Thursday 29 November 2007

Doorway to Dario

Oh, how bittersweet... Gorezone reports that Dario Argento’s 1970s TV anthology series Door Into Darkness is coming to region 1 DVD in February 2008, courtesy of NoShame. That’s great news for Argento fans, of course, but bad news for snobs like me who sought out the out-of-print, hard-to-find and now soon-to-be-less-valuable German release from a couple of years ago.

Still, I can take some consolation from the fact that lazy buyers of the easily-available new set will be stuck with an even less flattering caricature of the famous director on the cover:

Me, I’ll be laughing it up with my incomprehensible German-language slipcase and the accompanying 16-page booklet I can’t actually read. Not to mention a bunch of walking skeletons that seem to have wondered in off the cover of Army of Darkness:

Look out for indignant reviews of each of the four Door Into Darkness episodes soon!

Sunday 25 November 2007

All the Colors of the Dark

Colour me confused. Not because I couldn’t follow the plot of this 1972 giallo (often a challenge for me where the genre’s concerned, I’ll admit) but because, in this case, I could. All the Colors of the Dark is a surprisingly straightforward and simply plotted thriller, which is both refreshing and a little ordinary as a result.

Things get underway with a hideously pantomimed nightmare sequence I wasn’t sure whether to take seriously or not. A man in drag cackles at the camera, giant turquoise eyes peer out of the screen, a naked woman smears blood on her belly... And they say you can never relieve your college days. All of this is taking place in the diseased imagination of Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech), a troubled Londoner still recovering from the loss of her unborn child in a car accident some months ago.

It seems that these and other gruesome images flash into Jane’s mind whenever her fiancé Richard (George Hilton) tries to make love to her. He responds by mixing her up strange “vitamin drinks” that look like inky water, while she in turn becomes progressively more unbalanced. It’s a vicious circle, really, and no one’s having much fun except the man in drag.

Soon, Jane’s nightmares start to come to life as she finds herself repeatedly menaced by a blue-eyed man wielding a stiletto (that’s wielding, not wearing – we’ve moved on from the man in drag). At the park, on the train, even in her own apartment building, nowhere is safe – and one particularly good suspense sequence finds Jane inadvertently locked out of her flat, waiting for a slowly approaching lift as her stalker ascends the staircase below.

So far, so giallo, but things take a turn for the supernatural when Jane makes friends with Mary (Marina Malfatti), a neighbour – and predatory lesbian, natch – who inducts her into a satanic cult as a means of curing her nightmares. From here on in, nothing and no one can be trusted, as events get even stranger and the true motives of Jane’s friends and family are shockingly revealed!

Or perhaps not so shockingly, since All the Colors of the Dark doesn’t really go in for the genre’s usual twists and mysteries, other than the central issue of whether the traumatising set pieces Jane puts herself through are real or imagined. Instead, it concentrates on building an atmosphere of nightmarish paranoia similar to Rosemary’s Baby and, for the most part, pulls it off. It’s only in the final third, when the film starts chucking in all kinds of new ideas (premonitions, previously unmentioned inheritances) that it starts to feel forced. Even so, it all makes enough sense and ties up neatly.

Director Sergio Martino was in the midst of an amazing run when he shot this film hot on the heels of The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, but it’s the following year’s Torso that I think shows him at his best. Now that’s a scary movie! All the Colors of the Dark has plenty going for it (not least of which is that fantastic title) but remains a pretty tame option stacked up against its mostly more outrageous contemporaries.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday 22 November 2007

In the Spider’s Web

You show me a scary movie, and I’ll show you a movie that would be even scarier if it was full of spiders!

Jaws, you say? Okay then, how about when Chrissie goes swimming at the beginning... What if, instead of just getting deep-throated by a giant great white shark, she looks up in the middle of being munched in half and discovers that – aieeeee! – there’s a spider in her hair! Yes, not only is she being mangled beyond all recognition betwixt the powerful jaws of the ocean’s greatest predator, but there’s a massive spider all, like, tangled and stuff in her fringe... Eeeewww!

Or what about The Exorcist? So... Regan’s head is spinning round and round and suddenly she starts to spew – but instead of mushy peas, out comes... spiders! And spider eggs! And they’re all totally hatching as they fly out into the priest’s face! OMG, I’m giving myself a panic attack!

Well, anyway, I think I’ve made my point. And the makers of the new TV movie In the Spider’s Web must’ve agreed, because it looks like they saw the movie Paradise Lost and decided that what it really needed was less credible actors and more CGI tarantulas. (If any of my many American readers are wondering what Paradise Lost is, it’s what we Brits renamed last year’s Josh Duhamel-starring slasher movie, Turistas, because we don’t go in for those foreigny-foreign titles here.)

In Paradise Lost, a group of good-looking kids get lost in the jungle and end up having their organs harvested for sale on the black market. In the Spider’s Web is not dissimilar: A slightly less good-looking group of kids and their guide are trudging through the jungle when one, Geraldine, is bitten by a spider and falls ill. Her fellow travellers quickly fashion a stretcher from bamboo stalks tied together with vines (at least I think they do because they suddenly have one in the next scene) and decide that, since town is too far to trek, they’ll have to carry her to a mysterious nearby village, reputedly lorded over by an American doctor, in the hope that he can help.

The American doctor turns out to be a grizzled-looking Lance Henriksen decked out in crusty yellow nail extensions (at least, I hope they were). And help he does, mixing up a spider juice potion inside his hut... His hut shaped like a giant spider! Dr Henriksen explains that Geraldine has been bitten by a Bolivian Baja spider “unlike any other spider on earth”. Cue various shots of him pretending to handle a tarantula, while a few hastily inserted close-ups show a spider in someone else’s hands. Poor Lance must be a little arachnophobic – not that I blame him – and TV movie paycheques obviously only go so far. Don’t expect to see him in the next series of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! with his lips around a witchetty grub.

Anyway, Geraldine’s condition is now stable thanks to an injection of pure spider blood, so the others decide to leave her there while they head off to town to bring back some doctors who don’t have claws. Two of them discover a spooky-looking cave – a cave shaped like a giant spider! – and head inside. Bad idea... Haven’t they noticed that the spider motif obviously spells trouble? Soon, the entire group find themselves caught up in nefarious plot involving organ-harvesting, swarms of tarantulas, and a villain whose face is hidden behind a mask of spider silk!

In the Spider’s Web is a Sci-Fi Channel premiere that, like last year’s Abominable and Mammoth, is quite a lot of fun. It’s no Arachnophobia, which as far as I’m concerned still rules the web when it comes to killer-spider thrills, but gets more done in its running time than Spiders and Spiders II put together – probably because it manages to mix in elements of slasher movies, Indiana Jones, the aforementioned Paradise Lost, and most any monster movie you can think of. That’s as well as having characters reference Apocalypse Now and Gorillas in the Mist without actually mentioning the titles of either.

I’m not crazy about the use of CGI when actual spiders are scary enough, but the film has its fair share of real tarantulas and gives the computerized ones some amusing things to do. Even more amusing is the “mix two real tarantulas with five plastic ones” technique, pioneered by Lucio Fulci in The Beyond... although the “mix two real actors with five plastic ones” technique is less successful.

I’m still giving In the Spider’s Web my recommendation, though. It’s not scary in the way that finding an actual spider in your bedroom is scary, but finding the DVD in your player wouldn’t be a nasty surprise either.

Rating: 3/5

Monday 19 November 2007

Twisted Nerve

Twisted Nerve, ladies and gentlemen... or, how did they have the NERVE in 1968 to make a film so TWISTED?

Actually, the title comes from an uncredited snatch of poetry quoted in the film that goes thusly: “No puppet master pulls the strings on high / A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry / Predestinates the sinner or the saint”. The notion is, of course, that one’s character and actions can all be traced back to one’s genetic makeup. That’s not a particularly controversial opinion in itself... unless, as here in Twisted Nerve: the Movie, it’s suggested that the mentally ill and their siblings are predestined to be psychopathic murderers.

The main character is Martin Durney (played by the baby-faced Hywel Bennet), a twenty-something university drop-out who’s doted upon by his mother but despised by his stepfather, who regards him as a useless layabout. His brother, who’s been safely packed off to an institution, is what the film calls a “mongol”, but whom we might describe today as a person with Down’s syndrome.

One day, while visiting a toy shop, Martin commits an act of shoplifting that alters his life in two ways. Firstly, he ends up being kicked out of the family mansion in London. Secondly, he meets Susan Harper (Hayley Mills), a guest house owner’s daughter with whom he becomes infatuated. So infatuated, in fact, that it’s not long before he shows up on her doorstep, posing as a mentally handicapped man left with nowhere else to stay by his holidaying father.

Hmm... None of this sounds as downright twisted as it comes across in the film. Try to think along the lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley (published a decade prior to the release of this film and likely an influence) which also features a main character who switches between identities to get what he wants. But then add in the fact that Martin exploits the sympathies of people genuinely concerned for the welfare of someone with learning difficulties, and you’re a little closer to understanding his unsettling motives.

Twisted Nerve builds a lot of suspense on its foundations of truths concealed and trouble brewing. And I mean a lot. Many reviewers seem to have found it tedious and slow, but there’s so much danger bubbling beneath the surface of every situation, every conversation, that I couldn’t look away. Granted, at nearly two hours, there’s a lot of conversation, but Roy Boulting and Leo Marks’s dialogue is dynamite ready to blow – multilayered, full of tension and acid wit.

And the unease is reflected in the sixties London setting too. It’s a fascinating time period, bristling with underlying tension between rigidly defined social classes, races, sexes, age groups – all drawn into conflict here, whether it’s the doctors who constantly refer to an Indian student as “the maharajah”, or the trouble Susan attracts simply because of her attractiveness.

I think Hitchcock would’ve enjoyed this immensely. He’d certainly poach two cast members – the excellent Billie Whitelaw and Barry Foster – for his similar but even more gruelling and repugnant London-set suspenser, Frenzy, a few years later. As in Frenzy, it’s not long in Twisted Nerve before someone winds up dead but, where Hitchcock achieved a morbid, almost casual sense of horror, everything’s a little more shock-horror here. But, when you’ve got the shocks and you’ve got the horror, who’s complaining?

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 17 November 2007

Through the Eyes of a Killer

I’ve a habit of taping films shown in the middle of the night, usually on Movies 24 – or, according to its website, “the first channel completely devoted to movies that have been made specifically for television” (hmm... I always thought that was Five). Then the videos sit unwatched on the shelf until I run out of blank tapes and have to watch something in order to tape something else I won’t watch for six months.

That’s what happened in the case of 1992’s Through the Eyes of a Killer, except that when I went to put it on, it turned out the film was actually showing again on Movies 24 at that very moment! I even toyed with the idea of watching it straight off the TV and – hah! – chucking the tape back on the “blank” pile unwatched. But then I remembered my beans on toast was burning and decided to stick with the recorded version for extra pause-and-rewind-ability. (Alas, no Sky Plus for me.)

But, in a bizarre twist of fate, the cassette turned out to be faulty and my VCR spewed the ruined tape out into... Naw, just kidding! Oh, the potential irony!

So, anyways, I did get to see Through the Eyes of a Killer after all, and it was well worth it too. A pre-CSI Marg Helgenberger (who doesn’t exactly look younger – just less surgically enhanced) plays architect’s assistant Laurie Fisher, to whom we’re introduced via a nice, long tracking shot during which she argues with her boyfriend Jerry (Joe Pantoliano) in their apartment. Laurie ends up storming out, and Jerry ends up punching his fist through a framed photo of her. Ooooh... ominous!

And “ominous” turns out to be today’s secret word, as Laurie is later shown around a potential new apartment by her realtor, who tries to cover up the blood in the bathtub and points out that the walls are three feet thick and soundproof (in this flat, no one can hear you scream). Then there’s the spooky stained-glass eye design in the window pane. It’s almost like someone’s watching you... And it’s also like Someone’s Watching Me!

Ominous or not, Laurie thinks the place could be her home sweet home-away-from-home, and decides to buy and renovate it completely. Of course, she’ll need the help of a builder, and one mysteriously – one might even say ominously – turns up in the shape of Ray Bellano (Richard Dean Anderson). He’s good-looking, muscled, has a rad mullet and, better still, promises to undercut the competitors’ prices by half. Laurie says yes, Ray moves in to start work and, before you can say “Insert rod A into hole B”, the couple are testing out the bedsprings together. Or they would be if the apartment had any furniture.

Anyway, remember how things were all ominous before? Well, during the building work, Ray uncovers a hidden door... leading to a walled-up pantry. “How did you know that was there?” asks Laurie. “I just knew,” replies Ray. Then it turns out that the previous occupier has installed guillotine-like sliding shutters on all the doors. “To keep other people out,” suggests Ray. “Or in...” muses Laurie. Feel my goose bumps. (Hey! Hands off, pervert.)

Just when you think things couldn’t get any more portentous, Laurie opens a fortune cookie that reads: “Don’t build new boat out of old wood”. Is Confucius trying to tell her something? What is the no doubt terrifying secret of her new home? And will all this ominous-ness pay off? The only way to find out is to look... through the eyes of a killer!

Well, I’ve looked through the eyes of a killer and, let me tell you, it’s pretty scary for an early-nineties TV movie. Call me chickenshit, but there’s nothing like the old “Get out of the house now!” phonecall-from-a-friend routine to send the shivers up my otherwise orthopaedically-sound spine. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to seeing Marg Helgenberger as the kick-ass Catherine Willows in CSI, but watching her helplessly chased round secret passages by a knife-wielding psycho was enough to give me a genuine case of the eek-a-boos. Hell, it was enough to make me use the word “eek-a-boos”, which has to mean... something.

Another major factor in the success of Through the Eyes of a Killer is its classy direction. It’s all long takes and eerily tilting angles – which, coupled with a lush faux-Hitchcock score, give it a cinematic feel not often found in TV movies. Even Tippi Hedren pops up at one point to sprinkle in a few clues. And what great clues this movie comes up with! One of Laurie’s ill-fated friends warns her that everything’s tied up in that creepy fortune cookie message, which seems to make no sense whatsoever but gets cleared up nicely by a trip to the library to look through some old newspapers on microfiche. As for that all-seeing eye in the window pane... well, that goes unexplained, but dammit if it doesn’t pay off perfectly at the climax.

I can’t finish without mentioning another little something that I presume can only have happened by chance but creates a classic moment. At one point, Marg comes face-to-face with a rat for a typical cheap scare. Marg screams in horror – and the startled rodent jumps like hell! Well, anything that scares a rat that bad gets top marks in my book. And I am keeping a book, by the way. It says:

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Don't Answer the Phone!

“Give me a mould of that breast... I want to take some tooth impressions.”

That little quote – from a detective examining the body of a murdered woman – should give you some idea of the level that Don’t Answer the Phone! is pitched at. It’s cheap, sleazy and probably misogynistic, but not quite what you’d call depraved, thanks to some decent performances and a touch of black humour.

Above all, the film has personality... This personality may be a hulking Vietnam vet who spends most of the film talking to his reflection and strangling beautiful women, but personality it is nevertheless. His name is Kirk Smith and he looks like this:

Kirk (played by Nicholas Worth) is terrorising the streets of Hollywood, using his job as a photographer to talk his way into aspiring models’ homes, snap a few shots and then strangle them to death. When he’s out not strangling, he likes to lift weights while sweatily assuring himself “I’m all man”. And, when he’s not doing that, he likes to phone in to the radio show of psychiatrist Dr. Lindsay Gale (Flo Gerrish) in the guise of his heavily accented alter-ego, Ramón.

Regular visitors to Anchorwoman In Peril! will know I’m prone to widening the definition of “anchorwoman” to include great characters like Lauren Hutton’s TV director in Someone’s Watching Me! or Jodie Foster’s radio talk-show host in The Brave One. I think we can also squeeze in Don’t Answer the Phone’s Lindsay Gale here. Not because she’s particularly memorable (she isn’t), and not because Gerrish plays her particularly well (she doesn’t), but mainly because she shouts at her patients and makes them cry. And that makes me laugh. A lot!

A typical session goes along these lines:

Dr. L: Are the drugs more important than your parents, Lisa?
Drug addict: Mmm.
Dr. L: Say it, Lisa! Tell your mommy the drugs are more important than her!
Drug addict: The drugs are more important than you, Mom.
Dr. L: Louder!
Drug addict: The drugs are more important than you, Mom!
Dr. L: Louder! Shout it, Lisa!
(Lisa has a breakdown and starts sobbing)
Dr. L: There, now you can help yourself. That’s a major breakthrough, Lisa.

Unfortunately, the therapy doesn’t quite pay off, and a later scene finds Lisa threatening to jump from the top of a high building – but that’s drugs for you. You should probably just say no, unless you want to end up being yelled at by a radio psychiatrist too.

Another reason I think Don’t Answer the Phone! qualifies as an Anchorwoman In Peril movie is because it covers one of the classic AIP bases so well – namely, the Live-On-Air Wig-Out scene. I’ve already mentioned that Kirk regularly phones in to Lindsay’s radio programme – something that she manages to take in good humour – but matters get a little out of control when Kirk encourages a prostitute to call the show, and then promptly strangles her live on air. Cue lots of muffled grunting, people screaming, producers trying to pull the plug, and Lindsay eventually marching down to the police station with a handful of “terrifying tapes” to hand in. Frasier was never this much fun!

There’s also a sly vein of humour running through the film’s attempts to explain its killer’s psychosis – typified by the moment when an expert advises the police that “a scientific description of the strangler’s type would be a paranoid obsessive compulsive psychotic schizophrenic” (!). And then there’s Kirk’s own explanations, blurted out to his victims or directed at himself in the mirror, including: “I never had enough faith in myself”, “I went to see the wrong doctors”, “I loved my puppy but I strangled him”, and “Well, Dad, are you proud of me now? Do I measure up?”. Ultimately, Kirk’s motives are impossible to identify: they don’t make sense; they’re a parody of serial killer profiles... Simply put, the guy’s just nuts.

Despite its silliness, Don’t Answer the Phone! is also undeniably nasty at times. The murder sequences dwell on the pain and suffering of the exclusively female victims, while simultaneously trying to mix in a few titillating nudie-shots. Not the best way to endear yourself to a wide audience... but then Don’t Answer the Phone! was never going to appeal to one.

Rating: 2/5

Monday 12 November 2007

Undercover Angel

There were a few things I didn’t know about Undercover Angel when I picked up the VHS for 99p at a local Oxfam shop, including:
  1. It’s actually the fourth film in a series of Angel movies begun in 1984.
  2. It was a pilot for a proposed cable TV series (which never happened).
  3. It’s not worth 99p.

The film’s original title, it turns out, was Angel 4: Undercover. Now that would’ve clued me into the whole series thing. As it was, you have to imagine me standing in the charity shop picking up a video with this cover:

...except the box I’m holding has been cleverly re-titled Undercover Angel.

How could anyone pass by a movie with the tagline “Executive by day. Hooker by night”? It’s already calling to mind one of my top guilty-pleasure films, Crimes of Passion. Except it looks even sluttier.

I turn the case over to read the back and discover that Roddy McDowall’s in it. Roddy Mc-fucking-Dowall! One of my favourite actors. And, by favourite, I mean that, if he were alive today, this website would probably be called The Roddy McDowall Fan Club. In fact, scratch that... I’d be too busy stalking him to even maintain a website. Anyway, before I know it, 99p of mine is helping build a well in Africa, and Undercover Angel is helping put a spring in my step as I leave the shop and hurry home. I just LOVE helping others!

Forty minutes into Undercover Angel – at approximately the point when the plot finally gets going – it becomes clear that that wonderful tagline wasn’t entirely correct. Angel isn’t an executive by day; she’s a crime scene photographer by day. She doesn’t power-dress and accessorize with a smart leather folder like she does on the front cover; she actually prefers slightly frumpy-looking pastel smocks (1993 was a cruel year for fashion if you weren’t into the whole grunge thing). Not only that, but angel isn’t even a hooker by night; she’s a groupie for a rock band. Now, I don’t demand that movie taglines be 100% accurate but, when they’re going for a half-and-half thing, it’d be nice to get at least one side of the equation right.

The reason Angel’s going undercover as a groupie (by night) is so that she can investigate the murder of an old friend, Paula. Paula actually was a groupie, hanging out with a band called AK-47 and making doe-eyes at lead singer Piston Jones. It’s when Paula’s body turns up garrotted with a guitar string that Angel decides to stop taking pictures and start taking action.

Unfortunately, the term “action” is about as accurate when applied to Undercover Angel as that tagline above. As I mentioned, it’s almost halfway into the movie before the murder even takes place. Until then, we have to contend with various lacklustre subplots involving Angel’s radio DJ boyfriend, and lots of discussion of her prostitute past (of which there really does seem to be enough to fill three previous movies). Luckily for me, I had Roddy McDowall – doing his best Cockney gangster routine as AK-47’s manager – to keep me company. I’ll let you decide whether that’s enough for you.

Just when I was about to give up, however, I sensed things were heading towards an amusing climax – and wasn’t proved wrong. After catfights, screaming, suicide, bodies dangling from scaffolds and people impaled on electric guitars – all set to the awesome soundtrack of a power-rock ballad – I was almost ready to forgive everything. But then I remembered that tagline.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday 10 November 2007

Rehearsal for Murder

It’s time for me to get my feet back on the ground here at Anchorwoman In Peril! The last two films I’ve reviewed have both been fantasy-fests set way out there in the realm of the supernatural (the brilliant The Sect and the, well, not-so-brilliant Mirror Mirror 2). What better return to reality, then, than a gritty crime story torn from today’s headlines? A tale of revenge... A tale of jealousy... A tale of MURDER!

Of course, murder hasn’t always been the messy, motiveless crime we hear about on the daily news nowadays. As recently as a couple of decades ago, if you had the misfortune to get murdered, it would most likely be in the drawing room of a stately home, surrounded by classically trained thespians sharing a bottle or two of cognac. All you really had to do to avoid being murdered was make sure you didn’t get stranded anywhere during a storm, especially if anyone was planning on reading out a will.

Such is the milieu of Rehearsal for Murder, a 1982 TV movie concocted by the dynamite mystery-writing duo of Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo, Murder, She Wrote). Swap “stately home” for “Broadway theatre” and “cognac” for “coffee” and you’ve got the basic set-up of this ingenious whodunit.

The games begin in the opening credits. Remember how in Murder, She Wrote you could often guess the identity of the killer by picking out the guest star from amongst the cast? Or Columbo, where the guest star was always the killer? In Rehearsal for Murder, the big names (Lynn Redgrave, Robert Preston, Patrick Macnee) slip by quietly until there’s a special credit that reads: “And Madolyn Smith as Karen Daniels”, followed by a swift: “Special Appearance by Jeff Goldblum” and a sly: “And William Daniels”. With all that misdirection, why... any one of them might be the murderer! (And you’re not getting any clues.)

Enter Alex Dennison (Robert Preston), a playwright still mourning the death of his fiancée (Lynn Redgrave) a year earlier on the eve of her Broadway debut. He’s hired a theatre for the afternoon and invited along the producer, director and cast of that ill-fated show. Together, they’re going to read through a few scenes from Alex’s new play – a murder mystery. What they don’t know is that Alex has arranged for a police detective to secretly observe the proceedings from the darkness of the auditorium... because Alex’s new script isn’t really a play. It’s an elaborate trap to ensnare his girlfriend’s killer!

  • Could it be David Mathews (Patrick Macnee), the lecherous leading man with the very big part?
  • Or Walter Lamb (William Daniels), the investor who hopes to make a killing at the box office?
  • What did understudy Karen Daniels (Madolyn Smith) really mean when she said “break a leg”?
  • Was director Lloyd Andrews (Lawrence Pressman) stage managing a murder?
  • Or was it Leo Gibbs (Jeff Goldblum), the co-star looking for one big hit?

From Sleuth to Deathtrap, via the wonders of The Last of Sheila, I’m a sucker for this stuff. The more twisted the mind games, the more repressed the perverts, the more faded the guest stars, the more I love it. Describing his approach to writing a mystery, playwright Alex notes: “You take the audience by the hand and you lead them in the wrong direction. They trust you... and you betray them”. Of course, he might just as well be talking about Rehearsal for Murder – the kind of delicious mystery where every fade to commercials ends with a close-up of each suspect’s face accompanied by an appropriately ominous chord on the soundtrack.

But Rehearsal for Murder isn’t without class. Its twists may not be quite as fresh as they might have seemed 25 years ago, but time has been kind to this type of mystery, where a bitchy aside reveals more than a whole test tube full of DNA, and murders are solved by sleuthing, not swabbing. Book yourself a front-row seat.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday 8 November 2007

Mirror, Mirror 2: Raven Dance

Boy, have I been doing my maths homework for you today! Take a look at this:
Fig 1. Six Degrees of Crappy Sequels
As you can see from this detailed diagram, it is a quirk of the Mirror Mirror movie franchise that one member of the cast always returns to appear in the following sequel (more often than not playing a different character). Thus, Mirror Mirror 2 features William Sanderson from Part 1, while also introducing Mark Ruffalo, who carries the baton on into Part 3. That film starred Billy Drago, who went on to star in Part 4. And then Part 5 features... well, no one because it hasn’t been made yet. But I’m hoping for P.J. Soles.

Anyway, Mirror Mirror 2 comes from the early part of what I like to call “the Mark Ruffalo years”. I guess we could equally call these “the later William Sanderson era”, but Sanderson doesn’t do much here except act cranky and throw tarantulas around, whereas Ruffalo gets to wear a billowy purple shirt and be a super-cool spooky demon etc. Having said that, I shouldn’t really undermine Sanderson, seeing as how his character is responsible for this:

Yes, really. That’s one of the sculptures decorating his secret lair. Sadly, with the property market the way it is, it’ll be years before I get my own secret lair. But, the minute I do, put me down for one of those babies!

So, we’ve established that Mirror Mirror 2 stars both William Sanderson and Mark Ruffalo, which in itself isn’t bad for a low-budget horror sequel. But get this: it also stars Veronica Cartwright, Sally Kellerman, Sarah Douglas and Roddy McDowall. This is B-movie-star heaven, people! That’s a major reason I decided to watch the film – and, believe me, there’s hardly any scenery left after this lot’s through chewing on it.

In slightly disappointing contrast, the main character is played by the rather less celebrated has-been, Tracy Wells, a leftover from 80s sitcom Mr. Belvedere. She stars as young Marlee, a young orphan (aww...) who’s also a dancer (yay!) and who winds up at St. Cecilia’s Orphanage and Retreat, along with her annoying younger brother, Jeffrey.

It’s a dark and stormy night and the nuns have taken all the other kids away to camp (nuns + orphans + flimsy tents + a hurricane = comedy gold!) but Marlee and Jeffrey only arrived the night before and have to stay behind until their paperwork’s been filled out. All this is explained by Marlee to the visiting death-metal band, Discipline (or possibly Disciple – I couldn’t quite read the tattoo), who’ve implausibly arrived to play a “charity gig” at the empty orphanage (and retreat).

As rehearsals get underway, one band member discovers an old, ornate mirror hidden away in a closet, and drags it out because, y’know, it’s all gothicky and cool. But he lives to regret it... although not for long, since he and the rest of the band are quickly reduced to charred skeletons when lightning bolts shoot out of the mirror and kill everyone except the two children.

Marlee finds herself temporarily blinded, and laid up in bed at the orphanage in the care of her visiting stepsister (Kellerman) and a doctor (McDowall). Unfortunately, the two are actually scheming to get at Marlee’s inheritance money by driving her insane. Not only that, but there’s a demon inside the mirror that only her younger brother can see! And the crazy blind nun (Cartwright) who lives upstairs is warning everyone that evil forces are about to strike!! Somebody stop the terror before I run out of exclamation marks.

You guessed it, Mirror Mirror 2 has little to do with its 1990 precursor, Mirror Mirror, beyond the fact that I think they used the same mirror. The end credits refer to the film as coming “from the tales of Mirror Mirror”, so the franchise was presumably envisaged as a kind of anthology series. Why it’s subtitled Raven Dance, I’m not entirely sure. There’s a raven in it and, thanks to Marlee’s hobby, a fair bit of dancing, but disappointingly the raven itself never actually dances.

It’s camp value rather than horror that gives Mirror Mirror 2 its zing – or, at least, the small amount of zing it possesses. Roddy McDowall and Sally Kellerman make an engagingly bitchy pair as they plot and connive, the latter ultimately breaking down in a splendid wig-out (“I’m not young anymore... I’m old! OLD!”). William Sanderson downs whisky and sniffs panties as the handyman brought in to scare Marlee into insanity (it very nearly worked on me). And Veronica Cartwright sports white contact lenses and thrashes her cane about as crazy Sister Aja, herself prone to the odd frenzied monologue in a cobwebby corner.

Unfortunately, while setting all the action inside the orphanage makes things appropriately claustrophobic, it also means it all becomes a bit repetitive and dull. What I wouldn’t have given for a cutaway to those storm-battered nuns and orphans away at camp! There’s certainly enough going on but, rather than bring it all together at the climax, the plot hastily kills off its subplots one by one until, basically, there’s nothing left except a rubber demon and a light show. If you want to see something that’ll really scare you off mirrors, try Candyman.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday 7 November 2007

The Sect

Let’s talk about sects, baby...

Or, to be specific, let’s talk about Michele Soavi’s 1991 Italian horror-fantasy, The Sect.

And the first thing I want to talk about is how damn underrated this film is. If you’re any kind of fan of the films of Dario Argento (particularly Inferno or Phenomena) you really owe it to yourself to see this one. It’s not the easiest film to find, thanks to the lack of a UK/US DVD release, but the Italian release I got hold of (from the intriguingly named Cecchi Gori company) has an English-language audio option and is well worth seeking out.

Argento himself produced and co-wrote The Sect (known as La Setta in its home country) and his blood-smeared fingerprints are all over it. Tracking shots... check! Gory murders... check! Insects... yuck! Weird dialogue... that would rather appear so! In fact, there’s barely an Argento base left uncovered.

The movie is definitely the work of director Soavi, however, and he leaves a personal stamp on it via the excellent characterisation and driving plot – not always two of Argento’s greatest strengths. Soavi has also suggested that he gave Dario carte blanche to create the prologue sequence in the hope that he’d leave the rest of the script alone. So what of that opener? Welllll...

Southern California, 1970: The livin’ is easy and the lovin’ is free. A group of hippies are busy listening to The Eagles, throwing rocks, and decorating each others’ breasts with paint. But there’s a snake in the grass... Literally, there’s a snake, it’s in the grass, and it makes a little boy cry, before heralding the arrival of a mysterious, Christ-like stranger, who looks a bit like Donald Sutherland and quotes Rolling Stones lyrics in scary fashion (although, to be honest, all the fashion in this scene is scary).

Oops, did I say “Christ-like”? Make that “Charles Manson-like” because soon all the hippies are being slaughtered by the stranger’s accomplices as he yells, “Scream! Scream your fuckin’ head off!” Obviously, they belong to some kind of cult... A sect, you might say. They’re waiting for their “time” to come, but an unseen master-villain observing from his car assures Manson-man that the time’s not right just yet.

The prologue over, we skip ahead to Frankfurt in 1991. After some funny business involving a stolen human heart, an unfortunate pickpocketing incident on a tube train, and a public suicide (all this in less than five minutes!) we’re introduced to a young teacher, Miriam, played by Kelly – sister of Jamie Lee! – Curtis. Miriam is driving home one day when she narrowly avoids running down an old man (Herbert Lom) carrying a mysterious parcel (is there any other kind?). Soon, she and her new buddy are bonding over tea at her country cabin, which she shares with a pet rabbit and 9,000 bunny ornaments. Evening falls, Mysterious Old Man falls asleep, and Miriam also decides to turn in for the night.

From here on in, things follow along a pretty predictable path: the old man sticks a prehistoric beetle up Miriam’s nose as she sleeps; Miriam dreams of being pecked to death by a stork; and the house turns out to be built over a giant secret chamber. To reveal any more might make it all sound a little outlandish, so I’ll quit while we’re ahead. Except to point out that we’re still only about twenty minutes in!

I really couldn’t get enough of The Sect. It’s everything you expect from a good Italian horror film (stylish, nightmarish, ingenious) and more besides (gripping, well paced, coherent). There’s a definite Alice in Wonderland vibe as Miriam follows her white rabbit down a hole in her basement, opening up a world of extraordinary sights and hidden horrors, but the film is nevertheless a true original.

Miriam herself is a fantastic character, and Kelly Curtis fills her with endearingly believable quirks (I particularly liked the way she pushes a cupboard door closed with her forehead after making tea at one point). Barely a scene goes by in which she doesn’t make some kind of freakish discovery and, though these aren’t all entirely explained, they combine to create a bizarre and mesmerising atmosphere.

If The Sect had been directed by Dario Argento, I’m convinced it would be regarded as a classic. I’m a huge Argento fan myself but have to concede that this outing actually outdoes some of his work – even in what you might call its Argento-ness! So quit waiting for The Third Mother, the conclusion to Dario’s supernatural nightmare trilogy begun by Suspiria and Inferno... It’ll have a hard time surpassing The Sect.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday 4 November 2007

Calendar Girl Murders

Calendar Girl Murders is a movie with a strange power... A power to turn everyone in it ten years younger! Take a look at Tom Skerritt. He was over fifty when the film was made – but, according to the script, he’s apparently “just turned forty”.

Then there’s the strange case of Sharon Stone... Stone was 35 when she hit the big time with Basic Instinct in 1992, but when Calendar Girl Murders was released in the UK a year later (straight to video, natch) she was suddenly 26 again. That’s because the film was actually made (for TV, double-natch) almost ten years previously in 1984. Any Sharon Stone fans hoping for an even sleazier follow-up to Basic Instinct would likely have been delighted by the youthful Stone on offer here – but probably less so by the then-shockingly dated music, costumes, and general lack of sleaze.

As for Tom Skerritt, well... by this time, he was actually a full twenty years out of sync with himself, and had to take a ten-year break from acting in order to catch up with his real age and thus realign the cosmos.

Further complicating matters, Calendar Girl Murders was given a new title when it hit video stores in Britain. It was renamed Victimised, perhaps to make it sound like Stone was the main character, and it looked like this:

...and this:

...and this:

...perhaps to suggest that Shazza got naked a lot. Which she doesn’t. Anyway, I’m going with the original title here. After all, the film was known as Calendar Girl Murders for a whole decade before the success of Basic Instinct rescued it from obscurity.

Tom Skerritt plays Dan Stoner, a top detective and family man with a wife and teenage son. When a top model plummets to her death from a hotel balcony, Dan suspects foul play. The deceased, Pam, had worked for Paradise magazine, a Playboy-like outfit that also publishes a calendar, in which Pam had posed as Miss January. Dan’s suspicions appear to be confirmed when, soon afterwards, another model is killed – this time, Miss February (Claudia Christian), who’s viciously stabbed in the stomach whilst making a late-night raid on the fridge. From then on, none of the monthly models are safe, as Miss March is attacked during a pool-party power-cut (I’m totally gonna call my band that) but saved from drowning when Dan dives to the rescue, performing life-restoring mouth-to-mouth resuscitation through his soggy moustache.

How does Sharon Stone fit into all this excitement? She’s Cassie Bascomb, a former secretary-turned-model-turned... er, stockbroker, I think. We never see her actually doing anything at work, but it definitely requires sitting at a desk and wearing big, black-rimmed glasses. Cassie may hold the key to the mystery but, shortly after Dan brings her into the case, her house is ransacked and the words “YOU’LL BE SORRY SLUT” are scrawled on her window in lipstick. Oh yes, someone is mad... Mad enough to kill! And they don’t much care for punctuation either!

Despite its array of teasing box art, Calendar Girl Murders is a pretty pedestrian TV movie, as short on thrills as it is the sizzle its various video covers promise. After the attack on Miss March, even the calendar-based killing subsides, and the movie just gets duller and duller until it reaches a doubly-dull climax.

One element that did manage to surprise me, however, was a few seconds of softcore porn apparently edited into one of the scenes, perhaps for the 1993 British release (which also accounts for the otherwise baffling 18 certificate). Dan’s son is watching the Paradise awards show on TV, when the gyrating, legwarmer-clad dancers give way to a close-up of breasts being squeezed and a leather belt going somewhere I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be worn. I doubt this was part of the original dance routine, and it also explains why Mrs Stoner barely bats an eyelid when she sees what her son’s watching!

Now, if only they’d edited some suspense into the movie, too...

Rating: 2/5

Thursday 1 November 2007

Bates Motel

Psycho always makes me hungry. It’s that sandwich Norman makes Marion just after she checks in. It just looks so darn tasty. Sadly, there’s nothing nearly as appetizing in the 1987 TV-movie spin-off, Bates Motel – just a thoroughly disgusting-looking “meatloaf à la Bates” served up on a piece of broken plate by Lori Petty. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bates Motel was filmed as a pilot episode for a TV series that never happened. Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates, had no involvement, and actually spoke out against the production, arguing that its plot completely contradicted the ongoing story of the Psycho sequels he was still making at the time (which it does – more on that in a minute). What he really should have taken issue with was the script’s treatment of Norman as a character (more on that later, too... show some patience!) but perhaps that only became apparent when the movie first aired on TV.

In lieu of Norman, we’re introduced to creepy young crazyperson Alex West – played by Harold and Maude’s Harold, Bud Cort – who looks like a mentally ill Paul McCartney. (And could I have fitted any more names into that sentence?) For the last 27 years, Alex has shared the same sanatorium as Norman Bates, after pushing his father into an industrial tumble dryer at the age of six (the man was abusive, though, so it’s okay). Inside the loony bin, Alex and Norman formed a close, father-and-son-like bond, but after the death of his mentor (see, I told you it contradicted the Psycho sequels) Alex finds himself released into the community (well... L.A.) to fend for himself. Luckily, Norman has bequeathed him some property – a certain drab little motel, overlooked by a towering house on the hill.

Here’s where the alarm bells first starting ringing concerning this film’s handling of Norman Bates and his legacy. At the reading of Norman’s will, we also learn that he’s bequeathed his turkey to the asylum cook, who’s been teaching him culinary skills (and by “turkey”, I refer to a large, apparently plastic cooked bird, which hits the table with a thud as the will’s executor hands it over). And then there’s Norman’s record collection, left to the friend who taught him to dance (the Twist and the Huckleback, we’re told)… I’m not sure if all this is supposed to suggest that Norman had been successfully rehabilitated, or was crazier than ever. Either way, it jars with almost everything we know about him.

From here on in, Bates Motel plays like a weird drama about renovating an old motel: Alex hires a handyman (Moses Gunn) to oversee the renovation, as well as local girl Willie (Lori Petty) – who’s been squatting in the house in a chicken costume (don’t ask) – to run the motel’s new diner. I began to wonder how this was intended to pan out as a TV series... Perhaps Ann Maurice would visit and offer some style tips, or Ruth Watson, the Hotel Inspector, would show up and criticise the sausages. Instead, the bulldozers occasionally uncover skeletons buried on the grounds, Alex has visions of a ghostly Mrs Bates, and none of this really goes anywhere.

Until around two-thirds of the way through. Then we get a taste of what the Bates Motel TV series would actually have been like – and it’s not too bad. We meet a guest (Kerrie Keane), she meets a guest star (Jason Bateman, or should that be Bates-man?), there’s a little storyline with a supernatural twist, and we’re all happy. Well, at least until Alex appears again to send us off with a straight-to-camera monologue that goes like this:

  • “Nobody ever said life was easy, but then nothing really worth it ever is. You know, I think, with a little luck, we’re going to do okay here. I think Norman would’ve liked that. Oh, by the way, if you ever need a room, come on by. Can’t say for sure what you’ll find, but that is what makes the world go round... Hahahaa!”

Sorry, I added that “Hahahaa!” myself. I just think it needed it. Anyway, what exactly makes the world go round, Alex? Staying in motels? Finding things in motel rooms? I’ve no idea what you’re on about there but, then again, after a climax that involved not one, but two characters dressed up as the ghost of Mrs Bates, I’m prepared to accept anything. The original Psycho also ended with an address of sorts to the audience, but it has to be said that deranged psychopath Norman made a little more sense (or Anthony Perkins remembered his lines).

In any case, Bates Motel won’t put any of the Psycho sequels released between 1983 and 1990 out of business, and falls particularly short of the rather brilliant Psycho II – one of the best and cleverest movie sequels of any kind in my book. By ignoring the events of the sequels, Bates Motel does manage to create a pleasing continuity of its own but, as is perhaps the nature of unpicked-up pilots, leaves a few plot threads dangling.

Speaking of dangling, the movie has its own memorable shower scene – a completely gratuitous shot of a naked Bud Cort, masked only by a flimsy shower curtain that’s either less opaque than the director imagined or the handiwork of a malicious set designer. Let’s just say there’s some uncalled-for “wiggling” – and it’s as disturbing as anything in the original Psycho.

Rating: 3/5