I mean what can you expect from a film called American Yakuza? There’s no lofty cultural metaphors at play here, it’s quite literally about infiltration of the infamous Japanese crime syndicate by a lone wolf FBI deep cover agent played by Viggo Mortensen, who had quite the fascinating career before Lord Of The Rings shunted him into the international spotlight. He’s an interesting guy who really broke the mold with Aragorn but before that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with him, casting him in a goody bag of incredibly eclectic roles that saw him serve as action hero, sage mentor, maniacal villain and even The Devil himself. Here he’s restrained, sardonic and carries the role of this somewhat renegade Fed well, underscored by solid action scenes and obligatory early 90’s melodrama. He’s caught between a ruthless yet honourable Yakuza boss (Ryo Ishibashi) who believes him to be one of the ranks, an equally ruthless mafia Don (scene stealing Michael Nouri) with no honour whatsoever who wants to wipe the Japanese out and a corrupt, unorthodox FBI section chief (Robert Forster) who is trying to pit both forces against each other and let the animals wipe each other out in a collective bloodbath. Viggo is stuck in the middle and I found his character fascinating because he’s alone in the world, the reason he joined the bureau is he had no family, nothing to lose and he sort of finds one in the Yakuza, before loyalties are tested and all hell breaks loose. This is a pretty substandard 90’s action flick that benefits a great deal from Mortensen, who could literally make interesting acting work out of portraying a soup cracker. Nouri is also a vicious treat as the Italian mob boss, an evil xenophobic asshole who loves to provoke others, intimidate his own men and is just an all round rotten bastard. Fun stuff, streaming on Amazon Prime these days.
I mean who doesn’t wanna see Karl Urban and Dwayne Johnson blowing up demonic aliens with excessively heavy artillery on Mars? Well plenty of people didn’t if you look at the overall critic and audience reception to Doom, but I kinda enjoyed this cheesy, bloody, dimly lit and shamelessly lowbrow yet raucously entertaining bit of space action horror. Having not played this game series beyond a few vague rounds of Doom3 back when I was a stoned teenager, I can’t comment on the congruency in style, tone or narrative of the film versus the games but if that’s a dealbreaker and you hate the film because for you it betrayed the soul of the source material, more than fair enough. All I know is I put this thing on as background noise and it served as engaging, very silly intergalactic schlock with big monsters, bigger attitudes and *incredibly* big guns to shoot them with, one plasma cannon wielded by The Rock that’s so large it almost veers into parody. Dwayne is effectively tough as Sarge, leader of a ragtag bunch of mercenaries, among whose ranks we see various archetypes like the religious zealot (Ben Daniels), the rookie kid (Al Weaver), the loudmouth clown (a scene stealing Richard Brake) and of course the strong silent hero type Reaper, played solidly by Karl Urban. The pack of them are off to Mars using a weird teleportation device made of soap bubbles (not sure if that was a staple in the games) to engage murky zombie demon mutant things in vicious firefights down dimly lit space station corridors as a perky scientist (the lovely Rosamund Pike) does her best with unnecessary exposition that had me chuckling.. like it’s a film about space marines blowing up nondescript, raving mutant monsters, do we really need a few pages of explanatory pseudo genetic-science based verbal diarrhoea to try and make sense of it? I think not. Anyways, all the shooting, fighting, bleeding, limbs flying and fast-food action horror are kinda fun, especially seeing Dwayne and Karl in shameless early career genre mode set to a bangin’ metal soundtrack.
I missed out on Richard Stanley’s Colour Out Of Space last year but I’m glad I caught up because wow what a trip into earthbound cosmic madness as only the mind of H.P. Lovecraft could dream up. When a weird meteor thing plummets into the backyard of Nic Cage and his average, slightly hippie family, things start to get strange in the surrounding area as a mysterious ‘colour’ from another part of the universe begins to transform everything around it into something else, sometimes just odd, sometimes beautiful and eventually downright terrifying. I love the idea of a meteor falling and being the setup for a horror film because there’s so much you can do with that concept in the realms of imagination. This film reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation in a sense, but whereas the entity that came from a meteor in that used the genetic codes and biological structures of our planet to create something new, this Colour thing just shows up and begins fucking around with things on its own shocking, illogical terms, like any self respecting Lovecraft monster should. It’s a hoot watching this family slowly start to lose it, starting with Cage in one of his patented full on neurotic meltdowns filled to the brim with maniacal rants, grotesque physicality and pitch black humour. His wife is played by Joely Richardson who I haven’t seen in a while, since Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at least but I always love seeing her turn up. The cast is pretty darn eclectic too and includes the lovely Q’orianka Kilcher as the world’s bitchiest small town mayor and beloved Tommy Chong as a forest dwelling oddball with a cat he calls ‘G-Spot’ (*snicker*). The main draw for me here is the otherworldly, mystical horror elements and director Stanley pulls out all the stops in terms of atmosphere, visuals and things just going berserk. Everything turns pinky purple, the family loses their sense of coherence and time and eventually they begin to transform, and there’s one sequence in particular that is fucking miles beyond how horrific I thought they were gonna go with this film and is disturbing to the core. Great film.
What if you returned to your hometown after decades away with plans on killing an abusive parent, only to find out that someone had already beaten you to the punch? Problem solved, right? Not quite, at least for troubled, angry teen Bella Thorne in Chad Faust’s Girl, a bleak modern western about a no-horse town and the Girl who blusters into it looking for answers and revenge. She’s come for her estranged daddy, who was volcanically abusive to her and her mother years before, and she intends to settle the score with him, for good. When she finds that someone has already killed him, instead of calling it a day and packing off home, she noses around the derelict backwater enclaves that were no doubt once a half prosperous township, and finds more trouble than she bargained for. Mickey Rourke has a good sized, scenery chewing role here as the dodgy county sheriff who, you guessed it, also moonlights as the local crime lord. I think in these deeply corrupt little slices of rural hell its just a job prerequisite for any sheriff to also be a vice kingpin, I mean taking on the two most powerful jobs on the roster is just killing two birds with one stone, no? Rourke is a leathery, hulking presence these days and makes this guy every inch the evil, murderous son of a bitch you’d hope from the role. Faust is a first time director and does a pretty damn good job considering, despite a few bloated passages of dialogue and choppy editing that could have used a bit of tough love. He also takes on one of the acting roles which he does with eccentricity and freakish exuberance. This is the first time I’ve seen Bella Thorne in anything and hadn’t even heard of her before this film, she’s pretty limited in terms of emotional range and line delivery and could use some work on her acting, but she’s got good presence, brooding in a faded hoodie and glaring out from behind a windswept mane of hair. Plus her weapon of choice is a hatchet, which she wields with startling lethality. The film’s strongest quality is atmosphere, and tons of it. IMDb doesn’t list any filming locations yet but wherever it is, it’s a place the rest of the world forgot. Boarded up buildings along the main drag, muttering drunks lining the lonely streets and pickling in a shabby dive run by an eternally pessimistic barkeep (Glenn Gould) and grey, washed out inland wilderness. It might be the most depressing place on the continent, but serves as quite the backdrop for this gnarly little tale to run its course. There’s also a wonderful, haunting original score by Dylan Baldassero that combines eerie lyrics and strange, unconventional instrumentals to great effect, as well as some very well orchestrated plot twists that spice up the narrative. Solid film.
It’s fitting when a film like this lives up to its title, and you really Better Watch Out for this ugly, pointless, infuriating, uncomfortable, sexist piece of wanton trash disguised as a Yuletide black comedy. It’s basically a home invasion fake-out where two sociopathic little brats, one a drooling simpleton (Ed Oxenbould) and the other a cold hearted monster (Levi Miller), kidnap their own babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) and subject her to humiliation, torture and intimidation for no other reason than they’re fucked in their little pea brained adolescent heads. There is no point to setting this film at Christmas time, the delicious irony found in other contradictory Christmas films about violence and misanthropy in a festive context (see The Ice Harvest, Black Christmas and The Ref for successful examples) lands with an ill favoured thud here and we’re left with an agonizing ninety minutes of pointless, anxiety inducing exploitative scumbaggery passing itself off as a movie. The one saving grace is Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things in an inspired cameo of comedic improv to himself in a rear-view mirror that is absolutely hilarious. Other than that, this is a bottom feeding piece of work. Even Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen look like they want to run for the hills and spend most of the film away from the action. There’s a scene that takes the paint can sequence from Home Alone to brutally realistic new heights and thinks it’s oh so clever and playful when really it’s unnecessary and sadistic. Miller does his best but the character is just such a horrific little snot-fuck I wanted to jump through the tv and cave his head in on the marble countertop, such is the level of mental distress, terrorization and abuse he inflicts on the babysitter it goes beyond gratuitous. Then there’s the ending. Don’t even get me started on how badly this movie cheats the viewer of an absolutely cathartic final resolution by being a cheeky shit and holding out on a finale it desperately needed to follow through on if it hoped to earn anything resembling redemption. It doesn’t seem to care about its characters, audience, story or the universe in general. Perhaps I’m being far too harsh and it just hit me the wrong way but whatever, every now and then I gotta have a ‘Roger Ebert emphatic intense rant review’ if something irks me and this one made me feel like shit all night after. Bah. Fucking. Humbug.
The rise of Satanic Panic in the 1990’s always seemed to permeate into Hollywood, as the collective fears of a decade often do. Devilish cinematic efforts ranged from excellent (End Of Days, Fallen, The Devil’s Advocate) to lukewarm (Stigmata, The Order) to mediocre (The Ninth Gate) but I can now say that the only one I would consider an absolutely terrible film is Janusz Kaminski’s Lost Souls. This thing is one of the murkiest, muddiest, laziest, most bizarre pieces of celluloid I’ve ever sat through shaking my head at and I found myself wondering how it got past the pitch phase with such a paper thin script like that. Here’s the ‘plot’ and the only reason I know is because I IMDb’d a synopsis, there’s no telling what’s going on by watching the actual film itself: a catholic school teacher (Winona Ryder) with an apparent personal history of demon possession is recruited by her former priest (John Hurt) and his associates to find the human avatar for the Antichrist, who will soon take earthly form. This particular human is a bumbling atheist true crime author (Ben Chaplin) who is more than a little confused at these implications. There’s also an inexplicable subplot involving a serial killer making media headlines, another rogue preacher (Phillip Baker Hall) and other dimly lit gobbledygook that makes little to no sense. Ryder is listless and meandering, Chaplin never makes a huge impression anyways. Hurt barely registers beyond looking vaguely worried and you know your film is in serious trouble when even usual scene stealer Elias Koteas is cast in an inconsequential bit part with no lasting impression. Director Kaminski is a well renowned cinematographer who has shot all kinds of prolific stuff but he probably should have stepped out of the director’s chair back into a DoP position because this looks like it was shot through a burlap sack filter. Mucky browns, grainy greys and tinny blues abound and not in a good way. The score sounds like an amplifier being dropped onto a marble floor (not in a good way either I might add) and every actor in this thing either looks like they have no grasp on the flow of the story (which is almost nonexistent) or would simply rather be somewhere else. How this thing ever got released is beyond me.
Remember that poem ‘Tiger Tiger’ by William Blake? I always loved that one in school and Burning Bright, horror film that combines several high concepts for an odd but entertaining mix, isn’t quite as poetic enough to live up to the Blake piece but works well as a kind of low grade Grindhouse SyFy deal. How do you make your chamber piece/creature feature more scary these days, or any thriller at all for that matter? Set it during a hurricane, of course. I think I saw like three movies this year alone set during a typhoon and revolving around every other central threat you can think of from bank robberies to alligators to street gangs. Here it’s obviously a tiger and the hurricane only serves to delineate that the lead characters can’t simply leave the house to escape it. This is an especially vicious and ‘evil’ tiger, or so we’re informed early on by hammy circus boss Meat Loaf as he pawns it off to no-good stepfather and ‘safari ranch’ entrepreneur Garrett Dillahunt, a perennially sinister fellow who looks like he could be Will Forte’s evil twin. His stepdaughter (Briana Evigan) and autistic stepson (Charlie Tahan, so young here!) find themselves boarded up in the family home alone with this tiger while the hurricane rages on outside. How did this happen? I won’t spoil it but you can sorta kinda sus it out from what I’ve said already. This allows for a sweaty, impressively suspenseful battle of wills against the animal, as the daughter tries to protect both of them and shelter the boy because he doesn’t quite… grasp what’s going on. This is a fun, solid film that doesn’t take its premise too far into WTF-ville or overstay it’s welcome, and although a tad aloof and awkward in spots, the scenes in the house where they face off agains the tiger are very well done, thanks to use of actual tigers over CGI. The film almost doesn’t deserve a title based on property like Blake when the story overall is so… just regular. I’d have almost preferred a surreal, dark film that just started with the kids already stuck in the house with the tiger and no setup, hurricane or sidebars, a simplistic, dreamy art piece based on the single concept. What we got is decent enough, but man the title is so much more evocative.
Emma Tammi’s The Wind, which could also be called Little House Of Horrors On The Prairie, is a nicely atmospheric, sometimes effective but ultimately muddled and frustrating horror western (my fave sub genre!) that I really wanted to be a winner. Somewhere out there in all that desolation a homesteader couple (Caitlin Gerard & Ashley Zuckerman) are doing the best they can to survive off the land, when another couple (Julia Goldani Telles & Julian McTee) take up their own property an acre or two away, making them default neighbours, and this is where the trouble begins, or maybe it does, it’s hard to tell what’s happening when because the film jump as around in time a *lot* to the point where it feels needlessly discombobulating. Both girls seemingly have miscarriages and are traumatized by it, and in one timeline Gerard’s character is stuck alone in her cabin as a sinister supernatural presence menaces her. Or does it? Attempts at subtlety and misdirection unfortunately only added to the confusion, for my part. See the thing is, life out there on the plains is so distilled into simple form that the elaborate structure of flashback/flash-forward feels unwieldy and too tangled when it could have been a linear, crystalline tale. There are some genuinely spooky moments that are very well directed, acted and shot involving Gerard dealing with the malevolent forces surrounding her, garnished with a deliciously shrill violin score by Ben Lovett, a composition that frequently feels like it’s stabbing you in the ribs with quick, jarring strings cues. Credit where credit is due and all that but this choice to tell the story in fragmented, back and forth form cripples the ambience and isn’t done confidently or fluidly, as is the twist ending that when looked back upon, definitely raises some sagebrush eyebrows. An almost.
I kinda get the beef with William Malone’s House On Haunted Hill, I mean it’s essentially a lazy, paper thin story gussied up by a whole bunch of spooky visual effects and fancy, baroque production design, but I loved it anyhow. Malone is the same guy who made the infamous FearDotCom and such was also the case there: nonsensical narrative made entirely watchable by pure visual artistry alone. Maybe the guy has a yet to be discovered career in music videos ahead of him. Anyways, the plot revolves around a weird looking building sat on a cliff overlooking the sea, a place which was once a freaky asylum run by a mad surgeon (Jeffry Combs with nary a word of dialogue) who murdered his patients. Half a century later it’s owned by snarky amusement park guru Geoffrey Rush and his potty mouthed femme fatale wife (Famke Jannssen). They invite several bored LA types over for the night including a faded baseball star (Taye Diggs), a movie studio VP (Ali Larter), a smarmy hotshot Doctor (Peter Gallagher) and a tabloid journalist (Bridgette Wilson Sampras). The deal is, if you make it one night alive in this place Rush will pay you a cool million bucks. You can guess what happens next. This film is very short on story and a lot of it is just characters wandering through grimly lit corridors and getting haunted by unseen terrors. The characters are hilarious though and the cast is really having fun. Rush is a gnarled hoot as the misanthropic tycoon, with a pencil moustache as precariously thin as his threshold for having tantrums. The lovely Janssen is saddled with a trashy role that’s beneath her classy talents but she’s game and makes this chick one seriously bratty, scene stealing bitch. Chris Kattan also shows up as like… the butler or caretaker of this place I guess? I had an acting teacher once tell us that every performance you give should be modelled after the physicality and essence of one member of the animal kingdom. Chris heard that and apparently decided to base every role for the rest of his career on a squirrel with a serious meth habit, because that’s what I felt like I was watching when he was onscreen. I can understand why this film doesn’t get a lot of love, it’s a remake of a no doubt cherished 60’s horror film and that coupled with its lack of a real story… I get it. However, I really enjoyed it for the set design and very freaky visual horror creations. I think that director Malone missed his calling as a full blown, thoroughbred surrealist like Lynch or Merhige because he has a real gift with abstract, otherworldly makeup, editing and FX. Some of the berserk visual stuff later is right out of a post modern video collage installation and reminded me of like Jacob’s Ladder or Eraserhead. If Malone put that talent to work in a project that would allow him to fully be taken seriously as a filmmaker he’d be the stuff of Lynchian legends. But hey, this film is super fun too, if kinda slight. Rush and his merry band of fellow cast-mates are great, and like I said it gets genuinely fucking weird right near the end, and weird is always good. Oh also, bonus points for using Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams as a kind of theme song. Oh and also: this is like one in an unofficial trilogy with 13 Ghosts and Ghost Ship as early 2000’s ensemble piece gonzo horror with metal infused soundtracks, produced by the Dark Castle label, excessively opulent special effects and bad reputations, and I love all three to bits no matter what anyone says.
Okay so imagine Freaky Friday but instead of teenage Lindsay Lohan swapping bodies with her mom played by Jamie Lee Curtis it’s teenage Kathryn Newton swapping places with a serial killer played by… Vince Vaughn, of all people. Also just take Friday out of the title and you’ve got Freaky, a super fun, super R rated, whip smartly written horror comedy that is one in a reliable assembly line of stuff being put out by Blumhouse lately. I don’t want to imply that this is just a horror knockoff of Freaky Friday because it’s fiercely it’s own film and has genuine innovation and creativity behind it, starting with casting Vaughn as someone who has to convincingly act like a flustered teenage girl for almost ninety minutes. Let’s just say he succeeds scarily, uncannily well at doing that. An idyllic small town has been home to serial killer The Butcher for years, and one night after infiltrating a Manor filled with ancient artifacts he pinches an old bone dagger with mystical Aztec powers. After stabbing shy high school girl Millie with it, they suddenly wake up in each other’s bodies unwittingly the next morning and cause quite the dose of confusion. Millie is stuck inside the hefty, 50+ year old body of Vaughn, while The Butcher is trapped in petite, blonde Newton and everyone else has no idea what the fuck is happening. It’s a wild concept and they milk it for all it’s worth and then some. The real draw is seeing Vaughn act like a flighty teen and he hits the mark squarely, giving some of his best comedic work in years and clearly having so much fun in the tole. Newton is great too, she gets to rework the Millie character in the killer’s eyes and do this ‘dangerous dark chick’ thing with her wardrobe and mannerisms and get proxy payback against some of the folks who make her high school existence hell including a horde of rapey jock douchebags, a yappy little gossip whore who spreads cunty rumours about her and the world’s most abusive and obnoxious woodwork teacher played by (!!!!) Alan Ruck, who was Ferris Bueller’s homie and I totally didn’t recognize until I looked up the cast just now. The tone of the film is kinda slight overall and never too serious but it doesn’t feel watered down, glossed over or too lame and PG like a lot of teen horror these days, this baby owns it’s hard-R rating loud and proud. There’s a galaxy of very clever and *severely* profane dialogue, some surprisingly mature, sweet and intuitive social satire and relationship dynamics as well as a bunch of extremely gory and downright impressive kills that involve an array of scenarios including table saws, chainsaws, spears, kitchen knives, and an entire *intact* wine bottle fully shoved down some poor bastards throat and *then* smashed, which is a new one for the genre. There’s also a Jason X shoutout kill involving a literal cryo-freezing chamber and I found myself wondering what the hell would would one of those things be doing in a high school, like.. is that some weird American thing? Anyways, if you like your horror fast, furious, super bloody, smart, a smidge self aware and have always had an innate desire to see Vince Vaughn as a hormonally hysterical teenage girl, this’ll be your bag. One of the coolest flicks this year.