Monday, August 31, 2015

Digging for Fire (2015)

Joe Swanberg is one of the more interesting writer/directors working today, ever since his debut film, Kissing on the Mouth (2005).  He shows a willingness to experiment with scenarios involving intimacy (both physical and emotional) and Swanberg takes some serious artistic risks in exacting his cinema.  His latest film, Digging for Fire (2015), has premiered recently theatrically; and despite the fact that I live in a major city in the United States, the film was unavailable to see on the big screen.  The film did, however, appear on demand, and via iTunes, I was able to see it recently.  Let’s see what’s shaking.

Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson, who also co-scripted) are a young couple with a child about to enter preschool.  Lee teaches yoga; Tim is a high-school gym teacher; and their family are house-sitting in an upscale home for an actress out of the country filming.  Lee is stressing about their child’s education: she wants their son to go to a good school and is worried how they are going to pay for it.  Tim’s view is more lax:  he teaches in public school and feels it would be hypocritical for their son to not attend there.  Tim is also reticent to prepare and file their tax return.   To top it off, Tim has found on the property a rusty revolver and an old bone.  He wants to dig further and see what else he can uncover.  Understandably, Lee wants Tim to abandon that idea but she knows that he will not.  Instead, Lee decides to visit her parents (Judith Light and Sam Elliott) with her son for the weekend: this visit will afford her the opportunity to leave her son in good hands and have a relaxing evening out with friends.  Tim, unsurprisingly, becomes obsessed with the idea of finding more treasures on the property.  He continues to dig and has friends over for the weekend.  Lee and Tim, at this point, will remain separated for the duration of Digging for Fire, and each will take her/his spiritual journey during this last vestige of youth.
When Digging for Fire concluded and the credits began rolling, my sister, who was also in attendance at this viewing, said, “Nothing happened.”  She’s right:  Digging for Fire is a drama and it follows the traditional, three-act structure of drama; but nothing “dramatic” happens.  The only time that a character raises his voice, Ray (Sam Rockwell), it does not end with a violent confrontation or a yelling match.  Hurt and embarrassed, Ray leaves after his outburst, since he had been chastised by Tim for interrupting his evening with Max (Brie Larson).  The only time that a fight occurs in Digging for Fire is off screen:  a chivalrous Ben (Orlando Bloom) politely escorts a drunk out of a bar who was hitting on a clearly perturbed Lee.  For his chivalrous act, Ben receives a cut above his eye but he doesn’t throw a punch in return.  In fact, he asks the hostess at the bar to call the drunk a cab.  Finally, for example, both Tim and Lee have an opportunity to cheat on each other that evening:  Ben cooks Lee a meal for helping him tend to his wound, and the two take a moonlit stroll on the beach.  Ben kisses Lee, and despite the fact that she is attracted to him, she leaves him at the shoreline.  Tim and Max have a day of digging and bonding and dinner.  She comes over to the house the morning after the party at Tim’s house to retrieve her purse.  Max stays, and they get to know each other, creating a close connection.  Tim is too scared to even put his head in Max’s lap—it’s fairly certain that Lee and Tim love each other:  they just need some time away from each other to re-enforce and realize it. 
Digging for Fire is about the last days of youth and the entrance into real adulthood, the beginning of a family and its responsibilities.  (Swanberg’s son, Jude, plays Lee and Tim’s child, so Swanberg may be experiencing the same issues as he has rendered creatively.)  The film presents its themes in an understated manner, indicating, perhaps, that the process is not as stressful as its main characters are making it (it is rather an intuitive, natural choice).  Some are reticent to enter adulthood, such as Ray, and some of the characters, like Max, are clearly in the middle of youth.  Lee and Tim are going to cross the threshold by the end of the film.  At times the symbolism of the film is a little heavy-handed (e.g. Tim’s discovery in the final act), but overall, the symbolism is organic.  (In an especially adept scene, Lee purchases a leather jacket as an impulse buy.  Later, she steals money out of her mother’s purse.)  In one of my favorite scenes, Lee visits her friends, a married couple with two children and a nanny, portrayed by Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston.  Lee wants Lynskey to go out with her for the evening.  Lynskey’s character declines to go out with Lee:  it is implied that her husband may be cuddling up to the nanny, as Livingston’s character has invited the nanny to accompany them on a family trip to Costa Rica.  A lot of the scenes have a Raymond Carver, slice-of-life feel to them.

Again, Swanberg with Digging for Fire makes another interesting film about intimacy; and he does not need overtly “dramatic” scenes to accomplish a rather fine piece of cinema for those open-minded and willing to see it. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas (1982)

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas (1982) is a weird Jess Franco film.  In a good way.  It is also undeniably dirty.
Antonio Mayans plays Mendoza, the patriarch of his small family and an Argentinean actor living in exile on a remote island off of the coast of Spain.  The Mendoza family are the sole occupants of said isle whose other members are Desdemona (Lina Romay in her Candy Coster guise), Mendoza’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Dulcinea (Carmen Carrión), Mendoza’s lover, and Poulova (Susana Kerr), the youngest daughter, who is also simple-minded.  Their family dynamic has reached critical mass:  Mendoza has become disassociated—he is desperately trying to remember his past and revel in his former glory; but his past is a distant memory:  for all he knows, Mendoza is creating memories rather than re-living them.  Desdemona really, really wants to fuck.  In an early scene of La Casa, scantily-clad Desdemona lays upon her bed in full view of her father, attempting sensual poses every time that he looks up from his magazine.  Dulcinea has become bored with this isolated and repetitious lifestyle, especially since Mendoza refuses or physically cannot make love to her anymore.  Poor Poulova is nothing more than a small child in a grown woman’s body.  As she requires the same care as a newborn infant, the remaining family members bicker over who is to care for her, as none seem particular eager to do so.  One day a handsome young hunter (Tony Skios) arrives on the island for a little poaching and becomes the catalyst causing the Mendoza family to implode.

The sole criticism of La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas in the essential Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco is a quote from Franco:
La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas is not a horror film, but it’s a very bizarre film, a story of manners—bad manners!  It looks like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, yet it’s totally different.  It mostly concerns la petite bourgeoisie” (J. Franco, Madrid, 1986).  (*)
Buñuel, Pasolini, and Jean Renoir, for example, all had fun at the expense of the boo-gee—exposing their values and then creating the characters’ downfall, because of them.  There is no reason that Jess Franco is not entitled to their same artistic license.  La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas is really essential Franco:  it is poetic, sensuous, and provocative while also being playful, progressive, and above all, very dirty.  It is a film made in post-Franco Spain, where Lina Romay spends almost the entire time butt-naked, seemingly because she can.  In a representative sequence, Desdemona sits in a rocking chair and eats an orange.  She is also watching what I assume to be an episode of Dallas (as the dialogue reveals characters such as J.R. and Sue Ellen).  Franco’s camera never leaves a tight composition upon Romay.  She begins enjoying her orange, letting the juice drip upon her body, eventually playing with a slice of orange in a very discreet area of her body.  (She enjoys the same playfulness with a cigarette in an earlier scene.)  I cannot help but to find this scene funny:  the privilege of masturbating to an episode of Dallas is now available; or one can now masturbate while watching Romay masturbate to an episode of Dallas. I think that I have exceeded my quota with the word masturbate for now.  Time to move on.

Franco exposes the characters’ self-centeredness and self-importance in La Casa.  Dulcinea is the recipient of an unfulfilled promise:  here she is on a supposed idyllic island with a famous actor:  Mendoza is self-absorbed and impotent, and Dulcinea is little more than a caretaker for the family, despite not being the mother of the two daughters.  She creates her own fun by blackmailing Desdemona into fucking her in exchange for her silence to her father about her chronic masturbating.  When she encounters the hunter in the living room late in the evening, Dulcinea is not reticent to seduce him.  When she catches Mendoza spying on the couple, Dulcinea shames him for his lack of virility.  It is the crushing blow for Mendoza—he realizes that his reality is a created one.

La Casa de las Mujeres Perdidas has some beautiful photography from Juan Soler and the music by Daniel J. White is quite enchanting.  All the performances are good.  My favorite scenes are of Romay waxing poetic by the seashore or looking above from the veranda at the passing airplanes.  Her voice-over narration speaks of a desire for freedom and melancholy for each passing day.  These soliloquies are very sensitive and well done by Franco.  La Casa is a unique, disorienting film well worth seeking out by fans of Franco.
* Ed.  Lucas Balbo & Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen and Frank Trebbin Publishing.  Germany.  1993: p. 153. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Death Avenger of Soho (Der Todesrächer von Soho) (1971)

I was in the mood to watch a krimi and a Jess Franco film and, subsequently, found a flick that fit both bills:  The Death Avenger of Soho (Der Todesrächer von Soho) (1971). 
An anxious man in a London hotel asks the manager for his bags to be packed and to have a cab waiting for him at the curb.  He returns to his room to find his luggage already packed and waiting for him which, for whatever reason, greatly perturbs him.  He pays his bill, and while attempting to enter the cab, he is killed with a precision knife throw from an unknown assailant.  Handsome Inspector Robert Redford (Fred Williams) arrives to investigate, and the crime scene yields little evidence.  Redford hooks up with his friends, crime novelist Charles Barton (Horst Tappert) and photo-journalist Andy Pickwick (Luis Morris) for help.  The sole lead in his case is a doctor, Dr. Blackmead (Siegfried Schüremberg)—who happened to be in the vicinity of the film’s first kill.  At the doctor’s office, Redford meets Dr. Blackmead’s assistant, Helen (Elisa Montés), and is instantly smitten.  Another murder occurs with the same modus operandi, yet there is no discernable link between the victims.  Redford’s leads run cold.  A mysterious man (Dan Van Hussen) breaks into the home of Charles Barton, and is caught stealing red-handed by Barton.  The would-be thief says he knows Charles Barton, personally, and the man occupying this home and using his name is not the same.  Meanwhile, a distraught Helen meets Redford at a bar and reveals to him that she found a dangerous opiate among the doctor’s pharmacy.  She believes that the good doctor has too large a quantity of illegal narcotics to ignore.  Redford agrees and has a break in the case.  He promises to protect Helen, who reveals that she has a mysterious past, as well…
Franco crafts a fine krimi film with The Death Avenger of Soho.  The film is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace [which had been previously filmed as Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen Koffer in 1963] and its screenplay is by Franco and Artur Brauner, whose production company CCC was looking to cash in on the popular Wallace krimi craze. (1)  Death Avenger was made towards the end of the krimi cycle. (2)  There is a moodiness to Death Avenger quite like Sie Tӧtete in Ekstase (She Killed in Ecstasy) (1970) where there is an overwhelming sense of uncomfortableness accompanying the dramatic action.  As there is little information made available as to what is motivating the killings, the resultant vibe is uneasiness and dread.  Franco’s photography (by Manuel Merino) has some exceptional set pieces.  The opening alleyway, where the first murder occurs, has a haunting quality, as a blind organ grinder listlessly chimes away accompanies perfectly the composition:  a tight alley where a clearly audible gust of wind seemingly does not affect a small bank of fog.  Franco also makes good use of the wide-angled lens, as he did subsequently in La Maldición de Frankenstein (1972).  There is a particularly, nasty giallo-esque murder near the end of the film.  Despite the seriousness of the dramatic action, Franco does allow The Death Avenger to be a sexy, flirty film.  For example, when Redford meets Helen for the first time, she opens the door and asks what he wants.  Redford coyly replies with a marriage proposal which the young lady politely declines.  It is easy to tell that these two characters have chemistry, and the film is propelling them towards each other; but Franco does not have to labor over a romantic subplot in order to produce one.  Unsurprisingly, Franco gets to include a sexy, nightclub set piece.  I would be shocked to learn if Franco’s libido ever waned.  Finally, The Death Avenger of Soho is a good film, because it is character-driven with interesting people populating the narrative (as opposed to the paint-by-numbers, procedural-plot-driven krimi).
Perhaps my Franco bias is elevating The Death Avenger of Soho above most krimi.  However, I do believe that krimi fans, giallo fans, and Jess Franco fans will enjoy this one.  The Death Avenger of Soho is a neglected film in Franco’s filmography during a period where he was particularly fertile.
1. Blumenstock, Peter.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Ed. Lucas Balbo & Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin.  Germany.  1993:  p. 83.
2.  Ibid.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Musarañas (2014)

I was looking forward to Musarañas (2014).  It is co-executive produced by Álex de la Iglesia and Carolina Bang (who also plays a small part), reuniting them from Las brujas de Zugarramurdi (Witching and Bitching) (2013) with actress Macarena Gómez and actor Hugo Silva.  Musarañas is co-directed by Juanfer Andrés (he also contributed to the screenplay) and Esteban Roel. Musarañas is a confused film, a little too familiar in its plot and a little too convenient when it needs to be.

In 1950s Spain, Montse (Macarena Gómez) cares for her younger sister, played by Nadia de Santiago.  Montse works from her home as a dressmaker and is an agoraphobic, wholly dependent upon her younger sister for assistance.  At the opening of Musarañas, her younger sister has just turned eighteen and is showing strong signs of independence:  she works outside the home; and Montse has noticed, from her window, her younger sister conversing with a young man in the street.  The sisters’ mother died during the birth of the youngest and the two were raised by their strict, religious father.  He has since disappeared, leaving the rearing of Montse’s younger sister upon herself.  Her father’s religious conviction is strong within Montse, and when her younger sister arrives late one evening, Montse takes to corporal punishment upon her.  In the morning, Montse begs for her sister’s forgiveness, but it seems their tenure together is destined to end.  The handsome upstairs neighbor, Carlos (Hugo Silva), injures himself falling down the stairs and he knocks at Montse’s door seeking help.  She puts Carlos in the spare room, and tends weakly to his wounds.  She promises his recovery, yet Montse begins drugging him.  Her younger sister wants to escape and is determined to help Carlos leave, as well.
Musarañas is Montse’s film.  She is the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.  Almost the entire film takes place in Montse’s flat and when the film ventures outside, it is only into the landing outside or Carlos’s flat upstairs.  Andrés and Roel expend quite a bit of time fleshing out her character and making her sympathetic to the audience.  It is revealed that her father was extremely abusive towards her and she had to endure this for quite some time.  Understandably, she is agoraphobic and fearful as her father kept a tight grip upon her.  When Carlos comes into her home, one can see why she is keeping him close.  In a romantic sense, this is really only Montse’s opportunity to fall in love.  Of course, Montse is also completely unhinged; so when Musarañas needs her to become a monster, she becomes one.  In a move, like a schism, all of the sudden Nadia de Santiago’s character (whose name is never uttered by the way) will become the protagonist:  she attempts to protect Carlos from Montse, and it is the younger sister with whom Carlos falls in love.  When Carlos’s disappearance attracts the police and his fiancé, Elisa (Bang), Montse begins a murder spree.  With each subsequent corpse that she has to hide in her flat, Montse becomes desperate and ruthless.  In the gory final act, Montse does not appear as a person at all.  Conveniently, Musarañas attempts a reconciliation between the sisters in the final minutes, and a revelation occurs between them that was painfully obvious to the viewer from the opening minutes.
Macarena Gómez, as Montse, gives a stellar performance.  She is the sole reason for seeing Musarañas.  No other character is treated with any sensitivity.  Musarañas begins as a fascinating character study but quickly and conveniently decides by its third act to become a bloody horror movie.  Adept filmmakers could have blended the two, but Andrés and Roel were not up to the task.  A pity.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Maya (1989)

Maya (1989) is an Italian horror film by producer Maurizio Tedesco and director Marcello Avallone, the duo who brought the similarly-themed film of a previous year, Specters (1987). Maya is a film definitely of its era: not so much as an Italian horror obscurity but rather as a direct-to-video horror, common throughout American video stores: there is a bit of violent gore peppered throughout, along with some eye-catching softcore sex and nudity, and finally, quite a bit of bullshit mixes with the plot and the characters.
Maya begins strong.  Professor Slivak (William Berger) lives in the shadow of a Mayan pyramid and is being plagued with nightmares about sacrifices once given atop the pyramid millennia ago.  He awakens one morning, and convinced he must confront the ancient evil, Slivak begins his journey by car.  En route he spies a striking-looking child who steps in front of his vehicle.  Slivak exits the car to tend to the injured child, but the child is not injured or dead: the child frightens Slivak with a flash of its eyes.  The child is an omen of the evil to come.  At the base of the pyramid, Slivak slowly ascends its stairs.  At the top near the sacrificial altar, he is slain.  His chest is cut open and his heart removed.
Enter Peter (Peter Phelps).  Peter is a good-looking layabout who is fucking gorgeous local Jahaira (Mariangélica Ayala).  He likes to smoke weed, drink booze, and take long walks in the rain.  He also has a gambling problem which has put him in debt, much to the chagrin of the local expatriate community, including local cantina owner, Sid (Antonello Fassari) and his bar maid, Laura (Mirella D’Angelo).  The announcement of Slivak’s murder looms over the village, who are coincidentally preparing a commemorative event at the Mayan pyramid.  Slivak’s daughter, Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives to identify her father’s corpse and she remains in the village to find his murderer.  Lisa enlists the help of Peter but is hindered throughout her investigation.  Everyone is reticent to talk to her, despite the fact that more people are murdered up until the commencement of the village ceremony.

The aim of Maya is definitely the American market: it clearly wants to plant itself in a video box to snuggle up on the shelves of its American counterparts.  I remember reading (or watching) an interview with Umberto Lenzi who described his later, late-eighties films in the “American-style.”  The Italians knew the foreign market was much stronger than the domestic one.  Maya has a Utilitarian, focused visual style: the compositions are never showy or distracting.  Tension and foreboding are created through tighter compositions and marked pacing.  Even the wonderful opening of the film has a cool synth track to accompany its visuals.  The problems of Maya come with the plot and the characterization.  Avallone attempts to give his characters some depth by providing each a back story:  Sid has a broken heart; Laura has a secret boyfriend; and Jahaira suffers from unrequited love.  Enriching a character’s background intuitively should create sympathy in the viewer; however, along the way, nay from the beginning, Avallone forgot he was making a murder mystery (maybe even a supernatural one?).  While one character may have a broken heart, none have a motive.  The characters just float along with seemingly no real tie to the dramatic action.  Finally, while the practical special effects are good, the murders are not particularly interesting or original:  Maya has a murder via car evocative of John Carpenter’s Christine (1986); a murder in the bathtub evocative of a scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); and corpse suspended to the ceiling by hooks, its imagery evocative of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987).  I do find quite a bit of entertainment in the cinema of this era, both from Italy and the United States and I am not saying that there is not a certain charm about Maya:  it is just that there is not enough to elevate its entertainment value above average and really nothing about it is memorable.
Aficionados of Italian cinema will recognize the voices of the English dubbers, used over and over throughout the years.  Actress Mirella D’Angelo, who plays Lisa, is recognizable from Dario Argento’s Tenebre (1982) as the victim who saw the killer’s face through the slash in her shirt.  From the credits, it appears that Maya was filmed in Venezuela and the imagery of the Mayan pyramid seemed genuine. A scene of a native exorcism ritual is a highlight (it has nothing to do seemingly with the plot by the way.)   It is powerful imagery, and Avallone sorely underutilized it.  Maya could have been a strong, atmospheric gem from Italy but instead it is a forgettable American knock-off.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

It Follows (2014)

I was certain hype was going to kill this one for me.  After seeing the theatrical trailer (yet missing the theatrical release), it was littered with so many quotes from various horror-film review sites that It Follows (2014) was destined to fall short of its praise.  I am now a little shocked, after viewing the film On Demand via Amazon, that hype was not its killer.  It Follows is actually quite creative, compelling, and engaging during its entire runtime.
Jay Height (Maika Monroe) lives a quiet life in the Detroit suburbs with her mother and younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe).  Jay has recently begun to date handsome young man, Hugh (Jake Weary), and the two attend a movie theatre one evening.  They engage in light conversation, and Hugh points out to Jay a young woman in a yellow dress entering the theatre.  Jay says that she cannot see the person, and Hugh asks her again if she is certain.  Jay says that she is, and Hugh becomes fearful and hurriedly asks Jay to leave.  Despite his weird behavior, Jay has a second date with Hugh, a romantic lakeside rendezvous.  They eventually fuck in Hugh’s car, and while Jay is enjoying her post-loving elation, she is subdued by Hugh who drugs her and knocks her out.  Jay awakens to find herself tied to a wheelchair and the sounds of Hugh apologizing:  Hugh is being chased by a dauntless pursuer who is only hindered by the fact that he or she is walking (not running).  The pursuer, according to Hugh, can change form into anyone; and the only way to steer the pursuer is to sleep with someone, who then becomes the object of the pursuer.  If the pursuer catches his/her object, then it is certain death.  It is a shitty thing to do someone, and Hugh drops her at her home, telling her to just sleep with someone quickly and get the beast off of her back.  At her home, Jay finds Kelly and her two friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi).  These three have a little trouble believing the curse story but they deeply care about Jay and are willing to help her in her dilemma.
The most striking and obvious aspect about It Follows is how detached it feels:  while the photography is quite nice (by Mike Gioulakis) and the compositions interesting, they never feel intimate.  The use of music is judicious (by Disasterpeace) and is used in a mostly non-traditional manner for a horror film.  There is little substantive dialogue (screenplay is by director, David Robert Mitchell): while most of the dialogue is in service of the story, e.g. “Where to do want to go?” or “Do you need me to help you?”, a good portion of the dialogue is romantic:  Paul and Jay discuss each giving his/her first kiss to each other when they were children; Jay waxes poetic in her post-loving elation about what she thought dating would be like as a little girl; and finally, for example, Yara is reading The Idiot throughout It Follows and quotes several poetic passages to an often captive group of characters.  Initially, I thought It Follows was going to be River’s Edge Redux, detailing in fashion the sexual mores of suburban teenagers.  Not quite.  It is a little off-putting to watch, however, Jay have a second confrontation with Hugh and not display any anger towards him.  The only real emotions that these characters show is fear.  I think that director Mitchell was going for something a little more familiar:  the powerful disruption of an idyllic and quiet suburban life by encroaching urban dangers.  Yara tells a story, near the beginning of the third act (and again in romantic fashion), how her mother told her never to cross Eight Mile Road alone:  it is where the suburbs end and the city begins.  What dangers are ahead?  Pick one:  addiction, violence, STD, poverty, teenage pregnancy, absence of hope, etc.  Mitchell wraps these fears in allegorical fashion; makes the fear an irrational curse; and plays out the poetic proceedings in a horror film.  His technique of detachment is really mimicking the style of his pursuer, of whom little is known at the beginning and little is known at the conclusion.
Any horror-film fan will enjoy It Follows, at least for a single viewing, because it is different.  It is also well-done on all levels.  It Follows is not a great film but it is certainly well above average, and well above most horror films released today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

House of Blood (Chain Reaction) (2006)

House of Blood (Chain Reaction) (2006) is an English-language horror film made by Germans, filmed in Germany and Austria as a setting for the Pacific Northwest in the United States.  House of Blood was directed by the notable (or notorious) Olaf Ittenbach, written by Ittenbach and Thomas Reitmar, and the special effects were created by Ittenbach.
Dr. Douglas Madsen (veteran American character actor, Christopher Kriesa who appeared previously in Ittenbach’s Legion of the Dead (2001)) awakens the morning of the anniversary of his parents’ tragic death.  Along his route to work, his vehicle collides with a prisoner transport bus.  This collision causes an accident which allows the prisoners to free themselves.  The four convicts have a shootout with the guards and are victorious.  They assume the garb of the guards but during the battle, one of the prisoners, Spence (Luca Maric), gets a bullet wound to his arm.  The convicts drag Madsen out of his vehicle, and the de facto leader of the group, Arthur (Simon Newby), forces Madsen to tend to the wounds of Spence (who is Arthur’s younger brother).  Madsen argues that he needs better facilities to help the man, and the group suggest hiking north towards Canada (away from their prison in Seattle).  They move through a dense forest and encounter a thick fog bank.  They enter and exiting the fog, the group encounters an antique cottage (seemingly older than the American Colonial period).  A beautiful young woman (named Alice, portrayed by Martina Ittenbach) is letting blood from a sheep outside.  The convicts decide to siege upon the cottage’s inhabitants (of whom there are quite a few) and allow Madsen to attend to Spence.  The inhabitants of the cottage insist that the convicts leave, but the convicts persist in staying.  The group appears extraordinarily religious (Christian) and passive, initially, until they transform into vampire-like demons and whip some serious convict ass.  Madsen is the only survivor and escapes into the arms of a patrolling SWAT team…
The screenplay for House of Blood is interesting conceptually.  Ittenbach and Reitmar introduce the governing theme as reincarnation and structure the narrative in an elliptical fashion.  However, its execution is woefully done.  Ittenbach does not use his exposition in the first act effectively.  Most of the characters’ dialogue and action are devoted to bickering and repeating the same things.  How many times can the group of convicts decide to go north? A lot.  How many times can Arthur bitch at Madsen to heal his brother?  Too many.  The most detracting flaw is the dialogue of the cottage inhabitants-cum-demons:  they all suffer from Yoda-its, where they all begin their sentences with verbs with the additional annoyance of adding –eth to the end of them.  For example, “Knoweth, I do.  Leaveth, you now.”  This shit gets on your nerves pretty quickly.  Finally, the dialogue pads the length of the narrative which in turn kills the pacing of the film.  Kriesa and Martina Ittenbach give competent performances.  Wonderful actor, Jürgen Prochnow, is sorely underused as a police inspector who appears in few scenes in the same setting (an interrogation room).  The best performance is given by veteran character actor, Dan van Husen.  [There is an essential interview with him discussing his career on the Wild East DVD of Alive or Preferably Dead/Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.]  Van Husen plays Paul Anderson, another convict leader with a penchant for quoting literature and philosophy.  It is too much, here, to describe his role in the narrative.  By the time van Husen and crew appear in House of Blood, you either have to roll with this bit or shut the film off.
Most would probably think that I am wasting my breath critiquing the screenplay (or acting or direction) of House of Blood.  Olaf Ittenbach currently holds a Tom Savini-like reverence by fans for his ability in crafting detailed, practical, and gory special effects.  In fact, like Savini, fans will see films solely armed with the knowledge that Ittenbach provided the special effects, regardless of the film’s director or actors.  The make-up upon the vampiric demons is particularly good.  The typical splatter effects, like shotgun head blasts and intestinal work, are present; however, the edits of such shots are quick, unlike some of his previous efforts, like in The Burning Moon and Premutos (both 1997).  It was either an artistic choice or a commercial edit.  [I watched House of Blood via the Region-one Lionsgate DVD.]  While the special effects are well done, House of Blood is not entertaining enough on the whole to merit seeing it for their inclusion.  Ittenbach- and German Splatter-fans will end up seeking this one out.  All others should avoid.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ju-on: The Beginning of the End (Ju-on: Owari no hajimari) (2014)

Takashi Shimizu’s original V-cinema Ju-on (2000) has never been topped.  While the second Ju-on (2003) was entertaining, the best films to follow in the series were Ju-on: White Ghost and Black Ghost (2009), primarily because they were the most evocative of Shimizu’s original film.  Post Ju-on, interestingly, Shimizu went on to direct more metaphysical, Lynch-ian films like The Shock Labyrinth (Senritsu meikyû) (2009) and Tormented (Rabitto horȃ) (2011).  [His latest American film, 7500 (2014), appears to have a delayed release.]  In any case, I thought the Ju-on series was prime to die, but a new film has appeared from Japan, directed by Masayuki Ochiai and written by Ochiai and notable producer Takashige Ichise, entitled Ju-on: The Beginning of the End (Ju-on: Owari no hajimari) (2014).  At its heart, this new Ju-on is a remake of Shimizu’s original film.
Pretty young Yui (Nozomi Sasaki) has been promoted from substitute teacher to full-time teacher.  During her first class, she notices, from the previous teacher’s roll book, that a particular student, Toshio (Kai Kobayashi), has been absent for the past seven days.  Scared of overstepping her bounds, Yui consults the principal and believes a home visit to Toshio is in order.  Her principal reluctantly agrees and tells Yui that her predecessor has recently died.  With trepidation, Yui visits the home of Toshio and encounters only the young boy’s mother, Kayako Saeki (Misaki Saisho), who reveals that her son and husband are not at home.  Yui visits an upstairs room in the house and she notices a closet completely taped shut at its cracks (a la the red tape in Kairo (Pulse) (2001)).  The mother’s creepy behavior and the taped-up closet forces Yui to flee from the home.  She begins to suffer hallucinations while teaching and having extremely vivid nightmares.  Her boyfriend, Naoto (Shȏ Aoyagi), fears for the health and sanity of Yui and begins an investigation of the Saeki home and its mysterious history. 
Like the original Ju-on, Ju-on:  The Beginning of the End alternates between different periods in time, all involving doings at the Saeki home:  the opening scene of the film, rendered hand-held/”found footage” style, cryptically details the original event which may source the evil In the house; the second time period involves Yui and Naoto in the present; and finally, the last period detailed involves four high-school girls.  One of the girls’ sister is a real-estate agent and is having trouble renting the home, because of its haunted reputation.  Curious of this reputation, the girls visit the house, and each leaves the house to subsequently be overcome with paranoia and fear of a little ghost boy.  Quite a bit of time is devoted to episodes involving the high-school girls, and they are pretty weak, almost retreads of familiar J-cinema scare tactics.  It is extremely anti-climactic when it is revealed how this storyline relates to the present one involving Yui and Naoto.  Too much thought was put into this technique by Ochiai and Ichise.  Shimizu used this technique in the original Ju-on simply:  he showed three families occupying the house at different times with little exposition detailing when each occupied.  He used this technique for a disorienting effect and was highly successful.
There are a couple of creepy moments in Ju-on:  The Beginning of the End, but they are strongly outweighed by the myriad missed opportunities and boring, slow bits which had me grabbing for my smartphone.  The final act had a perfect set-up:  Yui was going to visit the Saeki home for the final time; and as she is standing at the gate, the front door slowly cracks open beckoning her.  The revelations of the final act, like most of the film, are anti-climactic.  The acting is average.  Ochiai’s direction is perfunctory.  His most interesting visual technique is shooting almost the entire film in natural light:  this is a bold palette to craft a supernatural horror film; and had he been successful, it would have been a rare feat.  It did not happen today.
Takashi Shimizu showed with the original Ju-on a talented and creative person making a film intuitively and far exceeding any audience expectations.  Ju-on:  The Beginning of the End shows commercial filmmakers adapting a formula around audience expectations and wholly missing the mark.  Incidentally, I watched Ju-on:  The Beginning of the End via the Malaysian release (which was English-friendly), and it had an extremely choppy frame rate for its picture.  I do not know if it is my DVD machine or a flawed disc.  So, in any case, buyer beware.