The Killings at Outpost Zeta (1980)

Planet Zeta is supposed to become an important stepping stone for further interplanetary explorations for an entity called “Star Fleet” that surely has nothing at all to do with a different organisation called “Starfleet”. Alas, contact with the first preparatory mission on Zeta breaks off after a while, with no hints at what might have happened to the new, small outpost made out of cardboard and spit. The first rescue mission disappears without a trace too, as does the second one, and for mysterious reasons, regular contact with one’s rescue missions that might suggest what happens to them seems not to be Star Fleet’s modus operandi, which gets particularly interesting once the audience gets to experience how slow this film’s particular menace actually operates.

Because three is the magic number, Star Fleet – in form of a very concerned looking gentleman with a liking for coffee that suggests him for a guest spot in the coming revival of Twin Peaks – decides to send out a third rescue mission, this time the sort of special suicide mission whose elite volunteer team members get extra insurance and have to make their testaments before going out. Must be very reassuring.

Once our heroes – character names and such seem rather irrelevant here, but of course there’s a female rookie who will do a lot of screeching and panicking as well as a paranoid security man who will fail very hard, and a Hero – arrive at Outpost Zeta, they soon discover the sucked out corpses of most of their predecessors and of the initial base team. Would you believe aliens (and a humungous amount of human stupidity) are involved in the affair? Our heroes might investigate, but it’s nappy time first.

Some of my readers do perhaps have vague recollections of The Killings at Outpost Zeta’s directors, producers, etc. Robert “Bob” Emenegger and Allan Sandler as part of the fascinating mixture of bullshit, paranoia and authentic weirdness that is US UFO culture (have a semi-random link), and that has given me much joy over the years. However, apart from Fortean documentaries and such, the partners also cranked out about ten ultra cheap SF movies for the TV and/or early home video circuit during 1980 and 1981. These movies shared parts of their casts, their sets, and their props, with no set too barren and no prop too ridiculous looking to reuse, an approach to movie making Roger Corman and I approve of.

Not surprisingly, the futures of Outpost Zeta and its brethren are highly influenced by other low budget films, Star Trek and pulp SF, describing a time when all rooms will have a somewhat cardboard-like look to them, people will dress in the most peculiar uniforms, and a laser gun (a prop that’s used in all the Emenegger/Sandler films I’ve seen, because it is just that incredible) will be a red plastic tube with a glued on handle that begs the question why the producers didn’t just buy some toy guns for more believable looking weapons. Not cheap enough, I suppose. In other words, Outpost Zeta is a visual brother to things like the much beloved (by me) science fiction films of Alfonso Brescia (with whom they also share the recycling approach to material), though in the plot and idea department, Outpost Zeta never reaches the heights of lunacy – or lunatic metaphor – Brescia aimed for, instead arriving at more sane cardboard pulp Sci Fi. Formally, on the other hand

If cheap sets, ridiculous costumes, and horrible to mediocre acting aren’t things to dissuade one from a film, one might find a lot to love about The Killings at Outpost Zeta, and not just the sheer power of its cheap sets, ridiculous costumes and horrible to mediocre acting. Emenegger’s and Sandler’s direction, for example, is a thing to behold, full of fisheye lenses, curious camera angles, alien-eye view shots that combine into a kind of garage-made psychedelia. This slightly fevered mood is even strengthened by performances that often seem to grasp wildly – and randomly – at pathos, or psychological turmoil, or DRAMA, and a wonderful/horrible, definitely wonderfully strange synth soundtrack by Emenegger himself. In space, it seems, things are very different.

While the form of Outpost Zeta suggests the 70s in its home made tendency to mild trippiness, its content would have found a place among the films of US horror/SF cinema of the 50s without a problem, having not a single idea that wouldn’t have fit in these simpler times.

Surprisingly enough, the film’s monsters even make sense -at least they are coherent in a pulp SF sort of way instead of developing random powers whenever the plot needs them. The script as a whole is unexpectedly well-paced, containing a lot of somewhat loopy ideas it still brings together coherently in so far as it does take care to establish the rules of its universe and then stick to them, developing the action – as far as it can afford anything that can be called action at all without having to show its monsters too often – logically from there. This makes for a pleasant sort of old-fashioned SF monster movie that just happens to be delivered in a delightfully strange form.

That is of course exactly how I like my low budget SF films, and consequently, I had a lot of fun with The Killings at Outpost Zeta. This surely won’t be the last time I’ll spend with an Emenegger/Sandler production.

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

Byzantium (2013)

Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (based on a script by Moira Buffini that doesn’t feel stagy at all despite being based on her stage play) is the kind of film that really needs quite a different writer than I am to be properly appreciated. A shot-by-shot analysis combined with a deep thematic exploration seems rather appropriate, but that’s neither a thing I do, nor a thing I’m particularly good at, nor a thing I am even usually interested in.

What I can do, though, is to swoon a bit about what I think is the best film I’ve seen to have come out in 2013. I might throw around words like masterly, even. Now, before anyone thinks I have been struck by a case of director fandom, I’m not even that much of an admirer of the body of work of Neil Jordan as a whole, because for every properly brilliant movie he makes (like Angela Carter adaptation The Company of Wolves, obviously), there are two pieces of self-important dross that just aren’t as clever as they think they are in his filmography. And don’t even get me started on the waste of properly sexy history that is The Borgias or his other vampire movie, the execrable Interview with the Vampire. This fluctuation between the horrible and the sublime makes the director much more difficult to adore than someone who makes mediocre and brilliant films in equal measure. On the plus side, one gets the feeling that Jordan’s failures have never been caused by a lack of ambition or an inability to change.

Be that as it may, with Byzantium, Jordan takes not a single false step throughout nearly two hours of film – and this is a film that really needs the time it takes – with moment of subtly breathtaking filmmaking followed by moment of subtly breathtaking filmmaking followed by moments of not at all subtle yet still breathtaking filmmaking. This is a film that not just oozes style in a very deliberate way, knows which shots to frame like a painting and which ones not to, builds a non-realist mood of contemporary grime with as sure a hand as it does provide some beautifully gothic excess; it is also a film that does nothing of it without a reason. In fact, there’s a calm purpose to every shot and every camera movement, all of it not just made to impress with its beauty but always bearing the weight of character, theme, and mood without ever making it look like a weight.

At the very same time, Byzantium never uses its visual style to overwhelm its actors, always giving them as much space as they need. And, given how great Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton and their supporting cast are, one can’t help but imagine them paying the film’s care back in style. While some of the basic character set-up might seem a little obvious, even clichĂ©d, on paper, the actors as well as the script provide subtlety and life quite on the level with what Jordan is doing around them, with so many suggestions of complexity I soon forgot that not every idea here is new to vampire media of any kind. It is, after all, not just the ideas which matter but also how you bring them together and execute them.

Thematically, Byzantium is as rich as its visuals and its acting are. This is, of course, in part a story about growing up given an ironic twist by the nature of its main characters, as well as a story about the need to change even when you are supposedly changeless. Yet there are also undercurrents of moral failures perpetuating themselves cyclically, of the impossibility to keep one’s hands clean when one wants to survive as a monster or as a human being until one doesn’t even want to keep one’s hands clean anymore, as well as an exploration of the lies people tell themselves about their natures to be able to live with themselves. There is, obviously, also a feminist and even a class-conscious aspect to a story that shows the vampires as a boy’s club that really doesn’t want any of those icky girls in them, particularly not ones from the lower classes. Which somewhat comes with the territory of a group whose members have been born centuries ago and clearly want and need to control their environment as far as possible. In this context, the film’s women can’t help but represent change and a different way of life – everything the male vampires fear – to them, quite independent of who these women actually are, and how much of the way theyhave to lead their lives is a survivor’s reaction to the pressures coming from the men around them. One of the really masterful aspects of the film is that it contains all this and more and never feels overloaded or as if it were trying too hard.

Another aspect of Byzantium I particularly admire is its willingness and ability to change from its semi-realist mode into Gothic fullness and back again without selling any of it short. In fact, the film achieves some of its greatest impact by the collision of the two modes, and by never quite keeping them apart for long, as if both ways at looking at the world were in the end just sides of the same coin.

Quite surprisingly in a film this unashamed of its Gothic melodrama, it also has a sense of humour about it all, a sense of humour which – again – never diminishes the rest of what’s going on, particularly since it has a wonderful grip on the closeness between humour and horror, and a cast willing and able to sell this, too.

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

I Know Who Killed Me (2007)

posterTeen Aubrey Fleming (Lindsay Lohan) is living a charmed life – she’s bright, wealthy, has a supportive family, and could have all the jock boyfriends she could handle; all reasons for her not to be perfectly happy are hidden quite well or perfectly obvious after this description. Then one day she disappears, probably the third victim of a serial killer.

Unlike your usual victim of a serial killer, Aubrey reappears quite alive, if without her right hand and parts of her right leg. Her abductor’s earlier victims suggest he is into torture through amputation before he kills his victims, so this isn’t completely surprising, if horrible. The police assumes Aubrey must somehow have escaped from her tormentor and just made it close enough to a road to be noticed.

But the returned Aubrey says she isn’t Aubrey at all but an exotic dancer called Dakota Moss; she also claims not to be able to describe anything about her tormentor, and to barely remember anything at all, if with a reluctance that suggests she might not be telling the whole truth. Everyone is convinced Aubrey has developed some choice delusions to protect herself from her traumatic experience – the FBI in childishly annoyed ways that surely would help no traumatized victim open up, Aubrey’s family with a mixture of horror and a willingness to get through this thing too, somehow, whatever “this thing” actually is.

However, Aubrey/Dakota hasn’t even told anyone the truly strange parts of her story, something so unbelievable it looks she and her shiny new high class prosthetics (medicine is surprising fast on the film’s planet) will have to catch the serial killer themselves.

I suspect the general hatred for Chris Sivertson’s I Know Who Killed Me is based on the general hatred for lead actress Lindsay Lohan, something I neither share nor care for, since nothing I know of Lohan’s public life suggests anything more than the not atypical story of somebody growing up in public and becoming troubled and somewhat self-destructive, which certainly aren’t things deserving of hatred in my world. That “compassion” thing I heard about once might be a more appropriate reaction, but of course, if there’s one thing left and right, identity politicians and bigots have in common right now, it’s their pleasure in judgement and talking down to people instead of making even the tiniest attempt at empathy or developing tolerance for any imperfections in others.

Be that as it may, and leaving Lohan’s (who gives a perfectly decent performance here, and if that’s the sort of performance deserving a Razzie, the people responsible for that award should probably watch actually bad performances from time to time) public image aside, I Know Who Killed Me looks to me like the sort of film everyone who’d be interested in a (relatively) contemporary US variation on the giallo should take a look at when she’s through the films of Brian De Palma, whose shadow seems to hang over the film in more than one scene.

I Know Who Killed Me is not at all interested in “realism”, or in being the kind of thriller whose plot would be even vaguely probable in real life, or even just sound probable as fiction. Rather, Sivertson’s film attempts to create a dream world, a filmic place where visual metaphors (some so very, very blunt as to make Eisenstein blush, some surprisingly subtle) are more important than plot logic. For my tastes, Sivertson is very good at this sort of thing, using surprisingly complex and meaningful colour schemes, gliding camera work, and the sudden influx of the fantastic and the bizarre into the semi-reality of the film, all in the service of creating a fictional place and a mood that enables him to talk about how difficult it is to be a young woman right now, quite independently of class, or talent, or just blind luck. One might suggest that this theme rather fits the film’s lead actress, but hey, what do I know?

If I Know Who Killed Me only consisted of these elements, it would be a rather easy film to digest and love, but Sivertson adds even more to the mix: there are moments when the dream mood becomes a fairy tale mood (see also the classic fairy tale trope about lost siblings), moments of Lifetime Channel type melodrama awkwardly rubbing against the rest of the film, rather too coy sleaziness (the stripping and the sex feel more than just a little absurd thanks to that), and a sense of dry humour that pops up in the most unexpected places. It’s a bit of an overload of contradictory impulses, and certainly doesn’t help make the film an easily digestible whole. It does, on the other hand, create something of a feeling of more going on behind the film’s curtains than one at first suspected, suggesting a complexity of ambition behind the film I’m still not sure is actually there. What it definitely leaves a viewer with is room for copious divergent interpretations of hidden meanings, which is always a fun game to play with a film inviting one to it.

Of course, this tonal inconsistency drawing me to I Know Who Killed Me like catnip does to Socks is exactly what will drive a lot of people away from the film. Any given viewer will find more than one moment in it either impressively imaginative or strained to the point of inadvertent comedy; I don’t believe anyone watching will be left neutral. As should be obvious, I found myself impressed more often than not, and appreciated the film’s more dubious moments because to me, these moments look like the result of a film actually taking risks, and often strange risks to boot, instead of going the easy route of just being a very standard thriller.

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

Masks (2011)

posterYoung would-be actress Stella (Susen Ermich) seems to have gotten as far as natural talent and looks can bring her in her dreamt-of, which is to say, not very far. So when she is pointed in the direction of the Matteusz Gdula School for Acting, she decides to give it a try.

What Stella doesn’t know about the school and its now-dead founder is that Gdula’s very own acting Method led to a number of violent deaths in the 70s. Officially, the school doesn’t teach Gdula’s Method anymore, and is now only the usual shark tank of bitchy young actors and actresses.

However, something weird is going on in the school’s supposedly closed-down annex, the place where Gdula once held his cultish acting classes. Stella’s classmate Cecile (Julita Witt), to whom she finds herself drawn, likes to hint at private lessons taking place in the annex, lessons still following the Gdula’s esoteric Method. These lessons leave Cecile a much better actress but also with traces of bodily and mental abuse, until she one day just disappears.

Afterwards, Stella is invited to take Cecile’s place and be taught Gdula’s Method. All she needs to do is take the risk and let herself be isolated in the annex for weeks at a time. Madness and violence, but perhaps also the truth about what happened to Cecile await her.

I wasn’t much of a fan of Andreas Marschall’s Tears of Kali but had quite a bit of hope for his future projects, because most of what I disliked about that movie had to do with elements caused by the problems of seat-of-your-pants filmmaking rather than lack of talent in the people involved. As far as I’ve read, Masks budgetary situation wasn’t all that much better (making genre films in Germany is difficult, and making a horror movie that isn’t exclusively a gore fest even more so, it seems), but this time around, the result of Marschall’s struggles turned out to be much more convincing.

Masks is a film aesthetically highly indebted to 70s giallos, particularly Dario Argento’sSuspiria, using cheaper modern digital technology to create a similar look and feel of photography, as well as sharing concepts of narrative structure, and music highly reminiscent of that era.In fact, at times Masks’ ability to emulate the look and feel of a 70s giallo becomes downright creepy.

There is, of course, always a risk turning your movie into a pure retro effort when you keep as close to the style of a different era as Masks does. Certainly, the film at hand doesn’t do itself much of a service by having a first act with a structure just too identical to that ofSuspiria. However, the longer Marschall’s film goes on, the more it becomes one of these films that use the style of an earlier era in a way belonging very much to themselves and the era they were made in – an approach comparable to Beyond the Black Rainbow andBerberian Sound Studio, though not quite on the same level as those films.

Like Argento’s best, Masks is a film saying all it has to say via its visible aesthetics – subtext (in this case circling the way early abuse of young girls can put them on the road of helping self-perpetuate that abuse, the dangers of looking too deeply into oneself, and the way older men might prey on younger women’s weaknesses), narrative, and plot all are part of the film’s visible surfaces. They are not so much subservient to the film’s looks as so deeply entwined with them it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see any element here standing separate from the next. It’s a rather wonderful example of what we could dub “style is substance” filmmaking.

The solution to Masks‘ plot is one that might look rather silly on paper, and which in practice has little to do with the way the real world works but it is also one that befits the fever dream/fairy-tale/weird psychology mood of the film. It certainly makes complete sense as part of Stella’s character arc, as well as the rules the film has established about itself. This insistence on following an internal logic that treats the movie as a world of its own with rules of its own that may or may not have anything in common with logic as we generally understand it rather than as a surface reproduction of the world we live in, is of course exactly the thing that drives a certain type of viewer away from the giallo and assorted, predominantly European – though some local horror movies from the US certainly share the concept – film genres. This (ill)logic of symbols and the unreal is, of course, exactly what draws me to the genre and films like Masks standing in this different tradition of what a horror film is supposed to be and do, or rather, of what a horror film can be and do apart from showing us interesting ways for young attractive people to die in. Not that Masks, or other films of its type, have anything against being creative in the latter regard, of course; killing off young characters for fun and aesthetic profit is part of their style too, and Maskshas its own share of aestheticized carnage to present.

It is very impressive how consequently Marschall is able to keep the mood of Masks so continuously strange, with only a handful of moments where the film’s state as a self-contained world breaks down a little. From time to time, one actor in a minor role (the main cast is very impressive for a group of actors with mostly only single credit in their filmographies) isn’t quite good enough to keep the mood up, the soundtrack by Sebastian Levermann and Nils Weise sounds a bit too much like Goblin, or the fake 70s hair in the documentary about Gdula’s class of 1973 looks only like fake movie hair, but for the most part, there are no seams showing in Masks at all.

This leaves Masks as a wonderful example of its style, as well as one of the handful of German horror films made in the last decades that actually give me hope for genre films coming from my native country.

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