Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The 13th Unit' (2014)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Yet another example of a direct-to-video movie retitled with the number 13 to make it sound more menacing (or maybe just more memorable), The 13th Unit originally had the much more evocative title of The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Maybe it's better that it ended up with a blander title, because there's no way this cheap-looking, repetitive, poorly acted and incoherently plotted movie could ever live up to something as grandiose as The Darkness, the Rage and the Fury. Clearly inspired by the filmmakers' access to a single location (a labyrinthine self-storage facility), Unit introduces some nonsensical mythology as an excuse to slowly kill off a variety of annoying characters wandering around this vast complex (yet rarely ever encountering each other).

Opening title cards explain that this site was previously a warehouse where a group of criminals gathered following a museum heist, only to be mysteriously slaughtered, with the artifacts they stole never recovered. After that, there's a prologue featuring various irritating characters at the storage facility, being targeted by an entity of some kind (indicated by sinister POV shots, mostly). Then there's an opening-credits sequence of a shadowy figure engaged in some sort of demonic ritual. And then there's yet another set-up scene of our three main characters explaining the exact same background that was detailed in the opening title cards (complete with terrible fake-looking vintage newspaper articles).

Finally, the movie begins, although there's really not much to distinguish the main action from what happens in the prologue, other than that we get to spend more time with these particular annoying characters and hear them whine about their back story. Maybe the demon that killed the criminals back in the 1930s is back? Maybe it was summoned by the ritual during the opening credits? Maybe it's unleashed when the three dumb protagonists open the box that those criminals stole decades ago (which they find in like 10 minutes after apparently no one could locate it for years)? Maybe it's not a demon at all, but a kind of infectious ooze that causes people to go crazy and turn on their friends?

The answer to all of those questions is an indifferent shrug, and writer-director Theophilus Lacey haphazardly posits various half-formed explanations for what's happening. Some of the characters clearly do end up possessed by some black goo and turn violent, but other characters are clearly killed by some sort of monster that never fully appears onscreen. Both the demonic summoning and the discovery of the artifacts occur around the time of the attacks, but some attacks seem to start before either of those things happen. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, since these grating characters, who spend almost all of their screen time yelling at each other about either their personal squabbles or their deadly predicament, totally deserve whatever gruesome fate they encounter, by whatever means.

Plenty of low-budget horror movies have made great use of a single available location, and the storage facility has lots of potential (anyone who's been in one of those places late at night can attest to its inherent creepiness). But Lacey doesn't capitalize on any of that potential, just having his characters literally cover the same ground over and over again. Onscreen titles meant to convey where each character is only add to the confusing inconsistency (levels are variously referred to as "lower level X," "sub-level X" or just "X levels below"), and there's nothing narratively unique about the setting. It's the ultimate squandered opportunity in a movie that drops the ball at pretty much every possible chance.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

VODepths: 'Death Kiss,' 'E-Demon,' 'The Landing'

Death Kiss (Robert Kovacs, Eva Hamilton, Daniel Baldwin, dir. Rene Perez) From writer/director/cinematographer/editor/composer Rene Perez, Death Kiss is one of the oddest projects I've covered in this column. The movie seems to exist for no other reason than to showcase star Robert "Bronzi" Kovacs' resemblance to the late Charles Bronson, which is indeed uncanny. The title deliberately references Bronson classic Death Wish, and Kovacs plays a character who dresses like Bronson's Death Wish character Paul Kersey and dishes out vigilante justice. But rather than remaking Death Wish or constructing another similar revenge story, Perez has created an almost entirely plotless movie, mostly just a series of disconnected vignettes showing Kovacs' mysterious "K" gunning down various criminals. K gets no back story and no motivation, and when the movie begins he's already stalking the streets of an unnamed city, looking for bad guys to kill. He doesn't have much of a moral code, either; at one point he saves a woman from being raped and then forces her to kill one of her attackers so that she's complicit in the crime and won't go to the police. He does "penance" by sending money to a single mother and her crippled daughter, and the thin explanation for that is the closest he gets to character development. Daniel Baldwin shows up in a few interludes as a ranting right-wing radio host whose connection to K reveals the whole movie as a rabid fascist fantasy. But it's too poorly acted, poorly shot, poorly paced and poorly dubbed for the political message to make much of a difference. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

E-Demon (Julia Kelly, John Anthony Wylliams, Christopher Daftsios, dir. Jeremy Wechter) Although producer Timur Bekmambetov has gotten a lot attention for his line of "screen life" movies (including Searching and the Unfriended series), he doesn't have a monopoly on the concept of movies that take place entirely on a computer screen. As the mediocre found-footage horror movie E-Demon proves, though, he's clearly figured out that aesthetic better than most. Writer-director Jeremy Wechter makes minimal use of the myriad possibilities of the internet in his story of online possession, mainly just cycling through a series of video-chat windows and headset-mounted webcams that are very similar to the style of other, non-online-based found-footage movies. The movie's main characters (engagingly played by the cast of unknowns) are four former college friends catching up via online chat from their homes in various cities, enjoying banter and pranks until one of them accidentally unleashes a demon that's been trapped in a mirror in his family's attic. The demon quickly begins possessing people through internet-enabled cameras, which is kind of a cool and creepy idea that gets lost under typical horror-movie demon hunting in the third act. Wechter sparingly augments the video-chat windows with text chats and online research, but E-Demon mostly squanders its technological potential, instead settling into familiar B-horror rhythms. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Landing (Don Hannah, Warren Farina, Jeff McVey, dir. David Dodson and Mark Dodson) Anyone coming into The Landing completely cold might be convinced for quite a while that the movie was a genuine historical documentary about the failures of the 1973 Apollo 18 mission to the moon, which in reality never occurred. Only when filmmakers David and Mark Dodson start getting into the use of neurotoxins by potential double agents working for the Chinese government does it become obvious that the movie is a work of fiction (and even then, some gullible viewers might still take the story as fact). With their mix of talking-head interviews (labeled as taking place in 1998), pseudo-re-enactments and faked archival footage (most of which is quite realistic), the Dodsons mimic the structure and style of a midrange investigative documentary so effectively that The Landing can sometimes be tedious to watch. Rather than building to twists or revelations in the story of how the Apollo 18 astronauts ended up landing in the Chinese wilderness rather than the Pacific Ocean, the movie merely throws out a bunch of competing theories and leaves them for the audience to ponder. That's probably how a real documentary would work, especially one depicting conflicting accounts that can never be proved or disproved, but as a fictional story that aims to thrill and surprise, The Landing is more admirable than engrossing. Available on Amazon.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Chambers' (2017)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Although it's been billed as a horror anthology, 13 Chambers doesn't feature much that could be categorized as horror, and its 13 segments are closer to formalist experiments than anything scary or creepy. Most feature no dialogue and no plot, just various images and movements meant to convey a feeling or mood, and most of those fail, evoking just frustration and bafflement. Watching the 13 "chambers" in this movie felt like watching a particularly annoying avant-garde shorts program at a pretentious film festival, and by the last few segments I had almost completely tuned out.

That made it especially tough to focus on, say, the segment that is essentially just vague shadows behind a blindingly white screen for several minutes, but even the segments with more going on are just as much of a slog, with very few exceptions. By far the best segment (and not coincidentally pretty much the only one with anything resembling a plot or characters) is Lindy Boustedt's Liminal, about a man returning to the empty shell of his former elementary school and meeting the grown-up version of his childhood imaginary friend. It turns out that the friend may not have been so imaginary, and what follows is a smart and moving exploration of alternate universes and the regrets of aging.

I couldn't find anything smart or moving or even mildly engaging in any of the other segments, all of which take place within the same decaying building and are created by female filmmakers. The site-specific nature of the project (which was actually shot in a building slated for demolition) may have pushed some of the filmmakers toward making abstract pieces that could be shot quickly without a lot of advance planning, but that's no excuse for the barrage of inexplicable images (and, as one Letterboxd reviewer notes, the surprisingly substantial amount of interpretive dance).

The fact that 13 Chambers isn't actually a horror anthology isn't a problem, although the world could use more female-driven horror anthologies. The problem is that it's not much of anything, created to fill an arbitrary mandate in a limited period of time, like a fancy version of something like the 48 Hour Film Project. Challenges like this may be good learning experiences for filmmakers, but that doesn't mean that audiences should be subjected to watching them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

VODepths anthology edition: 'A.I. Tales,' 'A Taste of Phobia'

A.I. Tales The four segments in the sci-fi anthology A.I. Tales are all independently produced shorts that were then collected together to be released as a feature, which means they have very little in common stylistically or thematically (also, none of them actually deals with artificial intelligence). Watching this movie felt a bit like watching the sci-fi program at a short film festival (that's always one of my favorites at the Dam Short Film Festival), only without the one or two shorts that usually stand out. All four of the shorts here start with solid sci-fi premises (an overpopulated future where people are forcibly euthanized at 40; a woman signing up for a mission to Mars; a post-apocalyptic band of nomads stumbling across a secret bunker; a scientist with a homemade time machine) but fumble the follow-through, with clunky dialogue, unappealing characters and weak plotting. None of the filmmakers seems to know how to craft an ending, and all four shorts just kind of stop without resolutions (it's not surprising that one is credited as being based on a feature script). Throwing all four together doesn't make them stronger; it just makes their shortcomings more glaring. Available on Vimeo and elsewhere.

A Taste of Phobia Like The ABCs of Death, horror anthology A Taste of Phobia features a collection of filmmakers creating segments around a particular theme, which in this case is various phobias (or possibly made-up phobias). Also like The ABCs of Death, Phobia is mostly terrible, as the majority of filmmakers fail to do anything interesting (or even, much of the time, competent) with the subject matter. The 15 segments are largely slapdash and amateurish, relying on gross-outs over scares and sometimes only tangentially connected to the supposed theme. There are a few with stylish visuals, but the occasional striking image doesn't compensate for the consistently poor writing, and most segments barely even craft a story, settling for cheap shock value rather than a compelling narrative. There's a framing sequence (which eventually leads into the final segment) of a woman sitting on her couch watching the other segments, and she looks bored and annoyed most of the time, like she's just waiting for the movie she's in to be over. It's disappointingly easy to relate to her. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Was a Judas' (1971)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A spaghetti Western with a plot that resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery, 13 Was a Judas (also known as The Last Traitor) is an odd hybrid that doesn't really work, although it has some scuzzy B-movie charm. The title comes from the apparent superstition that 13 people at a table is bad luck, and that's exactly what Confederate army veteran Ned Carter (Donald O'Brien) has at his wedding banquet in Sonora, Mexico, where he's gathered a group of outlaws and miscreants to celebrate his impending betrothal to Maribel (Adriana Giuffrè). But before the wedding can even begin, the stagecoach carrying Maribel arrives with all of its passengers dead, slaughtered by some unknown assailants.

Thus begins a series of investigations and accusations among the 13 men, along with some of the residents of the small Mexican town where they've been taking refuge. There are the requisite twists and double-crosses, although most of the characters aren't particularly well-defined, so it's tough to figure out whom to root for, or even how some of the men are connected to each other. The plotting relies on flashbacks and exposition-heavy dialogue to eventually explain the motivations behind each killing, as the members of the group also start getting picked off one by one. (Not surprisingly, there's a hidden cache of gold that everyone is after.) Despite all the talk, though, the eventual explanations aren't exactly satisfying, or even entirely clear.

As is customary with spaghetti Westerns, the dialogue from the mostly Italian actors (O'Brien aside) is dubbed into English, which is always awkward but is notably poor here, with too many voices that sound similar to each other. It's hard enough to tell some of the characters apart, but it becomes even more difficult in crowded scenes when the dubbing obscures who is talking to whom at any given moment. The voice acting is stiff, which is especially detrimental to a story that features more talk than action.

There are some evocative moments, though, including the semi-impressionistic flashbacks, and while it's frustrating not to have a real protagonist to focus on, it's also impressive how committed the movie is to making all of its characters reprehensible outlaws, even the one who emerges as a sort of hero at the end. Unlike a typical Agatha Christie story, which would end with the genius detective wrapping things up neatly, Judas ends on a hollow victory, the mystery not so much solved as obliterated. It's an admirably bleak conclusion, but the journey to get there is far too clumsy and uneven to be satisfying.

Monday, September 03, 2018

VODepths: 'Euthanizer,' 'The Forest of the Lost Souls,' 'Searching for Fortune'

Euthanizer (Matti Onnismaa, Jari Virman, Hannamaija Nikander, dir. Teemu Nikki) True to its title, the bleak Finnish drama Euthanizer starts out with a cat being put to death, and things do not get cheerier from there. The title character (Matti Onnismaa) is a gruff mechanic who has a side business in putting animals down, for prices much lower than at the veterinarian's office. His methods are much cruder, too: For smaller animals, he has a makeshift gas chamber in the back of a car, and for larger animals, it's a bullet to the head out in the woods behind his shop. When Veijo the euthanizer crosses paths with the members of a white supremacist gang, it seems inevitable that he'll bring his euthanizing talents to humans. But that's not quite what happens here, since Veijo is only interested in being left alone and upholding his peculiar code of ethics, which has no tolerance for mistreatment of animals but doesn't apply the same standards to people. Veijo starts up a relationship with the nurse caring for his dying father, but this guy is clearly not cut out for normal human interaction. Parts of Euthanizer are darkly funny, while other parts are painfully difficult to watch (this is definitely not a movie for animal lovers), but Onnismaa ties them all together with a fascinating performance, and his nuanced portrayal of Veijo helps the movie earn its darker and darker turns. It's never obvious or predictable, and its off-kilter rhythms keep it from just wallowing in misery. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

The Forest of the Lost Souls (Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, dir. José Pedro Lopes) The prologue of the Portuguese art-horror film The Forest of the Lost Souls is a haunting, wordless sequence featuring a young woman in the title location, an eerie wilderness similar to the Aokigahara forest in Japan, where people come for solitude and isolation when they plan to commit suicide. This unknown woman moves with determination toward her death, and the movie follows that with an evocative opening-credits sequence featuring stop-motion animation. It sets the tone for a somber, reflective movie, but writer-director José Pedro Lopes doesn't quite follow through, at least not in the way that the opening would indicate. The rest of the film is divided into two sections, the first featuring another young woman (Daniela Love) and an older man (Jorge Mota) in the forest, trading thoughts on their impending suicides. It's a somewhat ponderous but still intriguing examination of mortality, that then shifts gears entirely into a sort of slasher movie, as the young woman targets a family for revenge (for reasons that are never specified). That abrupt change in location and styles leads the movie into less unique, less intriguing territory, although the black-and-white cinematography remains lovely throughout, with some striking shot compositions, and Love is creepy as the unfeeling killer. But what started out as something distinctive and stylish ends as empty B-horror provocation. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.

Searching for Fortune (Brian Smolensky, Christina Moore, John Heard, dir. Joseph Matarrese) Writer and star Brian Smolensky personally asked me to review this movie (and even complimented one of my other reviews, with specific examples, in his pitch!), so I'm sorry that I don't have more positive things to say about it. Smolensky plays Mike, a hardscrabble oil driller in Colorado who spends his off time drinking, picking up women and getting into bar fights, and lives in a trailer strewn with dirty clothes because he's a man's man and can't be bothered with domestic niceties (also, he never closes the door when he comes home, which I found really distracting throughout the movie). His world is rocked when Emily (Christina Moore) shows up on his doorstep and reveals that he had an older brother who was given up for adoption, and that brother has just been killed on active military duty in Afghanistan. Emily, the brother's widow, then asks Mike to help her have a child, since he's the closest thing she has left to her late husband. What follows is an awkward mix of pseudo-romance (there is some seriously inappropriate sexual tension between Mike and Emily), earnest working-class drama and family soap opera, with some very clunky dialogue. The lead performances are decent, with John Heard (in his final role) delivering a soulful turn as Mike's dad, and there is some lovely footage of rural Colorado (captured on Super 16mm film). But the plot proceeds in awkward fits and starts, the bonding scenes between Mike and his macho buddies are painfully stilted, and the resolution is abrupt and dissatisfying. Available on Amazon.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: '13' (1986)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Also known by the more accurate title City in Panic, the 1986 Canadian exploitation movie 13 is a weird mix of surprisingly forward-thinking social commentary and typically grubby low-budget slasher-movie aesthetics. The acting is terrible, the pacing is awkward, the dialogue is blunt and utilitarian, and some of the camerawork is seriously questionable (although I saw the movie on Amazon Prime in what was obviously a rip from a degraded VHS copy, so I may not be able to accurately judge the visual style). But this is a movie from 1986 that explicitly takes on the AIDS epidemic, with an often compassionate (if also sometimes clueless) perspective on tolerance and understanding for those afflicted.

That is, of course, contained within a plot about a serial killer stalking the streets of an unnamed city (shot in Toronto), and an edgy radio talk-show host basically taunting the killer. The movie's hero is Dave Miller (David Adamson), who's kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and who becomes bait for the killer known as M when he encourages the mysterious figure to call in to his show. M brutally slashes his victims and carves an M into their flesh, and police soon discover that all of the victims have AIDS, and most are gay men. There are some crude ideas about homosexuality and the spread of AIDS in this movie, but there's also a blatantly homophobic and sexist police detective who is consistently chastised and corrected by his colleagues, as a sort of avatar of outdated, intolerant attitudes (that also hinder the investigation).

Somehow Dave's friends and colleagues seem to be disproportionately afflicted with AIDS (and are all keeping it a secret), so a bunch of people that he knows fall victim to the killer. Some of the murders are staged with style, including an opening that mimics the famous shower scene from Psycho and a particularly gruesome scene in which a man gets his penis chopped off at a glory hole. The movie tries to walk a line between salaciousness and thoughtfulness, and it doesn't really succeed, in part because the acting is so uniformly awful that none of the more sensitive moments are particularly convincing, and in part because the low-budget effects are also not all that convincing, despite the homages to classic films (Fritz Lang's M, namesake of the killer, also gets referenced). The AIDS angle is really just a framework for your typical serial-killer cheapie, with a rushed resolution to its mystery topped off by some condescending moralizing by Dave in a closing voiceover. It's not exactly a shining example of social progress, but at least it has a few distinctive elements.