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The Friday Night Fright: The House of Whipcord May 17, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror , add a comment

This sleazy little film was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting. Director Pete Walker generates a fair amount of tension early on, and populates the film with some entertainingly bonkers characters, plus plenty of naked female flesh.

When the appropriately named Mark E. Desade picks up a young French model, Ann-Marie (played, with a surprisingly decent French accent, by Penny Irving) he soon displays a perchance for the perverse but it’s only when takes her home to meet his mum and dad that things really get interesting. Dad’s a demented old judge and mum’s a sadistic ex-prison warden and they’ve set up there own correctional facility for wayward young ladies, where even the simplest crime results in the ultimate penalty. The prison is staffed by a pair of matrons, one a butch older woman with lesbian tendencies, the other getting her pleasure from torturing the inmates.

It’s more thoughtful than you might think though, David McGillivray’s script portraying the would-be defenders of morality as the real perverts. Most of the torture isn’t explicitly shown and while early on some of the nudity is pure titillation, there’s little to get you excited once the story moves to the prison (unless of course you’re as twisted as the people who run it). It also displays a ruthless efficiency with its characters, leaving you wondering if anyone will survive to see the credits.

The Friday Night Fright: The Eye April 19, 2008

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I’ve a lot of time for the Pang Brothers, their films are visually stylish but not at the expense of character and they’ve managed to avoid getting pigeonholed as horror directors. The Eye is probably their most well known film, and also the most successful, spawning two sequels, but I found it a little disappointing and not particularly original.

A cornea transplant patient starts seeing dead people and the mysterious shadow figures that come to take them away. Sound familiar? The Eye borrows heavily from The Sixth Sense and doesn’t do a very good job of hiding it.

The pace of the film is quite slow, not uncommon for Asian horror films, and adds to the feeling of mounting tension and there are some very creepy set pieces. Angelica Lee is excellent as Wong Kar Mun the woman who regains her sight after being blind since she was an infant but the love story angle of the film, that sees her doctor falling for her, doesn’t work and feels superfluous.

The film seems to lose its way at the end, with the reason behind the visions more tragic than terrifying, something the Pang’s must have realised as they seem to rush through this part of the film in order to get to the big Hollywood-style explosive climax, which put me in mind of The Mothman Prophecies, a film that was released a few months before The Eye. I can’t help wondering if this ending was a late addition, something the brothers came up with after seeing Mothman but regardless, it feels at odds the with quiet chills that are generated throughout the rest of the film.

For all its faults it’s well worth a look and I’ll be surprised if the American remake manages to improve on the original.

The Friday Night Fright: Feast April 5, 2008

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This is the small-group-of-people-in-a-confined-space-trying-to-keep-
the-monsters-out style horror movie that has an obvious appeal to those with a limited budget. We’ve seen it so often, in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Dog Soldiers, yet, if it’s backed up by a clever script and a director who knows what he’s doing, it can still be extremely effective.

The writing team of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton know their horror movies and take great delight in turning the genre conventions upside down. To say too much would be to spoil the surprises, but it’s fair to say that very early in the film you’ll realise it’s not going to be easy to predict who will still be standing at the end of the film.

Director John Gulager manages to create plenty of tension and some cool action set pieces as well as showing a commendable talent for early Peter Jackson style gross out humour. He may have lacked for money but blood definitely isn’t in short supply.

The cast is made up of mostly unknowns with a few familiar faces here and there. Balthazar Getty, Henry Rollins, Jason Mewes and the director’s dad, Clu Gulager, are the familiar faces. Mewes isn’t around for long and Getty seems to be playing Charlie Sheen but Rollins is great fun playing against type as a gun hating coach who’s in the bar when the shit hits the fan. As for Clu Gulager, for a guy in his seventies he’s looking pretty good and it’s nice to see the old pro getting stuck in to the action.

The film did well enough to spawn two sequels, both currently in post-production but it’s the writing team who are the films biggest success. Apart from scripting both Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds and Feast 3: The Happy Finish they’ve also done Saw IV and V and the forthcoming Hellraiser remake while Dunstan has also tried his hand at directing with The Midnight Man.

Feast’s aim is to give you a gore filled good time and send you away with a smile and a little blood on your face and it does exactly that. It’s hard not to like a film with a line like “Monster cock stuck in the door!”

The Friday Night Fright: Grindhouse March 29, 2008

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In a break from routine this week’s Friday Night Fright was seen on the big screen. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse project is on tour at selected cinemas around the UK in its original form, complete with fake trailers, and I caught it last night at the Vue in Leicester.

I’d previously seen Rodriguez’s Planet Terror segment, along with the fake trailer for Machete, at the FrightFest All-nighter back in November but it anything I enjoyed it more second time around. It’s an insanely gory and utterly demented homage to trashy zombie flicks that totally embraces the Grindhouse concept. Hilariously bad dialogue, over the top performances, a crazy and completely illogical plot and more gore than you’ll see in the rest of this year’s movies combined add up to a thrill ride that doesn’t pause for breath until THE END appears on screen and we hear the last notes of the greatest score John Carpenter never wrote.

High points? Josh Brolin’s mad doctor is a superb scenery (and thermometer) chewing performance. It’s also nice to see Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey in something other than the straight-to-DVD trash they’re normally wasted in these days. The films only weak performance comes from Naveen Andrews, maybe it’s because I’m so used to seeing him as Sayid in Lost, but he seems out of place here and doesn’t really get into the real grindhouse spirit of things.

Next it was time for the three spoof trailers - Werewolf Women of the S.S, Don’t and Thanksgiving. All three are great fun, Rob Zombie almost made me forgive him for Halloween with his ‘tribute’ to the Ilsa films, while Thanksgiving is by far the best thing Eli Roth has done (yes I know that’s not saying much but it really is pretty good). My favourite though was Edgar Wright’s Don’t, a clever pastiche of all those‘70s/’80s movies with Don’t in the title that, at the same time, managed to look like it would be fun to watch.

So could Mr T top Planet Terror? The answer is yes and no. No, he didn’t top Rodriguez for trashy grindhouse fun, nor does he top him for over-the-top gore or hammy performances. But he has made the better film, and the more enjoyable one. So while Death Proof doesn’t really adhere to the initial concept as well as Planet Terror, it is a thrilling ride.

It’s much slower than Planet Terror to get going, full of typical Tarantino talkiness with the difference here being that, instead of his usual male interplay, we get to listen to a bunch of women. It’s occasionally amusing, though perhaps not as much as QT thinks it is, but only two of the characters come off as likable - Rose McGowan’s Pam and Vanessa Ferlito’s Arlene.

Things pick up when Stuntman Mike arrives. You know this is one mean badass because he’s got a nasty looking scar down one side of his face and he drives a scary looking black car (when he asks Arlene if his scar scares her, her response is “It’s your car”). Russell gets a lot of mileage out of a look and a few snippets of dialogue, managing to turn in a commendably menacing performance that dominates the film while getting much less screen time than the girls.

I won’t go into what happens next but the films second half introduces a second set of girls, and like the first set they get plenty of Tarantino dialogue, full of the usual pop culture references and punctuated with expletives. At this point I was starting to think “oh no, here we go again” but then, thanks to some very good acting from all four ladies, I started to like this bunch. Maybe it was Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe’s love of Vanishing Point but I started to connect with them, even with ditsy but cute Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) so when they are put in jeopardy I was rooting for them (whereas previously I’d probably had more sympathy for Stuntman Mike).

The last half hour is one long chase sequence that features some of the best car stunts I’ve seen for years, maybe ever. It also sees Tarantino doing away completely with the grindhouse look (damaged film, choppy dialogue) as he puts on film an action sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen and left me breathless and exhausted (although that could have been because the film finished at 2am). It really would have been a crime to mar this footage and Tarantino must have felt the same.

Special mention should go to Zoe Bell who plays a part that requires her to be both actress and stuntwoman. Luckily she proves more than capable of both tasks and nearly steals the film from under Kurt Russell’s nose.

At the end of Death Proof I was left with the urge to watch Vanishing Point again (and had it not been so late/early I no doubt would have). So Grindhouse gets a big thumbs up. It may be self indulgent but it’s also great fun and it’s nice to see it on the big screen as it was originally envisaged.

Tarantino seems to be rebelling against the early critical acclaim he received for Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, steering clear of ‘serious ‘ films and instead paying tribute to the films that inspired him with both Kill Bill and Grindhouse. Inglorious Bastards looks likely to follow that trend (if it gets made) and after seeing this I can’t wait.

For a full list of where the film is showing look here

The Friday Night Fright: Malefique March 22, 2008

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Set, for the most part, in just one cell in a French prison, Maléfique has an intensely claustrophobic feel to it. The lead character is Carrère, a white collar criminal doing time for fraud. Sharing the room with him are some very eccentric characters – Marcus, a transvestite muscleman, Paquerette, a retarded young man who grew up living with pigs before eating his infant sister and Lassalle an intellectual driven mad by too much knowledge who murdered his wife at breakfast one morning.

When these odd and decidedly unpleasant characters stumble on a book hidden in one of the walls, written by a serial killer at the start of the twentieth century, things start to get a little weird. For as well as being a serial killer, Danvers, the books author, was also adept in black magic. When they realise that the spells in the book really work they see it as a way to escape their prison, but will it lead them to freedom or to eternal damnation? To call this Hellraiser meets Cube in a French prison would be oversimplifying things but there are certainly elements of those films present. It’s to the writers’ credit that this never feels like a rehash of old ideas.

I’ve never come across any of the cast before but they are uniformly excellent. With such an enclosed environment the interaction of the characters is very much to the fore, and it’s down to the playing of these four actors that the film is so successful. While director Eric Valette cranks up the tension admirably and there are some extremely effective gory set pieces it’s the characters that will stay in your memory.

This was Valette’s calling card to Hollywood but sadly all they found for him to do was another tired remake of an Asian horror (One Missed Call). On the strength of Maléfique I’d say he deserved much better.

The Friday Night Fright: The Devil’s Men February 9, 2008

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Prior to The Devil’s Men in 1976 Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasence had appeared together in three classic productions – the 1954 BBC TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, the Burke and Hare tale The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and From Beyond the Grave, one of the best of the Amicus anthology films, in 1973. Given that, I had high hopes for this US/Greek co-production. Silly me.

Pleasance hams it up as an Irish priest convinced the Devil is up to no good in a little Greek village, while Cushing gets too little screen time to do anything with the part of Baron Corofax, the Devil’s right hand man. The actors portraying the young tourists captured by the Minotaur worshipping cult were obviously picked for looks and a willingness to get their kit off rather than any great thespian ability. Unfortunately it fairs no better at titillation that at terrifying the audience.

From a historical perspective the film is probably most noteworthy for having a score by Brian Eno. While not his best work it’s a cut above the rest of the film, although, as you might expect from such an avant-garde composer, it sounds dated now.

Even for a diehard Cushing fan like me this was a chore to sit through, so unless you‘re a Cushing, Pleasence or Eno completist I’d recommend steering clear.

The Friday Night Fright: Welcome to the Jungle aka Cannibals February 2, 2008

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The pseudo-reality style film shows no sign of disappearing; Cloverfield gives the concept a Godzilla spin, while last year Diary of the Dead and Zombie Diaries brought a new meaning to that zombie movie staple, the head shot. Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t bring anything new to table; in fact the opposite is true, as the film harks back pre-Blair Witch to Cannibal Holocaust.

All these films (well I’ve not seen Cloverfield yet but I’d guess it holds true) have the same initial problem – why would anyone continue filming when faced with a life and death situation? Most attempt to surmount this dilemma in the same way - The Blair Witch Project, Zombie Diaries, The Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust and Diary of the Dead all feature filmmakers as their central characters. We’re expected to accept they’d keep going, past the point where any sane person would have headed for the hills, because it’s their job, and, to varying degrees, this works. Works well enough for us to suspend belief and get carried along for the ride anyway.

It’s a hurdle which Welcome to the Jungle fails to get over. Eschewing the tried and tested filmmaker approach the film features four friends who decide to go looking for fame, fortune and Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea, taking along a couple of cameras to document the quest. Now this may sound like much the same idea, but these aren’t professional filmmakers, they’re actually a bunch of shallow, get-rich-quick, slackers. Infighting dogs their progress, two of the group can barely get out of bed in the morning, and yet we’re supposed to accept they would keep filming almost up to the point of their own death? It doesn’t wash.

I rather enjoyed Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher which was a nice throwback to ‘80s action fair, with Welcome to the Jungle he’s attempting to give us a modern take on the late seventies/early eighties Cannibal movie craze. The film works well enough for most of the first hour, as we witness the start of the quest and the disintegration of the group’s friendship, before the two couples go their own way. It’s at this point the film falls apart, it looses all credibility and tension and just becomes an excuse for Hensleigh to show us some gruesome make-up work. It doesn’t help matters that the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic, one pair are so obnoxious you actually want them to get killed, while the other two are just plain dull and, in the final fifteen minutes, behave so stupidly you feel they deserve what they get.

This sort of fake reality filmmaking isn’t easy, to date I’ve only seen one example that I’d say could stand up to repeat viewings and that’s Diary of the Dead (although I’ve yet to test that theory). Welcome to the Jungle doesn’t even pass muster first time out and I doubt I’ll ever feel the compunction to give it a second chance.

The Friday Night Fright: A Tale of Two Sisters January 26, 2008

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Two thirds of the way through this atmospheric Korean horror I was struck by a feeling that I’d seen something similar and not too long ago at that. It took a few minutes for the old grey matter to make the connection, the fact that the two films, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have much in common no doubt slowing it down some, but it finally produced the answer – Spider. “What could David Cronenberg’s drama about a schizophrenic man have in common with A Tale of Two Sisters?” you may be thinking…or possibly “Ian’s finally cracked up, better call the men in white coats”. Before you make a booking for me in a padded room let me explain…

Both films chuck you in at the deep end and expect you to swim, by which I mean they don’t go the usual route of explaining who everyone is, how they got where they are and, well, basically setting the scene for what’s to come. It’s up to the viewer to figure things out; this of course requires the use of something often neglected by modern moviemakers – a brain. All too often these days we are encouraged to “leave your brain at home” when paying a visit to the cinema, as this will impair our enjoyment of the movie, so it’s nice to watch a film every now and then that doesn’t require a lobotomy to get the most out of it.

Sorry, I digress. So we have to think, but both films aren’t exactly forthcoming with information. For about the first half an hour there’s very little dialogue in either film, this has two potential effects - a) those who did not disengage their wits before viewing are drawn more tightly into the film, as they try and put the pieces together from what clues they can gleam or b) those who’ve shut down all cognitive thought either on a temporary basis or a more permanent shut down (this latter group are usually referred to as “Michal Bay fans”) enter a deep sleep that may resemble a coma but is not really a cause for concern.

I think I digressed again. Anyway we’re now getting down to the meat of this little comparison, for as we piece things together it becomes clear that both films are being told from the somewhat questionable perspective of a mentally disturbed individual. Can we trust any of what we’re seeing? As the films progress the similarities grow with both featuring a tragic final act, where all is revealed in truly heartbreaking fashion.

Cronenberg’s film is a drama (with a touch of mystery) while A Tale of Two Sisters is a horror film, (with some extremely creepy moments) but both deal with a dysfunctional family unit. Even without its more supernatural elements A Tale of Two Sisters would be an excellent film, and probably have won more acclaim from mainstream critics. As it is, it functions as both a drama, dissecting repressed Korean family life, and also as one of the scariest Asian horrors I’ve seen.

The inevitable dumbed down Hollywood version is on the way, so you’ll be able to leave your brain at home again. Just make sure you remember where you put it, you never know when you might need it again.

Oh and the dig at Michael Bay fans was a joke – I actually enjoyed Transformers and even took my brain with me (didn’t really need it but I had it with me just in case).

The Friday Night Fright: Virgin Witch January 18, 2008

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This isn’t a horror film, it’s a ‘70s softcore porn flick. In the tits vs. scares contest the tits win by a landslide. The horror elements here are purely coincidental; the witch’s coven at the centre of the story is just a means to get people romping about with no clothes on.

Of the rompers Ann and Vicki Michelle are by far the most pleasing on the eye. The unwary viewer should be warned though that as the camera pans around the orgy scenes you’ll be exposed to some rather less aesthetically pleasing nakedness. The prerequisite for being a Satan worshiping extra in Virgin Witch it seems was a willingness to get your kit off, looking good while starkers was purely optional.

If you’ve got an interest in the softcore smut boom of the ‘70s you might get something out of this. For everyone else it’ll be far too tame to titillate and (apart from seeing a few naked old wrinklies) bereft of anything horrific.

The Friday Night Fright: Scarecrows January 12, 2008

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Some things are just damn creepy and topping that list, just under clowns and mimes, are scarecrows. Given that fact, William Wesley was on to a winner with this low budget horror flick from the late eighties, a film that has plenty of gore along with a wickedly black sense of humour.

Rather than pit the straw filled ghouls against the usual array of airheaded teens the film features a group of criminals making their getaway after a big heist. When one of the gang attempts to make off with the loot alone, parachuting out of a plane at night into a seemingly deserted farm, the rest head after him. But the farm is far from deserted, as they soon learn to their cost.

From the moment our outlaw band set foot on the farm the film has a menacing atmosphere. As they hunt for their traitorous companion and the stolen moola through the fields they are stalked in turn by the scarecrows. The film doesn’t concern itself with why the scarecrows are up and about, instead providing a few hints and allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. The why is never the important part of films like this and, by cutting out pointless exposition, Wesley gets down to the good stuff that much quicker.

That good stuff includes plenty of low budget gore effects, with decapitation and dismemberment the order of the day. It’s no surprise that some of the make-up effects guys went on to bigger things as they do a great job with what must have been a very limited budget. Added to the gore is some gross out humour that has the robbers pulling money out of a corpse that’s been stuffed full of their ill gotten gains. This sick sense of humour runs throughout the film right up to the closing scene and even the credits elicit a smile, with the cast list broken down into Crows and Scarecrows.

It’s surprising William Wesley’s directing career never progressed, he’s only made one other film, the disappointing zombie miners flick Route 666. Featuring great villains, lashings of gore and a knowing sense of humour, Scarecrows surprisingly slipped under my radar when it was originally released. It still feels remarkably fresh for a film that’s twenty years old and I’m glad I’ve now had the chance to see it.

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