Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) [The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense's The Shortening]

I'm going back to Australian cinema for this review, which is always something I'm up for! Too many films are American! The subject in question is the 1975 adaptation of Joan Lindsay's book Picnic at Hanging Rock...

On Valentine's Day 1900, the students of Miss Appleyard's School for Girls go on an excursion to the area of Mount Macedon, nearby the ancient natural formation known as Hanging Rock. Despite warnings to stay away from the dangerous and craggy mountain, four girls led by the alluring and mysterious Miranda go anyway. After a few hours, something unexplainable happens, and three of the girls go missing, and the other runs away screaming. Searches are undertaken by the police, as well as locals, but nothing can be found, and the girls remain lost, along with one of their teachers. A young aristocrat from Britain who feels an emotional attachment to the case tries, with some luck, but not enough to solve the mystery, which might stay such forever...

There aren't that many movies where I've discuss the score before I do the story or other such elements, but in this case, it's justified. The iconic soundtrack in this film is definitely something special, particularly the pan pipe music courtesy of Gheorghe Zamfir. The score is beautiful, yet eerie, and really makes the movie, along with the weird noises  Unfortunately the two big pieces of the score are repeated quite a bit, which kinda dampens their power a tad near the end.

Picnic at Hanging Rock has often been misunderstoof as a true story. It isn't, but it's not hard to see why people might think it is. The film is presented in a true-to-life way, especially with little touches like the text at the beginning, or the voiceover at the end.

The story makes no effort to dwell on the cause of the mystery itself. Rather, the freaky things happen, no-one knows why, and we see life going on for everyone in the area. This is actually a good decision, as had the movie focused deeper into the mystery, it'd be more frustrating when it inevitably doesn't give any answers. The flipside though is that because of the somewhat lacking final half hour, the movie feels a little...listless?  Back to the positives brought about by this structural decision, there's how it makes the film feel genuine. Unlike a supposedly 'based on a true story' film that might see fit to embellish the events in order to give a narratively satisfactory answer, Picnic at Hanging Rock feels like it's accurately portraying real events, because of how it never speculates directly what the cause of the disappearances might be, or tries and give its own answer.

Another praised elenent is the character of Miranda. She barely appears, yet her character permeates the entire film. It's just a shame she and the others disappear so early on, we don't really get much time to get used to their presence and characters before they're whisked away.

The ending is a bit weird (in a bad way) and confusing, as well as extremely abrupt. In fact, abruptness is a problem in other places too. When the three girls disappear, for example. The sky seems to turn a shade of red, and Edith runs away shrieking, while bizarre sounds are heard over the soundtrack...and then the scene almost immediately cuts to Miss Appleyard's office later that night. I wish the scene had've lingered a little longer, and transitioned less suddenly to such a different feel and location. Another annoyance is that we never see Miss McCraw's disappearance. We just hear about it after it happens. Because of this, I didn't know she was the teacher who had disappeared on my first viewing.

Another problem is the brother-sister relationship between two random characters who never meet. It just seemed like a pointless addition, since nothing came of it. I felt similarly about the sort-of lesbian subtext, which for me seemed too unexplored, resulting in it being a bit superfluous.

An interesting question is whether or not Picnic at Hanging Rock is a horror movie. After all, what's the base requirement of horror? That it should scare the audience, and this movie certainly does that. It's incredibly haunting and eerie. However, a lot of the story is focused on the effects the incident is having on the residents of the area, in what feels rather like a character drama. Whatever one's thoughts on the matter are, it's definitely an interesting thing to talk about, which is yet another reason the film is great! It just keeps provoking more and more different discussions about its nature.

Peter Weir's direction is fantastic! The camerawork is great already, but what really helps is the way the film was shot. Weir and crew deliberately filmed at certain times of the day when the sun shined/shone through the trees best, or by putting lace over the camera to achieve a more ethereal look to the movie.

Finally, onto the acting. It's all good, with some great performances. A lot of the performers come across like they're real people, which sells the 'true story' feel. Anne-Louis Lambert is great in her relatively small but important role as Miranda, while Dominic Guard carries large portions of the film well, as does a young Jon Jarratt. Rachel Roberts does very well as Miss Appleyard, capturing both her severe nature and also more vulnerable moments, and the very Aussie Helen Morse's French accent doesn't sound unconvincing to me, someone who doesn't speak French, nor can pick up on such subtleties, whatever that's worth.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a great example of Australian cinema, as well as low-budget cinema, and is still a revered film over 40 years on for very good reason. I wholeheartedly recommend you watch it! With luck, it'll creep you out and make you think...

The Shortening 2017

As always, the wonderful Emily of The Deadly Dolls House of Horror Nonsense has organized The Shortening: A blogathon to celebrate all things short of stature in this the shortest of months. Yet another month, I've been too wrapped up in trying to do a million things at once, and thusly my reviews aren't getting posted until the very last day of the month. Whoops! Anyway, they'll be up soon. I'm always glad to take part in The Shortening...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

G.O.R.A. (2004)

*Special thanks to my friend İlayda for procuring me a copy of this movie*

When one thinks of science fiction movies coming from Turkey, their minds probably wander to Turkish Star Wars (Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam), if anything at all. In recent years, however, cinema over there in more traditionally higher budget genres has been improving greatly, now offering genuinely good movies, rather than unintentionally funny ones, as G.O.R.A. is testament too...

A goofy Turkish salesman named Arif is abducted by the alien Gorans, who put him to work as a slave in their colossal prison, on the planet Gora. The villainous Logar, Commander of the Goran military, has plans of conquest through marrying the princess Ceku, much to her extreme displeasure. Things go awry when Arif manages to foil one of his plans to take control, and gains the affection of the princess. Seeing his chance of freedom, and seeking a mystic named Garavel, Arif escapes the prison with the aid of friendly fellow inmates Bob Marley Faruk and 216, as well as Ceku herself, who's fallen for Arif. Together, they'll try and save the planet from the clutches of Logar...

G.O.R.A. is a 2004 sci-fi comedy starring local comedian Cem Yilmaz (who also wrote the film), and it's a blast! Well-written, entertaining, and often funny! It's just over two hours long, but I never found it overlong or boring (though I can imagine that runtime wearing on some people). The movie is paced well, and the first half concerns itself with setting up this world to the best of its abilities, doing a nice job.

Despite coming from another country, the comedy translates well enough, and there are plenty of laughs. Most are regular humour, while others are in the form of parodies. There's a couple for The Matrix, which actually turns out pretty well! Surprising, I know! It was at this point in time when lots of comedies had forced Matrix parodies for no other reason than that movie was really popular, and they ended up dated (like that scene in Shrek, for example). GORA, however, manages to avoid that particular pitfall, perhaps due to the fact that it's actually sci-fi themed, has a mild fourth wall breaking streak, and most of all, it also sorta-parodies a couple of other movies too (such as The Fifth Element), so one of The Matrix doesn't feel out of left field.

Finally, there's a gag involving time at the climax that's amusingly meta.

One aspect to the movie I dug is the sexuality of the villain, who just happens to be gay (or bisexual), which I appreciated. As I may have said on this blog before, equality in media is people of different ethnicities, sexualities, etc. being able to have whatever role they want, be it hero or villain. So while a film from, say, 1940 might have a gay antagonist and mean it homophobically, GORA has gay villains who just so happen to be gay, and they're villainous for completely different reasons.

I'm glad to say the effects here are really quite good! Plenty is done by computers, and that's clear sometimes, but they still look lovely, so I'm totally willing to forgive that. Plus, they never look outright fake or anything. The set design and backdrops here is also fantastic!

The acting in G.O.R.A. is good all-round, as far as I can tell, not being a speaker of Turkish. Cem Yilmaz plays both Arif, and Logar, and is unrecognizable in the latter role, which is surprising considering his whole face is exposed! I guess it's a mix of the costume/hair, contacts, and his general demeanor, which certainly speaks to Yilmaz's talent as an performer. The rest of the acting is fine too, with Rasim Öztekin and Ozan Güven as Arif's sidekicks, Özkan Ugur as the somewhat deranged mentor, and Özge Özberk as the stifled and lovestruck princess.

The soundtrack likewise is really good. Perfectly fitting, complementing the scenes well. Also, on a side note, this is one of the rare times I've been able genuinely complement a Turkish move's score, what with the majority of ones I've seen being older zero budget ones that didn't have the money for music, and thus went foraging in other films' soundtracks for suitable tracks.

In closing, G.O.R.A. is a very funny movie, and really goes show just how much Turkish cinema has grown and evolved in just a few short decades. I highly recommend it! Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch Turkish Star Wars 2...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vampire Soiree 2017: Mexican Undead Extravaganza

Greetings once again to the Vampire Soiree, hosted as usual by the lovely Holly of Holly's Horrorland. This year, I'll have the pleasure of looking at a few Mexican vampire films! Unfortunately I wasn't able to procure any more Jean Rollin movies in time for this year's soiree. Hopefully next year!...

The Brainiac

In 1661, the Spanish Inquisition holds a trial for one Baron Vitelius, who they deem guilty for a variety of offenses, burning him at the stake. As he dies, the Baron swears by a passing meteor that he shall return to Earth with it in 300 years an exact vengeance upon the descendants of his judges and executioners. Sure enough, the Baron returns come 1961, decidedly more monstrous. Using his dark magic to assume a normal appearance, he sets about rebuilding his life, and fulfilling his promise. Meanwhile, young lovers Rolando and Victoria, are trying to help an astronomer friend locate the meteor and, while searching for it after its mysterious disappearance, come across Baron Vitelius, who recognizes them from 300 years ago...

The Brainiac (aka El Baron del Terror) is a pretty entertaining flick, as you'd expect froma movie about a brain sucking space vampire, but the structure and plot hold it back. The plot is pretty threadbare, just showing the Baron hypnotising and murdering one of his targets (always a man and a women), before moving onto the next victims and doing the same, then moving onto the next ones, etc, interspersed with scenes of either the heroes or the police expressing confusion. This is tolerable seeing as how The Brainiac is just a basic B-Movie, but I still wish there was a little more to its story.

Other issues I had with the story were examples is missed potential, in a way. First up is the setting. The opening trial is as cruel and ludicrously prejudiced as you can imagine coming from the Spanish Inquisition, but then again, Baron Vitelious totally does have it coming, so I guess that's a stroke of luck. Given that unfair nature though, it really gets you looking forward to their punishments...buuut then the movie jumps forward 300 years, with Vitelius instead going after their very distant descendants, as he bizarrely promised to his executioners back in 1661. I dunno, that kinda takes the sting out of it, especially since two of the descendants are played by different actors (being of different genders). After 300 years, I doubt the ancestors would really care all that much what Vitelius would do, and he would do better to let go of his revenge and just use his vampiric magic to start up a business or something. Hell, he could even make friends with his would-be targets, as at least one of them is totally disgusted with the Spanish Inquisition's history. That would sure spite Vitelius' executioners!

Another sadly unexplored avenue is how the lead's ancestor defended Baron Vitelius back in 1661. Why did that guy do that, and what was his relationship with the Baron? That could've also played more into the modern day, with the movie focusing more on the differences between ancestor and descendant, and delving further into Rolando choosing good unlike his predecessor, as opposed to being briefly mentioned when he defends Victoria, and nothing more.

Other problems with the story are a couple of ridiculously convenient moments, like when Rolando discovers the baron's terrifying brainy secret only through randomly deciding to bust open a cabinet, for no explained reason. Then he promptly stares at the brains for several seconds, only running to his girlfriend's aid once she starts screaming in terror. After a brief run around, the leads do nothing to defend themselves from the monster, and the situation is only resolved once the police just so happen to show up, with flamethrowers to boot! They thought Vitelius was just a human psychopath! Why the heckballs did they bring flamethrowers?! This culminates in an incredibly abrupt ending. The movie just suddenly stops once the villain is dead!

One last thing about the plot is how strange it is that despite the passage of 300 years, Vitelius' executioners each only have one descendant!

The Baron makes for an almost neat villain, but the movie underuses him, only letting him stare hypnotically and 'seductively', which admittedly is mildly intimidating. He barely talks, stares for uncomfortable lengths of time, and has all the charisma of a murderer, yet is able to make fast friends with his soon-to-be victims!

The effects on display in The Brainiac are pretty funny. The meteor comes in two effects-The first is when in the sky, as an obvious drawing, while the second is a laughable hunk of styrofoam that doesn't exactly look convincing as a meteor. The mask for the Baron's monster form is also chuckleworthy, but looks neat regardless. I like the way it pulsates. Doesn't help make the mask look more convincing, but it's still a neat touch.

The dub acting is pretty awful, with the actors delivering lines poorly, as well as off, resulting in weirdly structured sentences. As for the acting proper,it's hard to gauge. Everyone seems to do decent jobs, with Abel Salazar doing what he can as the villain. Famed local actor Germán Robles (well known nationally and abroad for The Vampire) also shows up for a small-ish role as one of the Baron's objects for revenge.

While not perfect, The Brainiac is still a fun watch, and a nice way to kill some time...

Samson vs. the Vampire Women

In 1960's Mexico, a local professor is gravely worried about his daughter, for she is prophesied to be a part of a chilling plan by a group of vampires to make her their new queen. Desperate for help, and unsure of whether the police will take him seriously, he goes to luchador El Santo for help. The silver-masked crusader for justice sets out to stop the vampires once and for all...

Allow me to point out the obvious...That is not Samson!

He's actually famous Mexican wrestler El Santo, played by himself. As well as being a cultural icon in the ring, he also had an extensive movie career, made up of fighting various threats, from monsters, to aliens. Not sure why they changed his name for the American release, and that seems a little disrespectful. Also, one would wonder why, of all the mythological figures for them to pick from, the American distributor (K. Gordon Murray) chose Samson, the one to whom hair is integral, while Santo on the other hand has none that we can see!

The plot to 'Samson' vs. the Vampire Women is pretty dull, and not particularly well-written. It feels like it stalls on the first plot point, and as a result, the movie feels stuck with not much to do until Santo finally comes across the vampires' hideout. The bad pacing is no help either. It really wasn't necessary for the vampires awakening to take up the first 13 straight minutes! Also, it takes Santo 26 minutes to show up! That leads into a bigger problem-The titular hero really doesn't appear much in the film at all! He takes all that time to appear, then vanishes for large swaths of the movie. He's a pretty uninteresting protagonist, too, for which I blame the script rather than Santo himself. The character then goes into full on psychopath mode against the lady vamps at the end, which doesn't exactly endear him to the viewer, but does make for a really cool shot!

The rest of the characters aren't particularly bright either. The professor's daughter Diana is getting married (at age 20?!), and here's a choice line of dialogue from her fiancee-"Pretty soon you'll be using my name, and I'll be giving the orders around the house", he says with a laugh. When can the vampires kill him, please? Her father isn't much of a prize either, seeing as how he deliberately keeps his terrified daughter in the dark about what's going on, for no reason, instead treating her like a hysterical child. The villains are a dull bunch, and irritatingly, about 40 minutes in, the vampire queen is awakened and she takes centre stage as the lead villain, even though Tundra the priestesss had been set up as the antagonist. At least it's mildly amusing how each level of the vampire hierarchy tells their underlings to "Not fail again or die", and so on, so on.

More problems with the story include a deus ex machina scroll of the professor's that describes modern names and addresses perfectly despite being thousands of years old, and is further translated whenever narratively convenient, ensuring that the lead doesn't actually find out where the vampires are hiding based on his own skills. On that note, Santo is also only saved in the climax due to a conveniently timed coincidence!

Being a luchador-vehicle, there's of course plenty of lucha libre on display here. I kinda zoned out during those bits, given my disinterest in wrestling. The second match we see is more interesting though, partially because it's actually related to the plot, and with only two characters, both distinctive due to their masks, rather than four to keep track of, most unmasked. Even so, this second match still starts to drag after a while. The big problem with these scenes is that they kinda highlight how a wrestler isn't really up to fighting supernatural monsters when he has trouble facing off against fellow luchadors in the ring!

Samson vs. the Vampire Women is probably most well-known in the States for its appearance on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Given the long stretches of time with not much happening, I don't know how this could make for a good episode of MST3K, but I suppose they did a little snipping to make it go faster, and be more accommodating for riffs.

The acting all seems pretty uninteresting. Yeah, it is dubbed, which of course sucks, but even so I don't think these actors did that great a job in the first place. As for Santo, I'm not sure though, seeing as how his face is completely covered by a mask, so I can't judge his acting performance at all! As for the fight choreography, it's pretty decent.

The effects here range from laughable (like the cardboard flying bats), to decent enough (the fangs, the monster make-up, the fiery deaths). There's also some neat direction here and there.

Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro isn't a very good example of either Mexican horror cinema, lucha libre adventures, or even a vampire movie. It's not all bad. but all in all just plain dull. I'm sure it makes for a great episode of MST3K though!...

El Imperio de Dracula

Weeeell I've watched two Mexican movies so far that were dubbed into English, so the least I can do is watch one in its native Spanish, without subtitles (not by choice, mind you), even if I don't understand the language.

In 1800's era Mexico, a slain vampire, Baron Draculsten, returns to life and waits in his stolen villa, waiting for its true owners-a brother and his two sisters-to arrive. Unaware of the lurking dangers, the siblings relax in their new home, until they realize the terror that surrounds them...

El Imperio de Dracula opens with a showdown between the titular-ish antagonist, and some pudgy middle-aged guy he's chasing. At first I figured the dude would be killed fairly quickly, as the movie's first victim, but as the scene kept going, so did he, always getting the upper hand! It got to the point where I was actually rooting for the guy to win, because if he's putting up this much of a fight for a seemingly random would-be victim, he frankly deserves too! And then, surprisingly, he does! Wow, this was a short movie. Dracula died only 8 minutes in!

Following that, he's of course brought back to life, by a faithful servant. At first I figured 'Maybe he was just short of blood earlier, and thus in a weakened state. Maybe when he's replenished, he'll put up more of a fight', but then he later loses to a guy who was just in a carriage crash, so Draculsten's success rate isn't exactly the greatest! As the movie progresses, he continues to show himself as quite the weakling, which makes him an unintimidating villain! Each fight this vamp gets in, he soundly gets his ass kicked by mere mortals, who are unarmed no less!

For the most part, I can hardly judge this movie's script, seeing as I didn't actually understand it. Something I can take issue with involving the story though is the villain's resurrection early on, by having blood poured over his 'remains'. That didn't make sense in Being Human, and it certainly doesn't here! Dead vampires being resurrected by removing the stake from their hearts is stupid enough, but if they're already dust, I don't think there's much recovery to be made from such an inauspicious position!

Further logical hiccups include a scene where a horse drawn carriage crashes (don't worry, the horsies are fine!), and burst into flames! As it turns out, 2004's Van Helsing wasn't the first vampire movie to pull that insanity!

At first I was under the impression that the villain's name was literally Draculstein (thanks to some reviews online, as well as IMDb), but it's not. We see a couple of written examples in the movie, and it's not spelt with an 'i'. That's kind of a shame given the laugh value of Draculstein, but on the other hand, the movie is able to be taken more seriously without it.

Onto the film's atmosphere. It's pretty refreshing seeing a Mexican Gothic film! Also, more often than not, in so many old westerns, the only Mexican characters you'd see were simple 'primitive' townsfolk in ramshackle old villages. Here though, they're nothing like that, being more varied, and less stereotypical, as you'd expect.

Unfortunately El Imperio de Dracula is pretty slow. Its pace is quick enough that I didn't realize 45 minutes had passed already, but the story's slow enough that I was thinking on how little had actually happened in 45 whole minutes, of an 81 minute long film. That's my biggest problem. I wish there was more plot here!...And yes, I know that's an odd complaint when I couldn't understand the plot I was given anyway...

One part I didn't get is the hilariously lax security the leads take despite the attacks from vampires they know full well are still in the residence, leading to the girls being recaptured by Draculsten once again!

For the most part, El Imperio de Dracula is pretty easy-ish to follow unsubtitled, though the lack of understandable dialogue can be tiresome, so finding a subtitled DVD if there is such thing, or learning Spanish are the way to go. By the way, it's amusing how a lack of subtitles on a foreign movie can change the plot for the viewer. With the group of couples we see about 20 minutes in, I was under the impression they were meeting with the previously couple who met with a violent end, and after coming across the abandoned carriage, they go to look at the villa, calling for Maria, the woman. I was wondering why they were only calling for her, and not the guy she was with. Then they find Maria, who's now a maid, and looks nothing like the woman we saw before. Huh? 'Maybe she's under a vampiric curse making her look prematurely aged?' I thought? Or maybe, Chris, you moron, Maria was always a completely different character! It took me a while to realize that the first couple was unrelated, and this other party came to the castle because it's theirs, and Maria is the maid working there, hence their calling for her.

One last thing to note about the plot is the title. Even without subtitles, I could still tell there was no such empire.

The acting is quite decent, mediocre at worst. Eric del Castillo plays the vampiric baddie, and physically does a fine job, but has very little to work with. Also, at first I thought he looked too young, but as the movie went on, he looked fine, and I was just mistaken. One heck of a compliment for the dude, I'm sure, seeing as how he was 37 at the time! Speaking of his age, that leads to a nice little touch on Baron Draculsten's crypt headstone

The effects are a mixed bag. The modelwork, locale, and how the two blend together as well are all really good, and help make the movie look more expensive than it actually is. Also worthy of praise are the scenes involving horseback/carriage fights, which are impressively done! The swordfight near the climax is pretty laughably choreographed, though. That scene is also made amusing by how the brother is busy fighting the Baron, and his two sisters aren't helping at all! Granted, Draculstein puts up such a paltry fight that the brother doesn't really need any assistance. The old-age makeup an actress clearly in her 30's isn't that great either (unless it turns out I'm totally wrong, and that's really an older actress, in which case SORRY!). There's a really good mirror scene involving one of the female antagonists. Finally, the vampire resurrection/death effects look neat, even if they're both obviously the same shot, but one's in reverse.

The score isn't anything special, but it's decent. What I especially liked were the moments   which early on built up an atmosphere of desolation. I also dug the pipe bashing (best way I can describe it) sounds on the soundtrack, though it can get a bit overused.

The Empire of Dracula isn't all that great a movie. It has it's faults, but upsides too, however, and it's still worth a watch for vampire aficionados who are curious to see how other countries handle them. And it's also a pretty uncommon example of Mexican Gothic, too, so that's worth a lot!...


Unfortunately the movies I've looked at for this year's Vampire Soiree weren't exactly the pinnacle of good Mexican cinema, but they're far from bad examples to look at, because they at least do show just how creative Mexican cinema could be, even when not at its best. Happy Valentine's Day, and may your day be filled with vampires, or not, given your preferences to potentially being killed by creatures of the night!...