Monday, 15 December 2014

The Blind Dead Saga - Part 1

Paul Naschy's blend of classic gothic horror with European sensibilities saw a resurgence in the Spanish horror genre during the late 60s. This clash of stylised and evocative mis en scene with a brazen use of gore and sexuality proved popular not just in Spain but in Germany, Italy and further on into the East. Spurred on by this genre renaissance Amando De Ossorio wrote and directed four films featuring a corrupt order of knights (based on the Templars) who are resurrected in various ways and set about destroying the living. Ossorio shot each of the Blind Dead films in around five weeks with little money and and lots of pressure from foreign producers who, hungry for erotic content, were keen on Ossorio to exploit the increasingly relaxing censorship of the waning Franco regime. Despite these difficult conditions Ossorio managed to create a series of unsettling and iconic horror stories that hide their limitations while using their strengths to the fullest.

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972)

A trio decide to go on a railway trip but the pressures of a romantic history between two of them forces a member to leap from the train and spend the night in an abandoned medieval fortress. When she is found murdered her two friends decide to spend the night in the fortress themselves in an attempt to uncover the events that lead to her death. They soon discover that she had become the first victim of the Blind Dead.

Like many of the Spanish horrors of this era Tombs is steeped in gothic iconography. What sets them apart from the Universal and Hammer movies is that rather than using sound stages and sets most of the interiors are on location in actual ruined castles and monasteries. This, coupled with the edgier sex and violence, give the films a sense of grittiness that a lot of gothic horrors don't have and as a result Tombs often feels like the child of a classic horror and an exploitation movie.

Not only are the settings impressive but the creatures themselves are exceptional. Ossario was under pressure from producers, eager to replicate Naschy's success, to include classic monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula. Ossario luckily convinced them otherwise as his creations are exceptional. Rather than applying make-up to actors a combination of masks and puppetry were used to create the look of actual walking corpses. The creatures, draped in rotting capes and cowls, are iconic and convincing. Since the knights had their eyes plucked out by crows in their previous incarnation they hunt by sound. This scare mechanic results in some exciting sequences as their prey try and conceal movement, breath and in one case their heart-beat to avoid being caught.

Fleeing is also futile, as these undead knights still know how to ride a horse. The site of them pounding across fields on horseback in slow motion is terrifying and makes them an almost inescapable threat.

The middle section of the movie spends a little too much time with odd sub-plots. A ghostly apparition in a mannequin factory doesn't make much sense and the involvement of a wanted criminal and his promiscuous girlfriend leads to a predictably unpleasant outcome. It's arguable the inclusions of the latter are a response to the pressure to fill the film with sexual content. There is a girl-on-girl flashback, some brief nudity and some sexual violence. Despite all of this the film remains strangely traditional in its morals as all of the partner swapping and hanging out with criminals leads to horrible deaths.

Considering the inescapable monsters and the narrative's tendency to punish those that transgress traditional values one should really see the ending coming a mile off. The climax is clearly the result of a limited budget but one that ends up benefitting from its minimalism. The mere use of a still frame and the sound of screaming ends up being immensely unsettling and conjures images of the kind of apocalyptic ending favoured by zombie movies of the same era through implication alone.

Return of the Evil Dead (1973)

A small town run by a corrupt Mayor tries to celebrate their annual festival only to find it interrupted by the resurrection of the Knights Templar. Taking refuge in a nearby Church a local mobster, his girlfriend and the man she truly loves try to fight off the sightless undead.

This sequel doesn't directly follow on from the previous entry and although it adopts a more traditional siege narrative a lot of the themes, plus the mix of modern and gothic imagery, remains the same. Sex, crime and love triangles may once again be the thematic focus but this film mostly steers away from any unpleasantness and unlike the previous entry the narrative stays focused for the majority of the running time. Women still don't fare particularly well and the treatment of deformity is hardly handled with care, so the movie isn't exactly progressive. It does, however, highlight the often overlooked plight of the heroic fireworks organiser. It's very rare a pyrotechnics technician is featured as the protagonist and so it is a real relief that the film shows them for the square jawed, macho love machines they really are.

The creatures are still great and the cracks in the budget are covered even more successfully this time round. The siege element of the movie is handled nicely resulting in a movie that is a little sillier than its predecessor, yet less problematic and more cohesive. The ending isn't anywhere near as effective or satisfying as that of Tombs even though it does result in some striking imagery.

The first two movies in this series are dripping in atmosphere. They are brilliantly produced horror movies with edge and although there is the occasional nastiness of the sexual variety the movies still come off as fun.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Gogol's Triple Bills: Short Scares and Tiny Terrors

If you like horror then chances are you'll have had a discussion about your favourite episode of The Outer Limits, or shared memories of the middle story in that Amicus portmanteau movie that scrambled your bowels as a kid. This triple-bill is my opportunity to share some of my favourite short horror stories. They might be slim on minutes but they are big on frights!

Mirror, Mirror (Martin Scorcese, 1986)

Amazing Stories had a fairly broad agenda, however it wasn't afraid to deliver an episode that was drop-your-maltloaf scary. Mirror, Mirror, directed by THE Martin Scorcese, was such an episode. A horror film director returns to his modern but isolated home in the Hollywood hills only to discover that every time he looks in a mirror he sees the reflection of a caped phantom standing behind him. It is a simple device and one that allows for plenty of jump scares both in the movie and subsequently every time you look in a reflective surface. Having re-watched it through my now jaded and de-sensitised adults eyes it's not quite as effective as I'd hoped (especially the climatic moments) but it still remains a great idea with imagery that lasts in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

The Ledge (Lewis Teague, 1985)

Not strictly horror but like the previous entry this, the centrepiece of Cat's Eye, goes against the usual gag/punchline structure of most horror shorts and instead builds on a fun conceit that wouldn't have stretched to a feature. Airplane's Robert Hayes is caught with the wife of a mobster in the penthouse suite of a skyscraper and given one opportunity to get out of trouble: If he can climb out onto the ledge of the building and climb around its circumference without falling to his death than the mobster will let him go free. What follows is a surprisingly exciting set piece generating some genuine high-wire thrills. Hayes is a delight to watch, balancing terror with exasperated humour (his delivery of " flying shithouse!" is gold) with expert precision. There is a sting in the tale that tries to inject some horror into the story (thereby justifying its inclusion in this anthology of Steven King horror shorts) but it remains a story that generates its scares by dangling a man over a ledge rather than murdering a babysitter in her sleep.

The Last Theft (Jiri Barta, 1987)

Jiri Barta is a Czech animator usually associated with stop motion. In 1987, however, he produced this live action short film that is both enthralling and unsettling all at once. A burglar breaks into an old ramshackle house with the intention of stealing whatever he finds but gets rather more than he bargained for. Barta's mix of stop motion and live actors renders motion awkward and uncomfortable while some of the images depicted are nightmarish. Nightmares are key here and it is something that most filmmakers get very wrong. Very rarely do nightmares take the form of perfectly detailed flashbacks, or logically sound scare sequences. Most nightmares are bizarre and ridiculous, defying logic to the point that the person involved cannot trust anything. The Last Theft is the closet I've come to a waking nightmare and one that has stayed with me for some time. It is absurd, unsettling and an absolute joy.

Horror shorts are no longer confined to portmanteau movies, TV shows or festivals. With the explosion of digital distribution frights have gone viral and as such this selection of shorts can only ever hope to represent a minuscule portion of my own favourites, let alone of the medium as a whole. So in the grand tradition of ghost stories let's start sharing our own favourite horror tales in the comments below!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas! Ninja (Isaac Florentine, 2009)

A disgraced martial arts student becomes a hi-tech ninja assassin and returns to the Dojo he was expelled from years later to claim a chest full of ancestral ninja paraphernalia. It’s up to Scott Adkins, an orphaned ninja in training, to protect it.
Adkins is always a strong action lead, mixing his ability to emote with his unbelievable martial arts skill. This movie is a showcase for his abilities and features a number of well crafted fight scenes. The badass costumes are a great mix of traditional and high tech garb and although the film only features two ninjas, their battle runs throughout the duration of the movie meaning there is plenty of on-screen ninja action. 
There could always be a little more in-costume action and a dependancy on CGI blood and “suspense” library music takes the edge off. None the less, this is a satisfying slice of ninja action.

Ninja Abilities – Poisons, apparent teleportation, enhanced senses.

Ninja Kit – Poison, Hook on a chain, nunchuku, metal dart, blade on a rope, hi-tech body armour, hand guns, night vision goggles, acupuncture needles, smoke bombs, telescopic sword, glidy bat wings, bow, assault rifle, shuriken, floor spikes, throwing knives.

Ninja Colours – Black.

Notable Ninja Kills – Neck slice, sliced from head to waist, beheading, thrown in front of moving train, neck chop, arm off.

Ninja Activity? – Medium to high (Frequent appearances of hi-tech ninja, ninja on ninja finale).

Ninja Mythology - To impress potential girlfriends ninjas like to behead unarmed and defeated foes in front of them.

Overall rating - 8/10

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Vindicator (Jean-Claude Lord, 1986)

Hands up who wants to read about what appears to be a cheap Robocop clone but actually has a lot going for it albeit in an endearing TV movie way? All of you? Well isn't that a happy co-incidence?

The Vindicator begins with a bunch of real dickhead scientists who make a monkey's brain explode. When a scientist who was not present for the monkey murder (therefore qualifying him for the role of hero) starts inquiring about what value their research actually has he is mysteriously killed in a freak lab explosion. It is clear that this was arranged by his slimy and unethical boss who then convinces the rest of his dickhead science team to dig up their dead friend's corpse and perform their experiments on him and they all agree with very little persuading. He calls this experiment 'Project Frankenstein' (just in case you where still on the fence about the whole are they/aren't they dickheads debate).

They get his brain going and fuse his body to a robotic prototype space suit. But guess what? Something goes wrong and not only does our hero retain his memories but loses control of his emotions. He perceives even the slightest physical contact as an act of aggression and overcompensates in his retaliation. He escapes and sets about hunting down those that betrayed him while trying to avoid accidentally murdering innocent people and occasionally talking to his widow via a synthesiser.

The suit, built by Stan Winston studios, is actually pretty cool. Matt black and packed with detail this suit leaves our heroes eyes as the only visible part of humanity. The effects work doesn't stop there, however, as underneath his robotic faceplate lies an effectively gruesome fleshy skull-face in a glass casing.

The sets and locations are equally good and are exploited for atmosphere at every opportunity. The action, although infrequent, is well handled. A sewer hunt that ends in the liberal use of makeshift flame-thrower is particularly effective while the final fight, pitting cyborg against cyborg, is excitingly staged and causes quite a bit of destruction. And if all that wasn't enough, they also throw in Pam Grier as a tough mercenary hired to bring down this big bad robot.

The movie's main issue is that it feels very much like a TV movie. For all the production value on show it stills feels a little cheap and un-cinematic. Unlike TV movies, however, it features some degree of violence, some nudity and some rude words. It can also be tough when it wants to as the scene that ups the threat level against our heroes loved ones proves.

This movie is tough, exciting and fun and if they'd only had the finances to shoot on more cinematic stock we could be looking at something even more special.