Post-Hubrisween: Life (2017)

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I was going to review this for Hubrisween, but Gavin had a prior claim to it. Cool, I did The Living Head instead, because I was sure Gavin would have more interesting things to say. So here is a post-Hubrisween review. It’s wafer-thin!

Okay, show of hands: who passed this one up because it was so obviously this generation’s Alien? Um hm, yeah, okay. Me too. Until I needed an “L”.

In the near future, the crew of the International Space Station is waiting for the return of the Mars Pilgrim 7 probe, carrying with it soil samples. The probe has been hit by space debris and is off-course; it is only through a risky maneuver that the craft and its precious scientific cargo is retrieved.

Knowing what you know, you can pretty much write the movie from here: a dormant microbe is found frozen, they manage to revive it, it begins developing and evolving rapidly, and at some point, it gets hungry.

Don’t touch, dummy

That is ridiculously simplistic of me, of course; the script does a far better job of developing our monster (as the result of a national contest among schools, it is named Calvin) and its threat. The creature is fast, ridiculously resilient, resisting cold and heat, and intelligent as hell.  Our six person crew is various flavors of doomed, and the film’s success will depend on how creatively they meet those dooms, as they attempt, with very limited resources, to rid themselves of a creature that must not be allowed to reach Earth.

Life does a good job of distinguishing our cast; the heaviest hitters box office-wise are Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s character has been in space for a record amount of time, and his body is beginning to atrophy dangerously – he just doesn’t want to go back among billions of people, most of them assholes, and dirty air (tell me that’s not identifiable). The biologist (Ariyon Bakare) is a paraplegic who enjoys the increased mobility microgravity allows. Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson) is the Contamination Officer who has her work cut out for her, and whose contingency plans are constantly screwed up by human error and the unforeseen ingenuity of the enemy. Director Daniel Espinosa keeps things moving, and the character notes seem to flow organically (which seems an unfortunate turn of phrase here).

The influence of Cuarón’s Gravity is definitely felt, with all the null-gravity choreography and attempts to keep the technology reasonably realistic. So yes, this is Alien with floating, but it’s well-produced floating.

And also yes, this is this generation’s Alien. Which was that generation’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. We can play that game for some time, but let’s take it in another direction.

Let’s say it’s more of a prequel.

Life becomes much more interesting and less derivative if you consider it as the movie leading up to something like The Quatermass Xperiment. What happened on that particular doomed spacecraft was left to a damaged camera reel and surmisal. Here it is as a complete, well-rounded story. I find myself considering Life far more charitably in that light.

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Z: The Zodiac Killer (1971)

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After four weeks of dwelling on the fantastic, I suppose it’s only fitting to wind down with something bordering on the all-too-real. I’m lying, of course, there is no really good reason to return to the hellscape of real life, but we’re at the letter Z, there’s no way I’m watching Zaat again (maybe next year), so here we are.

You don’t have to be a David Fincher fan to know about the Zodiac murders of the late 60s, but that’s probably a better excuse than being a true crime freak (or, like me, a constituent of Ted Cruz). I’m going to have to cop to the sick fascination angle (well, that and trying to vote him out of office). The Zodiac murders and the Manson family were impossible to avoid on the news at the time, and they were that decade’s proof that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Robert Graysmith’s book in 1986 allowed me to get a fuller picture of the case, and would also come in pretty handy when watching not only Fincher’s 2007 flick, but also Tom Hanson’s more contemporaneous 1971 movie.

Grover and his toupee. “Don’t touch the hair!”

We’ve got some zero-budget recreations of the first two Zodiac killings intercut with the lives of two suspects: Jerry (Hal Reed) a put-upon postal worker, and Grover (Bob Jones) a divorced truck driver who likes to put on a toupee and cruise the local bars in the guise of a successful businessman. Grover’s got a temper on him, and is under a lot of stress, so you can be sure he isn’t the Zodiac. In fact the movie gets rid of him via suicide by cop at about the 40 minute mark and yep, Jerry – who raises bunnies in his basement – he’s the Zodiac.

SPOILER: NOT THE ZODIAC

(I was frankly disappointed it wasn’t 50s kid show host Doodles Weaver)

The point at which this is discovered is one of the better scenes, beginning with a tight shot of his mouth during a whispered phone call to the police to let them know they got the wrong guy, gradually pulling back as he gets more agitated, hangs up and launches into an amazing unhinged speech that’s pretty much taken from Zodiac’s letters to the press. After this the movie becomes a series of vignettes of Jerry being a likable, helpful guy alternating with more of the Zodiac murders. Eventually they run out of confirmed Zodiac kills and start improvising. We find out Jerry’s father is in a mental hospital and is quite violent, make of that what you will.

Jerry and his friends.

The final scene is Jerry walking down the street, as his voiceover reminds you he still hasn’t been caught, and there are lots more like him. Maybe you pass them when you walk down the street. Maybe they’re sitting behind you at this theater. See you around. Mwoo-ha-ha.

Tom Hanson’s lack of a budget is apparent in almost every frame, but that doesn’t stop him from getting the occasional fantastic shot. The matter-of-factness of the simple approach this lack of money requires actually causes some of the murders to be quite disturbing, and a whole lot can be accomplished with enthusiasm and a knife with a collapsible blade. It plays like a low budget regional horror movie because that’s exactly what it is. After a certain point it starts to feel like a dry run for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Yet the most intriguing part of the movie isn’t even on the screen: The movie’s premiere had a contest sponsored by Kawasaki. A motorcycle would be awarded to the best answer to “I believe the Zodiac kills because…”Hanson had handwriting experts poring over the entry cards, looking for a match to Zodiac’s letters. I have no idea if Hanson even cleared this with the cops, who were getting hammered by the public at the time. There’s a reason Dirty Harry was a monster hit; Scorpio was a thinly-veiled substitute for Zodiac, and Harry Callahan was everybody else.

Whether or not you want to check out The Zodiac Killer is going to depend on your tolerance for/interest in extremely low-budget filmmaking and attendant acting shortcomings, a historical context that is gobsmacking, or needing to see something that is basically Toxic Masculinity: The Movie. Cuz holy jeezum, those guys – all of them – are real jerks.

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Y: The Yin Yang Master 2 (2003)

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0383543Ha! My hard-won strategy for gaming the system strikes again!

In 10th century Kyoto, a demon is killing various members of the gentry, in each case carrying off a different body part, and sorcerer supreme Abe no Seiman (Mansai Nomura) and his companion, Lord Hiromasa (Hideaki Itô) are called in to investigate. Don’t worry, the perpetually cute butterfly girl Mitsumushi (Eriko Imai) is back, too.

Another magician has cropped up amongst the peasantry, healing disease and injuries, Genkaku (Kiichi Nakai). Several of the lords, trying to bring Seiman down a notch, bring Genkaku in on the case, but he demurs respectfully to Seiman, who feels the murders are not the work of “a true demon”. Hiromasa, as usual, falls in love with the wrong woman, this time the tomboyish daughter of another lord, Himiko (Kyoko Fukada). This lady also possesses surprising healing powers. Hmmmm, I wonder if there’s a connection…

Our heroes at 221B Baker S... er, Abe no Seiman's sanctum.

Our heroes at 221B Baker S… er, Abe no Seiman’s sanctum.

Onmyoji 2 has a more complex plot than its predecessor, and sadly suffers somewhat for it. It takes a little too long for the usual plot to destroy Kyoto to solidify; it involves a war crime fifteen years earlier, which has of course been glossed over by the government as a glorious victory over evil. Though the culmination of the villain’s plot feels a little too similar to that in Omyoji, it gains its own identity when Seiman underestimates his opponent, and has to journey to the afterlife, where, accompanied by the loyal Hiromasa and his flute, the magician must dance in drag as “the trickster goddess” to gain the attention of the goddess Ameratsu.

onmyoji-stillIt saddens me that this appears to the last movie in the Onmyoji series, which featured a largely subtle, non-bombastic approach to magic, nonetheless engaging and exciting. The Seiman/Hiromasa version of the Holmes/Watson synergy is compelling, and certainly could have supported more adventures. But sometimes we just need to be happy with what we got.

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X: X-Cross (2007)

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Last Hubrisween I ran out of Xtro movies and had to resort to the Blank Scrabble Tile rule and substitute a movie with a number for X (The 7th Victim, if you’re too lazy to search). Then, while casting my nets wider for this year’s movies, I came upon this entry from Japan. How fortuitous!

Shiyori (Nao Matsushita) and Aiko (Ami Suzuki) are headed to a remote hot springs spa to get away from it all. Shiyori is trying to get over a bad breakup with her first love, Asimiya (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). The two girls couldn’t be more dissimilar, typified by their cell phones: Shiyori’s is plain and unadorned, Aiko’s is blinged out to the max and probably weighs five pounds from the excess decoration.

I use this distinction as we will find cell phones are central to the story.

Ashikari village is at the top of a mountain; the cabins for the patrons are quite nice, but the villagers all seem to be various forms of twisted and vaguely sinister. Some friction grows between the two girls – the free-wheeling Aiko with her many lovers versus Shiyori’s mourning for her sole, unfaithful boyfriend. The two separate, and as you might suppose, this is where the trouble truly begins (particularly since Aiko calls someone on that sparkly phone to report that everything is “going as scheduled”).

Shiyori finds a phone in the closet of their cabin and answers a call from the brother of the phone’s previous owner, whose fate we saw in the film’s opening. The brother (Nozomu Iwao) fills us in on the necessary backstory. Ashikari has a dark history, a logging village that in olden times went to the hideous extreme of chopping off their wives’ left leg to keep them from running away while they were at work; this mania soon extended to any traveling women unlucky enough to wander into the area. Ashikari is now home to a full-blown cult that lures in women with the hot springs, cuts off their leg, then worships their mummified remains as goddesses. They also cut the tendons in their own left legs, which makes running after the escaping Shiyori a bit ungainly.

So this sounds rather like an Asian version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and it might have turned out that way, but there are various twists with the modern technology of cell phones that add layers of paranoia and doubt to what might have been a simple chase movie. Also, Aoki is having problems of her own: the jilted girlfriend of one of her former lovers, Reika (Ayuko Iwane), dressed like a goth Lolita from hell, has tracked her there and is determined to murder her with scissors, which adds an entirely different kind of weirdness and tension to the story.

The director is Kenta Fukusaku, and that last name should be familiar to you: his father was Kinji Fukusaku, a towering presence in Japanese cinema, from The Yakuza Papers movies to The Green Slime to Tora! Tora! Tora! to Battle Royale. Kenta wrote the screenplay to that one, and took over the directoral reins on the sequel when his father passed away (the sequel is, shall we say, not loved). His career since has been rather speckled; X-Cross was preceded by a Sukeban Deka movie and followed by a string of movies that hover around the 6.5 stars rating on IMDb, when they have a rating at all. He hasn’t had his breakout hit on these shores yet, and that’s a pity, because I really enjoyed X-Cross.

Though it doesn’t reach true Christopher Nolan levels, Fukusaku does mess with the timeline to show us what is happening in the parallel stories of our two stars, literally rewinding the footage to show us where we are, event-wise, even providing a couple of laughs along the way. The best part for me is when odd details in one girl’s sequence are explained in the other girl’s flashback, so I guess I should have invoked Tarantino rather than Nolan.

Generally I liked X-Cross not because it transcends its genre – it doesn’t – but because just when I think I have it figured it makes me say things like, “Holy shit, where did that crazy Reika get a five-foot pair of scissors?”

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W: Wither (2012)

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Wither was mentioned to me when it first came out as “a Swedish Evil Dead” to which my response was yeah, okay, cool as it was entered in the Infinite Watchlist until I had need/time/desire to track it down and watch it.  And I have to say that I wasn’t expecting that description to be quite so literal.

High hopes at the beginning, as we find a hunter searching through a rainstorm for someone named Lisa. He finds her – apparently his daughter – but someone is chewing on her. He shoots that someone in the head, and they get back up anyway.

Credits.

We are now going to go into setup mode for the next twenty minutes, as we meet our seven young cannon fodder characters as they prepare for a weekend at a remote cabin: four women, three men (Lisa Henni, Amanda Renberg, Jessica Blomkvist, Anna Henriksson, Patrik Almkvist, Patrick Saxe, and Max Walmo). The father of our male lead, Aldi (Almkvist), who owns some property in those woods, found this cabin, seemingly abandoned, for his son’s outing.

Seven characters might seem a lot for a horror movie, but then, since it’s a horror movie, we can be pretty sure that most of them won’t be around for the end credits. Especially since they seem to keep making the requisite dubious choices that make such movies possible. The first being Marie (Blomkvist), boosted into the locked cabin (to supposedly surprise Aldi at the front door) deciding to, instead, investigate the mysterious cellar she finds dug under the cabin.

This is Dubious Choice Prime that makes the rest of the movie possible, you see.

Instead of finding a recording raising ancient Sumerian demons, there is some kind of legendary race that lives underground, and gazing into their eyes allows them to swallow your soul, you see, and it’s not ten minutes later that Marie goes all white-eyed and bitey. The hunter from the opening (Ralf Beck) drops by to give us the backstory, and to advise that they burn Marie (like he did his wife and daughter, who had also found that basement). And oh, yeah, anybody who gets bitten or has possessed blood slopped on them will get infected, too. So right away we are able to go, okay, you and you, and that list will get expanded thanks to further dubious choices.

The FX are practical, gory and frequent. Marie’s goopy transformation doesn’t even wait for the half-hour mark, and after that the movie is pretty much non-stop – the only problem is that what is happening is so damned familiar. It manages to etch out a bit of identity by having the cat-and-mouse between the possessed and still-human take place in a two-story house, but otherwise, this really is Evil Dead without the very real weirdness Raimi and party brought to the proceedings.

Writer/directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund (who also double as camera, sound, and FX men) know their genre chops well, and Wither is a well-made movie on all those fronts. The actors all get a chance to be scary (and speaking as an actor, we love that shit). If I had never seen Evil Dead, I would have really gotten into this movie – but I have, and therefore all I can say is, good job everybody! But I do really wish you’d brought just a little something else to distinguish yourselves from your inspiration.

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V: The Valdemar Legacy II: The Forbidden Shadow (2010)

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Yes, it took me fully four years to figure out how to game this system. This is, of course, the sequel to La Herencia Valdemar, which we visited at the other end of the alphabet; this is simply the English title. Frankly, I prefer the Spanish version: La Sombra Prohibida, but this is the easiest V I’ve ever scored.

Some spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.

There were a ton of storylines left over when chapter one closed. Chapter two finds us firmly in the present day, except for a flashback to the 1890s which finds the tortured Lázaro Valdemar (Daniele Liotti), after the sacrifice of his wife, falling deeper and deeper into books of forbidden lore, much to the dismay of the faithful Jervás (Paul Nachy in his final role). In fact, Jervás begs none other than H.P. Lovecraft (Luis Zahera) to try to convince Lázaro to give up his ultimate acquisition: the Necronomicon. “You don’t own the Necronomicon,” he tells Lázaro, “the Necronomicon owns you.” To no avail.

In the present day, Nicolás (Óscar Jaenada) and Dr. Cervia (Ana Resueño) continue their search for the missing antiques expert, Luisa (Silvia Abascal), who has escaped from the slow-witted Santiago (Santi Prego) and the sociopathic Dámaso (José Luis Torrijo), which results in the capture of Eduardo (Rodolfo Sancho) and Ana (Norma Ruiz), also searching for Luisa, a bit ahead of schedule, we will find.

All four wind up in a room in the deserted Valdemar mansion, wallpapered with polaroids of bloody people screaming and begging. Santiago releases them and leads them through a cavern underneath the mansion, where they are unfortunate enough to encounter the thing that was released in the first movie. Fleeing it, they run right into the arms of the cultists being led by Colvin (Eusubio Poncela), the head of the real estate agency employing all four – and a surprisingly young Lázaro. It is an elaborate scheme to gather enough sacrificial souls for a rite which will undo the botched Dunwich Ritual from the first movie. However, Colvin makes a mistake equally as catastrophic as Crowley’s in that instance, with the results that the cult is suddenly confronted by a very pissed-off Cthulhu.

That synopsis doesn’t convey half the texture and turns the story presents. Santiago has a horrifying yet heart-wrenching monologue about the nastiness at the Valdemar mansion to Luisa while having one of his seizures (and the handful of horse tranquilizers he downs to kill the pain). Luisa runs into an honest-to-God gypsy fortune-teller in a wagon in the woods. Like the earlier appearance of Bram Stoker, this version of H.P. Lovecraft has a lot more going on than the guy we think we knew. What I’m saying is, the two movies considered together form a pretty good Lovecraft pastiche, while still managing to be extremely Spanish in character. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for Lovecraft on a budget, and the budget on this one is actually pretty decent, something in the range of 6.5 million Euros. The acting, music, effects and cinematography are all of a very high order. It’s a little too ambitious to completely fulfill all its promises, and bends back on itself a little too often – even then, it’s still admirable in many ways.

I would recommend this to all Lovecraft fans. But.

This sequel/second chapter is hard to find. Amazon lists a PAL DVD for $120 – you can find it on eBay for less – but the most astounding thing is Amazon Video has part one but not part two. Unsuspecting viewers will find themselves hanging, like I did at the end of Sword of Doom. That’s just bad policy, there. It is, however, currently on YouTube for three bucks. Maybe Shudder has access to it – I don’t know, I’m not in a position to afford streaming services at the moment.

But somebody really should remedy that situation. All those situations.

U: The Unknown (2000)

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So while casting about for movies off my usual beaten path this year, I came across the Swedish flick Det Okānda, or as it is known in English-speaking countries, The Unknown. Somehow I’d never heard of it, despite it being nominated for Grand Prize at Sitges and the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy, and actually winning at Luxembourg’s Film Festival.

There may be some reasons for that. Let’s look at the film itself, first.

Five young biologists (Jacob Ericksson, Marcus Palm, Ann-Sofie Rase, Ingar Sigvardsdotter, and Tomas Tivemark) are sent by their University, at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency, to survey the site of a huge forest fire. In three weeks, they will catalog the damage and any remaining wildlife. Being who we are and what time of year it is, we will presume that things will not go as planned.

What is assumed to be a burned animal is found on the first day – problem is, none of our gang can figure out what animal it might be. After drinking entirely too much that evening, they decide to to dissect it, and still get no answers – though two people, in the flash of a camera, see something black dart further back into the carcass. They finally put the thing into a cooler and go to sleep.

In the morning, Ingar finds her menstrual flow has gotten frighteningly bad. We’re talking emergency room bad. She manages to shrug it off, but that mysterious animal carcass is now missing. “A fox or a wolverine got it.” The site where they found the carcass is anomalously hot, even for the site of a forest fire. Ingar’s condition worsens during the  day. She begins to get hysterical – “Something’s inside me!” and she may be right. She vanishes into the woods. Some trees have fallen across the only road out. The car stops working. Everything goes to hell and paranoia is the order of the day as Jacob suspects there is some sort of horrid infection in play, and it may already be too late for Tomas, Ingar’s boyfriend. Maybe for them all.

Inspecting the second most expensive thing in the movie.

The first thing that is going to be assumed is that The Unknown was inspired by The Blair Witch Project, released the year before. I don’t think that’s actually the case, but the feel is definitely similar – similar enough that it’s even name-checked on the poster above. Though not a found footage film, the entire movie is shot handheld. The characters all use the actors’ first names. Some, but certainly not all, of the dialog feels improvised. And the budget is super low – apparently around $200,000 in US dollars.

That handheld camerawork helps cover that up immeasurably, like the fact that they could only afford the one bizarre carcass (of which we never get a truly good look). There is one particularly unsettling scene where Marcus stumbles upon some hideous Lovecraftian creature and all we can see are a couple of visceral tendrils twitching in the brush while the actors react.

I find the paranoid bickering as the movie progresses as tiresome as I did in Blair Witch, but as the saying goes, talk is cheap – action costs money. The Unknown is probably about 15 minutes too long, but it is a very good piece of extremely low-budget filmmaking, a good example of what some ingenuity and a lot of talent can pull off without access to megabucks.

It’s also another reason why I won’t go camping.