Monday, 30 July 2012

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Inferno of the Yetis

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor an academic musing. It just so happens than in the last year I have watched three yeti-based films and have decided to lump them together in one article.

I think it is worth spending a moment defining exactly what a yeti is. In preparation for this article I gathered (gathered, kidnapped... whatever) some of the worlds leading minds in urban mythology, anthropology and zoology and encouraged (forced) them to formulate a really concrete definition. I then decided they were wrong and using my own scientific experience (my doctorate is in unethical sciences and general unpleasantness) came up with the following definition:

Yeti: Snowy monster. Little bit apey.

So now that piece of business has been disposed of (like the 'leading minds' that failed me) let's get down to business.

SNOWBEAST (Herb Wallerstein, 1977)

Snowbeast is a made for TV movie starring the mighty Bo Svenson. It is essentially Jaws, but with a ski resort replacing the beach and a yeti replacing the shark. As crowds assemble at the resort for the annual winter fair, an event crucial to the financial survival of the local town, a strange creature lurks in the woods picking off skiers. In order to suppress panic, the attacks are investigated on the quiet putting the visitors in further danger.

Some extra drama is heaped onto the proceedings when Svenson and wife arrive. Svenson plays a champion skier who has dropped out of competing. There is a real sense of shame and sorrow and mention that no-one will give Svenson's character a job. This all hints to some juicy and nefarious skeleton in his closet and one that looks to be teased out over the course of the film. Complicating things is his wife and her prior relationship with the resort owner, setting up a love triangle amongst the yeti action.

The mysterious creature turns out to be a yeti. Although only glimpsed he seems convincing enough. He is a tough bugger, taking multiple gunshot wounds and is also clever, springing traps and strategising rather than just angrily mauling all the time.

Where Snowbeast fails, however, is in capitalising on its strengths. All dramatic tension dissolves when we find out that Svenson's character gave up skiing because he was afraid of being knocked off the top spot. I was expecting him to have eaten his best friend when stranded up a mountain, or to have skied over a baby or something. Nope, the big reveal is he just wanted to quit while he was ahead. The love triangle is also neatly resolved by the third party simply being fine with the other two being a couple.

And then, to top things off, our intelligent and tough yeti is finally dispatched by being stabbed with a stick.

In addition the film is really quite tame and this is really felt during the yeti attacks. Rather than any blood actually being spilt, the image is frozen and a red colour filter fades up.

Despite playing it safe the film still retains a certain charm and was somewhat enjoyable.

ABOMINABLE (Ryan Schifrin, 2006)

A successful way to market a film has always been to take two existing popular concepts and splat them together. Alien is a haunted house movie in space, Under Siege is Die Hard on a battleship. So it's with great pleasure that I introduce you to:

Abominable: It's Rear Window with a yeti.

I should probably make it clear that the yeti is not playing the James Stewart character (it's good, but it's not that good). Matt 'Diet Guttenberg' McCoy is a paralysed mountain climber being looked after by a prickish male nurse in a remote mountain cabin. In the remote mountain cabin opposite a group of attractive young women are having a weekend away.

When the yeti rears its white-haired head and starts gobbling up people it is up to the wheelchair-bound McCoy to try and convince the authorities to help out while simultaneously not looking like a massive pervert for spying on the young ladies opposite.

The films small budget shows primarily in the chosen film stock. It's a washed, low contrast image that comes across like an early episode of X-Files, but otherwise the production is spot on. And sacrificing the richness of the image secures money to make sure that the monster is great.

What also sets this film apart is that writer/director Ryan Schifrin is the son of legendary composer Lalo Schifrin. As such the film gets an effective orchestral score that many films in this budget range would not get. Throw in appearances by Lance Henrikson and Jeffery Combs and you've got the kind of fun monster movie people just don't make that often. This comes highly recommended.

HORROR EXPRESS (Eugenio Martin, 1972)

Okay, this one is a stretch I admit. Christopher Lee finds a frozen ape-like creature who he believes to be the missing link (it's snowy and ape-like, fuck you it's a yeti) and stows it away on the trans-Siberian railway. Before long people start to show up with white, pupil-less eyes and brains completely wiped clean, while others seem possessed. Peter Cushing, playing a doctor, thinks something is up leading to some classic Lee vs Cushing head bumping.

But it's when Telly Savalas turns up half-way through the film playing a mad Kossak that things get really good. Savalas eats the scenery, stomping up and down shouting his bald-head off and threatening anyone and everyone. He is just brilliantly mental.

The film also has an ace up it's sleeve and one that makes me calling this a yeti film even more tenuous*. If you intend to see this film do not read ahead.

The frozen creature is not our killer. The creature carries an alien energy form that moves from person to person possessing them. Although the way this is discovered is requires some suspension of disbelief, it's a great little twist. The performances are great, the production is superb, there is some nice science vs religion conflict and the way eyes are used, either glowing red or white and empty, add a genuinely creepy and unsettling flavour to the magnificently mad pudding that is Horror Express.

Both Abominable and Horror Express are great little horror films and well worth your attention. Snowbeast, meanwhile, is harmless and that is both the key to its charm and its major flaw.

*Okay so it's not a yeti. Got a problem with that? Well Dr Kenneth Bron of the Royal Anthropological Institute had a problem with it and he's now somewhere at the bottom of the Marianas trench in an iron maiden made of gold.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Total Cults Podcast #40: British Sci-Fi

Yes, Gogol and Trick are now going to tickle your ear canals with a voyage into British Sci-Fi, which Gogol argues is actually just horror after all. Expect half-remembered reminiscences from the 70s and 80s, combined with a great deal of fondness and the usual unpleasantness that seems to happen regardless.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

In Defence of Mortal Kombat

Like O.J.'s defence council you may think I'm onto a losing battle here. If not, let me help you arrive at that conclusion. I am not only going to argue that Mortal Kombat is good, but that the sequel is better.

Ever since the Megadrive version of Mortal Kombat 2 beat my imagination into a swirling daze then roundly finished it with a cheeky spine removal, I have been convinced the Mortal Kombat games would make for utterly astounding genre cinema. The universe in which these games are set features elements that have proven extremely popular over the years, elements such as marital arts, large scale fantasy, the supernatural, brain splattering violence, and an Eastern flavour. A Mortal Kombat movie with a budget and a skilled director behind the lens could be The Lord of the Rings meets Ong Bak meets Big Trouble in Little China meets The Evil Dead. Or, put another way, piss-your-pants awesome.

Which brings us to Mortal Kombat (Paul WS Anderson, 1995), pretty much the opposite of everything I described above. Here the Mortal Kombat universe is not treated with any integrity nor is there really any attempt to make the property cinematic. Instead it tries to capture the video game aesthetic, thinly stringing arcade set-pieces together with a narrative of sorts. This should, by all rights, disappoint and/or enrage me. Yet it is hard to dispute by its own low standards it is successful.

The key characters from the game are there and they all get to fight on screen. The environments in which they do battle are at worst derivative and at best imaginative. The story just about holds things together and gets you from one dust-up to the next. The CGI is bad. Worse than Lost in Space bad. On a par with The Lawnmower Man bad. But remember, Anderson isn't aiming for 35mm, he's aiming for 16bit.

The casting is patchy. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa delivers his ever-reliable scene-eating villainy, ill-fated potential action star Trevor Goddard is good value despite his absurd British accent (all the more absurd considering the guy is actually British) and Christopher Lambert again forgets he's French, here playing a Chinese lightning-god. Everyone else is okay, but nothing exceptional. Linden Ashby and stunt double are fine as the charismatic Johnny Cage, yet why not hire an equally charismatic martial arts star who, y'know, could actually do the martial arts required? Surely Jeff Speakman wasn't busy? Remember Jeff Speakman? No? Just me then...

The martial arts themselves are quite exciting all things considered. At the time this was released martial arts in mainstream Western cinema consisted of, if you were lucky, Van Damme slo-mo round housing Bolo Yeung seven times. But these fights, brief as they are, are acrobatic and skilful and, for the casual cinema-goer of the time, possibly their first exposure to proper martial artists.

What is lost, however, is the ultra-violence. There are a couple of deaths and some horror conventions do creep in, but it is an ultimately bloodless affair. Yet we are not short-changed, oh no. For while Anderson steals hardcore violence away from us he compensates us with middle-of the-road, um... I want to say Techno?


Whatever it is, it should be an entirely inappropriate theme for an epic fantasy set against a conflict twixt Eastern gods and demons. Yet it has a relentless energy and cheer that is kind of endearing, much like the film.

Mortal Kombat is appalling, obviously, and should piss me off no-end. But it is aiming so low it cannot help but succeed. It's like an infant's first drawing; yes it's basically scribble, but meets expectation and is kind-of cute.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (John R. Leonetti, 1997) carries on directly from the first (narratively speaking). Narrative, however, is not of interest here. Nor writing, nor acting. The budget takes a hit and as a result so do the visual effects. Not even Lambert returns. Ashby didn't even return. So what do you do get?

Ninjas, robot ninjas, a man with robotic arms, a centaur, a native american werewolf, mud-wrestling, James Remar as a Chinese god, our protagonist and antagonist turning into giant dragons, a four-armed woman, people wearing just enough clothing for it not to be pornography, a toothy monster with swords for arms, this exchange:

...the list literally stops there.

If you know the game none of this is a surprise, but viewing it without prior knowledge must make the films seem so brilliantly random. I urge you to forget this was based on a series of video games and rather imagine these are ingredients someone actually thought would make for a good film, it is so much more fun that way.

The film even manages competence at times. Even, dare I say, moments that are quite good. The fights are significantly improved.

The above fight is favourite of mine as it ticks so many boxes for me. It's a little bit ninja, little bit superhero, little bit Temple of Doom. And that is a cool set. The wonderful mess that is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is peppered with kind-of cool moments like this showing that the creative minds behind it where using the lack of narrative as a strength, whizzing us from absurd moment to baffling happenstance.

The first Mortal Kombat is like a horribly catchy tune. It isn't good and you know it, but it has enough to hook onto your brain and is somewhat endearing as a result. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is the dubstep remix of that same song. You may wonder what the hell they were thinking and that it sounds kind of cheap, yet that doesn't mean you can't admire the imagination and insanity of it all.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Total Cults Podcast #39: British Horror

There's more to British Horror than just Hammer, you know! There's Amicus, too. And probably some other stuff that we haven't really researched properly. Either way, Gogol and Trick are up for romping through them. This podcast probably contains spoilers for movies that are at least 30 years old, but maybe it'll whet your appetite to go and watch something that isn't goddamn Twilight, you young whippersnapper, you. Click the title. CLICK IT. You may discover that you're dead already...

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Importance of Aesthetics

A friend once looked over my DVD collection and questioned why someone who purports to be a film lover has a collection full of, how did he put it, “a bunch of shit”. He was perplexed that there were some obvious omissions, films commonly regarded as greats that weren’t there, in addition to some established cult classics any self-respective b-movie enthusiast should own. I didn’t have the energy to defend my collection and truth be told, I didn’t actually know how. Like all good responses, I thought of mine some time after the exchange. This is it.

Check out a little of the following two clips. One is from Starcrash (Luigi Cozzi, 1978):

The other is from Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005)

It is obvious that from a technical point of view the second clip is better. So then why is it I enjoy the technically inferior clip equally, if not more?

For some time I thought it was irony. I subscribed to the ‘so bad it’s good’ reasoning. I occasionally still do. Yet this is not only condescending but in most cases untrue. So many of the films I own I genuinely like.

Kim Newman has said that he tends not to form opinions on films based on whether they are good or bad, but whether they are interesting or not. It is a nice approach and one that works for me but it still doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head.

I generally appreciate imagination on screen, regardless of how well that has been realised. You can learn a lot about the unique way people interpret the world around them by seeing how they realise grand themes or how they give their nightmares corporeal presence in the form of, say, a rubber monster suit. Yet many of the films I like are kind of derivative which kind of blows pretensions of uniqueness out of the water.

Every rule I come up with just unearths a load of exceptions. Why? Because I’m assuming that whether I like a film or not is an intellectual choice.

Notions of good and bad require a clear set of agreed criteria - this list of things makes a film good whereas this list of things makes a film bad. So much film discussion centres around arguing whether a film is good or not. Entire books are written setting out the rules for writing an objectively good film while internet message boards are littered with playground level arguments over how the film you said you liked actually sucks and everyone knows it sucks and as such you suck.
Academics and critics try to articulate why things work and why things don’t. Of course they do, that is their job. I try to do that myself, it is one of the reasons this site exists. I can articulate many of the reasons why I like the things I like, but there are some things I just cannot. I can’t tell you why I like them, I just do.

Take someone in your life that you love and try verbalising why you love that person. My guess is you’ll come up with a number of things you love about that person but not be able to pinpoint why you love that person. That is because whether you like, love or hate something is an entirely emotional response. I like it because my body tells me I like it and regardless of how much my intellect informs me that the continuity is awful, or that I can clearly see the strings holding up that giant killer wasp-oid my body will keep on telling me I like it.

It is why I like genre film. It is why I get excited when Godzilla stamps on a model city. It is the only reason I can sit through a Chuck Norris film. It is just how I’m wired. It is emotion, not intellect.

Yes, there are trends. A lot people generally tend to agree that certain elements will lead to a satisfying cinematic experience. But these are neither guarantees nor measures of quality. So many films that adhere to the established rules fall on their arse and die. I’m not saying the rules don’t matter as a lot of the films I like work because of them. These are films I like both emotionally and intellectually. On the flip side I think 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is one of the greatest films ever made, but I don’t love it. I don’t feel joy when I am watching it. I consider the meaning behind it all and appreciate the technical skill on show but it is an intellectual process, not an emotional one.

My collection is fucking awesome. Why? Because it is my collection and it is full of films that I love. If it were full of films that other people like, it would be a complete and utter waste of space and money. It would be a shit collection. It’s not complete, but right now it is the greatest collection I can afford, full to the brim with films I adore.

Emotion is not inferior to intellect. Do not be afraid to like something “just because”. Love a film because of how it makes you feel, rather than how objectively “good” it is. If you’re able to explain the way you feel to someone, and that person is actually interested in how you feel, you might get a great conversation going (and conversations are much more rewarding and productive than arguments) but if you can’t explain yourself it doesn’t matter. Why would it? You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Total Cults Podcast #38: Stop! Hammer Time!

Yup, it's a Hammer podcast! The brilliant and bloody horror studio that defined decades of UK gore flicks are discussed in prurient detail by Gogol and Trick. Click Drac to check it out!

Monday, 9 July 2012

White Fire (Jean-Marie Pallardy, 1984)

I like to think of White Fire as being something of a kindred spirit to Ricco the Mean Machine. Both have a great poster, an interesting cast and an edge that separates them from other run-of-the mill action thrillers. Whereas Ricco has enough absurdities to make the more unpleasant moments easier to digest, White Fire has very little going on at all. So while my Ricco review was a cautious recommendation of sorts, the purpose of this review is to save you the trouble of hunting the film down and watching it for yourself. Everything you could hope to get out of it you'll get right here.

First off, that is a great poster. So great, in fact, that it was the sole reason I got myself a copy of the film on DVD. Having Fred Williams in your film also can't hurt, yet like Ricco the film suffers from a less than conventional action lead. Robert 'Exterminator' Ginty (as he seems to be billed in everything he appears in, to the point that I suspect Exterminator might actually be his middle name) looks like a dog Barbara Cartland might own if it were having a really horrible hair day.

But he does carry a chainsaw in the film, which is awesome. What is more awesome is that the film doesn't wuss out. Oh no, that chainsaw does some damage. Check out the unusually bloody trailer:

I won't recount the plot because even having seen the film I don't know what it is. Beyond the poster, the splatter, the chainsaw frenzy and Fred Williamson there is absolutely nothing going on. The film has a narcoleptic narrative, prone to dropping off and leaving a screen absent of anything even remotely engaging.

That is not to say the film hasn't nothing that makes it stand out. One scene in particular makes the film kind of unforgettable. Like Ricco, this is not a good thing.

Ginty's character Bo is accompanied on his adventure by Ingrid. At about the half-way mark (if memory serves me correctly) the obligatory unnecessary nude scene crops up. Ingrid is having one of those late night naked swims that absolutely everyone (except, perhaps, men) has in films. After ensuring the camera has got everything it needs to, she leaves the pool and takes a shower. Now extra sure the camera has everything she raps a towel round herself.

It is then she notices Bo lurking on a balcony above like a creepy ball of fluff. He jogs down the steps to see her for a chat. A little way into their conversation he suddenly decides to whip the towel off her, rendering her naked again, and refuses to give it back to her while she stands in front of him giggling. He eyes her up and down as she half-heartily bargains for the towel back. As flirting goes it is as awkward, embarrassing and, well, weird as it sounds.

And then you remember they are playing Brother and Sister.

If that wasn't enough, he even goes onto say “you sure don't look like anyone's kid Sister anymore do ya?” and “y'know it's a pity you're my Sister”. It is not often a films hero can make you throw up in your mouth.

The scene stands out like a sore, awful, thumb, as if it where an off-colour joke meant for the cutting room floor but accidentally left in. Thankfully that narrative thread is never returned to. I believe some kind soul has uploaded the scene to youtube if you feel the need to verify my claims.

And that is all there is to it. The few good bits are in the trailer and the poster is better than the trailer. Consider this a mine avoided. A mine that would have exploded in a great ball of boredom and incest.

You're welcome.