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.

Buy Life on Amazon

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.

Buy Onmyoji 2 on Amazon

 

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.

R: [REC]2 (2009)

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Hello again to Spain, the MVP in this year’s Hubrisween challenge! ¡Ustedes molan!

I reviewed [REC] back in 2012] , and I have no idea why I took five years to get around to its sequel, because I loved it. It did everything right for a found footage movie, and at barely 80 minutes, it didn’t have time to get bogged down. Small wonder that directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza went back to that well, and amazing that they did it so well.

We’re still on the same night as the first movie, and a four man Special Forces squad (Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casa and Alejandro Casaseca) is gearing up to go inside the sealed apartment building. They are joined by Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor) from the Ministry of Health, who has a very special mission: he has to get to the top floor to obtain a blood sample he somehow knows is there, a blood sample that will enable the formulation of an antidote to the mysterious plague that is turning people into violent zombies. It’s up to the squad to get him there and out.

And we all know it is just not going to be that simple.

Balagueró and Plaza open up the scenes nicely; all the troops have networked helmet cameras feeding into the main camera held by one of the troops, Rosso (Pablo Rosso, who was the cameraman in the first movie, for all you Easter Egg fans). There was a suspicion in the first installment that the plague was supernatural in origin, which is borne out this time, especially when Owen seals a zombie in a room with a crucifix and reveals a priest’s collar under his jacket. Patient Zero, we are told, was a girl the Vatican verified as possessed, and a secret lab was established in the building to find a scientific basis and cure for demonic possession.  A journal in the penthouse mentioning mosquitoes points the way to what went wrong with that plan. It’s her blood Owen needs to find.

All of this is pretty straightforward and suitably intense, with the result that the story has pretty much run its course 40 minutes in. Perhaps there was some criticism over the brevity of the first movie, because the squad’s camera is damaged at that point, and we pick back up with three bored teenagers (Andrea Ros, Alex Battalori, and Pau Poch), briefly seen by the squad in the building when all hell started breaking loose. They had been videotaping a failed prank on the roof across the street before being evacuated by the cops earlier in the evening. They follow a desperate tenant from the building and a fireman (looking for his friends from the first movie) who go through the sewers into the building by a basement access. Their camera takes up the story until they finally intersect with the squad – trouble is, their battery is dying, and it’s remarkable how tense that flashing red icon makes me. Then again, I’m a videographer in my day job.

At this point a surprising survivor from the first movie pops up, and their TV camera takes a licking and keeps on ticking, which is fortunate, because if you thought things had gone to hell before, well, you likely aren’t ready for the third act, with a trip back to the top floor and the return of the night vision camera.

The intrusion of the three teens is really annoying at first, but necessary, since the story’s intensity at this point has winnowed down the cast of characters and some more fodder was needed. I don’t see much way to speed that portion of the movie up, but there’s no denying that going back into setup mode puts the brakes on the movie’s momentum.

No matter. Still fun, still a great ride.

Q: Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

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Like a lot of Americans, I was introduced to this movie as Five Million Years to Earth, because Warner Brothers/Seven Arts didn’t want to face a bunch of palookas moaning wut the hail is a quartermess? Probably wise, but said palookas were likely still not ready for one of the best science-fiction horror movies of all time.

A bunch of workers on a London subway extension uncover some skulls buried in the clay, and as is the law, all work must stop as anthropologist Dr. Roney (James Donald) and his assistant Barbara (Barbara Shelley) begin excavating the remarkable find – Roney estimates the age of the skulls at five million years, possibly the oldest ancestor of man yet. Then a sort of metallic wall is unearthed, and there is a very real possibility that they’ve found an unexploded bomb from the Blitz.

Meanwhile, our old pal Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir, this time) is receiving the bad news that his British Rocket Group is being co-opted by the military, in the person of Colonel Breen (Julian Glover). On their way back to Rocket Group, the Colonel is called upon to advise about this thing in the clay (which is a very clever way to get Quatermass involved, I must say).

As the soldiers uncover more of the object, it becomes plain that it is something novel; the magnetic stethoscopes of the bomb specialist will not stick, so it isn’t steel. Blowtorches have no effect. And in one recess, a completely intact skull is found, which means the object has been down there as long as the skulls – five million years.

Under Barbara’s insistence, Quatermass begins to piece together the odd history of that part of London, named Hob’s End – Hob, of course, being another name for the devil. It is infamous for sightings of strange, goblin-like creatures and visitations of Old Scratch. When the entire object is uncovered, it is obvious that it is not, as Colonel Breen insists, some sort of Nazi Propaganda weapon, but a spacecraft. Especially when a sealed chamber of the craft opens to reveal four dead insectoid creatures, preserved in some sort of unnatural ice, and now decaying rapidly.

The upshot is the creatures are probably Martians, and faced with the death of their planet five million years before, began experimenting on the apes of Earth to create a lifeform that would carry on their way of life. Fortunately, we evolved past the hivemind state the Martians wanted, but buried racial memories translated the insects into horned demons. A further problem is that spacecraft is actually alive, and is waking up and reinforcing the hivemind – which insists that any living being not a part of the hivemind must be destroyed.

Nigel Kneale wrote some of the most thoughtful science fiction/horror stories for the BBC back in the day, and I think most acknowledge Quatermass and the Pit as his masterpiece. It’s hard to explain what a thunderbolt this movie was, with its effortless blending of the two genres, because so much of it has been co-opted in the following years. The most blatant – and loving – example is John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, which he wrote under the nom de plume Martin Quatermass. To that you can add the magnificent mess that is Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (whose source novel was far more Lovecraftian)

Kneale was the most satisfied with this film of his work (and rightfully so), and Andrew Keir – since this was my first Quatermass movie, Andrew Keir was Quatermass, as far as I was concerned. Imagine my surprise when I finally caught up with the first two movies, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 (or, thanks to the palookas, The Creeping Unknown and Enemy from Space) and got Brian Donlevy. Donlevy was cast to sell the movies in America, and Kneale hated him. A brusque and domineering version of the character, I cannot imagine Donlevy in this movie. When the Minister tells Quatermass that the object is now exclusively under the command of Colonel Breen, Donlevy would have thrown his badge at him and resigned from the force.

I used to have the original BBC serial on a double VHS set from Sinister Cinema, with Andre Morell playing Quatermass. I really like Morell, but for some reason he turned down the film version. And as I said earlier, I love Keir in the role.

If you’ve not yet seen Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth, you palooka), you owe it to yourself to remedy that. Highest possible recommendation.

Every halfway-reasonably priced disc for Quatermass and the Pit is only playable on Region 2/B players. But if you have three and half hours, here’s that original TV serial:

 

O: Onmyoji: The Yin Yang Master (2001)

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220px-onmyoji-2001-film-posterOne of the best things about casting the nets wider for this year’s Hubrisween offerings is finding that occasional gem you had no idea existed and being dazzled and deeply satisfied by it. And such a gem is Onmyoji.

An onmyoji is a practitioner of onmyodo, “a traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology, a mixture of natural science and occultism” according to Wikipedia. The article goes on to point out that in the Heian period (roughly 794-1185), the onmyoji had real political clout.

The movie begins in a fairly enigmatic fashion, with a ritual sealing of Shogun’s Mound, a tomb to trap the wrathful spirit of the wrongly persecuted Prince Sawara; he had cursed the former capitol city, so the new capitol – which will come to be known as Kyoto – is built over the tomb.

150 years later, the city has grown, and is quite prosperous under its current Mikado. The leader of the Court Onmyoji, Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada) is craftily playing the powerful Minister of the Left against the Minister of the Right to cause chaos in the palace, to what end, we shall just have to let the plot develop and see.

We are introduced to our actual title character, Abe no Seimei (Mansai Nomura), an extremely powerful magician. One of the more venal lords demands he prove his power by killing a butterfly without touching it; when a leaf blown by Seimei slices the butterfly in half, the lord flees in terror. Also witnessing this is Hiromasa (Hideaki Itô), a minor lord who is further discomfited when the master of his house sends him to Seimei to beg him to investigate supernatural goings-on.

vlcsnap-2017-01-04-13h02m47s51Hiromasa protested when the lord demanded Seimei kill the butterfly, and he is honestly delighted to find that the death was an illusion, and in fact the pretty girl who greeted him at Seimei’s gate is the butterfly in human form (Eriko Imai). These two things cause the normally cool Seimei to warm toward Hiromasa, and they are going to become close companions in the course of the story.

The Japan of this period, we are told, is a time when demons walk the land, and it is the onmyoji who protect mankind from them and their curses. Doson’s power games in the palace are going to require Seimei’s intervention more than once, until the wizard’s master plan is revealed: unleashing the spirit of Prince Sawara, and binding it to himself for ultimate power.

"Oh my! You ARE sick!"

“Oh my! You ARE sick!”

I’m going to enjoy any movie involving magic that’s done well, and Onmyoji is certainly that; Abe no Seimei is a freaking 10th century Doctor Strange, and the revelations of his power are continually surprising and delightful. Hiromasa is a fine Dr. Watson character, providing someone to whom Seimei can explain things (and thereby explain them to us), and a humanizing counterbalance to Seimei’s otherworldly aloofness. In a reversal of one aspect of the Holmes/Watson dichotomy, Hiromasa is the musician of the two, and his masterful ability on the flute is pertinent to the story, as is his continually doomed love life (more on those in the sequel, which we’ll get to eventually).

The intriguing characters don’t stop with our heroes. There is the enigmatic Lady Aone (Kyôko Koizumi), apparently immortal. And Dosun’s familiar, possibly the most metal crow ever committed to film.

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“O soundless, invisible God of woe – may you reap all you have sown.”

Onmyoji is based on a series of novels by Baku Yumemakura, popular enough to be adapted to both manga and television. And after finding all this out, this gaijin was surprised to discover that Abe no Seimei is an actual, historical person. Was he truly a combination of Doctor Who and Harry Potter? We will never know, but it’s nice to think that he was.

As I said, I found this movie tremendously entertaining. I am alternately thrilled that there is a sequel and saddened that there is only one sequel. We will get to that one later. Like in ten letters later.

Buy Onmyoji on Amazon

H: La Herencia Valdemar (2010)

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Seems like we were in Spanish horror land just a few letters ago, doesn’t it?

Things are getting a little intense at a real estate firm, as the Valdemar estate is coming up for auction and the agent dispatched to the remote mansion 20 days before has not returned. Desperately the freelance antiques appraiser Luisa (Silvia Abascal) is contracted to pick up where the missing man left off. She finds the house deserted, nothing catalogued, and a nearly empty attic – empty except for the mangled body of the missing man. And something shadowy stalking her.

She barely escapes, aided by the somewhat simple handyman Santiago (Santi Prego) and Domáso (Jose Luis Torrijo), who is rather pissed that Santiago let her go in the mansion. She faints, and awakens hours later in their home. Possibly a prisoner, but certainly trapped there by a storm.

Interesting cane you have there, my friend

But never mind that, as another investigator, Nicolás (Óscar Jaenada) has been hired by Colvin, the head of that real estate firm (Eusubio Poncela) to work with the President of the Valdemar Foundation, Dr. Cervía (Ana Rusueño) to find the missing Luisa. She describes the Valdemar mansion as a classic “shunned house”, and explains why in a lengthy flashback that will be the majority of the movie.

At the fin de siècle of the 19th century, Lázaro and Leonor Valdemar (Daniele Liotti and Laia Marull), though themselves childless, run an orphanage (standard for modern Spanish horror #1). Lázaro is also a devotee of the emerging science of photography, and in his experimentation with double exposures, sets off a small cottage industry in which people come to seances, are startled by a levitating table, and in that instant are photographed; the resulting double exposures of “spirits” are much sought after, and fawning rich patrons are quite free with their donations to the orphanage. Lázaro and Leonor hope to use these proceeds to adopt a child of their own.

An opportunistic journalist, however, threatens blackmail, and when Lázaro refuses, has him arrested for fraud. Things look bleak until Lázaro is visited by an unexpected ally, none other than Aleister Crowley (Francisco Maestre), who devises a campaign to discredit the journalist and free Lázaro.

The price for this: Crowley has examined Lázaro’s spirit photos, and found, apart from the fakery, actual evidence of the supernatural lurking in the corners. He feels that not only is the mansion a spiritual nexus, but Lázaro is unconsciously a spiritual medium. These are two things that are necessary to conduct “The Dunwich Ritual” during an upcoming lunar eclipse. This will unlock secret knowledge for the participants; for Lázaro’s part, an answer to his and Leonor’s childlessness.

Despite his misgivings, Lázaro agrees, and Crowley brings in his fellows, including Bram Stoker (Lino Braxe), Lizzie Borden (Vanessa Suárez) and Belle Gunness (Laura Toledo). Crowley, though, has made a chauvinistic miscalculation, and the ritual releases what he terms “a devourer” into this world. The ritualists run away, leaving Lázaro wounded and the room aflame, and it is only the eventual sacrifice of Leonor that saves him.

The movie wraps up with the end of that story, reminding us of Nicolás, Luisa, and a couple of other folks, in an ending that confused a lot of people, apparently… I guess they ignored the brief snippets from the second part, which ends with a glimpse of something that definitely looks like Cthulhu… but that is something for the other end of the alphabet.

Now, for the good parts: this is a very handsome movie, well-shot and acted. Adding a lot of resonance and production value is Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy, in his final role as the Valdemar’s devoted manservant, Jervás. There is a lot of suitably creepy stuff, and some nicely humanistic moments, as well.

The bad part is this might as well be called Set-up: The Movie. Anyone expecting any resolution to the modern portions of the movie are going to be disappointed, those will all be left to the second part, The Forbidden Shadow, which looks to be a much rougher, more nasty, more… modern movie, perhaps. I look forward to it.

Though I am still puzzled by the fact that when Nicolás arrives, it appears he arrives by blimp… but perhaps that is another mystery which will be solved in the second part. We’ll see. (Spoiler: it won’t be.)

The Valdemar Legacy is available on Amazon Video. Bizarrely, its sequel is not.