Et Al. Feb22

The Intruder (1933)

As the ocean liner SS Intruder is struck by a violent storm, Captain Rush (Allan Cavan) learns that one of the passengers, Gardiner, has been murdered. Rush arrives at the scene to discover a man rifling the victim’s pockets; however, he introduces himself as Detective-Lieutenant Samson (William B. Davidson), and explains that he had been tracking Gardiner over a fortune in stolen uncut diamonds—which are now missing. In addition to his valet, Carlo (Sidney Bracey), Samson demands the presence of those passengers who interacted with Gardiner: Connie Wayne (Lila Lee); her father, Mr Wayne (Wilfred Lucas), and brother, Reggie (Arthur Housman); John Brandt (Monte Blue); third-class passenger, Cramer (Harry Cording); and the woman from the next cabin, Daisy (Gwen Lee), whom Carlo obviously knows. Reggie is out cold drunk, but Samson begins questioning the rest, showing that his suspicions rest on Brandt—reasonably enough, after a search of his cabin finds the diamonds. At that moment, however, the ship strikes a reef. Samson, his suspects and several officers end up in the same lifeboat, which the next day runs ashore on a deserted island…or is it? The Intruder is a strange little film of the one-thing-after-another variety, held together somewhat tenuously by some dubious humour and its murder mystery plot-thread (a second murder following in due course), but which is quite as interested in throwing its mismatched characters together on an island already occupied by a large ape, and by a castaway of longstanding (Mischa Auer) who has understandably lost his mind—and whose inability to escape gives the new castaways food for thought. The Intruder is a rather clunky, low-budget film, but with enough going on to mostly hold the attention. Gwen Lee is the best thing about it, in a sort of sub-Joan Blondell role (like Blondell, she gets all the best lines); and there is some nice egalitarianism in the friendship that develops between obvious B-girl Daisy and “society lady” Connie Wayne. Reggie Wayne, meanwhile, is the obligatory Comic Relief Drunk—only he sobers up on the island and proves himself a lot smarter than he seems. Monte Blue has a couple of good moments as the suspect-turned-hero, as does John Beck as the Intruder‘s first mate, and Mischa Auer is certainly memorable, but otherwise this is a very minor production.

It’s Never Too Late To Mend (1937)

Based upon the novel by Charles Reade. In a quiet English village, Mr Merton (D. J. Williams) intervenes in a conversation between his daughter, Susan (Marjorie Taylor), and George Fielding, a young man who is struggling to make a success of his farm. Merton tells Fielding roughly that he may aspire to Susan’s hand when he has one thousand pounds down. Nearby, Squire John Meadows (Tod Slaughter) is making his own interest in Susan known to her, but she rebuffs him. Not one to be thwarted, the Squire puts in motion a plot: he earns the gratitude of Merton and Susan by helping the former out of his own financial difficulties and, through bribery, frames Fielding as a poacher. However, Tom Robinson (Jack Livesey), a young radical whose life Fielding once saved, makes a hasty false confession to the poaching. Though saved from prison, Fielding nevertheless departs the village, accompanying a friend to Australia in the hopes of making his fortune. Before he leaves, he and Susan swear to wait for one another. Meanwhile, convicted on his confession, Robinson must face the horrors of prison—where the vengeful Squire Matthews is one of the governors… The success of Charles Reade’s 1856 novel was a significant factor in British prison reform, but this 1937 adaption is more absurd than galvanising. It does indeed dwell upon prison conditions at the time, having the village minister, Mr Eden (Roy Russell), give up his quiet life to take up a position as prison chaplain, and therefore act as the audience’s surrogate as he makes horrifying discovery after horrifying discovery; but more screen-time is devoted to Tod Slaughter roaring at the rafters, figuratively twirling his moustache, and chowing down on any piece of furniture within reach. In fact, It’s Never Too Late To Mend may have the distinction of featuring the most over-the-top of all Tod Slaughter’s performances—which is saying something. Furthermore, Slaughter draws Marjorie Taylor (also the heroine of The Crimes Of Stephen Hawke) into his maelstrom, with the first scene between them being so hilariously awful, it feels like a mocking parody of the very genre Slaughter was so devoted to, rather than the real thing. (She tones it down after that; he doesn’t.) In trying to compress a three-volume sensation novel into a 70-min film, rookie director David MacDonald and screenwriter H. F. Maltby ended up with an unbalanced scenario that lurches from plot-thread to plot-thread, as Matthews himself lurches from amusing himself with dishing out sadistic punishments to the inmates under his “care”, and going to ridiculous lengths to separate Susan and Fielding permanently and manoeuvre her into marriage. With the help of a corrupt solicitor, Crawley (Laurence Hanray), Matthews intercepts the letters between the young couple, spreads false rumours of Fielding’s marriage in Australia, manipulates Mr Merton—and finally catches Susan at a weak moment. But as the wedding approaches, not only does Fielding return to the village, heart-whole, single and wealthy, but Robinson is released from prison—and Matthews must act swiftly if Susan is to be his…

The Invisible Killer (1939)

In a city in the grip of warring gambling syndicates, police detective Jerry Brown (Roland Drew) and his fiancée, newspaperwoman Sue Walker (Grace Bradley), compete to crack a series of related murders. Brown works with District Attorney Sutton (Crane Whitley) and Mr Cunningham (Boyd Irwin), an anti-corruption campaigner; while Sue has a network of contacts that includes the Cunninghams’ butler (David Oliver) and Sergeant Dugan (William Newell), Brown’s own subordinate. In the wake of the most recent murder, and a crackdown on gambling announced by Sutton, crime figure “Lefty” Ross (Sidney Grayler) agrees to do a deal, trading information in exchange for safe passage out of town. Before Ross can talk, he receives a phone-call—and shots ring out while he is taking it. However, the autopsy later reveals that it wasn’t the bullets that killed him: he was poisoned… It’s not often I watch a film without recognising a single name in the credits, but such was the case with The Invisible Killer; albeit that it turned out that several participants were, understandably, hiding behind pseudonyms, including the Newfield / Neufeld brothers, who produced and directed this pre- (and sub-) PRC effort. Though it runs only just over an hour, The Invisible Killer is a real slog to get through. The plot is both convoluted and senseless; the male characters are almost indistinguishable, making it hard to keep up; and the whole thing is built around one of those excruciating “romantic” relationships wherein the couple prove how much they love each other by being completely hateful to one another—and in the case of Jerry Brown, sabotaging Sue’s career so she’ll quit and marry him. (And why not, when his catchphrase is, “I’d like to break that girl’s neck!”) The idea of murder victims being shot to disguise the fact they’re being poisoned is almost dumb enough to be entertaining, but since we barely know who these people are, it’s impossible to care. It’s actually Sue who makes most of the important discoveries, partly thanks to her contacts, but partly also to her ability to make friends. Crucially, she endears herself to Gloria (Jeanne Kelly), Cunningham’s daughter, who is officially engaged to DA Sutton, but playing with fire in the form of mob attorney, Arthur Enslee (Alex Callam). When Cunningham becomes one of the victims of the gambling war, Sue and Gloria hatch a dangerous plot to expose the killer…

Power Dive (1941)

Bradley Farrell (Richard Arlen) is a test pilot with the McMasters Corporation. He is due to attempt a speed record for a flight between Los Angeles and New York, but worries that the newly designed plane won’t carry its assigned weight. Brad’s fears are dismissed by his boss, Dan McMasters (Roger Pryor), but he is proved right in the worst way when the plane fails at take-off. The crash leaves Brad with a broken leg, and brings to the scene his young brother, Doug (Don Castle). Though an aeronautical design graduate, Doug dreams of emulating his brother. However, determined to keep Doug away from the dangerous business, Brad gets him a job as a design engineer at McMasters. One day, Doug encounters Carol Blake (Jean Parker), who is looking for Brad to show him her father’s revolutionary design for a plane constructed from a new form of plastic. Smitten, Doug impulsively introduces himself as Brad… Richard Arlen was an enthusiastic pilot in addition to being an actor (he served in the Canadian RFC during WWI, which influenced his casting in Wings), and Power Dive was the first of three aviation films he made with the newly formed Pine-Thomas Productions company. This is a film of two halves, with the on-the-ground stuff – particularly the inevitable love triangle that forms between the brothers and Carol – testing the viewer’s patience, but with some excellent flying scenes (despite some shonky model work) and an outrageous climactic sequence that makes up for all the rest. The contemporary look at aviation design is genuinely interesting—as is the film’s uncompromising attitude to the dangers involved in testing out those designs: Brad’s dissuasion of Doug consists of walking him through a memorial wall dedicated to the men who have lost their lives, not in the war, but since; while another friend, Johnny Coles (Louis Jean Heydt), who is challenging McMasters with his own radical new design, has his prototype crack up during its test flight. (Heydt met more or less the same fate in the same year’s Dive Bomber.) Nevertheless, Brad and Doug work to bring the dream of Carol’s blind father, Professor Blake (Thomas W. Ross), to fruition, even as the two of them fall out bitterly over their feelings for Carol herself; and when an opportunity arises to demonstrate the Blake plane for the army, they both seize it. But when a piece of army recording equipment breaks loose during a dive, it may mean total disaster…

The Island Monster (1954)

Original title: Il mostro dell’isola (The Monster Of The Island). Police detective Mario Andreani (Renato Vicario) is sent on an undercover assignment to Ischia, a small island off the Italian coast, which the authorities are certain is the base of a narcotics trafficking operation: he is ordered to work with the local revenue officers led by Marshall Antonio Carcani (Giuseppe Chinnici). However, the criminals are tipped off to Andreani’s presence; and while the detective is investigating a nightclub known to be a centre of drug activity, Gloria D’Auro (Franca Marzi), a recovered addict and gang-member who sings at the club, is ordered to vamp him. Andreani’s mission is complicated when his wife, Giulia (Jole Fierro), and young daughter, Fiorella (Patrizia Remiddi), arrive on the island. Meanwhile, the detective makes the acquaintance of Don Gaetano (Boris Karloff), known locally as “the Benefactor” for his charity clinic and care of children in need. Secretly, however, Don Gaetano is the ruthless head of the drug cartel; and when he fears that Andreani is getting too close, he orders the kidnapping of Fiorella… It’s been a big month for bait-and-switch plots (as you’ll see below), and this Italian drama offers yet another—serving up a real-life monster in place of the one tacitly promised by the presence of Boris Karloff. The Island Monster is a muddled crime thriller that feels like it’s either been cut or lost something in translation. Chunks of the plot are impossible to follow, most obviously how the traffickers knew about Andreani’s mission before it happened, yet he’s still able to infiltrate the gang posing as a buyer from Genoa. There’s also some unforgivable stupidity here—such as Andreani discussing his undercover identity with his wife in a public place, and she, in turn, barging into his mission as if he’s on holiday instead of fighting a drug cartel. In its English-language prints, the film suffers badly from its mumbly dubbing, with two cases (negatively) standing out: Boris Karloff has been dubbed by someone who sounds like Bobby Pickett doing a Cockney accent; and they’ve done the usual adult-woman-dubbing-young-child thing, which as the unfortunate Fiorella spends most of her time crying and shrieking, is just intolerable. The main attraction here, almost the only one, is Karloff cast entirely against type as “kindly Dr Gaetano”, who uses his clinic’s legitimate importation of supplies as a cover for drug trafficking. Perhaps realising that he wasn’t going to be able to sell it with his voice, Karloff gives an unusually physical performance here: one capped by a clear hommage sequence in which Gaetano runs from his pursuers with Fiorella in his arms. The other main positive in The Island Monster is the Andreanis’ dog, a police-school drop-out, who nevertheless is finally responsible both for the rescue of Fiorella and the take-down of Gaetano.

Hercules And The Black Pirate (1964)

Original title: Sansone contro il corsaro nero (Samson Against The Black Pirate); also known as: Hercules And The Black Pirates, Hercules And The Pirates. In Mexico, though Spanish soldiers win a decisive battle against the pirates that have been terrorising the colony, their leader, known only as the Black Pirate (Andrea Aureli), escapes with a single ship. The soldiers are praised by the Governor (Nerio Bernardi), particularly the man nicknamed “Hercules” (Alan Steel aka Sergio Ciani) for his great physical strength. The Governor’s impulse is to bestow a royal order upon Hercules, but his counselor, Don Rodrigo Sanchez (Piero Lulli), reminds him that such a reward can only be given to men of the nobility: Hercules, as he himself admits without shame, was the son of a fisherman. During an entertainment held at the Governor’s mansion, his eldest daughter, Rosita (Rosalba Neri), slips away to meet with Hercules: the two are in love, but Hercules fears that the Governor will never consent to their marriage. Meanwhile, Don Rodrigo also slips away for a secret meeting—with the Black Pirate, with whom he is conspiring to obtain the huge deposit of gold and treasure held by the Governor. With the pirates in retreat, Don Rodrigo proposes a drastic new plan: to assassinate the Governor, so that he, Rodrigo, will be left in charge… First things first: this is clearly not a Hercules film in the usual sense of that expression; and really, I don’t know why they couldn’t have stuck with “Samson”, instead of ticking off the peplum crowd with a title bait-and-switch. I always thought Alan Steel was an odd Hercules, but with his short, stocky build he’s an even odder stand-in for Errol Flynn. (In his wide-shouldered Spanish costumes, Steel is nearly as broad as he  is high!) Nevertheless, Hercules And The Black Pirate is a fair swashbuckler, benefiting from its unusual historical setting and (at least if you can find a decent print) some nice production design. The plot is perfectly obvious, with Piero Lulli as Don Rodrigo smirking his way through a variety of evil schemes, and Hercules thwarting said schemes on a regular basis—until Rodrigo and the Black Pirate agree that removing him is their #1 priority. Rodrigo helps this along by revealing to the Governor his daughter’s secret romance; and an ugly scene ends with Hercules dismissed from service. Rodrigo then abducts the Governor’s younger daughter, Alma (Cinzia Bruno), making it look like Hercules has taken her in revenge: his plan being to demand the colony’s entire fortune in ransom… Despite a few dead patches and some over-broad humour, this is by and large an entertaining film. The most interesting thing about Hercules And The Black Pirate, however, is what it doesn’t do. When Hercules starts talking about his fisherman father, and we are introduced to his tavern-keeping foster mother (Margherita Bossi), we roll our eyes in anticipation—but no: Hercules remains the son of a fisherman to the end, with “the nobility of his deeds” finally winning over his future father-in-law. Furthermore, the rag-tag villagers who Hercules hangs out with are finally much more help in defeating the pirates once and for all than the Spanish soldiers whose job it actually is. The main disappointment here is that Rosalba Neri is completely wasted in a thankless “romantic interest” role.

I Saw What You Did (1965)

Based upon the novel Out Of The Dark by Ursula Curtiss. Teenagers, Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) and Kit Austin (Sara Lane) spend the evening together at the Mannerings’ isolated house. When the babysitter for young Tess (Sharyl Locke) cancels at the last moment, her mother (Patricia Breslin) is reluctant to leave; but Mr Mannering (Leif Erickson) reminds her that their evening out is business as well as pleasure. Left alone, the girls begin amusing themselves with crank telephone calls. One such call reaches the home of Steve Marak (John Ireland) and his wife, Judith (Joyce Meadows), who are in the middle of a bitter break-up. When Judith goes to call her husband to the phone, instead she is savagely attacked… To Marak’s alarm, his house is then invaded by his neighbour, Amy Nelson (Joan Crawford), with whom he has been having an affair. Marak gets rid of her, but from her windows Amy sees him forcing a large bundle into his car… Marak succeeds in disposing of Judith’s body, though he is nearly caught by a young woman walking her dog—and when, back home, he answers the phone, it is to hear a female voice whispering, “I saw what you did, and I know who you are…” Produced and directed by William Castle, I Saw What You Did has some good ideas and some effective scenes, but they don’t hang together particularly well, and the film struggles to get over its pacing issues. Far too much time is devoted to the girls’ wanderings around the Mannerings’ property (though we understand this is to set up the film’s climax), and to their crank calls, before we get down to the business of their accidental intrusion into the murder of Judith Marak. Even then, Libby Mannering’s growing fixation upon the owner of the “sexy voice”, and the increasing recklessness of her subsequent behaviour, feels forced and unconvincing. On the other side of the film, however, the murder scene is genuinely shocking, and outrageous in its conception—being a gender-flipped version of the shower scene in Psycho. Joan Crawford’s performance as a woman so desperate to grab a man, she’s willing to overlook a little detail like murder, is hard to take; although Amy’s rage when she later encounters the (very) young woman she mistakenly believes to be her rival gives us a more recognisable Crawford. John Ireland is too old for his role, but his anger and violence as Marak are convincing, and make the viewer all too aware of the extent to which Libby is playing with fire… At this distance, the hardest thing to swallow about I Saw What You Did may be its crank-call premise; while some viewers will be forced to confront the fact that they’re old enough to remember a world built around the landline and the phone-book…and a time when everyone answered the phone…

MacArthur (1977)

During a farewell address delivered to the cadets at West Point, General Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck) looks back over his career… In 1942, as the Philippines are subjected to brutal Japanese bombardment, General MacArthur makes promises that an exasperated Franklin D. Roosevelt (Dan O’Herlihy) and his strategists cannot fulfill. When he receives a presidential order for his personal evacuation, MacArthur briefly considers disobeying, but finally submits—but insists upon leaving in a PT boat, to prove that the blockade can be broken, instead of “sneaking away” in a submarine. Reaching Australia with his wife, Jean (Marj Dusay), and their young son, MacArthur travels by train to Melbourne where he faces the press—sending a message to those in the Philippines: “I shall return…” From Australia, MacArthur plans to take the war to the Japanese first in New Guinea, then back in the Philippines… In 1945, it is MacArthur who accepts the Japanese surrender: he is then tasked with overseeing the occupation and rebuilding of Japan. When the United States becomes involved in the police action in Korea, MacArthur is placed in charge—and proposes a radical plan to cut the invaders’ supply lines via an “impossible” beach landing at Inchon… This 1977 biopic dealing with the career of Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor onwards is a film of good intentions, but one scuppered by its uncertain attitude towards its own subject. In fairness to the film-makers, it seems that MacArthur was initially conceived as a more forthright, “warts and all” view of the military leader and his eventual downfall—only for the project to fall foul of Gregory Peck’s growing identification with MacArthur, which led to him fighting against too negative a depiction. The results are a wavering tone and a tendency to shy away from getting deeply into any aspect of MacArthur’s behaviour; and though the film is far from uncritical, it ignores many of his most significant missteps. There are, in addition, some historical inaccuracies in the film: some for dramatic effect; some for simplification (the “I shall return” speech was actually made at Terowie, in South Australia, where the MacArthurs changed trains); some because of the wholly American point of view – there were some moments here that made me clench my teeth – and some, in fairness again, because the truth was still classified when the film was made. Tasked with compressing so much potential material within a two-hour running-time, writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins produced a rather fragmented screenplay that jumps fairly rapidly over MacArthur’s WII activities to focus upon the invasion of Inchon, the general’s subsequent conduct with respect to the Chinese, and his eventual removal from command. Possibly too involved with his subject, Gregory Peck fails to make MacArthur three-dimensional; though some of this can also be laid at the feet of the writers. MacArthur also stars Ed Flanders as President Truman; Ivan Bonar as General Sutherland, MacArthur’s chief-of-staff; Sandy Kenyon as General Wainwright; Russell Johnson as Admiral King; Addison Powell as Admiral Nimitz; and Kenneth Tobey as Admiral Halsey.

(Random thought: this Zanuck / Brown production was their follow up to Jaws; it was directed by Joseph Sargent, who later directed – ulp! – Jaws: The Revenge.)

Inchon (1981)

Having re-watched MacArthur, I was moved to take a look at Inchon, which I had never seen. As it turns out, there is only one uncut print of the film in existence, fortunately available on YouTube (at least as of this writing): a copy of a video recording made from the GoodLife TV Network—which at the time was owned by the Unification Church, the film’s producers. The full, jaw-dropping story of the production of Inchon was told by the Medveds in their book, The Hollywood Hall Of Shame, and I’m not going to get into that side of it here. What I will say, though, is that the film’s inclusion in that book gives perhaps the wrong impression of it—and that anyone coming to Inchon in expectation of one of the Great Bad Films will be sorely disappointed. This is a thoroughly mediocre war drama, enlivened only by its bizarre casting, some awful special effects (where did all that money go?), and some weird script choices. In June 1950, North Korean troops armed with Soviet tanks pour across the border into South Korea, slaughtering the civilian population. In a small village not far from the invasion point, Barbara Hallsworth (Jacqueline Bisset), the estranged wife of an American officer, is shopping for furniture for her interior-design business when the alarm is raised: her Korean contact hurries her away, advising her to go the American Embassy in Seoul. Meanwhile, on an island near Inchon, Major Frank Hallsworth (Ben Gazzara) parts from his Korean girlfriend, Lim (Karen Kahn): he explains to her that though he intends to divorce Barbara, it is still his responsibility to get her out of Korea. Hallsworth is piloted across the bay by Saito (Mifune Toshiro), Lim’s father, a former soldier who has since embraced Buddhism and pacifism. The major is met by Sergeant Gus Henderson (Richard Roundtree), who drives him to Barbara’s hotel in Seoul, but there is no sign of her. In Tokyo, journalists are told that shortly, General Douglas MacArthur (Laurence Olivier) will hold a press conference; veteran reporter David Feld (David Janssen) reacts cynically to the others’ faith in the general. From the front, Hallsworth contacts MacArthur to report the inadequacies of the South Korean troops and equipment—and that, in his opinion, the invaders will be in Seoul within 24 hours… Though interspersing them with scenes of combat and destruction, Inchon remains exasperatingly focused upon its American characters: doing, in fact, that infuriating thing where an estranged couple getting back together is treated as more important than the slaughter going on around them. Thus, we spend long chunks of the film following Frank and Gus as they search for Barbara; while we also follow Barbara herself as she pushes southwards with the other refugees—having along the way acquired a gaggle of Korean orphans, predictably enough undergoing lessons in “proper womanhood” in the process and shedding all her independent, working-woman ways. (Three guesses how the love triangle resolves itself…) It is hard to know whether to be grateful or otherwise when the film cuts away to Douglas MacArthur, portrayed by Laurence Olivier in one of his late-career take-the-money-and-run appearances. Having pocketed his million-dollar fee (plus bonuses), Olivier did what Gregory Peck refused to do and sat still under the putty nose, the hair dye and the eye-liner; but it is perhaps not surprising that he was unable to keep a note of burlesque out of his performance. The final third of Inchon concerns itself with the amphibious invasion, tampering with the facts in order to create “more suspense”, as a guerilla unit lead by Frank Hallsworth must ensure that the lighthouses in the bay go on in time to light the way for the American assault troops—which of course they do just at the last second… In addition to its main quartet, plus Mifune Toshiro – who alone maintains his dignity – Inchon also features David Janssen effectively revising his role from The Green Berets (this was co-written by Robin Moore, who wrote the book on which that film was based); Rex Reed in a strange supporting role as a music critic co-opted into war journalism; and as Marguerite, Feld’s bombshell photographer, Sabine Sun—who at the time was married to the film’s director, Terence Young. While I say that the online print of Inchon is uncut, it does have some profanity blipped (so much more offensive than scenes of people being bombed and machine-gunned). Alternative prints were shortened by removing the subplot involving David Janssen, who died shortly after filming was completed, and also the scenes with Rex Reed—apparently on artistic grounds.

(Note: the YouTube closed captions for Inchon are often much more entertaining than the film itself, with gunfire and artillery repeatedly interpreted as “music” or “applause”. My favourite touch, though, is the phrase “token Marine” being rendered as pokémon.)

Island Fury (1983)

Also known as: Please Don’t Eat The Babies. As they browse the markets of Chinatown, friends Sugar (Elizabeth Monet) and Bobbylee (Tanya Louise) become aware they are being followed. Eventually they are cornered and grabbed by thugs Repo (Michael Wayne) and Willie (Mike Jacobs) and forced before their boss, Sid (Joe Lombardo). Grabbing the gold doubloon that Sugar wears as a necklace, Sid demands to know where she got it—and where more treasure can be found? The girls resist, but eventually tell the story of a terrifying experience years before… Ten-year-old Sugar (Sheri Oliff) and Bobbylee (Robin Haden) accompany the former’s sister, Sylvia (Darcy Lee), her boyfriend, Todd (Ed McClarty), and their friends, Candy (Kirstin Baker) and John (Joe Lucas), on a boat trip around the islands off California. Todd finds a doubloon, which inspires him with treasure fever, even though he is warned away by the locals. The kids encounter a young boy, Jimmer (Stanley Wells), who leads them to the island inhabited by his grandfather (Hank Worden) and grandmother (Mitzi Strollery), who make them welcome—but a nightmare awaits… Who knew that crazed island-dwelling cannibals could be so boring? Island Fury is stupid and unpleasant in about equal measure. It has that icky, exploitation-film tone in spades, with the adult Sugar and Bobbylee in danger of sexual violence the whole time, and the flashback forcing its entire female cast into bikinis, including the younger versions of the protagonists. They’re supposed to be about ten at the time, though Sheri Oliff and Robin Haden were obviously older—and compensated by playing younger, with much whining and crying, intercut with their sniggery obsession with Sylvia and Todd’s sex life. Things barely liven up when the island-dwellers tip their hand and start slaughtering the kids. In fact, in some ways this makes things worse, since it focuses attention upon poor Todd’s efforts to protect Sugar and Bobbylee, who are so unbearably annoying, you just want him to throw them to the cannibals and run away instead (the film’s original title notwithstanding). Eventually we return to “the present”, with the adult Sugar and Bobbylee being menaced by the thugs when the geography of the island doesn’t match their memories—but just when things are darkest, it turns out the girls have an unexpected ally… There’s not much that can be said for Island Fury, though it does offer some crude but not ineffective bloodshed; veteran Hank Worden in his final feature film; and Kirstin Baker in a skimpy bikini—but not even that can save this.

Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998)

Also known as: Subspecies: The Awakening. Having rescued her sister from her vampire-master, Rebecca Morgan and her friend, Mel, speed away from the castle. In their haste, they forget the Bloodstone—and through it, Radu (Anders Hove) is restored… As she drives through the Romanian countryside, Dr Ana Lazar (Ioana Abur) comes across a fatal car accident. As she waits for the police, Ana is shocked to see a movement inside what looks like a body-bag. She opens it—recoiling when its occupant, a young woman, reacts violently and tries to wrap herself up again. Deciding not to wait, Ana carries the accident survivor to the nearby Vitalis Institute, run by her former mentor – and former lover – Dr Jan Niculescu (Mihai Dinvale). Having examined the young woman, Niculescu pronounces her a vampire… When the sun sets, Michelle (Denice Duff) regains consciousness. Ana remains sceptical, but Niculescu questions Michelle eagerly about her experiences, including blood-drinking—and the Bloodstone… Well. That will teach me to praise a Full Moon film, won’t it? Having commended Bloodlust: Subspecies III for the way in which it carried on and expanded its predecessor’s storyline, I could only gape in dismayed disbelief as this further sequel opened with the casual whacking of the franchise’s protagonists—who are then replaced by a different set of characters and a plot to match. Still—there turned out to be a few compensations, including a delightful mad-science-y interlude built around Niculescu, who is revealed to be a vampire himself, with his research into the ageing process and his controversial anti-ageing treatments all a smokescreen for his efforts to cure himself. However, with Michelle and her knowledge in his power, Niculescu becomes obsessed with obtaining the Bloodstone. Meanwhile, in his pursuit of Michelle, Radu relocates to Bucharest, moving in on the turf of his protégé, Ash (Jonathon Morris), and his protégé, Serena (Floriela Grappini). Bloodstorm also resurrects – literally – Lieutenant Marin, the franchise’s tacit comic relief, who was rather meanly killed off towards the end of Bloodlust. This is here retconned into a wounding to permit his vampirising by Radu; and the film has some grim fun with the vampire-denier’s adjustment to his new situation. If you can cope with the outrageous opening bait-and-switch, Bloodstorm isn’t a bad little film—though the actual vampire stuff, which involves Ash and Serena plotting against Radu in order to gain possession of the Bloodstone, and Michelle’s infuriatingly inconsistent efforts to free herself from her “master” (or not), tends to get in the way of the batty science. (Is it unreasonable to complain about too much vampire stuff in a vampire film?) Also – alas! – by this time the franchise had completely forgotten why it was ever named “subspecies”, without even a token appearance from the little blood demons (some Full Moon film!). The other problem here is that, between the cast’s accents and their fake fangs, some of the dialogue is completely impenetrable—which is a shame, given the nature of what we can understand…

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Fallen (1998)

Detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) visits convicted serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) shortly before his execution. Reese forces a handshake on Hobbes, mutters in more than one language, and finally makes cryptic reference to people called Lyons and Spakowski. That night, Hobbes receives a hang-up call in the middle of the night – a call just like that Reese used to make – and the next day, he receives a second anonymous call, this one directing him to a downtown apartment where he and his partner, Jones (John Goodman), find a man killed using Reese’s methods. On a wall, Hobbes is stunned to find written the words ‘Lyons’ and ‘Spakowski’. Back at the station house, the detectives’ colleague, Lou (James Gandolfini), leads Hobbes to a now-abandoned citation board, where George Lyons and Anton Spakowski are among those listed for valour on the job. Another name has been removed: that of Robert Milano, who was awarded ‘Cop of the Year’ in 1965, and died in a “gun accident” eight months later. Finding the Milano file sealed, Hobbes tracks down Greta (Embeth Davidtz), his daughter, who reluctantly tells him that, after catching a serial killer, her father was suspected of a series of copycat murders… Fallen is (you should pardon the expression) a good-faith attempt to freshen up the 90s police procedural by blending into it paranormal elements; but while the results are interesting, it ultimately disappoints—though in saying that, I may be over-influenced by its ending, which managed to piss me off in about four different ways; one in particular. To me, though, this is one of those films of the supernatural that remains engaging while we don’t really know what’s going on, but loses it as soon as it begins explaining itself. Nor does it help that the explanation comes in the form of a shameless info-dump, courtesy of Greta Milano, whereby we learn that the film’s real villain is the demon Azazel, who has the capacity to possess almost any human being by touch—although not those of true faith, or of the highest moral standards. Finding the latter an affront, Azazel sets about destroying the lives of such individuals… Fallen is a film with a clear and obvious tipping-point: while the musical pass-the-parcel sequence at the station-house is properly unsettling, the extended game of tag-you’re-it that follows is just silly. The screenplay never really manages to reconcile Azazel’s declared purpose of “destroying civilisation” with the fact that the demon spends most of its time ruining the lives of good people just for shits and giggles: no doubt the latter is “fun”, as it declares, but I don’t see that (B) really leads to (A). We might also be inclined to raise our eyebrows that the film’s literal interpretation of Hobbes’ early anointing of police officers as “the chosen”, with honest cops being Azazel’s target of choice. That said, the film doesn’t mess around with respect to the price Hobbes ends up paying for his defiance of the demon. On the other hand, the depiction of Azazel as a loud, posturing egomaniac is disappointing, being exactly the kind of tiresome stuff that we get from so many standard movie psychopaths. Honestly? – I find quiet much scarier… Despite its faults, Fallen is at least worth watching for its cast, which also includes Donald Sutherland as Hobbes’ lieutenant and Robert Joy as one of Azazel’s hosts.

A Clean Kill (1999)

Also known as: Her Married Lover. A distraught Katie Griffin (Roxana Zal) rushes into a police station to report a murder… Handed over to Detective Joe Lansing (Daniel Benzali), Katie tells her disjointed story: of her secret affair with novelist Richard Mannhart (Perry King), of his on-again, off-again plans to leave his wealthy wife, Laura (Susan Blakely), and his recent hints of murder rather than divorce. Lansing is sceptical, but when Katie insists that, as a result of her car being tampered with, Laura has been killed in an accident on an isolated road, the detective sends a team to investigate. Sure enough, they find that Laura’s car has plunged through a barrier and down a steep siding; though critically injured, she is not dead. Two other detectives, Rawlins (T. C. Carter) and King (Rob Roy Fitzgerald), are sent to collect Richard Mannhart: as Katie has told them, he is at a book signing. After being allowed to see Laura for a few minutes, Richard is questioned—and tells the detectives that, far from having an affair with Katie, he barely knows her… As indicated by its amusingly conflicted co-titles – are you here for the wife-whacking or the sub-erotic groping scenes? – this is an unusual entry in the angsty made-for-TV pantheon. This is not actually a Lifetime movie—but its she said / he said plotline depends very heavily upon the audience’s familiarity with that genre, and the expectations formed accordingly. After its set-up, A Clean Kill settles down into a series of parallel scenes, in which Katie and Richard each give their conflicting version of the events leading up to Laura’s accident—or “accident”. According to Katie, she and Richard met when he saved her during a convenience-store robbery, and later became lovers; according to Richard, Katie is simply one of the students in the class he teaches to supplement his income (his writing not going so well lately: the reason, says Katie, for his reluctance to get a divorce): though the fact that Laura was also once his student doesn’t help his plea of innocence. Rawlins and King, questioning Richard, have no trouble building a prima facie case against him; but Lansing, still questioning Katie, isn’t so sure… The thing that makes A Clean Kill interesting is also the thing that most works against its success: the necessarily repetitious nature of its story-telling, with a number of scenes shown twice from the characters’ vastly different perspectives. However, this allows the viewer to see for themselves that, in all probability – and with a touch of realism unusual in this sort of film – neither of the main characters is telling the exact truth; and it pays off during the film’s final sequences, when we are shown how events really played out. Roxana Zal and Perry King both do quite well, given that neither of their characters is entirely “real”; though Daniel Benzali probably gives the film’s best performance. There are no sex scenes per se here, but unusually for this sort of thing, there is some semi-nudity.

Red Dragon (2002)

Based upon the novel by Thomas Harris. FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) consults with forensic psychiatrist, Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), on a serial-killing case. Graham advances the theory that the killer is cannibalising his victims, and admits being surprised that Lecter hadn’t thought of that. However, left alone for a few minutes, Graham discovers evidence that explains Lecter’s silence… A violent confrontation ends with Lecter in custody, and Graham critically injured. He survives physically, but a subsequent breakdown leads to his resignation from the Bureau… Five years later, Graham is living in Florida with his wife, Molly (Mary-Louise Parker), and their young son, Josh (Tyler Patrick Jones), when he is approached by his former colleague, Jack Crawford (Harvey Kietel). Crawford tries to interest Graham in the case of killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy”, who has slaughtered two families, each case a month apart. Finally Graham agrees to examine the evidence—and then to inspect the crime scenes. His discoveries advance the case, but also lead to the terrible realisation that, once again, he needs help from Hannibal Lecter… Made only sixteen years after Manhunter, but also after The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal, Red Dragon both suffers from and benefits by the familiarity of the audience with its material. Set contemporaneously, Manhunter made a virtue out of director Michael Mann’s taste for the flashy; set in the past, Red Dragon is rather subdued in comparison, including with respect to the supporting performances from Harvey Kietel as Crawford, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as tabloid reporter, Freddy Lounds—at least until the film’s twin climaxes, which are where it differs most significantly from its predecessor. Similarly, whereas Manhunter was showcasing what was, at the time, cutting-edge investigative technique, Red Dragon downplays its agents’ lack of access to advanced forensic techniques—instead focusing upon Will Graham’s investigative insight. Though overall it breaks little new ground, with the exception, perhaps, of a greater permitted explicitness in certain details, Red Dragon seems to me to do a slightly better job than Manhunter in suggesting the long-term psychological harm done to Graham by his idiosyncratic methods, and by his encounter with Lecter. Of course, the film has the huge advantage of being able to exploit its audience’s knowledge via its opening sequence – and, in particular, its amusingly gruesome under-the-credits sequence – which sets the tone for what follows; and of bringing back Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. On the other hand, I find Ralph Fiennes’ Francis Dolarhyde a bit too “normal”, considering the depths of his psychosis: he comes across as awkward rather than off-putting in his scenes with his co-workers; though his connection with Reba McClane (Emily Watson), is effective and even touching—not least because of Dolarhyde’s ongoing battle against his alternate personality, the Great Red Dragon, which demands that her life, too, be taken…

2012 (2009)

Geologist and White House science advisor, Dr Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), travels to India to confer with a colleague, astrophysicist Satnam Tsurutani (Jim Mistry), who has made a terrifying discovery: that a unique form of neutrino, produced during a massive solar flare, is heating the earth’s core—a situation that could potentially rip the planet apart. Helmsley conveys this information to White House Chief of Staff, Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), and through him to President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover). Secretly, Wilson meets with other world leaders, and together they initiate a plan to save humanity; some of humanity… In California, failed author turned chauffeur Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) collects his young children, Noah (Liam James) and Lily (Morgan Lily), for a camping trip; though Noah makes no bones about the fact that he would rather stay home with his mother, Kate (Amanda Peet), and her new boyfriend, plastic surgeon Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy). In Yellowstone, Curtis is quick to see that something is wrong: he and the children penetrate a fenced-off area and observe a strange new area of ground instability, but are caught by soldiers and taken to their command post. There, Helmsley – who knows Curtis’s book – intervenes and has the three released. On their way out they encounter conspiracy theorist, Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), and hear his crazy theories about the end of the world—only to discover that they may not be so crazy after all… The much-abused terminating Mayan calendar and its supposed prophecy of the apocalypse is the basis for this entirely typical Roland Emmerich production, which manages to makes The End Of The World As We Know It a rather wearisome experience: at 160 minutes, 2012 finally becomes something of an endurance test. Also typical of Emmerich, this is a film with a split personality—one half of it being given over to a serious (if ultimately superficial) consideration of loss, sacrifice, and survival; the other, to treating the end of the world as the basis for some wacky action-comedy: something for everyone, I guess, unless consistency happens to be your thing. Most typical of all is that the film just doesn’t know when to stop, piling crisis upon crisis, and hair’s-breadth escape upon hair’s-breadth escape, in a manner absurd even when dealing with the apocalypse, and deploying pretty much every disaster movie cliché in existence along the way (all but one: see below). Above all, 2012 does that infuriating thing where, with literally the entire human race getting wiped out, we’re only just supposed to care about one particular family—and if you guess that family consists of an estranged couple getting back together during the catastrophe, give yourself a gold star; nor does the screenplay blink at just how many people die in order to bring about that ending. (The film’s handling of Gordon Silberman, who occupies the always thankless position of Disposable Boyfriend, is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst things about it.) Meanwhile, the screenplay keeps dancing around the fundamental question of who gets chosen to survive, and how, and the rights and wrongs of pragmatism versus humanism, only repeatedly to shy away again; but I guess if we wanted a thoughtful consideration of the morality of survival, we wouldn’t be watching a Roland Emmerich film. To finish on a more suitable note: I enjoyed all the plane action in 2012, but was somewhat bemused by its lack of crashing helicopters.

Unfriended (2014)

After a humiliating video of her is posted, unleashing a torrent of abuse and bullying, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) commits suicide. Of this, too, a video is posted online… A year later, five friends – Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig), Mitch Roussel (Moses Storm), Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), Adam Sewell (Will Peltz) and Ken Smith (Jacon Wysocki) – meet up on Skype. However, their chat attracts an anonymous intruder using the name ‘billie227’, and they are unable to force this uninvited participant to go away. When Blaire discovers that ‘billie227’ was an account belonging to Laura Barns, the groups suspects another friend, Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson), of pranking them. They invite Val into the chat, but she denies being the intruder. Jess, meanwhile, denies posting the embarrassing photos of Val that suddenly appear on her Facebook page. When the photos jump from account to account, a furious Val logs off with the intention of calling the police. Subsequent footage of her is distorted and confused, but the frightened friends have reason to believe she has committed suicide. From here things grow even more disturbing, as the intruder who claims to be Laura Barns herself forces the others to play a game… I was pleasantly surprised by Unfriended, which just goes to show the positive side of low expectations. The film it brought immediately to mind was The Blair Witch Project—both of them low-budget, small-cast productions that took an existing technique and found a way of making the means their message. The two films have this in common, too: though a steady diet of that technique would be (and in the earlier case, was) intolerable, as a one-off it’s clever and effective. The film’s flaws are the expected ones: some of the acting is ropey; the characters are the same old slasher-movie stereotypes, slightly reworked for the social-media generation; too much of the dialogue is the kids screaming at each other; and alas, the film succumbs to the booga-booga ending (is that compulsory at Blumhouse?), instead of ending its story where, self-evidently, it should have ended. However, on the whole the film’s strengths predominate. The best thing about Unfriended is that it had the nerve to build itself around real social media platforms, instead of that silly ‘fake search engine’ stuff seen too often. Director Leo Gabriadze and editors Parker Laramie and Andrew Wesman worked hard to make their both their visuals (scenes distort or buffer, the sound drops out, ads interrupt), and the characters’ use of the various platforms, sites and search engines, realistic—to the point of building suspense scenes around the running of an anti-virus program and even the dreaded Pinwheel Of Death. The film also makes a virtue out of the mechanics of its technique, such as using onscreen webpages to avoid having the characters tell each other stuff they already know, for our benefit; and in particular, the way in which it puts the viewer inside Blaire’s head as she hesitates over the wording of her messages—changing the nuance or even the entire content: we know what she’s not sharing. Unfriended also understands the perversely addictive nature of life online—and the fear of what’s going on behind your back when you log off. The film is not (to put it mildly) subtle in its depiction of cyberbullying and the dangerous toxicity of some aspects of social media, and it overdoes it when it comes to the revelation of the characters’ secrets. Importantly, however, and unlike a lot of horror films, Unfriended knows its characters are awful; the characters themselves must find that out. And they find it out the hard way, via a version of ‘Never Have I Ever’ that forces the revelation of ugly truths and, in some cases, ends in a bloody demise…

The Finest Hours (2016)

Based upon The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. Massachusetts, 1952. Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a Boatswain’s Mate First Class assigned to the Chatham Coast Guard station, courts and becomes engaged to Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger). A stickler for regulations, Webber steels himself to ask formal permission to marry from his commanding officer, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana); but his personal situation is lost in an escalating crisis. A violent storm hits the north-east, engulfing two oil tankers, the SS Mercer and the SS Pendleton. The latter is sheared in half by the storm, leaving one half of it adrift, taking on water and, with the loss of all senior officers, under the command of engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck). However, the Mercer, being struck first, absorbs most of the Coast Guard station’s resources; so when the damaged Pendleton is spotted on radar, few men are available. Webber is ordered by Cluff to assemble a crew but, with the need to cross the bar at the mouth of Chatham Harbor, the job is viewed as a suicide mission, and in the end only three men volunteer: seasoned Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), new recruit Ervin Maske (John Magaro) and inexperienced engineman, Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner). Boarding their 36-foot motor lifeboat, the four set out… The rescue of the survivors of the Pendleton on the 18th February 1952 is still regarded as (as the credits put it) “the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history”, and this 2016 Disney production does its best to pay tribute to the four-man team at the story’s heart—albeit not without some (unnecessary, it seems to me) tampering with the facts. As with Deepwater Horizon, The Finest Hours escapes classification as a disaster movie chiefly by virtue of being a true story, but also because, understandably, the focus remains with the rescue effort, rather than with the men battling to keep what’s left of the Pendleton afloat. In some ways this is a shame, since one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the situation of Ray Sybert, played by Casey Affleck as a severe introvert who generally avoids his crewmates, but is not only thrust into command, but must convince the rest to buy into his radical plan to buy time for the shattered Pendleton by running it aground. (This, I gather, is the film’s most significant deviation from the truth.) However, we can understand the choice to stay primarily with Bernie Webber and his small crew as they set out on what ought to have been a futile suicide mission, yet somehow wasn’t—and even after watching The Finest Hours, I’m still not sure how it wasn’t: the Pendleton lost its radio during the break-up and could only sit silently, hoping; while in fighting its way across the bar, the motor boat piloted by Webber lost its compass, and then progressively its engine; besides its eventual job of carrying three times the number of people it was designed to. And then night falls… The Finest Hours is finally an uneven film. There are many good and gripping sequences, but in order to get to them, you have to wade through a lot of darkness, and even more CGI water. Chris Pine is cast somewhat against type as Webber, whose very by-the-book-ness (a tendency greatly challenged during the rescue) makes him unpopular with the older, rougher men with whom he serves. Daniel Cluff, played by an oddly cast Eric Bana, seems to me unfairly treated here, with the film suggesting he either didn’t understand how dangerous the rescue mission was (not being a local), or didn’t care; when in fact Cluff had to oversee all rescue efforts in the area, including that directed at the Mercer: a story almost as incredible as this one, apparently.

(In truth, the most disaster-movie-ish touch here is the character played by Michael Raymond-James: a textbook Loud Mouthed Jerk Who Makes Everything Worse, who could have stepped whole and breathing from an Irwin Allen production.)

Awoken (2019)

Medical student Karla Dawson (Sara West) is called to the hospital where her brother, Blake (Benson Jack Anthony) is being treated for Fatal Familial Insomnia, to be told there is nothing more his doctors can do for him. Karla confides in one of her instructors, Dr Robert Atwood, who in turn tells her that he is conducting secret, unauthorised treatments of two other patients with extreme sleep disorders; furthermore, that years before he and her father, William Dawson (Paul Reichstein), likewise tried to treat her mother, Sarah (Melanie Munt). Karla’s best friend, fellow student Alice (Amelia Douglass), volunteers to help, as does her ex-boyfriend, pharmacist Patrick (Matt Crook), who feels guilty over abandoning Karla when she initially took over Blake’s care. Blake is moved into Atwood’s underground laboratory, where Angela (Felicia Tassone), who suffers night terrors, and Christopher (Adam Ovadia), who has severe sleep apnea, are already being treated. Atwood and Patrick begin administering an experimental drug regime, while Karla and Alice conduct research. In a compartment hidden behind a bookcase, Karla finds a box filled with video tapes, a camera and a journal, which not only document her mother’s unsuccessful treatments, but reveal a terrifying secret… Awoken has an interesting premise, and blends two quite disparate forms of horror into a single production, but finally fails to do as much with either as we might hope. The film also suffers from, I feel, the fact that it was filmed in South Australia with a predominantly Australasian cast, but basically passes itself off as American, presumably for the international market. This lends a certain stiffness to the acting, not helpful when we are already dealing with fairly unsympathetic characters—Blake’s situation notwithstanding. After setting up its premise, Awoken shifts to become a semi-found-footage production, with Karla and Alice discovering the true circumstances of the Dawsons’ deaths through fragmented recordings of Sarah’s “treatment” (and never mind that VHS should have been dead already at the time; that blurry look is so much more effective than digital clarity, isn’t it??)—and then shifts again into what should have been unexpected territory, had the film-makers not chosen to tip their hand in their opening crawl. As it is, we are well ahead of Karla when she discovers that chronic sleep deprivation opens up a pathway to demonic possession, and that much more is at stake than Blake’s life… Inspired, apparently, by the “Russian Sleep Experiment” creepypasta, Awoken is ultimately frustrating, with far too much reliance on a cranked-up soundtrack and too many overused “shock” touches. It does better in its quieter moments—such as its exploitation of Blake’s weirdly unnerving back. (There’s also some eye-violence, thanks so much.) The film’s secret underground lab is harder to swallow than its demonic possession plot, and, as often happens, the more explanations we get, the sillier things become—particularly the climactic “dueling incantations” scene. And did we really think we were going to escape without a kicker ending…?

The Last Duel (2021)

Based upon The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. Directed by Ridley Scott, effectively taking his career, which began with 1977’s The Duellists, full circle, and adapted for the screen by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, The Last Duel is an historical drama built around what was (to put it more correctly) the last judicial duel sanctioned by the Parlement de Paris: a fight to the death which was, effectively, the medieval equivalent of, “Shoot ’em all and let God sort it out.” The duel in question occurred on the 29th December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges and his former friend, Jacques Le Gris, after de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, accused Le Gris of rape. Not only the men’s lives were on the line, however: in the event of de Carrouges’ death, Marguerite would have been, ipso facto, convicted of perjury—and burnt at the stake… In a deliberate evocation of Rashomon, the screenplay of The Last Duel is divided into three sections, each one purporting to be “the truth” according to one of the three central characters: though the film finally comes down firmly in one corner. In Jean de Carrouge’s version of events, de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a brave soldier, a good husband and a loyal subject of the king, whose devotion is repaid with betrayal by his overlord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), and the count’s squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who has manoeuvred himself into a position of power. The betrayal is complete when his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), tells him that during his absence on business, she was raped by Le Gris… From Jacques Le Gris’ perspective, we see a very different de Carrouges: an inept, blundering, petulant man, who lashes out at the world in reaction to his own failures; a man who cannot possibly appreciate a woman like Marguerite. His obsession with his rival’s wife growing uncontrollable, Le Gris takes advantage of de Carrouges’ absence to give Marguerite what he is certain she desires as much as he does… The Last Duel is a well-mounted historical drama, which Damon and Affleck, who initiated the project, evidently took very seriously. It has its flaws: the structure is necessarily repetitious, though the shifting perspectives are well and subtly done; and the mix of accents is sometimes jarring. The film is to be praised, however, for its determination to be “more” than its overt story might suggest: more than fight scenes and armour and weapons and the posturing of men. In fact, The Last Duel functions best as an exposure of the myth of chivalry. The great danger here – and to their credit, Damon and Affleck were clearly well aware of it – was that, in using the trial by combat as their framework, and devoting so much time to de Carrouges’ and Le Gris’ clashing stories, they ran the risk of doing exactly what her society did, and history had done, before Eric Jager rescued her: relegating Marguerite and her truth to the sidelines. The final third of the film is told from Marguerite’s perspective, and shows her as a sensitive, intelligent woman caught between two men oblivious to their own failings: de Carrouges a crass, grasping man interested only in raising money and siring an heir; Le Gris a vain, self-satisfied courtier, who sees himself as a sort of Lancelot figure—and who casts Marguerite as Guinevere whether she wants it or not. The Last Duel has been called exploitative, in that it makes the viewer watch Marguerite’s rape twice—but I’m inclined to agree it was necessary, firstly to give the viewer no room to move on the question of whether it was rape (sad that the audience couldn’t be trusted to draw the right conclusion otherwise, but there you go); and secondly, to make the vital point that it was rape even in Le Gris’ version of events—everywhere but in his own mind. Thwarted in his efforts for legal redress against Le Gris by the Count d’Alençon (de Carrouges was ahead of his time in his love for a lawsuit), the outraged husband finally petitions the callow young Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and his parliament for the right to meet Le Gris in combat. The duel itself is staged with the blending of artistry and brutality that we would expect from Ridley Scott—but in my opinion, it is less painful than the cross-questioning of Marguerite that precedes and paves the way for it. Ultimately, the take-home message of The Last Duel is that societal attitudes towards rape have changed depressingly little over the last 650 years.

The Little Things (2021)

Once an LA homicide detective, now a deputy sheriff in Bakersfield, Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) is sent to his old stomping ground to collect a piece of evidence. Some of his old colleagues, including his former partner, Sal Rizoli (Chris Bauer), are pleased to see him; others, including his former captain, are not. Captain Farris (Terry Kinney) goes so far as to warn rising young detective, Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek), to steer clear of him—telling him that Deacon underwent “a suspension, a divorce and a triple-bypass” in the space of six months, due to his obsession with a case he failed to solve. Deacon, however, takes leave in order to stay in LA and look into the new, unsolved serial killings; and Baxter begins drawing upon his expertise. Deacon’s insight progresses the new case, and it is he who identifies a viable suspect: Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), whose taunting attitude leads the detectives into a game of cat-and-mouse. Word that the FBI is to be called in puts additional pressure on Baxter and, in order to obtain the evidence they need against Sparma, he and Deacon cross the line… The Little Things began life as early as 1993, passing through a series of potential productions, directors and actors before finally seeing the light of day under the guidance of its screenwriter, John Lee Hancock. The script was not updated, however, and the film remains set in 1990—a choice that has several possible interpretations. It is easy enough to read The Little Things as a commentary of sorts upon the crime thrillers of that time, with the shadowy killer pursued by two mismatched but increasingly interdependent partners; while given his scenario, Hancock may well have preferred to deprive his detectives of mod. cons. like computers, DNA analysis and, in particular, mobile phones. But there is a third explanation and, for me, this is where the film becomes problematic. The Little Things isn’t really about the case, or cases, that Deacon and Baxter are investigating, but rather about the emotional toll that such cases can take upon their investigators. Deacon himself is a walking lesson for Baxter (whose personal life mirrors that of pre-implosion Deacon with ridiculous exactitude); and as he sees the younger detective going down the same dark road, Deacon becomes determined to prevent it—no matter what it takes. While all this is perfectly valid, the problem I have with it is that the film’s many, many dead women become, progressively, merely a framework upon which to hang the detectives’ angst, rather than being important in their own right. Deacon is literally haunted by the victims of the killer he didn’t catch; but his conversations with the dead women are about his mental and emotional state, not their brutal deaths. Meanwhile, the film’s setting allows for a “natural” marginalisation of its few female characters, most of whom exist merely to be supportive of the male leads—except for its single female detective, whose sole contribution is to make a huge procedural blunder that sets Albert Sparma free. The Little Things is sometimes a confusing film, thanks to the way Hancock handles his material; and its is also over-long, with the surveillance and following scenes unnecessarily protracted. Denzel Washington can do this sort of thing in his sleep by now, though in this instance his characterisation must be shaped by a secret not shared with the audience until late in the film (and never with Baxter), which creates a certain distance. Rami Malek seems oddly cast as the “normal” detective; and while Jared Leto makes Sparma properly hateful, the whole taunt-the-cops thing is tiresomely familiar.

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7 Responses to Et Al. Feb22

  1. dawn says:

    But do the people in Awoken eat chicken-fried steak?


  2. RogerBW says:

    The Invisible Killer – interesting to see a rare-for-the-1930s example of a female character who actually contributes to the investigation, in what appears otherwise to be… “not perhaps in the top flight of moviemaking”.

    Power Dive – I wonder what attitudes were like at the time, whether a certain amount of mushy stuff was just “this is what you put in a film” and the aviation content pepped it up, or something else. (From my modern perspective, films with mushy stuff are ten a penny, while films about non-combat aviation are relatively rare…)

    I Saw What You Did – for me, to telephone a person has always been to say “I don’t care what you may be doing, I am so important that I want you to drop everything and attend to me right now”, and that’s not a thing I want to do or have done to me. I think this point of view is getting more common.

    Hm, I’d be interested to learn what you make of The Green Berets, long enough later that “it’s bad because it doesn’t agree with my politics” is no longer relevant. To me it feels like Wayne taking his standard WWII film template and trying to apply it to a very different shape of conflict. Why Takei, the best thing in it, thought this was worth doing…

    2012 – very much agreed. I’m sure it’s part of the disaster film writing guide that you have to have a foreground human soap story contrasting with the background megadeaths; for my money, I’d be happy to watch a story of “(how) will these interesting people survive the monstrously dangerous situation” without the extra layer of “and will the couple get back together and the kid manage toilet-training”.


    • lyzmadness says:

      Actually I’m discovering that non-combat aviation films were surprisingly common in the 30s and 40s (there will certainly be more of them coming!), but in too many of them the aviation is an add-on, not the focus. This one gets the balance particularly wrong.

      I’m in the introvert position of, “Unknown number? Fat chance!”

      (Answering well after the event, you are quite correct in your assessment of The Green Berets.)

      It’s weird, because there certainly seems to be enough of us out there complaining about that aspect of disaster films…but they obviously still think “interesting people” aren’t sufficiently interesting, sigh.


    • dawn says:

      And there’s also The Day after Tomorrow, when ice is covering the earth, wolves are escaping from the zoo, and people are being instantaneously frozen. But that’s not enough, let’s give the teenage love interest blood poisoning.
      This was possibly added to show the importance of being able to look things up in books, instead of just burning them all.
      Every time they mention burning books, I yell at the screen, ‘paper burns too fast! burn those wooden chairs and tables first!’


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