Saturday, October 3, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #3: Dario Argento's THE CARD PLAYER

And now to take a look at one of those horror master directors... who may not be hitting (in this case) at a full batting percentage.

Dario Argento is a director who is not unique in the scope of a career; there are many who have a kind of hot streak in their youth and formidable years, and then have a bit of a downward slump as they age.  If you are a creator who is so connected with the work created early on, and your current work held up to those standards, it can be difficult.  The director of such inspiring and daring modern horror films as Suspiria, Tenebre, Deep Red, even Opera in the 70's and 80's is not the same caliber director who made  The Card Player in 2004(or Il Cartaio in native Italy), but a simple question comes as this: is it any good in and of itself?  In short, it's perfectly competent and has its moments, but it's nothing special.

It's another of the patented Dario-Giallos (that's what they could be called anyway, kind of sounds like a demented ice cream parlor or something).  Here the killer, once again in black gloves and/or ski-mask (here it's both) collects female victims one by one and taunts the police - this time Argento and his co-writer Ferrari have an updated, 21st century model for their story: this killer loves himself some poker, specifically that you can play online.  So he emails the cops, specifically officer Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca), and challenges them: if they play a poker game with him, and win, he'll let the woman go - if they don't play, or lose, she's dead. 

After a certain point, black gloves somehow become rubber in the 21st century...

This plan doesn't go well at first - hey, says the Lieutenant or Sergeant or whoever it is that's in charge, time for a generic piece of "We don't negotiate etc etc" piece of dialog as reasoning - but then there's some luck that comes the way of this Italian investigation team (all speaking English, by the way, more on that momentarily): first comes with an Irish cop from England (yeah, it's one of those deals, here by dependable character actor Liam Cunningham), and then with a sudden find in a game bar, a 19-year old poker-whiz.  At least, anyway, this kid appears to be a whiz based on how much he wins at the poker-slots. 

Argento's reputation has been built over the years on his set pieces - by and large with the music of Goblin (here there's still Claudio Simonetti, who was one of the band's chief people, though here it's not quite the same, not the same umph and a different, more primetime TV-level energy) - and The Card Player does have some of these to spare.  It's just the varying quality that keeps things sort of at arms length.

The kid at one point is flirting with a woman at a bar, and then she runs out and he gives chase; this isn't in any kind of dirty way, it's just in that adrenaline-rush of excitement that comes with young, probably lustful intentions.  But she keeps running off, sort of giggling, and he runs after her for what seems like a couple of miles, all the way down to a waterfront.  Here her full plan is revealed, and it turns out she's just a prop for this psychopath, but it's an excellently shot and paced chase with a lot of energy to the camerawork and how the actors play it in such a way that it is likely bad news, and yet there's the chance it's all just a part of the Game of Love as it were.

Yeah, mostly a thriller, which is what Giallos technically are but.... MY GOD!

There's also a tense and suspenseful sequence where detective Brennan is following a lead that will take him to the killer's lair, and while a lot of it is car-bound it has a similar energy and urgency that Argento reaches up to as a director.  These moments may not be like Best of a Career or anything, but they show a filmmaker getting some good pacing and drawing the audience in to the action.  But he seems to not really find any original way to present or shoot a scene where the killer (surprise) gets into the home of the intrepid Anna, and their struggle and fight (in the dark) feels flat and doesn't have the same urgency as those other scenes. 

And then there's the card games themselves, where people sit at computers and we get the shot-reverse-shot-waiting-for-cards-to-turn pacing, and it's hit or miss.  Sure, there's a built-in sort of tension as to what card will do what next.  Butt the characters, naturally, have to tell the audience what all the moves mean - some, surely, will be poker players and know what this means, some of us, like me, won't - and it's up to the actors to carry a lot of this.  Not to mention in these poker set pieces, a little screen of the female victim is in the screen to the left (with the cards flipping on the right), and although it's meant to add to the horror and suspense of the situation, with the exception of one moment where the character tries to get away it gets a little grating on the nerves.  We get it, clocks ticking, she's bound and gagged.  But... is it too much?

I mention that it's up to the actors to make a lot of this palatable.  The main problem with the Card Player is that, at least on the DVD I had, the actors are all by and large (exception like Cunningham and Rocca) are dubbed, even if it looks like they are speaking English and this may be them saying the words phonetically.  Not that Argento's always been the best director of actors in this way - they just need to say the lines that'll get the mystery moving from point A to B to C and so on - but even here, these people are lame, unconvincing and the dialog is generic as well.  And character traits are so stock that it could be parody if it wasn't dead-serious: the Irish cop is a drunk (whoa, stop the presses), and the female cop had a dead cop father with a card playing history and she has a book all about poker.... why SHE doesn't play the killer, until a certain point which I won't get into due to spoilers, during these police stand-off scenes doesn't make much sense. 

There's some good music in a few parts and Rocca is fine as an actress - not great, but fine, and that's enough - and Argento never embarasses himself too bad with the plotting.  The main problem is that it doesn't really do anything original, even with this poker ticking-clock game.  A lot of the appeal of poker comes with playing with an opponent face to face; over a computer screen, one has to wait to see each card flipped, one by one, and it takes up a lot of time.  It's shot with a degree of professionalism, but not a ton of artistry (one shot that pans across some flowers at a cemetery to a funeral scene is probably my favorite shot, or at least the moment memorable that doesn't involve a brutal killing or body being torn open port-mortem).  So, it's not bad, it's acceptable fare.  But from this director, shouldn't we expect more, even in his latter years?

Oh, and PS: this has the oddest, most unnecessary coda I've seen in a long time.  It's like... what? 

PPS: The British DVD cover is disturbing but kind of awesome - one thinks this could be on the Joker's porn stash on his laptop:

Spooktacular Savings #2: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2015)

Now here's a new(ish) one, currently playing in select theaters (i.e. art-houses, which is extremely appropriate for this one, a German quasi-torture mostly-psychological horror).  Oh, and for this one especially - SPOILERS (a big one near the end of this)

Oh, Goodnight Mommy.  What a weird movie you are.  And by weird, I don't mean that you simply throw in a few random images here and there and try to gain some credibility through stark lighting or sets or even having twin actors - that last parts seems in keeping with a horror movie aesthetic.  No, I mean that you are FUCKING WEIRD.

This is an experience that, until the last five minutes, is something that gets your attention and doesn't really let go, in large part because it presents characters and a situation that takes a little Polanski (three character set-up, remote location, psychological turmoil) with some Haneke (same thing, only even more disturbing implications for the human race being presented), and yet it still doesn't describe how far Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz go with this, especially in the little (WTF) things that take place.  And hey, maybe a 'twist' is something the story calls for... or, maybe it doesn't.

An eye on you can be taken literally here
The movie is told with dialog, but not as much as one might expect in an American horror film - but there is no demon possession (far as one might tell, though there is a fake-out I'll get to in a moment).  Two sons, Lukas and Elias (the Schwarz brothers, first names same as their characters), are living at a house out in the countryside, and their mother finally returns home.  From what?  It looks like she just got plastic surgery.  Why did she do that?  We won't know until later on in the story, but needless to say the boys grow suspicious.  Mom is a little meaner than she used to be.  More than that, she comes in to the bedroom and searches for stuff.  And if there's misbehavior, she hits her kids. 

The brothers have this bond together, and they just have it in their gut this 'thing' that has returned home is not their biological mother.  They confront her about it and ask where their real mother is.  What a question!  Of course she's their mother.... right?  It's this big question that drives everything in the story (it's summer so there's no school, and she's recovering so there's no work, so it's just them in this house), but there's lots more that makes the kids and the mother so interesting.

For one thing, the boys have a certain, eh, hobby.  Some kids like having a hamster or a gerbil behind glass or in a cage.  These kids collect/breed/catch cockroaches.  Yep, cockroaches; it's one of the best reveals in a while in a movie, as one of the boys flosses and we see a giant cockroach crawling on the walls.  Not only is he non-plussed, he gathers it and puts it back into the case with the others.  These brothers are playful guys, seemingly just fun-loving boys, often play-hitting each other, running around, trying to discover more of their surroundings.  They bring home a stray-hurt cat, and try to hide it from their mother.  That doesn't go well, so they decide to take the cat and put it in a tank full of water (or is it gasoline...)

Oh, and then to get a little more 'playful' with this bandaged-headed thing in their house, they take a cockroach and put it on her face while she sleeps, which then goes into her mouth.  Um... yes, this happens.  Goodnight Mommy doesn't have those kinds of moments every scene, but enough build up to make a tone of really odd and bizarre dread.  While this is happening, the Mother is looking at her body, sometimes naked, sometimes just in a mirror behind a sheer dress.  And in one scene she goes out into the woods at night, disrobes, and scene of the (sadly) really cheap, dated effect-type of shots, her head flips out from side to side like in a Saw movie (or an even more rapid-fire take of Oh-Dae Su in Oldboy when he's in his prison).  Is this for real, or just some fantastical sequence?  And why roaches?  As the surrealists would say, WHY NOT?

The ambiguity abounds in this story, which is both for the good - to create a tone of question for both sides throughout - and not so good.  Certain pieces of information are left aside or omitted, and it feels curious while it goes on, like the hints of an 'accident' and the missing status of the boys' father, but one can brush it away.  Then the filmmakers get into the meat of the second/third act, when Lukas and Elias (this following her removing her head-bandage and seeming to be friendly again) tie her up in her sleep.  It's time for some good ol' fashioned torture, folks! 

This is horror that is not for the squeamish - and I imagine for expecting mothers or those with frayed relationships with their sons, it may be a lot to take, like a giant slap to the face - and it's in the accumulation of the details and how things do flip in a way that can keep the audience guessing: what if it's not the boys who are suspecting and the mother who is some nutball interfering with their lives, but the other way around?

And de-masked they are so... adorable?  And creepy?  Creeporable
The filmmakers do a splendid job of making these three people messed up and yet trying to keep in the realm of relatable human experience that you are never sure who's bad or good or not.  The performances by these two boys make it such a terrifying thing since at first you really are on their side; maybe it'll be like some twisted fairy tale, or that part of Coraline where her mother isn't who she says she is stretched to feature length.  They're composed, likeable at times, and even when they seem to be hiding something, or, gulp, playing with their cock(roaches), they're engaging and interesting.

And then.... the filmmakers throw in a twist.  At the very last moment, this after a fake-out with people coming to the door (an expertly done sequence, mostly for the awkward comedy as the adults wait around with the kids), and the torture getting ugly and extremely cringe-inducing, i.e. if you're sensitive about your lips, just close your goddamn eyes.  But.... it's something that's meant to be a gut-punch, like "Oh no, so THAT's what all of this has meant all this time, it's about the failure to cope with grief, especially after a tragic accident".  My issue is that this comes so late in the game that the audience can't get acclimated to it, and then the movie's just over. 

The idea, one supposes, is that we'll go back and watch it all again to see how everything we missed actually connect together.  But I'm not sure if it does, at least how these directors put it - so,


The brothers aren't really brothers, it's one son only, and his brother died in the accident that disfigured the mother.  This actually wouldn't be so bad IF it came a little earlier in the story.  It's meant to give the very last moment of the film, with a "reuniting" in a cornfield a creepy-tragic context, and yet I felt cheated in a way.  The filmmakers do only a minimal job, as I could see it in one scene (or was it two, DAMNIT, maybe they did have me), but, again, it's not a necessary component really with the plot in an organic sense.  While it's not High Tension rug-pulling, it's close, and it could have been solved, and perhaps given an even fuller tragic dimension, had it come like 15/20 minutes earlier (the big question is - WHY does the mother not point this out earlier?)

Having said this, and my disappointment with this, I still had a lot of enjoyment, in that really twisted, holy-God-what's-next sense.  It's shot with a keen eye for place, it takes its time, almost, early on, in that slow-burn kind of way (again, Polanski's in this films bones), and it's got a lot of originality to how the boys interact with this 'Mother'.

And now, the weather:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #1: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1958)

So what is this series now?  I did used to do these, didn't I?  I still do!  (More Madadayo, Used DVD's to come by the way).  This is basically just... well, it's October, how about some horror movies?  Or things that I approach that I believe ARE horror at first.  Whether they turn out to be that, who knows... this will be a series that'll last the month, but whether I review a movie a day (or more) I don't know yet. 

But let's get down to brass tax: anybody remember Bert I Gordon

This was a director who has worked steadily since the 1950's; his first movie was King Dinosaur in 1955, and his most recent credit was from last year (!) with Secrets of a Psychopath.  He's worked mostly in B (and probably Z) grade schlock, with two HG Wells adaptations in the 1970s, including Empire of the Ants (which I imagine would fit right at home with this title).  Indeed it's strange how he seems to be all about movies dealing with changes in size: The Amazing Colossal Man, Village of the Giants, Earth vs the Spider.  Perhaps that was just what audiences were craving for (albeit old timers such as Bela Lugosi would rail against these types in a brief aside in the movie Ed Wood - "All these movies, giant bugs, giant spiders, such nonsense"). 

But what about this one, Attack of the Puppet People?  Can I get a lot of words out for this goddamn review?  I can surely try.  First off, the premise: a man named Mr. Franz (John Hoyt) is a dollmaker and operates out of the 5th floor of a building, where little girls sometimes come to check out his wares.  He also keeps rather life-like figures in a special glass case (why he even does this I'll question in a moment).  He also is on the look for a new secretary after the previous one, uh, left.  So Sally Reynolds starts up (typical B type star June Kenney, though not as bad as most), and she starts up - and also gets into a (very quick) romance with a guy who wants to take her out of town.  But it turns out, as Mr. Franz tells her, he's left town.  Oh, but what now?  Well, she might be suspecting something, like... why is my man now a little person in a glass case? 

Turns out he's been turning people into little people - the 'Puppet' people of the title is a way to not have to say 'Doll' I suppose - and all for his own amusement.  The technology this marvel of modern science has made is just remarkable, folks!  He has figured out that by the same principle as, well, the tuning fork that when activated smashes a glass in pieces can be transformed using a ray to make people into smaller proportions (the example he first uses is how a projector makes things really small when you change the lens or whatever the hell).  My question is: why doesn't he share this technology with anyone else?  Oh, he couldn't do that, heavens no!  He has his own amusement to think of - these people he's shrunken like it, after all (or, well, a couple do, which is insane on its own anyway).  But will these 'little people' fight back?  There's no Ant-Man suit or special communication with those things after all. 

This movie is crazy.  That should be the first thing noted, and I apologize that it's coming so late in this review.  But this guy Mr. Franz is rather bonkers, and yet, for the most part, in a kind of benign way.  All this character wants is for his little people to dance and (yes) sing when he plays records for them, and, right before he plans on a (not joking) suicide pact with them all so that no one finds out about them, he puts on a little puppet show in a full (but empty) theater.  Why is he doing this in a theater?  He has a little diorama where he has it set up for his little creations to interact with his creepy-ass marionettes.  But... Why am I putting this much thought into this movie?  Because it's kind of fascinating. 

Is it a bad movie?  In a manner of speaking, but I don't think it's actually THAT incompetent... ok, it is, though it's mostly at the script level.  The actors Gordon got are actually not bad; Hoyt himself is one of the more interesting mad-scientist type of villains in a movie in that he is just so affected and calm and trying to be kind.  Maybe that makes him more terrifying, how he just never realizes that he's a demented kidnapper/storer of people in glass cases, encased for months at a time.  But he never comes off as mean, on the contrary he's like that kindly uncle who only wants to do well by his little creations; naturally, it takes the introduction of just two new little people - our main male and female heroes - to convince the others that it's time to get the hell out of Dodge. 

There's problems all around in this thing.  Why can the little puppet-people communicate and be heard just fine by Mr. Franz, but when they call on the telephone to the police (after a comically-long time trying to turn the rotary-style phone) the operator on the other end can't hear them?  How does the other theater operator working at night not hear/see them either, with them in plain sight?  When a couple of them do get loose in the streets, how does a dog (not the one pictured in the poster above, of course) not get them IMMEDIATELY as dogs are usually want to do?  And most of all, how does anyone not buy these figurines if they're sitting on display - or, more to the point, why does Franz even have them out for display at ALL if they are his secret?  He supposedly makes extra dolls - he shows off some of Bob (John Agar) at one point - so is he producing these *missing* citizens for the public to consume?  Wouldn't someone, not simply the cop who kinda-sorta doesn't follow on the trail after first hearing about this from Sally, go after this twisted bastard? 

Again, probably reading too much into this nonsense.  But what entertaining nonsense it is!  I have to think (or hope) Gordon knew this was a comedy he had on his hands; the way the actors play it is really silly, but there are moments where it carries a kind of demented fervor, like in those few moments where the puppet-master is not obeyed and kind of whines (still in a way that makes him sound nuts) about his creations being tainted.  It's maybe closer to the spirit of a 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' than an Ant-Man movie, and yet some of the effects are actually not half bad - the rear-projection is occasionally just a (bad) photograph of a street or a set behind the actors, but hey, why carp?  Considering the budget was $3.50 (not 350 thousand, three dollars and fifty cents, don't worry, I counted), it's not badly put together. 

Attack of the Puppet People may be silly sci-fi, but at least it lets you know it throughout.  It probably isn't very scary - no, not probably, it isn't - and it's certainly among those "horror" movies of the period, not unlike Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters, where the poster is just so much greater than the movie could ever be.  It almost counts as false advertising really (again, the dog seems like it would be a pivotal threat, not some lame little aside in the climax).  However, with these actors, and some of this dialog, I can't complain too much.  Oh, and did I mention one of the characters SINGS at one point?  They actually have a THEME SONG (sort of) for this movie!  Joy.