Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Vampirella (Jim Wynorski, 1996)

I was only ever aware of Vampirella through the lurid artwork that graced her comic. To me, she seemed little more than a voluptuous, dark-haired seductress caught in an eternal struggle to prevent her tits falling out. But since the covers featured a heavy gothic atmosphere and large dollops of fun the discovery of there being a movie about this character peaked my interest. The trailer, however, sealed the deal.

Space-ships, fist-fights, explosions and Roger Daltrey in a vampire cape? This looked like it could be the best film ever made. Would you believe it's not? Oh you would? Well, stupid as it might make me sound the fact it wasn't came as something of a shock. The main problem is that despite moments of sublime absurdity the film is generally rather dull.

It opens on Drakulon, a planet of vampiric creatures who feed from rivers of blood. Not content with merely feeding for survival, Vlad (Daltrey) decides to feed off others, an act that bestows him greater power and longevity. Arrested for his barbaric crimes Vlad stages an escape, killing the Father of Vampirella (Talisa Soto) in the process. Pursuing each other through space their conflict continues on Earth were Vampirella, aided by a descendant of Van Helsing, must stop Vlad from plunging the planet into eternal darkness.

Firstly, respect for filling the lead with an actress with presence rather than a ludicrously proportioned body. That’s not to say Soto has a particularly normal female body shape it's just whoever was casting decided against the presumably enticing concept of squeezing a curvaceous playboy model into a tiny red bikini and opted for a little more value above the neck line. Although she doesn't match the comic version of the character curve for curve Soto is strikingly beautiful, so much so I wouldn't be surprised if it transpired Jim Lee uses her as a model for all his females. It also appears she can act, at least it seems that way by comparison, since she manages to convince as an exotic space vampire while the cast surrounds her fail to convince as normal human beings. The outfit, such as it is, is fairly faithful. It's red, and there is precious little of it. Since this is a live action film and therefore vulnerable to those pesky laws of physics, the costume has a fair few more straps and the high waisted pants cover more flesh. It's hardly chaste, but more like an Ann Summers Wonder Woman outfit than the thong and braces favoured in the source material.

Surely though there is more to this movie than an attractive woman in a red bikini? The filmmakers didn't seem to think so as despite many valiant attempts it remains the films main selling point. Sure there is a brief spell on Mars, lots of transforming into bats, a secret vampire hunting agency and some geek-bait cameos but it's never enough. Planet Drakulon is just a hotel lobby populated with a couple of toga-wearing extras, the pyrotechnics have the dynamism of those used in a school play and the space opera is just the same fucking recycled model shots from Roger Corman's movies. The opening is cheap but fun and I'll get to the ending in a minute, but only having watched the movie the night before writing this article I can't really remember much of what happened in the middle. It's all pretty bland really.

Aside from Soto the one bright shining star is Daltrey. To say he hams it up is an understatement. Struggling around massive plastic fangs and a parade of ridiculous costumes he commits utterly, throwing all sense of caution (also nuance, taste, craft) to the wind and goes full-on pantomime villain. Whether he is piloting a space craft dressed as a new-romantic, rocking out on a Las Vegas stage in a clip-on pony-tail or trying not to drool over himself with those unwieldy gnashers Daltrey dials it up to eleven. The most amazing costume, however, comes at the films exciting climax. Dressed in a red-lined fancy dress Dracula cape, complete with slightly bent high collars, and smeared with a dash of pale make-up, Daltrey runs around a factory, hissing and flapping like a tipsy Dad at a shit halloween party. The fairly rough fight that follows is all the more hilarious for it.

There is some stuff to have fun with and it's hard to outright dislike it, but it lacks any of the gothic flourishes that makes the comic artwork so lurid. The film simply isn't as scary, sexy, bloody or fun as it needs to be.  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Let the Screen Run Red - Eric Red

Eric Red is a name that gets thrown around far too little for my liking. For starters, this is the guy that wrote both Near Dark (Bigelow, 1987) and Blue Steel (Bigelow, 1989). If that doesn’t give you an idea as to the guy’s sensibilities then hopefully this little article will. Red is a master at taking genre movies and well-worn conventions and spinning them on their head. Not in a way that is an obvious subversion but in subtle ways. Take Cohen and Tate (Red, 1988), his first feature as both writer and director, for example. It is a film that relies on the comfort of what might appear to be a conventional buddy/road movie, yet manages to keep everything unpredictable right until the final act. His movies show a filmmaker breaking the surface of genre, looking for every last scrap of originality he can find  even if the results are not always entirely fulfilling, I have yet to see a film of his that hasn’t left me wanting to tell someone else about it. The three movies below exemplify this the most.

Body Parts (Red, 1991)

 Jeff Fahey loses his arm in a car accident and undergoes an experimental surgical procedure to have an organ donors arm grafted back on. Unfortunately the arm belonged to a convicted murderer and starts to take on some of its previous owners personality traits. This is a fairly well-worn idea and one you can see in films such as The Hands of Orlac (Wiene, 1924), its remake Mad Love (Freund, 1935) and to a degree The Hand (Stone 1981). Red, however, still manages to breath fresh life into this cadaver. Red focuses our attention on the family, showing how the arm gradually alienates Fahey’s character from his wife and children. Realising something is up, Fahey tracks down the other recipients of these murderous limbs to see if they are experiencing any problems.

For a film about killer limbs it is surprisingly un-schlocky and this is due to the focussing on the implications on character, rather than plot. Just as you settle in, though, Red throws you a curveball and exploits the potential of this concept, heaping on the schlock with a ladle.

Fahey’s new friends start being murdered, their borrowed limbs removed and stolen. It turns out the previous owner isn’t dead and is determined to get his property back. It is in the these final moments that Red ramps everything up, with slow-mo murders, gore and an inspired car chase that sees Fahey, in one car, hand-cuffed to the driver of another car.

Red handles this all with confidence and we never really feel the tonal change. Even when Fahey takes a shotgun and blasts away at a lab full of limbs in glorious slow motion we never wonder what happened to the oddball family drama we were watching forty minutes ago.

Body Parts us the best demonstration of Red's ability to have his cake and eat it, working with genuine drama and convincing performances alongside hokey mad-scientist tropes and heavy gore without ever revealing the joins. It is also, in my opinion, his best film as both writer and director.

Bad Moon (Red, 1996)

 Of the three movies here this is probably the one that left me the least satisfied. Yet I chose this over more obvious home runs to prove the point that even in his weaker films there is stuff worth sharing. Bad Moon grabs your attention right away with a nicely staged werewolf attack, gratuitous nudity and a wonderfully bombastic horror score. Unfortunately following this scene the film slips into first gear and stays in it for most of the run time. That’s not to say there is anything incompetent going on, rather it is nowhere near as shameless and fun as the opening.

What we are essentially asked to engage with is a small family drama as the ‘survivor’ of the opening attack moves in with his sister and her family. By day he tries to endear himself to them, by night he chains himself to a tree to stop the wolf inside him taking over. A series of animal attacks clearly indicate he is failing and his sister becomes a little anxious as to her brother’s motives. It is all nicely performed but rather serious and inert.

Thankfully the climax takes things up a notch and brings back a sense of the fun and absurdity of the films opening. Firstly, the werewolf is fucking great. I’m not normally a fan of big snouty wolves, but this huge practical creature effect is wonderful and straddles the line of realism and design so as to result in something that is convincing, exciting, terrifying and, well, awesome. Seriously, one of the best werewolves ever. The transformation isn’t great, as Red opts for a morphing effect, yet it is one of the better applications of this now dated effect I have seen.

Even better is the hero of the movie is a dog named Thor. The family pet gets a fair bit of attention throughout the film (an almost distracting amount one might say). However the finale justifies this as Thor defends the family by taking on the wolf in a nicely staged extended paw-fight. Seriously, it’s a climatic, choreographed final reel fight scene between a practical werewolf and an actual dog. Thor takes the beating of a lifetime in this, but keeps coming back for more eventually finishing the fight by leaping on the creature sending them both crashing out of a top floor window. Thor is the John McClane of dogs.

The score is great, the gore is plentiful and Red commits a canine hero to screen that makes Lassie look like a fucking twat. For that I can put up with a saggy middle.

The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986)

 I was going to only write about Red’s directorial efforts yet what is clear from The Hitcher is that Red’s creative voice is so powerful that is survives all the various production stages and shines through into the end product. What proves this is that up until I checked I had assumed Red had directed The Hitcher as it is such an exemplification of everything he does well.

Beginning with one of my favourite opening scenes ever the film doesn’t waste time, as C.Thomas Howell’s new hitchhiker, played by Rutger Hauer, slowly turns out to be a homicidal maniac. Eschewing a slow build Red drops us right into the thrills with this opening that would work as a short film in its own right. What follows is a juggling act of horror, thriller, road-movie, action film and dark comedy as Hauer’s maniac stalks Howell across the deserted freeways of America. It goes small when it needs to and when it wants to get big (helicopter chases and tumbling patrol cars) it commits.
Red wisely defies convention, offing characters when you don’t expect it and refusing to offer any explanation as to why Hauer is doing what he is doing without leaving you feeling cheated.

I’m not going to say director Harmon, crew and cast don’t add to the success of the film, as it appears that everyone is bringing their A-game. The look on Hauer’s face alone when Howell realises the gun he has is empty is absolute genius. Yet this is an Eric Red film through and through and frankly one of, if not actually, his best. It is one of those rare films that is, in my opinion, perfect. Not that it is the best film ever made, but it is one where I cannot think of a single wrong step it takes. It is a film that has been formative in my appreciation of genre filmmaking and if you haven’t seen it yet should give it a try as soon as possible.

Red's pre-occupation with death and murder, especially the automotive kind, take on a more macabre and disturbing dimension when you dig into his personal life. This article, however, is about the filmmaker more than the man. Eric Red makes genre movies that are fun and thrilling, yet never come across as silly. He balances tone with skill and uses conventions to get an audience to drop they’re guard so he can surprise and shock them later. Having recently revisited a lot of his films he has become one of my favourite genre filmmakers. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Fishes Out of Water, Warriors Out of Time

It was not unusual in an eighties science fiction or fantasy movie to witness a half-naked, half-armoured space warrior being baffled by a be-mohawked punk admiring his “awesome threads”. The urbanisation of science fiction fantasy during this period was commonplace. Futuristic, interstellar or otherworldly conflicts were fought against the backdrop of urban America.

The appeal of this is fairly obvious. Keen to cash in on the mainstream fascination with science fiction fantasy, no doubt given further life off the back of the Star Wars trilogy, filmmakers needed to find ways to ground their epic adventure stories and subsequently save money. If you only have to pay out for a couple of costumes and a few laser effects your sprawling space opera suddenly only requires the same budget as a cop movie.

Films such as The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987), Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986) and The Time Guardian (Brian Hannant, 1987) all used this to enable imaginative genre movies to be made on tighter budgets. One could also argue that mainstream culture was starting to take notice of sub-cultures and in a fairly desperate attempt to appeal to a teen audience filled the frame with assorted punks, skaters, slackers and rockers. Alongside, and often associated with, these archetypes were the seedier criminal elements of urban America including gangs, pimps, prostitutes and crack-heads.

Normally these figures would usually be met by a middle-aged, slightly right wing cop in a stiff grey suit shaking his head and wondering what the world has come to. At some point a creative mind realised the juxtaposition of this gritty ‘reality’ with outlandish fantasy would not only exploit these two popular trends and save money but also have the potential for comedy. On paper this must have seemed like a good idea.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy), proved extremely popular and still does. It is, essentially, a long string of fish-out-of-water gags with little to no dramatic thrust, yet people were so
amused at Spock being annoyed by a loud stereo system, or struggling with crazy 20th century turns of phrase, that they didn’t seem to notice. It could be argued that it was the success of this movie that allowed the proliferation of this sub sub-genre to continue into the early nineties. Masters of the Universe (Gary Goddard, 1987), Suburban Commando (Burt Kennedy, 1991), Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (Damian Lee, 1990), all brought warriors to Earth and took time, if only a little, to play these interactions for humour, light social commentary or both.

The film that exemplifies this the most is Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, (Sylvio Tabet, 1991) a film so aggressive in its pursuit to be the ultimate fish-out-of-water fantasy comedy it forgets that it is the sequel to an earnest Conan-esque swords and sorcery movie. The films opens firmly established in that world and for a while leads you to believe you may well be in for more of the same. Barely dressed animal whisperer Dar (Marc Singer) is locked in battle with his evil brother Arklon (Wings Hauser) across a gorgeous desert backdrop, all accompanied by a sweeping and iconic score by Robert Folk. It’s when the mysterious Lyranna (Sarah Douglas) turns up with quips and horrifying uses of the word “dude” that one will start to expect something is amiss. Before long the time-travel element is introduced and this fantastical trio is sent to modern day Los Angeles for all sorts of mirth. There is a plot thread that involves a nuclear warhead but the film gets so wrapped up in how funny it thinks it is that all dramatic tension is unraveled.

Teaming Dar with a grating streetwise sidekick Jackie (Kari Wuhrer) It goes through every fantasy fish-out-of-water trope like it’s working from a list of them. Dar is amazed by Jackie’s “horseless carriage”, Dar is slightly baffled by rock ‘n’ roll, Dar learns a swearword. At one point Dar even double takes at a strip joint even though the guy lives in a world where people dress in nothing but leather pants. 

It is Akrlon that suffers the worst however. He is set up and played like an amalgamation of Darth Vader and the Emperor, yet once on Earth the narrative cannot wait but strip him of all menace. In an attempt to blend in he visits a clothes shop and is greeted by an outrageously camp fashion guru with a European accent so non-specific he may well have been speaking an alien language. Although we are spared a trying on clothes montage we spend entirely too long watching Arklon pick out an outfit. When he leaves he is dressed in this appalling pastel Don Johnson shoulder-padded suit jacket. Since Arklon’s costume already had shoulder pads he spends the rest of the movie looking like something between Herman Munster and a member of the Dynasty cast having been infected by the black goo from Prometheus.

If this isn’t enough the end battle is a complete and utter selling out of the characters, story and all the good work of the first movie. When these mythical characters, now both rendered comic relief, finally confront each other in a zoo Jackie accidently leans on the controls of the PA system. As a result the final battle doesn’t play out with the exciting musical score but with circus music and the narration to what must have been a cute animal show. This is done to ensure that what is being said deliberately undermines what his happening on screen for comic effect. It is very hard to be rooting for the hero as he tests his strength against his evil archrival as some prick on a tannoy says “aren’t they cute, shall we try and make them kiss?”

All this time Dar has been chased by James Avery’s gruff detective. As with everything else in this movie the usual beats of this character are ticked off. Avery’s detective goes from assuming Dar is mad to begrudgingly respecting him. It is this gradual respect that seems to be the overall point of these movies. We are sold that the simplistic methods of these otherworldly warriors are honest and honourable and far less complicated that this crazy world of ours.

The strange thing is that watching the films back it’s hard to identify with anyone but the off-world warrior and be alienated by our own. So broad and universal are their motivations (justice, revenge, peace, etc) that they are easily recognized and engaged with. Yet the cartoon worlds they are thrust into, a collage of brief fashions and out-of-date colloquialisms, by comparison seem bizarre and alien. Despite all the criticisms above this is why I find these kind of films so fascinating and watchable as the passage of time has made what should be normal completely alien. In short we, the audience, have become the fish-out-of-water.