Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Fantastical World of Right Wing Retribution

Imagine a magical world where you are a heroic character, blessed with infallible skills and the power to overcome evil and solve all problems in an instant. This is not a Tolkien-esque fantasy world I am describing, nor a delightful fairytale landscape. I'm describing the world of the right-wing paramilitary cop.


I am a voracious consumer of violent action movies. Movies that emerged from the hard-edged crime thrillers of the 70s and solidified in the 80s as relentless shoot-em-ups before merging with the more stylised action in Hong Kong to form the more operatic and less precise bloodbaths of the 90s. Nearly all of these movies featured muscular men, often in positions of authority, operating beyond the conventional laws that they find so restrictive, to bring down criminal elements in the most efficient and brutal way possible. I've clapped as bullets have ripped through mad mercenary's foreheads, laughed as the necks of drug dealers have been snapped and taken immense pleasure from watching corrupt politicians take high dives off of skyscrapers. And all without any actionable evidence or with concern for the wider consequences.

As I have aged I have found myself become more and more empathetic of other people and more convinced than ever that violence genuinely doesn't solve anything (at least without creating a spectrum of brand new problems). As such the ideologies of these movies have become increasingly abhorrent to me and yet while my sensitivities can often stop me from enjoying the morally skewed movies I loved as a naive and selfish youth I've found that the allure of action movies hasn't faded and this has been somewhat difficult for me to reconcile.

Last month I binged a selection of classic action movies including Tango and Cash, Hard Target, Cobra, The Last Boy Scout, Invasion USAStone Cold and One Tough Bastard. Some of these have less troublesome ethics than others while some of these movies have more distracting subtexts but it was One Tough Bastard that not only started me thinking about this little conundrum more seriously but also helped me resolve it.

I won't elaborate on the way my mind connects weirdly disparate dots but after watching the movie I recalled a review I wrote for Hercules and The Haunted World and a turn of phrase I used that I didn't think to apply in this genre. Hercules (or Heracles for the pedants out there) is a guy who doesn't have many problems in life. He generally drinks, laughs and rolls around with women. When a problem does arrive he normally has one of two responses:

1. Throw a boulder at the cause of the problem.
2. Pick the cause of the problem up and throw it.


This throwing-based strategy generally works. Hercules uses mere strength to solve all problems and as much as his world is steeped in magic and mythology it is this fantasy of might that is the most fantastical. It is not that we gain satisfaction from watching bad guys crushed under rocks or flung into space, although violence can be made palatable and pleasurable in any number of ways in cinema, but that problems can be solved so easily and so instantly and with so little thought.

In One Tough Bastard  Brian "The Bos" Bosworth plays a military instructor whose Wife and Daughter are murdered in a convenience store robbery gone horribly exciting. Bosworth survives his own wounds and wakes up in hospital only to find the perpetrator under the protective custody of a Detective played by the ever magnificent Bruce Payne and his glorious haircut. It is clearly explained to The Bos that the killer is needed to take down a wider criminal element and bring closure to the many victims of their crimes, that his own justifiable want for vengeance must come second to the needs of the many.  Naturally Bosworth beats up Payne's taskforce (literally as they are explaining this to him) and then goes on a kill crazy rampage to bring the scumbag in. Fuck the needs of the many.


What prevents the protagonist from just coming across as a dick is the specific narrative context constructed around him to make his actions justifiable. To begin with we are never asked to care about the needs of the many. Any potential other victims are never given names or faces and so all we have to relate to is a man whose family we have seen die. That helps the justice of one man (the movie's alternate title is One Man's Justice) override that of anyone else. Secondly, Payne and his cronies are corrupt cops who are protecting the killer because he is in their employment. The world around Bosworth's character has been constructed to validate his actions.


Cobra plays much the same. Marion Cobretti isn't without flaws (all action cops have one or two of the usual hang-ups - drink, divorce, bad diets... whatever) but his nose for the guilty is infallible. He can, without evidence, finger the guilty party and do whatever he can to bring them in. He not only operates outside the law he despises it for preventing him from murdering bad guys quickly enough but his actions are justifiable because we are shown he gets results.

Invasion USA features an army of broadly drawn Communist invaders coming to America and blowing shit up. We see them bazooka white-fenced suburban dream homes, explode school buses, attack a mall at Christmas and attempt to blow up a Church. Their actions are written to validate the overly simplistic politics of the filmmakers (foreign people are bad) and justify the actions of the hero who shows up and blows everyone away with little care for due process.


In the real world these problems are complex but politics, consequence, collateral damage and escalation do not exist in these worlds. The gun is aimed, the trigger is pulled and the problem, no matter how complicated, is solved. This is how Roger Murtaugh can shoot an unarmed man holding up a papers showing his diplomatic immunity in the face and keep his job. How many cops have we seen decide to arrest the bad guy only for them to pull a gun and force the cop to shoot them dead? It literally screams at us that due process isn't the way to fix things.


This very right wing approach is pure fantasy. Look at those that try to apply these heroics in the real world. Look at how real conflicts have only escalated and got messier. Drone strikes and vigilante justice don't work in the real world. They are as fantastical a solution as waving a wand and saying a silly word. They are simple solutions and it is that simplicity that still attracts me.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could throw a boulder at my overdraft and clear it? Or find a work/life balance by driving a flaming pick-up into my career. If only I could leap out of my front door and unload two clips of ammo into that dick that keeps parking over my drive and have no-one try and take me to task for it. Well, maybe that weasily by-the-books guy that has been telling me to ring the council and solve it that way but I can just lay him out before the credits role.

The solutions found by the Paul Kerseys, John Rambos and James Braddocks of the movie world are morally objectionable but desirable in that they offer simplistic solutions to the complexities of modern existence. They are presented in a narrative that allows their contempt for true justice and borderline homicidal tendencies to be desirable traits and they are gifted with the skills and might required to resolve our problems. I don't love these movies because I want to see street punks gunned down but because the idea that all my problems could be composited into a single, unquestionably evil figure who with the simple squeeze of a trigger would go away forever is weirdly comforting. Oh how it would be glorious to ride a dragon through the clouds, wave my wand and silence that bully or pull a Berretta 92F and solve extremism with one shot. Might is magic... fantasy... and that is how these films still bring me pleasure.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop: Mansions of Madness


Overview


Be consumed by Lovecraftian lore as you and your team of supernatural investigators explore a series of foreboding mansions uncovering clues, solving puzzles and doing battle with unspeakably foul beings until you can find and stop the source of the evil that pervades the halls.


Table Play


One player becomes the Keeper and uses a series of room tiles to build a mansion as instructed by the scenario rules. Once set up is complete the Keeper takes on the role of the evil that has infected the mansion. Using an army of monsters and event cards the Keeper will try and complete their secret objective while the other players, who have taken on the role of the investigators, try and stop them. Players move their characters around the spaces in the mansion using their allotted actions to move, search and fight amongst other things. Each room has a stack of cards. Some of these cards will contain nothing of interest, some items that can be used as weapons or tools while other, more important stacks, contain clues that will lead the players to other rooms in the mansion. These more vital stacks are often topped with a lock and/or obstruction card that require a particular item or the solving of a puzzle. Once all the clues have been found players should be able to determine what the Keeper's objective is and what rooms contain items vital for stopping the Keeper. The whole game is timed by a stack of event cards that when the listed number of turns have passed are flipped and resolved. When the last card is flipped all secrets are revealed and the players will learn whether they are able to succeed or whether evil has prevailed.



Above the Table


Mansions of Madness thrives on what is happening between the players. This game places itself somewhere between traditional board gaming and roleplay in that it encourages storytelling and atmosphere building. Each scenario presented comes with rich "flavour text" that sets the tone and provides a back story to the events. Each card also contains evocative descriptions of the events occurring in an attempt to make players feel they are living a Lovecraft story rather than just playing in his mythology. A Keeper happy to embellish and perform, therefore, can really help a game feel more than dice rolling and card flipping.
With a lot of games like this the objectives are normally made aware to everyone. In Mansions of Madness the players don't know what the Keeper is trying to achieve until they have revealed all the clue cards and this means they need to employ some skills of deduction of their own while the Keeper will need to throw them off the scent by sometimes sacrificing creatures or acting in ways that are contradictory to the actions of previous rounds.
The Keeper inflicts physical damage when monsters attack but can also issue different types of mental trauma that inhibit players actions. This means there is a layer of strategy involved in dealing damage as well.


Craft


Fantasy Flight Games produce beautifully crafted products and Mansions of Madness is one of their best. The basic game is stocked with multiple decks of cards, thick cardboard tokens and game tiles (including a variety of logic puzzles to solve) and a legion of wonderfully sculpted playing pieces. Incredible artwork adorns every item and each assembled mansion is a joy to explore visually before play even starts. Everything, even down the tactile qualities of the materials used to construct the pieces have been designed to add to the experience. It's almost worth buying the game just to own the pieces.




Experience Level


This is not a game of beginners. The set-up alone is long, complex and fraught with the potential for error. Since the game functions on clues leading to one another each stack of cards must be compiled exactly in the order stated in the scenario guide. The cards required are often being taken from thick wads of hundreds of cards. The process of going through them and finding the right ones, then assembling them into the stacks would be a lengthy process alone, but knowing that one wrongly placed card can render hours of play null and void means that the level of care required increases the set-up time considerably.
Once the game starts and players get into the swing of moving around and searching it moves quite freely. Once things hot up, though, the game can get quite complex. The sheer number of cards and tokens can become difficult to handle. There are also rules for a whole range of game mechanics (such as barricading doors, hiding in boxes, using spells, solving logic puzzles, etc) meaning that players wanting to explore all available options will often grind the game to a halt while rule books are scanned and mounds of tokens searched through. This gets easier the more you play but can often make early games run very slow. Packing all the cards and tokens that have been thrown about during play can also be a bitch.



The game can also be very difficult. In most of the scenarios I have played it seemed that one wrong turn or missed clue can leave players without enough time left to complete their objectives. The finite timing on the game is a good thing (as games like these could go on for hours without it) but it is pretty unforgiving.
That's not to say this game isn't worth the effort. If you're a fan of Lovecraft's worlds and played a few of these before there is a lot to enjoy and to be honest most of the stress of managing tokens, working through encyclopedic rule books and spending a good 45 minutes sweating over the set up rests with the Keeper alone.
There are a number of expansions for this game. Call of the Wild takes the action outside in to the mansion grounds and woods and although there are a few new rules thrown in the set for these scenarios is far quicker and less likely to go wrong. It also seemed easier for the players to win some of the scenarios.
There is a new addition of the game due out that removes the Keeper from the game, instead using an app to generate the clues. This should make the game far speedier to set up and play.
One of the games core strengths, however, is replay-ability. The core game comes with a number of scenarios and the key narrative elements of each scenario can be changed. The Keeper essentially decides from one of three "twists" which in turn informs where the cards are laid. This means you can play the same scenario three times and it be different each time. Players also get a choice of weapons and traits meaning their characters can be played in different ways as well.


Overall


A finely produced game that immerses you in the world of Lovecraft. It's time consuming to set up and tough to win if you're a player but rewards repeat play and for the most part is an atmospheric and exciting game. If you've played tabletop or roleplay games, like your horror and are willing to spend an afternoon on a game this comes highly recommended.




Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hunter Prey (Sandy Collora, 2010)


Low budget and/or straight to DVD sci-fi adventures tend to rock the same aesthetic nowadays. Hey, if bleach-bypass effect grading, cool blue tones and cut-scene CGI are you're thing then knock yourself out. I, on the other hand, miss the days of miniatures, practical creature effects and stop motion. That's not just for any nostalgic sentiments - that shit still works. If you need proof then look no further than Hunter Prey.

Former Stan Winston Studios effects artist Sandy Collora made a name for himself directing the Batman fan short Batman: Dead End. Although there was talk of him taking the reigns of a whole host of major studio features his next, and to date last, feature was this low budget science fiction survival movie.


A ship transporting three soldiers and their prisoner, the last kind of its race, crash land on a remote desert planet. The prisoner escapes and is hunted by the surviving soldiers; or is it hunting them? To reveal much more about the plot would do the movie a disservice, not because of any particularly major twists but because the way information is revealed over the course of the narrative has been done with great care. It is that great care that keeps the movie interesting as most of its runtime is just two people wandering around a desert.

Although it is set in a space opera style universe it is more Enemy Mine than Battle Beyond the Stars. The low budget means that the scale is small. The opening shot, and one of the films few CGI effects, sees space debris hurtling towards the planet. After that we already on the surface as our protagonists wake from the crash. There is a nice bit of model work at the end but beyond that the film is just a desert, an occasionally digital planet on the horizon and a couple of dudes in super-cool armour.


The design influences on the soldiers are clear, so if you think Boba Fett has got awesome dress sense you'll be happy staring at these guys. The prey, on the hand, is rocking an outfit that is part Wrath of Khan engineering suit part Battlestar Galactica spacewear. The weapons and alien make-up are good too.


And that is pretty much all there is to it. Its not up there with the best sci-fi films ever made but it features beautiful desert photography, a nicely woven story and some nice, albeit slight, production value. If only more low-budget sci-fi could work out a way to make them like this...

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Cut-Price Cosmic Conflict!

Although movie history tells me that Star Wars spawned a cavalcade of knock-offs I have found it very difficult to locate any movies that come close. Of course its influence can be seen all over the place but movies that actually contain the complete package of whizz-bang energy, parade of design and use of miniature effects and photography that those movies thrived on are quite hard to find. Normally dropping a tier of production would unearth plenty of movies of the required ilk but aside from some TV shows such as Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica it's really only Battle Beyond the Stars and Spacehunter that fall within this bracket (and Spacehunter only just counts as I'll explain later). I have therefore decided to drop down even further and look at the ultra low budget, often European, Star Wars... ahem... "Inspired"... science fiction epic. The three films chosen are therefore of a similar era to the original trilogy, have much the same tone, are not comedies or parodies, are not from Japan (as I've written about them a lot already) and although made on the cheap rise above the "men in spandex watching footage of space ships from other movies on a screen" flicks.

Starcrash (Luigi Cozzi, 1978)



Starcrash is probably the most well known cheapo Star Wars knock-off and despite being devoid of any real narrative has plenty of elements that work in its favour. For the most part it manages to function under its own steam rather than relying on direct lifts from the Star Wars movies. It does have an Emperor,  a jedi-like powerful hero and a Vader-like dude in black armour but each has their own little spin. The Emperor is a good guy, the Jedi guy has indistinct energy powers and the ability to know everything that is going to happen (which means after every scene he looks smug and tells everyone he knew it was going to occur) and our man in black is actually a robot cop that switches sides halfway through the movie.
The cast is great: Caroline Munro leads the movie (and is a proper space hero, not some Princess in distress character) and is backed up by the wonderfully named Marjoe Gortner as the punchable master of everything jedi, Joe Spinell as the perpetually cackling cape-flapping evil Lord, David Hasselhoff who is introduced wearing a golden mask that fires lasers from its eyes, Robert Tessier (you'll recognise him when you see him) and Christopher fucking Plummer.
Since it's a Cozzi fantasy movie there is plenty of stop motion including a giant robot and two robot guardians that Hasslehoff gets to have a lightsabre duel with. Johnny Barry was somehow convinced to produce the score and although the plot is thin and the dialogue laughable the movie never stops throwing bizarre images at your eyes.
The high point is near the end and involves the Emperor launching an attack on The evil Lord's battle-station. Shaped like giant hand that clenches when in battle mode the station is still vulnerable to attacks from coffins being fired through the windows, from out of which burst a couple of soldiers with laser guns. The fact that windows are being broken in deep space and no one gets sucked out is by-the-by (science is not the movie's strong point, the Evil Lord wants the Emperor defeated by sunset even though, again, they are in space) as the laser-fight is actually quite exciting. Sparks fly and soldiers, armed with guns that have giant bat-wings on them, fall in slow motion. It's silly, exciting and fun all at once.
Starcrash isn't a great movie but it has a good cast,  nice score, some half decent production values (considering) and is never boring.

The Humanoid (Aldo Lado, 1979)



The Humanoid isn't quite as satisfying as Starcrash but is far from the dry, joyless void that many of these knock-offs can turn out to be. Richard Kiel is a space rogue who is turned into an indestructible monster, or "humanoid", by an evil scientist determined to provide an army of super soldiers for an evil conqueror. Barabara Bach plays an evil Queen who squishes topless women in a giant juicer so she can feed on their life-juice (eww) and stay forever young. 
The movie bears no resemblance story-wise to Star Wars though actually comes across as more of a direct rip-off due to lots of familiar imagery. Desert planets, a cute robot, a shoot out on a Death Star-like docking bay, a jedi-child in a judo outfit and a villain that looks almost exactly like Darth Vader. It's not quite the parade of joyful absurdity that you'd hope but has enough to keep you going. Ennio Morricone's score is full of delightfully odd choices, Kiel is far more fun and engaging as the rogue hero than he is as the mindless beast (which kind of makes you wish he had more chances to actually act) and the action finale is another exciting space shoot-out.
The stand-out moment has to be when Kiel, with his morality back but still with the mind and strength of a monster, lobs a girder at four stormtroopers and decapitates them all in a row. 
It isn't as colourful or relentlessly absurd as Star Crash, but has more peaks than troughs.

Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (Charles Band, 1983)



Released the same year as the superior Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Metalstorm only just about qualifies for this list. Both movies have more in common aesthetically with apocalyptic movies since they mainly feature armoured vehicles crashing around a desert. What makes them qualify as Space Opera, in my mind, is that they are both set on alien planets and feature interesting creatures and technologies not normally found in your average Mad-Max homage. 
Metalstorm in particular features lasers, a space-sled chase, crystals that induce evocative nightmare visions and the movie's ace in the hole, Baal. This badass motherfucker is a green skinned cyborg who shoots thick green acid out of his robotic left arm. He looks like a Masters of the Universe character brought to life and brightens the screen every time he appears. Oh, and there is a glowing energy monster at one point as well. 
Nothing gets quite as fun as the previous two movies and it could do with at least one spaceship battle (though the flying sled duel counts). It won't quite quench the thirst for Star Wars antics but it does offer something different from the previous two offerings. Watched in this order you'll notice the amount of desert increase in all three films meaning that you probably won't even notice the absence of space in this particular space movie. And the armoured vehicles crash really well.

The inclusion of a film that doesn't included any space combat should be an indicator of the slim pickings available for those looking for intergalactic war movies with the same vibe as Lucas' space saga. Once your done with the A list, have watched the best of the B-list these are the three you are probably best watching, if only for the space coffins, the multi-decapitation and the stone-cold G that is Baal.



Thursday, 11 August 2016

Island of the Fishmen AKA Screamers (Sergio Martino, 1979)


I love a good aquatic creature feature. There is nothing quite as satisfying as watching a performer in a full rubber fish costume emerge from a shimmering lagoon to mess with someones day and Island of the Fishmen is one of my favourites.

Sailors from a shipwrecked prison ship find themselves cast upon the beach of a mysterious island where a couple of them are almost immediately picked off by a piscine fiend. If that wasn't bad enough the island is littered with traps and dangers. A few of them traverse these hazards and arrive at a large plantation style mansion where the dastardly Rackham lords over the local black magic practicing population and keeps Barbara Bach's Amanda Marvin in semi-captivity. As the plot unravels we find that Rackham has Amanda's scientist Father working in the bowels of his mansion creating the fishy foes to explore a sunken city (which may or may not be Atlantis) in search of treasure to line Rackham's pockets.

The movie is an absolute delight. The Fishmen costumes are wonderful and look good either stalking on land or cutting through the water in some of the movies nicely executed underwater sequences. The locations are exquisite and the sets, that include mad scientist labs and underwater docks, are rich in detail. Performances are on point too, especially Richard Johnson who eats the scenery like Pacman.


The narrative plays out slowly, building to an exciting finales that includes fist fights, an army of Fishmen and an erupting volcano. That doesn't mean the film is ever boring, though, as there is enough fishy frights peppered throughout the films earlier moments.


Although blood is spilt and Bach does get a white dress a little wet in one scene this is not as gory or sleazy as one would expect from an Italian horror movie made in the late 70s. In fact when it was bought for release in the US it was deemed not gory enough. In addition to new scenes being filmed a trailer was especially shot showing a pulsating organic creature as a voiceover explained the movie would show audiences what a man being turned inside out would look like. Renamed Screamers for this release audiences soon complained that the film had nothing to do with people turning inside out and that the footage in the trailer didn't appear in the film at all. The footage was edited into the movie (although I can't think for the life of me where it would have fit) and re-released. The film largely sank into obscurity, especially outside of Europe and had been difficult to find. One reason for this might have been due to copyright.

There are shades of Dr Moreau and, to a lesser degree, Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth but you can't sue a film for being derivative. More on-the-nose was some of the footage re-shot for the US release. Investigating the lab our heroes discover a creature being genetically engineered in a casket. In the original cut the creature looked like this:


In the newly shot footage, however, the creature looks a little more familiar:


Universal have been famously protective of the designs for their monsters and I can't imagine they'd have been happy with this movie using the likeness of one of their greats let alone the implication that this movie is a canonical origin to the Creature.

All this aside the original Italian cut is a fun monster movie with significant production value. It feels very much like classic Hammer at times and is well worth your time if you like this sort of thing.