Friday, 1 December 2017

VHS FOREVER? PSYCHOTRONIC PEOPLE

CONTAINS? SPOILERS

Remember VHS? I always get the sense that I came to the party slightly too late: by the time I got to rent my own movies the dreaded Video Recordings Act had already consigned a load of the most interesting movies to the furnaces and James "Scissorhands" Ferman and the BBFC (make up your own acronym) had embarked on the entirely irrational campaign of hacking junk movies to ribbons, ostensibly to make them suitable for adults but actually rendering them even less watchable than they already were by taking all the best bits out. By then the DPP had done their work and - sarcastic hurrah - removed Night Of The Bloody Apes, Alien Contamination and Unhinged from rental shops and off-licenses across the UK so we could all sleep easier.

The foaming-at-the-mouth insanity of the pre-cert days has already been covered, particularly in Jake West's marvellous Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape; this is more of a disorganised grab-bag of reminiscences from critics, journalists, tape dealers, distributors and the occasional stars and directors. Covering everything from first rentals, the Video Nasty list of 39 formally banned titles, the back room of the Psychotronic Video shop in a Camden basement (I remember buying a few titles there) and police raids on video collectors' homes through to the lousy picture quality, the collectible tapes under the tables at film fairs and lucky finds at car boot sales, it does at least recapture the spirit of the age and almost makes me want to dig out the VHS player from the spare room and put on one of my few remaining tapes on.

The bafflingly-titled VHS Forever? Psychotronic People also allows Caroline Munro to reminisce about the guerrilla film-making of The Last Horror Film at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival: always interesting, but out of place in a documentary that's nominally about the early days of VHS. No other film gets specifically discussed to that extent, not even the far more controversial Maniac. Sadly, it also allows sewage merchant Lloyd Kaufman to ramble nonsensically to camera as though he's on Just A Minute with the topic Incoherent Bullshit, throwing together the MPAA, the McCarthy blacklists and Mary Whitehouse (referred to as Mary Blowjob, presumably for reasons of comedy) in one facepalming rant. Incidentally: say what you like about Mary Whitehouse: she may have been as comprehensively wrong-headed as it's possible for a human to be, but at least she believed absolutely in what she was doing, which is more than you can say for any of Troma's artless sludge.

It's an interesting topic and an interesting era, on which I was on the distant fringes: I had boxes of pre-cert tapes but eventually gave them away when reality intruded and I realised I was probably never going to watch them ever again, so I gave almost all of them away. Many of them are available on DVD or BluRay, in better quality, uncut and in the correct ratio, and I'm not nostalgic enough for the Vertical Helical Scan format to fire up my old mint condition cassette of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue even though I have the Anchor Bay disc on the shelf. But the technical quality isn't that great: for a film that's shot (or at least copyrighted) in 2014, the 4:3 ratio suggests an attempt to emulate the look of full-screen video, and some external scenes are plagued by wind noise into the camera microphone. It's a pity, because I could listen to some of these guys (and it is mostly guys) talking about old trash movies for hours: Norman J Warren, Allan Bryce, David McGillivray, Graham Humphreys, Marc Morris, David Kerekes....Incredibly, Kim Newman is only in it for maybe two minutes cumulatively! Overall it's a fascinating subject in which I would normally immerse myself for days at a time - nerding about movies is What I Do given half a chance - but sadly it doesn't really come off.

**

JUSTICE LEAGUE

CONTAINS BAT-[S]POILERS

The whole Marvel/DC light/dark fun/misery debate has already been flogged well past the point of ever achieving a resolution: do you want it flip, comedic and colourful or do you want it bleak, gritty and nihilistic? Personally I'm happy with the crowd-pleasing antics of the Avengers gang and, while I'm not about to suggest that gibberish like Joel Schumacher's two Batflicks are better in any way to the Nolan films, I've never understood the appeal of grim, joyless films like Man Of Steel and Batman Vs Superman. Wonder Woman perked things up enormously, possibly because the grimy claws of Zack Snyder were nowhere in evidence, and possibly because, unlike endless reboots of Batman and Spider-Man, this was an origins story we'd not encountered before in cinema (did the Lynda Carter TV series include it?) so there was an element of freshness to it.

But the debate has been shunted back into life with Justice League, the fifth instalment of the DC glumpocalypse, because whatever the original intentions, it's actually ended up with its boots in both camps thanks to reshoots from Joss Whedon, director of two Marvel entries and a spin-off TV show. Despite the claim that he'd write direct in the same style as Snyder so there wouldn't be any obvious shifts in tone, there are scenes (particularly those featuring The Flash) which seem to be typed in a completely different font to the rest of the film. And it works. A bit. Some of the time, anyway. Not brilliantly: Superman is as thoroughly uninteresting as ever (at least since the first two Christopher Reeve movies) and the plot is the usual old CGI Armageddon nonsense, but it's almost entertaining enough in places to get by and most likely far more than Snyder's film would have been, had he not withdrawn for personal/family reasons.

An ancient world-destroying demon thing called Steppenwolf (no, really) is after three ancient boxes which, when brought together, will bring about the end of humanity and turn the planet into the Hellscape of his (its?) homeworld. One of these Mother Boxes (no, really) is guarded by the Amazons, another by the Atlanteans in Atlantis (no, really). Fortunately, Batman is putting a team together, with Wonder Woman, The Flash (who can move at incredibly high speed), Aquaman (water skills) and Cyborg (computers, electronics, data). But will they be enough? Or do they need to exhume Superman and jolt him back to life with the power of the third Mother Box?

It all ends, as these things must, with a welter of green-screen whizzbang in which various members of the gang take it in turns to punch Steppenwolf and his flying demon minion things while the surrounding landscape is terraformed around them. Which is all perfectly well done, if you like your retinas scorched and if you like not having half a clue what the hell's going on. But mass destruction and/or the imminent end of the world aren't a new thing any more: we saw all this in Man Of Steel and half the Avengers movies and the Transformers films and most Roland Emmerich films and Geostorm and it's all frankly getting a bit been there, done that, got the ticket stubs to prove it. I'm not enough of a comic-book aficionado to spot any significant narrative difference between the Mother Boxes and Marvel's Infinity Stones anyway, like the satellite weapons from assorted Bonds and XXX 3 and so on, it's the same tune played on a slightly different guitar. And raising the stakes to a global level means nothing if we don't care about anything except the gosh-wow visuals, and even with Whedon's friendlier, less doomladen input there's little in the way of Real Human Beings with whom we can find some shred of empathy and even less for the superheroes who are all invincible and can fly.

If this all sounds like I'm trying to work out exactly how I feel about the movie...well, I suppose I am. It's not Dawn Of Justice-level terrible, and it's not Suicide Squad-level pointless. It's not Man Of Steel-level glum and it's not Thor: Ragnarok-level bonkers. I've never been a fan of Superman anyway and here, saddled additionally with having Henry Cavill's moustache CGId out in the reshoots, he seems peculiarly comfortable with having brought back from death. This Batman is at least more engaging than the Christian Bale incarnation, but Wonder Woman and The Flash are still the most enjoyable and watchable of the squad.

At some point next year we're getting a solo Aquaman movie (though probably not one for Cyborg), as well as at least one more Justice League (set up in the inevitable post-credits teaser) because there's no point in the next five or ten years when these ongoing superhero smash-em-ups are going to stop. That's not necessarily a bad thing (though I still blanch at the idea of spending as obscene an amount of money as three hundred million dollars on one movie), but I just wish they were better. Instead they're okay. And okay at that price tag just isn't enough for some incidental pleasures and only two of the six lead characters. I wanted to like it (obviously: the idea of wanting to hate a movie is clearly insanity) but in the end it's a two- or three-star movie at very, very best, depending on how charitable you feel.

***

Saturday, 18 November 2017

BLOODSPORT II

OUCH CONTAINS OOF AARGH SPOILERS OW

Sometimes you don't want Art. Sometimes you don't want refined analyses of the human condition or insightful reflections on contemporary society. Sometimes it's Friday night and all you really want is ninety minutes of freakishly proportioned weirdos beating the stuffing out of each other in full skull-cracking stereo, with as little narrative, character or emotional content as possible. It doesn't have to be any good, it doesn't have to be brilliantly acted, so long as most of the people on screen get repeatedly kicked in the head and end up with compound fractures of every bone they have.

Bloodsport II is that movie, ticking off pretty much all of the requirements of the idiot martial arts sequel. Minimal plot: convicted thief Daniel Bernhardt is tutored in a Thai prison hellhole in the ways of spirituality and extreme violence by wise old James Hong (telling much of the story in flashback), and then proceeds through the early stages of the legendary Kumite competition by knocking seven bags of soot out of a succession of increasingly formidale maniacs. Fearsome adversary: his former prison guard, built like a completely invulnerable brick wall, who's quite obviously going to lose the Grand Final in the last few minutes. Totty: just one token female fighter in the Kumite and one potential girlfriend for our redeemed hero, because this isn't a film for blubby romantic mush.

It's not very good (it's certainly not up there with Jean-Claude Van Damme's breakout original, with which this nominal sequel has very little connection beyond the Kumite itself), but it clearly wasn't supposed to be. So long as someone gets punched in the face every few minutes and everyone screams while delivering pulverising body blows to their opponent, it's done its job and everyone's happy. Except for the BBFC, who cut a whole second to remove the dreaded double-ear clap, thus clearly rendering the entire project a total waste of time.

**

EMMANUELLE IV

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IDIOCY EVEN BY MY STANDARDS

It is hardly an earth-shattering revelation that Emmanuelle IV is rubbish. Copious amounts of soft-focus humping in exotic locales while tinkly Euromuzak slop burbles away on the soundtrack, glamorous women (and men) getting their kit off and going at it like hammers, supremely idiotic dialogue that makes the Star Wars prequels sound like Aaron Sorkin's pithiest, plotting that would shame a daytime soap opera: a 33-years-on recount by the Academy Awards is not on the cards. What there is, perhaps all there is, is a sense of disappointment as the previous third entry in the saga, Goodbye Emmanuelle, was probably the best thus far.

Of course, noting that an Emmanuelle movie this far down the franchise has terrible acting and a lousy script is like suggesting the last Woody Allen was short on car chases and had very little social commentary about gun control. That's really not its job. Even so, the stupidometer rarely dips below ninety in Emmanuelle IV. This is the one in which either Sylvia Kristel or the producers decided that she was too old (at 32) to keep on getting her bum out and so has extensive plastic surgery to transform her into the younger, slimmer, fitter Mia Nygren. Confusingly, she also changes her name to Emmanuelle from Sylvia, suggesting this is an entirely unrelated entry in the series as she spends the first act playing herself as a magazine journalist. But she still has her old memories of her all-consuming love for Marc (Patrick Bauchau, not in any of the previous films) - obviously, because she hasn't had her mind wiped or her memory implanted: this isn't Total Recall or Blade Runner. If there's any dick in this movie it sure ain't Philip K.

So Emmanuelle mopes around Brazil recuperating from extensive surgery, having sex, watching other people having sex, blathering on and on about her voyage of sexual discovery in a manner that you might describe as navel gazing except it's not even her own navel any more. Eventually she goes back to Marc, thus rendering the whole adventure redundant, musing that their perfect love meant they were destined to be together forever, even though [1] that perfect love didn't stop her from humping miscellaneous Brazilian randoms and [2] it's less a matter of predestined cosmic fate than a matter of flying to Paris, sneaking into his office and making dinner reservations for the two of them.

The fact that it's utter drivel, however, shouldn't have stopped it from being a good time. At least the earlier entries had a measure of exotic glamour about them and that's mostly absent here: it's got little more in the way of gloss and style than one of Joe D'Amato's artless knockoffs. To judge from his IMDb page and a brief trawl round Google videos, director Francis Leroi is apparently a hardcore guy anyway (this is soft as wet blancmange), though he subsequently made several small-screen continuations featuring flashbacks to a younger Emmanuelle as told by Kristel to jetsetting businessman George Lazenby. There's absolutely nothing in Emmanuelle IV to suggest that further entries in the series would be a sufficiently rewarding evening's entertainment.

*

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

CONTAINS SPOILERS

This is supposed to be the Adam Sandler film that it's okay to have on your DVD shelf. It's the one that doesn't feel out of place on the prestigious Criterion label, the one where you don't laugh because it's not a comedy, rather than one where you don't laugh because Sandler has the comedic value of blunt force trauma. It's the one where Sandler is annoying because he's supposed to be annoying, not one where he's supposed to be a lovable goofy manchild but just comes off as annoying. That's because it's an auteur piece by the apparently uncriticisable (it's a word) dahhling of the cravat-wielding cineaste set Paul Thomas Anderson.

I'm ambivalent about PTA: I loved Boogie Nights and half-liked There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, but absolutely hated The Master which everyone else in the world adored. Sadly, this is another one in the debit column: a deliberately weird and offputting non-romantic anti-comedy in which oddity salesman Sandler meets up with Emily Watson, co-worker with one of his (seven) sisters. He's a long-term loner with anger issues, he's buying huge stocks of supermarket desserts because of an airmiles offer, but he's also falling victim to a phone-sex scam operated by mattress mogul Philip Seynour Hoffmann...

Some of the current titans of mainstream American multiplex comedy - Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill - are more interesting (or at least less irritating) when they're playing lighter, more sophisticated comedy or actual straight drama: Melinda And Melinda, Steve Jobs, True Story. Thus far I've managed to dodge many of the Happy Gilmore-shaped bullets, because life's too short to keep hurting yourself like that, but in the case of Punch-Drunk Love it's not just him that seems to have been deliberately designed to be as odd and out of place as possible. From Jon Brion's intrusive score to Sandler's weirdly distracting bright blue suit, from the harmonium dumped at the side of the road (serving neither character nor narrative purposes, it's just something that happens) to the straight bits of comedy (unbreakable sink plungers which aren't) and violence (Sandler setting about a bunch of goons with a tyre iron), it's a film in which none of the pieces fit together, and quite deliberately.

What it does have in its favour is magnificent photography: even on Blu through a 37-inch TV, Anderson's regular DP Robert Elswit makes the celluloid soar with bold colours and it's an absolute validation of 35mm stock over cold dead digital. But I don't think the technicals of filmmaking are anywhere near enough to offset grating characters and score (including multiple uses of a song from the Popeye soundtrack, of all things) and narrative: it leaves you feeling uncomfortable and frustrated, and I don't get the logic in deliberate feelbad. I don't usually get Paul Thomas Anderson (give me Paul WS Anderson any day!), I certainly don't get Adam Sandler, and I absolutely don't get Punch-Drunk Love.

**

PRAY. / PRAY 2: THE WOODS / PRAY 3: THE STORM

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS.

Yes, there is a full stop in the title of the first film, but in truth some errant punctuation marks are the least of these movies' problems. In slasher movies with no slash and frankly insufficient stalk, performances barely this side of "speaking out loud", flat digital photography that is frequently too poorly lit to make anything out, montages of absolutely nothing that go nowhere and post-credits blooper reels, it's hard to care that much about the exact title in the opening credits beyond just noting it for the record.

Pray. is a bog-standard maniac-on-the-loose horror with Christian overtones (meaning there's no blood, sex or swearing) in which a young Christian woman is vaguely stalked by a psycho whose only noticeable characteristics are a chain tattoo and the inevitable plastic mask. She and some friends attend a Christian rock festival, and get to hang out with the band afterwards (absolutely nothing goes on) but later on there might be someone hiding in her room. That someone has already abducted one woman, and he might be watching her house the next day while she's out at Spirit Day. Eventually he gets to do his Michael Myers impression on her when she somehow gets locked into the local mall.

Pray. absolutely isn't any good at all: it drags at a mere 68 minutes and even then could have lost maybe twenty minutes of nothing much happening, including the entire Spirit Day sequence which is just video coverage of church activities. To its credit, the film does pull off one effective Boo! scare (well, it made me jump at least, even if it turns out to be a red herring), but it ends on a bizarre note in which The Lord appears to have performed a genuine miracle to help her escape, while leaving it unexplored as to why He put her in that position in the first place. As for the killer, he's left a nameless blank: we never find out what he wants, where he's from, or what the clearly significant chain tattoo represents.

Some of that is saved for Pray 2: The Woods, which has enough plot material for three films yet can't seem to satisfactorily fill one. The first film's abductee (cheekily named Laurie Curtis) finds herself in a woodland storage shed, from which she escapes and becomes a minor celebrity on the public access talk show circuit plugging her memoir. But the psycho, revealed as having gone mad after five years in prison for beating up his girlfriend (he didn't, she lied), is on her trail again, though failing to do much more than break into her house and then go on the run from the cops and FBI through the woods - the exact same woods where the first film's young Christian group are out on a camping and bible study trip. Meanwhile a trio of comedy cops, one with a false moustache and one wearing a shirt that boasts the production company logo, sit outside in a van, jabbering endlessly in scenes that must have been improvised because no actual human would ever have typed all this drivel out.

Furthering the unaccountable nods to Halloween (which also includes scary pumpkin faces in the dead slow opening credits) the maniac is listed as Shape in the cast list for both (and Tyler in the second). The first film also features a shop called Kruger's; it's a real store which is thanked in the end credits, and might have been picked less for that genre nod than the fact that Kruger is the surname of the editor/cinematographer/co-writer/co-producer. But as is so often the case, dropping a few names from classic horrors, even coincidentally, doesn't make up for a total absence of skill and style. Music is very badly used: both films' scores are culled from horror veteran Richard Band's soundtrack library service but they achieve no effect whatsoever.

Staggeringly, Pray 3: The Storm is almost decent. It's still not any good, it's saddled with terrible non-performances, bible quotes and prayers, and a songtrack full of faith-based soft rock numbers (from a band called Dutton) and it struggles to make it to the hour mark, but in the intervening years someone has clearly sat the auteurs down with a bunch of actual horror movies and shown them some simple suspense techniques they could adopt. A masked stalker, who may or may not be the same guy from the first two films, is on the trail of Laurie Curtis yet again, as she and her husband leave the kids at home with a couple of teenage videoblogger idiots. They spend most of the evening watching the first Pray. film on DVD and are too dumb to notice the wide open window right next to them.

Photography is leagues ahead of the first two instalments, possibly due to being designed for 3D (!) and, despite clearly being intended for home viewing, being framed in 2.35 widescreen. The film also manages some neat use of the security cameras in the Curtis house and doesn't overuse the night-vision cellphone gimmick in the manner of the worst of found footage. They also manage to slip in a Friday The 13th reference, and the completely useless stalker finally gets down to scaring the bejaysus out of a couple of airheads. But the lead cop's name badge has the actor's name on it, the husband wears a T-shirt advertising one of the director's earlier films, the TV news channel is actually called Faux News, and towards the end the film doesn't seem to know whether the power has been restored or not and therefore how dark things are supposed to be.

Inevitably, it has an open ending setting things up for a fourth instalment, but Pray 3 was made back in 2012 and there's no indication that the most bloodless horror franchise of all time is ripe for a continuation. All three films were directed by (Dr) Matt Mitchell, who also takes a substantial role as a pastor in the second one; he's also combined Pray. and Pray 2 to form Pray 2.5, which I haven't bothered to watch, even for the sake of my fast-fading completism. None of them are any good, but the third one is closest to "not terrible" and the closest to what the horror audience would generally recognise as a horror movie (let alone a good horror movie). Being of faith - faith of any stripe - doesn't get you a free pass for making terrible movies and it's only the third chunk of The Laurie Curtis Trilogy that picks up as a borderline entertaining horror, despite its legions of faults. Should you wish to, they're all on Amazon Prime.

*
*
**

Saturday, 11 November 2017

TERRIFIER

CONTAINS SPOILERS, HA HA HA

For some reason, we've lost all our bogeymen. The slasher icons from decades past aren't slashing any more: Freddy and Jason were both badly rebooted and both putative franchises came to a juddering halt (though they're trying Jason again), and the new Michael Myers managed two generally awful instalments before he was abandoned as well (although they're trying to resurrect him again as well). A disastrously recast Pinhead was last seen in a placeholder quickie so they could hold on to the remake rights, and Phantasm's Tall Man turned up in a belated and thoroughly underwhelming Part 5, meaning that Jigsaw's pretty much all we've got left now. So maybe it's time we stopped bringing the old scary guys back for an audience that just isn't interested in reboots, maybe we should create some new original scary guys for new original horrors.

Maybe. But Art The Clown isn't it. The implacable, silent and relentless killer from Terrifier (there's no definite article on screen) is certainly creepy and unsettling when he isn't murdering people, when he's just sitting in a diner, in full costume and make-up, staring at the young women he's decided will be his victims tonight. When they find themselves stranded with an inexplicable flat tyre, and one of them needs to use the loo in an apparently empty building, it's only a matter of time before Art picks them off along with anyone else in the vicinity...

Well, okay, but why? Freddy and Michael and Jason had their reasons and rationales, albeit flimsy ones (very flimsy for Jason, though not for Mrs Voorhees), and even second-string slashers from things like My Bloody Valentine and He Knows You're Alone (and a hundred other third- and fourth-stringers) targeted specific people for specific reasons. There's usually a basic backstory behind them (not always: part of the power of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the absence of any kind of context), from sexual obsession to revenge for playground pranks or past trauma. But there isn't any depth or dimension to Art The Clown. He's just butchering strangers for no reason, and if the victims aren't significant to him then why should they be significant to us?

Art's signature is wanton bloody excess, and the splatter highlight of Terrifier has one of the women strung up by her ankles and then bloodily bisected from crotch to throat. It's a needlessly violent kill, more for the prosthetics guys to showcase their talents than for any narrative value, but the end result is like one of Troma's old gore movies where gratuitous schlock was all they had to offer. Elsewhere, Art The Clown actually uses the lamest and laziest and least imaginative weapon of all: a handgun, which as far as I'm concerned is cheating for a wannabe slasher icon of the future.

Terrifier isn't awful: it has a sort of old-fashioned retro charm about it and it does deliver on the blood and gore. But it, and its visually striking villain, just doesn't have anything that might make you want to come back for seconds in a year's time.

**

Sunday, 5 November 2017

BEYOND SKYLINE

EH? REALLY? AND CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Of all the films released in 2010, Skyline was the one to which we needed a sequel? I can understand not doing a second helping of Green Zone or The Last Airbender or A Serbian Film, but was Skyline that much higher on the list of easily marketable properties that could be franchised out into a biennial sub-Independence Day monsterfest? There actually was a Skyline 2 pencilled in at one point back in 2012, but it's taken another five years for it to actually show up.

In the event, it's turned out surprisingly well, with a couple of decent names in the cast, a much wider canvas than the first film and much more of the aliens (and less of people bickering in a hotel suite and looking out of the window). Taking place mostly parallel with the first film, Beyond Skyline kicks off with Frank Grillo as a cop trapped in a subway train when the aliens turn up and suck all the humans up into their spaceships so they can either be impregnated with weird genetically spliced mutants and/or have their brains ripped out for the death robots. But sometimes those brains are still able to think for themselves and if they can take control of the motherships then maybe the Earth can be saved...

Much of the second half takes place in Cambodia where Iko Uwais turns up to do some (although not enough) martial arts stuff and a motley gang of survivors, including a fast-growing alien-human baby (shades of the fondly remembered V: The Final Battle), hole up under a temple and prepare to fight back. It's all absolute tosh, but it's pretty good fun with top-notch CG and green screen effects: if Skyline of all things is going to get a sequel then this is the way to go: sillier, bigger, more spectacular, and ending with the suggestion that any third instalment is going to be even bigger. Really the only false step is a set of bloopers at the end indicating just how reliant they were on green-screen; at least the outtakes at the end of a Jackie Chan film underline rather than undercut the reality by showing the stunt guys landing badly and fracturing their shins. Other than that, it's hugely entertaining pulp nonsense and I enjoyed it enormously.

****

Thursday, 2 November 2017

JIGSAW

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND OUCH THAT'S GOT TO HURT

The good news regarding this belated continuation of the much maligned mutilation saga is that, for the first time, you don't need to binge watch all the previous entries in a two-day marathon of screaming and dismemberment. I did, as usual, but found that ths usual homework was entirely unnecessary: this entry steers clear of endlessly restaging and reinterpreting events from previous films and dragging characters back for another appearance (pretty much everyone was killed off in the last one anyway); all you really need to know is that John Kramer is apparently back and instructing a further collection of deadbeats and lowlifes in the error of their ways, despite being conclusively very dead indeed at the end of Saw III and even more conclusively autopsied at the start of Saw IV.

The bad news is that I didn't wince once. That's not to suggest that Jigsaw is actually a heartwarming romp full of kittens and buttercups, but even on a fifth viewing I still grimace at Donnie Wahlberg's ankle smashing in Saw IV - more this time than the previous viewing - and by the high disgust standards of earlier movies (particularly the last one, which achieved crime scene photo levels of splattery verisimilitude) it's simply not in that look-away league. Still, there's more than enough ghoulish roadkill entertainment to be had: whirring saw blades, shotguns, acid injections, severed legs, and a final kill that's sadly CG silliness rather than physical shredded flesh.

It's doing all the things that the Saw series is noted for: sleight of hand with the timeline (they were doing this as far back as Saw II, and it took me a couple of runs to twig that the events of Saw III and Saw IV run concurrently), Charlie Clouser's industrial noise score (kudos for keeping the same musical voice throughout the series, which other franchises didn't bother with), a handful of red herring characters who might be the new killer, victims' characters and crimes efficiently sketched in, nods to the previous films, a complete lack of logic and sense (one might accept that John Kramer was wealthy and inventive enough to afford and construct all those traps, but can the same be said of the new holder of Jigsaw's mantle?), and a conclusion that suggests that in a year's time they, and we, will be doing the exact same thing.

That's not necessarily a bad thing: many other franchises have run out of steam a lot sooner than this, and some never had much steam to begin with. Saw has kept up the invention of new and visually impressive ways to rip the human body to pieces, it's responded to the demise of its central monster by constructing a hilariously convoluted set of backstories and flashbacks, and it's never had the good taste to look away when an eyeball's being skewered or yards of intestines are being sloshed around the floor. Best of all: none of the saga's horrors have been sexual: men and women have been victims, accomplices or both, but never because of their gender, and the driving forces behind Jigsaw and his cohorts have always been either philosophical and spiritual (albeit nonsensical), or borne out of straightforward vengeance.

Neither the best nor the worst of the saga, Jigsaw is a perhaps unnecessary stab at jumpstarting another five or six showcases for cheery torture and screaming: it feels more like a new start than a mere continuation or a retread: as if they know there's no more material to wring out of Tobin Bell's gamesmaster, and any further films could dispense with him entirely now a replacement, albeit a less charismatic one, has been anointed. Personally I'm okay with this: despite (or perhaps because of) their relentless grimness, their pretence at profundity and their eschewing of overt comedy they somehow end up as hilarious and impossible to take too seriously, and I'm more than happy to spend ninety minutes every Halloween watching people dismember and mutilate themselves for the most idiotic of reasons. Grisly fun.

***

Sunday, 8 October 2017

ESCAPE ROOM

NOT THAT IT MATTERS, BUT SPOILERS

Quite clearly, they're not trying any more. Quite clearly, they're not even pretending that a halfway decent movie was ever on the cards. Quite clearly, they just don't care about any semblance of quality or style, any semblance of interesting character or narrative. Quite clearly, so long as there's enough horror completists out there willing to watch absolutely anything with a bit of gore or a bit of violence and a couple of hot chicks, the job's as good as done and they don't need to bother doing anything better. When did audience standards slip so low that crap - there are few better words for it - like Escape Room was considered acceptable? When did people stop asking "is that really the best you (or I) can do?"

The phenomenon of the Escape Room is new to me (though a quick Google reveals that there's one not too far away from my town): a sealed environment in which a group of people have to solve a series of puzzles against the clock. In this particular instance Skeet Ulrich's escape room (called Deranged for no obvious reason) is somewhat enlivened by the presence of a mysterious Skull Box he's purchased from Sean Young's ephemera/junk shop: it contains a demon that possesses the struggling actor who's playing the sack-headed monster chained to the wall and proceeds to unspectacularly off the quartet of idiots who've just been locked in...

Why does the demon possesses the one person whose movement is restricted? Why, when it's finally clear what's going on, doesn't Ulrich at least reel back the chains from the outside? Why do the hapless idiots locked in the room waste so much time on very obvious clues? More damagingly, why do we yet again have to have a couple of horror nerds arguing endlessly about classic horror movies when their own film is not, and never had a chance of being, anywhere near that league? You haven't earned the right to casually namedrop You're Next and John Carpenter's The Thing unless your own film isn't even vaguely competent, and for all your obvious horror geekery it absolutely isn't here. Contains strobing.

*

Thursday, 5 October 2017

UNHINGED

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND... WHATEVER, I'M NOT SURE I CAN HONESTLY BE BOTHERED ANY MORE

The standard studio wisdom appears to be that you remake the great movies because they're the famous ones and it'll make lots of money; no-one expects them to be as good as the originals because they never are but people will still watch them, and modern audiences haven't seen the earlier versions anyway because no-one is interested in movies more than two years old. Personally I'd rather they remade the rubbish films instead because the bar is so low that a better film is pretty much guaranteed. Don't remake A Nightmare On Elm Street, remake Zoltan Hound Of Dracula where there's room for improvement and people will still watch it because clearly they'll watch anything.

The flaw in the plan is when they obligingly remake something utterly worthless and still make a steaming great Farage of things. For absolutely no good reason beyond its unwarranted inclusion on the Video Nasties list from the early eighties, they've chosen the festival of rampant mediocrity that is Unhinged. (Maybe a Bloody Moon remake is already in the works somewhere and the owners of Night Of The Bloody Apes wanted too much money.) In this they've not only chosen the dullest and most miserable load of old nothing, but have done it so badly that they've failed to clear a bar that Ant-Man would have trouble slithering under. Four annoying American girlies on a road trip to a wedding get lost in the wilds of England and have to spend a few days at a remote farmhouse; bad stuff happens.

The all-new Unhinged has nothing to commend it: a complete lack of visual flair (in fairness, the original was scarcely Hitchcock), performances somehow even less expressive than a Mind The Gap tannoy announcement, characters it's impossible to root for even when they're being chased around drab woodlands or being tortured in the woodshed by a mystery maniac. In the end, for all the fact that the original's writer-director Don Gronquist is credited on this one it's actually got very little to do plotwise with the 1982 film (the trailer bills it as a "remake of the 1983 video nasty classic", not only getting the year wrong but redefining the word "classic" to mean "thing") beyond the central premise of a car load of idiots stuck in a house with a killer. It's a premise that's scarcely innovative but even so, if you can't make anything better than this out of it you probably shouldn't even bother trying. In the end it just makes you wonder whether you actually need, or even want, to watch cheapo schlock horror movies any more.

*

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND SOMETHING I CAN'T QUITE PUT MY FINGER ON, OO-ER MISSUS

There's a scene in this second Kingsman movie, about which a lot has already been said: an attempt to top the alleged anal sex joke at the end of the first one with a perhaps overly graphic gag about fingering: specifically the digital insertion of a tracking device into a lady's crevices for dubious plot purposes. I'm not about to go in to bat defending this scene: it isn't at all necessary (can't she just swallow it?) and it isn't funny, any more than the bum-based payoff from the first film. But it is indicative of the film's attitude to women in general and its lack of any sense of shame or guilt over that attitude.

Still, there's plenty of fun to be had with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, kicking off with a dizzying fight and car chase through London between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and a rejected Kingsman trainee. Later that same evening, missiles streak out of nowhere and destroy the entire Kingsman organisation, from the tailor's shop to the country training base to Eggsy's own flat. The villainess is Poppy (Julianne Moore), multi-trillionaire drugs dealer scheming to get her products legalised by contaminating the drugs with a poison to which only she has the antidote. The only survivors of the Kingsman firm (just Egerton and Mark Strong) have to team up with their American equivalent, Statesman, run by Jeff Bridges with Halle Berry and Channing Tatum in support....

It's nonsense, obviously: Poppy specifically takes out Kingsman yet not only ignores Statesman but also mysteriously ignores the CIA, FBI, MI5, Interpol, and every other national and international intelligence in the world. It's also nonsense that they've managed to get the could-not-be-deader Galahad (Colin Firth) back to life with a bag of magic jelly, because he was the best thing about the first film and they've realised they made a mistake in killing him off. Worse, though, is the boysy, blokey attitude to women as sex objects, staying behind in the office or at home while The Men go off and have all the fun fighting and chasing and blowing things up and fingering hot chicks at a rock festival. Eggsy's princess girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom) is off screen most of the time, the American tech wizard (Halle Berry) never leaves the HQ, and fellow British agent Roxy (Sophie Cookson) gets one solitary scene in her bedroom before being blown up, and the only woman of any significance is Julianne Moore's villain. It's the guys who do all the exciting stuff - even Sir Elton John, of all people, gets to kungfu a couple of disposable minions to a pulp. (It's been quite a year for rubbish celebrity cameos in blockbusters and this is every bit the equal of David Beckham and Paul McCartney except that there's a hell of a lot more of it this time around.)

And yet... as a rubbish popcorn action movie for unreconstructed blokey blokes it's kind of big stupid fun and it doesn't have the dead hand of psychological angst (a post-Bourne trend that's plagued rubbish popcorn action franchises for years, from Batman to Bond to Doctor Who) weighing it down by pretending it's Serious Drama. Things go bang, people get attacked by robot dogs, people get fed through a meat mincer, people get cut in half with laser bullwhips: the film knows exactly what it's doing and for whom it's doing it. I don't think it's as good as the first one: I could have done without the brasher American angle dominating the peculiarly British charm of the original, but its flaws certainly weren't enough to get me angry and I had enough knucklehead entertainment to carry me through the dodgy passages. That said, maybe enough is enough now and they should stop while they're slightly ahead.

***

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

A GHOST STORY

CONTAINS EEEEK! SPOILERS

Don't worry: this isn't a scary film at all. I mean, it's obviously a horror film, and it's a film with a ghost in it - that much is on the poster and in the title - but it's a safe bet that you absolutely won't find what's on screen scary. Funny, quirky, sad, perhaps. Behind the screen, the ideas behind the story, that's the troubling territory. A Ghost Story is a ghost story for ghosts: a ghost story from the ghost's perspective. And if this is how we come back, it's utterly terrifying.

C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are a young, moderately happy couple whose average, everyday domestic relationship is shattered when he's killed in a car smash (this isn't a spoiler, as it takes place in the first ten minutes of the film). Rising off the morgue trolley, he has the chance to go towards the light but instead returns as an invisible, inaudible presence in the house. Invisible to everyone else, but visible to us as the simplest and most old-fashioned ghost: hidden under a sheet with eyeholes cut out. Silently watching M go through her grief, standing unobserved next to her... until she meets someone else and eventually moves out of the house, crucially leaving a handwritten note tucked into the woodwork as she leaves. The contents of this note become the driving force in his (after)life and he ends up worrying away at the tiny crack in the paint to find this sliver of paper...

Meanwhile, real life goes on as a family move in to the house - and he's still there. Years go by and the house changes hands again - and he's still there. Alone and silent under a sheet. For how long? For ever? An apparently eternal, inescapable nonexistence. Perhaps until, as is helpfully pointed out by one of the house's later tenants, the vaporisation of the Earth in some six billion years' time. Or maybe, not even then...

It's a fantastically glum film, pared right down to the basics: a 4:3 aspect ratio (with round corners), long takes with a static camera in which very little happens, one location, very low budget. Yet it's mesmerising throughout, enjoyable without having any laughs in it at all (the only actual joke is the name of the production company), slow without ever being dull, and genuinely sad. Granted, I think I may have missed the point from which things ultimately resolve themselves, and the rules governing how much interaction C can have with the physical world aren't entirely clear, but those are minor quibbles: this is a fascinating, (literally) deadpan, non-horror horror film. I enjoyed it immensely.

****

Monday, 18 September 2017

MOTHER!

contains! some! major! spoilers?

First off, let's dispense with the supposedly lower-case title malarkey: many people are referring to Darren Aronofsky's latest as mother!, for no apparent reason than because that's how it appears on the end credits. Well, so do all the names on the title cards at the end, and we don't refer to jennifer lawrence or javier bardem, because that just looks stupid, so in the absence of any solid, unanswerable reason why it shouldn't be capitalised (auteurial affectation doesn't cut it), I'm capitalising it as Mother!. I'll give you the exclamation mark, but don't push your luck.

Secondly, just what the hell is it? Horror? Allegory? Arthouse ramblings? All of the above. I don't think there's any doubt it's a horror movie: it's pure nightmare, particularly in its later scenes, with some images and moments that easily push it into the 18 certificate bracket, and it pretty much starts at a pitch of awkwardness and discomfort and proceeds downwards from there. Perhaps wisely, the publicity has been centred around the first act, which is more an unsettling drama in which the idyllic lives of Him and Mother (no-one has a name beyond their actual function, though Mother is actually Him's partner/wife) are disrupted by two strangers. Him (Javier Bardem) is a blocked poet, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has restored their massive rural mansion from its burned-out original state. Suddenly Man and subsequently Woman (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up out of (literally) nowhere and are initially welcomed by Him, to Mother's increased concern. Then Younger Brother and Oldest Son arrive...

From there both Mother and Mother! descend into a nightmare of escalating madness as strangers arrive at the house en masse and systematically wreck the place, while Mother tries vainly to cope with their needs and demands (you can see her hair getting greyer as the scene progresses) even as the house starts to collapse around them. And that's only the first act of the film - the second, madder and more extreme half concern Mother's pregnancy and the birth of her son. Specifically, it's what happens after that birth that leads to the most unpleasant and shocking scenes: suffice to say that if you're in the process of having children or have recently done so, don't see this film. The entire film is centred around Mother, with Lawrence almost never off screen and the camera frequently hovering over her shoulder.

Much has already been written in director's statements and the dreaded broadsheet think-pieces about exactly what Mother! is an allegory of: Creation, Adam And Eve, mankind's destruction of Mother Earth - everything on Earth was beautiful until People came along and destroyed it. Him is God and Mother is Mother Nature. Or maybe it's about drugs or oil or The Patriarchy or the act and cost of artistic creativity. For all I know it's actually about the Power Rangers (Him's precious crystal might as well be a reference to their Zeo Crystal from which all life is supposed to spring) - yes, I'm obviously being facetious, but is it that much MORE ridiculous than the Dan Brown-level symbolology of what the frog represents or the symbol on Ed Harris' cigarette lighter?

Look: if I'd known I was basically sitting an exam I'd have done some revision. I'm not an intellectual, I didn't go to University, but I'm not a knuckle-dragging imbecile who needs everything spoonfed in simple words. I made it through Hard To Be A God in one go, for goodness' sake. Sure, I didn't much enjoy the experience, but at least I was open to it. And I think it's great that major companies like Paramount are putting difficult, challenging and unusual films into the marketplace, and pushing them in wide releases rather than a couple of Curzons and the ICA - although if Mother! doesn't connect with audiences then this probably won't happen again and cinemas will play safe with a fourteenth week of the latest Batman instead.

But I also think there's no shame in having to look these things up afterwards to find out exactly what the hell that was all about. I had to do it with Michael Haneke's Hidden (I totally missed the supposed reveal in the final shot) and it wasn't until this year that Mulholland Dr. clicked with me courtesy of a featurette that explained how I (and others) had actually got the reality/fantasy divide backwards. Now I understand this, I find I like the film more. In the case of Mother! I think it's partly down to the publicity which completely misrepresents it: the trailer makes it look like an uneasy four-character drama and ignores the more visceral and shocking second hour when logic and reality break down into apparently random chaos, and the UK posters similarly give no hint of what watching the film is actually like. (I also think it's entirely irrelevant that this Cinemascore thing, an audience-based approval system of which I was entirely unaware until this weekend, gave it the lowest possible F rating, putting it in such shameful company as Bug and Wolf Creek.)

Look, it's clearly not rubbish. At least, it's clearly not rubbish in the way that, say, a Fred Olen Ray film is rubbish or a Don Dohler film is rubbish. You can't fault Mother!'s full-tilt committed performances or the grainy 16mm photography, or the way it builds its orgies of destruction not once, but twice, and presumably you can't fault it for doing exactly what Darren Aronofsky wanted to do. (That said, Fred Olen Ray movies always did exactly what he wanted.) But did Aronofsky want me to feel so angry and depressed by his film? Did he want me to leave the cinema feeling worse than I did leaving Fist Fight or Chips? And I've liked some of Aronofsky's films in the past: I liked Black Swan and Noah and The Fountain. Not this time, and I refuse to accept that it's entirely my fault. It's a divisive film, and the whole point of divisive films is that there are camps on both sides.

Okay, my initial response might have calmed down a bit since Friday afternoon, when I came out of the cinema absolutely hating the film with an almost tangible fury. But I can't feel that I've warmed to it over the weekend. Sure, it's demonstrably not a terrible film, but it made me feel terrible as I watched it and I still feel terrible towards it now. If that makes me an idiot, well, okay, you're entitled to that view. If that means I don't ever get to be a "proper" reviewer, so be it. It doesn't make me wrong. For me it remains a one-star film: obviously not rubbish (which is why I haven't tagged it as such) but among the most frustrating, upsetting and infuriating films of the last however many years. And not, as occasionally happens, in a good way.

*

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

PLAYGIRL KILLER

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SINGING

The trouble with Netflix (or at least the main trouble) is that there's really not much on there: certainly not enough to justify the sub, which is why I'm likely cancelling once I've seen the half-dozen titles on my watch list that aren't on DVD. If you're looking for anything odd, anything a bit strange, anything made before 1980, then you're out of luck because the murky byways of the movie swamp really isn't their territory. The trouble with Amazon Prime, on the other hand, is that there's too much: hundreds of old spaghetti Westerns, Euro obscurities, Hong Kong martial arts movies, 70s drive-in cheapies and the occasional bonkers giallo, some presented in the wrong ratio and/or with sub-third generation VHS picture quality, and little of it available anywhere else. Occasionally a gem will turn up (I'm actually having some mindless fun with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer knockabouts) but it's sometimes a chore wading through the almost daily additions of yet more junk. First world problems.

Playgirl Killer is a scarcely noteworthy thriller-type thing from 1966 in which a man kills his girlfriend with a speargun because she wouldn't sit still while he tried to sketch her. Going on the run, he eventually turns up at the home of two sisters, one of whom has just left for college with her boyfriend (Neil Sedaka in what the IMDb suggests is his first, last and only dramatic screen role). The other is a colossal tease forever wandering around in her skimpies; she hires him to help close up the house for the season, but then she won't sit still while he tries to sketch her. A woman turns up at the door in response to a job advertisement, but she won't sit still while he....

I kind of like the fact that someone's dug this twaddle out of the vaults and put it online, but I can't figure out to what end: is there that much money to be made from it? Was there a huge clamour for Playgirl Killer to be disinterred for a whole new generation to be bored senseless by? It's all very tiresome and it never comes to any kind of life: if you nodded off for half an hour you honestly wouldn't feel like you'd missed anything. There are three absolutely horrible songs (two rock numbers in the first twenty minutes, one of them performed by Sedaka, and the third one is in French) and a fantastically annoying jazz score full of sleazy sax that does nothing for what we're supposed to call the drama, none of the characters are interesting and it's not even fun as throwaway drive-in trash. Honestly not worth the effort involved in clicking the Watch Now button. (Incidentally, Amazon's artwork bears no resemblance to anything in the film.)

*

Sunday, 3 September 2017

NIGHTWORLD

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

To be honest, you're asking for trouble setting any horror movie over one of the seven gates of hell or one of the seven doors of death. Such things are the stomping ground of wonky Italian horrors of the late 70s and early 80s, particularly Lucio Fulci, whose unique blend of morbid darkness, excessive gore and plots that make no sense has always been a curiously agreeable mixture. The Beyond is even known as Seven Doors Of Death in America, and for all that's wrong with that film the bar is set pretty high.

Nightworld is too well-behaved to go down the Fulci route, save for the morbid darkness. It's mostly goreless (it would most likely get away with a 15, and not a top-end one at that) and its logic more or less hangs together except on one point. Following personal tragedies, Brett (Jason London) takes a job as a security guard at a Sofia apartment block, a shining example of a building you would never want to set foot in in the real world. There's apparently no-one else in the block except for a maid, who is only seen once: no-one appears to actually live there and underground there's a vast hangar that is kept permanently locked. So what are the occasional shadows that show up so briefly on the CCTV feed?

The point at which the logic collapses is when Brett calls it in to his superiors, who respond by sending in an elderly blind man (Robert Englund, having fun) to investigate what's on a video tape. It does also falls victim to the old trope of characters encountering people they know to be long dead but suddenly not being bothered by the fact that they're ghosts or zombies, and wanting to stay with them rather that doing the sensible thing and getting the hell away from them. But it's generally pretty decent: a nice creepy setting, dark and doom-laden, with a good sense of imminent apocalypse, and I enjoyed it enough.

***

Saturday, 2 September 2017

MAYHEM

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I used to work in offices. I still do, if and when the agencies hire me to do so, and my particular skill set is solid if admittedly a bit low-level. I've never been one for climbing the ladder, jockeying for a promotion or a better parking space or an office that doesn't overlook the dumpsters. The rat race is for rats, and if everyone else wants to drive themselves barmy for the sake of a shinier desk and access to the cappuccino machine on the fifth floor, go for it. In truth I've only ever really done the grunt work at the bottom: support jobs making sure that the people on the next pay grade up can do their jobs properly. Hell, somebody has to and I'm mostly pretty good at it. (Please contact me directly regarding any appropriate opportunities in the Milton Keynes and Bedford areas.)

There are three separate threads in Joe Lynch's Mayhem. Derek (Steven Yuen) is a middle-ranking wonk at a large law firm who's set up as the fall guy for a corporate balls-up and summarily fired. Secondly, Melanie (Samara Weaving) suddenly turns up at the office to get an extension on her imminent home foreclosure. Thirdly, and most importantly, a rage virus has suddenly infected the building: its victims lose their conscience and inhibitions, enhancing and reinforcing their existing negative traits to the point of violent, destructive and/or sexual savagery...

Structured like a computer game, in which the two wronged parties have to ascend the higher levels of the building to take on the final Boss, Mayhem is a lot of exceptionally violent fun with plenty of blood splatter and bone-crunching fight scenes. The virus' effects don't seem consistent: some people become unreasoningly aggressive, senior management become even colder and more ruthless, while Derek and Melanie seem to maintain self-control - the gag is that he created the legal precedent that sufferers of the virus are not guilty of any crimes they commit under its influence, yet they seem to be perfectly aware of what they're doing throughout.

It's blackly funny, the headpunching mayhem is well-staged and there's enough of the Author's Message - the rewards of big business are hugely tempting but it will cost you your soul - to give the carnage some depth. In the cheery but grisly manner of Lynch's Wrong Turn 2 it's very entertaining: more visceral than something like Dementamania and less grossout than My Bloody Banjo. And, particularly for those of us cubicle drones who've worked in offices for clueless managers who absolutely needed an almighty smack in the mouth, there's an extra layer of if-only glee. Enjoyed it enormously.

****

TRAGEDY GIRLS

#ContainsSpoilers

I don't really get social media. I mean, I do have a small online presence, and I occasionally get a "like" or a retweet, but mostly I use it to keep in some kind of virtual touch with people I know and pimp my bloglinks like this one (to no real effect, I should add). The idea of living and measuring your life by how many total strangers uptick and forward your contributions to the infinity of hashtags and forums and upper case bellowing, no matter how banal or ignorant or incorrectly spelled, seems to me no more logical than rating and ranking people by their shoe size or what they're allergic to.

Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand - a magnificent name in itself) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) are the Tragedy Girls: a couple of vapid, empty, soulless high school teenagers with a vapid, empty, soulless podcast thing about death and serial killers, even as an actual serial killer is active in the area. In a surprise opening, the girls capture and imprison him, but it's all part of a grand plan to continue his work for the benefit of higher ratings for their show and their own personal fame. But the hint of romance between Sadie and their editor/technical whizz (Jack Quaid) - who also happens to be the son of the local Sheriff - might break the team up. And then the serial killer escapes...

The two girls' surnames are Cunningham and Hooper, ticking off two slasher franchises immediately, and the serial killer's surname is Lehmann because there's a heavy dose of Heathers and high school clique movies in there as well. But yet again, yet again, there's absolutely no-one to root for or empathise with, no story arc worth following, nothing to connect with under the surface. That surface may be pretty and glossy and colourful, but yet again there's absolutely no reason why I should care. I ended up looking for interest in the supporting characters - like the bespectacled Plain Jane on the Prom Committee - because I wasn't getting anything from any of the leads.

There's an absence of morality that makes Tragedy Girls hard to stomach and harder to enjoy, and the cheery tone of its casual murders sits oddly with the idea that we're supposed to like or admire McKayla or Sadie. Granted that it's brash and slick and heavy on the splattery gore, and there is some satire in there about the social media obsessions of the millennial generation, but the film seems to want to be a celebration rather than a condemnation when there's nothing to celebrate and everything to condemn. Their final body count is ahead even of Jason's or Freddy's whole franchises, and the cheeriness of it all left me wondering what the point was, and why we're expected to want to spend the evening in the company of such appalling individuals. I didn't, and found it an increasingly uncomfortable watch with no heart. Presumably that's what it set out to be, in which case: congratulations. I really found it hard to stomach.

**

LEATHERFACE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND IS IT OVER YET?

Questions: how does a film with this level of blood, gore, murder, death, shrieking, insanity, brutality and evisceration manage to be so staggering, stunningly, spectacularly dull? How can the directors of the original Inside have come up with ninety minutes of trashy, ultraviolent, headbanging mayhem that are so thoroughly devoid of any interest or excitement whatsoever? How can anyone make an eighth trip to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre well that, believe it or not, brings forth even less than the rubbish 2013 3D version? It's remarkable how ineffective cranking everything up to eleven can be.

Leatherface is another origins story: an Early Years prequel of how the monstrous chainsaw-wielding cannibal got that way (which ignores 2006's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). In this version of events the young Jedediah Sawyer was removed from his family home as a child and promptly locked up in an asylum, but years later his ghastly mother (Lili Taylor, probably the best thing in the film) engineers a mass escape in which four inmates and a nurse taken hostage make their way across what's supposed to be Texas towards the family homestead, killing as they go. Meanwhile an embittered Sheriff (Stephen Dorff) is on their trail, since Jed was responsible for his daughter's brutal death in the opening reel...

The first trouble is that until five minutes from the end of the movie we don't know which of the group will eventually become Leatherface (the poster artwork is not entirely honest in that regard). Hell, in these post-Jodie Whittaker days you don't know if this reboot might even switch the character's gender just for the fun of it. Secondly, the whole point of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that there isn't any backstory or exposition for Leatherface, The Gas Man or any of the unhinged family: they were just inexplicable, maniacal forces of evil, and shining a light on them only diminishes their status as nightmare figures. Like the later entries that sought to explain Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers, the film weakens its monsters by exploring them. The whole point of horror movies is the darkness and shadow, be it Leatherface or Castle Dracula, and the more you can see the less you fear.

It's loud, it's hysterical, and a lot of people die bloodily, but it's all pointless because at no point do we care. For all the death and violence there's no emotional connection, no human contact: it's just a succession of nasty set pieces in which horrible people are horrible to each other and everyone else they meet. Sure, some of the brutality is well staged, but to what effect? I'm perfectly happy with splattery horror movies in which a bunch of people get messily killed, but usually there's someone in there to care about, someone whose story arc is worth following and whose character can generate some small empathy. Not in this case: it's bleak, nasty and senseless, without any semblance of warmth or even the darkest humour, and for all the upfront gore and yeehawing hillbilly trash it has none of the demented, genuinely terrifying impact of Tobe Hooper's original.

*

BETTER WATCH OUT

CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS AND MAJOR, MAJOR HATE

Sometimes it's almost scary how comprehensively the rest of the army seems to be marching out of step. Some years ago I was the only person in the room not to fall in love with Hobo With A Shotgun and now it's happened again: absolutely everyone else was having a great time and I grew steadily more convinced that somehow they were watching a completely different film. Where everybody else was enjoyed a dark Christmas-tinged psycho horror comedy I was glimpsing an alternate universe with a screening of a diametrically opposite movie.

Better Watch Out starts off with the expected tropes of the modern Christmas horror film: the well-heeled suburban mansion (that could comfortably accommodate a family of fifteen), lots of snow, sleigh bells and carols on the soundtrack, even though the time of year is largely irrelevant to the action. The parents are out for a pre-Christmas social get-together, leaving their twelve-year-old Luke and his geeky best friend Garret in the care of foxy babysitter Ashley. Initially there are a few hints of genial and cheery but unsettling horror, such as establishing Ashley's fear of spiders, fleshing out twelve-year-old Luke's inappropriate lust for her as he actively romances her with candlelit meals and highly inappropriate conversation, until suddenly it seems to swerve into a home invasion movie with bricks through the window and someone prowling around upstairs with a shotgun...

And then twelve-year-old Luke (sorry to keep bringing up his age, but it's important) punches Ashley down the stairs, ties her to a chair with duct tape and reveals himself as a leery, repugnant sociopath who's been manipulating events the whole time and will stop at nothing to have Ashley to himself, even to the extent of killing her current boyfriend. It's a sudden dive into what would be very uncomfortable territory even if Luke was a grown adult: an outwardly charming but inwardly callous and unfeeling (and casually murderous) sexual predator drooling over a barely legal high school girl is awkward enough; a pre-teen dancing those steps far more so.

Much is made, for some reason, of Home Alone, specifically whether Daniel Stern's character would have survived being hit in the face with a paint can (leading to Better Watch Out's alleged highlight), which is odd because the Macauley Culkin movie that springs to mind is actually the The Good Son. This comes across like a tinsel-decked version of The Good Son but played for laughs, although it's never actually funny because the film is so much in love with its pubescent villain and his brilliantly meticulous schemes that even a last-minute twist that might undo all his victories doesn't redeem it, and certainly can't redeem him. With a tired motivation for twelve-year-old Luke's moral compass (he wasn't hugged enough as a child, boo-hoo) and a genial tone that's bizarrely pitched as seasonal feelgood but wildly unsuited to the icky sexual obsession of its twelve-year-old lead, it's a film that I (apparently alone) found entirely impossible to like. Better Watch Out? Better Still, Don't.

*

Monday, 21 August 2017

ANNABELLE: CREATION

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND EEEEEK!!!

Most horror movies aren't scary. Some of them can be creepy, racking up the tension by utilising the darkness and the quiet; many of them are just happy to make you jump (even if it's the old standbys of a cat leaping into frame or a sudden loud noise) and a few can be actually revolting with a full-on splatter grossout. Very, very few are actually frightening to the extent that you want to pause the DVD for a moment to put the lights on, as with Lake Mungo and The Last Will And Testament Of Rosalind Leigh. The first Insidious managed this brilliantly: I had to have lights on in the flat for a few nights afterwards. Later entries haven't had that same impact in me. Sure, the Insidious sequels were solidly crafted and satisfyingly creepy, as were the two Conjuring films and the first Annabelle. (Incidentally, I was wrong when I thought there was nowhere they could really take the Annabelle idea!)

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel, in which a group of orphaned children are taken in by a kind-hearted toymaker and his reclusive wife (Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto). Twelve years ago they'd lost their beloved daughter in a car accident but now they're opening up the house for half a dozen girls whose orphanage has closed. The only rule is never to go into that locked room. But of course some of the girls do, and inside there's a wardrobe with a mysterious doll inside... Because vintage dolls are always, always unsettling, with their glass eyes and sickly grins: there's something seemingly almost evil about them. And when they chose the prop doll for The Conjuring and Annabelle they picked what is probably the freakiest-looking monster ever to grace a toyshop's shelves.

Director David F Sandberg (who made Lights Out last year) knows how to use the darkness, directing your attention to the vague, out of focus shapes and shadows behind the characters. He also knows how to time the Boo! moments and, when the time comes, punch up the pace as the evil gets loose and, as a result, the film works terrifically well. Maybe it loses a little oomph towards the end when we see the demon thing, which is again Joseph Bishara (composer for most of these films, though curiously not this one) in the black monster suit, just as the first Insidious took its foot off the pedal for the last act, but for the most part it's effective throughout and as a bonus it ties up nicely to the start of Annabelle itself (there's also a post-credits sting leading up to the next film in the franchise). Sure it's not doing anything wildly radical or hugely innovative, but what it is doing - slow burn scares with a creepy doll in a creepy old house - it's doing extremely well and I enjoyed it enormously.

****

Friday, 11 August 2017

POWER RANGERS

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND INTERGALACTIC LEVELS OF BAFFLEMENT

The most pressing question about this isn't whether it's any good or not (it isn't), or whether it's faithful to the original source material (don't know, don't care) or whether it's worth a hundred million dollars of studio money (it isn't). I got to the end of the movie just wondering: who's it for? Who's the audience for this? Who the hell has been sitting around for nearly a quarter of a century itching for a Power Rangers film? And specifically who's been sitting around itching for this level of stupid, this level of witless, this level of utterly uninteresting... Who is this aimed at? Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this is supposed to be for children, and you surely shouldn't be getting excited by Power Rangers once you've started wearing long trousers.

I don't know, because I never watched it: maybe this is an entirely accurate distillation of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show (156 episodes from 1993 to 1999) and/or the 1995 film version. This incarnation is, as has been pointed out so often, The Breakfast Club meets Chronicle: five teenagers from detention discover some weird alien tech and immediately gain superpowers. In fact they're destined to defend Earth from the ancient alien menace of Rita Repulsa, whose body just happens to have been discovered that very day by the lead Power Ranger's dad's fishing boat. She promptly wakes up and starts her quest for the Zeo Crystal, which is the source of all life on Earth and therefore we need it; she has Goldar, a thirty-foot gold robot sidekick and several rock monsters (called "putties") to assist her in digging it out from underneath the local doughnut shop...

It's not just that it's utter rubbish (though it absolutely is), it's not just that it doesn't even make any sense (how did they get home after a massive car smash?), it's not just that the Famous Five don't get their colour-coded armour until three-quarters of the way through the film, at which point they get access to their individual Zord vehicles, four of which are big stompy dinosaur things and one of which is a fighter jet. That's also the point at which the whole thing becomes a Transformers movie with the Rangers teaming up into one giant robot thing to fight the giant gold robot sidekick while Rita demolishes her way through the town. It's that it completely and comprehensively fails to generate any excitement or engagement at any point in its two hour running time.

Maybe it's because I'm no longer eight years old, but it's really impossible to get excited by Power Rangers as a concept, let alone this incarnation. The five Rangers themselves aren't interesting enough to hold the attention, and Bryan Cranston is only in it under makeup for about two minutes at the start and then a digitised face on the spaceship wall lamenting the Rangers' inability to bond as a team. Really Elizabeth Banks' turn as the villain is the only thing worth watching: camping it up in skimpy green armour (a gift for cosplay conventions) and ordering the destruction of worlds: she's having far more fun with it than we are. But as an origins story it spends too long setting up the Rangers and then doesn't do anything with them beyond splurging on the CGI for the big climactic beat-em-up.

Mysteriously, talks are apparently ongoing for a sequel, though that may be driven by toy sales rather than the poor box-office take. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was never a massive cultural touchstone the way Doctor Who or Star Trek was, and given that the world wasn't exactly crying out for a big-screen reboot (and didn't take any notice when it showed up anyway), maybe this is a franchise that really doesn't need to go any further. Or, if it absolutely has to continue, do it for children, because (Elizabeth Banks apart) this has nothing, nothing, nothing to appeal to grown adults beyond the terrifying sight of one hundred million dollars being utterly wasted.

*

Sunday, 6 August 2017

CARNIVAL OF BLOOD

CONTAINS SPOILERS, FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, WHICH BY THE LOOK OF IT WAS CHANGE FROM A SIXPENCE

Industrial strength grot in which intergalactically horrible people are murdered at the amusement arcade. Shot on the lowest possible budget, with a level of technical competence that makes Blood Sucking Freaks look like Blade Runner and some songs that are only slightly less musical than listening to your fridge defrosting, Carnival Of Blood is a 1970 atrocity of shoddy, bone-rotting tedium that has now been released online, for reasons beyond any comprehension, instead of being chucked in a skip and ceremonially burnt. (I'm not suggesting it should be destroyed because it's absolutely terrible, merely that it wouldn't be any great loss to the civilised world if it had been.)

There's really nothing to be gained from recounting the plot, but what the hell... Aggressive, troublemaking customers are being murdered at the Coney Island amusement park: following visits to the fortune teller (who sees something horrible in their cards) and the balloon-bursting darts stand, someone follows them in the darkness and brutally kills them. Methods include decapitation, disemboweling and eye gouging, but who could it be? The audience's suspicion is directed towards hulking, scarred Gimpy (Burt Young in his debut, credited as "John Harris"), the assistant at the darts stand, but other possible suspects include the grasping fortune teller and the newly appointed Assistant D.A. who claims he wants to make a name for himself by solving the case and dragging his artist fiancee along as his cover.

That all makes it sound a hell of a lot more interesting than it really is. It's a miserable, artless film: dreary songs and a lousy score based around dragging a key over the strings of a piano, several appearances of the microphone, and apparently endless scenes of talking that go absolutely nowhere. Credit to the cast for committing pages and pages and pages of painful, prattling dialogue to memory (much of it delivered in long takes) but no credit to them for delivering it. At the end the villain gets an extended flashback freakout sequence, revealing that it all links back to some childhood trauma, then is quickly killed off in an accident and the damnable thing stops.

There's nothing to be gained by this, no entertainment value of the so-bad-it's-great Golden Turkey variety. This isn't bad in the way of Michael Bay or Rob Zombie, this isn't bad in the way of Cannon Films, this isn't bad in the way of video nasties. It's bad in the way of Al Adamson and Ted V Mikels and Herschel Gordon Lewis: cheap, miserable, tatty and thoroughly depressing. Amazon's online version is fullscreen and taken from a scratchy cinema print (with "cigarette burn" reel-change markers and green lines throughout), but even that doesn't give it any nostalgic grindhouse charm. Utterly, hypnotically rotten in all departments.

*

SHADOWS RUN BLACK

CONTAINS SPOILERS YADDA YADDA YADDA

Yet another eighties slasher movie dug out of the vaults; the only conceivable reason this one hasn't escaped the furnace is an early appearance by Kevin Costner. He's playing a significant character and has two major scenes, but strangely he's uncredited in the final title crawl which does include far less important roles as Man Watching Television, Ambulance Attendant #2 and Baby In Crib. (Not only, incidentally, is that end titles sequence the cheapest possible short of asking a passerby to just read them out, but it reveals that the film doesn't even care enough about its victims to give them the dignity of a name, callously billing them as Girl Stabbed In Chest and Girl Killed In Kitchen.)

Hopes aren't high when the Troma logo appears at the start of the meaninglessly titled Shadows Run Black, though this appears to be for distribution rather than actual production (on the other hand, producer Eric Louzil went on to direct two Class Of Nuke 'Em High sequels for Troma). There's a maniac on the loose killing co-eds, a hardass cop with a traumatic backstory, an overprotective racist trying to protect his sister, and several extended scenes of women taking their clothes off and wandering about naked before The Black Angel gets them. Eventually there's a shocking denouement where the murderer is actually revealed as precisely who you thought it was.

It's strictly routine, VHS fodder (it doesn't seem to have been given any upgrades for the DVD era, like decent picture quality), most likely of interest to Costnerphiles than anyone else. As with Man Of Steel and probably nothing else he's ever done, I could have done with more Costner, but it's clear the film's main priority is leering over naked women rather than actually utilising the only person on project with any actual quality. It's all very grubby, it's not very interesting and hardly worth the effort involved in clicking Play.

*

Thursday, 3 August 2017

MR. MAGOO

CINTAINAS SPOILERS JDSIUHZKAN DJHFSBDW7682

Blindness is hilarious, isn't it? The opportunities for comedy afforded by not being able to see things properly, like oncoming traffic or the faces of your loved ones, are practically infinite. It's such a laughter goldmine that Disney actually stuck a disclaimer on the end of this nonsense stating that it's not a genuine portrait of such disabilities, probably when the relevant charitable organisations complained and the film was quickly whisked out of cinemas and straight onto video, as a terrible mistake Of Which We Shall Never Speak Again And Let's All Just Pretend It Never Happened.

Well, it did. Based on the old UPA cartoons about a bald pensioner with chronic nearsightedness that's constantly causing him to mistake pot plants for women with green hair and fall down lift shafts, Mr. Magoo is an exercise in unsophisticated slapstick for toddlers, village idiots and the very easily amused. Simplistic to the point of insulting simpletons, it stars Leslie Nielsen as the bumbling canning millionaire who gets mixed up with jewel thieves in a farcical succession of pratfalls, chases, silly disguises and hilarious misunderstandings.

Leslie Nielsen should be a dab hand at this sort of tomfoolery, but he's stuck with the tics and mannerisms of the cartoon character. Stephen Tobolowsky is the FBI man who browns up as Indian at one point for absolutely no reason, Malcolm McDowell is on villain duties and Jennifer Garner is the love interest. If there's anything of interest here, it's that director Stanley Tong and DP Jingle Ma have a long history of Hong Kong action movies and Jackie Chan films, so at least the idiocy and blundering about is competently staged. Other than that, this is really for people who got confused by Beverly Hills Ninja.

**

THE HOUSE

CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SURPRISE

Cards on the table: I have never been a Will Ferrell fan. Talladega Nights was only watchable when Sacha Baron Cohen came on doing a comedy gay Frenchman act; Anchorman had some agreeable 70s retro detail about it; Anchorman 2's only decent joke was from Harrison Ford. Bewitched... well, that happened as well. He seems to specialise in shouty blowhard characters that felt like they belonged in a TV sketch show: characters who have a natural lifespan of two minutes and are (theoretically) watchable for that period. It's a pity because I rather liked Stranger Than Fiction and the funny half of Melina And Melinda: they're the ones where Ferrell seems to be playing an actual person rather than a howling idiot who doesn't know when to stop, but they're also the ones that are comedy dramas rather than just plain comedies.

The House is one of Ferrell's overt comedies where he's playing a human being and not a sketch character: the surprising end result is that it kind of works. It's not hilarious and I don't ever need to see it again, but I'll take it over another Ron Burgundy any day. Ferrell and Amy Poehler discover they can't afford to send their daughter to college, so they set up an illegal casino in their deadbeat friend's house; ultimately attracting the attention of zealous cops, mobsters (cue cameo appearance of the "What's HE doing in this movie?" variety), and the corrupt head of the town council who withdrew the scholarship offer in the first place...

There is some fun to be had with Ferrell's transformation from ordinary Dad to hatchet-wielding enforcer in sharp suit and slicked-back hair and, given that I don't have much of a sense of humour while simultaneously being easily amused, I did laugh a couple of times. And in comparison to a film like Fist Fight it's peak Marx Brothers. But is that really enough: generating some mild to moderate amusement and being better than something utterly wretched? On the Ferrell scale this scrapes a seven, but on a more general cinematic comedy scale it's a three at very, very best.

**

Thursday, 27 July 2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

CONTAINS SOME SPIDEYSPOILERS

Someone must have quietly passed a law stating that there shall at all times be a Spiderman film either on release or in production. There's no other explanation for rebooting the character yet again - the third restart and (if you count the cameo in Captain America: Civil War) the seventh appearance in just fifteen years, now shoehorning him into the Avengers universe. (It's as if the Bond films just kept remaking Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace with all new casts, and then did it yet again after 007 had a quick walk-on in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) It's hard not to conclude that they're going to keep on pressing the reset button until they get Spider-Man right, and they still haven't: while there are definitely things they're doing right there's so much wrong that on balance it ends up another failure. It's not even something I can call a disappointment since my hopes weren't that high in the first place.

The two things they've done absolutely right with Spider-Man: Homecoming are [1] not to make it an origin story so we can skip the radioactive spider bite and kindly Uncle Ben getting killed off yet again, and [2] bringing Aunt May down in age so she's not a grey-haired old biddy any more. (I understand that's how she appears in the comics but she's not his grandmother, for goodness' sake.) The villain this time is The Vulture (Michael Keaton), shafted out a contract to clean up the debris of whatever the hell happened at the end of Avengers Assemble: he smuggles out some of the mysterious alien gloop and starts making and selling his own weapons to criminals. Peter/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) wants to stop them but Tony Stark doesn't think he yet has the temperament to take on anyone but local muggers and bullies...

Much of the film is devoted to Peter Parker's high school experiences: we've got a crimefighter in a hi-tech combat suit spinning webs across the city, but we're spending half the movie watching his fantastically tiresome crush on Liz and whether he's in or out of the quiz team. Which isn't necessaily a bad thing: the film feels pitched younger than the other versions. The makers have indicated they were riffing on John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, which does at least yield the film's best moment, a terrifically tense scene with Liz's father as he drives them to the school dance. At the other end of the scale are the whizzbang action sequences, particularly the climactic fight in and around a burning, out of control aeroplane in which Spidey is practically indestructible (especially absurd since, unless my memory has been shot completely in the last few days, he's wearing his homemade suit rather than the fantastic Stark suit).

There's some enjoyment to be had elsewhere, but it's mostly the kind of sitcom fun with Jon Favreau as his handler who isn't interested in handling him, while Tony Stark is even less likeable than usual (and he's not very likeable even at the best of times). Inevitably, of course, there's a tease for a continuation which may be either the announced 2019 Spider-Man sequel or next year's Infinity War Part 1, which apparently stars absolutely everybody except Barbara Windsor and the Honey Monster. Either way, that law about keeping Spider-Man films going all the time isn't about to be broken any time soon, which is a pity because he, and I, could do with a break.

**

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

SIN

CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS

Gary Oldman has apparently said this is the worst movie ever made. It isn't - there are about three hundred films by Jess Franco and Al Adamson that are demonstrably and incontrovertibly worse - but that's hardly a recommendation for this unedifying wallow in the cesspit of human depravity: drugs, gang rape, pornography, blackmail, sadism, revenge, corruption and mere senseless murder all get a look in. But it feels undecided about what it's trying to be: tacky, sleazy trash or something deeper and more serious: exploitation junk or Proper Drama.

Ving Rhames is a retired cop turned farmer with a busted arm who discovers that his sister (Kerry Washington) has been turned into a junkie sex slave by jaw-droppingly evil scumbag crime lord Gary Oldman. Not just that, but her gangrape has been filmed as part of an obscure vendetta against him and his former partner. Can Rhames figure out who is behind it and why?

Sin isn't much good: it's a simple slice of disposable, forgettable DTV junk of the kind Medusa Home Video were putting out on tape thirty years ago, but there's nothing to indicate why either Gary Oldman or Ving Rhames (or indeed anyone involved) decided that yes, this should be their next project. The money? I like both those actors and they're always watchable, but they're really not enough to justify watching this thing, or even making it. Despite the sordid horribleness of it all, it's somehow got away with a 15 certificate.

**


Monday, 10 July 2017

THE 25TH REICH

CONTAINS ZE SPOILERS

....though, curiously for a film calling itself The 25th Reich, setting itself in 1943 and utilising that German-looking Iron Sky font on the DVD artwork, it doesn't actually contain very much in the way of Nazis. Rather it's a (very) small-scale men-on-a-mission war movie with just five characters and a sense that it was deliberately constructed to recall war movies of the time (except for the swearing and, er, CGI spaceship).

A small platoon are on a mission to track down two escaped pumas in the Australian outback (for reasons too dull to go into here), using a huge machine to attract them. In fact it's a top-secret mission to find a flying saucer and stop it falling into the hands of the Nazis, and the machine is actually a time-travel device. But, after a ton of backstory and waffle, there might be a traitor in the ranks...

Towards the end it stops being mildly silly and opts instead for colossally silly, as our heroes are thrown forward into the far future where the Nazis are planning to spread their hideous creed across the entire universe with a fleet of spaceships, and any dissenters are chased down by loyal Nazis who have been converted into giant mechanical spiders. Sadly by that point the film has crossed the line between endearingly dumb and just plain stupid, so it doesn't fly even on the mythical so-bad-it's-good level. The giant spiders are actually pretty decent monsters, with better CGI than the retro spaceships, but it's too little and way too late.

**

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

THE CREATURE BELOW

CONTAINS GLUB GLUB SPOILERS

In terms of visual effects, we've been spoilt in recent years. The technology has moved so fast that you don't need to operate on a Jurassic Park budget to come up with impressive computer imagery or physical monster effects, and some quite startling creations can be put together on very little money. Plus, of course, we'll forgive some wobbly FX work if we're engaged with the story and characters, or even if we're not but it's the kind of goofy entertainment that's not supposed to be great anyway (see the likes of Sharknado). Still, genuinely shonky CG can take you out of a movie as easily as one cellist scraping hard at the wrong notes can take you out of the whole symphony: a pity when there's as much good stuff on offer as bad.

The Microsoft Paint-level effects aren't the only problem with The Creature Below, but they're the most noticeable because they show up first. Olive is a deep-sea research diver working with a new suit that will allow her to go further down than ever before, but on the first test dive she encounters something in the depths and blacks out. Fired by her unreasonably hateful boss (who is obviously doomed a couple of reels later), she returns to her suburban semi with an egg-like thing she discovered lodged in the ruined diving suit: under her care it begins to transform into a larger creature with a hunger for human flesh and blood....

There's a fair amount of Lovecraft and Cthulhu, the ancient god of unpromising Scrabble racks, on offer (Olive has a certificate on her basement wall from Miskatonic University); the physical effects are pretty impressive, particularly on the smaller creature, there's comfortably enough blood and gore for the 15 certificate, and the apocalyptic ending, the very definition of "well, that escalated quickly", is terrific. The three-way domestic tension between Olive, her boyfriend and her sister is entirely uninteresting, but it does give the opportunity to chuck some more bodies into the basement (the moment where Olive discovers her strange and interesting new pet's attraction to human blood is very similar to Rick Moranis and Audrey II in Little Shop Of Horrors). Agreeable fun, but the CG lets the side down.

***