In space, no on can hear you steal: A critical review of “Breach” (2020)

This blog wouldn’t be attempting to finish the year by exclusively covering cosmic horror if we didn’t like the genre. You know who else likes cosmic horror? The writers of “Breach.” I can tell because they recycle every notable cosmic horror film, television show and video game since the Hoover administration that they can think of. Instead of more introduction, here’s the plot of the film, with a couple comparisons pointed out as we go:

A group of humanity’s best and brightest get onto a sleeper ship after Earth appears to be doomed (shades of “Pandorum”). Everything’s going soap opera smooth until an alien entity starts entering the mouths and bursting out of the chests of the blue collar skeleton crew tasked with running the ship (“Alien,” natch). The dwindling staff decides to reawaken the ship’s commander (“Pandorum” again). He and his squad of overly confident space marines (“Aliens”) find the threat has mutated, and they face human hosts turned into zombies with bleeding eyes and gooey black drool (“Helix”).

That’s far from the end of repurposed plot points. We haven’t mentioned even mentioned crawling through the vents while someone shouts directions (“Alien,” “Aliens,” “Alien: Isolation”). Or how the final creature design looks straight out of “Resident Evil 2.” Or how the crew speculates about its origin, and someone theorizes it’s older than the universe. Was that lifted from “Event Horizon”? Warhammer 40K? Something else? Even the name of the film is the same as a flash game from 10 years ago about, you guessed it, a parasitic organism that goes zombie-nutso (by way of “The King in Yellow”) on a space station.

But who cares. “Breach” doesn’t try to be anything more than a derivative pulpy sci fi thriller. There’s no problem with that. In fact, given some of the problems this film has with its mechanics and narrative, the lack of originality is downright endearing.

Bloody Disgusting theorized that the film drew inspiration from “The Thing,” but in this blog’s opinion, that’s one of the few sources that is not blatantly on-screen. Unlike “The Thing,” there’s never a sense of mystery – in “Breach,” it’s always pretty clear who’s infected and who isn’t. However, the first half of the film has the potential for a similar tension. When the skeleton crew fans out over the ship in pairs to hunt down the creature, it feels like maybe this is going to be a psychological thriller. Then the zombies hordes show up, and it becomes a zombie shooting movie in space. OK, I guess, but where are these hordes coming from? I thought the passengers were all asleep.

This change of genre might be fine for fans of “Doom,” but they will still likely wonder why all the security forces shake their guns when they shooting them, like little boys going pew-pew-pew while firing finger guns. Or why the bullet sprays look like lens flare effects. Or why both the people shooting and the zombies seem to change location from shot to shot. Or where everyone’s wounds disappear to when they tumble to the ground.

All right, so the film has poor direction, inadequate budget and bad continuity on top of its inconsistent and unoriginal narrative. Is there anything else to recommend?

There are a few positives. The first is Bruce Willis in a prominent role. He’s charismatic and knows how to handle the pulp dialogue in a fun way, so he’s always watchable even as he slogs through the same script as everyone else. He’s easily the best thing happening on screen. Thomas Jane doesn’t fare quite as well, but that might be because he’s only on-screen for a few minutes. He has the role of “guy who shows up long enough to growl some lines and get his name in the credits,” but at least he growls with the best of them, even if it is a thankless task.

There are also a few interesting lighting choices, with some of the industrial space station corners shot in various foggy monochrome: a green workroom, a red corridor, a blue docking station. It’s about as atmospheric as things get, and it utilizes the film’s limited budget well.

The final thing of note is the ending, which is so bonkers that the badness of the film might actually circle back in on itself and become good again. If you’re like me, you’ve watched a couple of thrillers, and you think you know all the tricks. I figured there was going to be a twist ending, and partway through the film, I saw the perfect moment to set it up. But the film kind of forgot about the set up when the ending rolled around, so I assumed it was going for a less twisty conclusion. But no, it introduced a new element in the last second, and the film changed genres again to become… a kaiju movie? I have to admit, I did not see it coming, so congrats on that. Unless it was taken from “The Cloverfield Paradox,” just in case you thought we were done borrowing. But if we are so desperate we resort to borrowing from “Cloverfield Paradox,” it really is time to stop.

This blog still doesn’t quite see “The Thing” comparison, but at one point (and in similar circumstances), “Breach” does repeat a line from that film. Bruce Willis’s space janitor sees the alien creature, thought to be destroyed, start to rise again. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he groans. I concur.

Actual news for a change: News November 2021

As was prophesied, this blog is going to shift into doing some film and TV reviews for the rest of the year, and we’ll keep up our focus on cosmic horror. We initially wanted to do a lineup of the most underrated cosmic horror media, but then we asked ourselves: How could we do a “most underrated” lineup when we hadn’t established what the best cosmic horror media was?

So our focus shifted to the best cosmic horror. But then the obvious question emerged: How could we do a “best of” lineup when we hadn’t established what the worst cosmic horror media was? You can probably see where this going.

Through this thoroughly backwards reasoning, this blog has settled on its year-end mission: track down, watch (or re-watch, as the case might be) and review the worst cosmic horror media ever. That sounds like something to look forward to, right?

Hey, no one ever said this was a smart blog. Or a good one.

Ah well, that’s not really news. I mean, the “worst ever” part might be, but then again, reviewing crappy pulp thrillers is hardly new for us. So how about this instead.

I actually thought of a useful purpose for these news posts. From now on, when I’ll try to include a roundup of links I found interesting over the last month. A sort of “in case you missed it” of my side of the web. Since we just came out of October, there was plenty of fodder for fans of thrillers and weird fiction. So much, in fact, that I had to narrow things down a peg by sticking to creature features broadly defined.

For the beekeeper in all of us, Little Red Horror blogger Kim Morrison reviewed “Royal Jelly.” I find bees terrifying, so anything that combines weird atmosphere and psychological horror with that buzzing sound will catch my interest. I haven’t actually watched it yet, but I have seen Roger Corman’s “Wasp Woman,” which got a nice retro write-up by Simon Jones over on Meathook Cinema.

Keeping things in the insect theme, Mandalore Gaming did a thoughtful video review of “No One Lives Under the Lighthouse,” a game I was initially introduced to via Oney Plays. Wait, is that giving something away? Eh, probably not. This is one of those weird ones where it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t a spoiler.

Let’s pivot to more complex organisms. At the online literary journal Coffin Bell, writer J. Campbell shares his short story “A Frog Died For This.” It’s hazy and uncanny, and, despite the animal symbols in its bookends, technologically flavored. For something a bit more straightforward, let’s return to Meathook Cinema for a quick review of “The Last Shark.” How could you not watch something with such a ridiculous-yet-compelling title? It’s apparently a splattery Italian creature feature, so that checks more than a couple of my thriller boxes.

So was there a significant amount of creepy crawlies and big critters circling this Halloween, or was it just me? You know how it goes. You notice a trend, then that’s all you can see.

So long at the pizza parlor: A critical review of “Willy’s Wonderland” (2021)

Every now and again in cinema, there’s an idea that sells itself. In the case of “Willy’s Wonderland,” that sale goes like this: Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. This is, in the parlance of cheap thrillers, an easy sell, assuming you can find the right audience.

Well, this blog is that audience. Seriously, you had me at “Nicolas Cage.” The murderous animatronics just sweeten the deal.

But finding an audience is not necessarily enough. Once located, they must be won over. Offbeat goofball thriller fans are not a bunch of pushovers (at least I hope we aren’t), so it was a natural that “Willy’s Wonderland” would be examined with a cautious and critical eye (by this blog at least). I don’t accept just any man vs. animatronic retro thriller, you understand. But within that lens, “Willy” appears surprisingly fine. Mechanically, it’s a solid and stylish film. However, unlike another movie I can (and will) mention, it feels like there’s something missing from this well-greased machine: something to say.

An energy drink-chugging drifter in a muscle car (Cage, natch) finds his vehicle in need of repair out in the middle of nowhere. A beef-jerky chewing mechanic offers to fix it for him. In exchange, all he has to do spend a night in an abandoned pizza parlor and maybe clean it up – the owner says it’ll be ready to open for patrons again any day now, just as soon as they can get the blood stains off the walls. It doesn’t take long for the drifter to encounter the real patrons of the parlor: the restaurant’s animatronic mascots, which apparently come to life after dark and kill anyone in the dining room. The drifter’s efforts to preserve himself until dawn are complicated by three things: the seeming complacency of the local authorities; a group of scrappy but clueless teens who are trying to burn the pizza parlor down; and his own unquenchable thirst for energy drinks and pinball.

If that seems like a lot of plot for me to cram into one of my little paragraphs, it is. But the movie itself is not shy about what it is, and so I feel no need to be coy either. The film’s intrigue is effectively and exclusively its concept, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

The good thing is no one is going to enter this film and leave feeling misled. It front-loads everything that it is, and delivers no more or less than that. The joy of watching “Willy’s Wonderland” is not observing its complex narrative unfold or encountering its evolving atmosphere. It’s to see Nic Cage punch some fuzz-covered robots, all drenched in a 1980s neon glow. The film does not lack for style. There’s an MTV speed to the editing, and a hyperrealistic haze around the photography and color palette, but even these elements feel like cogs in the concept rather than components reflecting or expanding on it.

Performances follow suit. The main character is Nicolas Cage. He has to be. He has no name and no dialogue, so we are left with the conclusion that this is the fate that has befallen an alternative Nicolas Cage somewhere in the universe. Accordingly, he’s perfect for the role. Could anyone else battle animatronics with such effortless acceptance, clean a pinball machine with such meditative grace, and adhere to so tight a schedule of energy drinks and muscle car repair? Probably not.

Supporting Cage are some goofy townsfolk, of whom Beth Grant as the cranky sheriff is the standout. If there is anything like an emotionally nuanced core to the film it’s her, portraying someone who is almost all duty with just a tiny sliver of shame. There are also the teens, who are mostly cannon fodder. That doesn’t matter too much, since they aren’t all that interesting. Emily Tosta as their fearless leader is probably the highlight, and not just cos she has the most screen time. Most of her action is to stare wide-eyed and confused at Cage, but I accept that. I would probably be doing the same thing in her situation.

In truth, everyone looks like they’re simply playing a part in the pageant. Of course the nameless drifter doesn’t have a name. He’s an archetype, an archetype called badass. Of course the teens are there to be cannon fodder. They aren’t characters. They’re boxes on a checklist labeled “slasher movie” waiting to be marked off. Even the monster robots follow suit. They are weird and twitchy, and sometimes even thrilling in a jumpy sort of way, but they are treated like routine boss battles in a video game. They show up, do their thing, then get plowed by Cage so the next one can take over when its turn comes up (and is it just me, or does Willy himself seem a little underpowered?).

And therein lies the problem with a film that is so completely its – admittedly hilarious and stylishly presented – concept. Not only is there no less to it; there’s no more to it either. There is no depth to “Willy’s Wonderland.” There is no philosophical musing or psychological suggestion to the film. I cannot blame the performances, since the actors are all fine in the underwritten roles and having fun with the overblown dialogue. I cannot blame the direction, by he-took-a-bit-of-a-break pulp director Kevin Lewis. There’s cool stuff there, even if it’s all retro neon decoration. I suppose I can blame the script, by first-timer G. O. Parsons, but it’s a wimpy accusation. I can’t tell you what the film fails to do, only what it lacks, and that can always be brushed away by a defense of “it was never supposed to be there.”

This movie would be easier to praise if we didn’t have “The Banana Splits Movie” already. Yes, I know, this blog didn’t exactly give it the greatest review, but we ended up defending it as one of the more flawed but interesting films of 2019. For better or worse, “Splits” is twice as ugly but three times as fascinating as “Willy.”

The comparison is not hard to make. Both films are comedic horror flicks about animatronic mascots run amok, both have a purposefully retro feel, and both are probably trying to capitalize on the success of the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise. But while “Willy” has superior production values, a brisker script and more thrills, “Splits” seemed like it had something to say. Maybe it failed at fully saying that… thing, whatever it was, but it felt purposeful, dammit. “Splits” will frustrate me, even disappoint me, more than “Willy” ever could precisely because it attempted to engage me with things to think about. That’s something “Willy” didn’t try to do.

While the message of “Splits” was debatable – I came up with something between a critique of nostalgic media and an absurdist drama – there was at least a debate. “Willy” doesn’t have a message, not even a moral message, one of the few boxes on that slasher checklist that’s absent. Some people are killed for having sex or placating the evil machines, but others are killed for admitting their mistakes or trying to do the right thing. It’s very uneven. Maybe there is a message, just a highly nihilistic one. Except a couple of decent people do survive, so that’s probably out too. Maybe the message is, if you’re in a comedy horror film, be Nicolas Cage? And if you’re not, just let Mr. Cage do his job?

Perhaps “Willy” actually does frustrate me, because I can imagine a more interesting film within it. It would require something a little quieter and sadder, but it wouldn’t have to lose any of its offbeat horror. My take: don’t drop the style, but do ditch the kids. Get your action horror kicks from the fights between Cage and the robots, playing up the one-on-one suspense and grotesque monster designs. Create more tension in the sheriff’s office, with her anticipating and dreading the ringing phone. Reveal the town’s sinister backstory in dream-like flashbacks, moody and murky, ala “Point Blank” or “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Create a doomy atmosphere of guilt and fate, of culpability, consequence and regret, stewing over the action. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting take on killer animatronics?

Shoot, what am I talking about? No one would finance that movie.

I’m spoiled is what I’m talking about. “Willy’s Wonderland” is an easy recommendation for any horror fan with a sense of humor and who can take a little splatter. It’s a slick and stylish production, where fun performances and comic flourishes abound, and I haven’t been more entertained by a new release so far this year. I have no one but myself to blame for expecting more from a movie sold as Nicolas Cage fights murderous animatronics over a dirty pinball machine. Still, if I’m a fool for expecting more, it’s a foolishness I’m happy to have.

Design of the times: A critical review of “Manhandled” (1949)

Some thrillers are more famous for how and when they show than what. For example, the 1955 pulp crime drama “Kiss Me Deadly” is remembered for its bleak atmosphere and foreshadowing neo-noir cinema, but also for its snapshot of mid-century Los Angeles architecture. Within 15 years of the film’s release, a chunk of the downtown LA it displayed had been torn down, but it’s still accessible on screen.

It seems surprising that 1949’s “Manhandled” is not thought of in a similar way. Late Art Deco style drips from every corner of the screen. It’s in the costumes, the sets, the props, even the glossy marble walls behind the characters as they absentmindedly wander around. It’s a period designer’s dream, maybe even an “American Gigolo” for the 1940s. It also features a truly novel cast. Lead actors Sterling Hayden and Dan Duryea made their share of film noirs, but co-star Dorothy Lamour was known for Crosby/Hope comedies, not thrillers. You also get Alan Napier – TV’s Batman’s Alfred – and Keye Luke – Charlie Chan’s number one son – in smaller roles.

So if “Manhandled” has stylish production values and an unusual cast. However, it’s usually just mentioned in passing, a footnote in the review of some other noir. Why is that? Probably because it’s a mediocre movie.

It starts moodily enough. “Manhandled” begins with a man getting a handle on his dreams (seriously, what’s up with that title? The poster is great, but it’s an absolute lie). He tells his psychiatrist he has a recurring nightmare about murdering his wife. Harmless enough, until she turns up dead. The husband is the number one suspect, but things get more complicated when his dead wife’s jewels go missing. The police, an insurance investigator and a private eye are all looking into the crimes, but some of them are more connected to things than they appear.

The plot of “Manhandled” is… haphazard. There’s just a lot going on. It’s not bad stuff, but did we really need all of it? The film opens like it’s going to be a psychological thriller about dreams and repression. That’s great. This blog loves weird old movies like that. But then it transforms into a routine heist drama about fencing jewels. That’s OK, I guess, but it leaves me wondering where all the psychological themes went. Then the movie decides to bring some of them back by cramming them into the climax in the midst of bad lighting. That’s not good. There is a hint of nonlinear storytelling. That could have been pleasantly surprising if it weren’t poorly executed by the script, and hindered by choppy and awkward editing.

It doesn’t help that the film completely abandons some of the elements and characters from the psychological thriller part of the movie. Even when the film is done with them, questions remain. If “Manhandled” was supposed to be a heist picture, why bother with the psychoanalytics at the start? What about those dreams? What happened to Alan Napier’s head? Either way, in the middle of a gritty crime film, do we really need a running gag about filling out paperwork for new brakes on a police car?

I actually have similar problems with Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” which feels like a psychological crime drama for the first half and a police procedural for the second. Two things make that film easier to forgive. The first is it had the sense to stick with the new genre once it switched its narrative focus, so the tone felt more consistent. The second is it’s an Akira Kurosawa film. “Manhandled” is not.

There are some nice touches, however. The direction, by co-writer Lewis Foster, is professional. The cinematography, by Ernest Laszlo (who worked on the aforementioned “Kiss Me Deadly”), is sometimes quite striking in a film noir sorta way. The performances are mostly what they are, although Duryea, as the low-rent and gum-smacking private detective, is charismatic and fun to watch. Ain’t he always though?

If you’re still reading, you might be here for the design. Art direction was by Lewis Creber and set decoration by Alfred Kegerris, both of whom had some mysteries and thrillers under their belts. Edith Head is listed as a costumer. That probably had something to do with it too. I didn’t even realize it was her until after the fact, when I had been so struck by the outfits I had to see who had worked on them. I’m not sure I can stress that enough. I had never seen a movie I where was captivated by Alan Napier’s pajamas or Dan Duryea’s shirt and tie before, but I have now. I just wish that movie itself had been a more consistent thriller.

Dead on arrival: A critical review of “Scared to Death” (1947)

You know what’s a bad sign, tonstant weader? When you’ve started watching a thriller three times and can’t remember much about it. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I should cut back on the bubbly and Tylenol PM. Alternatively, maybe the movie could be better.

Respected cinema info dump AllMovie calls “Scared to Death” significant because it is Bela Lugosi’s only color feature. That’s good for the film, because without Bela’s tinted presence, there would honestly be nothing to recommend this. Better than possibly any movie in its genre, “Scared to Death” exemplifies one aspect of the haunted house whodunit: a nightmarishly slow pace.

We open with an admittedly intriguing angle: The story is being told from the point of view of the victim, Laura (Molly Lamont), as she lays on a slab in the morgue. From beyond the grave, she relates her last long night at the mansion of her father-in-law, a prominent physician and asylum operator (George Zucco). Her fate involves her family’s mechanations, as well as the scheming of a professional hypnotist (Bela Lugosi), the snooping of a reporter (Douglas Fowley) and her own dark past.

What’s painful is the film is only about two cents short of being a so-bad-it’s-good experience. It has a lot of things that should work in that singular capacity. Lugosi and Zucco give solid pulpy performances, but they’re contrasted with broad screwball comedy, largely courtesy of Nat Pendleton as a goofy security guard. There’s a dwarf and a giant head. The ending twist involves Nazis and cross-dressers, which seem to come out of nowhere. At least, I think they came out of nowhere. I probably missed something. The movie didn’t help me find it though. Not that it’s overly cryptic or esoteric. More that it’s frighteningly boring.

Nothing happens, and it doesn’t happen for over an hour. This isn’t just waiting at the DMV; it’s the trip there and back as well. All those incongruous performances and inexplicable images can’t support a pedestrian script, talky plot, boring production design and unimaginative photography.

It can’t even get its gimmicks right. Pulp thrillers are often made by their gimmicks, and this film has two. The first is that it’s “photographed in natural color.” But this ain’t “Susperia,” where color felt like an integral part of the narrative. It ain’t even “The Tingler,” where color was utilized for shock value. Nossir, outside of the lining of Lugosi’s opera cape, nothing pops onscreen. Sticking to black-and-white might have even helped, giving the film a much needed atmosphere. A mysterious face at the window is described as green. You could have fooled me.

The second gimmick is that the film is being narrated by the corpse of Laura (why are all doomed women in thrillers named “Laura”?). This is an early example of this trick, predating even “Sunset Boulevard.” It’s also sloppy and rushed. There is no narrative reason for the gimmick, and the movie doesn’t attempt to give it one. The irregular flash-forwards to the morgue where Laura’s disembodied voice contextualizes the film are only about six seconds apiece. Considering how convoluted the film becomes, one might think having a literal talking head to explain things would be a help, but it makes no difference whatsoever.

A lot of the film’s problems are probably the result of it being based on a play. First, that explains much of the film’s slowness, the talkiness and staginess and same handful of rooms being used over and over again in spite of logic and normal human behavior. It also explains why some of the film’s elements seem to come out of nowhere. They did. The play, “Murder on the Operating Table,” debuted in the early 1930s, a decade before Nazis were relevant in American media. “Scared to Death” was put together in 1946, and the addition of Nazis was likely a last second attempt at relevancy. The gimmick of “narration from beyond the grave” also feels like an effort at having at least one scene take place outside of the house. As for the cross-dressing, I’m not so sure.

“Scared to Death” is the only place where you can see Bela Lugosi’s cape in color, and its unintentional juxtapositions certainly feel unique. What’s less original is its dull design and suh-lo-ness. In the end, the film is so bad I can almost recommend it. Almost.

The wrong exit: A critical review of “Detour” (1945)

This blog would hate to call anyone the “ultimate cult thriller director,” but there are cases to be made. Case in point: Edgar G. Ulmer made two films that are recognized as undervalued representatives of their respective genres. The first is “The Black Cat,” a 1934 horror film whose offbeat and porous narrative paid more attention to unsettling atmosphere and psychological games between its iconic actors – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – than it did to its conventional leads. It is well worth a watch for horror fans, and it definitely deserves its own review some day. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

Nossir, we are talking about “Detour,” a 1945 film noir that is also quite interesting. However, whether it is a quality film or not is debatable. It’s a little movie trying to be a big movie. A bunch of my betters have suggested it’s waiting rediscovery, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not necessarily for the same reason. “Detour” might worth seeing, not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s so bad it’s charming.

By the way, the film is in public domain, so you can watch it most places online, but anyone who misses that delightfully public access/old school horror host cringe can watch it here.

For those in a hurry, “Detour” tells the tale of a dour New York pianist hitchhiking across America to catch up with his girlfriend who’s fled to Los Angeles. Somewhere in the Southwest, he climbs into a car with a doomed man. After switching from hitchhiker to driver – and taking on the original driver’s identity – he picks up a young woman who has some killer baggage of her own.

To be fair, “Detour” has a couple of things going for it. It sports some thoughtful, mature camerawork and a suitable soundtrack for a film about an accomplished pianist, which is particularly impressive in its nightclub scenes. However, as far as things that are clear successes, that’s about it.

There is an ambition hanging over the film, but it’s an ambition that is almost never precisely satisfied. Part of the film’s failures come down to the editing and continuity, which are awkward and self-defeating. There’s also the script, which seems like it’s in a terrible rush to get wherever it’s going. “Detour” is less than 70 minutes long, and while that makes it a breezy view, the film never has the time to ruminate on its themes or characters in a comfortable manner.

Both of those flaws can be attributed to the notable lack of budget – film stock costs money, after all, and this movie was notoriously cheap. Of course it’s debatable whether the low budget can account for the awkward script and editing, but it can account for the clumsy matte shots and cheap sets. However – and this is where the charm bleeds through – budget can excuse but never fully explain some of the film’s quirks. Why does it look like the leads wander through the Gypsy camp from “Cry of the Werewolf” while walking home from the New York nightclub? Who knows. Unfortunately, a lack of funds can’t excuse the dialogue, chewy performances and aimless narration, which are so full of overcooked metaphors to sound like a pastiche of film noir rather than an earnest effort.

The biggest problem of all is Ann Savage as Vera, the hitchhiking femme fatale. She should have entered the film much earlier than she does. Savage is by far the most compelling component of the movie, and as soon as she appears, every minute that she was absent seems wasted. Her sharp movements and dark eyes are mesmerizing, and her shifty magnetism elevates the tawdry dialogue to literate pulp. She’s a perfect foil for Tom Neal as the stiff, sad sack pianist. Once she’s on screen, it feels like an integral part has been restored, rather than added, to the film.

That is “Detour” in a nutshell. It is an elegant movie with an ugly skeleton. The components of a good film – continuity, script, performances, competent lighting – aren’t here, but there is an ambition hanging over the result. It’s found in the atmosphere, which is foreboding, fatalistic and nihilistic. Even if the expected narrative doesn’t work out, that atmosphere does. There’s a dirtiness to everything, either by design or default, and little makes narrative sense, but that just gives the proceedings an oddball, dreamlike quality that is fully watchable.

Ulmer ain’t here, so no one can say how much of the film was that bad and how much was intentional (the ending was allegedly shoehorned in to please the censors, so an argument could no doubt be made that the ham-fisted narration and hacky editing followed suit). Regardless, it is worth a watch for fans of the genre who have an hour or so to burn. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride.

More bark than bite: A critical review of “Cry of the Werewolf” (1944)

Who doesn’t love a copycat, er, copy-wolf? The logical consensus on 1940s hairy horror film “Cry of the Werewolf” is that Columbia was trying to cash in on the recent lycanthropic successes of “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People.” Considering its name, one would expect Columbia’s effort to follow Universal’s tale of wolves and men rather than RKO’s narrative of cats and Simone Simon. However, “Cry” goes for the less obvious choice, ultimately having more in common with Val Lewton’s film. Both films feature an urban setting, a heavier emphasis on a psychological rather than Gothic atmosphere, an undercurrent of female sexuality, and creative use of light and shadow due to budget constraints.

Interestingly, “Cry” is not the first female werewolf movie (nor is it “Cat People,” wolves aside). It’s a 1913 silent called, rather creatively, “The Werewolf.” Wikipedia even tells us it was the first werewolf movie on record. Wikipedia also tells us the film is lost, having been destroyed in a fire about 10 years later. A likely story. Has anyone seen the “Cigarette Burns” episode of “Masters of Horror”? I sense a werewolf movie conspiracy.

But that’s for another blog post. “Cry of the Werewolf” opens with a gratuitous narrative crawl about how nothing is truly unnoticed or forgotten by cultural memory. It’s a promising, albeit convoluted, start, but don’t pay too much attention. The film could have gone straight into its first scene, a tour of a museum dedicated to psychic research and occult history. It’s well photographed, atmospherically lit, and entertainingly set and blocked, not to mention the tour is led by the very watchable character actor John Abbott. That cool introduction is interrupted by a thoroughly unnecessary flashback, which is also well shot but features the tamest werewolf ever caught on camera.

The plot, in case it wasn’t clear, is a little disposable. A “Gypsy princess” who can apparently assume the form of a wolf kills a researcher before he can finish writing a book about about the secrets of her tribe. When the researcher’s son shows up to finish his father’s work, he gets mixed up in the perplexed police investigation into the occult killing. He’s also finds himself caught between the interests of two young women: his late father’s secretary and the alleged killer herself.

“Cry” is an uneven movie for a few reasons. Despite being less than 70 minutes long, a lot of it feels unnecessary or at least uncomfortable. The dialogue keeps teetering between Gothic horror and pulp detective. The gumshoe stuff feels off in a werewolf movie. It doesn’t help that a lot of it is trying too hard to be funny. I know that humor and horror have always gone hand in hand, but the humor in “Cry” is never fitting for that genre. It’s not bleak or subtle. It’s just goofy. That’s fine in an Abbot and Costello mashup, but it’s not so funny here.

The Gothic stuff is a little more adequate, but even that has problems. This was supposedly Columbia’s first shot at a popular horror film, and it feels like the movie threw everything “horror” it could think of at the screen to see what landed, regardless of how well it went together or how developed it ended up being. There’s the Gypsy princess/werewolf combo, voodoo dolls and occult crime, and the secretary is from Transylvania. Of course she is.

I’m not sure who to blame. One of the writers, Griffin Jay, had some horror experience beforehand, but with titles like “The Mummy’s Hand,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “The Mummy’s Ghost” I’m not feeling like serious and subtle horror was his thing (his first credit on IMDb is a Three Stooges short). On the other hand, co-writer Charles O’Neal wrote the very subtle Val Lewton produced “The Seventh Victim,” and ultimately worked on the underrated sci fi/horror flick “The Alligator People.” Huh.

The werewolf transformation is suitably subtle though, at least at first, all told through shadow. Maybe it’s just me, but I appreciate werewolf movies where there the werewolf looks like a wolf. I’m probably wrong. My favorite werewolf movie is “Company of Wolves,” and that might not even be a werewolf movie.

I feel like I’m talking about every film but this film. The acting is mostly good. Abbott as the tour guide is affable, and he gets one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Nina Foch does well as the princess, managing to capture about as much complexity as the script allows her character. Fritz Leiber is natural as the old researcher. Al Bridge has a fun turn as a weird mortician (he pronounces “secretive” as if it means “something that secretes something”). Barton MacLane plays the chief investigating officer with the proper amount of grim resolve. Just don’t pay attention to his men in uniform.

That said, the weakest links are Stephen Crane and Osa Massen as the two leads, the researcher’s son and the secretary. There’s no trace of chemistry between them. Crane in particular is pretty wooden. He seems merely a little unhappy that his dad just died, and it’s never a good sign when the wicked seductress is trying to corrupt some guy named “Bob.”

However, I con’t condemn the film’s love triangle outright. Again, the two sweethearts are pretty anemic, but Foch is fine. Her performance gives “Cry” the hints of feminine sexuality – presented as a complex of allure, danger and destiny – that could not be found in the more male-dominated horror films around it (remember, this was decades before “Ginger Snaps”).

Some of the images are pretty solid too. There’s some moments in the opening tour sequence and some clever photography around the Gypsy camp (which is set up in… Griffith Park? Where does this film take place anyway?). The most thrilling set piece is likely a cat and mouse moment in the labyrinthine darkness beneath a mortuary. That has good shot composition, appropriate lighting, the dialogue shuts up and the erratic editing takes a breather. It’s too bad the film can’t regain that atmosphere in a later scene where the power goes out at the occult museum.

That’s the problem with “Cry of the Werewolf.” It’s not enough any one thing. It’s not enough Gothic horror or psychological horror. It’s not enough atmosphere or humor. It’s not enough good or bad. It can’t decide what it is, and neither can this blog. There’s enough there to make it worth a look for the curious, especially considering the slight running time. If you’ve already watched “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People,” and you’re itching for more old school lycanthropy, this might do the trick. If you’re expecting a waiting-to-be-rediscovered prize, you’ll likely leave a little disappointed.

Want to see a magic trick?: A critical review of “Nobody” (2007)

The year 2007 gave us a couple of psychologically interesting thrillers – “Zodiac” springs to mind, and I still have to see “The Man From Earth” – but perhaps none was as head-spinning as “Nobody.” It’s been billed a surreal neo-noir, and it was exhibited at an H. P. Lovecraft film festival. How could this blog not review this film?

Wait, when I said I wanted to write about “Nobody,” did you think I mean the one that just came out? You don’t know this blog very well.

“Nobody” – the 2007 one – is an offbeat movie in every way. It’s an utter indie, without any polish to suggest even a whiff of studio backing, and it looks great. It marries a film noir aesthetic to a speculative and metaphysically flavored narrative. It features a couple of actors whose faces might be familiar, but any of them will likely take a minute to recognize.

“Nobody” plunges us into the night-drenched world of a black-clad assassin. He’s finished hit job that feels rotten. It feels worse when he thinks he’s being stalked, and it feels weird when he returns to his safe house – a largely unoccupied hotel – only to hear that he’s already checked in. But don’t worry. He has the entire night to figure out what’s going on.

One of the greatest strengths of “Nobody” is how lucid it is of its limitations. Like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it is keenly aware of what it can and can’t do technologically to tell its story. Accordingly, everything looks smarter and more appropriate than movies that cost 23 times as much.

The locations, costumes and lighting are all correctly pushed to the limit, and the result is about ideal. The movie knows when to glow and when to bask in shadow. The sets – a seedy hotel, a gritty urban alley, to a mothballed ship and a snow-chilled forest – are period perfect, and feel natural and necessary for this constructed world.

Except, maybe it’s not period perfect, because, while there is a film noir vibe, there is a can’t-put-my-finger-on-it timelessness to the proceedings as well. Between the design and the lofty themes, it feels a bit like Alex Proyas’s existential sci fi thriller “Dark City,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that film was an influence on this one.

Those themes are lofty indeed, and likewise feel necessary for the plot, even if they’re anything but natural: time and punishment, identity, existentialism, absurdism, even Hinduism. A look at this film’s IMDb user reviews indicate how many interpretations there are of the film, as well as divisive it is. However, love it or hate it, everyone agrees the movie makes no fucking sense.

Admittedly, given the impressionistic nature of the plot, it can come across as a bit much – unnecessarily esoteric at best and pretentiously pointless at worst. But think of it in terms of atmosphere rather than narrative, and the presentation feels right. The story is told frequently through detail shots (again, the film is mindful of its technical limitations, but there are a few long shots and vanishing points snuck in, mostly courtesy of hallways). Likewise, the image of Costas Mandylor as the assassin Mortemain in shoe polish makeup, black gloves, a fur coat and a slouch hat says everything it needs to, and would be iconic in another world (a world where this film had a bigger advertising budget).

It helps that there are so many cleverly layered moments and lines of dialogue that refer back to the overarching themes, not to mention a lot of it is darkly funny. Two crooks are described as “born to watch cement dry.” Two different crooks bicker about chopping through a sheet of ice to bury bodies. A mute mobster is nicknamed “Sweet Talk.” How can you hate that?

Plus, the film is not afraid to show a little gore. It doesn’t have buckets of blood or anything, but it has more than one might expect from an artsy thriller. That machete? It’s going to be more central to the plot than you realize.

Besides, the film never pretends like it has a coherent or traditional structure. It’s not a three-act story. It’s not even a riddle, where’s there’s an expected solution. It has more in common with classical Greek paradoxes or Zen koans, where meaning takes second place to the process of seeing things through.

Despite the divisive plot, the acting is universally praised. This blog will echo that. Mandylor is great in the stoic lead role. He’s a big man, and I like that. It’s nice that he’s not a stick or a body builder, and it feels correct for the role. Ed O’Ross is great as the endlessly expressive mob boss Rolo Toles.

I could say some bad things. The guy playing the hotel manager chews the scenery a little more than I’d like. The music is pretty stock too, I guess, but even there I’ll allow a kinda cool drum run that takes up the climax.

I’ve seen this film compared to “Miller’s Crossing,” “Memento” and the writings of Franz Kafka, and all those comparisons are flattering and fair. “Nobody” ain’t gonna change the film industry. I mean, clearly it isn’t. It’s had more than 10 years to do so. Writer-director Shawn Linden is a cool guy, but he doesn’t exactly have a long list of projects to his name – although his creature feature “Hunter Hunter” was released last year, so he’s got that.

“Nobody” is a budget title, and it’s designed more for atmosphere than reason, but I like it. I’ll make it easy for you. This handy link should tell you where the film is streaming at any given moment. If this movie sounds interesting to you and you aren’t allergic to budget productions, but you still aren’t thinking of watching it when you get a chance, the only person you can blame is in the title of the film.

What a wonderful way to start the day: News April 2021

Happy Easter. Nobody’s reading this. What marvelous freedom I have, tonstant weader. Freedom will sort of be the name of the game this month. Well, not quite, since we’ll be tying up some loose ends of our own device that we’ve meant to tie since the start of the year.

But that’s just news about this blog. Why should I only talk about us? We’ve got to expand our jounalistic horizons. What if I included some news about the wider world of thriller fiction? Specifically, what if I had a couple of literary submission opportunities from trusted sources for all the interested parties?

First, for those who’ve contemplated that trees might be secretly out to get us, Jersey Pines Ink will soon be looking for horror, fantasy and sci fi stories concerning the topic of trees. Stories can be no longer than 2,500 words, and the deadline hasn’t been anounced yet. You’ll have to keep an eye on their website for updates (click submissions).

Next, Oddity Prodigy is currently considering urban fantasy for its upcoming “Beneath the Yellow Lights” anthology. ‘Round this blog, we call that low Gothic, the fantastic entering the realm of the everyday. Light horror elements are OK – think Neil Gaiman – but cool it on the sci fi or high Gothic for now. Word counts are 2,500 to 5,000, give or take a sentence. Deadline is July 31, 2021, but don’t take my word for it. Check out their page for more information.

Now that that’s out of the way, what is coming up on this blog for the rest of the month? We still have that spate of retro film reviews, and I feel a certain anime analysis coming on. But before all that, I want to say something about the death of Adobe Flash while it’s still vaguely relevant (it’s not any more, but cut me some slack), and I want to review the film “Nobody.” Gotta keep up with the times, tonstant weader, even if we’re a few days slow.

Gap year: Best films of 2020

I had a hard time figuring out what to give the top spot to this year, but not because of the great selection.

It probably didn’t help that this blog missed out on all the big movies. No blockbusters like “Tenet” or “Wonder Woman 1984.” No art pictures like “Nomadland” or Hollywood candy like “Mank.” Not even genre-as-message-picture “Promising Young Woman.” But if I had seen one or all of those, I’m not sure if my opinion would have changed. Nossir, there was little I was excited to see on screen in 2020.

Of course, I did watch a few films, and I found a couple to comfortably call the best . As per usual, those are at the start and the worst are at the finish line. Feel free to let me know where I missed out, where I got it right and, more likley, where I’m horribly wrong. See you there, tonstant weader.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: If the purpose of a movie is to produce conversation, then perhaps “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was the best movie of 2020. This tale of a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time and feeling that things aren’t quite right is a psychological drama/thriller by way of both Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Aronofsky’s “Mother!” Maybe a little of “Ghost Story” too, or maybe all of them. Maybe none of them. It ain’t for everyone, but the curious will find a talented cast reading intelligent dialogue to handsome visuals. It’s a little long, the pacing is slow and the ending is admittedly formal. The narrative is broken too, but that’s kind of the point. The naivete of romance, the tragedy of aging, letting go of the past or fantasizing about a future that could have been… I’m not even sure I liked it, but this feels like one that’s worth a discussion.

The Call: Of course, if the purpose of a movie is primarily entertainment, then “The Call” was the best movie of 2020. Its physics all fall apart if you think about it too much, but as a stylish thrill ride, this time travel murder flick is simply great. Clean photography, interesting visual effects and a good sense of place make this more than worth a watch. Also, and I won’t say too much – not that genre fans won’t figure out the twists anyway – Jeon Jong-seo’s performance was perhaps the most enjoyable in a thriller this year.

The Vast of the Night: And if the purpose of a movie is just to move, then perhaps “The Vast of the Night” was the best film of 2020. It certianly might be the most underrated. Everything about it moves well: its clever script, its nimble photography, its young cast. It does get a bit murky at the climax, but what doesn’t? A low key retro sci fi thriller by way of “Coast to Coast AM” for all the radio fans out there. I dig the Southwestern digs.

Gretel & Hansel: From the opening, this film blazes by at a breakneck pace. That sounds like a compliment, but it’s not. The film can’t decide if it’s dark fantasy, psychological horror or black comedy. It finally takes a breath in the second act, which is coincidentally when it appears to settle primarily on psychological horror and when it starts to become actually engaging. Even if the film can’t escape its first third, the photography and color palette are practically peerless – it is Osgood Perkins in the director’s chair after all, and he might be effectively riffing on “The Witch” – the script has some clever lines, I like the performances and anachronisms, and there are some interesting and atmospheric images. Mabye it’s a little high on this list, but I’d watch it again, if only for the colors, dude.

Enola Holmes: Too many endings, but not too bad getting there. A period crime adventure thingy, it’s handsomely produced, sports a solid cast with good chemistry, and is built on a script that’s pretty aware of what it can and can’t do. There are some loose ends, but I assume Netflix is figuring on a sequel. Most of the thrills, laughs and logic feel earned. I don’t understand the necessity of the choppier edits and multimedia bits, but someone must have thought they were a good idea. I also don’t understand the constant fourth wall breaking, but at least it’s consistent. Were we going for Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” or “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”? I suppose it’s its own beast.

The Lodge: The slow-burning and wintry look and feel of this psychological horror flick are just right, but the script is not quite there. It’s a few minutes too long, for one. It’s also kind of reductionist – cults are bad and crazy people go crazy – so it never feels like it has a lot to say. The performances accordingly lack depth, but they’re perfect for what they set out to accomplish. It’s pulp, but it’s pretty pulp. Just stick to those detail shots. You’ll do fine.

Sputnik: A political science fiction thriller, if you will, that is surprisingly upbeat… for a Russian movie anyway. Well paced, well lit and photographed, and convincingly acted for the most part. Kinda goofs up with the motivations in the last 10 minutes or so, but overall an atmospheric and interesting spin on the “Alien” narrative.

Goblin Slayer Goblin’s Crown: It’s basically a long episode of the TV series, so you get what you pay for. Do you want to see a violent cartoon about a man in D&D armor promising a young woman with PTSD that he’ll kill all the goblins everywhere forever, and it’s somehow ridiculous, touching, tragic and badass at the same time? Here’s your movie. Good music. Acceptable animation.

Invisible Man: Solid scares and special effects, and a haunting performance from Elisabeth Moss gird this psychological thriller. The updated spin on the H. G. Welles novel is interesting, but credibility is stretched from the start and pretty much snapped beyond repair by the climax. I would have preferred something subtler. Still, crisp photography and a moody color palette carry the tense and often emotional narrative along.

Underwater: Sweet, another “Alien” clone. I mean that sincerely, by the way. This is the kind of thriller I like: controlled and claustrophobic, with tons of well photographed detail shots to break up the action. Pros include organic dialogue, decent performances, excellent lighting, fine monster design and natural suspense. Cons include some unnecessary narration and some generic music. It never quite has the oomph it needs to pull it out of the “bargain pulp” category, but it’s still a bargain.

Palm Springs: Probably the biggest movie I got around to watching. Harmless fantasy-comedy with an obvious “Groundhog Day” feel. Deadpan performances and an irreverent script keep the first half fun, then it gets a little slow with sentimentality. Despite the irreverence, it’s just a romantic comedy with weird fiction dressing after all. It glances at its existential themes rather than examines them, and some of its conclusions feel unearned, but there’s enough fantasist flourish to make it worth a watch.

Tesla: Sort of a metanarrative biopic of the titular inventor. The shot composition is occasionally awkward but more often interesting, and the sets are moodily lit and dressed (think Peter Greenaway lite). Great performances across the board. Too bad the script, while intriguingly constructed, fails to ever settle on a central point.

The Burnt Orange Heresy: This is categorized as an art crime thriller. It is a crime thriller, but only in the second half, and even then the thrills aren’t effectively felt until the last 20 minutes or thereabouts. It has the art thing right off the bat though, so you can look forward to that. Pretty in a workmanlike sort of way, well acted by a talented cast (with a quality surprise performance by Mick Jagger). The literate script probably worked better in the spacious format of the novel.

The Devil All the Time: An autumn stained backwoods noir. The moody landscape is sensitively photographed and populated by well performed grotesques straight outta Flannery O’Connor. A powerhouse cast plays with the layered narrative, which touches on faith, hubris, humanity, responsibility and destiny. Sometimes those layers threaten to devolve into melodrama, but for the most part the ensemble keeps things interesting. In fact, this might be a more interesting film than a good one, but we need a little interest here and there.

Open 24 Hours: The script is cliche – pulpy and playing with some interesting psychological thriller concepts at best, and tolerably trashy at worst – the score is routine and the special effects are just passable, but they’re married to some unexpectedly solid performances, great sets and locations, and wonderful editing and shot composition. Too bad it overdoes things in the climax.

Debt Collectors: A familiar but fun comedy crime thriller about beating people in the head and taking their nice things legally. It’s a sequel, and nothing’s as fresh the second time around I suppose. Or maybe I just miss Tony Todd. Still, the film’s promises are simple, and it delivers on them.

The Babysitter Killer Queen: Another sequel that’s more of the same, in this case more over-the-top splatter, more neon and more hyperactive comedy-horror. The cast is as attractive and game as ever, but the goofiness threatens to crush the high concept this time around.

Rogue: Who woulda thunk a movie featuring Megan Fox as a mercenary with flawless makeup fighting CGI lions in sub-Saharan Africa would be kinda silly? The film could have tried to meet me halfway. The script, by director M. J. Bassett and actress Isabelle Bassett (correct, related), is as uneven as a dirt road, with the tone changing from cracking bad one-liners one minute to grimdark action the next. There’s even a moral at the end. The cast is a mixed bag at best, with the villains probably having more fun. If you do watch it, stick around for the occasionally interesting camera angles and the well designed burning farm set.

Rebecca: Director Ben Wheatley tackling the same topic as Hitchcock seems like a great idea, and the resulting psychological drama looks good, but it does not move right. I’m not sure why, but I have a suspicion it’s the editing (normally Amy Jump handles that for Wheatley, but she’s absent on this production). Or one could blame the script, which cannot quite merge romance and thrills. It’s not the music though, by the ever reliable Clint Mansell. But don’t be a goof like me and think that one song is by Fairport Convention. It’s Pentangle.

Shirley: Yet another weird fiction biopic, this time of psychological thriller writer Shirley Jackson. Well performed – it’s Elisabeth Moss again, so no duh – but muddled. Between the poorly scripted characters and the murky photography, it’s hard to care about much on screen.

Dolittle: What a cast. What a pointless movie. This fantasy-adventure-comedy-creature feature-kitchen sink flick is not the worst, despite the box office and reviews, but anything that has a farting dragon as a plot point is not going to make a short list of the best. Even the natural charisma of both Robert Downey Jr. and Antonio Banderas can’t make this truly watchable. Still, it has the distinction of being the last movie I watched in a theater.

The Last Thing He Wanted: A jumbled and ultimately dull political thriller. Anne Hathaway effectively inhabits her thankless role (the cast as a whole is the film’s best feature), but even she can’t make me care about her character or comprehend her situation. Maybe the book was better.

The Dinner Party: Definitely rough around the edges. This feels very influenced by 2019’s “Ready or Not,” but it lacks that film’s solid sense of humor. It wants to be weird and atmospheric, but the slow narrative and endless outside references leave it overstuffed, draggy and divorced from reality. It doesn’t help that the actors err on the side of over-the-top. It’s about theater people, so maybe it’s supposed to be theatrical?

Homewrecker: A very indie (the cast and crew are a little incestuous) dark comedy thriller. It fails pretty squarely as a thriller, but it might do a little better as a dark comedy. There are a few chuckles spread throughout the brief runtime, the ending has potential and the two leads (Precious Chong and Alex Essoe) do the best they can with a script that grows increasingly silly. However, the movie as a whole is surprisingly… normal. It should have been weirder if it wanted to stand out.

Monstrous: Imagine a psychological thriller with a missing person plot that takes place in bigfoot country and milks its setting for atmosphere. “Monstrous” is not that movie. We get a Sasquatch-vision roadside murder in the first scene, and from then on an awkward lesbian road trip thriller with a violent climax that is, oddly enough, trying to be tender. In case you couldn’t tell, the screenplay, by lead actress Anna Shields, is pretty awkward as well. The pacing is nuts, and the characters don’t behave like people, although maybe they behave like bigfoots. At least the indie rock song selection is pleasant and the photography is nice if you like rural East Coast.

Mrs. Serial Killer: Sometimes my betters make snap statements, like when they say “Mrs. Serial Killer” was the worst film of 2020. For me, that’s not a warning. It’s a challenge. After all, who’s the expert here? Well, they might have been right. Interesting lighting and photography can’t save a ridiculously scripted, strangely acted, uncomfortably blocked and poorly edited thriller that never takes full advantage of its own high concept. And does Jacqueline Fernandez really seem like she’s be both married to and murderously devoted to Manoj Bajpayee? I guess that’s just me being petty.