially once Deutch’s character appears, it does pick up quite considerably and there are some very funny moments.

These are mostly due to the skill and efforts of the cast – Harrelson is on particularly good form, though Eisenberg and Stone also contribute deft comic performances – because the script itself is really all over the place when it comes to things like the actual plot. The story is episodic to the point of feeling actually disjointed, with weird digressions and tangents happening throughout, regardless of whether they actually make a great deal of sense (at one point Tallahassee and Columbus meet their near-doubles, Albuquerque and Flagstaff) or advance the story. The film seems to take a (not inappropriate) shotgun approach to comedy, blasting away wildly at anything in sight in the hope that at least some of the jokes will hit the mark. It just about manages to get away with it.

What is interesting, and kind of refreshing, is that as a result the film feels a bit less inhibited in terms of its humour than many modern films. By this I mean that Double Tap quite shamelessly includes jokes about dumb blondes who love pink things, gun-loving right-wingers, hippies, and so on (jokes about a hippy commune in a 2019 movie? Yes indeed. See what I mean about the film being a bit all over the place in some respects). At a time when it feels like most mainstream movies have to subject themselves to a rigorous vetting by the Progressive Agenda Committee (apparently the focus group decided it’s a much friendlier name than the Thought Police), it is nice to find a film which apparently doesn’t care at all about that sort of thing.

It doesn’t quite change the fact that Zombieland: Double Tap is really a superfluous sequel trading heavily on fond memories of the first film. As a comedy, it is funny enough to justify its existence, and it is honestly  quite nice to spend an hour and a half watching something so openly and inoffensively silly, intended only to entertain. It never quite trashes the memory of the first film, but neither does it really add lustre to its reputation.

 

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Ready or Not, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, opens with a young couple, Grace and Alex (Samara Weaving and Mark O’Brien), enjoying their wedding day – he is a member of an extremely wealthy family who have made their money from publishing various different games, she from a somewhat more humble background. Naturally she is nervous about being accepted by her in-laws, who are for the most part quickly established to be comic-grotesque super-rich types. Only after the vows and the party does her new husband broach the delicate topic of an unusual family tradition – when anyone marries into the clan, they have to play a game at midnight. The rich and their eccentric ways! Not wanting to offend her new kin, Grace agrees, and ends up having to play hide and seek with them all. Still a little bemused and amused by her relatives’ funny little ways, Grace heads off to find somewhere to hide for a bit, fully aware this is a game she can’t actually win. Meanwhile, her new father-in-law (Henry Czerny) is gravely handing out crossbows, elephant guns and axes to the assembled members of the family, as they prepare to go in search of her.

Thus Ready or Not manages to contrive an undeniably brilliant moment for a black comedy-horror film; it’s just a shame that the publicity for the film (and, come to think of it, any meaningful review) is virtually obliged to give it away in advance. (It’s good to know that autumn and spring are still the natural homes for modestly budgeted genre movies, which is also what Ready or Not is.) Decent movies have been built around less striking revelations. Of course, the problem which arises when you come up with one brilliant moment for your movie script is that you then have to provide it with a decent context – which in this case means coming up with a scenario where it seems at least remotely plausible for something like this to happen, and then also a climax which resolves the situation in a reasonably satisfying manner.

The film certainly has a lot going for it when it comes to constructing this sort of narrative scaffolding. For one thing, it is notably polished and well-shot for what is still essentially a low-budget movie – the various gore effects which ensue as the story gathers pace and the body count racks up are also very acceptable. It also has an unusually strong cast for this sort of thing. Samara Weaving (who, weirdly, appears to be some sort of genetically-modified hybrid clone of both Emma Stone and Margot Robbie) is a relative newcomer, but still carries her section of the film rather well – elsewhere there are well-judged turns from Adam Brody, Czerny, Melanie Scrofano, and Nicky Guadagni (as a particularly unhinged member of the clan). Different things are required from different sections of the cast – Weaving does a lot of running, breathing hard, and contending with jeopardy, while everyone else gets the blackly comic stuff – but that doesn’t change the fact that they are all at least up to scratch. The plum veteran role in this particular movie goes to Andie McDowell as the mother-in-law – while McDowell has not quite transformed herself into Meryl Streep, it is still a very reasonable turn.

That said, the film still has to sort itself out the rest of the script, and this is a bit tricky – we’re up against the problem of people in horror movies not acting remotely in the way that real people do, to some extent. Just why are the members of the Le Donas family quite so desperate to hunt down and kill their newest member? What’s going on with this family tradition? And, given the extensive estate the film takes place in, why doesn’t Grace just hole up somewhere until dawn (at which point the game concludes)? Well, the movie manages to divert your attention away from some of these things by positioning itself as a kind of extravagant tongue-in-cheek satire, which helps a bit, but it doesn’t completely remove the need for solid narrative carpentry. In the end the film more or less gets away with it: the big reveal is terrific, as mentioned, but the rest of the film just about qualifies as good enough.

The fact that it arguably peaks at the end of the first act shouldn’t detract from the fact that Ready or Not manages to pull off one of the trickiest combinations in cinema by managing to be a horror comedy film which is pretty successful when it comes to both genres. Now, I must qualify this by saying that it is not what I would call appreciably scary – it is a horror movie by virtue of its Grand Guignol stylings and increasingly spectacular eruptions of gore and violent mutilation as it continues. If you like watching the blood spray freely and flesh get shredded, then this film should meet your needs, although this (coupled with a lot of casual profanity) probably rules it out as a good choice for a family outing. The scenes with the various family members engaging in the hunt with differing degrees of enthusiasm and skill are genuinely amusing, though – their casual irritation as the events of the film take an unfortunate toll on the domestic staff of the mansion I found to be particularly droll.

On the other hand, I have some sympathy for the view that a truly great horror movie can’t just function solely in terms of being mechanically scary and dousing the screen in fake blood – it has to be about something resonant and probably timely; the genre functions as a kind of social history on those terms. If there is a deeper theme to Ready or Not than ‘rich people are weird and horrible’ then it’s a little difficult to make out what it is. Not that this isn’t in and of itself valid – there is, after all, a very long history of the bad guys in horror stories coming from the upper echelons of society and preying upon the flesh and blood of the lower orders. But there doesn’t seem to be much new going on here beyond that simple idea. If you took out all the splatter and profanity, you could probably rewrite Ready or Not as an episode of the 1960s incarnation of The Twilight Zone and it would be at least as effective.

So, then, not a truly great horror movie, or a classic comedy, but it is fun and passes the time very engagingly – the direction is capable, the performances generally well-pitched, and if the script is a bit inconsistent that’s only because the writers haven’t yet quite figured out how to convert a great premise into a great movie. Much promise on display here anyway.

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If you’re going to make a rip-off fantasy-horror movie about a giant gorilla on the rampage, then you’re basically ripping off King Kong. One might have thought that this was obvious enough, but the makers of 1961’s Konga clearly thought otherwise, as the title of the film demonstrates. (This is not quite the utterly brazen rip-off that it might appear to be: the producers of Konga paid RKO $25,000 for rights to the Kong name.)

That said, the funny thing about Konga (directed by John Lemont) is how little it actually resembles King Kong, until the closing sequence at least. The opening moments of the film appear to be the work of people who have vaguely heard of the principle that the secret of good storytelling is to show, not tell, but don’t have any experience of actually applying it: we see a plane, flying over Africa. The plane explodes, unconvincingly. We then see a newspaper seller announcing the death of famous botanist Dr Decker in a plane crash, and then a news broadcast announcing he has re-emerged from the African Bush after a year. It is all a bit laborious, or so it seems to me at least, but the following sequence makes up for it a bit by squeezing in record amounts of exposition – setting up the whole film, in fact – without being completely on the nose about it. We learn in fairly short order that a) Dr Decker (Michael Gough) has returned with some interesting new ideas about the hidden biological connections between people and carnivorous plants, b) he has brought back a cute baby chimp called Konga with him, and c) he is not afraid to be outspoken when it comes to his bold ideas about society and the value of human life.

From here, however, we’re back to scenes which mainly progress through characters telling each other in great detail things which they both already know: we meet Decker’s housekeeper, Margaret (Margo Johns), who clearly carries a torch for him (this is not reciprocated). She is devoted to him to the point where she happily overlooks the fact his time in Africa has clearly left him as mad as a stoat – he even puts a bullet in the cat when it threatens to disrupt his experiments, and this doesn’t seem to bother her that much; nor does the fact that the greenhouse is soon filled with huge, absurdly rubbery carnivorous plants. Decker reveals his master plan, which is to create giant human-plant hybrids using a serum derived from the carnivorous plants. He decides to test the science involved in this wholly reasonable scheme by injecting the serum into Konga, which initially turns him into a rather larger chimpanzee, and then (after a subsequent dose), a full-grown gorilla – or, to be more precise, a man in a gorilla suit. (The script seems genuinely confused as to what sort of ape Konga is supposed to be, referring to him as a chimp and a gorilla at different points.) Needless to say, Decker hypnotises Konga to become his mindless slave.

Round about this point we learn that Decker has kept his old job as a botany teacher (you can tell this film was an Anglo-American co-production, for despite supposedly being set near London, the depiction of Decker’s college resembles an American university far more than anything in England at this time), who entertains his students by showing them films he made in Africa. (The script hurriedly gives him a line where he explains how lucky he was to be able to save his camera and film-stock from the exploding plane. Mmm, quite.) But not all is well. Quite apart from the fact that all the students at the college are visibly much too old to still be there, it is clear that Decker has a rather inappropriate thing for Sandra (Claire Gordon), one of his students, and the dean of the place is ticked off with Decker for making outrageous claims in newspaper interviews about his work, and thus potentially making the college look bad.

Well, what else is a self-respecting mad scientist to do but go on a murderous spree bumping off anyone who threatens to deny him, well, anything he wants? Although in this case it is, obviously, Konga who is charged with doing the actual dirty work. So we say goodbye to the dean, and to a rival scientist threatening to publish ahead of Decker (wait, there are two famous botanists trying to create giant hybrids using carnivorous plants…?), and even to Sandra’s jealous boyfriend Bob (Jess Conrad, who probably deserves it for This Pullover alone). When Margaret takes him to task for this homicidal outburst, Decker first claims it was technically Konga who did all the actual killing, and then that it was scientifically necessary to test the limits of his control over Konga. Yeah, sure, no jury would possibly convict.

But a fly has managed to dodge the enormous rubbery carnivorous plants and is threatening to settle in Decker’ ointment. Margaret has rumbled to the fact that Decker is letching all over Sandra and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. Although a man in a gorilla suit, blown up to ginormous size by another dose of the serum, can come pretty close. Cue rampage! Cue soldiers! Cue dialogue like ‘There’s a monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets!’

That line is delivered with an admirably straight face, by the way, and one of the things about Konga is that it does manage to take itself rather seriously, despite all the odds – there’s no hint of tongue-in-cheek knowingness to most of the film, despite how ridiculous it is. I know it’s customary to praise Michael Gough for a long career of fine performances in everything from Dracula to Batman, but I think that managing to keep a straight face throughout this film may be one of his greatest achievements, even if there are moments when his performance seems to be on the verge of anticipating Kenneth Williams in Carry On Screaming.

As alluded to earlier, one of the less obviously odd things about Konga is the fact that despite all the references to King Kong in the title and advertising, this more obviously resembles a mad-scientist film than a proper monster movie. It bears a sort of resemblance to something like Captive Wild Woman, with perhaps a touch of the botanical horror to be found in a number of British films from the late 50s and early 60s. Only at the very end does it actually start openly ripping off King Kong, with Gough in the Fay Wray role (and much as I admire Gough as a performer, I think this is really asking too much of him). It feels like a contractually-obligatory afterthought, without enough money available to do it properly (you don’t get to see Konga climbing Big Ben, for instance, he just stands there and lets soldiers shoot at him a lot). It also mostly fails when it comes to generating pathos: Konga has been a murderous plot device for most of the film, and Decker is just a nutcase, so it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them.

It would be wrong to say this spoils the film, anyway, although what ‘spoil’ means in this context is difficult to say for sure. One thing you can say about Konga is that it manages to find a consistent level of extreme badness and stick to it remarkably successfully for an hour and a half. If any of it were actually conventionally good, that would somehow make the film less enjoyable. So: this is a thoroughly silly and terrible film, but that is the main thing that makes it worth watching. I seldom have truck with the ‘so bad it’s good’ notion, but I would suggest that Konga is one of those films where such a claim is justified.

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There is something remarkably comforting and familiar about sitting down to watch one of the Amicus portmanteau horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is because this subgenre is so strictly defined by its conventions – you know there aren’t going to be many startling innovations, you know there’s going to be a pretty good cast, and you know that none of the component stories are going to hang around too long. It is almost the cinematic equivalent of a sushi train – if what’s currently going past isn’t really to your taste, well, maybe the next course will do the trick.

1974’s From Beyond the Grave is normally listed as the last of the Amicus anthology horrors, which I suppose is true if you’re going to be quibbly about it, although my own feeling is that 1980’s The Monster Club is really the last of the line, sharing the same format and producer (Amicus’ moving spirit Milton Subotsky). There is another connection in that both films take their inspiration not from other horror movies or American horror comics, but the works of veteran horror author Ron Chetwynd-Hayes.

The movie is directed by Kevin Connor, who went on to have a moderately good line in low-budget genre movies like Warlords of Atlantis. The linking device on this occasion is an antiques and junk shop named Temptations Limited, run by Peter Cushing’s character (Cushing is in camp mode throughout and gives a very funny performance which nicely sets the tone for much of the movie). As the film reveals, the shop has an interesting gimmick (‘a novelty surprise with every purchase!’) and an even more interesting line in customer aftercare.

First story out of the traps is that of David Warner, who plays an arrogant young man who railroads the proprietor into selling him an antique mirror for a fraction of its actual value. No sooner has he put it up in his flat than one of his bright young friends shouts ‘Let’s have a séance!’, and Warner, for reasons best known to the plot, enthusiastically agrees. Well, it turns out that the mirror is a repository for an ancient, dormant evil which now wakes up, thirsting for the blood of – well, anyone it can persuade Warner to kill for it. He starts off with a prostitute (‘Five pounds and no need to rush,’ she says, which if nothing else I imagine says something about the impact of inflation since 1974), moves on to girls he picks up at parties, but draws the line at one of his actual friends (his neighbour seems to be fair game, though).

There are perhaps a few too many scenes of Warner waking up in blood-splattered pyjamas wondering if it was all a dream, but this is quite acceptable on the whole: Warner is always a class act and manages to lift some slightly schlocky material, and the piece has an usually eerie and effective conclusion. The only thing that makes it sit a little oddly in this film is the unleavened darkness of the story – most of the film feels like it’s pitched as black comedy, but this seems to be aiming for a more serious tone.

The next segment is rather less predictable and feels rather shoehorned into the movie – Cushing and his shop only play a very marginal role. Ian Bannen plays an office drone, unhappily married to Diana Dors with a young son (John O’Farrell, later to find fame as a writer), who strikes up an odd relationship with an ex-army street hawker (Donald Pleasance) and later his daughter (Angela Pleasance). In order to cement their friendship, Bannen steals a medal from the shop, which is the link to the rest of the format. The Pleasances eventually seem to be offering Bannen a way out of his grim situation – but do they really have his best interests at heart…?

Once again, some slightly suspect material is lifted by the skill of the perfomers (Bannen and the Pleasances in this case), although this is much more of a bizarre, whimsical fantasy than a conventional horror story (though the story certainly scores bonus points for its voodoo wedding cake sequence). This is one of the stories which has no real reason to be in a film titled From Beyond the Grave, but it is an interesting change of pace and certainly stands out.

Ian Carmichael turns up playing another one of his posh silly-ass characters in the third section of the film, which opens with him attempting to swindle Cushing by switching the price tags on a couple of snuff boxes in the shop. ‘I hope you enjoy snuffing it,’ says Cushing, deadpan, as Carmichael departs the scene. In the peculiar cosmology of the Amicus horror movies, switching price tags is a sufficiently awful crime to mark you down for vicious karmic reprisals, and Carmichael discovers he has acquired a malevolent (but invisible and thus cheap) elemental companion, who seems to have it in for his wife in particular. Luckily he makes the acquaintance of medium and exorcist Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton), who offers to assist…

Probably the weakest part of the film, probably because the plot hasn’t got a lot going on, and the segment is forced to rely on the comic performances of the actors involved. Once again, they are good enough to make the film watchable and entertaining (some good work from the set dressers in the scene where the elemental demolishes Carmichael’s living room), but it’s not really clever or striking enough to be memorable.

And so to the final part of the film, in which young writer Ian Ogilvy buys, somewhat improbably, an imposing old door to put on the stationery cupboard in his study. You can probably write the rest for yourself, particularly if you’ve been paying attention, not least because it does bear a certain resemblance to the David Warner story at the top of the film – the door turns out to be a gateway to a domain of ancient, dormant evil, which now wakes up, thirsting for the souls of… well, you get the idea, I think.

Still, the production values aren’t bad and the story also manages to distinguish itself by having the closest thing to a plot twist you’re likely to find in an Amicus film – the audience is invited to assume that Ogilvy has ripped off the till at the shop, thus marking his card for a sticky end, but it turns out he’s a decent, honest chap, and thus has a chance of making it out of the film in one piece. If nothing else it provides an upbeat conclusion.

There is, of course, still time for the final twist with the frame story of the shop. This is not the usual ‘everyone is actually already dead!’ twist as deployed in Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror, but something very nearly as obvious. Still, Cushing gets another chance to camp it up, being funny and menacing at the same time, and the film does conclude with a couple of good gags. Probably not the best or most colourful of the Amicus anthologies, but still an enjoyable piece of comfort viewing.

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