Saturday, 29 October 2016

Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, 2015)


Bone Tomahawk is a film you've probably heard of, starring a cast of actors you will definitely know that was a hit at a great deal of festivals you will be aware of. That does not, in anyway, diminish the films cult credibility one iota. From its production to its execution this is niche and independent as it gets.

At some point in the old west an outlaw accidentally pisses off a savage tribe and takes refuge in a nearby town. When the tribe come to collect him they also decide to take a number of other townsfolk with them leaving it up to the Sheriff, played by Kurt Russell, and a small band of volunteers to launch a rescue mission.


Genre hybrids can be like completed jigsaws, the overall picture is clear but the joins are clearly visible. This is often due to the genres being merged having clear identifiers by way of tropes or conventions. This movie isn't interested in showing you what you think genres should be but rather synthesises two distinct genres in a seamless manner. Clearly the movie is a western and clearly there are areas of the story that swerve into horror territory. Well, flips the car onto its roof and slides its way into the ditch of horror. And yet despite leaning heavily on the horror elements it manages to do so without ever leaving the confines of the western. Don't expect gothic imagery, rolling mists and acres of negative space waiting for a ghoulish face to fill it.


This is partly achieved by being a somewhat unconventional western. Some key iconography is there but it is not homaging any of the classic cliches. The film is much more concerned with portraying an authentic frontier lifestyle than telling you you are watching a wild west flick.

Running at over two hours Bone Tomahawk is a slow burner and then some, but there is purpose in it's reluctance to race to the end. Characters are, thanks to smart writing and excellent performances, built with care and each given their own little obstacles to overcome. What's more, for a 'horror-western', it is rarely predictable. That's not to say there are any twists, not at all, but if you were to pause the movie at any scene you'd be hard pressed to say with any assurance what might happen next. Which means when things get ugly (and by ugly I mean a wince-inducing sequence that made a horror veteran like me actually say "oh no" out loud) it is all the more horrific. It doesn't have to show you horror conventions because it has spent the best part of the film making you invest in the people and their world. Had one of the characters stubbed their toe I'd have felt it for them.


Bone Tomahawk is constructed with care and patience. it is not a wild-west shoot-em up with zombies but a movie that convinces you that you are witnessing the hardships of frontier life before making it even harder for the characters on screen. It is compelling and effortless. In short, a masterful piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Neon Maniacs (Joseph Mangine, 1986)



Neon Maniacs has kept popping up on my radar leaving me baffled as to why I haven't got round to seeing what is clearly a film made just for me. Well, I've finally got round to seeing it and although it does a lot of things I expected and/or hoped it would by jove I found it lacking in some pretty important areas.

Lookout! Plot! A fisherman is travelling back home one night and passes the Golden Gate Bridge. He finds a cattle skull lodged in a door and decides to inspect it. Inside he finds a series of what looks like cards depicting a variety of colourful but monstrous characters. Then he gets an axe to the back of the head. Title card!


We then follow a group of teens as they drive their camper van into a local park to get up to the kinds of things horror teens do. Before long they are set upon by an army of monsters who bear a striking resemblance to the creatures on those cards. Are they fictional characters come to life? Were the cards some kind of cursed tarot? Who are these creatures and what do they want?

Fuck.

Knows.

And I've seen the film. I have not over-simplified. I have not reduced the plot down to fit into two nice paragraphs. Nope, fisherman finds cards in a cow skull, creatures kill teenagers, no explanation is given. Ever. And that is not the film's biggest problem.

But let us start with what works. Neon Maniacs does what a lot of 80's monsters movies fail to do: not get drowned by conventions. Oh they are there, from the survivor that no-one believes to the kid who is obsessed with horror movies (y'know the one; horror masks in the bedroom, own video camera, etc) but changes enough around to make the film feel a little fresh when it needs to. Every time it gets a little bit slasher it changes gear into a creature feature.


The creatures are fun by the way. You have a samurai, an archer, a soldier, a biker and, well... the list goes on. Imagine a Village People from hell. All of them are essentially wearing halloween masks or above average (for the 80s) zombie make-up. Nothing astounding but nothing too ropey. Maybe the cyclops.


Although the human kills are fairly tame (save a nice decapitation at the park massacre) the monsters die good. They are particularly susceptible to water (don't know why) and melt, steam and explode on contact.



At times the film seems very cheap yet still manages to throw some surprising production value in at times. The locations are good, set pieces include a chase through a subway train that ends up on a bus and there is a really effective raining blood nightmare sequence. Going with a bunch of killers rather than a singular psycho in a mask means that the kill scenes are a little bigger in scale rather than the usual one-on-one knock-offs you often get.



By-fuck if there are not a lot of missed opportunities though. As fun as the creatures are nothing is really made of them. Despite them all having a particular weapon none of them really do anything interesting with them nor do they have any personal qualities that set them apart. The ape man is a bit horny, I guess, but that's about as close to characterisation as you'll get.

It is the ending, however, that is the real cluster-fuck. After a rather fun killing spree at a high school battle of the bands (spoiler alert - both bands are embarrassing and horrible) a few of the maniacs escape. The police, who have refused to believe our protagonists for the duration of the movie, question them while angry parents demand to know where their children are (oh, it appears the kids vanish once killed - yup, don't know why either). The cops are convinced to investigate the Golden Gate Bridge but when they get there the maniacs are nowhere to be found. Our heroes are hurried out by the cops, angry that their time has been wasted. Hearing a noise one detective decides to take another long look and after frustratingly knocking some things over opens up a door only to be snatched by the cyclops!

With the only detective with first hand experience of the maniacs dead, the police convinced our heroes are mad and a bunch of teenagers still missing how can the riddle of the Neon Maniacs be solved? Once again:

Fuck.

Knows.

Because that is when the end credits roll. My eyes also. It would appear that the battle of the bands sequence that happened three or four long-ass scenes earlier was actually the finale despite it, nor any of the long-ass scenes that came after, offering any kind of closure on anything that happened in the film. There are very few narrative threads in this movie and all of them are left hanging at the end. I have no problem with a little mystery in movies but come on guys, give us something.

I'm being harsh, I know. This is a film made by some people that really love horror movies, have access to some half-decent practical make-up effects and a little technical know-how (director Mangine has worked as a cinematographer on a shit-ton of genre B-Movies) but little awareness of how to craft any kind of story. If you know that going in you might get some enjoyment out of it - and there is plenty of fun to be had - but it fell far short of the hidden gem I was expecting. This is mainly because despite having seen the whole movie, it feels like I've only watched the trailer.




Monday, 24 October 2016

Sex and Fury (Norifumi Suzuki, 1973)


Sex and Fury is often sited as a good introduction to Japan's badass girls sub-genre known as 'Pinky Violence'. Although on the surface it appears to be a fairly standard exploitation movie it does feature some elements that makes it stand out.

The plot is surprisingly complex: Ocho is a pick-pocket and a gambler who decides to carry out the dying wish of gambler and travels to Tokyo to buy his Sister out of prostitution. While attempting to do so she gets caught in a street war between a group of anarchists and a party of corrupt business men. Inadvertently uncovering murders, political corruption and devastating secrets to her own past her rescue mission soon becomes a bloody mission of vengeance.


If you're wondering what the content of the movie might be the title of the film tells you everything you need to know. There is a lot of sex in this movie, not of all of it pleasant. There is seduction, bigamy, rape and assassination by poisoned vagina to name but a few ways in which sex is presented on screen. In fact the only way sex isn't actually shown is between two people for mutual pleasure or as an expression of love (at least not without is transgressing something). Sex is used to cajole, deceive, dominate or punish. I wish I could say this is all unproblematic but despite few scenes where care is given to the handling of sex there is a lot of blatant titillation.


It's a shame because images of traditional femininity are often juxtaposed with actions normally reserved for male leads, whether that is Swedish badass Christina Lindberg blasting away with a revolver while dressed in a full formal Victorian ball gown or Ocho hacking her way through an army of assailants while completely naked. And yet just when you think they might be going somewhere with this we see Lindberg whipping a chained and topless Ocho while dressed in a quasi-cowgirl outfit.

Despite some of the wobbly sexual politics Ocho still comes out as a badass and iconic character and this is entirely down to a superb performance but Reiko Ike. She wields a katana with the same deadly force as her sexuality but this is not just a physical performance. She is charismatic and evidences a subtle emotional range not often asked of actresses in movies such as this.


There is more sex than fury in this movie, but when things get furious you'll notice. The aforementioned naked sword fight pits Ocho against waves of assassins and is shot in a series of long slow motions takes, moving from indoors and out into the snow. The final battle is even bloodier and more ferocious. The action is great.

There is more going on in this movie than sex and violence. It is beautifully crafted, often using abstract and/or expressionistic imagery, and the story and performances are as engaging as the more lurid elements. It sometimes indulges a little too much in the more subversive sex stuff but this is an exciting experience all round.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

In Defence of G.I. Joe

Four years ago I tried to bail on this monster we've created by launching a passionate defence of the Mortal Kombat movies. Surely such an assault on people's tastes, I calculated, would ensure no-one would dare listen to anything I have to say once I published it. But no, you just fell to your dirty knees and rather than rolling out from under the bar as it lowered you instead looked up from your pool of filth and said "lower please". I think this debacle says a lot more about you people than it does me. So here I am again testing quite how low we can all sink by trying to convince you that the two G.I. Joe movies aren't the visual equivalent of the sound made by a one-man-band falling down a staircase but are, in fact, utterly awesome movies.

Before I try to tie a ribbon around these turds let me first test your patience by talking a little about my childhood and what G.I. Joe (or Action Force as I knew it) meant to me.


As a child I pined after my brothers Action Force collection. The adventures of Z-Force, SAS, Q-Force and Space Force and their battles against the fearsome Red Shadows and their Colonel Saunders-like leader Baron Ironblood were both exciting to act out with figures and to read about in the pages of Battle.  When they merged with the U.S. G.I. Joe figures they took on a whole new dimension and one that I fully intended spending every penny of my pocket money immersing myself in. Snake-Eyes, Destro, Quick-Kick, Shipwreck, Storm Shadow, Bazooka, Zartan and the rest of the colourful characters blew my little mind. I played for ours on the bedroom floor with the tiny articulated soldiers, my imagination fuelled further by their exploits in the pages of the Marvel UK comic. Incidentally, the cover below was my first introduction to Snake-Eyes; a character I immediately became obsessed with and, to a degree, still am obsessed with today.



I've written about the cartoon movie and how I enjoyed it more retrospectively than I did at the time and to be honest I was pretty convinced that would the last I'd see of the Joes on screen. So when I heard a feature film was in production, even with Stephen "victim of his own excesses" Sommers at the helm, I couldn't help but be a little excited.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is, by anyone's standards, the epitome of vapid hollywood blockbuster bullshittery. It easily fits alongside the Godzillas and Batman Forevers as an example of too much money and too little quality control filmmaking. The CGI is, for the most part, ropey as hell, Marlon Wayans is the kind of comic relief where the delivery is more important than the content (if it sounds like a joke then it must be a joke, right?) and the Joe's outfits were kinda bland tactical armour rather than the diverse and colourful designs I loved as a kid. And Snake-Eyes has a mouth. A weird, weird mouth.



And yet none of that matters to me. Rise of Cobra has no pretensions, no larger goal other than to put as much cool shit on screen as possible. I've mentioned this before but this film has got a great list of stuff: Ninjas, jetpacks, lasers, armoured stormtroopers, mad scientists, mole machines, a master of disguise, an underwater arctic base, children fighting and so on and so forth. Not a moment of screen time goes by without something that would make my 10 year old heart throb in my much older chest appearing. It also has a fun twist and an exiting score by Alan Silvestri.



Much more than that it committed my beloved Snake-Eyes to film and despite some odd oral sculpting and weird rubberised body he worked pretty damn well. Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes get two fights (their showdowns were big deals in the comics) and are thrilling just by virtue of existing even if they don't quite reach the epic potential promised.


Yes, I like this movie because it reminds me of a childhood spent lying on the floor racing my Snowcat around while Tomax and Buzzsaw battled with Lady Jaye and Wetsuit. Yes, it is almost pure nostalgia that drives my enjoyment. But rarely has a film captured so perfectly a specific childhood experience as this.

Except perhaps G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Despite my already pretty low expectations I found this sequal disappointing on initial viewing. It isn't quite as daft as the first one, the Joe's have nearly all but been replaced and with the exception of Snake-Eyes and Jinx still all look like everyday soldiers. Ray Stevenson, although good fun as Firefly, has a bizarre and distracting accent. Destro is again wasted. Worst of all we are denied another truly awesome Snake-Eyes Storm Shadow fight. This one starts well, but devolves into the two of them rolling around in the snow until Jinx sneaks up behind SS and puts a gas mask over his mouth.

I say that is worst of all, but actually the worse crime is the theatrical cut itself. The first movie, for all its flaws, actually got from point A to B efficiently while the initial cut of Retaliation felt more like a scattering of ideas. This cut had characters with less depth than background extras thrust into the foreground of the narrative, story beats that just didn't work and the whole affair just seemed jumbled. Like most Director's cuts the extended DVD edition does not make this a masterpiece all of a sudden but it does expand some scenes clarifying the presence of some of the characters. Flint still isn't particularly interesting but at least gets some kind of arc while Jinx is no longer this random person who hangs out with Snake-Eyes. Now they have a little silent relationship that works quite well. Alas, Jinx and Lady Jaye are both female characters with great potential who end up spending the running time trying to prove themselves to male characters. At least Jinx is spared a voyeuristic camera watching her undress in a reflection as Jaye suffers. The new cut doesn't fix every problem.



That being said with some of the plotting working much better and some characters I now slightly care about more the film feels like a story being told rather than a collection of incidents. Although not as as crazy as it's predecessor it's still pretty daft as the fantastically whacky mountain ninja showdown proves. Cobra Commander is in full evil villain overdrive (walking the tightrope of menacing and camp perfectly), the action is shot and cut with clarity and there is a laudable amount of practical work going on even in the wildest of scenes. Jonathan Pryce is having a ball as the President/Zartan and his nuclear disarmament conference is a hoot. While Rise is very much a modern CGI fuelled buster of blocks Retaliation feels curiously old fashioned at times.




Both movies, however, are made by people who understand the joy of playing with these toys. The variety of characters, scenarios and vehicles is huge and both movies cram the screen with them. You can easily picture the giant child hands guiding the HISS tanks around the battlefield (an observation I've seen a lot of people make).



Nostalgia should never be enough to coast on and throwing a Rubix cube into the set or sticking a couple of songs from a particular era on the soundtrack can be a pretty cheap way to score some warm gooey points from your audience. With these movies the entire films have been designed to replicate a moment of childhood. They don't look or sound like the 80s' but have been painstakingly designed to feel like them for a handful of people. They are not trying to capture something superficial but rather something that only ever existed in someone's imagination. And they succeed. Real care has gone into the G.I. Joe movies to replicate something very personal and specific and for that I can't help but love these action-packed, bonkers and ultimately fun movies.

Now hurry up and make a third so I can get a proper Destro on screen.




Sunday, 16 October 2016

Total Cults Total Tabletop: Call of Cthulhu The Card Game

Overview


Immerse yourself in Lovecraftian mythology by joining an occult faction and competing against others in a series of battles. Manage a deck of powerful creatures and artefacts until you have a strong enough hand and then go card-to-card against an opponent, playing for a series of story cards in the centre of the table. Whoever wins the most stories is the victor while the loser is damned forever!




Table Play


In the centre of the table lies three story cards each with rewards and punishments. Each player has a deck made from two lots of faction cards (Miskatonic Univeristy, Yog-Sothoth, Cthulu, etc), three domains (three unused cards turned upside down that serve as a discard pile of sorts) and a hand of cards that they can play or discard. Playing a card costs, and you can only play that card if you have a number of cards in the domain equal to the score. Therefore with each hand drawn you must decide which cards to discard to your domain, essentially funding yourself to buy better cards later on, or to play in order to attack or defend another player.
The aim of a battle is to win story cards so that you can reap the rewards or unleash the punishments on the other player. Battles consist of a series of "struggles" that essentially amount to comparing a variety of symbols from each player's hand. Each struggle has a different effect that can weaken your opponent further. With all the struggles complete and any special effects cards might have resolved a clear winner will be left and they can claim a victory over that story by placing a success token next to it. Five tokens and you win the story, three story cards and the player wins the whole game.





Above the Table


Aside from whatever strategy you may be deducing and a certain element of poker bluffing your attention will be spent mostly looking at your hand. The symbols, special rules and other elements require a pretty good knowledge of not only how the cards work together but what cards you will need to draw from your deck. Learning the cards is essential to victory but ultimately means there is little conversing between players other than checking rules.




Craft


Fantasy Flight never fail to produce good quality games. Once again the materials are robust and the tactile experience is extremely satisfying. The artwork is excellent and compiled from a library images they use from across their games, meaning that there is a visual continuity across all their platforms. They even go as far as to produce some awesome plastic Cthulus to show when you have spent the cards from your domain. With so many high quality cards you could kill an hour just looking through everything.






Experience Level


This is a tough game. Once you start playing it all makes sense but the terminology used can get a little confusing (trying to sum the game up above was really hard and I wouldn't blame you for being none the wiser having read it). The real skill is in knowing all the cards and which ones work best together and with such huge combinations this requires a player to really immerse themselves in the game's lore. This is a game for serious players who want to research and create the most powerful decks and not for the casual player. In the first game I played I lost the first few hands and found it almost impossible to get back in the game. It's a shame, because it feels like a lot of hard work and complicated terms for what is ultimately a really simple mechanic of comparing symbols. There are tournaments organised for this game and it is clearly catering for those hardcore gamers, rather than the pick up and play lot.




Overall


It was relatively inexpensive considering the quality and the depth of the game is immense, especially considering you can purchase expansion packs to add new factions or build up existing ones. Ultimately it never felt like fun. I only played a couple of games and even at that point I still felt I was learning it. If you love Lovecraft and want a game that you and a friend can take your time with I'm sure once your head is wrapped around it it plays really well but there are faster and funner card games out there.






Saturday, 15 October 2016

Gogol's Triple-Bills: The Birthday Bargain Bin 1

I, Doctor Gogol, celebrate my creation... I mean my totally natural birth... in October and this year James Trick and another mutual friend who shall remain nameless gave me a stack of previously owned DVDs that are diverse in genre yet equal in their potential for quality. I have therefore decided the next run of my Triple-Bills shall be selected from this Birthday bargain bin based with no criteria other than what happens to take my fancy.

AVH: Alien Versus Hunter (Scott Harper, 2007) 



The Asylum stick with what they know: spunking out low-rent clones of only slightly higher quality productions. This particular Poundland Frankenstein of theirs shows they have their ambitions set on piggy-backing the mad critical success of the Alien Versus Predator series.
A craft crash lands in the hills of an undisclosed US town. It's passenger, a vicious alien creature, escapes and terrorises the inhabitants while being pursued by a high-tech space hunter. The unfortunate humans caught up in this must fight for survival as these two non-terran aggressors work their issues out on each other.
The good news is the cast isn't half bad. William Greatest American Hero Katt is actually really good, breathing life and character into whatever hastily assembled words where presented to him moments before shooting. He is supported by a couple of other competent turns while the rest of the more wooden performers are wisely given minimal screen time. Also good are the practical creature effects. The alien looks fairly cool and the space hunter is convincingly armoured and has this dorky helmet that looks like an old lantern with British WW1 helmet on it. I love sci-fi costumes when they are not trying to look sleek and cool and this dude is anything but.

And now the bad news.

The idea that our heroes are trapped in this remote woodland warzone should present some sense of futility or claustrophobia. Unfortunately the landscape is all rather lovely and they seem to be able to go as they please, sometimes popping to town for a discussion about what to do. In fact the bulk of the movie is this group of people wandering back and forth and talking while our cool combatants rarely show up. There is a nice atmospheric underground tunnel set, but nothing really happens in it.
Also, as cool as the monster design is in close-up, when they cut to the wide shots we see they have decided to place the practical torso on a big CGI spider body. Points for ambition, but minus points for shitty visual effects. It also means the two creatures can't actually have a proper wrestle.

I will now spoil the ending to this movie.

Katt uses a space gun found on the Hunter's ship to kill the spider creature. With his prey gone the space hunter fucks off and despite having just witnessed all their friends being murdered the survivors share a joke and plan a road trip or something. I mean immediately, as in they are surrounded by bodies and a smouldering space spider carcass as they giggle to each other. And yet the film has not finished with us, oh no. We cut to the Hunter's craft interior as it returns from the battle to chat with its on-board computer. As it does it lifts its helmet off, opens a can of beer and lights a cigarette - for the Hunter was human all along! But still from space, I think, despite the Earth beer and cigarettes. I dunno, but the "human all along" cliche is enough to count as a twist, right? It doesn't have to actually mean anything. Right?
Anyway, the movie is horseshit. It's not without its charms and I never felt compelled to tap-out but anyone hoping for some monster on monster action will walk away sorely disappointed. This movie is purely point and laugh porn.


Darkdrive (Phillip Roth, 1997)



The criminals of the future have their minds digitised and their bodies destroyed. When a portal between the digital prison and the real world opens up Special Agent Steve Falcon (yes, that really is his name) is digitised and sent in to sort shit out.
Special Agent Stephen Hawk is a tragic character because his girlfriend, played by Julie 'Darla' Benz, is blown up by an exploding picnic basket. I don't think this moment was supposed to be funny, but I thought it was was fucking hilarious. Like a Wile E. Coyote plot. It is due to this terrible loss that he agrees to get Tronned. Once inside the digital world the movie slips right into the conventions of the 90's sci-fi action knock-offs. Although there are no cyborgs or martial arts there are lots of guns with massive bits strapped on, flappy raincoats and a virtual reality sex-scene twixt Darla and Special Agent Dick Kestrel.
I'll be honest with you; I drifted off midway through. I was, however, jolted out of my daze by some sub-John Woo balletic gunplay, a twist which I 75% understand and the lovely image of Darla and Special Agent Ron Tit reunited in a computerised heaven. It's much better than AVH, I'll give it that.

The Ghostmaker (Mauro Borelli, 2012)


Thank Christ for The Ghostmaker, a genuinely well put together horror movie. Kyle lives a relatively cool life in a nice house with his wheelchair-bound roommate Sutton while dating his lovely girlfriend Julie. Kyle has a secret meth habit, though, and this has landed him in debt to some shady characters. Kyle takes a job cleaning and old woman's attic out (not a euphemism) and finds a weird clockwork coffin. Ignoring her warnings and instructions to destroy it Kyle takes it back to his house and after some research and experimentation finds it was built by an old German scientist who they describe as an evil DaVinci. The coffin, when activated, allows the person occupying it to astrally project and walk around like a ghost.
Kyle and Sutton's baser natures get the better of them, however, and while Kyle uses his phantom form to rob money to pay off debts Sutton uses it spy on Julie, whom he has a secret obsession with. Little do either know that with each use their bodies begin to change while drawing the attention of a spectral clockwork cyborg.
It's a cheap movie with only a handful of locations but it spends its money well. The casket is legit and the ghost forms hokey but satisfying. And let me say again: SPECTRAL CLOCKWORK CYBORG! This mechanical reaper is sometimes practical and sometimes digital but he's an awesome design and always lifts the movie.
All the performers work well and there are enough narrative strands that the story is always doing something - no spinning wheels here. The finale wraps everything up nicely, though only does that. It could have done with a really standout horror moment (a splattery death or a really memorable image) and the sexual threat lurking throughout the movie becomes more overt. It's as well handled as you can hope for sexual threat when used as a plot device and it never manifests in any actual grubbyness. But still, y'know.
So despite needing a punchier finale The Ghostmaker blows the other two movies out of the water. It will never compete with indy surprises like The Babadook, but its a solid 87 minutes of horror movie.