Lady of the Lake (1998)

When his uncle dies by drowning in Owl Lake, David (Erik Rutherford) moves into the man’s house by said lake. Quickly, David encounters peculiar things: he finds a handful of too new photos of a strange, beautiful woman named Viviane (Tennyson Loeh) he remembers encountering by the lake when he was boy, and he begins having erotic dreams of her in which a mirror in the house works as a gate to the depths of the lake where Viviane seems to dwell. Soon, David can’t quite make out anymore where dreams and reality part, and certainly not on which side of that divide Viviane belongs.

His sleazy neighbour Anthony (Emidio Michetti) tells David his uncle didn’t just drown but was killed by Viviane, who is a cursed creature haunting the are for what I assume must be a hundred years or so – or whenever you suppose Renfaire style “gypsies” were roaming Canada – having to seduce and later kill men to avenge her own murder by pseudo-Renfaire knight Richard (Christopher Piggins). Actually, Anthony has rather personal knowledge of Viviane (which makes her being necessarily murderous somewhat problematic to believe) but he isn’t telling.

Given his experiences up to that point, David isn’t quite as sceptical about the story as you’d think but when a slightly more real Viviane asks him if he’d like her to stay with him for seven days and leave him forever afterwards, he’s much too love struck to disagree. Plot-wise, things go a bit off the rails soon after.

I was very impressed by director Maurice Devereaux’s later End of the Line, so obviously I had to go out and look for one of his earlier films. I’m rather happy I did, too, for while Lady of the Lake has some flaws, particularly during a third act that needlessly heaps more obvious action and some fine yet completely out of place gore onto a film that could have used a more low key and perhaps even subtle approach to tying its plot up, there’s a lot of good in the film.

I particularly enjoyed how much of Devereaux’s narrative has the feel and texture of a slightly modernized folk tale. A cursory internet search didn’t tell me if it’s based on a legend actually native to the Owl Lake area but the motives and structure of the tale are just right to be one in any case. Consequently, Lady of the Lake often feels more like a fantasy film than an outright piece of horror in its approach. Viviane, you see, might be a murderous spirit, but the way the film plays it, she’s also the innocent victim of things she has no control over, in a sense further punished for being murdered by a guy who couldn’t take no for an answer. The film leaves it unclear if Viviane’s former lovers’ mental deterioration to violent pricks is caused by the workings of her curse, or if these are just more cases of men not being able to cope with rejection without resorting to violence; if love turns to hate for them because it sometimes does, or because of the supernatural (or both). Given the film’s (very appropriate to this kind of tale) ending, I suspect it’s more if the former than of the latter.

In any case, unlike a lot of films featuring female sex-based supernatural creatures, this one doesn’t seem at all out to (even subtextually) demonize female sexuality; as should be obvious by now, it is not at all difficult to give Lady of the Lake an at least mildly feminist reading. It’s a rather uncommon approach that fits the film nicely. Its problems start when a peculiar time travel sequence makes Richard an active participant in the film’s proceedings. Suddenly turning this into a film with a very clear outward threat when it was doing very fine on its own in a more interesting, compassionate and ambiguous manner certainly isn’t doing the film any favours; it’s also less than helpful that Christopher Piggins’s performance as EVIL Richard is scene-chewing and broad in a film where everyone else goes for the low-key and the non-showy (sometimes with an added bit of indie horror acting awkwardness I’m pretty okay with here). Nor does it do the film many favours to remind its audience again of the weakest part of its set-up, the Renfaire folk of Canada. Structurally, the film gains a climax of outward excitement that doesn’t actually finish the plot in any way and de-emphasizes the actual resolution running parallel to it that fits the film much, much better.

That this doesn’t just straight up ruin the film for me has a lot to do with the care Devereaux put into the fifty minutes or so that came before, the simple and very clever use of effects (let’s ignore the digital fire), the atmospheric use of those old staple colours of artificial light in fantastic film, blue and red, the tight and imaginative editing that gives the film just the right flow, and a script that is (up to the point described and later again) more thoughtful than it actually needs to be. And all this while the film obviously has to work around a miniscule budget that should invite the usual “the catering for a mildly budgeted mainstream film will cost more” comparisons. Though, to be clear, the film’s good moments (that add up to an hour in all) don’t actually need the budget as an excuse; they’re well worth one’s time in any case.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

La Casa 5: Beyond Darkness (1990)

beyond_darkness_posterParticularly innocently faithful priest Peter (Gene LeBrock) and his family – wife Annie (Barbara Bingham) and little kids Martin (Troll 2’s Michael Stephenson) and Carole (Theresa F. Walker) move into the wrong house, or really, are maneuvered into moving into that place by his mentor, one Reverend Jonathan (Stephen Brown), I think. Please keep in mind this movie was written by Claudio Fragasso, so half of the logical connections have to be provided by the viewer or the film would go from “makes no goddamn sense at all” to the noise a brain makes when it dribbles out of a helpless cult film blogger’s ears.

Anyhow, it’s really not a good place for a family to stay, for the house is haunted by a bunch of women in black shrouds – of course once burned for witchcraft they may or may not have committed – who like to tear holes in the fabric of reality, produce dry ice fog of astonishing density, and kidnap children for sport. These charming dead persons are lead by a dead child murderess (Mary Coulson, I believe) who not just murdered her little victims but ate their souls to be able to bring them down to her favourite demon’s part of wherever he dwells.

It was an encounter with that lovely woman right before she was executed on the electric chair that broke down the faith of Peter’s old seminary friend – who unlike Peter became a Catholic priest – George (David Brandon ably assisted by buckets full of sweat). Ever since, George has sort of dropped out of the priesthood, sort of become an alcoholic, is looking for knowledge Man Was Not Meant to Know. and may or may not be possessed by the demon the murderess prayed to, depending on the mood of Fragasso when he wrote any given scene. In any case, when the shrouded ladies get rude, it’s George who helps Peter in various ways, until the whole thing fake-climaxes in a hilarious exorcism and other assorted nonsense.

As we all know, when Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso ended their partnership, Mattei took with him whatever actual sense there was between the two (and given Mattei’s later output, that statement is rather frightening), while Fragasso went on to transfer full control to his Id and gave us Troll 2. Shot in the same year as that epochal achievement, and featuring the same non-acting child actor in Michael Stephenson, Beyond Darkness will probably always be “the normal one” in comparison, seeing that it features a vaguely understandable plot, contains only half a dozen or so scenes that might traumatise the unprepared by their sheer fucking weirdness, and even tells a – if completely unrelatable and absurdly told – story about faith lost and found and glowing holes in the wall that lead to another dimension belonging to demons none of the three priests in the film calls Hell.

Of course, compared with Troll 2, most films are “the normal one”, and you can’t really say Fragasso didn’t apply most of his powers of coming up with sheer bizarre bullshit dressed up in improbable dialogue while setting his camera at an angle when shooting Beyond Darkness. This is after all still a film that has his perhaps sometimes possessed doubting priest suddenly popping up at his old mentor’s church to sweat profusely and jam a bit on the organ while both men babble nonsense about demons a theology doctorate wouldn’t help one to understand, where there’s a scene shot via flying knife cam, and whose kidnap, rescue and possession plot is told in the most convoluted way possible. But hey, I’m pretty sure the good guys win thanks to mentor guy shouting at a demon really loudly while staying home in his church until a Satanic bible burns and mentor guy himself dies from a heart attack (see, you can hear Fragasso think, my film’s just like The Exorcist); which is pretty good, because without that, Peter and Annie would have sacrificed their own son to the demons – and only Peter has the excuse of being possessed at the time.

This kind of nonsense is obviously only the tip of the iceberg of nonsense and non-sequiturs Beyond Darkness barfs into our eyes, ears and brains. I might be mixing my metaphors a little here but this is only appropriate when talking about a Fragasso film. In fact, it’s more or less the same approach Beyond Darkness is applying to storytelling. Visually, Fragasso is all about all kinds of crooked camera angles that are probably meant to be stylish and creepy but most of the time seem tacky and weird, incredible amounts of dry ice fog, glowing holes in walls (with dry ice fog coming through them, obviously), dry ice fog,  close-ups of eyes, dry ice fog, and more dry ice fog. Well, that and sweat, because all of the actors seem permanently drenched in a way that might – like a few other elements here – suggest some sort of misguided homage to Lucio Fulci, with David Brandon so caught up in the hot sweating action it’s a wonder nobody drowned in his fluids.

From time to time, between the nonsensical, the inane, and the bizarre, Fragasso also hits on an image that’s honestly creepy, like the shrouded (or really, wearing something that suggests he has seen The Woman in Black and/or photos of Victorian mourning garb) women stretching their hands through walls, doors, etc, again demonstrating that you don’t need to watch a “good” movie to see something shudder-worthy.

So, how much did I love this wondrous abomination of a film? Well, I wouldn’t want to marry it right now, but I’m interested in a long-term relationship full of speeches about demons, tasteless child ghosts, and some good old dimensional rifts in the walls.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Choke Canyon (1986)

Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in beautiful Choke Canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” but that’s not happening.

First Pilgrim’s people – as mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself – try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably frighten him into submission, but only manage to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.

From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace, so the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying the big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.


Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.

Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?


Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing to guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.

Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.


As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.

The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience – American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for a precious one and a half hours.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

2012: Curse of the Xtabai

Very suddenly, the population of a small village in Belize is struck by a deadly illness. It’s not your run-of-the-mill kind of sickness either, but the sort of thing that very quickly convinces the local doctor to somewhat unhelpfully mumble about curses. The government is very quick to quarantine the village, so soldiers surround the place and are all too willing to gun down everyone who comes too close; on the other hand, we don’t get to see any attempts at actual medical help.

Young Nehanda (Nehanda Higino) has been having a recurring dream concerning a cave, the jungle and the witch-like creature known as the Xtabai. When her little brother catches the illness, and her mother is killed by the soldiers when she tries to leave to find a doctor who doesn’t go from “unknown illness” to “curse” in the course of a few hours, Nehanda becomes convinced these dreams are indeed prophetic, and the cave contains a way to lift the curse destroying her village. So off she goes to the jungle with vaguely sleazy local guide and owner of an excellent name John Jones (Arran Bevis), and half of her school mates as well as her teacher (Jim Goodchild Arnold) in tow, facing the dangers of the soldiery as well as the rather unwanted attentions of the Xtabai herself.

Central-American Belize isn’t exactly a metropolis of filmmaking, so Xtabai may or may not be the country’s first (and possibly only) horror film. Not surprisingly with a film from a country with a small population and comparatively little cinematic infrastructure, director Matthiew Klinck’s epic is very rough around the edges, mostly shot with handheld digital cameras and featuring amateur actors. It does have a bit more going for it production-wise than many a microbudget horror film though, like actual soldiers portraying the members of the Belizian army (which comes as a bit of a surprise in a film that does portray that organisation as perfectly willing to gun down an unarmed woman and taking flight on the first sighting of a floating witch), and a general air of professionalism making the best out of a difficult situation behind the camera.

Xtabai is an interesting (in the best possible interpretation of the word) mixture of various elements: there’s an air of down-to-Earth realism to the early scene setting parts of the film – in part certainly on account of the semi-professional actors in very real locations – but the film also shows an imaginative streak that seems half to be caused by the ambitions of low budget horror movie that doesn’t quite want to only copy other films and half feels like folklore. This is after all a quest story about a girl trying to save her brother from a curse.

There’s also a bit of what I’ll never stop to call home-made psychedelia going on. The Xtabai’s murders scenes are delightful examples of how to use the cheapest digital effects to portray the change in perception attacks of the Weird/supernatural have on the characters, and definitely demonstrate more creativity than just letting the Xtabai slash and stalk in too mechanical a manner. From time to time, Klinck even manages to find a bit of visual poetry. I was particularly fond of the shadow play in Maestro’s death and the pure Weirdness of his fate in this regard, but there are a lot of little moments like that scattered around the film to keep the jaded horror film viewer interested.

I deeply appreciate the film’s dedication to the local: it’s not only the jungle (though I suspect that’s as good as cheap locations that are just sitting there for a filmmaker to use can get), or the way the film’s characters don’t fit horror movie tropes quite the way one expects. It’s not that the characters are deep mind you, but they are products of slightly different cultural sensibilities the film doesn’t attempt to hide, though they might very well be particularly embarrassing clichés if you’re from Belize.

The Xtabai – related to other folkloric entities of a parallel kind from all around the world as she may be – is a great pleasure in the local regard too, as is the film’s decision to include some of her stranger habits you’d typically get to see in folklore or in Weird Fiction, and less in straight-up horror. To make a final example of the film’s individual way of going about things, the Xtabai can in the end only be conquered with the help of a human sacrifice as prepared by a helpful Mayan elder (Nicasio Coc, I believe), something Klinck doesn’t keep hidden for some kind of final twist or for a not pre-planned self-sacrifice but lets the Mayan gentleman state completely friendly and matter-of-factly right when the characters meet him.

Of course, there’s also the mandatory “sexy bikini scene” (absurdly enough after the first member of our expedition has been taken by the Xtabai), a plot that more than once creaks mechanically, some feet dragging and so on and so forth in here, too, but in the case of this film, all that adds a slightly naive charm to the proceedings and not the generic blandness it could have. These weaknesses just can’t distract from Curse of the Xtabai’s inherent qualities of Weirdness, localness, imagination and enthusiasm that make it a film very much worth seeking out for those willing to approach a film on its own terms.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Tales that Witness Madness (1973)

Some middle-aged guy (the body of Jack Hawkins and the awkwardly dubbed voice of Charles Gray) visits the high-tech – by way of what looks a bit like a set from a cost-effective (but awesome) SF TV show – psychiatric clinic of one Professor Tremayne (Donald Pleasence). Tremayne shows off his four favourite patients while mumbling something about how his deep research into the cases and the truth about them will change everything.

This being a British horror anthology movie, with each patient lies a tale. There’s little Paul (Russell Lewis), who has a pair of permanently warring parents (Georgia Brown and Donald Houston), a nice private tutor (David Wood), and an imaginary friend who just happens to be an invisible tiger cleverly named “Mr. Tiger”. The obvious thing happens.

Next up is Timothy Patrick (Peter McEnery). His tale involves the inheritance of quite a few antiquities, among them the (soon to be moving) picture of one Uncle Albert (Frank Forsyth) and a penny-farthing that once belonged to the man. The unicylce or the picture or both have telekinetic powers that violently draw Timothy onto the cycle, make him cycle quite hard and transport him into the unicycling past where he takes the place of Albert and repeats a scene or two from a doomed romance (his past adventure love and present day love both being played by Suzy Kendall, the former one in a hilariously melodramatic manner) while being observed by what looks like mud zombie Uncle Albert. Obviously, past and future catastrophe looms.

Patient number three is Brian (Michael Jayston). Brian lives peacefully in a large house in the woods with his mildly irascible –she’s being played by Joan Collins after all – wife/girlfriend Bella until he finds an about human-sized and vaguely woman-shaped piece of a tree in the woods. Obviously, he’s dragging it home and putting it in his living room. Soon, the age-old tale of a man’s affections split between a piece of wood and a woman repeats again.

Last but not least, we witness the tale of Auriol (Kim Novak), a literary agent who’s rather fond of her best client, the “Polynesian” – or “Hawaiian”, going by the whole luau thing – writer Keoki (Leon Lissek, obviously neither Polynesian nor Hawaiian but then it is rather difficult to imagine somebody with the appropriate ethnicity taking on this particular role). Little does she expect that Keoki is in the process of fulfilling the last wish of his dear old mum, namely, to sacrifice a virgin to their favourite god and have a nice cannibalistic get-together afterwards. As luck will have it, Auriol’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm) just happens to be a virgin. And wow, isn’t it quite the coincidence Auriol is actually planning a little luau for him! Accidental inter-family cannibalism just might ensue.

As the observant reader might have noticed, the stories contained in this not Amicus produced (despite being directed by dear old Freddie Francis and featuring a structure and actors you might know all too well from the Amicus films) British horror anthology are utter, preposterous tosh, ending on notes as obvious as moonlight, while still managing to be flat-out crazy.

If you’re looking for something moody, thoughtful or just vaguely believable, you’ve come to the wrong film. Like a lot of these anthologies, this one’s a horror comic made flesh, but – apart from tale number four – it’s less EC style horror than the sort of thing Charlton Comics would have put out in comics code times (with perhaps a bit more blood than would have been allowed there on screen), stuff that at the best of times distracts from how pedestrian it should be by being outright crazy. Which is pretty much exactly what Tales That Witness Madness does after the somewhat useless first story, adding utterly peculiar elements to the stories that would seem ill-advised in a film actually out to scare its audience. Seriously, a haunted penny-farthing? And let’s not even talk about the whole of story number three, which just might be one of the major achievements of human arts.

Talking of ill-advised, it is rather difficult not to realize – even if you pretend very hard not to notice – how much of a racist fever dream the film’s last tale is, with its evil brown people killing a white virgin and feeding her to her own mother, and there’s really nothing I can find to excuse it, so if that sort of thing offends you (and good on you), you’ll loathe the rest of the film for it, too, I suppose. On the other hand, I found this tale so preposterous and silly in tone while also being gloriously lurid I couldn’t help but enjoy it more than a little. It’s just very difficult for me to look at this sort of thing (particularly in a film made more than forty years ago) and take it seriously enough to get angry or even very annoyed at the dead people responsible; not that I approve of it, mind you.

Be that as it may, Francis is pretty much the ideal director for this whole beautiful mess, combining his usual wonderful sense of visual style with the appropriate shamelessness to actually bring these deeply stupid tales to glowing life. Francis has just the right sense for movement and colour to turn this into a moving comic strip, clearly realizing that attempting to add class to this stuff would be a fool’s errand and opting for being as lurid and peculiar as possible, a task he fulfils with aplomb (as well as, one assumes, on time and on a not very large budget). Despite being quite so silly, the film also shows a wonderful sense of the telling (yet weird) detail that is best demonstrated by how the tree thing in tale number three is a bit more shaped like a woman in every scene, until the rip-roaring denouement that suggests a piece of tree is preferable to poor Joan Collins.

Clearly, it pays off putting effort even into the silliest things.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?


When it’s red you’re dead: Blood Moon (2014)

The Old West. A group of travellers on a stagecoach – the freshly married couple of Deputy Marshal Jake (George Blagden) and Sarah Norman (Amber Jean Rowan), baby-faced London Times journalist Henry Lester (George Webster), nervous priest Father Dominic (Kerry Shale), saloon owner Marie (Anna Skellern), and a mysterious gunman named Calhoun (Shaun Dooley) they picked up on the way – make a pit stop in what is supposed to be a station located in what otherwise is a ghost town. Unfortunately, the station owner is spending a bit of time out of town in his new role as a ripped apart corpse, clearly having taken going native in the place a bit too seriously.

Calhoun – not the only white guy in this part of the West suspiciously knowledgeable about Native American monsters – quickly determines the man wasn’t killed by a normal animal but by a skinwalker; the rest of the party doesn’t exactly agree with his assessment. However, this specific dead body and the possible supernatural cause of its death might not be the most pressing of the party’s problems anyway, for they soon find themselves ambushed and captured by notorious outlaws Hank (Corey Johnson) and Jeb (Raffaello Degruttola) Walker, who might not be supernatural, but sure as hell are dangerous enough. Plus, at least one of the Walkers is so crazy, he might as well be a supernatural monster for all the difference it makes.

Of course, then there’s the further complication added to our heroes’ troubles that the station owner was indeed killed by a skinwalker and the creature’s still roaming the area in a very bad mood, particularly since a blood moon is hanging in the sky…

There’s also a subplot about Jake’s cousin, one Marshal Wade (Jack Fox) and his Native American tracker/visionary/witch friend Black Deer (Eleanor Matsuura) in their role as the miniature posse hunting the Walkers, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why these two are even in the movie apart from taking care of some plot setup the film could have handled without introducing two characters who’ll spend most of the film’s running time randomly trundling through the woods and not doing much of interest.

And right here, we’re at the main trouble with Jeremy Wooding’s UK-produced horror western Blood Moon – Alan Wightman’s script simply becomes awkward from time to time, not just by introducing a subplot that takes up more space than is necessary (and adds further characters to a film that already has enough of them just to introduce a bit of exposition, a minor horror scene that has little business being in the plot, and light deus ex machina-ing) but also with moments like Chekov’s Awkwardly Presented Silver Rings near the beginning. You know the rule: “If a werewolf film has a character showing off her silver rings in the first act, they will end up being used for werewolf killing in the third”. That Chekov guy really knew his stuff. These aren’t catastrophic failings as far as this particular film goes, though they do tend to make a movie that puts a western skinwalker twist on a Carpenter-esque siege scenario rather less focused and tight than I’d have liked it to be. On the other hand, wheneverBlood Moon works, it does so very well indeed, and it does work more often than not.

Despite including one or two scenes I found rather stagy for my tastes (mostly some of the indoor dialogue concerning Jeb), Wooding directs much of the film with a very sure hand, filming around its probably tiny budget quite elegantly and creatively, and turning the – mostly effective suitmation – monster into a credible threat as well as into a source of suspense that works as a nice catalyst for revealing the tensions between the characters besieged by it. That’s also an area where the script comes into its own in a positive way, giving stock character types just the right minor twists they need to come to life, and providing some fun old west style dialogue that might not be realistic (well, surely is not) but is – apart from a moment or two when it sounds just a bit silly – a joy to listen to. The majority of the actors not being Americans isn’t much of a problem here, either, because they’re not faking actual American accents here but are using what movies – a lot of them dubbed in Italy – have taught us people sounded like way back when. The core cast is decent, and often better, even if you don’t enjoy artificial accents, the film providing most everyone with a few moments to shine (and perhaps a pleasantly bloody death).

While I’ve done quite a bit of nitpicking in this write-up, I don’t want anyone reading come to the wrong conclusion about the film: if you’re able to get over its flaws – and there are more than enough virtues on display to make that pretty easy for me –Blood Moon is a fine example of contemporary low budget filmmaking, working in a genre mix that’s gotten a bit more common in the last decade or so but is still far from being overused, and providing  quite a few things to appreciate. That it’s not perfect isn’t really the most horrible thing imaginable (that would be getting ripped to shreds and not even eaten by a skinwalker, I suppose, or having to watch another Paranormal Activity sequel).

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Evil’s Roots Run Deep: Jack Heller’s ‘Dark Was the Night’

Some rather weird occurrences start happening in a US small town close to your proverbial deep dark woods. Things start with a missing horse and a line of curious, cloven-hoofed tracks running through the whole of the town, tracks that certainly don’t fit any animal anyone’s ever heard about. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the legends surrounding something living deep in the woods around town, sheriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his freshly imported formerly New Yorker deputy Donny Saunders (Lukas Haas) don’t believe in any cryptids roaming around town. A rather imaginative hoax seems more plausible to them.

Paul has his head full of other things, too: after the death of one of his two little sons in an accident he blames on himself, his marriage to his wife Susan (Bianca Kajlich) has hit a very rough spot, her now having moved out to live with her parents. So Paul is at first so distracted he doesn’t quite buy into the disquieted attitude going around town. The curious incidents are piling up though, and Paul might be emotionally battered but he does take his responsibility towards the people he has sworn to protect very seriously, so he changes his mind about the “hoax” before whatever it is that has come to town can take its first human victim (apart from some introductory ones he doesn’t know about which the film gave to the audience as a blood toll).

Now, if this doesn’t sound like a dozen SyFy Original creature features: a sheriff with a marriage on the rocks, a typical US small town, a hungry cryptid known from local Native American legends, the former big city deputy running from his own piece of the past, and so on and so forth. Which only goes to show that very often, the point in genre filmmaking isn’t being original, but using the clichés and the tropes you find in the right way.

For that is what makes Jack Heller’s (also responsible for another film that made good with not exactly original ideas in Enter Nowhere) Dark Was the Night as fine a movie as it turns out to be – the thought and care that has been put into these hoary old clichés to make them breathe and come alive again. I think much of this effect is caused by how careful Heller as well as Tyler Hisel’s script approach all of the very traditional elements they’re working with, clearly putting much thought into their place and meaning in the context of their specific narrative, instead of just regurgitating them like most other films would do (sometimes even to fun effect). This is not deconstruction or an “ironic” (shudder) approach to the creature feature, though. Rather, the film takes each old element and applies it as if it were new, more by changing the emphasis on elements than the elements themselves.

This careful (careful seems to me the watchword for the film) approach enables the film to turn plot elements that should be tiresome, like the whole dead kid/marriage trouble angle, into something emotionally touching and valid. To my eyes, the film does feel just a decisive bit more honest about the inner lives of its characters here too, aiming for a kind of psychological realism that fits its calm (or should I say careful?) approach to its monster. The way the film tells it, it’s not even feeling dishonest or clichéd that monster fighting actually can pull a guy out of his depression and bring a marriage back on track.

How well the character based parts of the plot work is in part due to the respectful and not melodramatic way it is written but of course also something the ensemble deserves praise for too. Durand, Kajlich and Haas in particular really hit the emotional spots right, treating the emotional turmoil of their characters in a monster movie with the same respect and care they’d apply to a domestic drama. And since the film very much puts the emphasis on these characters and their inner lives, it gets all the better for it.

This doesn’t mean the film isn’t a really fun low budget monster movie too. Heller does know how to make this part of the film memorable too, not surprisingly given the rest of the film’s approach) putting the emphasis here on suspense and expectation, only getting little snatches of its monster on screen for the longest time until it becomes impossible to hide the fact we have a case of a pretty mediocre looking CGI creature. At that point, however, the film has put so much effort and (again) care into building up the situation, the monster, and even the why of its attacks (without falling into a complicated mythology or over-explaining), it could have put a marionette on screen and still deserved all the praise it can get. I do love here, too, that the monster isn’t one of cryptozoology’s greatest hits but again a creature the film has put some thought into, trying to give the creature as much reality as it possibly can.

This sense of realism goes a long way for a film in a genre that mostly goes “yeah, bigfoot/the chupacabra/etc, you know” and does of course fit with the emotional and psychological realism on display as well.

The only moment I found somewhat disappointing was the usual horror movie “gotcha!” ending that has stopped working on me so much I can only ever see it as an empty cynical gesture anymore. Though it has to be said, even here Dark Was the Night keeps to its realistic approach to the strange in so far as the ending actually makes sense in the context of at least some of what we’ve seen before. However, complaining about a movie’s final thirty seconds when the rest of it is so carefully, unassumingly fine really is a luxury problem to have, so I can’t say I minded too much.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

On Jupiter’s moon he is the only law: Peter Hyams’ ‘Outland’

The near future. Federal Marshall O’Niel (Sean Connery in one of his neutral state performances where he’s neither applying himself particularly nor looking too bored) has just assumed his new position as the highest ranking law enforcement officer on a mining station on Jupiter’s moon Io, a position you don’t get because you’re exactly a high-flying star of your organization. In fact, O’Niel’s wife (Kika Markham) has gotten so sick of a series of jobs in horrible places and the effect that’ll have on the development of their son, she leaves O’Niel just two weeks after they have arrived, son in tow (which, given the horrible performance the poor child actor gives, is an excellent idea as far as this viewer’s nerves are concerned).

O’Niel stumbles upon the curiously high amount of suicides and self-created accidents on the station. After a bit of investigation, O’Niel finds out the miners are supplied with a drug that increases their performance before slowly driving them mad, and it’s all done with more than just the approval of local mining corp head Sheppard (Peter Boyle). Everybody around is either looking away from the problem because they are paid off, or just because they don’t want to rock the boat and lose the tiny bit of the economic cake they can get. O’Niel, right in the middle of his own private existential crisis, realizes he won’t let himself be bought, or ignore what’s going on, whatever the consequences may be. Not surprisingly, there’s violence in the air.

I have always been rather fond of Peter Hyams’ Science Fiction variation on High Noon, and my recent re-watch only confirmed to me this is one of the seriously underrated genre films of its time. Not that there aren’t dubious scientific moments: at least people who understand physics much better than I do tell me that the film’s fixation on people exploding when coming into contact with the vacuum of space is entirely misguided, though it does make for some nice effects, and I don’t even want to think about how much else the film probably gets wrong about the potentials and hazards of space mining operations, the working of solar panels, and so on, and so forth. Fortunately, I’m too dumb to notice anyway.

On the other hand, Outland’s scientific accuracy doesn’t really matter much, because it gets the – in a work of fiction – much more important aspect of making the mining station feel believable right. The station feels like a real, and appropriately shabby, place a future working class might have to inhabit, with basically the same hardships, the same ugliness, and the same injustice as today, just with smaller cots, more artificial light and less chances for a better life. The way the film, in its production design and its unspoken assumptions, tells it, there’s nothing glamorous about the work in space, only danger, mediocre pay, and a company who only cares for its earnings, space having become the place where dreams die and careers end instead of the place of hope and romance it once was (if only in our shared dreams). All this, the film never so much explains outright but suggests through the details of its production design, the only mildly bitter cynicism of its doctor character as played by Frances Sternhagen, and the way nobody ever quite meets anybody else’s eyes. Unlike in High Noon, even O’Niel’s attempt to ask the miners for help has something perfunctory about it, Connery’s posture carrying the knowledge he won’t get anything from these people before he even has to open his mouth. Pointedly, the film doesn’t even seem to judge the miners for not getting on O’Niel’s side, realizing that a cowed working class like that might just see the pointlessness in O’Niel’s struggle.

Because, sure, O’Niel gets his personal happy end – this is a movie after all – but there’s really no second here on screen arguing he’s made much of an impact on how things are as a whole; he’s only ever been fighting a symptom of diseases it needs more than a gun and a badge to end. And he can flee to greener pastures now anyway, it seems (though the film pointedly avoids the economics of that decision).

Hyams, always at least a dependable director when it comes to action and suspense, and often a rather brilliant and unsung one, does tell this tale in a straightforward style, with some expectedly fine suspense scenes (the hostage sequence and the grand finale being the obvious examples), and a way of turning the station into a real place by making use of great, grimy, production design (this was made at the moment when the future in the cinema became full of lived-in places populated by lived out people, after all), and some very impactful lighting decisions that sometimes even suggest a working knowledge of Bava to my eyes. Which, all in all, is quite a lot for a film whose high concept sell was probably “High Noon in Space, and get me that Connery guy!”

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The world’s first galactic supersleuth: Supersonic Man (1979)

aka Sonic Man (which I can only imagine to be a side story about our hero’s less favoured brother)

Poor Professor Morgan (José María Caffarel)! He is such a genius when it comes to energy SCIENCE! (energytology?), evil, perhaps ever so slightly crazy, villain Dr. Gulik (Cameron Mitchell) sends out a bunch of his sub-COBRA goons and one of his oh so very impressive killer robots to kidnap him, making the authorities believe the good Professor defected somewhere leaving a lot of dead bodies behind.

Fortunately, some aliens have decided that enough is enough with all that human nonsense, and have sent out superhero Supersonic (Richard Yesteran) to take care of business on Earth. When he’s not flying around to a one-finger synthesizer version of the Superman theme, or activating his varied superpowers via finger pointing and weird hand gestures, Supersonic (probably not Supes to his friends for copyright reasons) works as a moustachioed private eye. In this function he more or less stumbles (we shouldn’t ascribe to purpose what we can ascribe to random chance in this movie) upon Morgan’s daughter Patricia (Diana Polakov), who doesn’t believe her father could do anything morally dubious at all, and could really use a private eye to find him.

The private eye business will turn out to be Supersonic’s greatest weakness once he gets down to the whole thwarting evil Dr. Gulik, rescuing good Professor Morgan business, because like all private eyes, he too has the tendency to get conked in the head from behind, which makes life somewhat difficult for a superhero who needs to talk into – or at least think at – his (magic) space watch to transform. Hopefully, random chance will help him out there too.

I’m not much of a fan of the Italian and Spanish rip-offs of Superman, perhaps because I already don’t find the original to be exactly riveting (I’m very sorry, but Superman as a character does little for me, probably because I find perfection incredibly boring), but most probably because most of the resulting films were neither particularly inspired nor particularly crazy, which could only ever leave us with a shoddy superhero movie.

Juan Piquer Simón’s Supersonic Man is the great exception to the rule, because while it’s as shoddy, dumb, and silly as three other cheap superhero movies combined, it is also a film containing oh so many indelible charms I find it utterly impossible to resist it. There may be little the film does actually right – except for Simón’s frequent cinematographer Juan Mariné’s surprisingly pleasant photography – but most everything it does wrong, it does in delightful ways that’ll convince you a man in a cape can fly over a fake yet beautiful model of a house.

What the film, or rather Simón, does particularly right is finding a way to actually awaken Cameron Mitchell from the stupor he is in during too many of his low budget nonsense outings and getting him to chew the scenery in his own inimitable way, like a prettier William Shatner on very bad drugs. During the course of the film, Mitchell gets to chew and spit out not only scenery, helpless co-actors, and possibly your mind, he also has at least half a dozen great, absolutely ridiculous villain speeches. If you’re really lucky, he does give these while having “philosophical” – which in the context of this film means “deeply stupid” – discussions with Caffarel’s Professor, whom he always keeps at his side to have someone to gloat at. Caffarel, speaking lots and lots of more loquacious versions of the words “tut, tut, you evil madman” does make a contrast that helps Mitchell shine extra bright, too, for where dear old Mister Mitchell gloats, gesticulates and mugs, Caffarel is clearly above emoting (or really, moving too much), possibly because he’s afraid that Mitchell will eat him too.

There are many other joys to be had in Supersonic Man, and not just the way Supersonic (the Man is clearly implicit) goes out of his way to not help henchmen in need (making the last Superman movie look much friendlier all of a sudden), or the fact that the film is absolutely hilarious, except in those moments when it is actually trying to be hilarious through that most horrid type of comic relief – a homeless comedy alcoholic. I could probably go on listing things for a few thousand words, but it’ll be better for everyone’s sanity if I only mention one or two.

So, there’s that famous scene where Supersonic lifts a barely three-dimensional steamroller out of Patricia’s way, like a real champ (if a real champ were a guy who cheats outrageously), with said steamroller having been built (probably in half an hour of somebody’s lunch break) either from very light wood (if you’re the more kindly minded type of thinker), or actual papier-mâché (if you’re more of a glass half empty kind of mutant). In any case, the great beauty of his scene is not just that the steamroller is clearly not a steamroller but how utterly shameless Simón is about it, clearly not caring one bit that his audience notices the extreme short cuts he’s willing to take. Curiously, in this film, that approach doesn’t look so much like a director looking down at his audience and his film than like a guy sharing a private moment with us.

Secondly, there are Gulik’s killer robots. They are silver, they have tasteful little glowing lamps, they have tiny rockets, they have in-built flame-throwers, they have in-built gas-throwers, they are so fast (cough) they can move at least three or four meters a minute (Simón already training for Slugs?), and they look exactly like giant toy robots. In fact, they look and feel exactly like what an eight year old would find awesome in a robot, so again, Simón seems to know what he’s doing with them.

These robots, as well as the film’s approach to special effects, also suggest to me that, while the film is clearly meant to rip-off the Donner Superman film, Simón is actually working off the much older serial model for Supersonic, something that also explains the film’s stop and start episodic plotting, the archetypal characters, and the way the action scenes are staged just as well, perhaps even better, than mere ineptitude would. One might even start to think there’s no ineptitude involved here at all but a rather clever and private revival of an often forgotten style of filmmaking hidden away in plain sight.

Or I just might be crazy, but then, so’s Dr. Gulik, and he gets all the best lines. Soon you will know the true force.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Cartes sur Table: Attack of the Robots (1966)

Oh no! International bigwigs are murdered by guys and gals in blackface, wearing what we from a more enlightened age can only describe as hipster glasses! The perpetrators are acting kinda weird, too, as if they were some sort of mind-controlled…robots. They are also losing their black-faces when they get killed.

Interpol finds out that these killers – at least the one’s they can get their hands on after their deeds – are all people who mysteriously disappeared before now turning up all minstrel show-y. The only connection between these disappeared is their shared blood group – rhesus zero (scientific fact: the film’s science might be ever so slightly dubious). Some very vague clues point to a charming tourist spot in Spain. Because they really want a rhesus zero blood type kinda guy to investigate things in Spain, and there’s a disturbing lack of them in active service, Interpol rope their former, rhesus as well as brains zero, agent Al Pereira (Eddie Constantine) back in. Al isn’t too happy with the whole thing, particularly because a “Chinese” gentleman with the extremely probable name of Lee Wee (Vicente Roca) wants him to do the same job too, but he’s actually even to stupid to properly say no to anyone, be it Lee or Interpol. Well, at least Al’s pretty good at punching people, and charming the ladies (pheromones, I guess?).

These awesome talents will be put to good use once Al attracts the attention of robot people builders Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney (Françoise Brion) and Sir Percy (Fernando Rey) and their entourage, as well as the ire of the Chinese, and the interest of one Cynthia Lewis (Sophie Hardy).

I don’t actually know much about French genre films beyond Oughties horror, a bit of 50s swashbucklers, and Jean Rollin, but I do know the French had a – somewhat inexplicable, so I assume comparable to Jerry Lewis – thing for Eddie Constantine, hero of a quintillion of pulpy crime, spy and Godard movies, and not exactly the most inspiring actor ever to come from America, what with his difficulties expressing those “emotions” people talk about so much. One thing Constantine – as far as I know, and as Cartes as well as the Godard connection suggests – really had going for him was that he was clearly game for anything at all, with no unhelpful ideas about personal or thespian dignity. Just like Sir Ben Kingsley, now that I think about it.

Which obviously makes him the ideal lead in this relatively early directorial outing of my favourite Jesus, Jess Franco, because like all Eurospy films Franco made, Cartes sur table quickly turns out to be a Eurospy farce full of bat-shit insane ideas. The film, of course, does not make the slightest attempt to do stupid and boring stuff like tell a sensible, logical story (as if that had much risk of happening in a Franco film) in a sensible logical way, and instead throws bizarre dialogue, weird shit, and various incredibly fake looking but awesome and spirited punch-ups at its audience until it will either run off in a huff, or roll with it laughing and grinning, and having as much of a time as Constantine seems to have. Sure, the man wasn’t a great actor, and I don’t think one of the great low budget charismatics, but he sure seems to enjoy his time on screen so much it’s difficult for me not to share in the fun. So, unlike with Jerry Lewis, the French were right.

Having fun with the possibly insane is made to look (and feel) particularly easy by Franco, of course. At this stage of his career, when he actually needed to make movies that didn’t exclusively cater to himself and his obsessions (which I actually love him and his films for, quite a lot), Franco’s films couldn’t quite get away with the full self-indulgence, so this Eurospy comedy can’t spend the time on the moments of leisure and boredom that soon became so important in the director’s films.

Fortunately, this is so early in Franco’s career too, he doesn’t just get bored with the whole affair and just shoots some crap, takes his cheque, and makes three other films with that money. Instead, Franco chooses a classic and simple one damn thing after another approach we, the easily distractible, always will enjoy. Among these damn things are some Franco mainstays, like two (alas only very short) improbable night club numbers of the kind I generally find impossible to describe effectively (because that’s what the movies are for, and I’m not Jess Franco), a main villainess with a bit of a kinky handle on villainous life and a charming dominatrix personality, the inexplicable business with the black-face robot zombie people, bizarre asides like the scene where Constantine finds his hotel room smashed after a Chinese goons versus robot goons fight in his absence, fetches a porter to complain, only to find a perfectly fine room again because the surviving Chinese have – for no reason I could make out, of course – taken it upon themselves to clean up behind themselves once they are alone in the room. All the while, Cynthia watches the proceedings through an absurdly large hatch in the wall. The Chinese only miss two corpses, but what the heck, right? Plus, that gives the film the opportunity for some corpse joke business taking up the next five minutes.

And if that doesn’t convince you Cartes sur table may be slightly atypical Franco but also very fun Franco, I don’t know what could.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?