House Of Danger (1934)
Also known as: The Great Gamble. Sailing home from the South Seas with his friend and associate, Don Phillips (Onslow Stevens), Ralph Nelson (James Bush) confides his fears over the recent death of his father. He also tells Don of his tacit engagement to Sylvia Evans (Janet Chandler), though they have not seen each other since Ralph fled his home some ten years before, after trouble he is sure was contrived by his cousin, Martin (John Andrews). Suddenly, the dangerous cargo carried in the hold ignites: it is abandon ship and every man for himself… When Ralph arrives home, people cannot help but remark how much he has changed. Ralph, for his part, seems ill at ease—particularly when interacting with Sylvia, who welcomes him warmly and takes their engagement for granted. The Nelsons’ friend and lawyer, Mr Weatherby (Howard Lang), sees through the impersonation—and “Ralph” explains that his injured friend sent him ahead, to inquire into the death of the late Mr Nelson and to safeguard Sylvia. Weatherby admits there is cause: he is sure Mr Nelson was murdered… There might have been a decent film made out of this premise, but House Of Danger isn’t it. A cheaply produced little B-film, the production cannot withstand its own absurdities—from no-one recognising that “Ralph” isn’t Ralph, to Gordon the domesticated hitman (Desmond Roberts). It occurs to me that the film might have worked better if they’d swapped the casting of James Bush and John Andrews: the latter more resembles Onslow Stevens, and the impersonation might have been a little easier to swallow. There are a few good moments here, such as Weatherby’s horrified reaction upon hearing Sylvia’s plans to invite to the house “all the boys and girls [Ralph] used to know”, but the stupidities outweigh them; while Sylvia’s romantic over-eagerness gets a bit embarrassing. Though attracted to her in turn, “Ralph” has to hold her at arm’s-length while seeking proof that Martin and Gordon contrived Mr Nelson’s supposed suicide. He can think of only one plan: to agitate them by showing his suspicions—and then to use himself as bait… House Of Danger was directed by Charles Hutchison, the former silent serial star (of Lightning Hutch, among others).
Sexton Blake And The Hooded Terror (1938)
Based upon the story The Mystery Of Caversham Square by Pierre Quiroule; also known as The Hooded Terror. In the Far East, “Granite” Grant (David Farrar) has a narrow escape from death at the hands of agents of the Black Quorum, a criminal organisation headed by a man known only as “the Snake”. Grant sends a friend, Duvall (Billy Watts), to England with a message about the Black Quorum, which he attempts to deliver to the detective, Sexton Blake (George Curzon); however, Duvall is murdered before he can speak, leaving a only a coded message. Meanwhile, French Secret Service operative, Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt), pursues her own investigation, using her charms on Max Fleming (Charles Oliver), and attracting the attention of millionaire philatelist, Michael Larron (Tod Slaughter)—who is secretly the Snake… Sexton Blake was created in the 1890s as a direct competitor to Sherlock Holmes – he even lived in Baker Street! – so I suppose it’s hardly surprising to find Blake, his half-witted assistant, Tinker (Tony Sympson), and his landlady, Mrs Bardell (Marie Wright), being offered as direct expys for their counterparts. As far as I can tell, this film wasn’t based on any of the actual Sexton Blake stories, but instead plays like an Edgar Wallace rip-off, with a secret criminal society meeting in robes and hoods…only everyone knows everyone’s name and they take their hoods off periodically to chat, so what’s the point? This is a dull little offering, the third and last of George Curzon’s films as Blake, where the good guys succeed through dumb luck and gun-play, and the screenplay defeats even Tod Slaughter, who has to rein it in until his last moments—so again, what’s the point? Tinker does most of the actual work, which entails nothing more than following people around and leaving messages for Blake, who then follows him around. The Hooded Terror perks up in its last few minutes, with Julie and Tinker locked in Larron / the Snake’s “Death Chamber”, where they are threatened by – eek! – perfectly harmless pythons; but whether it’s worth sitting through the rest is debatable.
(David Farrar, who has a small role here, would play Sexton Blake in a series of films in the 1940s.)
The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1939)
Based upon the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fleeing in terror towards his house on Dartmoor, Sir Charles Baskerville (Ian Maclaren) collapses and dies. The dead man’s physician and friend, Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), testifies to the coroner only that he died of heart failure, however the irascible Mr Frankland (Barlowe Borland) raises the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles… Dr Mortimer calls upon the famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), in London. To him Mortimer admits that he kept from the coroner his observation of a dog’s footprints near Sir Charles’ body: he also tells him of the legend dating back to the death of Sir Hugo Baskerville in the 17th century, who was attacked and killed by an enormous hound; of the many Baskervilles who have met violent ends since; and his fears for the young heir, Sir Henry (Richard Greene)… Today the pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson seems iconic, but in 1939 Twentieth-Century Fox was so uncertain about this adaptation of Conan Doyle’s famous novel that they gave Richard Greene top billing. The Hound Of The Baskervilles offers a slightly simplified and tweaked version of the story, though it sticks to its source in the one way we wish it wouldn’t, that is, Sherlock Holmes is offscreen for a large chunk of the film. Conversely, the screenplay by Ernest Pascal invents a rather effective séance sequence, in which attempts to contact the spirit of Sir Charles Baskerville are met with canine howling out on the moors. Those moors are, of course, entirely a studio set; though the film does a fair job in disguising the limitations of its geography and its Californian locations. For better or worse, this was the origin of the “Dr Watson as bumbling idiot” paradigm that has taken so long to be killed off; and whiles Holmes’ teasing of his friend is played humorously, it is so constant that it begins to feel like abuse. Of the rest of the cast, Richard Greene and Wendy Barrie are uninteresting as the romantic leads, but you have to love a film that brings together Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill and John Carradine. The film’s greatest disappointment is its hound, which is an effective enough presence while conveyed purely through howling, but too ordinary a dog up close, albeit a large one…and I guess I can’t actually protest the absence of phosphorescent paint…
The Hidden Hand (1942)
After ten years in an asylum for the criminally insane, convicted killer John Channing (Milton Parsons) escapes—hitching a ride to his family home by hiding in the car driven by the warden and the sheriff, who correctly deduce his destination. Once there, the men warn Channing’s sister, Lorinda (Cecil Cunningham), of her potential danger. She thanks them for their concern, but sends them away—knowing that John is already hiding in one of the house’s many secret passages. Lorinda tells John of her plan to invite her three greedy nephews to the house—and to have some fun with them… The Hidden Hand is usually billed as a comedy, and certainly we’re not supposed to take it seriously; but it’s a pretty grim “joke”, with an ever-growing body-count and a casual attitude to murder not often found in films of this vintage. In fact, if this weren’t an obscure B-film with a cast of nobody-in-particulars, you’d hardly think they’d’ve gotten away with it. (“They” being Warners, of course.) The film’s central joke is that Lorinda Channing is just as dangerous as her brother, but better able to hide it—and control it. John, on the other hand, is particularly triggered by thunderstorms: awkward, when the family gathering takes place on a stormy weekend… By the time that Horace Channing (Tom Stevenson) and his wife, Estelle (Ruth Ford); Walter Channing (Roland Drew) and his wife, Rita (Julie Bishop); and Dr Lawrence Channing (Frank Wilcox) and his nurse, Eleanor Stevens (Marian Hall), arrive for a weekend, Miss Channing has already intimated that she intends to leave her money to her secretary, Mary Winfield (Elisabeth Fraser): the hint underscored by the presence of the young lawyer, Peter Thorne (Craig Stevens). Miss Channing and Mary, indeed, barely make it into the house—having a narrow escape from a flower-pot loaded with rocks. A fatality soon follows… I should mention that The Hidden Hand also features Willie Best as Eustis the chauffeur / houseboy, using his own name and reasonably high up the cast list, but unfortunately (after a promising start) asked to deliver a standard “frightened darkie” routine. Sigh. But as least Eustis escapes with his life, unlike most of the white people…and unlike Mr Poe the raven (*sniff*).
Flight Nurse (1953)
Also known as Angels Take Over and Angels Over Korea. When USAF nurse Lieutenant Polly Davis (Joan Leslie) arrives in Japan on her first assignment, she is thinking as much about a reunion with her fiancé, helicopter pilot Captain Mike Barnes (Arthur Franz), as about her new duties; but this changes with her exposure to the realities of war. During her first evacuation flight between Korea and Tokyo, there is no doctor on board and Polly must care for the wounded with the help of only her medical technician, Sergeant Frank Swan (James Holden). When one injured soldier suffers a haemorrhage, Polly must perform impromptu surgery to save his life, earning the deep admiration of her pilot, Captain Bill Eaton (Forrest Tucker), who begins to fall for her. However, Polly and Mike are reunited and begin to discuss marriage; though the escalating conflict soon separates them and leaves no time for anything but their duties. Polly’s dedication makes Bill and Frank worry that she might break down from overwork; and then she must face another, more personal challenge, when Mike is reported missing, believed killed… Flight Nurse is effectively two films in one. This is overtly an unsubtle piece of anti-Communist propaganda, rubbing the viewer’s nose in its horrors and having its characters stop to make speeches whenever the opportunity arises; but when it can put aside its drum-beating, it’s actually a pretty good war drama. This is one of a number of female-focused productions that emanated from RKO in the 1950s, and its strength lies in the matter-of-fact way it allows Polly Davis and her fellow nurses to go about their duties—at least, eventually. Flight Nurse starts on a rather insulting note, with the suggestion that Polly took her assignment mostly to find Mike Barnes, and having her display naive horror at the “unexpected” sight of refugees; but once she settles into her work, the film spares her nothing. The burgeoning love-triangle is kept low-key, subordinate at all times to the demands made upon Polly, Mike and Bill; and it resolves itself in a somewhat surprising manner: I can’t think of too many films, certainly not from the 50s, that reject white-picket-fence Americana as firmly as this one. Furthermore, you may imagine my giddy delight when, late in the film, we get a frank disaster-movie turn—with a plane loaded with wounded forced to ditch in the Sea of Japan (a sequence that pre-dates the first modern disaster movie, 1954’s The High And The Mighty). When they are allowed to act rather than declaim, Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker give likable performances; though some of the film’s best contributions are in its supporting roles: from James Holden as Frank; Jeff Donnell, Kristine Miller and Maria Palmer as the other nurses; and Dick Simmons as Bill’s co-pilot. Flight Nurse also features an uncredited Morris Ankrum as the officer in charge of POW debriefing. (I told you guys he owned his own uniform…)
Hercules Against The Barbarians (1964)
Original title: Maciste Nell’Inferno di Gengis Khan (Maciste In The Hell Of Genghis Khan). In the 12th century, the armies of Genghis Khan (Roldano Lupi) sweep westward across Europe, only to meet defeat for the first time at Kraków. Kubulai (Ken Clark), the eldest son of Genghis Khan and commander of the defeated forces, listens impatiently to a dying soldier’s tales of a man of incredible strength, who fought like “a hurricane”. At his father’s court, Kubulai is at first sentenced to death for his failure, then given a month’s reprieve in which to redeem himself. Kubulai questions a Polish nobleman kept prisoner for twenty years, and through torture learns for the first time of a child smuggled to safety many years before, and of “the sign of the star”… In a small village, a terrified young woman takes refuge with a shepherd (Renato Terra) and his daughter, Arminia (José Greci), when she is accused of witchcraft. That night, Arias (Gloria Milland) notices a strange, star-shaped scar on Arminia’s neck. As Hercules (Mark Forest) travels towards the village, he falls into a trap-pit prepared by Gason (Howard Ross aka Renato Rossini), another son of the Khan. He must fight and kill a giant snake, then avoid the arrows shot by Gason, who rides off believing him dead. Hercules is helped out of the pit by the local priest (Tullio Altamura): they travel together to the village, where they find the shepherd murdered, Arminia missing, and Arias about to be burned at the stake… First things first: this is self-evidently a Maciste film, which makes its scenario at least a little less nonsensical. Moreover, “Hercules” (even in context) is merely a nickname acknowledging its protagonist’s great strength; and in fact we never do find out his real name. Nor do we find out why he is fighting for Poland, or how he came to meet and fall in love with Arminia (whose name is pronounced “Armina” in-film). And indeed, a lack of detail is an accusation that can be leveled generally against Hercules Against The Barbarians, which mixes intrigue with an absence of proper introductions in a manner that becomes frustrating. (To be fair I believe the English-dubbed version of the film also had its running-time trimmed.) For a film about Genghis Khan there is little action here, only an inevitable climactic battle between the Mongols and the Poles; while the Khan himself is a relatively minor character. Most of the narrative is focused upon the true identity of Arminia, who is of course the missing heir to the throne; Hercules’ attempts to rescue her, despite learning of her betrothal in infancy to King Vladimir (Mirko Ellis); and the double-dealing of Arias, a Mongol mole who also falls in love with Hercules. There isn’t much to get enthused about in Hercules Against The Barbarians, though there are a few good moments after Hercules joins up with an acrobats’ troupe as a way of infiltrating the Khan’s palace, and a more prominent and complex role than usual for the black actor playing Kraygar, the court strongman; though annoyingly, I haven’t been able to learn his name—anyone? As in La Vendetta di Ercole, Mark Forest’s character proves his strength here by killing animals, in this case a snake and a crocodile, earning my enmity in the process. On the other hand, perhaps the best moment of the film is when Hercules is riding near the village, hears the peasants laughing delightedly—and immediately intuits that something is terribly wrong. (But then, who doesn’t laugh delightedly while burning a witch…?)
(Hmm. Some belated research suggests I should have watched Hercules Against The Mongols first. Oh well, next time…)
The Hellcats (1968)
Police efforts to gain information about the drug ring operated by crime boss Mr Adrian (Robert F. Slatzer) are halted when a would-be informant is murdered. Watching the funeral conducted by the other members of the dead man’s biker gang. Mr Adrian decides that Detective Dave Chapman (Bro Beck) is getting too close, and issues his orders… In the wake of his brother’s murder, Sergeant Monte Chapman (Ross Hagen) is given compassionate leave and returns home from Vietnam. After learning of the circumstances of his brother’s death, Monte makes contact with Dave’s fiancée, Linda (Dee Duffy), and makes a startling proposal: that they should infiltrate the biker gang and, by these means, help to take down Adrian’s drug-trafficking ring… Like its partner in crime, 1969’s The Sidehackers (aka Five The Hard Way), The Hellcats takes a crime-and-revenge scenario and turns it into a grim endurance test full of unpleasant and stupid people—and that includes our protagonists, particularly the always charmless Ross Hagen as Monte. Once he and Linda have infiltrated the gang, The Hellcats stops dead for nearly an hour while the camera lingers on drinking, drugging, bike racing, macho posturing and weirdly discreet orgies. The only mildly interesting thing here – and hence the film’s title – is the prominence and authority of the senior female gang-members, Sheila (Sharyn Kinzie) and her eye-patched lieutenant, Rita (Shannon Summers). Otherwise, we might be inclined to raise our eyebrows at a scenario that in its third act somehow turns this crew of drug-running bikers into the film’s good guys…or anyway, less-bad guys…as they finally turn upon Mr Adrian. Even cut and MST-ied, The Hellcats is all but unbearable; avoid the uncut version like the plague*.
(*Though as has been remarked, we need to eliminate that expression, since human beings clearly don’t do anything of the kind…)
(NB: After hesitating over this, I did end up reviewing it in full; so you can either stick with this short summation, or listen to me bang on endlessly over here.)
Amanda (Susan George), a young woman studying childcare and development, is hired to babysit for the Lloyds in their large, isolated country house. Helen (Honor Blackman) is extremely nervous, and evidently reluctant to leave her toddler; however, Jim (George Cole) finally takes her away. Amanda begins to find the house unnerving, jumping at the sounds of creaking doors and rattling plumbing; and she is genuinely scared when she thinks she sees a face at the window. However, when her boyfriend, Chris (Denis Waterman), shows up uninvited, Amanda believes it was he frightening her as a joke. She lets him in, but tells him tartly he won’t be getting what he came for. Chris, in return, tells her some local gossip he has picked up: that “Mrs Lloyd” is actually still married to another man, who was confined to an asylum after trying to kill her and their baby. Meanwhile, at the inn where they are to dine, Helen and Jim are joined by their friend, Dr Cordell (John Gregson). Like Jim, Cordell tries to convince Helen that her fears and unhappiness are unwarranted; but she insists upon calling home, interrupting an intimate moment between Amanda and Chris. The two have a row that ends in Amanda turning Chris out of the house. He does not leave immediately, but lurks in the grounds watching her shadow on the blind—until suddenly, he is attacked and savagely beaten… Fright very nearly scored a full review and may still earn one, after I’ve had a chance to digest it a bit more—but just at the moment my overriding feeling is that it isn’t quite “there”. This is nevertheless an historically important film, the first real “threatened babysitter” horror movie and, as such, sometimes considered a proto-slasher. The problem is, it’s really neither of those things: the psychotic Brian Helstone (Ian Bannen), when he inevitably shows up, is looking for his wife and child, and Amanda is merely an obstacle—and then a substitute. Likewise, Amanda is no Final Girl: while she does take action to defend the (improbably placid) child, and once or twice manipulates Helstone by playing into his delusion that she is Helen, she spends most of the film cowering rather than fighting back. There are some effective sequences in Fright, but they are all built around Helstone—and when the behaviour of your psycho-killer makes more sense than anyone else’s, it’s a problem. Overall, this film plays too much like an expansion of one of the sections of an Amicus anthology: the pacing is off, the first half has too much padding, and the characters are annoying; although Honor Blackman has some good moments towards the end. (That said, she’s too old for the part she’s playing.) There is also a sour sort of satisfaction about the way things play out, after Amanda and Helen are separately patronised by their male companions over their “imaginations”. Two positives worth mentioning: at one point Amanda gets to watch Plague Of The Zombies on TV; and the Lloyds’ cat – Chekhov’s Cat, as I immediately dubbed it in horrified anticipation – appears to escape the film safely in spite of some offscreen yowling.
(Oh, dear. The more I think about it, the more I feel I should. There are things about this film that need saying; I just don’t feel like saying them…)
Evil Roy Slade (1972)
As a baby, Roy Slade is the only survivor of an attack upon a wagon train. Rejected first by the Apaches, and then by a passing pack of wolves, Roy must raise himself – he must even change his own diapers – and so grows up to be the meanest man in the west. As the head of his own gang, Evil Roy Slade (John Astin) conducts a campaign against the railway headed by Nelson L. Stool (Mickey Rooney), who retaliates by trying to bring out of retirement the guitar-slinging marshal, “Bing” Bell (Dick Shawn). Everything changes for Roy one day when he and his gang rob a bank, where one of the customers is the lovely Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin), newly returned from school in Boston and with her head full of ideas about redemption and reform… Evil Roy Slade was a childhood favourite, and watching it again after an interval of coughcough years, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it holds up. That said, it certainly has its flaws: the film is overlong, with a distinct sense that screenwriters Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall never thought of a joke they didn’t include, or ever knew how – or when – to end one. However, John Astin’s genuinely funny and weirdly sympathetic performance as Roy carries the production; the supporting cast is strong; and while some of the humour here is very much of its time, none of it is malicious. This is a gentler, less daring film than Blazing Saddles, though the production dates of the two are suggestive, and you could reasonably argue that they were aimed at the same audience (which is to say, people who get the Randolph Scott joke in the latter). Though the film is really all about John Astin, Evil Roy Slade also features Henry Gibson as Nelson Stool’s dimwitted nephew, Clifford; Milton Berle as Harry Fern, Betsy’s unfortunate shoe-salesman uncle; and Dom DeLuise as Dr Logan Delp, the surprisingly progressive psychiatrist tasked with teaching Roy how to “walk without his guns”. Luana Anders appears in a small role, while Penny Marshall has an unbilled cameo as a bank teller.
The House In Nightmare Park (1973)
While struggling actor and “master of the spoken word”, Foster Twelvetrees (Frankie Howerd), is giving literary readings to a small and unimpressed audience, Stewart Henderson (Ray Milland) slips outside to confirm to his sister, Jessica (Rosalie Crutchley), that, “It’s him.” Subsequently, Twelvetrees receives an invitation to the isolated Stewart house, where he is to receive five guineas in exchange for a private performance. No sooner has he arrived than Jessica and the Hendersons’ servant, Patel (John Bennett), search his luggage; but Jessica must report failure. The house party unexpectedly expands with the arrival of Reggie Henderson (Hugh Burden) and his daughter, Verity (Elizabeth MacLennan), and later, Ernest (Kenneth Griffith) and Agnes Henderson (Ruth Dunning): the brothers demand of Stewart their usual allowance, paid to them by the oldest of the family, Victor, who holds the family fortune. Meanwhile, already unnerved by the Hendersons’ snake-house, Twelvetrees encounters the elderly Mrs Henderson, who at first speaks pleasantly of the family’s performing days in India—but then pulls a knife. Twelvetrees escapes with Patel’s help, but later receives another shock when he discovers that Victor Henderson is dead—and has been for some time… Given its cast and its perfect positioning as a Hammer send-up, The House In Nightmare Park is disappointing. The film leans far too heavily upon Frankie Howerd’s brand of flailing and spluttering humour, without giving the rest of the cast enough to do; while some of the “jokes” are of their time in an uncomfortable way. The screenplay takes forever over its set-up, with not much really happening until the revelation of the true reason Twelvetrees was invited to the house. At this point things do liven up, with the various Hendersons turning on one another, a dead body showing up every other scene, and Twelvetrees fighting desperately to stay one step ahead of the rapacious crowd while figuring out who – if anyone – he can trust. Overall, however, the pacing is off, and there are long dead stretches between the occasional bits of successful comedy. Twelvetrees’ eventual expedition into the snake-house is a highlight, but (if you’ll forgive a bit of self-plagiarisation; see above) whether it’s worth sitting through the rest is debatable. The House In Nightmare Park was written by Clive Exton and Terry Nation, and directed by Peter Sykes, and should have been a much better riff on its inspirations than it is. However—we should note that the film got one thing right: its main setting is Oakley Court, the “old dark house” familiar from many British horror films of the 6os, including The Reptile.
Haunted Summer (1988)
Based upon the novel by Anne Edwards. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Eric Stoltz) travels through Italy with his mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Alice Krige), and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont (Laura Dern). After weeks of small, uncomfortable inns, Claire persuades Shelley to stop at a luxurious hotel. The reason for her urgency becomes apparent when Lord Byron (Philip Anglim) also arrives with his travelling companion and physician, John William Polidori (Alex Winter). Claire takes the first opportunity to rekindle her affair with Byron, which began in London. The meeting ends with the five spending the summer at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, where they discuss philosophy and science and experiment with drugs—and where tensions and desires threaten to tear more than one relationship apart… Surely the most unlikely of all Golan-Globus productions, Haunted Summer is (now) one of a small clutch of films to deal with events at the Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816—“the year without a summer”. This Ivan Passer-directed production positioned itself as far as possible from its immediate predecessor, Ken Russell’s Gothic; but its determined realism sometimes manifests as dullness—which is perhaps a truth that history doesn’t care to contemplate? There is nothing I despise more than that subset of biopics that insist that authors never write anything they don’t live first, but that said, despite events that self-evidently bear upon the subsequent creation of Frankenstein, literature is strangely absent from this version of events—probably because five people sitting around the fire reading to each other and then writing their own stories would make even poorer viewing. As it is, the screenplay by Lewis John Carlino focuses upon Byron’s sexual game-playing, his attempts to undermine Shelley’s optimistic belief in the future betterment of mankind—and his pursuit of Mary. The production values of Haunted Summer are excellent, but its casting is disconcerting, and – not the film’s fault, of course – has only become more so with time. Philip Anglim captures the self-loathing behind Byron’s posturing and his capacity for cruelty, but not his charisma; while Alice Krige, though radiant, gives us a Mary who seems the oldest of the group physically as well as emotionally (she was only nineteen). However, given the date of its production, the film is commendably forthright about its posited affair between Byron and Polidori, and in fact features more – or more explicit – male nudity than female. Ultimately, however, Haunted Summer never sheds a sense of self-consciousness, nor quite succeeds in making its characters real people.
On the planet Arturos, rogue cop Brick Bardo (Tim Thomerson) ends a hostage crisis in his own inimitable style, and pays the penalty with suspension and public condemnation. His day gets worse when he is abducted by the henchmen of his greatest enemy, Sprug (Frank Collison), who – thanks to Bardo’s skill with his powerful “Kruger Blaster” – is now no more than a head on a floating platform. The confrontation ends with Bardo chasing Sprug in space: when their ships pass through an energy field, they are transported light years and crash on Earth… In the Bronx, single mother Debi Alejandro (Kamala Lopez) fights back against the crime and drug-dealing in her neighbourhood, earning the enmity of Braxton Red (Jackie Earle Haley). Some of Red’s gang-members grab Debi and carry her to an isolated junkyard, but they are driven away by a strange attack made on them by an unseen assailant. Left alone, Debi can only stare in disbelief at her rescuer—who is only thirteen inches tall… Like too many Full Moon productions – and too many Albert Pyun films – so you can imagine what you get when it’s both at once – Dollman is too much premise and set-up and not enough story, its flimsy nature reflected in a running-time of barely seventy minutes (minus the dragged-out credits). On the positive side, Tim Thomerson is funny as Bardo, doing his best Clint Eastwood in spite of the many difficulties associated with his size and the indignity of being treated like an action figure by the neighbourhood kids. The film’s special effects are universally awful, but these too have their funny side; and the running-joke of Bardo’s deadly Kruger Blaster being likewise reduced to a pea-shooter mostly works. However, all of this sits uncomfortably besides a bit too much straight violence – including the unexpectedly disturbing demise of Sprug – and one of the grimmest cinematic portraits of the Bronx to be found outside of certain Italian science-fiction films of the 80s. The only other point of note is the performance of young Humberto Ortie as Debi’s son, Kevin, who gets the film’s best lines aside from Bardo.
Murder At My Door (1996)
The McNair family has struggled since the death of their young son, Joey, in a fire: Ed (R. H. Thomson) began drinking heavily to cope, while Irene (Judith Light) had an affair. Irene continues to blame herself for Joey’s death, and overcompensates by striving to present to the world “her perfect family”—refusing to see the cracks. When Teddy McNair (Johnny Galecki) returns unexpectedly from college, it opens up old wounds and conflicts. Teddy is still grieving for his grandmother, who he felt was the only one to understand and love him unconditionally; and he has confrontations with both his parents. The morning after Teddy catches up with his friends, Jeb (Jarred Blancard) and Katie (Lalainia Lindbjerg), at a bar, the McNairs receive a visit from Detective Mark Ferguson (Blu Mankuma), who tells them that Katie did not come home the previous night. Reluctantly, Teddy admits that Jeb and Katie had a fight. Later that day, Katie is found dead in the woods: she has been murdered, and her body posed, but she was not sexually assaulted. Ed and Irene are later disturbed to discover that Teddy has recorded the news report, and is playing it over and over. Irene agrees to go with Teddy to the country cottage once owned by her mother, so that they can have some time alone together; however, when she feels obliged to tell him they have decided to sell the place, Teddy explodes with anger. Irene receives a confusing message from Teddy’s college and goes there to confront the Dead—learning from him that Teddy did not drop out, but was expelled after verbally abusing his art teacher, who rejected his submission built around images of a woman’s mutilated body… Much like Hometown Killer (see below), Murder At My Door is a film that deserves praise for taking on a serious issue—but which, when all is said and done, just isn’t very good. Poor writing and some silly details combine to undermine this drama about parents who come to fear that their son may be a killer—and fear correctly: this is not a mystery, but rather a depiction of a family living with a sociopath; and one that asks how far incorrect nurturing goes towards “creating” a killer. Murder At My Door does get a few things right, particularly the fact that while Ed is at least 50% culpable in the family’s issues, Teddy places all the blame on Irene, and it is her he is lashing out at. There is also some subtlety about the enshrinement of the dead Joey as “the perfect child”, as opposed to the extremely flawed reality of Teddy; while the film redeems itself somewhat via Ed and Irene’s response to their discovery of evidence of Teddy’s guilt. Nearly everything else, however, is both predictable and fatally overdone—from Teddy’s idea of an appropriate department store display, to the absurd amount of evidence discovered by the anguished parents, which leaves them with no room for either hope or doubt. My favourite touch, however, is that Ed gets inside information on the murder – murders – from Detective Ferguson…who happens to be his A. A. sponsor: I hope he’s better at keeping his mouth shut there! Johnny Galecki gives a fair performance as Teddy, as far as the script permits; the highlight is probably Teddy’s “defence” of Jeb, which momentarily drops him deeper in the mire. The film also features Grace Zabriskie in a flashback scene as Teddy’s grandmother.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
Police cadet Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung) is recruited by Superintendent Wong Chi-shing (Anthony Wong) for a deep undercover operation amongst the Triads: publicly Yan is disgraced and expelled from the academy, but in reality he infiltrates the gang headed by Hon Sam (Eric Tsang). His mission is supposed to last three years, but time passes and he is not recalled; and as he is repeatedly and increasingly forced to participate in Triad crimes, Yan begins to lose sight of himself as a police officer… Meanwhile, fighting back in his own way, Sam has sent several young Triad members into the police academy. Outstanding amongst them is Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau), who rises to the rank of inspector and becomes part of Superintendent Wong’s team. Using the information provided by Yan, Wong plans to bust a drug deal between Sam and his Thai suppliers; but Lau intervenes and the plan falls apart—the circumstances making it plain that both sides have a mole… Infernal Affairs is a gritty and complex thriller that transcends its premise to become an almost painfully effective character study. Though there is plenty of action and violence here, and much double- and triple-crossing, the heart of the film remains its mirror-image central characters as each of them reaches the end of his tether—which occurs at almost exactly the same moment that each becomes aware of the other’s existence. Despite Yan’s decade-long immersion in crime and the escalating danger of his mission, it is Lau who is finally confronted with an untenable situation. Though he has never wavered in his role, he is a still a policeman, and a good one: a man who has earned the respect of his colleagues—and who has learned to respect them—and when his actions result in the torture and murder of another officer, Lau reaches his breaking-point… There are a few touches in Infernal Affairs where we might be critical. It skips a little too quickly over its set-up; the subplot involving Lau’s fiancée, Mary (Sammi Cheng), is over-obvious; and there are moments where can you lose track of whether you’re watching the good guys or the bad guys—though to be fair, that’s probably the point. It is, in all respects, a film that requires the viewer to pay attention. Co-directed by Alan Mak and Andrew Lau (no relation), Infernal Affairs also features Chapman To as gang-member Keung, Gordon Lam as Lau’s bureau subordinate, and Kelly Chen as Dr Lee.
Not Like Everyone Else (2006)
Brandi Blackbear (Alia Shawcat), a part-Native American teenager with Goth tendencies, is already an outsider when she, along with her fellow students, are confronted by the new realities of life after Columbine: security guards and cameras, metal detectors, bag and personal searches, and a manual listing many new rules and interdictions. Nor can Brandi find a refuge at home, where her father, Tim (Eric Schweig), devotes all his spare time to Brandi’s brother, Tim Jr (Nakotah LaRance), and all but ignores his daughter. Toni Blackbear (Illeana Douglas) is understanding and sympathetic, but she works long hours and cannot always be there to help. Brandi takes her frustrations out in her short stories and artwork, which take on ever-darker themes. In the hyper-vigilant new atmosphere at the school, Brandi’s defiant attitude is construed as threatening, and after being accused of intending violence, she is suspended. Upon her return, she is more excluded than ever; and when her research into Wicca becomes widely known – and when a teacher falls ill after a confrontation – Brando is suspended again, this time accused of witchcraft… For once, the “based on a true story credit” doesn’t make us roll our eyes: Not Like Everyone Else sticks reasonably close to the facts in telling the story of the Oklahoma high-schooler who fell foul of the new post-Columbine world, and whose parents retaliated with a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter against her school, alleging violation of her civil liberties. What this made-for-TV drama does best is capture the panicky, high-tension atmosphere that prevailed at the time, and the impossible demands made upon schools with respect to security and and surveillance, and the enforcement of new rules. However, what it also does is capture an infuriating irony: that the very conditions intended to keep students safe created infinite new opportunities for the exclusion and persecution of “outsiders”. The very first morning after the enforcement, the principal (Ritchie Montgomery) finds himself having to deal with a swarm of students “sent to the office”, some of them caught with items now considered contraband, but others who just can’t wait to
snitch on kids they don’t like “express their concerns”. Of course, outside America – perhaps even outside the Bible Belt? – the fact that in the year 2000 someone could end up literally being accused of witchcraft is mind-blowing—and not in a good way. Not Like Everyone Else holds its nerve to the end, not softening the outcome of the lawsuit or inventing a happy – or happier – ending to the story. Alia Shawcat is very good as Brandi, capturing the miseries often inflicted upon those who simply are not – and will not be – like “everyone else”.
Original title: Madeo. In a small South Korean town, a widow (Kim Hye-ja) supports herself and her intellectually disabled son, Da-joon (Won Bin), by selling medicinal herbs—and by offering illegal acupuncture treatments on the side. When Da-joon is the victim of a hit-and-run, he and his friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo) pursue the luxury car, with the latter damaging the vehicle in revenge—although when the police is called, he has little difficulty convincing them, or Da-joon himself, that the latter was responsible. Faced with paying for the damage, his mother scolds Da-joon and orders him to stay away from Jin-tae. However, Da-joon goes out to meet his friend again, though Jae-tin does not show up. Da-joon is chased away by the angry cafe owner, both because he cannot pay his bill, and because of his evident interest in Mi-na (Chun Woo-hee), the owner’s teenage daughter. While walking home, Da-joon sees and follows another girl, Moon Ah-jung (Moon Hee-ra), but she chases him away by throwing a rock at him. The next morning, Ah-jung is found murdered on a rooftop, her body hung on a balustrade so that it is visible to the whole town. A golf ball with his name written on it found at the scene leads to Da-joon’s arrest; the police have no trouble manipulating him into signing a confession, though he tells his mother calmly that of course he did not do it. Isolated by her outraged community, Da-joon’s mother sets out to prove her son’s innocence… Directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho, Mother is much a character study as a murder mystery or a thriller, unfolding a complete and unhappy picture of the life of its deliberately unnamed protagonist as she fights her lonely battle to free her son. However, neither is this a simple tale of a devoted mother: this is a film that delights in confounding its audience with unexpected shadings and revelations, including about “Mother” herself who, behind her submissive façade, is an angry woman with a temper and a foul mouth when provoked, and one motivated by guilt as much as love. Similarly, although Mother is clearly right about the violent, dishonest Jae-tin being an undesirable companion for Da-joon, he proves an unexpectedly loyal friend and is more help in the quest for Da-joon’s freedom than the lawyer hired to defend him. The opening scenes of Mother present Da-joon as a shy and gentle young man, though one capable of anger when his disability is mocked; while we learn too that he has trouble forming memories, and is frighteningly persuadable. Without medical or legal representation, Da-joon’s confession is a matter of course; even though one of the detectives, Je-moon (Yoon Je-moon), is clearly uncomfortable with this rush to close the case—and admits as much to Mother, who knows him. The town in which the story unfolds is small enough for most people to know most other people – and most other people’s business – and it is therefore not surprising that the dogged parent soon makes more progress in investigating Ah-jung’s murder than the disinterested police. Shifting personas as required, from sweet ageing lady to desperate mother to risk-taking detective, Mother learns that Ah-jung helped support her dementia-stricken grandmother by trading sex for rice—and that she was in the habit of keeping a photographic record of her partners on her phone; something that may be a problem for someone, as Ah-jung was still a minor…
Ninja Assassin (2009)
In his isolated compound, Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi), head of the ancient ninja clan, raises and trains a group of orphans as professional assassins. Though groomed to take over leadership of the clan, when the moment comes to display his loyalty by executing a rebel kunoichi, Raizo (Rain aka Jung Ji-hoon) instead breaks away from the clan—slashing Lord Ozunu’s face, fighting against the other ninjas, and barely escaping with his life… While investigating a series of assassinations, including that of the Russian President, Europol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) becomes convinced that they are the work of the Ozunu. Mika has little success convincing her superior, Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles), of her theory, until her research brings heat down upon the pair of them from everyone from internal affairs to the CIA. Mika arrives home one night to find the power out in her building and what she knows is a warning from the Ozuno – a letter containing black sand – in her apartment. Moments later she is attacked by a shadowy figure—only for a second intruder to intervene… Directed by James McTeigue and produced by The Wachowskis and Joel Silver, Ninja Assassin grew out of 2008’s Speed Racer, in which K-pop star Rain appeared as a racing driver-cum-ninja. A conscious effort to blend the sensibilities of the Golum-Globus ninja epics of the 1980s with the green-screen action movies of more recent times, the film fails for what I can only call the obvious reasons—though perhaps also on more fundamental grounds. Ninja Assassin basically exists to serve up a fight-scene every five to ten minutes, and it certainly does that; however, nearly everything that happens here does so in the dark, while the fights themselves combine wire-work and obvious CGI bloodshed to an ever-escalating and ultimately absurd degree—to their detriment. Only a few of the numerous face-offs have the desired effect, most noticeably a katana-fight that spills out of a building into the middle of a busy motorway without the drivers taking much notice. (That’s the autobahn for you, I guess.) Meanwhile, the surrounding narrative toggles between obvious and lame—with, of course, one significant point of exception. For viewers of a certain age, there is only one real reason to watch Ninja Assassin, and that is the casting of the legendary Sho Kosugi as Lord Ozunu. The rest of the film isn’t up to him, though, with Naomie Harris in particular seeming out of place as librarian-turned-would-be-action-girl, Mika. As for Rain, it is obvious that he put in a lot of hard work in preparation for this production, and he certainly isn’t the reason for its failure. Truthfully, most of the criticism of him out there seems agenda-driven—and really, I can only say in response that people who find Rain unconvincing as a ninja have obviously never seen Franco Nero trying it…
I’m not sure whether this is an apology, a disclaimer, or just a rant, but anyhoo— While I complained a bit about this sort of thing in my last update, not since Maximum Velocity have I had so much trouble hearing a film. Between the accents, the mumbled delivery, the jargon, the echo-ey and bubbly effects and the soundtrack, I struggled to make out more than half of what was said. If anyone has seen or can see this, I’d love to know if it’s just me or the film itself.
I suspect the latter: I haven’t seen this done before, but apparently someone else thought this film needed help:
In the Somali Basin, a four-man dive-team is ordered down in a diving-bell to repair an oil pipeline, in spite of worsening weather conditions. One of them, Jones (Joe Cole), must prepare for his first descent; another, Hurst (Alan McKenna), has been drinking in expectation of a day off. The descent goes as planned, and Hurst, Mitchell (Matthew Goode) and Engel (Danny Huston) exit the bell to work on the pipe. Suddenly, conditions worsen dramatically: Hurst immediately abandons the job to return to the bell, urging the others to do likewise; but Mitchell and Engel stay to finish the work. They then request recall, but on their way up something goes drastically wrong, with the battered diving-bell dropping back to the sea-bed. While the other three inspect the bell for damage on the inside, Engel swims out to check the vessel’s umbilicus—and discovers to his horror that the ship has been sunk in the storm. When he breaks the news, the team must confront their limited air supply and the unlikelihood of their rescue… Pressure is a film that, to a point, works almost in spite of itself, with fear of drowning, fear of suffocation and claustrophobia the most basic realities of its premise. Added to this is the natural tension among the men, with Jones’ inexperience at one end of the scale and Hurst’s recklessness at the other, and in the middle Mitchell’s desire to play things by the book set against Engel’s cynical belief that if they are to be rescued, they must do it themselves. So far, so good. Beyond this, however, the film starts to fall apart: insufficient technical information is provided, and too much of what is, is lost between the mumbling and the echoes. Furthermore, though I can’t speak to this myself, several dive-knowledgeable reviewers have attacked the screenplay’s inaccuracy. This may not be the case for everyone, but from my own point of view I was too often unable to understand what the men were doing or why they were doing it, and consequently lost interest. The situation itself holds the film together to a certain extent, but in the end it was hard to go on caring.
(Oh, and by the way— You almost have to admire the fact that, despite this film’s premise and its limited cast, they still found a way to shoehorn in some full-frontal female nudity…)
The Untamed (2016)
Original title: La Región Salvaje (The Wild Region). Though married to Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), with whom he has two children, Ángel (Jesús Meza) is secretly having an affair with his brother-in-law, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). While at his job as a nurse, Fabian treats Veronica (Simone Bucio) for a strange bite mark on her abdomen, which she insists was caused by a dog. As the two talk, Veronica tries flirting with Fabian; but, soon realising that she is on the wrong track, she then invites him out as a friend. Fabian tells her something about his affair, admitting that the situation is toxic and he needs to end it; while Veronica also admits to some sort of untoward relationship. When Fabian begins to ignore his texts, Ángel tracks him down at work, becoming furious when Fabian breaks off with him. Soon afterwards, Veronica takes Fabian to visit friends of hers, a scientist and his wife, who live in an isolated cabin in a rural area… When Fabian is found naked, unconscious and apparently sexually assaulted, the police investigation closes in on Ángel, whose argument with Fabian was witnessed; furthermore, a horrified Alejandra discovers her husband’s explicit texts on her brother’s phone. While sitting with the comatose Fabian, Alejandra makes a connection with Veronica—who invites her to visit her friends in the country… It is some time into The Untamed before the full reason for its usual classification as “science fiction” becomes clear, courtesy of a second-half revelation that somewhat aligns the film with Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. These elements are as much a metaphor and a smokescreen as what The Untamed is actually about, however, and they sit rather queasily inside a socially critical scenario presented with unflinching realism. Setting his film in Guanajuato, where he grew up, writer-director Amat Escalante uses his film to attack the hypocrisy and violence inherent in local attitudes to sexuality; drawing particularly upon two shocking incidents, the murder of a homosexual man and the media slut-shaming of the victim of an attempted rape. Increasingly, The Untamed focuses upon Alejandra, who is devoted to her two small sons, but otherwise unhappy and frustrated in her stifling marriage to the selfish Ángel. Through her friendship with Veronica, arising out of their mutual affection for Fabian – and with Ángel detained on suspicion – Alejandra begins for the first time to think about what she wants; though she has no idea what lies in wait for her in that cottage in the country, nor of how far she might be willing to go to satisfy her needs… The main flaw in The Untamed is an over-obliqueness in its introduction of the couple and their relationship with Veronica, which makes the early stages of the film somewhat difficult to follow. Meanwhile, the film’s final third, in which the narrative’s disparate elements collide – and explicitly – may not (to put it mildly) be for all tastes. On the whole Amat Escalante supports his characters’ pursuit of their fulfillment, but he also makes it clear that unbridled sexuality and pleasure have their dangers…
Hometown Killer (2019)
Tara (Kaitlyn Black) is at home alone when an armed burglar breaks into her house. She manages to contact 911 before being grabbed and terrorised into showing where her jewellery is kept. Penny Blake (Ashley Gallegos), the police officer sent to the scene, sees what is going on through a window and calls for back-up; however, seeing also that the intruder is armed, she enters the house. In an exchange of shots, the intruder is fatally injured. Penny’s partner, Officer Kuttler (Michael James Lazar), arrives and criticises her for not immediately calling in the shooting. Penny, however, has realised who she rescued: she and Tara went to high-school together, and were close friends until Tara fell in with the popular crowd and rejected the shy, awkward Penny. That night, Tara confesses to her husband, Charles (Jon Prescott), how badly she feels over her past treatment of Penny; he urges her to make amends. Penny, meanwhile, though she told Tara that she has forgotten all about their high-school days, is brooding over her memories of an act of vicious bullying led by Tara’s then-boyfriend, Nolan (Kelly Marcus)… Hometown Killer is a frustrating film. Much of what it is trying to say is worthwhile – that bullying can do long-term damage; conversely, that people can and do change themselves for the better – but having started to make its points, it then flips everything on its head—turning its bullying victim into its villain, punishing someone who has in fact got their life together, and even allowing the still stupidly cruel Nolan to play an important part in its story’s resolution. And of course, this is a Lifetime movie—so it does all this in the most absurd manner possible. Far from “forgetting” her public humiliation, Penny is obsessed with it to the point of mental instability (one wonders in passing how she passed her psych evaluation); and when her cautious response to Tara’s overtures ends in disaster – and when Nolan, on the end of a savage beat-down, shifts the blame for the bullying onto Tara – Penny loses it altogether, as does the film. Apparently forgetting that she has a job, the screenplay has her devoting all her time and energy to a complex plan to ruin Tara’s life; while likewise, the already suspicious Kuttler puts his job on hold in order to follow Penny around and see what she’s up to. Initially it seems that Penny’s plan is to destroy Tara and Charles’ happy marriage, but something far darker is in the works: nothing less than framing Tara for murder…