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.

**