Film review – Ghosts of Mars (John Carpenter, 2001)

John Carpenter’s history as a filmmaker may have many blemishes on it. For every Assault on Precinct 13, there was a Village of the Damned. For every time Kurt Russell escaped from New York, he also escaped from L.A. Yet few of his films have stunk as badly as Ghosts of Mars, which, unlike most of his other films, hasn’t got better with time.

Set on a remote Martian mining town, the plot concerns police woman Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) transporting dangerous criminal “Desolation” Williams (Ice Cube). However, upon arrival she realises that the planet has become infected, essentially, by zombies. She has to team together with a group of survivors including Jason Statham, Pam Grier and Clea DuVall.


The film was a box office bomb, making back just $14m of its $28m budget (global sales, according to Box Office Mojo). It’s hard to see why. Why it cost so much, that is. Conceptually, the mining town should look gritty, desolate and run down. It actually ends up looking more like a half-baked Crystal Maze set that was abandoned half-way through.
The plot isn’t terrible, and good movies have been carved out of much worse starting points. The soundtrack, provided by John Carpenter, is brilliantly varied.

What lets it down is dated visuals – they’re very 2001 – and an unreliable script. The actors do their best with it, but it simply doesn’t hit the marks.

It must be tough to turn down an offer to work with someone as great as John Carpenter. One can only assume that those involved looked at the script and were reminded of his best work. 

[Note] I hated all the official posters for this film, but unearthed the brilliant poster by Ralf Krause on the website AlternativeMoviePosters.com. Check out the website for more great alternative movie posters and order some to decorate your wall with something wonderful!

Film review – Headshot (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, 2016)

Indonesian action film Headshot received its UK premiere on Thursday night at Mayhem Film Festival. It may have started late but the action came thick and fast, treating the audience to an experience typical of the directing duo.

The Mo Brothers – Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto – have carved out a unique blend of action-horror in their previous efforts Macabre (2009) and Killers (2014), both of which have received a lot of attention around the world. This film sees them casting Iko Uwais (The Raid) as a man who wakes up in hospital with memory loss and a past that is rapidly threatening to catch up with him.

It is a perhaps more Transporter than Bourne, with scant attention to the finer details of character development and more time spent with Uwais as he kicks, punches and shoots his way through an army of bad guys to get to the chief druglord Lee (Sunny Pang). It’s fun, albeit unrealistic – a fact underlined by the shooting ability of the henchmen (they really need some firing practice).

Headshot

Arguably this film isn’t really a horror, sitting more in the action thriller camp, but many of the scenes are littered with gruesome breaks and gory splats, from which a lot of the entertainment is derived. There were a few unfortunately humorous moments due to the over-zealous subtitles that often simply described what was happening on the screen, which broke up some of the more serious scenes.

It is a shallow film and one that probably won’t have much crossover appeal for people who don’t intentionally seek out non-mainstream Asian cinema. Those that do find it will be treated to a couple of hours of solid entertainment, though may struggle to remember any highlights shortly after the final credits roll.

Mayhem Film Festival – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham tonight to catch the first night of action.

First up will be The Duke St. Workshop feat. Laurence R. Harvey. Presented in conjunction with Kinoclubb, the performance will feature an electronic live score accompanying Harvey (star of The Human Centipede 2) as he reads two H. P. lovecraft short stories: ‘From Beyond’ and ‘The Hound’.

Next is the film ‘Raw‘, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week to rave reviews.

Finally, the UK premiere of Indonesian film ‘Headshot‘ will round off the proceedings. 

Film review – The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been carving out his own route to the forefront of spectacularly stylised cinema, oozing with what can only be described as Refnisms. His films all inhabit the same universe in a way that all great genre film makers do. So it is with his latest, The Neon Demon, which has all the hallmarks of a hedonistic night in a stae-of-the-art nightclub whilst not giving up on the brutal bloodbaths we’ve come to expect of Refn’s work.

The opening shot is breathtaking – a slow dolly-out on a female model who sits motionless with a sliced throat. That girl is Jesse (an initially unrecognisable Elle Fanning). We learn quite quickly that she is in the middle of her first photo shoot, but this shot lingers long enough to have us right in the palm of the hands of the storytellers. It is simple yet brilliant film making.

neondemonscreenshot1

Elle Fanning as Jesse

The film takes us on a journey with Jesse, an orphan who has moved to Los Angeles soon after her 16th birthday to pursue a modelling career. Bright eyed and innocent in every way, she has no time to learn who she can and can’t trust. As the focal point of a powerful story she is brilliant in the way she carries the film on her shoulders.

The supporting cast are excellent. Abbey Lee and Gigi Bella Heathcote put in a great turn as the jealous models Sarah and Gigi. Keanu Reeves’s Hank is reminiscent of his abusive husband Donnie in The Gift, full of brutality and intimidation. It is Jena Malone’s portrayal of doting makeup artist Ruby that really comes close to stealing the show, her face betraying everything she says throughout to brilliant effect.

The Cliff Martinez soundtrack feeds into the visuals perfectly. A frequent NWR collaborator, Martinez’s sparse electronic score blends the contemporary setting with the horrific events that are unfolding on screen. This is a work of art for which he won best soundtrack at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why.

This is a sensational film with a powerful leading performance from a girl just seventeen at the time of filming. Pairing this with such bold film making and the result was never going to be anything but an overwhelming success.

Film review – Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2016)

From a fairly clunky and drawn-out start, Green Room quickly becomes a truly shocking horror film, made all the more horrific by a believable plot line and some relatable characters.

It delivers a lot in just over 90 minutes. Punk band The Ain’t Rights (including Anton Yelchin as Pat, Alia Shawkat as Sam, Joe Cole as Reece and Callum Turner as Tiger) are living food-to-mouth and on the edge of calling it quits due to lack of funds. A particularly bad gig in Seaside, Oregon leads to the promoter setting them up with a more lucrative performance in an out-of-town area of Portland. What they don’t know is that the gig is for a group of Nazi extremists, and when one of the band members witnesses the aftermath of a murder, things take a turn for the worse and a standoff ensues between the four band members (and another bystander Amber, portrayed by Imogen Poots) and the owners of the club, led by Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart).


“Now, whatever you saw or did is no longer my concern. But let’s be clear, it won’t end well.” So says Patrick Stewart in an uncharacteristically sinister turn as Darcy. Despite a spine-tingling turn, it’s a character that never really shows his worth as a truly horrific antagonist, instead allowing some fairly useless goons to try and largely fail at his handy work. He’s got 100s of neo-Nazis under his thumb – but why? It would have been much more satisfying to get a taste of his evil mind.

Far more relatable are the four band members, who we join in this rollercoaster of misery and trauma. There are a couple of gruesome moments when the film starts to get really bloody, and it is in these moments that the film shows its excellence. Having successfully placed the viewers in the shoes of the band members, the film unravels into a slasher horror and there are some truly shocking moments to shake up the audience. What unfolds feels like a very personal experience despite being something that (hopefully) hasn’t happened to many people.

Imogen Poots is a fantastic actress, though her appearance some time into the film seemed like an after thought. Joining at a point where the band members were already well established is a factor they just about get away with, though I never really felt the same compassion as I did for the band themselves.

If you like your horrors slashy, then this will reward you. If horror to you is a CGI ghost in a mirror, then you may well be sadly disappointed.

The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)

Freddie Francis’s 1965 Amicus Productions film The Skull was recently restored and released by Eureka Entertainment in the UK. It’s perhaps not the most gripping of horror films ever made, but with the classic pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the leads roles it offers a lot to fans of Amicus and Hammer.

The film follows Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an antiques dealer with a penchant for the obscure and curious, particularly pertaining to the occult. He acquires the valuable skull of Marquis de Sade, a man we learn about in the opening prelude set over 100 years previous. The skull has been stolen from Sir Matthew Philips (Lee), a fellow antiques dealer. Valuable though the skull is, Philips has no interest in reclaiming it, for reasons that are initially unapparent.

  
When watched alongside modern horror films, The Skull may be hard to appreciate. This is to do with pacing. Watching a horror film celebrating its 50th anniversary needs to be watched with a mindfulness of the context. The cheap shots and by-the-numbers techniques used today are nowhere to be seen. The horror in a film like this is drawn from the suspense built up by every element of the film working together and a quality acting performance of the lead character. You simply can’t view any film like this out of the context of the landscape of cinema at the time of original release.

Lee is atypically subdued in his performance as Sir Matthew Philips. It is a supporting role but it’s really worth checking out to see him portraying someone likeable for a change.

The plaudits should go to Cushing though. He carries it towards a tremendous climax in a film that actually has almost no dialogue for the final act. He may have more popular roles – or indeed more mainstream roles – but this is an off-the-radar performance that warrants at least one viewing to underline his acting credentials.

Enhancing Cushing’s performance is some excellent camerawork and framing from director Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox. It’s all about intelligence in angles and getting close enough to feel the sheer panic on Maitland’s face as the cursed skull becomes increasingly threatening. They do such a great job that the skull becomes a character itself, especially when we’re seeing the world through its empty eye sockets.

A thoroughly enjoyable horror film for anyone looking for an unusual and obscure Cushing-Lee release.

The Skull is available to purchase on Eureka Blu-ray now.

Note: The poster I used for the featured image of this article was by the excellent Andy Potts. His website is full of fantastic posters he’s done for various reasons. Check it out.

NEKRomantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987)

Arrow Videos never shy away from putting out a controversial release, and the history of a banned film has never been as gloriously controversial as NEKRomantik.

Released in 1987, Jörg Buttgereit’s German-language horror is one that is designed to test the viewer in the same way that The Human Centipede has for modern audiences. In fact, The Human Centipede falls short of this one ever so slightly in the “Making Me Feel Physically Sick” competition, though it is probably slightly behind Saló. I don’t think any of them would be an easy explain to someone walking in at the wrong time though.

The film basically charts a short period of the life of a man who is heavily into necrophilia, with both him and his girlfriend harbouring corpses for their own personal endeavours. Fortunately he’s landed himself a job at Joe’s Streetcleaning Agency (JSA), who are responsible for cleaning up fatal car accidents and such like, so he has ready access to his next unsuspecting victims. However, when he gets sacked for lack of hygiene he quickly realises that he has no easy access to further bodies and to make matters worse his girlfriend quickly loses interest in him, a double blow that leads him down a path to depression and drug abuse.

I’ve probably explained away pretty much the whole film there, not that it really matters. If you’re thinking about buying this Arrow release – the first time it has been available on home video for years – it’s probably worth noting that it really isn’t a very good film. There’s a lot of scenes where we’re shown sex scenes involving corpses; they aren’t too hard to look at as they don’t really look too much like dead people. There’s a disproportionate amount of shots of men urinating, which I never really figured out. I think it’s just in keeping with the theme of transgressive imagery. The locations tend to look like Buttgereit has pulled in favours from friends, and don’t look like they’ve been prepped too much. The camera quality is similar to that of most home video recording equipment of the time. The acting isn’t very good. The most upsetting scene is the one where a rabbit is killed and skinned, though this looks like the director just asked a butcher if he could film him doing his job.

It’s a sub-par film that didn’t really emote any kind of response from me except for a bit of discomfort in the rabbit scene and the first sex scene. What I find most interesting is the continued fame of the film, which is solely down to the fact it was banned and remained so hard to get hold of for years and years. My hunch is it wouldn’t have remained so popular amongst cinephiles but for the fact it was banned for so long.

This is a similar situation to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview, whose release is still shrouded in controversy. Two months ago few people knew about it, and those that did weren’t overly bothered about its release. But once it was banned and involved in an international political scandal that almost triggered the start of a USA-North Korean War, people started to wonder what it was all about, making it a highly anticipated film. Funny, really.

As always, Arrow has pulled out all the stops with the package. We’ve got a Blu-Ray, DVD and soundtrack CD, a certificate with an individual number on it, five postcards of stills from the film, a 100-page booklet, a new introduction, extensive interviews, a Q&A from Glasgow’s Centre For Contemporary Arts, two Buttgereit-directed music videos, several commentary tracks, two short films (Hot Love and Horror Heaven) and a lovely package to house it in. To be honest, it’s frustrating that a film like this gets this kind of treatment when some films I’ve bought recently are really just a bare-bones release (The Killing Fields 30th Anniversary Edition and Attenborough’s Brighton Rock both fall into this category). If only the people at Arrow had the time and the rights to do more releases like this, the world would be a much happier place.

Nekromantik is out now on Arrow Video Collector’s Blu-Ray. Be quick as it is limited to 3000 copies and no further prints are planned as of writing.