2/28/2010

THE MAN EATER (2004)

Country: Thailand

Genre: Horror/Thriller/Drama

Running Time: 90'

Producer: Panot Udom

Directors: Buranee Rachjaibun, Nida Sudasna

Cast: Long Duan, Premsinee Rattanasopar, Chatchai Plengpanich


GHOUL RATING: **(*) 2+

Story: Bangkok, 1946. A young Chinese, Li Hui, comes to Thailand in the hope of finding a job and a better fortune. The immigration officers change his name into Zee Oui, shave his head and throw him into a cell. His uncle provides a job: slaughtering chicken. His employer's wife and kids abuse and humiliate him. Other Thais are equally unfriendly. They stomp his asthma medicine into the mud. They destroy his crops. They remind him of his terrible war experiences... So, inevitably, he becomes a child-killing heart-eating monster. THEY made him do it!

Review: This film is, apparently, based on a true story. Zee Oui is a name that instills fear into little Thai kiddies: he became a boogeyman by killing and eating parts of several children there, more than half a century ago. Now comes a movie that tries to tell HIS side of the story: not so much exploiting the shock value (though there's that, too!) nor condemning the 'monster', this is rather a revisionist look, an attempt to stress the background of this man and a history of violence (against him) that turned him into a ghoul. So, if it weren't for copyright infringement, this could be rightfully called CANNIBAL RISING.

The progressiveness of horror film is often measured by its ability to instill sympathy for its monster; if not sympathy, then at least – understanding. This genre's best representatives undermine the black-and-white divisions and often question the morality of 'the good guys' together with 'the bad guys'. But ZEE OUI is ridiculous: it bends over backwards in its attempt to exonerate its protagonist from even the slightest shade of responsibility for becoming a kiddie-gutting, innards-chomping miserable wreck! Oh, he's so doomed! His army officers (during a WWII flashback) make him strangle a wounded soldier and then eat his heart, raw, 'to become a real man'.

His mother cooks an executed criminal's heart and feeds him the soup to cure his cough. She even provides a handy knife as a parting gift, 'to protect himself'. His uncle teaches him how to slit chicken throat, and departs from the picture. Everybody in Thailand (but especially children) derides him for being an alien. The entire world seems to conspire against this frail, flower-sniffing, Buddha-worshipping creature. That, at least, is this film's agenda: it was society made him do it! Who, in his place, WOULDN'T eat raw, still-pulsing children's hearts?

Like all movies with an agenda, this one sidesteps credibility and convincingness by forcing the moral, willy-nilly, down our throats. It's utterly simplistic in its refusal to deal with its protagonist as a character: Zee Oui is presented as no more than a tiny marble in the pin-ball machine, hit this way and that way with no will of his own. He doesn't act, he reacts: somehow, he sidesteps Buddha's teachings, and to violence responds with even more gruesome violence. This MAN EATER never eats a man: only the succulent kiddie flesh, but the movie never bothers with his transformation. In one scene, you see him run away from his abusive employers. In the next, we're already at a crime scene, with two kids lying near railway tracks, guts protruding from their stomachs. How's that for a transition?! You do the math! Never in the film do you see him contemplate his actions, or feel regret. Even in the very end, he confesses his crimes only because of the officials' false promise that they'll send him back home. The parents' grief is not dwelt on. No, only our poor Zee Oui suffered.

If you're able to accept the film's strongly biased attitude towards its subject, you're still left with a lazily plotted affair: the killer is caught because of Dara, a female journalist who just happened to notice Zee Oui in the background of one crime scene; she followed him to his room, and it just so happened that his murder weapon was lying in the open. It also just so happens that Dara was almost killed by some sicko 20 years ago: she still has a scar on her chest and sweaty nightmares to prove it. However, she is not a character, but merely a plot device. The subplot about her affair with her editor is not even that, as it leads nowhere.

Technical credits are fine, even slightly above the average professionalism in the recent Thai cinema: nicely composed images, good sense for atmosphere, solid score (laurelled by the Thai National Film Association Award), decent pacing, good acting and special effects… Yet, who is this made for? As a horror film, it's not scary, nor gory enough (and considering the subject matter, it's better that way). As a drama it falls flat as there are no real characters, and the plot is forced to fit the preconceived 'moral'. As an art film, it's just too shallow and generic. As a thriller, it rambles too much with its episodic, non-linear structure, and is virtually devoid of suspense, other than two scenes of stalk'n'slash. For the general public the subject matter is too grim, and even among the true-crime flicks this one stands out as one of the bleakest. So, THE MAN EATER is a well-made film with a highly questionable attitude, and may be marginally interesting only for the lovers of shock cinema.

2/21/2010

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS MOLDESTAD ('FRITT VILT')

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS MOLDESTAD

SCREENWRITER OF THE NORWEGIAN HORROR 'FRITT VILT' (COLD PREY, 2006)

by Dejan Ognjanovic

GROSSMANN FILM FESTIVAL (2007) presented a number of independent, low budget and horror films in a small Slovenian town Ljutomer. One of those was 'FRITT VILT' (COLD PREY, 2006), a Norwegian slasher which ended up winning the top prize of the festival, THE OLD VICIOUS CAT for a feature film. The award was received by THOMAS MOLDESTAD, who was responsible for the derivative, uninspired and by-the-numbers screenplay about a group of young snow-boarders who end up isolated in an abandoned mountain resort where a masked killer starts killing them (mostly off-screen). Solid acting and excellent photography somewhat redeem its tired plot, but its main selling point remains the fact that it's one of few horrors to come from this country.

Here's what Mr. Moldestad had to say in an exclusive interview to Dejan Ognjanovic (conducted in 2007).


-How did this project start? What was the initial idea? Why horror – why this kind of (slasher) horror?

I was, actually, a bit of a hired hand. One of the producers came up with the idea of a group of young snow-boarders and of some gruesome killer who would be killing them. His synopsis was nothing like the final film, and the director, whom I knew from film school, asked: "Can you write a horror film in three weeks?" and I said "No", and he said: "Can you try?" So I wrote the first version, and again it was nothing like the final film. A few more drafts later and we got there. There was a lot of collaboration from the director and producers, lots of meetings and feedback, and the very final polish, the shooting script, the director did it, I had nothing to do it. The entire ending is completely his. So, I can't take the credit for the inspiration or the idea behind it, I was hired to write the script.


-Was it difficult to raise finances for a film like this in Norway?

In Norway we have a budgeting system that, if you can get half of the budget, the Film Fund gives you the rest. If you have a reasonable budget, like COLD PREY, which is really a medium budget film, the producers were good at raising the money for it.

-So, you didn't have any problem convincing producers that Norwegians would like to see a domestic horror film?

No, because this particular financing system is devoted to helping such projects.

-What was your previous experience with the horror genre? Do you have any personal liking towards the genre? How familiar were you with it and would you care to be associated with it in the future?

I feel very comfortable within the horror genre, absolutely. I'm not the great connoisseur like some of the people at this festival, but it is a genre that I'm very fond of. Some of my favorite films are in this genre, like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, JAWS, THE EXORCIST, EVIL DEAD 2, THE OMEN.


-Almost all the movies you mentioned are from the '70s, but the movie that you made is more akin to the post-SCREAM teen slashers of the late '90s.

Sure, you always have to be aware of the audience, and the audience has seen all this from the '70ies. You don't work in the vacuum. My inspiration is certainly older than the recent cycle of films.

-What can you tell us about the cultural background. We're not really used to seeing horror films from Norway. Are there any horrors from your country worth mentioning?

There is one classic, whose title would translate as LAKE OF THE DEAD. I haven't seen it. I believe it was made in the '60ies or thereabouts. I should know this, but I don't.

-Are there any more recent horrors?

There was one that could be translated as WILD WOODS, from the late nineties or around the millennium. I guess it would be a kind of slasher, but it's very soft compared to our film. There is a group of people in the woods, and there is an unseen threat killing them off. Something like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT meets FRIDAY THE 13TH.

-Is the threat supernatural, or is the killer just a regular psycho with no supernatural powers?

He's not supernatural, it's just a guy killing people. It is similar in some respects to COLD PREY.

-What was the response to COLD PREY in your country, and how about foreign festivals and distribution?

It was originally surprisingly well received by the Norwegian critics, and it was the second highest grossing of a domestic film in cinemas of last year. It was seen by, roughly, a quarter of a million people. It's been released in several countries, but it's too early to tell, it only premiered in Norway less than a year ago, so we still have to see how it does abroad. I heard recently that it was in the top ten in Mexico City, which blew me away. It is showing in Spain, in Ecuador…

-Was it shown in America, and are there at least plans for a DVD?

I think they're still negotiating that. From what I'd heard, it was very well received in some American festivals. It was shown at Slamdance.

-So, is there a possible sequel in the works? Or some other genre film that you're working on?

We're certainly thinking about it, and it's something we'd want to do. Right now I don't have any other horror, or even violent thriller kind of projects lined up.

2/11/2010

BLACK KISS (2004)

Country: Japan

Genre: Thriller/ Horror

Running Time: 133'

Director: Makoto Tezuka

Cast: Reika Hashimoto, Kaori Kawamura, Masanobu Ando…


GHOUL RATING: *** (3+)

Story: Asuka is a model and dancer, left without a place to stay in Tokyo. She starts sharing an apartment belonging to a frind's friend, Kasumi, who at the start is not too friendly, and obviously has a baggage of problems of her own. The troubles begin when Asuka witnesses a gruesome killing across the street from Kasumi's apartment: through the window she spots a lean woman dressed in black leather slicing a tied-up man with a scalpel. When the police arrive at the scene, they find a man meticulously disemboweled, with voodoo symbols carved into his skin. An inspector follows the psycho-cult lead by going to a mysterious expert on such matters, while a young paparazzo (Tatsuo) is always near the death scenes. Other bodies appear (some sent by regular mail directly to the police), all cut and decorated into morbid works of art, with a kiss left with black lipstick on white paper next to each body…

Review: BLACK KISS tries to be too many things at the same time and, naturally, fails because of its schizophrenic approach (and muddled script). However, the manner of its failure is somewhat interesting and makes for a fine viewing experience. It opens with several in-your-face Hitchcockian references: the characters go to a club called VERTIGO and the first murder takes place in BAT'S HOTEL (instead of BATES MOTEL). Asuka witnesses the murder peeping through her (rear?) window in a scene that is quintessentially Hitchcockian, but which also recalls his disciples, Argento and de Palma. The killer herself looks like Argento's leather-clad psycho who's at the same time an SM dominatrix with a fetish for (Batman's) Cat-woman. Thrown into the mix are photographs which, when enlarged, add new pieces to the puzzle (another Argento touch) and outrageously gruesome murders – shown not as Argentoesque set-pieces, but mostly in their aftermath, more akin to SE7EN. The director even goes so far to steal the famous jump-scare from SE7EN (when a 'corpse' is suddenly re-animated for one last gasp), but in this instance it feels just like a cheap (and unconvincing) trick, since the corpse in question is actually a torso cut up so badly there's no way in Hell it could live long enough for this brief resurrection.

Logic is thrown out of the rear window, but that's to be expected from someone inspired by Hitchcock filtered through sensibilities of Argento and de Palma. Old Hitch always claimed that his ideal film was not a 'slice of life', but compared it to a cake from which all boring parts are deleted. BLACK KISS, however, is a cake with too many layers of cream and sugarcoating for it to be edible: it's like one of those artificially colored cakes which are nice to look at, but are not nearly as tasty. The film is all over the place, lacking unity of tone and purpose: it opens with a strong sex scene more at home in a pinku flick, but its sensuality is irrelevant for the scene and is never returned to. The opening murder suggests a splatter, but later scenes lack gore and are beautified so much that any sense of gruesomeness is entirely lost: corpses are turned into mannequins and teddy-bear toys. From its pinku start and splatter opening it continues with a lot of drama, then goes into mild, un-thrilling thriller, then some more drama, sprinkled with an occasional, brief horror of new-found corpses of irrelevant side-characters.

Essentially, BLACK KISS lacks discipline: it is too inconsistent to work as either horror, thriller or drama, because horror loses its edge when its promising premise is treated as an intrusion into a quirky drama-thriller. It feels almost out of place and is diluted by the disproportion that drama gets. On the other hand, both drama and thriller are pointless since there are no real characters in this stew: they are either empty clichés (like the bland aspiring model Asuka, poorly acted by Reika Hashimoto) or they remain enigmas until the very end, like Kasumi. It must be said that the latter at least shows signs of promise due to exquisite features and body language of Kaori Kawamura, who perfectly embodies someone who's been around and tasted some of the bitterness of life. However, even these two are lost for a long while during the dead-end police procedural subplot, particularly with an insecure detective's pursuit of psycho-cult leads. The same can be said for the thankless role of the paparazzo: Masanobu Ando (memorable as Kiriyama from BATTLE ROYALE) is practically wasted as a two-dimensional red herring in the silly excuse for a plot.

The director, Makoto Tezuka, is the son of Osamu Tezuka, a legend of Japanese animation thanks to titles like ASTRO BOY and KIMBA THE WHITE LION. Tezuka Jr. has yet to fill his father's shoes: in his previous film, HAKUCHI THE IDIOT (1999), he has already expressed a tendency towards rambling, over-long, self-indulgent exercises in style, unsupported by any real substance or coherence, and BLACK KISS is all that, too. Tezuka has a good eye for visuals, and his films are a joy to watch: however, his lack of interest for storytelling or rhythm is a serious deficiency. You cannot but be mad when, after 2 hours and 10 minutes, you reach what must be one of the most frustrating 'revelations' in any Japanese horror/thriller I can think of. I won't spoil it for you, but will only say that, once the killer's identity and motives are revealed (or are they?), little if anything in the preceding plot makes any sense. With all this in mind, BLACK KISS remains a mixture of occasionally interesting parts which never coalesce into a meaningful or at least effective whole – watchable, but unremarkable, except for its flamboyant style.

DVD [NTSC, Region 2] : Uplink delivers a special, 2-disc edition, and its technical aspect is matchless. The film itself is in 16:9 ratio, with vibrant colors, deep blacks (where needed) and sharp image. The sound is in Dolby Digital, only in Japanese, with no commentaries or other sound options, while English subtitles are quite decent. The second disc offers the usual extras: short interviews with the director and two main actresses (but, strangely, not with Masanobu Ando, top-billed and prominent in the advertising material). Of course, none of this is subtitled, so I have no idea what they had to say about the film. There are also some (deservedly) deleted scenes, a brief feature about (not really top-notch) CGI sequences, but, sadly, there is no alternative ending. I was hoping for a more meaningful one, but it seems that the nonsense which ends BLACK KISS was the best and only thing they could come up with.

BLACK KISS (NTSC, R1)

Here comes MEDIA BLASTER'S DVD of BLACK KISS, and I'm happy to say that its visual presentation (anamorphic widescreen 1.85 : 1) does justice to the rich color scheme and vibrant visuals of the film. Audio (in Japanese) is available only in Dolby digital, and the English subtitles are fine. In terms of extras it's not as rich as the previously reviewed Uplink's 2-disc edition (which had no subtitles in the extras department), but it has some meaty features to offer. The highlight is the interview with the director, which goes into many details about planning and making the film, and reveals his devotion to details (hints about the killer's identity in the very first shot of the film; esoteric meaning of the numbers 4 and 9, etc.). You'll learn that the ending was hidden in the script even from the main players, and that may be the reason why the interview is divided in two parts: "Mystery of Black Kiss" (about the general idea of the film, with no spoilers) and "The Truth of Black Kiss" (discussing the ending and killer's motives: better watched after the film). This last feature must be the most valuable, and certainly clarifies the muddled ending. It does not make more sense, but at least you finally get to learn what they were thinking! Other extras include: a solid trailer, scene selection, Tokyo Shock trailers and an extremely poor Stills gallery (made of photos which look as if they'd been captured off a pirate VHS copy).

All in all, if you're not speaking Japanese, this is a solid DVD version for the English speakers.

2/03/2010

RE-ANIMATOR (1984)

Director: Stuart Gordon

Screenplay: S.Gordon, Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris

Music: Richard Band

Director of Photography: Mac Ahlberg

Special make-up effects: David Allen, John Naulin, Anthony Doublin, John Carl Buechler....

Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, David Gale, Barbara Crampton,...

Running time: 87' (cut from 90' -also available on 97' but with less gore)

GHOUL'S RATING: ***(*)

3+

Stuart Gordon began his career with unusual stage productions in his Organic Theatre in Chicago, where the audience was treated with a weird mixture of art and Grand Guignol. The latter is very much obvious in his first feature, RE-ANIMATOR, which was originally conceived as a TV series. Nothing strange there, since it's based on a series of short stories by the great H.P. Lovecraft, published under the title HERBERT WEST - REANIMATOR.

Luckily, Brian Yuzna (the producer at the time; later also a famed horror director) wanted to make a feature: only the big screen could do the justice to a story that the British author James Havoc called "one of the most gratuitously sick exercises in human dismemberment and degradation that I have ever read". And rightly so. Lovecraft was not very proud of this early effort (written in 1922), but the story remains one of his better achievements, notable not only for its gruesomeness, but also for an element so rare in his fiction - humor. Pitch black, cynical, but humor nonetheless.

With a first-time director and a cast of unknowns, Yuzna could rely only on Lovecraft's name attached to the title and - gratuitous amounts of carnage and blood. He was so uncompromising about it that he refused to submit the film to the Ratings Board: RE-ANIMATOR came to the cinemas unrated - ad took the audience by storm. The cult status was immediate and, surprisingly for this kind of film, even the reviews were mostly favorable.


The plot is simple and, by now, very familiar: a young student from Zurich, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs – in a career-defining debut role) improves the serum to resurrect the newly dead, invented by his deceased mentor, and comes to the Miscatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts (fictional university in a fictional town, both Lovecraft's inventions). He continues his experiments, using the reluctant help from a fellow student (Bruce Abbott) whose apartment (or, rather, basement) he's sharing. Things are complicated by the unscrupulous and lecherous Dr Hill (the late David Gale), who would like to usurp the discovery. It will cost him his head, but that's exactly when he becomes even more dangerous...

Very little remained of the original Lovecraft's story: names of the characters, the basic theme and situation, and a detail or two. Still, RE-ANIMATOR remains the best screen adaptation of a Lovecraft work, for it manages to keep the gleefully macabre spirit of the original, and manages to be scary, gruesome, funny and entertaining yet never reverts to cheap tricks, low humor or parody. It is a straight faced horror comedy, and it has found a perfect vehicle in Jeffrey Combs, whose portrayal of Herbert West is simply - excellent. His amoral, Faustian mad doctor sees no limits on the road to triumph, and perceives people around him as merely more or less suitable "specimens". As such, this mad doctor inevitably recalls the classic portrayal of Dr Frankenstein by Udo Kier in similarly outrageous straight-faced black comedy FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN. Even his frail physique and the feverish, fanatical look of his blue eyes remind one of Udo Kier's memorable character.


Similarly accomplished is David Gale's role: this tall, slim actor with a creepy face and high cheekbones becomes even creepier once he's reduced to a severed, bloody head which hisses, screams and, in the end, fondles the naked body of a tied-up co-ed (Barbara Crampton). Unfortunately, the latter scene (lasting some 2,5 minutes) has been cut from most prints of the film. It belongs to the same scene which features the most memorable quotes. "I must say, Dr Hill, I'm VERY disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are, trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed. You're not even a second-rate scientist!" yells West. A little later, upon Dr Hill's threat that he would steal his serum, West replies: "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a side show!"

The perfect balance of humor and horror and dynamic direction are Stuart Gordon's achievements which can't be overpraised, as well as Mac Ahlberg's excellent photography. Much disputed Richard Band's score, "borrowed" and adapted from the classic Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO score, is in fact perfectly functional in this context, effectively underlying the grotesquerie of the events. Truth to be told, in the last 10 minutes, when all the bodies in the hospital morgue rise from the dead, the grotesquerie attains a level of intense horror and pure delirium as the living-dead intestines start wrapping around the hapless characters...


The great success of RE-ANIMATOR brought about a momentary popularity of HPL in the movies, but the lackluster "adaptations" that followed (FROM BEYOND, also by Gordon, THE UNNAMABLE, THE LURKING FEAR, FOREVER EVIL...) were mostly misguided (in Gordon's case) or shameless and talentless attempts to cash in on a trend, never caring- or being able to- be faithful to the spirit of HPL, present in every inspired frame of RE-ANIMATOR. Much later, Gordon would repay his HPL debt by making the best straight adaptation in DAGON (based on the novella "The Shadow over Innsmuth").

A pretty successful sequel followed (BRIDE OF REANIMATOR, 1990, Brian Yuzna), while the 3rd part, also by Yuzna (BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR) was much cheaper and trashier.