Demons (1985)

Demons have been a fairly frequent subject in horror films, and they’re always depicted in roughly the same way, as interchangeable horror monsters but with notably more intelligence than zombies. This film isn’t too different in that regard. In fact, at times it tends to resemble a zombie film. That being said, however, it is better than the vast amount of demon-related horror films out there, and I should give it credit for being the first demon-related horror film I’ve seen that’s actually passable as a horror movie for once, and is much better than that in terms of its execution.

Set in Berlin, the film sees a university student named Cheryl, along with her friend and several other people being handed tickets from a mysterious masked man to the screening of a new film at a recently refurbished cinema. One of the attendants wears a mysterious mask that leaves her with a cut on her face after she takes it off. They watch a film that features a mask like the one they saw in the foyer, and depicts events eerily similar to what would eventually happen in the film. Sure enough, the scratched woman eventually turns into an undead, bloodthirsty demon that can infect the living into one of them. The rest are trapped and killed off and infected one by one, and the survivors are left in the unfortunate position of surviving long enough to find their way out.

The story isn’t bad. In fact, it benefits from a suspense heavy approach. My main problem with the story is the lack of explanations given. The masked man never talks in the whole film, and thus there’s no way of ascertaining why he went through the trouble of trapping a bunch of random people in a movie theatre, so you’re left to use your imagination. Also, there are a few scenes featuring four other characters that don’t become part of the main plot until later, and these scenes are put between the rest of the story, which sort of disrupts the flow.

The characters aren’t the most important thing about the film, though the acting isn’t exactly the best, at least with regards to the English dub. Don’t get me wrong, the acting could be better, but it’s not the terrible kind of cheesy. The thing that really annoys me is that the characters tend to be completely stupid, sometimes ignoring common sense. This seems to be a running trope in horror films, and sadly this film is no different.

But that’s alright. After all, the film is certainly well presented, with an atmospheric music score that sets the right tone throughout the film in the style of its time (along with a range of selected songs from various recording artists). Also, the film sports commendably visceral special effects, and it’s great that the producers opted for practical effects instead of computer generated effects. Most obviously, the film is one of those gore horror films, so if you’re not a fan of incredibly violent horror films, this probably isn’t for you. I’m usually not jolted by most horror films, but evidently most of the other horror films weren’t that good at horror.

All in all, it’s not the greatest of all horror films, but I would put it into the category of the more well-done horror films, and you simply don’t get this kind horror film anymore. Most of today’s modern shock horror films are completely fake, and we all know it. The old Italian horror films, meanwhile, are in a totally different league.

  • Score: 74%
  • Grade: C

Society (1989)

I came across a rather interesting horror flick about a year ago, one in which the premise was that the wealthy overclass literally feasted on the people below them, and I was fascinated by that idea. What other movie took the idea of class conflict and transmogrified it into a surreal, SFX-laden horror film? Alas, though the film’s ideas were solid, it’s not as spellbinding as I had hoped it would be, but it certainly wasn’t boring.

The film’s plot revolves around Bill Whitney, a high school student who’s practically got it made. He has a wealthy family in Beverly Hills, California, a girlfriend in the cheerleading squad, a Jeep Wrangler, and is likely to become class president. And yet, despite this enormous position of privilege, he is unhappy and feels out of place. His sister and parents mingle with upper class socialites, and even his girlfriend is more interested in going to parties than in his pressing concerns.

His worst fears are confirmed when his sister’s ex-boyfriend David Blanchard gives him a tape which seems to reveal his family participating in an incestuous orgy, but when tries to show the tape to his therapist, it appears to have been altered, and Blanchard turns up dead. Each second he keeps digging puts his life at risk, until eventually all is revealed to him at a formal party, and it’s not a pretty sight.

The story itself is a twisted jab at the outward soullessness of the upper class, old money types that still haunt the real world, though it’s worth noting that the film doesn’t necessarily take itself seriously, or at least not constantly. In fact, more times than not it’s a comedy of sorts. The real horror builds up until the end of the film, where the rich socialites turn out to be creatures that melt into alien creatures and suck the nutrients out of them. I might have liked for the film to go in a darker direction, but on the other hand, it’s a decent enough deconstruction of the then-popular 80’s teen flicks that were about as prevalent as Aqua Net. If you want to see a by-the-numbers teen flick being twisted, dismembered and then hung out to dry, this is probably the film for you.

My main problem is with the pacing. For a horror film, there’s an awful lot of time in which barely anything happens, though I think this is probably supposed to add to the sense of paranoia that the film relies on in. It’s a good idea, though the acting is pretty bad, and cheesy to the point of it being comical. This isn’t a rare phenomenon in horror films, particularly ones that rely on visceral SFX-driven thrills, but here I can’t help but think that it ran the risk of somehow undermining the whole message of the film by rendering the characters as stock caricatures.

The film certainly has the spirit of the opulent 80’s, complete with the synth score, but for me, the real highlight of the film is the special effects provided by Screaming Mad George, which greatly added to the bizarre nature of the film. I also like how the writers took advantage of the seemingly elastic effects to deliver a satisfying conclusion.

On the whole, it’s not as great as it perhaps could have been, but it’s not without its merits. It may have been a B-movie, but it had a kind of satirical commentary hidden beneath the layers of cheese. It’s not really for everyone, and if you’re the kind of viewer who isn’t into surrealistic gore or sadistic horror (though there isn’t much of it here), you probably won’t like it. But for the hardier cult film viewer, Society is a film for you.

  • Score: 66%
  • Grade: C

2LDK (2003)

A few years ago I got the chance to see a film called Aragami. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, it was an experimental film which only involved two actors, each of whom fought each other to the death for over an hour, and it was an amazing film. I learned that Aragami was made as part of the Duel Project, a challenge issued to two directors by producer Shinya Kawai to see who could make the best film with only two principal actors in a single setting in the span of one week. This film is director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s response to that challenge, though while this was certainly an ambitious project, it wasn’t as good as Aragami was.

The film’s plot revolves around two actresses, Nozomi and Rana, who share an apartment in Tokyo. They have auditioned for the same role in a movie, and only one of them can land the role. As they wait through the night to find out which one of them got the part, they wind up tormenting each other until they reach breaking point, and then they battle each other to the death.

I liked the idea of the story, but my main issue was with the pacing and the lack of action in the plot. For the first quarter of the film the two characters do nothing but talk, though as the film progresses tensions rise until they reach boiling point. This slow boil approach isn’t too bad, but there are aspects of the film that don’t make sense. For instance, there are a few instances where one of the characters dies, and in the next scene comes back to life. That said, however, I think the conversation scenes were somewhat interesting, in that they flesh out the characters quite well.

The two actresses deliver a rather neat performance. The characters are still rather strange though, but they successfully convey a sort of aggressive rivalry between them, which eventually turns into a creepy relationship between the two, and they really let loose when they’ve reached the inevitable boiling point, and pointing their rage in unexpected directions. In find that their interactions more or less resemble the twisted, next logical step up from an old slapstick comedy show, though here it’s not supposed to be comedic, so it has a decidedly different effect

The atmosphere is fairly sober, or at least it gets this way overtime. The film certainly starts with a light tone that gets more and more grim until the end. More importantly, the fight choreography is convincingly raw, with the two main characters guided only by adrenalin. I was half expecting the two girls to hate each other as soon as they’re eyes locked together, and then they fought each other for an hour with knives or swords. The direction Tsutsumi went with wasn’t a bad one, though it does leave you wondering about a number of questions that remain unanswered. If the Duel Project was a challenge to see which of two directors could make the best film with limited conditions, I’d say Ryuhei Kitamura was definitely the winner.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C

Jubilee (1978)

Journeying down the rabbit hole of avant-garde cinema can be as rewarding as it is confusing. Rewarding in the sense that you get to see all sorts of weirdness unfold on screen, and confusing in the sense that there’s no guarantee that you’ll have any grasp on what’s going on. That’s the bizarre state of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a punk-themed art film that lurches from meaninglessness to meaning at no consistent rate.

What is it about? I’m amazed I even know at this point! But seriously, the film starts off with a scene with Queen Elizabeth I and a man named John Dee, who are transported by an angel named Ariel into a desolate Britain where there is apparently no law, no work, no point to living. In that vision of the future, there live a group of nihilistic punks who live by their own interpretation of history, morality, and desire, and sometimes murder people for no given reason.

It’s worth noting that throughout the whole film, the queen has barely any interaction with the world or its characters. That would have given the film some structure, and apparently that’s not what Mr. Jarman had intended. The film’s story, if it has one, is essentially 100 minutes of pure, empty anarchy. There’s no real thread that binds the scenes together, and that’s a terrible shame because it seems as if there could have been a good story. The film itself explores many themes, but its central theme is abject chaos, and I think that this could have been explored in a much better way than it had been. That said, one might be able to argue that the film itself is an accurate representation of the kind of chaos it intended to show.

Equally insane is the film’s cast of characters. When they’re not shouting curse-laden rants about whatever they feel like at the time, they’re having sex and murdering people for no real reason. The acting isn’t terribly bad. In fact, the actors play their parts well enough that they can convince you of the characters’ insanity. To a certain extent, I liked the way the characters were portrayed because they were raw personalities, but they were hampered by their aimlessness in the plot. Amyl Nitrate was perhaps my favourite character because I think she had the most potential, and despite having a decent performer playing her, even she suffers from the same problem.

There are some positives though. For one, the film captures the punk style quite accurately, even though it misrepresents the punk scene generally. On another note, the film doesn’t really represent punk at all, but rather should be taken as a metaphor for the pessimism of the time in which it was made. If the film accomplishes anything, it’s that it unfailingly depicts the logical conclusion of what a nihilistic outlook on life can possibly lead to, at least without any sort of intervention. Perhaps that’s about all the sense I can make out of a film like this. It’s not really bad at all, but despite some delightfully quirky moments, it makes so little sense that it may only appeal to the nerdiest film enthusiasts, or film studies students.

  • Score: 62%
  • Grade: C

La La Land (2016)

Of all the films that could be considered divisive, you would think that a film like La La Land would be the last one could expect to draw any sort of backlash, but it’s inevitable for popular films to attract pushback, and believe it or not, we live in such divisive times that some people managed to find a way to put people into two basic camps over this. Some people say it’s fantastic and it should have one the Best Picture award, and some think of it as the cinematic equivalent of a Trump rally (trust me, sites like Salon and Newsweek actually wrote reviews of that kind). I meanwhile would prefer not to insert my political agenda and judge this fluffy, light-hearted musical for its merits, being that some critics have completely abdicated that role.

The film is essentially a story about a struggling jazz pianist named Sebastian, whose career was going nowhere until he meets an aspiring actress and playwright named Mia. They meet and fall in love soon after, and they have the habit of affecting each other’s careers, all of set to abundant song and dance numbers.

Musicals seem to baffle me in a bit of an irksome way. They’re always to campy and over-the-top, and let’s not forget to address the fundamental question about the genre. When in real life would you see people randomly breaking into song and dance, and then everyone joins in, and they somehow know the rest of the song? The idea seems to me like of the so-called “golden age of Hollywood”, but with La La Land, I suppose that’s the idea, and if that’s true then the film is a bit sharper than you might think. After all, the film’s title is a rather apt description of the nonsensical song and dance world the writers have constructed.

The acting was quite good, but I personally can’t connect with any of the characters, probably because they are typically unrealistic Hollywood characters, perhaps facets of Damien Chazelle’s fantasy. It would be insane for me to try and argue that the characters have no personality. They certainly do, and the people playing them are certainly capable actors (except for John Legend, who I think was hired for the sake of hiring a contemporary singer), but they don’t have much charm. I do however think there was a good attempt at creating chemistry between the two main characters.

Honestly, the film’s main strength is the way it presents itself. It opens with old style title sequence, and although that’s as close to truly retro as it gets, the rest of the film looked and sounded pretty good. The musical numbers are surprisingly well done, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like musicals. Even though I’ve heard time and again that the film is a call back to early 20th century musicals, there are a few nods to the 80’s, and I found myself enjoying the scene with the 80’s cover band.

All in all, I don’t think La La Land is a bad film. I don’t normally watch “normie films” as I call them, but this is what happens when some people in the media make too much of a big deal over it. The film is basically inoffensive entertainment, and that’s the point. In times where people are tired of hearing about how we’re “more divided” and how everything is supposedly going to hell, you kind of need films like this, and in that regard La La Land certainly succeeds as light entertainment, but it doesn’t get much better than that.

  • Score: 67%
  • Grade: C

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

Oh Tim Burton, I grew up with your movies when they used to be good, and now I find you languishing in typical Hollywood fantasy fare. Not that this was a particularly bad film. In truth it was quite decent, and the premise was certainly original, but in practice it ended up as a sort of paint-by-numbers affair, showing once again that Hollywood always tends to squander any squint of potential.

The film revolves around a young boy named Jake Portman, who after witnessing his grandfather’s death at the hands of a monster that only he can see, is given permission by his psychiatrist to go to the Welsh island of Cairnholm in order to find an old home for children with certain magical abilities. He finds that they live in a time loop, and winds up upending their fragile equilibrium in order to help save them from the crazy scheme of a mad scientist wanting to gave himself eternal life.

I have probably oversimplified this to a vast degree, but that’s essentially what happens. Anyway, the story itself isn’t bad, but from the beginning I find that the producers put in a bunch of often cringeworthy scenes that seem to have been written in just to pad length in a film that already straddles a somewhat convoluted plot. Honestly, it seemed to me that this could have been much better as an anime film, not that the Hollywood elite would ever entertain such an idea. Also, full disclosure, I know this is based on a book, probably another one that you won’t have read prior to watching the film, and I don’t care, the reason being that a film should be able to stand on its own (this is why I was so critical of the Harry Potter films, which tended to ride on the coattails of J.K. Rowling’s novels), and this film just barely does that.

The characters aren’t bad, but they’re hindered by the typical Hollywood practice of having them overact nearly every line, and even Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the best actor in the whole film, couldn’t escape this trend. The film presents itself decently, but I can’t be the only one who’s tired of every Hollywood film having such an overly polished look, to the point that it’s barely real anymore. However, the film’s special effects make for decent fireworks, and the film’s saving grace can be found in the climactic showdown, although the ending showed that the writers were content with some good old-fashioned schmaltzy closer.

Again, this wasn’t a bad film, but it’s fairly indistinguishable from an average 2010’s-era dark fantasy film (never mind that most if not all films made in the genre are pretty much the same now anyway), and it could have done much better if Tim Burton were at least more willing to think outside the box. With this film, he looks more like a lazy hack than the artist of his prime, having undergone a similarly ghastly transformation as several other Hollywood directors from his era.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Last Action Hero (1993)

lastactionheroI’m not surprised that Last Action Hero was maligned by critics back in its day, and is still generally ignored by the public at large today. It was a ludicrously ridiculous action flick in a time when action films were just starting to go out of vogue. Of course, I’m certain this was intended as a satire of Hollywood action films (particularly the ones set in L.A.), and in that spirit it’s certainly more well-produced than a similar film named Loaded Weapon 1 (a cheesy National Lampoon parody of Lethal Weapon). It wasn’t a bad film, but perhaps it was a bit too silly for your average moviegoer.

A big problem is the ridiculousness that is the film’s main premise. A movie-obsessed young boy is given a magic ticket, and he’s somehow transported into the latest entry in the “Jack Slater” series, where he gets to see the world of a badass action hero, and Jack realises that he is just a film character. For me, the film could have been more satirical if the whole film played out like an action film that didn’t always take itself seriously, as opposed to the whole “magic ticket” approach. As it stands however, it’s essentially a matinee film with a goofy plot and wasted potential.

To be fair there’s plenty of humorous moments where the film essentially deconstructs its own genre, but that’s hampered by an often hackneyed script that, sadly, tends to rub off on the characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger still managed to play the lead role effectively, but mainly in his capacity as an action film star. The other characters seem to wilt in the background for the most part, if that is they aren’t hamming their way out of it. One silver lining I can count on is the skilful performance of Charles Dance in the role of the lead villain. A lot of times he unapologetically steals the show, even though he’s not immune to the iniquities of the film’s numerous script problems.

The way I see it, the problem with a setting that gives the characters licence to act like they’re in a Hollywood movie is that they always take it too far. To take this film for what it is requires not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a complete silence of disbelief, but that’s not to say it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable fantasy films that constantly skirt the issue of suspension of disbelief, often to the point that they risk butchering it, but we still enjoy them. Besides, I kind of like the film’s obvious ridiculousness, which sometimes has a weird comic charm, but I think that comes from the fact that I’m familiar with it (having seen it roughly four times to date).

It also helps that the film had some good production values on its side, but I think they used way too much special effects, which lead to the film having a bloated budget so big that the seemingly plentiful box office returns could be considered a disappoint (a film needs to make more than double its budget to turn a profit, and Last Action Hero costed $85 million to produce).

In terms of ridiculous matinee fair, Last Action Hero isn’t actually as bad as people say it is. I’d say it’s mediocre, but with more than a few good moments. The problem, however, is that the producers wasted a lot of the potential that might have been capitalised on to great effect, and the end result can’t be anything better than a mildly humorous parody film with a choppy script.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Jingle All the Way (1996)

jingle_all_the_way_posterOh joy, the time has come for schlocky family comedies to invade the TV screens for the holidays. This one is very much typical for its time, with its formulaic, sitcom style plot, though it’s the kind one can accept at around Christmas time, and nowhere else. It also has the misfortune of being one of those mid-career Schwarzenegger films where he tries to do something other than what he’s best at, with mixed results.

The plot is simple enough. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Howard Langston, a workaholic dad who can’t seem to find any time for his wife and son, who are spending more time with their neighbour Ted Maltin, who consistently denigrates Howard while passing himself off as the “good neighbour”.

In order to make up for well-meaning yet inept parenting, he vows to get his son the hot-selling “Turbo Man” action figure, which is all but sold out. He also winds up in a race with a stressed out postman named Myron Larabee, who wants to get his son the same action figure, but there’s only one left, and they have to fight each other over it.

Of course, the immediate criticism levelled at the film was that the film was made to sell an actual “Turbo Man” toy. Truth be known, the producers were actually planning to do that, but the film was shot so quickly that there wasn’t enough time left for the merchandising, and whatever merchandise was made was limited to a replica of the Turbo Man in the film, and in significantly lower quantities compared to the likes of Space Jam, which had the good fortune of being released in the same year, at around the same time, and outperforming it in the box office (despite being even more of a ridiculous commercialist farce of a film).

In terms of actual substance, the story is only slightly more advanced than a by-the-numbers sitcom episode, but at least we’re free not to have to expose our ears to a laugh track. That said, in terms of family fare, it’s not that bad. I’ve definitely seen worse holiday films (The Santa Clause 3 for instance), and this one at least tries to pass for decent family-oriented entertainment, but it definitely has its flaws, with the main flaw being its less than clever script.

The acting isn’t too bad, but I don’t see Schwarzenegger are a comedic actor. In fact, most of the time he’s funny because the idea of him as a comedic actor is absurd. Phil Hartman, meanwhile, fits perfectly in the film. I would say the same is true with Sinbad, but to a lesser extent. If I’m going to be completely honest, some of the jokes were a bit lazy, and a lot of the humour comes from zany, slightly over-the-top acting from the three main characters, with a bit of support from the minor characters, but it’s not bad.

As far as holiday films go, this isn’t the worst you could pick. There are several worse options you could consider, but sadly this one might be little on the underrated side. If you want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger at least try his luck in a purely comedic role alongside the late Phil Hartman, this might be the film for you. I’d also recommend this for any parents looking to huddle around the TV with their children for a family flick that isn’t completely sterile. In other words, it’s decent, but no more than that.

  • Score: 60%
  • Grade: C

Home Alone (1990)

Home_aloneWith Christmas just around the corner, it’s inevitable that this film always ends up on rotation, as if it’s some kind of annual TV tradition. This makes sense, since it’s pretty much a quintessential Christmas film, complete with all the dysfunctional family clichés. In a nutshell, it’s basically Die Hard for kids, but the different is that Die Hard was awesome, and it simply doesn’t work when taken through a family-friendly filter. It’s also one of those films that tend to be incredibly easy to oversell. That is to say that most people remember the slapstick, but that’s only half of the movie, and often, the slapstick comes across as more flat than the producers intended. Suffice it to say, this film requires quite a lot in the suspension of disbelief department.

The film insists that Kevin was left behind by accident, but since the first part of the film is basically a typical argument taking place in a stereotypically dysfunctional family, which ends with Kevin hating pretty much everyone, doesn’t it seem like they abandoned him on purpose? Never mind that, how do you sustain a whole franchise on that premise? Immediately, I get the sense that this is more of a kid’s movie, and that in its self is somewhat worrying due to the fact that most of the adults here are portrayed as completely unlikable. Another problem is that the dysfunctional family trope is so horribly repetitive even for the time the film was made, and it’s almost as though the actual plot of the film was lifted from the desktop of the laziest Hollywood hack.

To be fair, the film had a pretty good cast, and at the very least Kevin develops into a more likable character towards the end. Of course, when you look past the comedic element, it’s basically schmaltz, but at least its tasteful schmaltz with good acting behind it. As for the slapstick, it’s kind of predictable. But then again, I guess that’s because the film was more of a novelty than anything else, but the “filthy animal” gag doesn’t seem to have gotten old. Maybe that’s why they repeated it so many times.

The way the film presents itself is a bit heavy-handed, what with the overuse of orchestral music. I get why the Christmas songs are here, but John Williams’ orchestra just seems unwelcome here. We’re talking about a Christmas family film, not another Star Wars film. Then again, orchestral music always ruins this sort of film by making it sound bigger than it is. However, the film itself is by no means bad. In fact, it’s decent viewing for its intended audience, but it tends to rely very heavily on suspension of disbelief, and it’s a gamble which more often than not fails to pay off. Of course, it’s not a complete pain to watch, but to make a long story short, let’s just say that you’ll only really consider watching it when your house is already decorated with fairy lights.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

whitewormKen Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm” is indeed an interesting breed of film. Made in 1988, this film seems to be calling back to the horror traditions of B-movies from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Of course, this direction does come across as a bit cheesy, and it seems more like a tame vampire film without a vampire, but it’s the kind of B-movie that, though it’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, is nonetheless a playfully entertaining film, even if the actual horror is in short supply here.

The plot of the film is somewhat interesting. Near a bed and breakfast owned by two sisters, an archaeology student named Angus Flint discovers an oddly shaped skull at the ruins of a convent, and he believes the skull is connected to the legend of the Lambton Worm. The site is shortly visited by Lady Sylvia Marsh, and while various people start disappearing, the skull is stolen. With the help of neighbouring nobleman Lord James, Angus manages to find a link between the skull and an ancient cult that worshipped giant worm that lives below the Earth, and finds himself racing to save the Trent sisters from the clutches of Lady Marsh, who turns out to be a snake-like demon with plans to sacrifice them.

The film certainly matches the pace of an old-fashioned gothic horror film, beginning with a slow start and creeping toward a rather surreal and spooky finish. There’s no denying the originality on display, but just because a film has original ideas doesn’t mean that its totally effective in the execution of its ideas. The problem, as I see it, is that the film seems to revel in its kitsch a bit too much, almost as if this was being written as a comedy-horror film, but with few traces of either, and plenty of bizarre psychedelic dream scenes.

The acting isn’t too bad, and I’ve noticed that some of the films’ better performances come from a younger Peter Capaldi. I should also single out Amanda Donohoe as the film’s villain. In a way she sort of reminds me of Catherine Deneuve’s character from The Hunger, but I think she makes for a much better antagonist here, what with her subtle, serpentine demeanour. The other characters perform fairly well too, but they don’t make that much of an impact.

The special effects are quite ridiculous, and the nightmare scenes are perhaps the worst example, as they are littered with cheesy-looking special effects. I’m sure that’s basically just for the sake of abstraction, but it doesn’t work in any way, and just comes across as an accidental joke. While the nightmare scenes are a psychedelic mess, they show up infrequently, and the rest of the film looks alright, with decent production values all the way. It’s just a shame that the film sort of underperformed in terms of actual horror or humour, because I think this film could have been quite a good one. To be fair, it is actually pretty entertaining, but in many ways it fell short of what it could have been.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C