Sunday, December 16, 2012

Django Month: Django the Bastard (1969)

AKA: The Strangers Gundown or Django the Avenger

Now this is a cracking little Spaghetti western and probably my favourite of all the Django "sequels". Though there's little connection to the original film - don't expect any machine-gun action here - there is a strong similarity in tone that makes it a good cinematic soul mate. And if you're a fan of Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider this is definitely one to check out because it's quite similar and pre-dates both. Here Django is played by Antony Steffen (or Antônio Luiz De Teffé to give him his real name) who starred in a whole bunch of Spaghetti westerns in the 60s and 70s and played the Django character in at least 5 other films. This one is more interesting than most though because he actually co-wrote the script and produced it.

story revolves around Django entering a frontier town where he begins to systemically hunt down and kill several bad guys. In cavalier fashion, he announces that they are going to die by sticking graveyard crosses in the ground with their names and that day's date on. At first we don't know why he's doing this, only that this final goal seems to be killing two men - wealthy sadistic rancher Rod Murdoch and his psychotic brother Luke. The most disturbing element to the story is that it's implied that Django may not actually be flesh and blood but potentially an avenger from beyond the grave!

So, yeah, it's sort of revenge flick with a little bit of supernatural mixed in (I'm such a sucker for these kind of films). The whole is he or isn't a ghost is left nicely ambiguous. For everything that points one way there's something else that points the other and it never settles the issue right up until the end. I liked that approach a lot. The story is riveting and nicely told. It does drag a little in the middle but the ending more than makes up for it. Once again, like the original Django, the film has a nice arc where the lead character starts off seemingly invincible only for things to get much tougher by the end.

Anthony Steffen is a little wooden in the title role but fits the part well. To be honest the film doesn't really demand much more from him than to just look menacing and stare at bad guys a lot. The one big weak point for the film is definitely the extended Civil War flashback in which we see a happy, carefree Django (!). I get that they wanted to make a contrast with who Django was then and is now but it's a really cheesy sequence that's both sloppily shot and acted. Steffen should definitely stick to just strong, silent type roles. The villains are also pretty memorable. There's a nice balance between the calm and methodical Rod and the demented and twisted Luke. Luciano Rossi goes gloriously over-the-top in playing the latter.

The directing was pretty good as well. I mean the set is quite cheap and low budget but the director, Sergio Garrone, manages to make the most of it and create a really gothic atmosphere by using a lot of low key lighting. A lot of the time it feels like you're watching a horror film. There was also a pleasing amount of stylised camera angles. Lots of overhead shots and dutch angles that you don't always see in these types of films. Much like the original Django, Garrone also uses a lot of crucifix imagery which fits perfectly with the old testament/"eye for an eye" atmosphere of the film.

Django the Bastard is a fantastic western that barely puts a foot wrong. Okay, it's not as great as the original but not far behind it either. If you're going to check out just one Django "sequel" make it this one.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Django Month: Django Strikes Again (1987)

AKA: Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno

Before I get on the unofficial sequels I thought it best to cover the single official entry that was released in 1987. Though it wasn't directed by Sergio Corbucci (a guy called Nello Rossati directed it under the pseudonym Ted Archer), he did at least give them permission to use the character's name and back story which I was hoping would be a tacit seal of approval. Unfortunately the belated sequel feels very, very different from its predecessor. Visually and tonally it's got a lot more in common with 80s 'Nam-ploitation movies than it does with 60s Spaghetti westerns.

Django Strikes Again is set in the jungles (?) of Mexico and begins (rather symbolically) with two cowboys getting gunned down by a passing armoured steamboat. The boat in question belongs to the evil "El Diablo" Orlowsky and his band of cut throat mercenaries. Orlowsky has been using the ship to kidnap locals and force them into slavery in his silver mines. One of the women manages to escape and heads to the nearby monestry where she tells the familiar looking monk "Brother Ignatius" what's going on. Of course, Ignatius turns out to be none other than Django who, following the events of the first film, has renounced his life of violence. The woman informs Django that Orlowsky has kidnapped his daughter so he (literally) digs up his old guns and set out to take down Orlowsky and his whole operation.

I'll admit the the storyline isn't half bad. The idea of Django becoming monk seems quite fitting after what he went through at the end of the original film. And the idea of a villain running his operation from a steamboat is quite novel. The main problem is that the whole film is really quite sluggish and dull, particularly when you put it alongside the zippy pace of the original film. The action scenes are also far less memorable and pretty poorly shot. Sure Django busts out his trademark machine gun on several occasions but there's very little excitement to any of these scenes. They even try to stick in a few Arnie-style quips to spice it up but they pretty much all fall flat.

The acting is pretty weak across the board. Sure, it's great to see Franco Nero back in the title role, but he gives a fairly lifeless, uninterested performance. It doesn't help that they give him long hair and a beard making him unrecognisable as being the same character as before. And he's also saddled with one of the most annoying kid sidekicks, this side of Jake Lloyd, for much of the running time. The rest of the cast is also pretty weak. Christopher Connelly is very forgettable as the butterfly obsessed villain Orlowsky. Nowhere near as intimidating as Major Jackson and General Hugo. They even manage to waste the talents of Donald Pleasence in a tiny role as a professor who helps out Django.

I think the main problem with the film is that the makers seemed too keen on ditching so many traditional Western elements. Worse still, they don't seem that interested in tying the film back to the original Django beyond a few references and some gimmicky updates. For instance, instead of dragging a coffin behind him in this film Django upgrades to a tricked out horse drawn hearse. Given that this is the one official sequel I guess I was expecting a bit more reverence and connection to the original film but it's just not there. I feel that the filmmakers were far more influenced by films like Commando and Rambo II. In fact, the end of the film in particular feels like a mash-up between those two films. That sounds like an endorsement but it really isn't. As I said, the action in this is very lifeless.

Ultimately I think Django Strikes Again doesn't really work as a film or a sequel but it's an interesting curiosity piece for fans of the original. It's probably worth seeing once if you come across it but don't go out of your way because there's far better "unofficial" sequels out there that I'll be covering soon.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Django Month: Django (1966)

Right let's start at the very beginning. Django came out in 1966 and was a breakout success for both its Italian director Sergio Corbucci and star Franco Nero. The film had an enormous impact on the Spaghetti western scene with tons of directors attempted to capture its look and feel for the next ten years. Django was also something of a watershed moment for cinematic violence with its ridiculously high body count and graphic gore (it was actually banned in the UK right up until 1993!). If you're a fan of Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino you need to see this film because both filmmakers owe a great deal of debt to it.

The film's
plot sees Franco Nero play Django, a mysterious cowboy drifter who we initially meet trudging through a bleak, muddy landscape, dragging a coffin behind him. What's in the coffin? If you don't know, I'll leave it as a surprise (here's a hint, it's not a body). Anyway at the beginning of the film he rescues a prostitute called Maria from a group of bandits and escorts her to a nearby town. He finds the place is controlled by two warring factions. On the one side is the sadistic Major Jackson and his band of red masked former Yankee soldiers while on the other side is the equally sadistic General Hugo and his group of Mexican bandits. As Django wants revenge against Jackson he sides with Hugo and his men and helps them steal a large quantity of gold from Jackson. However it turns out Hugo has no intention of giving him his cut so Django decides to team up with Maria to steal his share. Will they get away it? Will Django get revenge on Jackson? What's in the coffin?

Even watching this 46 years after it was made you can tell it's something special. Django is such a fantastic protagonist - morally questionable, unpredictable  full of mystery - and he's played with perfect precision by Nero and his steely blue eyes! I really enjoyed the fact that Corbucci starts the film off by making Django seem to be an indestuctible figure only to slowly strip him back until, by the end, he's a shell of a man. I mean it's a tradition of story writing to give your protagonist a difficult final fight but Django's is one of the bleakest, most hopeless ones I've ever seen. A lot of people try and compare him to Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name because they both are taciturn anti-heroes but arguably Django's a far more tragic figure and much more morally unbalanced.

Corbucci's film also has a very unique atmosphere. The muddy landscape is highly evocative and stands in stark contrast to the traditional dusty vistas of American westerns. That first shot of Django really sets the tone for the rest of the film. He's literally dragging death into town with him. There's also a great bit later on where someone asks him what's in the coffin and he replies, with no hint of irony, "Django". Corbucci portrays a very cynical and revisionist view of the Wild West. There's no hint of "manifest destiny" or "the land of opportunity" only a lawless place populated by selfish characters who are obsessed with money and wealth. It's hard to see it as anything less than a critique of American capitalism.

The film is also rife with 
religious imagery which, given that Italy is a heavily Catholic country, shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Throughout the film there's a fixation on crucifixes that culminates in the final shootout in a cemetery; the character of Django on his knees, hiding behind a tiny wooden gravestone while Jackson mockingly suggests that he should start praying. Also earlier in the film, in it's most infamous sequence, General Hugo discovers the town priest is a spy and cuts off his ear and sadistically feeds it to him as punishment. I can't help but feel these scenes are trying to either say God has abandoned these people or, perhaps more controversially, religion is a falsehood that we shouldn't try to hide behind. I don't know, maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Well, that's
enough philosophical analysis for one post. Overall Django is a fantastic movie. Okay, it's a little more cartoonish and more rough around the edges than Leone's westerns but it's just as riverting to watch and still feels surprisingly fresh. If you've never considered yourself a fan of westerns I strongly recommend checking this film out.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Django Month: An introduction

All this month I'm going to be reviewing a handful (or should that be fistful?) of Django movies in anticipation for Quentin Tarantino's new film Django Unchained. As such I thought it would be a good idea to just have a little introduction to the character to those that are unfamiliar with him. 

The character of Django originates from the 1966 Spaghetti western of the same name directed by Sergio Corbucci. The film is about a mysterious cowboy (played by Franco Nero) who comes to a frontier town, dragging a coffin, and proceeds to get involved in helping a group of Mexican steal a huge amount of gold from a sadistic army general and his men. It's a bitter, bleak and very cynical movie that stands at complete odds to the more polished and safe John Wayne movies of the 1940s.

The film was not only highly influenced (by Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars) but also highly influential in its own right and it's often reported that there were over 100 'unofficial' sequels made. The reality is that only about 30 can be confirmed and almost all of these were movies that were inspired by Corbucci's vicious western rather than direct continuations. In most cases, these other 'Django' movies were original films that had the lead character's name changed during the dubbed process to become Django. As a consequence Django has his wife, brother and other family members killed several times, in several different ways.


Still the fact that these movies had character names changed in post-production doesn't stop a lot of them from being very interesting (and often very good) westerns. Obviously Tarantino's new film is going to continue this tradition, in a very post-modern way, by having Jamie Foxx's former slave character called Django. I'm happy to see him do this as I think it will bring the character a lot of attention for modern audiences and hopefully lead to more of these somewhat forgotten films getting re-released on DVD.

Hope you enjoy the reviews.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

80s Animation Month: Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)

It's difficult to talk about Starchaser: The Legend of Orin without acknowledging the fact that it's a massive rip-off of George Lucas's Star Wars movies (particularly Episode IV). Don't get me wrong, there's some original elements and ideas to it but they are buried under a mountain of very familiar characters, story and action beats. I guess the director and writer were hoping no one would notice? Or maybe they were pressured by the studio into making it like Star Wars in order to guarantee success? Needless to say it didn't work out and the film flopped. While ripping off someone else's work is hard to defend you've got to admire their skill a little. I mean, just look at George Lucas's own attempt to replicate the Star Wars phenomenon with the distinctly lacklustre prequel trilogy. It's a lot harder than it looks.

So Starchaser
is set in on the planet Trinia in a galaxy far, far away. Our hero Orin (Luke) lives in an underground mining community digging up precious crystals for the evil overlord Zygon (Darth Vader) and his robot soldiers. One day Orin finds the hilt to a sword (lightsaber) and decides to dig his way to the surface. He runs into zombie cyborgs and is rescued by Dag (Han) a rakish smuggler and his female robot companion Silica (C3PO). They all travel in Dag's ship The Starchaser (Millenium Falcon) to a rough town full of criminals (Mos Eisley) where Orin is again rescued by the Governer's Daughter Aviana (Leia). Aviana explains that Orin's sword hilt is a relic from an ancient order of guardians called Ka-Khan (Jedi Knights). Orin and his friends team up to break into Zygon's base (Death Star) and save his people.

I'll say this. Starchaser isn't a terrible film. It's got a reasonably brisk pace and it's full of action sequences. Okay, it is a big rip-off but there's quite a lot of fun playing 'spot the similarities'. You could easily make a drinking game out of it. Like all the other 80s animated films I've covered, this too is surprisingly bleak and creepy at times. There's cyborg zombies who want to harvest Orin for his limbs, Orin's grandfather gets whipped around the eyes by a laser whip, Dag spanks his female robot and reprogrammes her to be more subservient and Zygon even strangles Orin's girlfriend to death during their escape early on. The film never really establishes a stable tone at any point. It goes back and forth between childish sentimentality and disturbing adult elements which makes the film very uncertain as to who it is aimed at.

And this is only compounded by the fact the animation style is very similar to a Saturday morning cartoon (which surely confused the audience even more at the time). The film was originally released in 3D but sadly you can only get it on a plain old 2D DVD. They use a lot of (obviously) early computer animation to draw the spaceships which sticks out a mile but I guess these were the major bits that were going to be converted into 3D. The rest of the animation is a pretty flat and uninspiring but there are a few impressive sequences, particularly the enormous firey portal where the miners dump their harvested crystals. As well as having a shaky tone the film also has a pretty weak story. The characters just seem to jump from place to place with little sense of a storyline unfolding.

The dialogue is also clunky in the extreme. I mean what kind of speech is this? "Thousands of years ago on some obscure planet a primitive chess computer was the first inorganic mind to beat men. In a few hours I will be calling checkmate in the last such game the humans and their kind will ever play." Interestingly the film was written by Jeffrey Scott who wrote a lot of episodes of the animated 'Dungeons and Dragons' TV show. I used to love that show as a kid and this film definitely has a little of that same vibe. Despite it being set over several planets and having loads of characters, it still feels very TV-ish rather than Cinematic. It's derivative and forgettable rather than original and memorable.

All in all,
Starchaser is an okay movie. Again, I think it would mostly appeal to someone who grew up in the 80s and wants a trip down memory lane. Surprisingly, it's been recently announced that a studio is looking to remake this film in live action! That should be very interesting, particularly given the fact that Disney has recently bought Lucasfilm and is aiming to get a new trilogy in the cinema soon without Lucas at the helm. Perhaps the new Star Wars and Starchaser will go head to head! Now that would be awesome to see.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

80s Animation Month: Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal is a bit of an anomaly for 80s Animation Month because unlike Fire and Ice, Rock & Rule and Starchaser (next week's entry) it wasn't a flop and actually managed to turn a profit. Okay, it wasn't anything stellar but it doubled its $9 million budget. This may have been down to the fact that it was based on an existing (though quite niche) comic book. 'Heavy Metal' magazine started publishing in 1977 and initially reprinted translations of a French comic book 'Metal Hurlant' before they started using their own artists and writers. The magazine was known for its provocative artwork which often feature topless or scantily clad female characters in sci-fi settings. I read several issues as a teenager and I've got to say, though the art was superb, the stories were very forgettable. Still it gave a platform for a lot of great artists such as Moebius and Milo Manara.

The plot
of the Heavy Metal film is difficult to describe in detail. Essentially, it's an anthology film of short stories. The film begins with an astronaut returning to earth with a glowing green orb. When he gets home the orb kills him and terrorises his daughter by telling her weird and wonderful sci-fi/horror stories. These stories include Harry Canyon - a futuristic noir thriller about a cab driver caught up with criminals (GREAT), B17 - a horror short about a World War II bomber crew who get attacked by zombies (CREEPY), Den - a bizarre story about a nerdy kid who is turned into a musclebound hero and sent to a far off planet (WEIRD), Taarna - a short about an alien female warrior fighting off a barbarian invasion (NOT BAD) and many other, lesser, stories.

For once this isn't a kids film that has a couple of inappropriate elements; the makers clearly pitched this at grown ups. I think aiming it directly at adults was probably another reason this did okay at the cinema, the audience knew exactly what they were getting. One interesting thing to note is that this film was produced by Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs fame, and featured a lot of famous Canadian actors voices such as Eugene Levy, John Candy and Harold Ramis (most of the Second City cast is here). Sadly Reitman's involvement doesn't mean its a laugh riot though. In fact I'd almost say it's a little dull and dry in places. The anthology nature of the film means that most stories are over before they've begun.

Like the comic, the artwork is great but the quality varies from short to short. Again, there's some use of rotoscoping which gives the characters fantastically realistic movements but it's not used in every segment. The stories are okay but none of them really wow you. I did enjoy the Harry Canyon story though because it fused the classic film noir cliches (femme fatales, world weary protagonists) with a futuristic setting (not unlike Blade Runner). The whole futuristic cab driver angle definitely reminded me a bit of The Fifth Element but that's to be expected given that both films were paying homage to Moebius' ultra detailed line drawings. I also enjoyed the Den story because it was a funny tale of literal wish fulfillment.

The whole tone of the film is quite juvenile
. There's a fair bit of sex, breasts and cursing but I guess that's just an accurate reflection of what the magazine is like. It plays a lot like some 13 year old boy's daydream and while I enjoyed the dynamic, let's-try-everything nature of the film I didn't think it ever found its groove. Speaking of grooves the soundtrack almost made up for the film's other shortcomings. They roped in a lot of great bands (none of which I would really call "heavy metal bands" ironically) including Devo, Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick (again). I'd recommend the film to anyone who is a fan of these bands or just that era of 80s music.

So ultimately,
I found that Heavy Metal didn't quite live up to it's bold tagline "A Step Beyond Science Fiction". I think the concept of an sci-fi anthology film is a great idea and it's been mooted for a few years that either David Fincher or Robert Rodriguez might oversee a new Heavy Metal anthology. I'm not adverse to eroticism or juvenile storylines in science fiction but I hope whatever filmmaker does take on the new project remembers to have some decent writing to go with all those boobs.

For another review of Heavy Metal check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

80s Animation Month: Rock & Rule (1983)

Rock & Rule came out in 1983, the same year as Fire and Ice, and suffered pretty much the same fate as that film. It was a commercial flop which I think can be linked to two factors. Firstly, like Bakshi's film, it pushed the envelope perhaps a little too far for a kids film by having one or two scenes that involved implied drug use and devil worship! Secondly, the film's distributor, MGM, didn't give it much promotion on release (perhaps because they were concerned about these elements). It's a shame because it's a really underrated film. It was the first major release by Canadian animation studio Nelvana, who went on to do several children's TV shows like Inspector Gadget and Care Bears, and the artwork is really top notch.

The film is set in a post
apocalyptic future where humanity has been wiped out. The world is now populated by highly evolved cats and dogs who more or less resemble us both in terms of appearance and culture. The film is focused on small struggling rock band headed up by lead guitarist Omar (Paul LeMat) and vocalist Angel (Susan Roman). A mysterious aging rock star called Mok attends one of their shows and instantly recognises that Angel possesses "the voice" so he drugs the band and whisks her off Nuked York (get it?) to play in his reunion concert. Omar and the band recover and set out to rescue Angel and find out exactly what Mok plans to do her special "voice".

First off, the music is this is sublime. There's about 8 or 9 songs in the whole film from a mixture of artists and bands. Cheap Trick do all the songs for Omar's band, Debbie Harry sings all of Angel's songs while Mok's are divided between Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It's not really a musical though, because the characters don't spontaneously break into song, it just has a lot of scenes of the two bands performing on stage. I was kind of taken aback by how catchy and memorable the songs were. It's a shame that the film's poor box office meant that a soundtrack was never released but there are plenty of bootleg versions floating around on the net if you're interested.

The story and artwork of Rock & Rule are pleasingly quirky. There's some wonderful post apocalyptic vistas and I really liked the Don-Bluth-gone-bad designs of the characters. I don't know that we really needed the whole explanation at the start of the film about everyone being mutated cats and dogs. It's not like Disney ever had to explain why Mickey Mouse could talk, but I guess it's only a small point! The film has a pleasingly subversive take on the music industry. Mok obviously representing an aging, failed artist desperate to climb back into the limelight by any means necessary. And the film definitely toys with the idea that music is the new religion. There's also a great extended gag where Mok drugs Omar and the band, using a glowing orb, and they turn into mellow folk band for a short while.

Like Fire and Ice, the short 75 minute running time doesn't allow for much more than a simple A to B plot. We also don't really get much character motivation and Mok, in particular, is a complete mystery to the audience. He seems to just want to destroy the world for... well, no apparent reason. I think I would have liked the character more if they could have fleshed out his reasons. I enjoyed the fact that the Angel character was written as a strong female character. Despite the fact she spends much of the film chained up she is anything but a damsel in distress and ultimately turns out to be a far better hero than Omar.

Overall Rock & Rule is a lot of fun and deserves some critical reappraisal. This film really didn't deserve to flop so hard at the cinema. It must have been a bit of sore point for Nelvana going from making this subversive cartoon to making the Care Bears. But I guess money talks. Despite a couple of story flaws it is a wonderful mix of catchy music and eclectic artwork. I think anyone who was a kid in the 80s would really enjoy discovering this on DVD (speaking of which there was a great 2 disc version that came out a few years ago from 'Unearthed DVDs').

For another review of Rock & Rule check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective 


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

80s Animation Month: Fire and Ice (1983)

The 80s were a great period for animation. I think basically what happened was that Disney really reduced the amount of animated films it pumped out during the late 70s and early 80s while it tried to diversify into more live action work. As a result there was a gap in market for other animation studios to come in and offer a bit of an alternative to Disney's sugary sweet musical films. Much of the groundwork for this shift had been started a decade earlier with Ralph Bakshi, an animator whose work on films like Fritz the Cat and Coonskin had challenged the perception that cartoons should only be made for kids. The decade also saw a rebirth in the fantasy genre with the success of Conan, not only in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies but also the very success Marvel comic book adaptations. Fire and Ice should have been a resounding success given the time it was released but sadly it failed to hit it off with audiences.

The plot to
Fire and Ice is pretty simple. The evil Queen Juliana and her son Nekron are invading innocent towns and villages up and down the land and have their sights set on taking over the last remaining outpost, the kingdom of Firekeep. The reason they are so unstoppable is that Nekron is a sorcerer and can create enormous ice glaciers with his mind that easily crush anything in their way. Queen Juliana sends a small group of her soldiers to Firekeep to request the king's surrender but it turns out this is just a rouse and the soldiers end up kidnapping the king's daughter Teegra. The resourceful princess however manages to escape and teams up with Larn, a survivor of one of villages Nekron destroyed. They race through the jungle but Teegra ends up getting recaptured. Larn then teams up with the mysterious warrior Darkwolf and the two of them take the battle to Nekron's ice palace.

Honestly, I think it's pretty clear why Fire and Ice flopped. It's not a bad film, far from it. I really, really enjoyed both the story and animation. The major problem is that though the fantastical story is simple and child appropriate, the characters are drawn aren't. Princess Teegra spends almost the entire film clothed throughout in nothing more than the smallest of small bikinis that wouldn't look out of place on a Playboy cover - and the film still somehow managed to get a PG rating! There were a lot of kids films in the 80s that pushed the envelope in terms of content but while a bit of extra violence or swearing seemed to go over okay with audiences, semi-nudity clearly didn't. Even I've got to admit I probably wouldn't want to let anyone under 14 watch this.

The thing is the slightly lurid clothing choices of the characters wasn't just some crazy decision by the director, Ralph Bakshi. The artwork is all based on designs by Frank Frazetta, the artist who drew virtually all the classic covers for Robert E Howard's Conan books. As such it's wonderful to see Frazetta's illustrations finally come to life. There's maybe a little less detail to the characters than he would usually use in his paintings but the style is still very much recognisably his work. The artwork gives the film a slightly hazy, dream-like atmosphere. The backgrounds in particular are painted in very soft focus while all the characters in the foreground are stark and bold.

The film also employed the technique of rotoscoping, whereby by the director filmed live actors quickly doing all the scenes and then essentially had the animators trace over the top of them. I've always been a little confused as to why this process is always frowned upon by critics. Sure, it's cheating a little but given that the characters are all meant to be human (or human-like) I was fine with it. It meant that the film captured a lot of little human details - not unlike Andy Serkis's motion capture work as Gollum in Lord of the Rings - that might otherwise have been missed.

could maybe call the story a little underwhelming - it's more or less was one long chase sequence - but I think the writers understood archetypal structure of fantasy literature very well. Roy Thomas, one half of the writing duo, had spent most of the 70s and 80s writing Marvel's comic book adaptation of Conan and his love of Howard's stories is very evident. I particularly enjoyed the character of Dark Wolf, who is essentially the Han Solo of the movie. He first pops up more than halfway through the film, never takes off his bear skin helmet and only speaks a handful of words. He was a brilliant supporting character, full of mystery, and made the perfect counterpoint to the more bland leading hero, Larn.

All in all, Fire and Ice is a pretty good little movie. Times have changed now and I think the introduction of anime to the West have given audiences a broader perspective on violent and subversive animation. I still don't think the film would do well at the cinema but as a piece of 80s nostaglia for 30-somethings it's a heck of a lot of fun. Like watching a violent, sexy riff on He-man. Word is that Robert Rodriguez is looking to actually remake Fire and Ice at some point in the future and it will be interesting to see what kind of film he makes. Given his work on Sin City I think (and hope) it will be an attempt to adapt Franzetta's work as live action.

For another review of Fire and Ice check out The Film Connoisseur's perspective at:-


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Completist Guide to Rob Zombie's Halloween series (2007-2009)

Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007)

Given that John Carpenter is one of my favourite filmmakers, the prospect of watching a remake of one of his movies should fill me with a mixture of dread and disgust. We've all heard the 'horror stories' of directors like Rupert Wainwright (The Fog, 2005) and Matthijs van Heijningen jr (The Thing, 2011) trying (and failing) to update Carpenter's movies with inappropriate cast teen stars and needless CGI. But the thing with Halloween is that, arguably, it's been remade countless times already. I mean when you think about it, all the Halloween films (bar number 3) were all pretty much the same basic story. On Halloween night, in a suburban neighbourhood, indestructible killer Michael Myers murders a bunch of people with a large kitchen knife. So the prospect of watching a fresh take on this particular movie made me more... curious than angry.

The plot is basically split into two separate parts. In the first part we see Myers as a 10 year old child (played by Daeg Faerch). His parents are dirt poor and he's constantly bullied at school. One day he finally snaps and kills not only the lead bully but also his abusive step father, his sister and her boyfriend. Myers ends up going into an asylum where a psychologist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) attempts to rehabilitate him. Myers spends his time making masks and though he initially shows signs of co-operation he ends up killing one of the nurses, which leads to his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) to commit suicide. The second part of the film is set fifteen years later. Loomis has long since left and Myers has grown into a huge hulking man (played by Tyler Mane) and hasn't spoken a word to anyone for years. He manages to escape the asylum and heads back to his home town of Haddonfield. He kills several people and ends up fixating on a seemingly innocent teenager, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), and her friends.

A lot of people hated Rob Zombie's Halloween when it was released but I actually quite liked it. The film, like DePalma's Scarface and Carpenter's The Thing before it, did what every good remake should do; it took the basic elements and gave them an entirely different spin. Whereas Carpenter's Halloween feels like a ghost story you tell around the camp fire, Zombie's Halloween feels like something you'd read about in the newspaper. Everything feels realistic and grounded (except maybe the part about Myers growing up to be a 7ft tall man mountain). I particularly enjoyed the first part which examined, in detail, the aftermath of Myers murders as a child. It was riveting to see Loomis' psychology sessions with him. I sat there kind of wishing Myers would get cured! It's a dangerous thing to do in films; to examine the villain's back story (just look at the horrible job George Lucas did explaining why Anakin became Darth Vader) but I thought Zombie did a decent job that didn't shy away from difficult answers.

The key element that held it all together was undoubtedly Daeg Faerch who, particularly considering his age, does a really compelling performance as the young Myers. And he's ably supported by Malcolm McDowell's reinterpretation of Dr Loomis. Donald Pleasance's portrayal in the original is so iconic, again, I'm glad Zombie steered away from trying to repeat the exact same character. McDowell plays him, initially, as a cocky, upbeat, slightly quirky psychologist before shifting in the latter half to a weary, broken, desperate man. I also enjoyed Scout Taylor-Compton's updated Laurie Strode who rather than a demure everygirl is now a slightly goth-y outcast. The only problem is that with the film being broken into two halves it feels odd to suddenly have Laurie introduced as our protagonist halfway through.

In fact, if I had to point out a problem it's that, while the first half is great, the second half is nothing more than a truncated, 'Platinum Dunes'-esque remake of the original. But, then again, I guess Zombie had to fit the original film's storyline at some point otherwise it wouldn't be a remake. In the actual murder scenes Zombie goes for viciousness and brutality rather than creepiness and tension. Again, he's trying something new here with the character of Myers, and that's to be applauded, but for me it didn't really work. It made the film shocking but not very scary, which isn't a good thing for a horror film. In fact, I'd almost go as far as saying that Rob Zombie's Halloween can (or should) be viewed as more of a thriller than a traditional slasher/horror.

I've got to admit I first saw the film in it's leaked 'workprint' form (that was floating around youtube a while back). I actually prefer this version to the theatrical cut for a few reasons. Firstly, there's a brilliant opening credits sequence with the young Myers running in slow motion through the school hallways while the classic theme tune plays in the background. And secondly there's a very bold alternate ending where actually Myers goes down in a hail of gunfire from the police. Again, this was a brilliant change from the original Carpenter film where the suggestion was that Myers was some indestructible boogeyman. Here he's a violent killer but ultimately just as mortal as everyone else. I liked this change. It felt like Zombie was sticking two fingers up at the greedy producers who clearly hoping he'd deliver some safe, sequel-ready movie.

Ultimately, I think Rob Zombie's Halloween isn't a better film than Carpenter's. It's just different. I think a lot of people thought that because Carpenter's film defined the 'slasher' craze of the 80s, Zombie's film should be as important. To justify its existence it should do nothing less than redefine the horror genre again. But let's face it, it was never going to do that. Zombie's Halloween is a good film, with some great ideas and great acting, let's just leave it at that.


Rob Zombie's Halloween II (2009)

I think it's important to note that Zombie never planned to make a sequel. It's very apparent in the original workprint that the film was meant to end with Myers being definitely dead but, of course, the producers wanted some sequels so he changed the theatrical cut's ending to be more ambiguous. Despite this compromise Zombie's Halloween II doesn't feel like too much of a shameless cash-in. Again, the film characterised by a ballsy script that seems to revel in messing with the established characters and atmosphere of both the earlier films and, strangely, its own predecessor. Once, again it's a film of two halves with the first half dealing with the aftermath of the Myers rampage.

The film picks up directly on from the previous film with Laurie having a nervous breakdown after she thinks she's shot Michael Myers in the face. The ambulance drives away with his body but he manages to escape and disappear into the night. After a quick fake-out dream sequence set in a hospital (a nod to the original Halloween II) we fast forward to two year later. Laurie is still suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder and lives a dysfunctional life with her adopted father Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter Annie. Meanwhile, Loomis has written a tell-all memoir and effectively sold out to become a celebrity. Before long Myers returns to Haddonfield, killing his everyone in his way to get to Laurie who it turns out is his long lost sister.

Zombie's Halloween II is a bit of difficult film to like but there's still a lot that I admired about it. The film feels quite loose and rushed (which I'm guessing it was given that Zombie only signed on to do it in 2008). One of the major points everyone criticises the film about is the 'visions'. In this film, we get introduced (in a rather hamfisted fashion) to the idea that Myers 'sees' visions of his dead mother and a white horse telling him what to do. I think I wouldn't have minded if this was shown (or hinted) at in Zombie's earlier film but it wasn't. Still it's a neat idea - the kind of thing you can imagine a serial killer admitting to - and something fresh for the series.

Another sticking point that I can kind of agree with Dr Loomis' sharp character shift in this film. In the remake he seems like a fairly decent man but in the sequel he's suddenly turned into a unrepentant asshole. I get the point that Zombie was trying to make - the viciousness of Myers' rampage has affected everyone involved in different ways - but I think he could have shown the shift more gradually or explained it to the audience a bit better. I feel that maybe both ideas were things that Zombie probably wanted to include in the original remake but got turned down by producers.

Despite these two points, I enjoyed most of the rest of the film. The idea of Laurie being permanently traumatised by her experiences felt in keeping with the realistic atmosphere of the previous film and Scout Taylor-Compton does a really good job portraying her depression. I also liked the idea of Myers becoming a creepy hobo with a long beard and torn up mask. Again, I think it was good for Zombie to make the film his own and show what Myers is really like behind the mask (both literally and figuratively) rather than make him some indestructible killer. Brad Dourif is an excellent addition too. Though he had a small role in the previous film, he gets a much larger one here playing Laurie's ersatz father figure Sheriff Brackett. His helplessness to protect his daughter is truly heartbreaking.

As the film winds towards its conclusion I was pleased to see Zombie give the film a really bold ending. The problem is that it felt far more contrived compared to the original. It didn't feel like the major characters had naturally gravitated towards each other throughout the story. More like they had been artificially put in the same place by the writer. All in all though, I enjoyed Rob Zombie's Halloween II despite its many, many flaws. By making so many bold choices and radically changing the characters Zombie delivered anything but a safe sequel. If only more remakes took this approach.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Completist Guide to the Hellraiser series (1987-2011) part 3

Hellraiser VII: Deader (2005)

As stated in the earlier batch of reviews, most of these later Hellraiser films were based on pre-existing unproduced horror scripts that were 'lightly' re-written to include appearances by Pinhead and the puzzle box. Hellraiser: Deader is the point where this practice becomes really obvious because it introduces a whole heap of new ideas to the established mythology. This would usually be considered a bad thing but given that the last two Hellraiser films were almost identical in plot and pretty lacklustre I welcomed the opportunity for some new ideas and fresh directions for the series.

Deader sees b-move stalwart Kari Wuhrer play Amy Klein, an American reporter who is sent to Bucharest to investigate an underground cult, called The Deaders, led by a descendant of Philip Lemarchand (the guy who created the box in Bloodlines). The leader of this cult, Winter, seems to have gained some supernatural power that gives him the ability to bring people back from the dead and he's using this to find the perfect person to open the puzzle box. In order to find out more Amy ends up infiltrating the group and she quickly discover that Winter's master plan seems to be not just to let the Cenobites into our world but also gain control over them. Something tells me Pinhead isn't going to be best pleased about this.

This film wasn't totally horrible but it wasn't great either. I'm going to be quite charitable and say that it actually had a few good scenes. Early on, there's a very tense bit in which Amy breaks into a squalid apartment where she finds a dead woman slumped in a chair and has to climb over her body in order to get the puzzle box. Director Rick Bota really draws out the suspense in this scene and it's a shame there's not more stuff of this quality in the film. In addition, there's a few quirky elements that made the storyline somewhat memorable. Amy's investigations lead her to guy who runs a nightclub inside a moving subway train! And the film really takes an interesting turn when Amy becomes a Deader herself.

I feel that the original Deader script might have actually been halfway decent. It's a shame that it's been butchered and forced to become a Hellraiser script. Once again there are loads of pointless freaky-stuff-happening-but-oh-wait-it's-just-a-dream scenes. In fact there's so many of these in Deader it becomes a tough time recognising what exactly has and hasn't happened.

Kari Wurher's performance was pretty good. She's never been a top notch actress but her, um... attractiveness makes her ideal for these types of b-movies. The scene in which she finds she's become a Deader and tries pulling a knife out of her back was actually really played. Paul Rhys was pretty forgettable as Winter though and the only other notable actor was Marc Warren who played the nightclub guy Joey. He was kind of cool but didn't get a whole lot of screen time. When Pinhead finally turns up at the end and wastes all the Deaders the gore effects really kick in but a lot of it was cheap looking CGI which diminished the effect. This was especially disappointing given that the film was produced by none other than effects maestro Stan Winston.

Ultimately, Deader is too disjointed a movie to fully enjoy. Compared to some of the other later Hellraiser films it's actually an okay watch but that's really down to the original elements that came from the Deader script and nothing to do with the appearance of Pinhead or the box. At the very least I was pleased that the ending didn't turn out to be the lead character having one big dream/nightmare.


Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld (2005)

You know, I got a bad feeling about Hellworld just from looking at the front cover. I mean look at it. It's got Pinhead's face drenched in a Matrix-green glow of numbers with the tagline "Evil Goes Online". Technology and horror have never really successful been put together. Sure, Brainscan and Stay Alive were slightly fun but they were never scary. I guess the closest we've come is Videodrome but that was more about TVs and stuff than computers. Anyway, Hellworld is the last of Rick Bota's run as director and he finishes his run with probably the bizarrest entry in the series. You see Hellworld isn't set in the same world as the rest of the franchise. It's set in "the real world" where someone has made a online multiplayer game based on Hellraiser franchise. Very meta.

So, the film is about five 20-somethings who are attending a funeral for a friend who committed suicide while playing Hellworld, a game based on the Hellraiser franchise that they were all obsessed with. Not long after they all receive mysterious invites to a Hellworld "party" at a country mansion called Leviathan House. When they arrive the party is in full swing and the host (Lance Henriksen) gives them a tour of the house. One by one they are killed in gruesome ways by Pinhead who seems to be using far less supernatural methods than previous films - hacking teens up with butcher's knives and torture chairs. Before long the remaining two teens realise that all may not be what it seems but can they escape the house in time?

Okay, so we're back to the silly twist endings so forgive me for spoiling again. Once again it turns out that the majority of the film didn't take place. What actually happened was the five friends were drugged not long after they arrived at the party and their gory deaths were actually (collective?) hallucinations that they experienced while being buried alive by the host. His identity turns out to be the father of their friend who committed suicide. But get this there's a second twist. At the end of the film the host escapes the police and holes up in a hotel room, where he finds a puzzle box which when he touches it, brings out the real Pinhead who rips him apart with chains. Um, yeah, it didn't make much sense to me either.

The whole meta aspect is really underwhelming. As shown with Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Bride of Chucky a bit of self awareness can actually be really entertaining for a horror film. Here though the Hellworld is purely set in "the real world" because the online game wouldn't make any sense in the movie universe. For me, it was a big missed opportunity. Another thing that didn't really fit is that the main characters are all supposed to be computer nerds who spend all their time online playing this game but they pretty much all looked like fashion models. I'm not absolute verisimilitude but, come on, this film makes Hackers look like a gritty documentary.

The cast is the absolute worst; and given that this franchise isn't known for great thespianism (I really cracked the thesaurus out for this review) that's saying a lot. Most notably Henry Cavill (soon to be seen as Superman in Man of Steel) puts in a truly cringe-worthy performance as one of the friends, Mike, who is kind of a arrogant jock character. I've seen him in stuff since like Showtime's The Tudors where he was great so I guess this film, which looks to be one of his first roles out of drama school, can be put down inexperience and a craptacular script. The one bright spot is Lance Henriksen who I'm always happy to see pop up in a flick. He brings a little class (and menace) to the preceedings. It's shame they didn't scrap the teens and cast him in the lead. But I guess no one wants to see a film about a 60 something guy playing online games.

Doug Bradley barely gets a word in edgeways and I'm sure his total screentime equals seconds rather than minutes. It's weird to think that a few films ago he was basically the central villain and now he's reduced to a mere 'blink and you miss it' cameo. I kind of get why fans are so upset about this aspect. Dimension sell these Hellraiser films by slapping Pinhead's horrific and iconic visage on the DVD cover but then proceed to give you a film that barely features him. I think sometimes repurposing existing stories and scripts for a franchise can be great. All four Die Hards didn't start as John McClane scripts but they are all great movies. The difference is that these last four Hellraiser films have been such lazy rewrites that they are painful to watch.


Hellraiser IX: Revelations (2011)

So here we are the end of our Hellraiser odyssey. It's been a bit of bumpy ride and unfortunately this last (?) film in the series is probably the worst of the lot. It's been well documented that Hellraiser: Revelations was made for a very low budget (approx $300,000) and shot in a very short amount of time. Though it's never been confirmed many assume that the reason it was made was so that Dimension could hold onto the rights to the series for a few more years to give them more time to get a big budget remake made. Another aspect that gets commented on a lot is that this is the film that Doug Bradley finally threw in the towel and refused to reprise the role of Pinhead. Not a great start really.

So Revelations starts off with some hand held camcorder footage. Two teens, Nico and Steve, are recording their road trip to Tijuana but before you think that the whole film is going to be just 'found footage' the film cuts back to Steve's mother who is watching the video on playback in her home in California. Basically, it's been two years since Nico and Steve disappeared and both their families have given up hope of seeing them again. When a camcorder full of footage mysteriously arrives on their doorstep, the two families get together to discuss it over dinner. The video shows that Nico and Steve's sleazy getaway went horribly wrong and somehow they wound up in possession of the puzzle box. Out of the blue, a bruised and battered Steve turns up but claims to have very little memory of what happened.

I'll say this. At least, the film wasn't another lazy rewrite of an existing horror script. Revelations was written as a Hellraiser film and it makes an attempt to incorporate a lot of elements from the original film. It also wasn't just a collection of sub-David Lynch weirdness (like Inferno and Hellseeker), it was a proper story, and one that attempted to have some mystery to it. The actual backbone of the storyline is quite interesting. Two runaway teens getting mixed up with the puzzle box, their families not knowing what happened to them, one of them surviving to tell the tale. All good stuff, it's just that the directing, acting, writing, cinematography and sets are all uniformly horrible.

I think if they'd stuck with doing all of it as 'found footage' it could have been reasonably creepy flick but instead they chose to show Nico and Steve's Tijuana trip as a mix of POV footage and traditional camerawork. I know 'found footage' is hard to do - as a writer you constantly have to give explanations why people don't put the camera down in moments of crisis - but mixing it with ordinary shots killed any sense of suspense and mystery. The great thing about 'found footage' is that you can turn the camera off at key moments and make the audience do the work of imagining what horrific thing happened next. Cutting back to a 3rd person camera ruins that effect. Also, I think they could have hidden the budget more by doing it as 'found footage'. By doing so much as traditional camerawork they really had to light their cheap sets very brightly. As a result, the bar in Tijuana looks like what it was; a two wall set with 3 bored looking extras in the background.

The acting again was pretty ropey. The two teens who play Nico and Steve (Jay Gillespie and Nick Eversman) are okay to begin with. But after Nico has his fateful encounter with puzzle box halfway through and the two have to do more than just play horribly narcissistic teens they really struggle. Steve Smith Collins wasn't terrible as Pinhead but his bulky figure put him in stark (and unfavourably) contrast to Doug Bradley's more measured performances as the character. Even the two sets of parents were terrible. Steve Brand, who played the bad guy in The Scorpion King, was probably the best of the bunch but that's not really saying much. Though I'm criticising the acting I think a lot of the blame has to lie with the script.

Though I didn't mind the fact that much of the story was basically a semi-remake of the first film, I thought the characters and dialogue were horribly written and left countless questions. Why exactly do the two families meet for a sit-down three course dinner together? I'd think given that their sons have both seemingly died, they wouldn't want to see each other any more? How did Nico get away with murdering a hooker in a toilets of a bar without anyone noticing or walking in? Why did Steve post his parents his camcorder rather than write a letter? Why does the daughter flirt with Nico's dad after touching the puzzle box? Why is the word 'Cenobite' in the household dictionary? Who thought it was a good idea to give the two families the surnames Craven (as in Wes? A filmmaker with connection to the series) and Bradley (the name of the actor who thought your script was horrendous)!

As always with Hellraiser, there's a twist which for once wasn't terrible. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't great either but after such a lacklustre movie I was grateful for what I could get. So there you have it - all 9 Hellraiser films - Done. My opinion hasn't really changed from when I was a teen. This has been a horribly mismanaged franchise through and through from a creative perspective. The original film is a really decent horror flick and probably never should have been sequelised but it was, over and over. This is what happens when you run a property into the ground... hard.