Trick or Treat (1986)

As I’ve frequently pointed out on this site, it’s usually a bad move to make films based purely on a musical subculture, which is usually just some excuse to get more money for music royalties. This film in particular seems silly, and that’s mainly because it was the product of a time in which there was a silly moral panic over heavy metal music “corrupting the youth”, which films like Trick or Treat cynically attempted to exploit for some easy money. The actual film isn’t bad, and it has its moments, but it’s certainly a relic of time, with much of the cheese that comes with it.

The plot is simple enough. It revolves around a metalhead teenager named Eddie Weinbauer, who is constantly humiliated and treated like an insect in a painfully typical high school setting. The one comfort in his life is the music of heavy metal superstar Sammi Curr, but that’s all torn away from him when he suddenly dies in a hotel fire. His friend DJ Nuke (played by guest star Gene Simmons) gives him a copy of Sammi’s last and upcoming album, which apparently allows Eddie to communicate with the spirit of the dead rocker when he rotates it backwards (a play on the whole “Satanic backmasking” scare). The spirit helps Eddie get his revenge on the people who bullied him, but eventually he begins to get more murderous in his intent, and eventually comes out of the record in order to raise some hell.

The story is pure nonsense, and its based almost entirely on the moral panic, but it’s also another boring teen film setting, which just as well gets you thinking about the terrible state of American teenage life in 1986, which is something a film like this shouldn’t do but it’s so repetitive and stereotypical that it does that anyway. That’s my problem with exploitation films like this – the writers think only in stereotypes. I’m not saying there’s no truth in stereotypes, but it’s just lazy. On the plus side, it is good to see Ozzy Osbourne playing the kind of person that always complains about him being a bad influence. The irony of it is entertaining as it stands.

The acting isn’t really bad, though to be fair it’s rather uncharitable to except fine acting from a low budget horror film. The characters themselves weren’t exactly works of great imagination. I’ve seen more original characters in Future Cops. They may as well be cookie-cutter characters brought to you by the PMRC.

There’s a reason this sort of film ended up in the bargain bin. It’s cheesy, badly written, and it’s much of a horror film, or even a comedy since this isn’t really a serious film. On the plus side, it does have a good soundtrack courtesy of a band called Fastway, and if you happen to be a metal fan anwyay, you’ll probably ignore everything else and just focus on the music. Given some of the reviews on IMDB, some people probably did.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C
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Night of the Comet (1984)

Some films don’t seem like much on the surface, and in that regard Night of the Comet seems like a B-movie very much of its time, with the sole difference being that the main protagonists are women. That is still broadly true, but there’s a certain campy 80’s charm that, far from being a dampener on the quality of the film, is something that can be worn as a badge of honour.

The plot of the film starts out eleven days before Christmas (so December 14th to exact), when the Earth is about to pass through the tail of a comet, an event that supposedly hasn’t happened in 65 million years, when it coincided with the extinction of the dinosaurs. On the night that the comet is supposed to pass, crowds of people across the world gather to watch the comet pass by. Unfortunately the comet crashes into Earth, wiping out most of humanity (except those who hid in steel-lined accommodation at the time of impact) and leaving piles of red dust in its wake and zombies roaming the Earth. No explanation is given for how a comet crash might have that aftermath.

Among the only living residents in Los Angeles are two valley girl sisters, Regina and Samantha Belmont, and a boy named Hector Gomez, and together they attempt to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that Los Angeles become, but apparently the two girls can’t help but go shopping, even with zombies and mad scientists following them around.

The plot is very much a B-movie, but not so much a genre film. It has elements of sci-fi, comedy, disaster film, horror, and even teen films. The result is an entertaining pastiche of pretty much all the genres that it incorporates. My problem is that it’s not entirely believable. First of all, the setting shows a comet wiping out all human life, except that sounds more like an asteroid than a comet. Second, I find it hardly believable to think that a bunch of valley girls who seem more interested in shopping and pep rallies than survival could even have a realistic chance of making it out of this kind of scenario alive.

That said, I like the fact that they at least attempted to make the two main characters into self-reliant, heroic characters. Given the B-movie quality of the film it’s not totally convincing, but it was a noble attempt. The acting isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. In fact, it’s the kind of acting I expect from an 80’s-era TV show. That’s perhaps one of the reasons I find the film to be so cheesy and unbelievable.

For some reason, however, I can’t quite fault Night of the Comet for being such a B-movie. It has a certain independent charm, having been made on the a quantifiably modest $700,000 budget. It’s also a good film for synth-lovers. Pretty much the entire soundtrack sounds like a Berlin school electronic album, and for the cheesy pop lovers, there’s plenty of campy, synth-laden pop songs for you 80’s nostalgists.

Overall I would say it’s a pretty decent film, definitely one for the independent film enthusiasts, and certainly for those who like some silly fare.

  • Score: 68%
  • Grade: C

Holy Weapon (1993)

For some reason, much of the Chinese films I’ve watched are quite batty. With a few exceptions, I mainly seem to find films that are balls-out crazy to us, but I suppose not so much in China. In this regard, Holy Weapon is another level of silliness entirely. It’s the equivalent of a live-action anime film, only if it were made in China and nothing made any glimmer of sense at all.

So let’s see if I’ve managed to piece the plot together. Set in China during the Ming Dynasty, the first part of the story sees a warrior named Mo Kake taking a special invincibility drug from a crazy “Ghost Doctor” (who looks like Dr. Wily) so that he can fight “Super Sword”, the most powerful swordsman from Japan. Three years later, he comes back looking for revenge. The only problem is that now Mo Kake is too weak to fight on his own, and needs the help of seven women to regain his power defeat Super Sword again using the Yuen Tin sword technique.

For the first ten minutes you’re treated to some of the most off-the-wall action scenes in the world, with flying bird men ripping the head of a horse and eventually colliding into each other, resulting in an explosion. Meanwhile, Super Sword and Mo Kake cause the ground the break apart, and fighting with bizarre powers and objects the size of buildings. That’s the fun part over. For most of the film afterward, you’re treated to a meandering comedy plot, and the comedy is initially hilarious but it ebbs as the film goes on.

Therein lies my main problem with the film. It’s inconsistent and spends what seems like eternity on a barely passable comedy plot with better jokes than writers. A lot of the plot is based on magic, with a plethora of special effects. Towards the end it’s even weirder, with the film turning into an episode of Power Rangers but with a mostly female cast. It’s almost exactly like Future Cops. In fact, it was made by the same director.

The acting is sort of all over the place, and you can never really take it seriously. Serious acting in a film like this may as well be construed as hammy acting. Fortunately nothing about the characters are serious, which is good because the entire film is a bukkake of wire fu and slapstick humour. It’s totally crazy, but if you’re into that sort of film, it’ll be an absolute blast.

  • Score: 65%
  • Grade: C

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

I’m told that it would be unthinkable for anyone who’s seriously interested in films to not see this. I can’t exactly fathom why. That’s the kind of reasoning I’d except to see with regards to genuine classics like Casablanca. Nonetheless I took a gander at this Swedish art film from Ingmar Bergman, which is purported to be a surreal psychological horror film. It certainly has an experimental feel to it, and is certainly interesting, but it’s not one of the best films I’ve seen, mainly because it’s so quiet and slow. That doesn’t make it a bad film.

The plot of the film is explained in the opening title cards. An artist named Johan Borg lives with his wife Alma on the island of Baltrum where he is taking refuge after an unexplained crisis that took place prior to the events of the film. But he is visited by bizarre and disturbing visions, and approached by suspicious characters, and towards the end he breaks down while confronting some of his repressed desires.

At first I had little idea of what to make of this film, and that’s chiefly because not much happened at all, at least for the first half of the film. The second half of the film was where things truly got interesting, with strange occurrences, and some pretty creepy stuff. My main issue with the film as it stands is the pacing. It’s a slow buildup to the horrors that lie in wait, but before then is some fairly boring conversation. I suppose that’s supposed to reflect on the serenity of the life on a remote island that the main characters live for the first part of the film, but it is a bit confusing because you’re wondering what film you’re even watching.

The acting is actually quite decent, good even. The film is in Swedish, but there are subtitles for English speakers. I feel that Max von Sydow plays the part of the troubled artist rather well, if rather quietly, but as the film’s atmosphere becomes more tensed, he portrays more of a psychotic character, and towards the end he dissolves into a figuartive pool of cinematic madness.

That’s pretty much all I can really say about Hour of the Wolf. It was a good film if you want something that will stimulate your cinematic tastebuds, but to my mind, it seemed to be more suited to the more snobbish cineasts out there.

  • Score: 70%
  • Grade: C

Alucarda (1977)

Some films were so scandalous in controversial content that they were buried for a while until they eventually see the light of day once more. Alucarda was that kind of film, with lurid sexual content, demonic possession and exorcism (which may as well be a form of psychological torture), which you might have seen in other similar Satanic horror films, but this film was a modest cut above most of those other films, even though oftentimes its low budget shows. Given its cheap production values and its pulp fiction plot, you’d be forgiven for thinking this film is a waste of time, but it has a way of surprising you.

The plot of this film concerns two orphaned girls named Alucarda and Justine, who in short order develop a very intimate friendship. They wander off into the woods and met a band of gypsies, and then they accidentally unleash a demonic force that escapes from a casket and gradually consumes the convent. They then get possessed by the Devil, and are driven to wreak havoc on the convent and the nuns and priests that mind it.

The film has been compared to Ken Russell’s The Devils, a film that explored similar themes, but was far more well-made. That being said, some have pointed out similarities between this, and the famous vampire novel Carmilla, with which it shares similar themes. You could call Alucarda the compact, Mexican equivalent of the Ken Russell classic if you want, though that might be a disservice to this film, as it casts the shadow of an unquestionably superior film over it in your mind, and that would ultimately ruin it. That said, I like that the film is confined to a 75 minute runtime, as this makes the film quite straightforward in terms of plot progression, but at the same time, it seems like the story was quite rushed. That being said, it doesn’t take very long for the film to get into gear.

The acting isn’t great. In fact, there’s a tendency to overact, and there’s a lot of screaming that’s more annoying than it is convincing. When they’re not screaming, their performance has a kind of campy, B-movie horror vibe. Even though the film was made in Mexico, the film was originally filmed in English, so we aren’t even dealing with some sort of crappy dub like with most foreign films. The lip movements match the English dialogue.

What the film succeeds in is its evocation of gothic style, albeit in a cheap B-movie sort of way. The set pieces aren’t too bad, and the film’s soundtrack has a weirdly enjoyable prog vibe, and I say this because I swear they used a keyboard in place of a church organ. The film does have plenty of gory violence, but it’s quite tame compared to most films, and the horror scenes are quite cheesy, but the film does have some genuinely creepy moments.

Alucarda is one of those films that’s more for the people who are really into underground horror films, particularly those that have been granted a certain mystique over the years, despite the fact that they are quite mediocre. You could say it’s “so bad it’s good”, but it’s not bad. In fact, it could have been quite good, if only the producers had more money.

  • Score: 65%
  • Grade: C

The Damned (1969)

Much has been said about Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, which explored the fall of a wealthy industrialist coinciding with the rise of fascism. It tells a tale of moral decline, degeneracy, political opportunism, and eventual ruin. Although it never fails to challenge you in terms of the subject matter (some of which would have been controversial in 1969), I find that it tends to meander about the place with its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and it’s not always easy to stay interested, however I would recommend at least trying, because what it does offer is an allegory of the twisted lust for power, and the ruination it may bring.

The film’s plot centres around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family in Germany that apparently survived the Great War and the last economic depression, but after the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, the family’s fortune and prestige comes under threat. On the night of the Reichstag fire the family’s patriarch, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (who despised Hitler), is murdered with a gun belonging to the family firm’s vice president Herbert Thalmann, forcing Herbert to flee. The family fortune falls into the hands of a relative in the SA named Constantin, with an amoral pervert named Martin waiting in the wings, scheming to take power for himself and advance himself through the echelons of the Nazi Party.

I won’t try to mince words. The film itself is a very long and often trying film, and a tad too dismal for those who don’t have the patience for it. There is a sequence of events that is laid out rather incoherently. That being said, there is much historical territory that could have been explored in the film, but this is squandered by the mere fact that it focuses solely on the perspective of a disintegrating family, and only in the period spanning 1933 and 1934. Not that there was no dramatic potential. In fact, many scenes serve the point of the film, such as Visconti’s re-enactment of the Night of the Long Knives.

The acting is sometimes a bit hammy, but it is certainly good in terms of performance. Many critics have cited Helmut Berger’s performance as Martin von Essenbeck as one of the high points of the film, and I can arguably agree. He gives Martin the creepy personality that such a character deserves, and in a way, he is basically a personification of how the most extreme ills persist in totalitarian societies. He is the fall of a nation in one sick, twisted man, stealing the central role in a film about the fall of industrial titans.

The film’s style is very much extravagant, in a subtle sort of way. It makes use of lavish sets and costumes, presumably to heighten the sense of moral rot within the society. There’s also something to be said about the way the characters are dressed, a reflection of aristocratic prestige that’s weathered the ages but is slowly being eroded. Though the film itself disappointingly tends to meander on for quite a bit, it is a fairly well-executed drama, one that might age well after repeated viewings.

  • Score: 69%
  • Grade: C

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Nowadays very few Hollywood films get me going to the theatre anymore, chiefly because the cinema now more than ever is an outdated institution of public life, and I’m surprised that the Internet hasn’t killed it off yet. Last week, however, offered something different. From the director of The Fifth Element came the promise of an exciting new sci-fi adventure that I think was hoping to rival Star Wars in terms of scope and success. But nothing is perfect I suppose. While the film certainly has its flaws, however, I think it’s a good film with decent ideas, and if nothing else is good summer entertainment. But let’s get right down to it.

The plot of the film is set in the 28th century, largely in the Alpha space station, the film’s eponymous city of a thousand planets, where people of different species from different planets live together. The protagonists are two government agents – Valerian and Laureline – who are given the task of investigating a mysterious force lurking within part of the space station, from which people have never returned, leading the government to assume it is toxic. But all is not as it seems, and when the two agents venture further towards the area, they realise that something else is going on.

The first half of the story showed perhaps the most promise. Aside from the prologue, you had Valerian going on this wild dimension hopping mission where anything can happen and it was fun. In fact, the fast-paced action oriented parts of the film are the best part. The second half of the film, however, is rather formulaic in terms of its writing, and when you get to the big reveal (which is almost a given nowadays), it sort of dawns on me that the big twist reads like something written by Noam Chomsky. It’s not terrible, but aren’t we sick of the bad guys always being some repetitive comment on Western foreign policy? I know Hollywood is full of Marxists but give me a break.

Valerian himself was a decent protagonist. Sure, he acted a bit like a high school jock, but when it counts, he acts like a real hero. For his faults (and those of the writers) he’s a good example of what a male protagonist should look like. Laureline isn’t too bad a character, but my main problem is that the producers and writers tried too hard to make her into such a badass action heroine that she might outshine Valerian for no reason other than to appease pretentious “culture critics”. The rest of the cast gave some good performances, particularly Clive Owen’s character.

For me the worst character is Rihanna’s shapeshifting character Bubble. It seemed like a gimmicky way of getting Rihanna into the film for cheap promotion, never mind that the generation of kids who thought Rihanna was cool probably pirated her music when she was big. Even worse is that it’s another attempt to politicise the film by writing Rihanna’s character as an illegal immigrant. In times such as these it makes to come to the conclusion that it’s a naked attempt at dogwhistling open borders politics in a market that again, is oversaturated with leftist politics.

If nothing else, the film looks amazing. Valerian sports some of the finest production values I’ve seen in a contemporary film. I know it’s common for sci-fi films to have a big special effects budget, but this film just takes this to incredible heights. I think that’s what made the film so ridiculously expensive to make though. The film costed €190 million to make, and thus far it has yet to turn a profit, which unfortunately means that this ambitious sci-fi flick could end its run as a box office flop.

On the whole, however, Valerian is a good film that in the end is hindered by Luc Besson and the producers’ desperate attempts to make it hip. It obviously didn’t work, which I guess is sad because it’s a good film with good ideas, but in this day and age what tends to happen with good films is that they get crushed under the weight of the producers’ overextravagant tendency. Vanity thy name is Luc Besson.

  • Score: 72%
  • Grade: C

Billy Jack (1971)

Now Billy Jack is a rather interesting film, certainly an object of its time in terms of production and its general attitude. Made by Tom Laughlin at the tail end of the hippie era, Billy Jack seems to have been positioned as a countercultural action film, complete with the progressive values of the hippie movement which apparently Mr. Laughlin has to repeatedly shove down our throats at various points in the film. That said it’s not a bad film, in fact I’d say it was a fairly good action film. But I think the problem is that, not only was it a bit too long, but also that it got too bogged down in its own message, even as it runs counter to said message frequently.

The eponymous Billy Jack is a half-breed Navajo Indian, who is also a former Green Beret and a veteran of the then-ongoing Vietnam War who happens to be a master of hapkido martial arts. In the film, he keeps watch of Jean Roberts’ Freedom School, a progressive art school in Southwest America for runaway kids of all races. He defends the Native American kids from the prejudicial bullying of the townspeople, and after an incident in an ice cream parlour in which some Native American kids have flour poured on them, he goes berserk and has the authorities coming after him and the school.

My main problem is that the film is about ten or fifteen minutes too long and suffers from some awkward pacing. Another problem is how ham-fisted the message tends to be. If you’re like me and you’re not a progressive, you probably won’t like the film’s progressive politics, and one thing I noticed is that the hippies in the film always argue from emotion rather than logic, quite like the so-called progressives of today. You could call it strawmanning if you like, but then the film strawmans the “conservative” characters a lot.

In this film’s world, all conservatives are evil, jack-booted bigots and all progressives are righteous hippies just want to sing and dance. Never mind the fact that the film’s message of peace and love is contradicted by the amount of violence committed by the protagonist, which only seems to prove that the only way to truly enforce justice with a gun, and in a film where the main character seems to be for gun control.

As for characters, the acting isn’t too bad, but it’s rather weak. Tom Laughlin is actually not a bad action hero in the film, and better at that than he is a writer or director, but he’s no Clint Eastwood, and he’s desperately trying to be a Clint Eastwood style anti-hero and failing. That said, even if he’s not a great actor, he’s a pretty good fighter, and at certain parts of the film, he’s very good. The rest of the cast is less tolerable though, particularly the hippies.

On the whole, Billy Jack is a dated relic of its time. Not an unwatchable one though, it looks and sounds like a decent film. But it’s main flaw is that it can’t stop getting caught up in its own politicking, and given that it was made by a progressive, this is no surprise. Just as now, they are always concerned with putting politics into everything, and regardless of the message, it doesn’t exactly lead to a good film.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C

Soylent Green (1973)

Films like Soylent Green tend to be interesting due to their out-there central premises, and this film seems to be a blend of detective mystery, dystopian sci-fi, and social commentary that’s characteristically of its time, this being the time when environmentalism starting becoming fashionable. I suppose it was only natural that we would see a film that grapples with overpopulation, and the film itself is something of a product of its time. That being said, it was certainly an interesting and entertaining film.

Set in the year 2022, some fifty years into the future, the film depicts an overpopulated, polluted world where natural resources are all but exhausted, and the climate has apparently become so warm that many animals can’t survive. Most food in this world is provided by the Soylent Corporation, which creates nutritious wafers that it claims are made from plankton. The story focuses on the life of NYPD detective Frank Thorn, who along with his partner Solomon is tasked with investigating the murder of Soylent board member William R. Simonson, who was allegedly also burglarised before his death. During the investigation, Frank finds that there are powerful men, including the governor, who want to end the investigation even if they have to kill him, and he eventually stumbles upon the company’s terrible secret.

Right off the bat I felt like there was some sort of environmentalist vibe coming from the film, which I guess was pretty much in vouge at the time. I don’t really mind that though. My real criticism is that the film is a bit slowly paced for a film of about 97 minutes in length. The film seems to meander on for a while without much happening, but when we get back on the case, all seems to be well and good. It seems to be one of those films that slowly gets better as it progresses until we reach the conclusion, which I think was a solid ending, even if it was cut a bit short.

The acting is quite good, and to be fair, there wasn’t really a bad performer in the entire film, although this is another one of those films where the characters have the misfortune of being outshone by a big lead, in this case Charlton Heston. That said, Edward G. Robinson gives a good performance as Heston’s crusty old sidekick, in what is sadly his last film. I do find it disappointing that we don’t have much exposition on the characters, but I can generally tolerate it here.

Even though I criticised the film earlier for its somewhat slow pacing, I can’t help but think that perhaps the point of it was to enhance the feeling of suspense. The film’s overall style was rather subtle, yet there was no real attempt to hide the film’s gloomy outlook. There were a lot of nice-looking set pieces, but sometimes I wonder if they were really necessarily. I don’t have a problem with them, it could simply be a way of fleshing out the futuristic world of the film.

On the whole it was certainly a good film, not without its flaws but still an interesting and intelligent sci-fi from back when sci-fi was smart.

  • Score: 70%
  • Grade: C

Sorcerer (1977)

For whatever reason I found myself interested in a 40-year-old thriller called Sorcerer, which turned out to be a remake of a European 1950’s thriller called The Wages of Fear. Whatever you want to call it, the film came out at perhaps an awkward time. It was released just a month after Star Wars came out, and became an instant phenomenon, and when that happened, films like this were left twisting in the wind, and thus Sorcerer, which was produced on twice the budget of Star Wars, failed to turn a profit, and was generally dismissed by critics. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s actually quite a good film. Not as good as I might have hoped, but still a good film.

The film’s story revolves around four men, each from different parts of the world, who are invariably forced to flee from their previous lives, assuming fake identities of course. They all end up meeting each other in the remote South American village of Porvenir, where they live in abject poverty and earn meagre wages. After a local oil well explodes, the men are hired by an American oil company to transport cargoes of nitroglycerin to the oil well using two trucks. If successful, they will be handsomely, but it’s a highly dangerous job and it’s likely that they might die.

With that in mind, why is the film called “Sorcerer”? Well, apparently one of the two trucks in the film is called “Sorcerer”, which I guess is a somewhat logical if silly reason to call the film Sorcerer. The other explanation comes from the film’s director William Friedkin, who links the title to one of the themes of the film. In his words, “the sorcerer is an evil wizard, and in this case the evil wizard is fate”. That’s quite a stretch, but it’s not uncommon for directors to have pretentious ways of rationalising batty artistic decisions. Friedkin isn’t the worst in that regard.

As for the story itself, the concept is actually quite good. It’s main focus is taking people of different backgrounds who hate each other, but not as much as having to work with them, keeping in mind that if they didn’t co-operate, they would surely die. This kind of story is guaranteed to have some drama and suspense. I also like how the film’s prologue shows you how the main characters got from where they were to where they are now.

That being said, my main issue is with the film’s rather slow pacing. Parts of the film end up being rather boring, but certainly not at the very end, and it does have some surprisingly explosive moments to keep you on your toes. The acting is very good, thanks to the casting of skilled actors such as Roy Scheider. With this film you can really get a sense of their emotions, and while no character is completely likeable, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that that’s pretty much the point. The film certainly succeeds in terms of its pessimistic atmosphere and its style. The film boasts a crisp look and sound, and benefits from skilful editing and tastefully professional shooting. Another highlight would be the film’s musical score, which comes courtesy of Tangerine Dream.

On the whole it was certainly an ambitious film, and quite a good one. In fact, William Friedkin wanted this film to be his legacy, but in a way he sort of had it, given that the film now enjoys cult film status. Ultimately the film’s chances of success were hindered mainly by the fact that it was 1977. If you didn’t go to see Star Wars, you went to see Smokey and the Bandit. Both were huge films that effectively murdered Friedkin’s Sorcerer in the box office, and there’s something symbolic about that. Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit symbolised the newly emerging blockbuster era, while Sorcerer was emblematic of the New Hollywood style of film-making. After 1977, the New Hollywood era would decline until its eventual demise in 1980, and the art of cinema would be the poorer for it. In a way, Sorcerer was the sacrifice on the altar of blockbuster cinema. Or perhaps I read into this sort of thing too much.

  • Score: 74%
  • Grade: C