Saturday, 6 February 2016

TV horrors

SKIN-JOBS & SPOOKS!

Here's my review of a genre TV series, first published in Black Static #4...   

TV anthology series Masters Of Horror boasts a hugely impressive line-up of directorial talent, including Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Tobe Hooper, Don Coscarelli, and Joe Dante, among top ranked auteurs. DVD packs of 50-minute stories are perhaps too generously appointed, with mere 13-episode seasons released in two parts, to accommodate copious, or all-too-frequently OTT and formulaic, disc extras. Tales range from hardcore gore-fests and deliriously atmospheric satire, to brooding campfire yarns and surreal weirdness.  

Season one’s highlights? John Carpenter’s superb chiller Cigarette Burns gets the series off to a fine start, examining the undiluted power of bizarre cult cinema, as collector and rare-print finder discover the appalling secrets of a legendary picture, ‘La Fin du Monde’.
 
Cigarette Burns
Angela Bettis, and Erin Brown (alias, Misty Mundae), are primed for a lesbian romance in Lucky McKee’s quirky black comedy Sick Girl, when the side effects of a mysteriously symbiotic bug produce unusual yet unfortunately tragic consequences. Larry Cohen’s entertaining thriller Pick Me Up stars Fairuza Balk, Laurene Landon, and improv genius Michael Moriarty, in a turf war between highway-roaming serial killers.
 
Imprint - Masters of Horror
Imprint by Takashi Miike (Ichi TheKiller) is set in 19th century Japan where the plight of a peasant abortionist segues to gruelling tortured-geisha sequences, reportedly considered too extreme for regular US channels. John Landis’ witty folktale, Deer Woman, mixes road-kill crimes and Indian shape-shifter legends, with in-joke references to American Werewolf In London.

Deer Woman
Season two begins with lesser accomplishments, the contributions from Argento and Landis being mediocre, but Carpenter’s archly provocative Pro-Life tackles anti-abortion issues with deliberate savagery, and presents campy demon-baby delivery effects upping the gratuitous content. Right To Die, by newcomer Rod Schmidt (Wrong Turn), does not compare to Carpenter’s masterful balance of serious theme with schlock theatrics. Stuart Gordon’s revision of Poe’s The Black Cat lets Jeffrey Combs off the leash as the genre-defining poet, while Joe Dante turns in The Screwfly Solution, based on the short story by James Tiptree Jr (alias, Alice Sheldon), making this one of the very best episodes yet.

The weakest link here is undoubtedly series’ creator Mick Garris. His flawed scripts result in some of the least compelling horror dramas offered. Adapting a Clive Barker story for John McNaughton to direct Haeckel’s Tale proved a major disappointment in the first season. Garris directed Valerie On The Stairs and Chocolate, which are both instantly forgettable. Written by David J. Schow and directed by Tom Holland, We All Scream For Ice Cream is remarkably silly. Peter Medak’s campy feast of cannibals The Washingtonians (based on a story by Bentley Little), serves a banquet on the wrong side of ridiculous.
 
The Damned Thing
For Tobe Hooper’s The Damned Thing, Richard Christian Matheson has adapted Ambrose Bierce, resulting in a modern classic of seemingly-viral apocalypse, Texas style, which sees a melancholy sheriff (Sean Patrick Flanery) confronting townsfolk suddenly overtaken by homicidal/ suicidal madness following a slow-burning dramatic aftermath to shocking opening scenes.

Norio Tsuruta (maker of Premonition) turns a ghost story by Koji Suzuki into ocean-going murder mystery Dream Cruise, in which a Japanese businessman confronts his adulterous trophy wife, Yuri (Yoshino Kamura, Isola) and her lover, American lawyer Jack (Daniel Gillies, Captivity, Spider-Man2), but nothing’s what it seems aboard the pleasure boat as guilty secrets are revealed and there’s plenty of J-horror spectral effects, in and out of the deep water, with typically stunning use of creaky sound throughout.  

Season closer The V Word, directed by Ernest Dickerson (Demon Knight), has bored teenage boys attacked by a vampire (Michael Ironside), when they break into a funeral parlour. Yet another uninspired script by Garris means the episode never gets up to speed as thriller or revenge slasher, has no place very interesting to go and nothing new to say, anyhow. “Whatever happened to the piss and vinegar of youth, eh?” Jodelle Ferland (Tideland, Silent Hill, The Messengers) is largely wasted in a supporting role as the youngest victim. With a one-in-three average score for duds, this series maintains an entertainment standard few similarly anthological horror shows can equal.
 
Also reviewed in BS #4:

Planet Terror
Resident Evil: Extinction
Dead Mary
Automaton Transfusion
The Tripper
Saw IV
Bug
Dark Chamber
Blackwater Valley Exorcism
The Nun
Catacombs
KM 31
The Shining
The Ferryman
Furnace
Swamp Thing
Mega Snake
The Abandoned
The Mist

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Gloom & doom

Here’s a slightly edited review taken from my 'Blood Spectrum' column in #3 of Black Static magazine.

Night Watch (aka: Nochnoy dozor, 2004) started a new brand of occult horrors, based upon novels by Sergei Lukyanenko (whose Twilight Watch was published in English by William Heinemann), and was heralded as the first Russian fantasy blockbuster. Timur Bekmambetov’s wonderful sequel, Day Watch (aka: Dnevnoy dozor, 2006) continues a fascinating tale of supernatural warfare hampered by Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and shows how the fragile truce between forces of light and darkness is broken by the fulfilment of a prophecy. ‘Gloom’ is the sideways reality of invisibility, or detection, where dust or bugs drain the very life from unwary visitors on both sides of the shadowy conflict.

Repressed vampires, formidable witches, shape-changing characters, and world-weary immortals - of wilfully undefined yet clearly prodigious abilities - struggle to exert a moral authority or commit sundry acts of mischief. The legendary ‘chalk of fate’ is a clever macguffin by which troubled hero Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) may quite literally write-right all wrongs, and thus save the world. There’s gender body-swap farce (with perhaps the most hilarious faux-lesbian/ hetero-romantic shower scene ever filmed?), featuring the comedy talents of Galina Tyunina as wry sorceress Olga. Zavulon and Geser (archetypal ‘big guns’ of this good against evil premise) both receive story-arc development of their previously established supporting characters, and all your day/ night watch favourites, team-players and loners, re-appear here, even if they are relegated to sideshow duties.


More take-no-prisoners antics by Alice (striking Zhanna Friske) provide thrilling CGI action, and while new visual effects sequences preserve the previous film’s murky affect, eschewing the acute realism of Hollywood for a whimsically impressionistic style, the contrast with an urban grittiness (Russian street life and office politics) actually benefits the typically earnest drama. If the ‘strange boy’ plotline (and the curious happy ending!) marks this potential epic as formulaic populist tripe, it really doesn’t matter. Startling or inspired cinematic moments worth seeing and savouring, and plenty of clever myth building, make this foreign movie superior entertainment, even if all these watchmen fail to deliver the same pure comic-book fun as Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola’s more engaging BPRD agents in Hellboy.

Also reviewed in Black Static #3:
Highlander: The Source
House Of The Dead
House Of The Dead II: Dead Aim
Undead Or Alive
Doctor Strange (Marvel animation)
Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist
Disturbia
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End
Hatchet
Slaughterhouse Of The Rising Sun
Rise: Blood Hunter
The Last Legion

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Creepy unknown

Here’s an edited version of two reviews originally published in my 'Blood Spectrum' column for BLACK STATIC #2.

Bad places are a staple of genre horror. Essentially, there are two types. Places already known to be domains of evil, visited only for the purposes of investigation, or exorcism by fools or heroes (Legend Of Hell House, Ghostbusters), and places where the forces of darkness lurk unsuspected yet soon to be encountered by protagonists (The Amityville Horror, The Grudge). The first category tends to rely on broadly theatrical effects, while the second delivers suspense with audiences forewarned about a supernatural menace that characters have yet to confront. 

Based on a novel by Kei Oishi, Japanese chiller Apartment 1303 belongs to the latter group. A malevolent spirit haunts a hotel condo. Female residents commit suicide after disturbing events, and several girls exit via the 13th floor balcony. Wholly responsible for the strange death of her abusive mother, the resentful ghost is deficient in redeeming qualities, using her medusa hairdo and brooding expressions to drive the heroine crazy. Director Ataru Oikawa astutely preserves a novelistic approach to exposition here and so, because uncanny imagery and moody atmosphere are more vital to cinematic frights than witty dialogue or memorable characters, the movie plays out its generic narrative with a second-hand checklist of impressionistic scares. This is not a classic but it passes the time.

Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist is now available as a digitally re-mastered 25th anniversary edition. Despite the influence of producer Steven Spielberg on this classic movie, it retains many peculiar characteristics found in the director’s other works. From the sweaty chills and savage humour of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to the childhood problems and domestic strife underpinning his underrated Invaders From Mars remake, and various socio-political anxieties in the pilot episode for TV series Taken, all these disturbing themes indicate that Hooper is one of the few auteurs capable of working on a Spielbergian project without losing his own distinctive vision, most evident here during the weirdly surreal goings-on affecting the Freelings’ household. Hooper takes Spielberg’s spooky plot - inspired by Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone episode Little Girl Lost, and transforms it into one of the most nightmarish and shockingly visceral confrontations with death (the bathroom mirror shows a rotting face, the suburban garden ejects broken coffins) that fantasy-horror cinema has ever seen. 

In the same issue, I also reviewed:
Hostel: part 2
Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Dark Water

This is the first in a series of (weekly, hopefully) blog posts about horror movie & TV reviews for my 'Blood Spectrum' column in BLACK STATIC.

Jennifer Connelly in DARK WATER
Americanised remakes of Japanese chillers rarely match the impact of their originals, so it’s a very pleasant surprise to discover Walter Salles’ Dark Water is far better in many respects than Hideo Nakata’s drama (aka: Honogurai mizu no soko kara). Jennifer Connelly is extraordinary as single mother Dahlia, struggling to avoid a custody battle for her young daughter Ceci (eight-year-old Ariel Gade, from sci-fi TV series Invasion), and moving into a rundown apartment on New York’s Roosevelt Island, while fighting personal demons inextricably tied to her own childhood sorrows.

Confronted with apathy, professional incompetence or hostility at each turn of events, Dahlia slowly loses emotional strength when her low-rent home is plagued with horrendous plumbing faults and possible vandalism, and seemingly haunted by the ghost of lost neighbour, Natasha, who becomes Ceci’s invisible ‘friend’. Dahlia crumples magnificently under the overpressures of her workaday urban life, but she emerges from the drowning pool of Salles’ expertly crafted psychological thriller as a superb heroine, willing to pay the ultimate price to keep her innocent daughter from any harm.

On Dahlia’s side here, against slippery estate agent Murray (John C. Reilly is entertainingly believable), there’s lawyer Jeff Platzer (a virtually unrecognisable Tim Roth, creating a lonely yet sympathetic character), while the great Pete Postlethwaite delivers a memorable turn as Veeck, the building superintendent, whose intentions remain ambiguous to the end, despite his initially suspicious behaviour.

This review was first published in BLACK STATIC #1 (October 2007).
Also in that issue, I reviewed:
The Return 
Dark Corners
Karla
The Thirst
Dead And Deader
28 Weeks Later
The Butcher

Monday, 11 January 2016

Interzone & Co.

The latest INTERZONE (#262) is out now, and this issue includes my 'Laser Fodder' column of DVD & blu-ray reviews. Here's the line-up:

Robo-Dog (5/10)
The Man From The Future (6/10)
A Traveller In Time (5/10)
Robinson Crusoe On Mars (7/10)
Alien Extinction (2/10)

I have also contributed to the Book Zone's "2015 round-up" section, covering the top 5 most outstanding non-fiction titles I enjoyed reading last year.


TTA Press publish BLACK STATIC #50 this month, which features my final 'Blood Spectrum' column reviewing movies & TV on disc. This was not a very good batch of DVD & blu-ray to end with, but my farewell essay occupies 4 pages...


    Code Red Watch
Maggie (3/10)
Fear The Walking Dead - season 1 (4/10)
Sinister 2 (5/10)

    Sinful Children: Retro
The Reflecting Skin (6/10)
Ghost Story (6/10)

    Mild At Heart: The Last Round-up
Dartmoor Killing
American Horror Story: Freak Show
Maneater
The Honeymoon Killers
The Stranger
Blood Rage
River
The Gift


Thanks to editor Andy Cox for putting up with my ranting & raving in 'Black Static' since the magazine started in 2007!