Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE MUMMY

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND THINGS

So suddenly universe-building is the new thing. Given what Marvel has achieved by throwing together a raft of established characters into each other's films and what DC is trying to due with their own superhero roster, maybe it's not that surprising that other studios are rummaging through their own back catalogue to see who they can bolt together. This is the first project in Universal's so-called Dark Universe (the logo dissolves straight out of Universal's own right at the start), which is supposedly going to lump Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde together in an ongoing series. To an extent they used to: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man were always turning up in each other's films in the 1940s, though they never expanded it to incorporate any of their other stock.

Tom Cruise is at his least likeable for some time as the uninterestingly named Nick Morton, a US soldier and treasure hunter who deserts his military assignment in Iraq to follow a map he's stolen from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who's tracking it down for Dr Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Turns out that the map is not for a trove of shiny knick-knacks he can shift on the black market for a few dollars, but the lost Egyptian pyramid of evil princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who was mummified and buried alive for her treachery. Of course she comes back to life and seeks to turn our hero into the vessel for her lost love and then the two immortals will rule the world...

The Mummy is absolute nonsense, obviously, with too many things happening through writer's contrivance: the logic of the piece holds that this all takes place just as the missing jewel from a sacred dagger turns up in London when works on Crossrail (!) suddenly chance upon a Crusader burial chamber. If that hadn't happened, or the charmless Nick hadn't just happened to steal the map (or then hadn't been placed under military arrest for dereliction of duty), or the sarcophagus had been flown anywhere else in the world except directly over the church where the aforementioned dagger had been hidden hundreds of years previously.... Too much happenstance that's beyond the control of even the worst undead deities but crucially not beyond six credited screenwriters. It's also saddled with an unattractive star turn, an unmemorable score and a blatant riff on An American Werewolf In London as Nick's ill-fated sidekick keeps haunting him for presumably comedic relief.

Still, it's kind of enjoyable in a brain-off kind of a way: it's got huge production values and gosh-wow spectacle, and mercifully Universal haven't wimped out and trimmed the sometimes grisly imagery down to get a wimpy 12A (it was PG13 in the States). There are zombies, creepy bugs and spiders, apocalyptic sandstorms in London: you're not shortchanged for incident and stuff happening. As to where it's supposed to fit into this Dark Universe? It's scarcely a spoiler to state that a redeemed Nick rides off into the desert while Ahmanet is vanquished in the last reel, so any further Mummies are presumably going to be different ones that Nick (or someone else) has to take on, meaning that the only likely connection to an ongoing decades-long franchise would be Russell Crowe's Jekyll and Hyde characters, presumably the UDU equivalent of MCU's Nick Fury. He's actually quite fun, though no explanation is given as to what he's doing in the present day. But as a film it's a lot less entertaining than the Indiana Jones-flavoured romps of the last reboot (at least the first two, anyway), and it has absolutely no atmosphere of horror or proper scares. Agreeable, and occasionally pleasantly nasty, no-think fodder while it's on, but there's nothing much under the spectacle.

***

RIPPER

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND OW MY HEAD

...which is mainly a result of bashing my forehead repeatedly against my living room wall in boredom, frustration and an almost successful last ditch attempt to stay awake during one of the most absolutely pitiful loads of old toot I've scratched myself through all year.

An assorted bunch of halfwits are brought together in a damp, miserable basement in East London for an extreme screenwriting workshop to put together the ultimate horror film. (Note to film-makers: if your horror film is about what makes horror films scary, your own film had better be bloody terrifying otherwise you're going to look like an idiot. It isn't, and they do.) One of them has handily brought along a box set of Jack The Ripper's actual genuine knives, another has apparently seen every horror film ever made yet is about nineteen years old, the professor is the most obvious nutjob on the planet, there's a ghost girl, a spooky doll, dream sequences, wandering about, a lot of prattle (much of which is lost in the murk of inadequate sound recording) and the occasional grisly murder that may or may not have happened. Could the dreaded Ripper somehow still be around?

There's enough blood and brutality to get the 18 certificate, but to no avail, and somewhere along the line Jack has abandoned his legendary surgical skills and just become a stabby butcher. It's hardly worth going in deep as to why Ripper is so dreadful: suffice to say that everyone's an idiot and none of it makes any sense. It doesn't even have a proper ending; the thing just stops midway through a scene and the credits roll, and it drags even at 88 minutes. The levels of performance and technical panache are not high either. So thoroughly terrible it's a wonder Spring-Heeled Jack himself hasn't risen from the grave to sue for defamation.

*

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

BAYWATCH

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

As if one knowing re-imagining of a piece of anodyne primetime fluff that took safe, network and family friendly nonsense and relocated it in sweary grossout territory wasn't enough for 2017 cinemas, after the tiresome misjudgements of Chips we now have the tiresome misjudgements of Baywatch. And astonishingly they're not a completely different set of misjudgements that fix the mistakes of Chips but make a whole load of new ones: they're the exact same misjudgements all over again.

Like Chips, this new Baywatch is a generation away from ITV on Saturday evenings: more F-words, more penis jokes, more inappropriate humour, and a boggle-eyed 13-year-old boy's fixation on hot chicks in bikinis. And whilst there might not have been much more than that to the TV show (I never watched it, but I'm aware of it through some weird and terrifying kind of cultural osmosis) it's not really enough for two hours at the Odeon. Much of the beach action centres around the odd couple friction between lifeguard legend and hunk Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and Olympic medallist and idiot Matt (Zac Efron). Matt is only on the lifeguard squad for community service purposes, and causes more problems than he solves because he doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't care to learn.

There's a nonsense thriller plot tacked on, to do with drug trafficking, high-level corruption and murder, so the film has a big action climax, as well of a lot of scenes in which the Baywatch squad abandon their posts entirely and zoom around on jetskis, break into the morgue and get into fights that are - as the comedy police officer never tires of pointing out - well beyond their jurisdiction. But who actually cares? Back at Tower One on the beach, the horny fat guy (because horny fat guys are always funny) wants to get it on with the glamorous blonde, and Matt wants to get it on with the glamorous brunette (Alexandra Daddario). Reference is made to the running on the beach in slow-motion, about how life isn't some crappy TV show, and the unnecessarily revealing nature of the women's swimwear, and Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff turn up for cameos (because of course they do).

But none of it's funny, none of it's exciting, none of it's interesting, the villains are obvious and stupid, and Zac Efron in particular achieves Piers Morgan levels of slappability. The outtakes over the end credits suggest that a lot of material was edited out to get the film down to a whopping 116 minutes, and much of the comedy non sequitur banter ("you're like Stephen Hawking, only without the paralysis") was made up on the spot and someone chose the best takes, presumably by drawing straws. So why is it worse than Chips? Because Dwayne Johnson is usually better than this (not always: Central Intelligence was terrible) and I'd much rather a full-on unadorned star vehicle of Dwayne Johnson hero worship to play that relatively straight as San Andreas did, and not mix it up with riffs on the zipper scene from There's Something About Mary and comedy material Revenge Of The Nerds would have balked at. Maybe Baywatch was just a product of its time and that time has gone, but even if there is a way to revive it for a new generation, this definitely isn't it. Now if they want to bring back Baywatch Nights that's another matter entirely.

*

Saturday, 3 June 2017

SADAKO VS KAYAKO

CONTAINS VS SPOILERS

There's a strange and unaccountable tradition, as demonstrated by the likes of King Kong Vs Godzilla, Alien Vs Predator and Freddy Vs Jason, for taking two characters from different series and making them fight each other. Who would win in a fight between Robocop and The Terminator? Could Jean-Claude Van Damme beat Steven Seagal? Monster mashes have been going on for a while now (in the 1930s Universal had Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster turning up in each other's sequels); and within the Marvel Cinematic Universe we've had Iron Man fighting Captain America, while DC gave us Batman Vs Superman and lots of it. Rights and "intellectual property" laws fortunately mean we're unlikely to see Bond Vs Bourne or Jean-Luc Picard Vs Davros, except from the blogs of fan-fiction writers constantly churning out what-if stories where Austin Powers takes on Dumbledore for absolutely no good reason whatsoever.

This latest is a prime example of having to find two participants with broadly equivalent abilities to make it a fair fight (The Incredible Hulk Vs Bambi would not be a very long film). Sadako Vs Kayako is basically The Ring Vs The Grudge: two girls fall victim to the Ring by - duh - watching the cursed video (double duh - after they've been told about it and triple duh - one of them after her friend has already received Sadako's death call). Meanwhile another girl has just moved next door to the spooky Grudge house in which the lank-haired spiderwalking girl ghost and the small white-painted boy ghost kill anyone who enters. One more than usually ludicrous and entirely unsuccessful exorcism later, an eccentric Doctor Who-type turns up and hits upon the brilliant idea of getting the Grudge ghosts to fight the Ring ghost, hopefully destroying each other and breaking both curses.

It's all babbling nonsense, obviously, making about as much sense as a talking meerkat commercial and full of people doing the most stupid things at any opportunity: don't go in the house, don't watch the haunted video. Still, it's quite watchable, occasionally creepy and, like Hollywood's recent Rings, at least ponders the notion of uploading Sadako's (radically different and much shorter) video to the internet, even if the idea doesn't go anywhere with and it's done for absolutely no reason. But, within the confines of an obviously silly idea, it's a passable Friday night entertainment and certainly no worse than any other entries in their respective (wildly variable) sagas. Maybe that's not much of a stretch but it worked well enough for me. Sadly it's a Shudder exclusive, so if you're not a member you're out of luck.

***

Saturday, 27 May 2017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: SALAZAR'S REVENGE

ARRRR, CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS, JIM LAD

Well, it's now fourteen years since the first Pirates Of The Caribbean hit the world's screens and after all this time it's probably an unreal expectation that they might somehow try anything new or unusual. Instead they've played it very safe: more Johnny Depp doing more of That Silly Voice and Those Silly Mannerisms with That Silly Hair, more idiotic knockabout, more wet romance between a couple of drippy new leads (at least Kaya Scodelario is more feisty than Keira ever was), more A-list star villainy, bigger and longer action sequences and battles that would have presumably been twice as exhausting in 3D, more ghoulish horror effects work that's at the very top of the 12A rating. The stuff they didn't really bother with in the earlier films - some level of coherence in the plot, actual interesting characters, decent gags - they're twice as not bothering with in this one.

As far as an actual narrative is concerned, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge (originally known as Dead Men Tell No Tales but retitled for no immediately obvious reason) basically consists of various assorted characters trying to track down the legendary Trident Of Poseidon. Henry (Brenton Thwaites) needs it to break the curse that's keeping his dad (Orlando Bloom) on the Flying Dutchman, Barbarossa (Geoffrey Rush) and whoever's representing the evil British Empire this time out both want it so they can rule the oceans, cursed captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is after it to break the curse that's left him and his crew permanently zombified since a young Jack Sparrow (Depp) forced them through a magic portal. Sparrow is now destitute and permanently drunk, without a ship or crew, and has given up his enchanted compass, allowing Salazar through into the real world. Meanwhile Carina (Scodelario) has a secret map that will lead to another map "that no man can read", but she's been sentenced to death for witchcraft...

Why have the evil Brits condemned Carina to death for "witchcraft" when they use a genuine witch to track down genuinely supernatural objects? Why don't they believe a word of Henry's story when they already know Salazar always leaves one man alive? It makes very little sense, obviously, but then it's not supposed to. It's supposed to be summer blockbuster fun: two and a bit hours of gosh wow monsters and loud music and special effects and fighting and Johnny Depp bimbling about and babbling that sends you out of the multiplex convinced you've had a great time. But have you really? There's a pointless celebrity cameo in there that absolutely kills any goodwill you might still have towards the film: David Beckham's turn in King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword didn't set the bar particularly high for this sort of thing but boy, does Paul McCartney sail comfortably underneath it.

Is this really the best use to which Disney can put two hundred and thirty million dollars? If you're going to spend that kind of money on a movie (rather than medical research or disaster relief, say), why not push the galleon out and try for a great one? Sure, the first film in the series was pretty good fun. But the sequels never went anywhere interesting after that: Pirates 2 is particularly awful; Pirates 3 marginally better but idiotically overlong, and Pirates 4 managed to regain some ground by dropping the blathery romantics entirely and moving Depp's comedy support to the centre. And now: they've brought in new blathery romantics as well as rekindling the old ones, and Sparrow is just an annoying, slightly tiresome and frequently drunk idiot. Oh, sure, there are nice moments (so there should be, at that price), the best of which is an extended bit of business with a guillotine, but the sea battle in which Sparrow and Salazar are leaping from one ship to the other and back again feels like it goes on for ever. More, much more of the same, and more still to come: the film ends with a possible teaser for a further instalment (already listed on the IMDb). Gee thanks.

**

CRUEL INTENTIONS 2: MANCHESTER PREP

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Confession: it wasn't until after I'd watched (or, more accurately, fidgeted through in an increasingly visible state of annoyance and irritation) this and looked it up afterwards to see if there was any justification for such a colossal waste of an evening, that I found it's not actually a sequel, but a prequel, to Cruel Intentions. It's an origins story that seeks to explore how the hateful, amoral dicks and bitches from Roger Kumble's updating of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Choderlos De Laclos' original novel is uncredited this time) got that way in the first place, and thus there's no satisfying conclusion.

Douchebag Sebastian (Robin Dunne) transfers to an exclusive New York prep school, sent to live with his dirtbag father who's remarried to a phenomenally wealthy socialite (Mimi Rogers). She has groomed and moulded her daughter Kathryn (Amy Adams!) into a sociopathic ice-bitch with no empathy or feelings for anyone but herself, and events quickly spiral towards all-out war between her and her more laid-back new stepbrother, who has a romantic eye on the headmaster's daughter...

Plot twists that make absolutely no sense, characters who aren't interesting or attractive in their amorality and vicious scheming, and a sour ending in which the bad guys win (albeit one that's setting up the characters for a film that's already been made) make Cruel Intentions 2: Manchester Prep a film that's difficult to like, and the occasional softcore sex scene and the dubiously incestuous flavour to the central relationship (they're step-siblings only by marriage) don't perk things up enough. The cruelty and coldness worked in the first film, but this rehash is one instance where I spent much of the second half shouting abuse at the screen. There's a third entry in the series by other hands that's only slightly connected to these two, and is not currently on my rental queue.

*

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

CONTAINS SOME GAS-FIRED (GAS-FIRED BOILERS, SPOILERS)

Cor blimey, guvnor, strike a light and no mistake, come and 'ave a butchers at what His Bleedin' Nibs Lord Sir Guy Of Ritchie has done now, it's a right ****in' palavar, me old china, oi-oi, apples and pears, chim chimernee... Really. It's basically a London gangster movie, only nominally relocated to the fifth century but with giant fire-breathing pachyderm things at the start, an octopus demon and cor blimey, guvnor, it's David Beckham. Acting. (Some have mocked the film for this specifically, but it's not significantly worse or more jarring than everything else that's going on throughout.)

In this version Arthur is spirited away from Camelot Castle as a toddler, following a coup by his wicked uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), and ending up as an urchin living in a London bordello. Over the years he becomes a streetwise, hard-but-fair lovable rogue (Charlie Hunnam), wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving to the extent you do honestly expect the Minder theme tune to crash in at any moment. But The Sword has been found: the legend states that only the rightful King can pull it from the stone and Vortigern is having every man of the right age brought to Camelot to give it a tug. Next thing you know he's in a cave with Djimon Hounsou and mysteriously accented mage Astrid Berges-Frisbey and reluctantly manning up to reclaim the throne....

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is obviously utter tosh, in modern dialogue and modern slang (with one of the most clangingly out-of-place F-bombs in years), with CGI monsters and converted 3D action sequences crammed into a scenario where they don't really belong. Nor does the snappy, blokey, geezery banter and backchat that Ritchie wasn't able to include in his two Sherlock Holmes films or The Man From UNCLE (or presumably Swept Away, the DVD of which is still sitting in my to-watch pile). Obviously any kind of music score beyond the earliest of folk songs is going to be historically anachronistic, but Daniel Pemberton's score includes thumping techno that bolts the film too firmly to this era instead of that: a pity, since other cues of a more traditional variety (both in terms of traditional-sounding period instruments and the traditions of film scoring in general) work much better.

Still, it's not awful: it's moderate fun in parts if you can get into it but I don't think "moderate fun in parts" is anywhere near enough if they're going to try and spin this out to a six-film franchise. It's too long and never finds the right tone between Lord Of The Rings magic/fantasy and battle scenes, and cheery cockernee knockabout full of people with names like Goosefat Bill and Wet Stick. Entertaining enough as a throwaway one-off but really we don't need to be doing this again in a hurry.

**

SATANIC

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

By now we're well used to the main characters of quickie teen horror movies not just being thick as an extraordinarily large number of short planks, but eye-rollingly stupid to a near-suicidal degree. The old gag about "hot teenagers get stoned and play with a ouija board in the spooky old house at midnight" isn't a joke any more, it's practically a pitch for a studio franchise. Maybe we're just getting fed up with it down here on the ground, but in a world with four Sharknado movies the anti-idiot signals just aren't getting through.

Satanic is a prime example of dimwit cinema: two couples head to Los Angeles, either to watch a sitcom taping or en route to the Coachella Arts Festival (the script doesn't seem sure) but really they're in town to check out famous crime scenes such as the Sharon Tate residence (they've also specifically booked a hotel room that was the site of a notorious suicide). For no reason beyond idiocy they decide to follow the creepy owner of an occultist bookshop, where they promptly stumble upon what looks like a Satanic ritual...

It isn't a total disaster by any means: it's got a couple of nice moments and the Final Girl's fate is suitably grim and horrifying, and there's a weird timeloop dropped in towards the end for no obvious reason. But it's as forgettable and undistinguished as any one of a hundred low-budget horrors, and it can't get past the fact that the four main leads are so facepalm stupid as to render them impossible to empathise with. Missable in the extreme.

**

Thursday, 18 May 2017

ALIEN: COVENANT

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

It's a shame, it really is. The idea of Ridley Scott going back to the Alien Universe again, with a film that ties together Alien (which everyone loves) and Prometheus (which, admittedly, only I and a few others loved), is one of those genuinely exciting events in cinema, like a new Brian De Palma thriller or a new Bond / Star Wars / [insert name of favourite auteur and/or franchise here]. Having managed to keep myself pretty much unspoiled until the first showing on the first day, I waited impatiently outside through the ads and trailers: please be good, please be good, please be good....

And it was - kind of. But the trouble was that it wasn't significantly better than good: Alien Resurrection was good. (Hell, up to a point Alien Vs Predator was solidly enjoyable, if admittedly dumb.) Alien: Covenant isn't any better than good and it damn well should have been. Certainly there were several moments when I was really enjoying it, but thinking about it afterwards on the way home I realised that few of them were to do with the film itself. Rather, it was the callbacks to Alien (and, to a lesser extent, Prometheus): familiar imagery, familiar setups, familiar music, while the new stuff suddenly felt a lot less interesting. There's a cosy pleasure in seeing the ship's crew bicker and argue the way they do on the Nostromo, in the spraying water and clanking chains that hark back to Harry Dean Stanton's big moment.

In addition to Alien, there's a lot of Blade Runner in here: the film even starts with a close-up of an eye. That's synthetic David's (Michael Fassbender) eyeball, as he discusses God, creation and what it means to be human with his own creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, unbilled). The bulk of the film concerns the colony spaceship Covenant decades later, carrying two thousand colonists and a cabinet full of embryos to a new planet seven years distant. The crew, including synthetic Walter (Fassbender again), are woken from cryosleep by a chance shockwave from a nearby star; while effecting repairs they pick up a transmission from a previously undetected planet. This might make a better colony site than their original destination, but clearly there's someone or something already here...

It looks good, and so it should because that's really what Ridley Scott does so well. The creature attacks take a while to show up but they do pack a punch, partly because they're not all facehuggers and chestbursters as we've seen before, and they don't stint on the blood and gore. I'm generally a sucker for any movie with people running around spaceships and space stations (well, almost any movie) and all that's fine. But the use of Jerry Goldsmith's and Harry Gregson-Williams' thematic material from Alien and Prometheus respectively really does show up Jed Kurzel's utterly uninteresting original score (and cueing it up afterwards on Spotify revealed it as barely listenable), and the final plot twist is so blatantly obvious it's a wonder the audience weren't yelling it at the screen. There's also a peach for connoisseurs of those clunky "hmmm, do you think THAT's going to be important later on?" moments (which also happily doubles as another nod to Blade Runner).

I really wanted to love it and I'd have been perfectly happy to have just really liked it - but the more I think about it the more it just comes across as okay and an Alien movie by its original director really needs to be more than just okay. One of the reasons I liked Prometheus so much was because it did go off in different directions to Alien and had more intellectual ambitions (even if they weren't fully realised), full of questions of humanity and the meaning of life rather than bickering about their bonus payments - bickering which fits perfectly in Alien but wouldn't have done in Prometheus. This time around Fassbender's synthetics are more annoying than before; there are still too many characters to keep track of and only about half of them (particularly captain Billy Crudup, terraformer Katherine Waterston, pilot Danny McBride) get significant moments in the light, and ultimately the monster stuff is more interesting than the philosophising, which had its place in Prometheus but really doesn't seem to fit here. More than anything else Alien: Covenant is a disappointment because hopes were so high and, unlike Prometheus (and the first three Alien movies), I find I have no desire to watch it again.

***

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

DEATH CURSE OF TARTU

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS?

In news that should surprise absolutely no-one, a film which Shock Xpress once listed as one of the fifty most boring movies of all time (and which I freely admit I only watched because Shock Xpress once listed it as one of the fifty most boring movies of all time) turns out to be one of the fifty most boring movies of all time. Cinema has been awash with lousy films throughout its history, and it's true that some of them are fun despite their terribleness (while many claim they're fun precisely because of their terribleness, an argument I've never been entirely convinced by). Many more of them, however, are just simply terrible.

Exhibit 1,568: Death Curse Of Tartu is a (literally) bog-standard horror cheapie from 1966 in which a bunch of utter fools wander around an allegedly cursed Indian burial ground. The legend states clearly that Tartu is a shapeshifting witchdoctor who can transform Manimal-style into any of the local wildlife and wreak hideous vengeance on any who disturb his eternal resting place in a miserable Florida swamp. Four of the group are cardboard teenagers who couldn't spell "archaeology", much less practise it, instead preferring to go swimming in the creek and dance about in their underwear. Eventually Tartu stops manifesting as a snake, shark or alligator, clambers out of his casket and fights the survivors: it doesn't go well for him and then the film stops.

Much of this is indeed cataclysmically boring and its loss to British audiences since the decline of the VHS market (it's never been upgraded to a DVD release in this country) is frankly nothing to get despondent about. Sole point of moderate interest is an orchestral music score which (tribal drums and chanting apart) sounds way too good for a schlocky Z-picture for the bottom half of a drive-in double-bill, and I spent way too much of a limited lifespan trying, without success, to find whether it was tracked in from somewhere else, because it sounds like it cost twice as much as the whole film. The only other note of trivia is that there's a brief shot of a Miami Beach hotel at the end which is the same hotel seen near the start of Goldfinger. Shock Xpress were right. The real curse of Tartu is actually sitting and watching the damned thing.

*

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

FANGS

CONTAINSSSS SSSSOME SSSSPOILERSSSS

Staggeringly dull seventies obscurity in which fully half the movie goes by before anything happens, most of it takes place in the dark anyway and what little you can see is half lost in the murk of a dodgy transfer to a medium-definition YouTube upload from something that wasn't exactly shot in sparking 70mm in the first place. There's really nothing to be gained from slogging through Fangs except a thorough waste of a Monday evening, and any points it might earn from its arrant silliness it loses for sheer, petrifying boredom and more John Philip Sousa than any sane person would ever sit and listen to in a lifetime.

Somewhere out in a desert small town, an assortment of halfwitted locals bully and victimise snake breeder Les Tremayne (North By Northwest, The Slime People): the smug, hypocritical preacher, the obese, redneck storekeepers, the newly-married best friend who strangely wants to spend his evenings getting it on with his hot young poledancer bride instead of sitting around listening to The Stars And Stripes Forever on repeat in the company of a rambling hillbilly lunatic, even the local schoolteacher with a secret sexual fetish for snake fondling. No, really (it's called ophidicism, apparently). Eventually, of course, he snaps and starts using his collection of snakes to torture and kill his persecutors.

It's incredibly glum, with a satisfyingly bleak ending, but it takes far too long to get going, Snakey Bender (Tremayne) is a fantastically annoying villain, the soundtrack (occasional synth tracks and endless bloody Sousa marches) actively made me want to punch someone and none of his hideous victims are worth shedding a tear over. It doesn't make much sense - the local cop is an imbecile who can't remember a six-digit licence plate for ten seconds and doesn't find it remotely suspicious that all these people mysteriously left town at the same time, and no-one notices the increasing pile of the victims' cars at the bottom of a cliff - but it doesn't really matter since it's all so indifferently put together. Also known as Snakes, and nothing to do with the (somehow) even more boring Rattlers.

*

Thursday, 4 May 2017

PHANTASM: RAVAGER

BOYYYYYYY!!!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!!!

Not to beat about the bush here, but this fifth Phantasm movie, the first in nineteen years, is a frankly unworthy note on which to end the series. It's one of those films that very quickly shuffles between any number of alternate realities - dreams, flashbacks, stories, all in someone's mind, all in someone else's mind, some, none or all of the above and possibly two at a time - leaving the audience unsure where we are and what's reality. This has always been a central idea in horror movies, whether just tricksing about with the borders of fantasy and reality or for a cheap it-was-all-a-dream shock moment, and there are movies out there that aren't much interested in an airtight narrative - Videodrome, or even the original Phantasm - but in this instance it reaches the point where it feels like homework and you can't be bothered picking through it all.

In order to fully appreciate Phantasm: Ravager I actually spent the previous day running the first four movies back to back, since I hadn't seen the third and fourth entries since their VHS rental releases. Like a lot of franchises it goes on for at least one film more than necessary: in chronological order they're good, better, better than I remembered and pants respectively, with the second one easily being the most impressive in the series though I have a certain fondness for the cult original's weirdness. The frankly ever-unappealing Reggie (Reggie Bannister) is still wandering the desert, on the trail of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and looking for his friends Mike (A Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornbury), all returning regulars through the series (though Baldwin was briefly replaced by James Le Gros in Phantasm II). Or is he?

Much of the previous movie took place in the desert where Mike, struck by the franchise's USP flying silver spheres at the end of Part III, was apparently developing Tall Man abilities of his own - but now it appears that the whole saga has been taking place inside Reggie's imagination and he's sitting in a psychiatric hospital being visited by an entirely human Mike. Or is he really in a future hellscape of American cities levelled by giant spheres in the Independence Day manner, and he's fantasising about living in a care home as an escape from the apocalyptic horror?

The Jawa-like slaves in cowls return, the flying spheres return, and the Tall Man himself is an agreeably strange and sinister bogeyman figure. The canvas is much bigger, particularly towards the end, and the music score is much louder (happily using the same theme). But I kind of miss the wonky, shonky charm of the first two films: they'd got the goriest moments and the loopiest, most imaginative ideas, and they didn't have the dreaded CGI blood spurts as they do this time around. They were messy but fun, with a terrific villain, and this is messy and not much fun. Perhaps it's not much of a disappointment after the fourth one, but it's certainly a long fall from the series' early heights, and it's odd to see the regular performers in a franchise still doing it over a third of a century later. The imagery under the end credits suggests what a final Phantasm chapter might have looked like if they'd had the money to do it, but in the event it's sadly underwhelming and uninteresting. A muted final note for what was once one of the more intriguing and off-kilter horror series.

**