Sunday, 13 December 2009

THE KISS OF DEATH...

Redemption goes bust?

The cult movie empire whose back catalogue includes the risqué films of Prince Andrew's former lover Koo Stark has collapsed into administration.

Redemption Films, based in Wigmore Street, Soho, was set up by Nigel Wingrove, Britain's answer to Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.

Administrators were called in today at the distributor of gothic horror movies, whose past titles range from Sinful Nuns Of St Valentine to Ms Stark's cult 1977 hit The Marquis De Sade's Justine.

Mr Wingrove set up Redemption in 1992 after directing Visions Of Ecstasy, the only film to have been refused a licence by censors on grounds of blasphemy. He also manages the Satanic Sluts, the burlesque dance group of Georgina Baillie, the granddaughter of Andrew Sachs who was at the centre of the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand telephone scandal.

Vantis administrators said it hoped “to complete a sale of the business in the next few days”.


Damn...I merely mention the name of Nigel Wingrove and now this goes and happens. Still, I've no doubt we will soon see him back in some meaningful capacity, but it's still a total bummer all the same. Tellingly, the report only mentions Redemption, so I don't know how or if other labels and ventures ostensibly under the same umbrella are affected. We shall see...



In the meantime, I notice that Wingrove and Marc Morris' 'The Art of the Nasty' has recently been re-released as a special edition. If you can't think of anything to ask for this Christmas, this could well be up your alley...I'm hoping 'Nasty' and and a copy of 'Hammer Glamour' will magically materialise in my metaphorical stocking this Christmas, otherwise the reindeer gets it!

(You will kindly note that I made it through the entire post without making some sort of pun involving The Satanic Sluts and 'assets'. Admirable restraint, even if I say so myself...)

Monday, 23 November 2009

YOU'RE SCUM...AND YOU KNOW YOU ARE!

Nigel Wingrove, the man behind Redemption, Salvation, and numerous other video labels specialising in sensational, censor-baiting movies, is now blogging over at SCUM NATION.

If you are familiar with his output (such as the sapphic nunsploitation classic 'Sacred Flesh') then you probably knew this already, but if you have still yet to discover the joys of Salvation Films, then you really should head on over there and enjoy the wit and wisdom of a man who has had a film banned by the BBFC on the grounds of Blasphemy.

This is a man who has the hypocrisies of our banal modern society firmly in his crosshairs, and isn't afraid to pull the trigger. Be sure to check it out...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

THE WITCHES HAMMER



Directed by James Eaves
Amber Pictures
TRAILER

I'll admit it, I likes me some vampire movies. Just like most genre flicks, I'll give any vampire movie a fair crack of the whip. Unless, of course, it's one of these 'Nu-skool' emo vampire faggotry flicks like 'Twilight', or has Kate Beckinsale in it. She's had her three strikes as far as the vampire genre is concerned, and is most definitely out.

Indeed, thanks to the aforementioned 'Twilight' and the numerous imitators/coattail riders it will inevitably foist upon us (like Cirque Du Freak's 'The Vampire's Assistant'), vampires are, like, so uber-cool right now. All the hipster kids are into the whole 'vampire thing' (or 'Vampyre' for the truly pretentious clove cigarette smokers amongst us).



Which means vampires are not actually 'cool' per se, but rather the very antithesis thereof. Which means it's the perfect time for me to start breaking out reviews of vampire flicks which the current plague of quasi-goth vampiric poseurs will never even have heard of, let alone seen.

First off the bat (pun fully intended) is 'The Witches Hammer'. Yes, I know exactly what you're thinking. Shouldn't there be an apostrophe to denote possession of the titular hammer by the similarly-titular witches? Apparently not, as said hammer (which isn't in fact an actual physical hammer per se, but instead a metaphorical one) is not possessed by the witches, but instead intended to be used against them. They could have simply avoided the confusion and called it 'The Witch Hammer', but 'The Witches Hammer' sounds that little bit cooler, plus implies the presence of more than one witch, and when you're producing low budget films you have to seize every available opportunity to metaphorically 'big oneself (and by extension one's production) up'. It's called 'production value', darling.

Head Recruiter for the Cult Of Coulter

'The Witches Hammer' tells the story of Rebecca (essayed by the suitably sultry Claudia Coulter), a vampire assassin recruited and trained by the shadowy and secretive Project 571. The atmospheric opening sequence is incredibly well done, showing Rebecca having been bitten by a vampire, being plucked from the morgue and having all sorts of medical procedures performed upon her during the credit reel. There's a wonderful sense of minimalist screen composition at play here, and it all looks extremely professional. This is why I'm such a stickler for good composition...it swiftly sorts the men from the boys and let's you know that the film isn't going to be done by three teenagers with a handheld camcorder. What's more, it doesn't cost anything to get it right either.

There's also an excellent, standout scene wherein Rebecca is tested to see whether she would prefer a glass of water or a glass of blood. It's peerless stuff all round, again starkly minimalist and wonderfully edited to crank up the tension as Rebecca's coldly detached handlers (Liza Keast and Andrew Cullum) continue to incessantly pose that most probing of questions: "Which drink would you like, Rebecca?".

It's a scene that will stay with you on both a dramatic and emotional level as well as on a technical level also. It's amazing to see how much drama can be squeezed out of so little as three actors, two pint glasses, some water and some red food dye, but they do it. Indeed, this scene is so brilliant in its' simplicity that on the BTS material we are shown Claudia Coulter doing her own homemade take on it as part of her audition reel for the role, sans the benefits of intercutting...you can check it out for yourself HERE.

Coulter has a really good look which suits the role to a tee. Her facial bone structure and prominent cheekbones allow her to look at turns both strong and imposing, yet also vaguely drawn and hungry, which is pretty much the perfect combination for a vampire I should imagine.

Rebecca begins to regret not taking out private healthcare...

One bone of contention I do have with the opening sequence is that the medical procedures are never really fully explained. We're told that Rebecca is 'genetically engineered', but there's never any real mention or latter demonstration of any benefits this genetic engineering may have afforded her. As I will go on to explain, she still has all of the traditional weaknesses associated with vampirism, so it's difficult to say what part (if any) this supposed engineering plays. We're told that her reflexes, speed and strength will be improved, but I always thought that was part of the overall package deal one gets when becoming a vampire (Indeed, this phenomenon is later confirmed in a flashback sequence wherein her bumbling sidekick Jonathan explains that his erstwhile wife's vampirically-derived 'extra strength' put him in the hospital for some time).

As such, I feel a simple line along the lines of 'As a vampire, you're already stronger/faster than a human, and with the genetic engineering, you will be stronger/faster than a vampire' would have certainly helped to clarify things. It's not sufficiently cleared up either when Madeline (Stephanie Beacham) describes her as a 'genetically engineered vampire created to destroy evil'. Putting aside the fact that 'destroying evil' is as nebulous and unspecific a concept as a 'war on terror', we are still not told exactly how this purported genetic engineering is supposed to help her in her designated task, however vague it may appear to be.

Having said that, to remove or reduce her weakness would ultimately leave her a less interesting character. How boring would Superman be if not for the existence of Kryptonite, for example? Her sensitivity to sunlight is demonstrated in a nice scene where her handlers take her to watch her husband and son playing in the park, from the comfort of a blacked-out BMW. As she leans to get a better view from an open window, her skin begins to blacken and burn.

I told you tanning beds were dangerous...

Indeed, there are a number of inventive ideas in the mix. Seconds after having completed her first mission, Rebecca is shot in the head by armed police. Aside from investing her character with a refreshingly believable level of vulnerability (this is her first mission, lest we forget), it also provides a neat way to tie up loose ends. The police aren't looking for anyone because the killer is in the morgue, which is exactly where her handlers from Project 571 collect her from once she's healed up. Ergo, she's a completely reusable/recyclable assassin (save for the obvious methods of vampire disposal), although whilst her carbon footprint must be admirably small, the same probably can't be said for the (hot) lead one.

It's kind of ironic that they're called 'miniguns', really...

There's also a nice twist in terms of character motivation. Rebecca isn't motivated to work for Project 571 out of some misplaced sense of duty, but simply because they can give her a place to stay and blood to consume. It is established in the opening act as she pays a clandestine visit to her former home that the hunger within her makes her a deadly threat to her husband and child, just as her handlers warned her it would. As such, she can no longer trust herself to be around them, and must instead settle for watching them from afar, which constitutes her 'payment' from Project 571, who keep tabs on them for her.

This reminds me of Amanda Donohoe in 'Lair Of The White Worm'

Alas, Project 571 is not long for this world, as Rebecca arrives back at HQ from one of her sentimental sojourns down memory lane to find the place trashed and her handlers murdered. It seems the attack was perpetrated by a marauding gang of vampires and witches (male witches no less, but then surely that would make them warlocks?) who are intent on completing the job and eliminating the last remnant of Project 571, namely Rebecca.

Whilst Rebecca was involved in a brief but passable scrap whilst carrying out her first mission, this is the first bonafide 'fight' scene in the film. It's not terrible by any means, and there are a few neat touches with the fight choreography involving her motorcycle helmet, but overall it seems a bit half-paced in places, to the extent that you can never successfully suspend your disbelief and believe they are fighting as opposed to going through a choreographed sequence of moves and manouvres. The key flaw for me would seem to be the editing, but then you can't edit a decent fight scene together unless you have the correct shots from either side of the 'impact line', which would appear to be the case here. But if you want a martial arts movie, go rent one. We're talking about vampire flicks here...you can get a good taste of the action contained within TWH from the BTS Featurettes HERE and HERE.

I will resist the temptation to do a pun on 'forked from behind'...

Having vanquished her foes, she is shot with a tranquiliser dart by the lurking Edward (Jonathan Sidgwick...think a bearded Jason Lee playing a hybrid of Vincent D'Onofrio in John Carpenter's Vampires and Tia Carrere's assistant from Relic Hunter, with perhaps a dash of Anthony Daniels' C-3P0 thrown in for good measure), only to come around some 12 hours later and find herself chained to a chair in the headquarters of....Project 572, headed by the ominous Madeline. It is here that the second part of the movie begins in earnest, and with it (in my opinion) the decline of the film.

By and large, the first 25 minutes or so of this film are quite simply solid gold. Yes, there are a few things here and there that I could do without, but overall it's extremely good. Were you, as a potential investor, to be shown this opening portion of the film as a premise for further investment, then you wouldn't be able to get your chequebook out fast enough.

Unfortunately, it is after this selfsame opening that the film begins to meander somewhat and drift away from the promise of the opening act. One of the chief problems for me is the inclusion of a number of overlong flashback scenes, often dealing with comparatively minor characters, which do little to actually advance the plot and instead serve only to disrupt the general narrative thrust of the film.

Kitanya: The First Witch

The first of these flashback sequences tackles the genesis of The Witches Hammer itself, written by the first witch Kitanya (the fetching Magda Rodriguez) back in the days of yore. Whilst I feel that this flashback is fairly needless (in truth, the whole thing could have easily been conveyed by 2-3 lines of dialogue from either Sidgwick or Beacham with perhaps a few seconds of flashback footage) and needlessly long, there is an even greater problem with it in that it simply does not make sense.

Suicidal Tendencies...

A visiting Holy Man converts Kitanya's village and steals and sacrifices her baby. Overcome with grief, she seeks to kill herself, but just as her life is ebbing away, she changes her mind and something 'From The Other Side' hears her plea and bestows life (of a sort) upon her again, and presumably magical powers to boot. You can see a 40 seconds snippet (a sort of 'edited highlights') of it HERE, but the actual flashback is around five minutes in length.

Kitanya prepares to deliver her own unique take on 'Hammer Horror'

So, in revenge, she dispatches the slumbering Holy Man with a pleasingly-large sledgehammer and then slits the throats of all the children in the village. Now, we can all agree that slitting the throats of children is evil, even if they are screaming, bratty ones, but anyone can do it if sufficiently disposed towards it. It's an act which doesn't require any magical powers or occult knowledge to perform, so we see no manifestation of her witch powers (if indeed she has them) even though we have seen how she purportedly gained them.

Writing the Kitanya Sutra?

After fleeing from the scene of her crime, Kitanya takes refuge in a deserted shack and begins to write the Malleus Maleficarum, AKA The Witches Hammer. That's correct...the first witch decides it would be a good idea if she writes a book detailing the myriad ways in which mere mortals can 'do her in', plus sundry spells and whatnot (There's also a glaring continuity error as Kitanya is shown writing the book in green ink with a quill in some sort of archaic language made up of symbolic ideograms and suchlike, yet when the book is opened at two points later on in the film, the contents are shown to be neatly typeset in black, in the standard alphabet).

That Kitanya should write the very book containing the prescribed methods used to torture, test, and kill innumerable witches throughout the ages may sound illogical at first, but one can perhaps view it as her being overcome with remorse and regret for her deeds and thus creating The Witches Hammer is her way of stopping others like her should they ever arise (although this motive is never actually given or implied). It's doubly puzzling because she cannot possibly know how to kill herself successfully without actually doing it, as if she is indeed the first witch, then she has no previous frame of reference for her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, nor are we given any demonstration that she can perform the feats of magic she now writes about.

Things are further compounded when she is cornered at her ramshackle hideaway by the angry villagers and summarily killed with some very basic agricultural tools like pitchforks. This, of course, beggars the question: If it's this easy to bump off a witch (without them returning in some way, shape or form), why would you need The Witches Hammer at all?

Why indeed? Suffice to say, this occult tome is apparently required to kill off a vampire called Hugo Renoir (Tom Dover, whose quasi-Vanilla Ice haircut is hilariously explained in the BTS featurette). We are told that a page from the book was copied whilst it was in the possession of The Church, and a spell has been cast over Renoir making him 'unkillable', lest either the original caster of the spell be killed or the spell is reversed with the aid of The Witches Hammer.

Edward & Rebecca: The Decidedly Odd Couple

Anyway, Rebecca and Edward set out to obtain the book, and do so easily. Indeed, too easily if we're honest (The problem of challenges being overcome far too easily is unfortunately a recurring one in TWH, as I will go on to address a little later in relation to some of the significant vampire villains).

The current owner of the book, 'Le Cardinale', proposes a trade of the book for the gift of vampirism, something Jonathan has apparently agreed with him in advance, hence Rebecca's presence. However, this gives rise to a bigger question...given the number of vampires after the book and involved in the central conspiracy of the storyline, why recruit Rebecca to do the job? Indeed, some of these vampires, such as Victor (Miguel Ruz) have a far purer bloodline, so one would think they have much greater 'worth' to anyone contemplating becoming a creature of the night, as 'Le Cardinale' is.

True, in the short term you'd probably rather have the less vampirically-thoroughbred Rebecca nibble on your neck instead of some guy with a dodgy moustache, but you've got to look at the long term picture as well when all is said and done...and I've no doubt the villains of the piece could easily source a similarly-sexy vamp to seal the deal with 'Le Cardinale' in Rebecca's place. That way, they could also have used the 12 hour period in which Rebecca was drugged to move her to their remote hideaway in preparation for the resurrection ceremony.

Having secured the book, our dynamic duo take the train to Renoir's remote lair, and Rebecca has to ride in the luggage car in a wooden crate. A nice touch, but when you consider the alterntive for Edward would be riding on the pillion of Rebecca's bike whilst holding on to her, you can't help but feel he's been rather shortchanged on the sexy front.

Like the minigun scene, this dream sequence is ideal trailer-fodder...

Still, it does afford an excuse for dialogue (and yes, you guessed it, another flashback sequence, this time for Edward) and it's not like she could ride in one of the passenger cars in her full light-tight biker gear without looking like that girl from the Zovirax advert, after all.

Who's afraid of the big bad Wolf?

Having taken the train as far as it will carry them, they decide to stop in a bar and take in a performance by surprisingly tolerable (by rock band in film standards) all-girl rock band 'The Lilettes'. Obviously neither of them subscribes to the maxim that a moving target is harder to hit, and they are soon learning the error of their ways as they are attacked by the masked and mysterious multiplying assassin designated by Madeline's Tarot as 'The Wolf' (replete with ominous, Overfiend-style vocalisations), plus the little and large duo of Charlotte and Oscar.

The masked man who literally can go forth and multiply...

The fight between Rebecca and her masked assailant (all three of him) is probably the best in the film, all told, and it's extremely pleasing to see Wolf's multiplying effect is performed practically rather than digitally. It's all the more impressive when you learn that this character is in fact an eleventh hour addition to the mix due to Sally Reeve, the actress who plays Charlotte falling pregnant and thus being unable to risk any fight or stunt work as per the original plan. You have to give them ten out of ten for improvisation here. Reeve's condition also contributed to the inclusion of a wonderful drinking straw joke, and also necessitated the somewhat disappointing off-camera kill that her character is subjected to, but I will get to that in a moment.

You've heard of Good Charlotte? Well, here's the evil one...

There's a great sight gag involving kitchen knives, stabbings with forks and a full-on battering with a cast iron frying pan (which could really benefit from better editing and sound effects)...Charlotte and Oscar are very much the comedic relief of the film, although sometimes I think the tendency to play for laughs with other characters aside from Charlotte & Oscar is somewhat jarring in terms of the overall tone of the film. Ultimately, that's just a matter of personal taste though, one man's wine being another man's poison and all that jazz...

"And the Oscar for Best Axe-Wielding Psychotic Vampire Dwarf goes to..."

Having dealt with their would-be killers and stolen a sporty red Ferrari, Edward and Rebecca finally make it to Renoir's lair, and the inevitable showdown commences, although not in the manner which they have been led to believe.

"Tie me Vampiroo down, Sport..."

The final act again left me with more questions than answers. Apparently, genetically-enhanced vampire Rebecca (or at least her genetically-enhanced body) is now to be the vessel for the return of Kitanya's spirit. Given the fact that the inter-species enmity between vampires and witches has already been hinted at earlier in the film, it's a bizarre choice akin to transplanting Hitler's cryogenically frozen brain into Sammy Davis Jnr.'s black Jew body. Who's going to be the idiot brave enough to hand them a mirror, post-transplant?

Perhaps the plan is to put her in a vampire's body so that she inherits the traditional weaknesses of a vampire, such as burning in sunlight? This might be a partially workable idea (although it is never stated that this is the aim), but we would then have to overlook the fact that Rebecca is arguably one of the most powerful and deadly vampires on the planet thanks to the efforts of Project 571. If the villains are looking to keep the resurrected Kitanya on a short leash, then they could surely find a far less formidable vampire to transplant her soul into.

Further confusion abounds when the crux of Renoir's scheme is revealed. Having resurrected Kitanya, Renoir intends to use her to control the otherworldly trio known as the Souls Of The Damned (portrayed by three extremely impressive 12 foot tall puppets). Yet it is these very selfsame Souls who furnish Renoir with the urn containing Kitanya's spiritual essence with the understanding that he will resurrect her. I'm at a loss to understand the logic here on a number of fronts, as I will go on to explain.

If Kitanya does present such a threat to the Souls Of The Damned, why would they hand her over and seek her resurrection? More to the point, given that the Souls Of The Damned are shown to be more than capable of effecting the physical world (with deadly effect!), one wonders why they do not perform the resurrection themselves?

It's never made clear what sort of yoke or control either party expects or believes they might have over the resurrected Kitanya, nor how they intend to bend her will to their own ends. Gratitude, perhaps? All I know is that transplanting the soul of the first and most powerful witch into the body of a genetically-enhanced vampire killing machine, and then expecting said super-powerful hybrid to simply do your bidding on a favour-for-a-favour basis is asking a hell of a lot, and displays a naivete that borders upon suicidal.

After all, let us suppose that the newly-resurrected Kitanya decides that she doesn't fancy taking orders but instead prefers giving them out? Can The Witches Hammer be used to control her? I honestly don't know, but it seems unlikely that Kitanya would write such an entry. She seemed easy enough to kill the first time around (although she wasn't a genetically-enhanced vampire back then, as she will be if the transferance is successful, so it's hard to say how or if traditional witch killing methods would work on her newly-resurrected self), but then killing her would rather defeat the object of resurrecting her, wouldn't it?

It's all the more baffling when Renoir asks Madeline if she's sure Kitanya will want to join them, and Madeline replies 'Who wouldn't?'. If I'm honest, it's a bit too much of a leap of faith to expect them to go ahead with their scheme without any real method of controlling Kitanya in place (whether it works or doesn't), nor any other such guarantee of compliance. It's like jumping into the lion cage at the zoo after they've been fed. They're probably not hungry, but that doesn't mean they won't maul you to death all the same.

Stephanie Beacham as the mono-ocular Madeline

Without spoiling the plot, it is revealed that Edward has been used by Madeline because, as a researcher, he has access to various rare books. Yet we are also shown that Madeline can, with a blink of her eye or twitch of her finger, completely befuddle and bewilder her opponents (as she does with her would-be assassins Charlotte and Oscar). Now, if she can do this to deadly vampires, what prevents her from performing the selfsame trick on a humble librarian, for example? Or on 'Le Cardinale', the man who has The Witches Hammer? No reason is given or apparent save for rank bone idleness. There's just no need for her to resort to the classic ploy of the stalking horse to achieve her aims.

The explanation given makes no sense either, when Madeline opines that 'The book (TWH) would never surface to someone like me'. No reason is given as to why this should be the case, or even if it is the case, and as such no sense can be gleaned from it.

In Germany, it's called 'The Vampire Hunter'

There's also another massive continuity error involving Rebecca's revolver and the amount of bullets it contains. She fires six in her initial skirmish with the extremely light-sensitive Variak vampires (a good concept well executed), before the gun is knocked from her hands. Later on, Jonathan finds the gun and shoots a Variak with it, then proceeds to the chamber where the resurrection ceremony is taking place and shoots the urn containing the soul essence of Kitanya, then levels the gun at Madeline before she forces it from his hand by way of magic (the very fact that she does this would suggest that the gun is not empty and she is under threat), but this would then mean that a standard six-shooter suddenly holds at the very least nine rounds, possibly more.

Where do these extra bullets come from? It's never shown or explained, and a cursory look at the gun confirms that it is indeed your standard six shooter. It's ultimately a continuity error that should have been dealt with at script level, as one can see that the filmmakers had access to various prop weapons (including pistols) which have larger magazine capacity. Given that Rebecca is shown using automatics throughout the rest of the film, it's rather odd that she should suddenly resort to a revolver. Again, it's one of these little things that don't quite add up.

Rebecca prepares to cut a swathe on the dancefloor

It's these kind of gaps in logic which tend to expose the tenuous nature of the plotline. Perhaps I'm just nitpicking, but there are just too many parts which don't make sense within the overall context of the storyline. I can more than happily overlook things which would be considered unrealistic in real life but are acceptable within the internal reality of a given film (like Rebecca being able to take her Samurai sword into a bar, just like The Bride in Kill Bill Vol.1 is allowed to take her sword on a passenger plane), but the truth is there are too many things in TWH which I can't seem to let slide. Too much time is spent settng things up which have no real discernible payoff.

Charlotte in her Pre-vampirism days...

In the cases of vampiric foes such as Victor and Charlotte, both are given flashbacks explaining their genesis as vampires, and each has their unique characteristics. Victor apparently has "strength and invulnerability of the purest kind" due to having been bitten by a pure blood vampire (in addition to being a trained killer in his pre-vampiric incarnation), whilst the larger than life Charlotte cannot apparently be killed with a regulation stake through the heart because apparently her heart is "so small and so deep that she can never be killed", suggesting a mere stake will not penetrate deep enough into the chest of the plus-sized villainess (as demonstrated in a brief altercation with Madeline). In their defence, when Edward is relaying the information about Charlotte, he does preface it with "It is said", which as anyone who watches Penn & Teller:Bullshit! can tell you means that whatever follows is pretty much an outright lie, but it seems the obvious response to such a challenge is either 'get a bigger stake' or 'chop her head off instead'.

Indeed, an outright lie is what these backstories are proven to be as both vamps are dispatched in fairly short order, much like every other vampire in the picture. At no point is Rebecca made to think outside the box, or draw upon some information she may have learned earlier vis a vis the respective weakness or achilles' heel of either of these vamps (physical or psychological), or think on her feet and improvise some ingeneous method of killing them, by turning the situation or environment to her advantage. It's just business as usual for these vampires we have been led to believe are somehow a little more dangerous than the average vamp, but sadly prove to be anything but. Still, as I alluded to earler, I can forgive this incongruity with regard to Charlotte for the off-camera reasons listed above which rather tie the producers' hands behind their backs. They may very well have had a much different plan in mind before the situation was effectively taken out of their hands.

More puzzling still is that during the altercation between Rebecca and Victor, Victor is killed by Edward just as he is about to administer a deathblow by way of a sword through the heart of the fallen Rebecca. Of course, had he succeeded in landing his intended coup de grace, then Rebecca would explode in a shower of sparks (just like all the other vampires), but it would also put a rather significant fly in the ointment of the villains' nefarious scheme to transfer Kitanya's disembodied soul into Rebecca's body, as there would be no body left to use. Again, the internal logic of the script is a tad awry here.

Ultimately, what is true and what is lies becomes frustratingly blurred as the viewer is constantly being told one thing but then shown another.

US Cover, I believe

The truth of the matter is that the 'Witches Hammer' plotline (i.e., that which comes after the bravura opening reel) is in fact something of an insubstantial, wafer-thin affair when all is said and done, a fact which I believe is chiefly responsible for the filmmakers' decision to try and overcompensate by way of numerous flashbacks and divergent sub-plots for peripheral supporting characters, as if to try and disguise the overtly linear simplicity of the story arc, which can be readily summarised (with apologies to a certain band) as Get Book. Bring Book. Kill., yet it still manages to remain enjoyable.

Away from plot-based concerns, the decision to shoot on film must surely have been something of a poisoned chalice before, during, and after production, but it's one I think the filmmakers will be glad they decided to take a chance on (I certainly am). As much as I like the freedom afforded by digital, film simply looks better. Perhaps one day the digital bods will be able to accurately mimic the mythical 'film look', but until that day dawns film is king.

As such, when Eaves and DP/Cinematographer John Raggett (another name that will undoubtedly be familiar to readers acquainted with the films of Johannes Roberts) get it right, the decision to shoot on film really pays off. It looks 'proper' for want of a better word, and belies the budget of the film. On the other hand, there are instances where the budget is more evident, or shot composition is a little less than what it could be (as you might well expect for a highly-pressurised low budget shoot where time is of the essence), and the choice of film mercilessly exposes them, like the analogy of a Ferrari with a lawnmower engine. Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad by and large, thus vindicating the decision (and extra expense/work involved) to shoot on film as opposed to digital.

With so few films in this budget range shooting on film, it confers something of a unique selling point to the film and thus adds marketability. Another such factor is the inclusion of Stephanie Beacham in the cast, and let me just say that whatever they had to pay or whatever hoops they may have had to jump through to get her, she was most certainly worth it. Aside from the added bonus of having an internationally-recognised name above the title, she injects an unerring gravitas into her scenes. It's just a really smart casting decision that pays off in spades, quite frankly. Check out some BTS footage HERE.

Rebecca in ceremonial garb at the film's finale...

Less obvious, but equally well done, are things like the costumes and music. Normally, the maxim is that if such things are done properly, then you don't notice them at all, but there are certain outfits such as the ceremonial gown or most of Madeline's wardrobe (including the eyepatch) which really catch the eye. Clever little touches like Madeline's custom Tarot cards or the paintings in Le Cardinale's lair simply add that certain extra something to the proceedings. These things don't make themselves, after all.

Promo Art...she doesn't have these weapons in the film

Bizarrely, for all of the gripes I've listed above, I still enjoyed it immensely. Like I say, I like vampire films, and this one has something about it. The people behind the latest incarnation of Hammer would have probably been better off sinking their money into something like this as opposed to the execrable 'Beyond The Rave'. It's not going to topple Razor Blade Smile from atop its' lofty perch as King (or Queen?) of the low budget British vampire flicks, but it certainly has a bloody good go at it. If you liked RBS, then you'll most likely enjoy TWH (but then, if you liked RBS, you probably already own TWH already...).

The parts are ultimately greater than the whole, but then there are admittedly some great parts of it, especially the opening segment. Even the flashbacks are good...as much as I feel there are too many of them, and that they're too long, I certainly can't say that they are poorly done. It's apparent that a great deal of effort went into the period flashbacks for Kitanya and Charlotte (including 'scratchy' black and white film and title cards), but my gut feeling is perhaps too much effort (and thus reciprocal screen time) was expended on them. If they were on the DVD extras as deleted scenes (or extended version of cut-down flashbacks actually in the feature itself), I'd probably think they were incredibly cool little bonuses. As it is, I think they're very well done, just used inappropriately.

If you're a vampire completist, I wouldn't hesitate to say "Go out and get it!". I'm not going to suggest it's the greatest vampire film ever made, but for all of the above faults it's not the worst either, and it does have some inventive little touches which serve to differentiate it from the pack.

Another variation on the cover art...

Ultimately, TWH is two-thirds of a very good low budget vampire flick, and one-third tantalising glimpse of what could have been with a little more time and money (which, in filmmaking terms, are by and large the same thing at the end of the day anyway). As the Icarus-like ascent and subsequent descent clearly illustrates, it is demonstrably capable of hitting the giddy heights but for whatever reason simply cannot maintain them, a symptom, I feel, of the compensatory over-ambition that affects many lower budget independent films and leads to the inevitable problem of resources being spread too thinly, and visibly so. To paraphrase a oft-quote truism about love, perhaps it is better to fly and crash than to never have flown at all. Having said that, it's probably better to fly and land uneventfully than either of the preceding choices.

When all is said and done, for all the faults, it's still extremely watchable. As a visual 'calling card' of sorts for Amber Pictures, it certainly does the job. It's telling that in this BTS clip HERE, Eaves is asked "What made you go for such a big 'scoped' film on a low budget", to which he replies "Stupidity". Having checked out the trailers for Amber Pictures' follow-up project 'Bane', it looks to be more of a constrained, claustrophobic and altogether tighter picture than the somewhat more sprawling TWH. It appears he's learnt his lesson, and made a tidy little film in the process, one which has certainly whetted by appetite and has me now eagerly on the hunt for a copy of 'Bane'.

Alas, I received TWH as a screener so cannot honestly make my usual comment as to whether I consider it to be value for money or not. If you can get it for a tenner or preferably below, my advice would be to bite their hand off. Again, like most of the titles under the Blackhorse Distribution aegis, it seems to crop up on Ebay at a vastly inflated Buy It Now price from time to time (I have a sneaking suspicion that someone is currently sitting on Blackhorse's back catalogue)...very rarely do you see individual sellers part with their copy, which should pretty much tell you all you need to know. My copy certainly won't be finding itself on Ebay anytime soon, I can tell you...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

SILK STOCKING STRANGLER



Directed by: Bill Hellfire
Produced by: Bill Hellfire & Cherry Moonshine
Distributor: Alternative Cinema

@Amazon.com

(This review refers to the 'Naughty Edition' DVD released on the After Hours Cinema label)

Lesbian lovers Olivia (Misty Mundae) and Jackie (Katie Jordon) are in a tight spot. Two months behind on the rent and facing eviction, they hit upon a scheme to keep the roof over their heads.

The two girls start to put on sexy shows for their lecherous landlord Richie (Joey Smack) in exchange for the rent. It seems like the perfect arrangement until Richie starts to demand kinkier and edgier shows, including strangulation and breathplay. Just how far are they willing to go?

This is ultra low budget filmmaking, shot in one day with a cast of three and a crew of four (one of whom also happens to be in the cast, so seven in all, including genre notable Johnny Crash). It's an amazing achievement considering how little time and how few people were involved. Indeed, you can't help but wonder how much better it could have been if they have shot it over 2-3 days with a little more money. In short, if I were in charge of the 48 Hours Film Project, I'd bar Bill Hellfire and the Factory 2000 crew from entering, because on this evidence they'd clearly piss it without breaking a sweat. Indeed, as I shall explain later, it seems he doesn't even need a full 24 hours to shoot a passable movie.

At just under an hour, it's not quite a feature, not quite a short, but the running time feels just about right. If anything, there are a few moments where the sex scenes begin to drag a little, something I think could have been remedied with a few more cutaways to Richie as he watches, using him as a sort of visual barometer for the scene's progress. This is done in one of the latter scenes where Richie gamely slaps, scratches and punches his face as the asphyxiation action unfolds before him, and it works like a charm.

It's a relatively simple tale (as the budget, schedule and cast would necessarily dictate) but told well and planned better. Of course, the key aspect that persuades the viewer to overlook the budgetary limitations is the inclusion of erstwhile Seduction Cinema figurehead, Misty Mundae (AKA Erin Brown, from the Masters Of Horror episode, 'Sick Girl').

The versatile quality of Mundae's face is such that she is able to seamlessly shift from being the seduced to being the seductress or just goofing off (as is so often the case in some of her more spoofy Seduction output) with no loss of believability. The fact that this is allied with a pleasingly natural figure reminiscent of classical sculpture makes for a heady combination and an undeniable screen presence. She's every inch the star, and none of those inches owe anything to botox, collagen or silicone. Her deal is real, so much so that she even has pubic hair. In short, the perfect antidote to the stereotypical softcore sirens who fall off the 'peroxide and plastic' production line.

In Silk Stocking Strangler, the producers have created an interesting visual dichotomy by having the Mundae, who looks like the archetypal girl next door (although I'm sure few of us have ever lived next door to a girl that was anywhere near her particular ballpark, looks-wise) play the pragmatic and somewhat avaricious character, whereas the decidedly more edgy and vampish-looking Jordon is cast as the reluctant moralist who is uncomfortable with the entire proposition. Appearances, it would seem, can indeed be deceiving, and that is a suitable metaphor for the film as a whole.

On the surface, one can choose to view it as what it is, namely a softcore stroke-flick wherein numerous sexual kinks and proclivities are acted out by Mundae and Jordon for the entertainment of the voyeuristic viewer, which is nominally Richie, but in reality us. Stockings and suspenders, smoking, sapphic sex sessions, strap-ons, and strangulation are all par for this particular course. A wide range of fetishes are catered for and duly indulged, and in fine style too.

Then there is the aspect of escalation in the sort of activities that Richie wishes to see the girls perform or partake in for him. Whilst it makes sense to increase the stakes from a purely narrative viewpoint, it also mirrors the oft-aired belief that consumers of pornography will ultimately become jaded with the level of a particular pornographic act in question and thus seek something more extreme, dangerous and degrading, ad nauseum, until they arrive at snuff.

Suddenly, we become aware that Silk Stocking Strangler is not in fact mere masturbatory fodder, but instead 'meta-pornography' which is to say it is pornography (albeit of the decidedly softcore variety) which passes comment upon pornography. The medium truly is the message here.

Of course, wherever and whenever the subject of pornography should arise, the question of exploitation is never far behind, and indeed who is exploiting who. Some (mostly hardcore misandrist/feminist types) would argue that pornography exploits women, whilst giving no thought to the male performers whatsoever. There are others who would argue that pornography exploits men (as consumers) and male weakness, and these themes are touched upon briefly in the film. Is Richie the exploiter? Are the girls the exploiters? Is Olivia exploiting them both for her own ends? The notions of power and control, in their varied forms, are present throughout, and it's only at the finale that we discover who's really in control as opposed to who thinks they are in control.

The climax of the film is a curiously satisfying one. On the one hand, you have the inevitable result of the constantly increasing level of danger injected into the sexual peccadilloes that Richie wants to see explored before him, yet there's an unexpected twist beyond that as well. In short, you're given exactly what you'd expect, and a surprise as well, but I'm not going to ruin it for you...leave us say that the viewer is left in no doubt as to who has really been using who.

One aspect of the film that really stuck out as being well done was the music, both incidental and the slightly-erotic-yet-still-creepy signature theme too. It compliments the onscreen proceedings to a tee.

In terms of extras, there are the usual features one would associate with releases from the labels under the EI Cinema (now Pop! Cinema) label, plus a revealing behind-the-scenes featurette, shot, I believe by Johnny Crash and Cherry Moonshine. As Misty Mundae is applying some makeup in the bathroom and chatting about how early she had to get up to make her call time, the camerawoman opines that she has got 'a long day ahead of her', to which Misty replies 'Well, Joey's Mom gets home around four, so we'll either be done by then or...who knows?'.

I guess we should thank God that Joey Smack's mother didn't get off work early the day they were filming...could you imagine your mother walking in as you filmed two scantily girls performing a variety of kinky sex acts, or perhaps while you were hanging a semi-naked masturbating girl by her neck? Me neither. Still, it would probably be slightly less embarrassing than a Jason 'Pie Fucker' Biggs scenario, as at least there are naked girls present.

So, is it worth the money? Despite the short running time, I'm very much inclined to say yes. It's a pleasingly detached, creepy and unsettling little oddity which isn't quite what you'd expect it to be. Failing that, there are naked girls too. Frankly, you can't lose either way.

On a final note, I should add that I am uncertain as to the legality of owning a film like this in the UK since the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill under the auspices of our former fat, corrupt, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (she's still fat and corrupt, just not Home Secretary any more). The asphyxiation scenes are not to dissimilar from the type of content you'd find on various 'Faux-Snuff' fetish websites which have since been proscribed somewhat under British law. So, if you do decide to order it, I've no idea whether UK Customs would allow it to pass (should they inspect it).

Having said that, the fact that you can order it from such mainstream outlets as Amazon should probably go some way towards getting it in 'under the radar', so to speak.

It should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that being a resident of the UK I totally do not own a copy of this film, either in a physical or digital format, and have never even seen it. The above review is just an astonishingly accurate guess as to the contents of the film and the themes tackled therein.

Honest.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

CAGED FURY



Director: Ciro H. Santiago
Distributor: 23rd Century

@Amazon.com

(This review refers to the 1983 Cirio H. Santiago film, not the Bill Milling film of the same name with Erik Estrada in it. You can check out the trailer for Milling's movie HERE. The fact that I can't find a trailer on YouTube for Santiago's 'Caged Fury' must surely score double anorak points for obscurity?)

At a hidden prison camp deep in the jungles of South East Asia, some devious Vietnamese commies are kidnapping beautiful women and brainwashing them into becoming subliminally-activated suicide bombers to further their evil aims abroad. Help isn't going to be coming anytime soon, so the all-female inmates must engineer their own escape any which way they can...

'Caged Fury' really reminds me of a feature-length episode of 'Charlie's Angels' (specifically the one where they go undercover at a women's jail), only with the emphasis on escape rather than investigation. The plot is further thickened by the inclusion of a 'traitor within the group' sub-plot, as someone keeps foiling their escape efforts. Is it the whorish Honey? Perhaps the silent, semi-catatonic one? Maybe the young Vietnamese girl? The answer is kept well hidden with no obvious giveaways until the final reveal. It's probably the central narrative of interest, as the other plotlines are largely functional or too quickly resolved to be of any real interest. Even their eventual escape comes about more through luck than judgement or some carefully devised and well-executed escape plane.

As you might expect from a Women In Prison (WIP) exploitation flick, there's copious amounts of nudity, torture, molestation and rape...and even some consensual sex too! The camp commander likes to interrogate his female charges by affixing 'truth button' electrodes to their nipples (and a third electrode 'elsewheres') which seems like another contrived excuse for more gratuitous toplessness...but hey, who's complaining?

The picture and sound quality on my DVD are pretty poor, but then the DVD was dirt cheap. I believe I paid something like 50-75p for it in a bundle deal at a pound shop 'Oop North, and it comes in one of those hyper-slim cases so beloved of DVD pirates...and yet this is the official DVD, apparently. The no-frills approach is carried over onto the disc itself, with the multitude of extras such as 'Play Movie' and...erm...well, that's it! That said, the cover and disc art are really well done though. I certainly wouldn't be adverse to having a poster of it up on my wall.

Still, when all's said and done, I found this movie rather hit the spot for me. Cirio H. Santiago has done a lot better, and probably a lot worse besides, but that's the price you pay for being a genuine goddamned exploitation legend! Given the piffling price I paid for it, I can hardly complain.

Certainly WIP genre completists will find it to be a tidy addition to their collections (if they've already got everything put out by Lloyd Simandl's classily superior Bound Heat outfit, that is), but the casual punter may find it too be a little too sparse on action of either variety to seriously hold their interest. An acquired taste for sure, but most of my tastes are and this is one I'm not ashamed to admit having a taste for. It's a passable example of the genre, but by no means great. Given how cheaply it can be picked up, I'd definitely give it the thumbs up to anyone remotely interested in WIP films.

Overall, it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity...it could have been great, but instead is just OK, maybe even a little less when you take into account the sound and picture quality. Such is the nature of the low-budget beast, but on the upside, it costs virtually nothing to buy (if you can track down a copy, that is...23rd Century seem to eschew 'conventional' distribution channels, so try your local pound shop, publishers' clearance bookshop or local petrol station. Failing that, Ebay!), so what have you got to lose? Cheap and cheerful, and you get what you pay for, I guess.

@Amazon.com

You can check out another review of it here at Prison Flicks

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

BULLETS, BOMBS AND BABES: The Films Of Andy Sidaris


Published By Heavy Metal

Andy Sidaris



There are people in life you look at and think "Damn! Now why didn't I think of that?". Suffice to say, Andy Sidaris was one of them.

Sidaris made movies for men, and never made any apologies for it. His movies are typified by scores of beautiful women in and out of skimpy outfits, guns, explosions, boats, planes, helicopters and fast cars, exotic locations, buff dudes and nefarious villains. Basically, everything a growing boy needs.

Hope Marie Carlton is fully loaded and ready for action...

Given that he had already carved out an extremely successful career in television prior to making movies, there was no need for him to ever try and second-guess or appease the critics. He already knew how good he was, and thus didn't have the pressing need for validation which seems to afflict so many others. Ergo, he made the kind of movies he wanted to make, and that people like me want to watch.

Andy at work...or at least as near to work as being surrounded by hot babes in swimwear can ever be

"Bullets, Bombs and Babes" tells his story, in his own words and with more than a few contributions from those who've known and worked with him, from his TV days to the production of his own unique brand of action movies. It's not a 'book' as such in terms of layout, but more akin to a large magazine or fanzine (what the Japanese have taken to calling a 'Mook'), but bound in hardback like a British Annual. As I'm sure you can imagine, and are no doubt hoping, it's heavy on pictures, both in B&W and colour, and light on clothing.

If you look at this picture long enough, you'll eventually notice Julie Strain is wearing a Malibu Bay Films jacket...

It's arranged in chronological order, addressing his early life and television career, the three films he made prior to making the ones people consider as the canonical 'Andy Sidaris Films' (AKA the 'Malibu Bay' films), and then moves on to fully get to grips with the films with which he is chiefly associated with and remembered for. In short, the type of movies that 'Andy Sidaris' has become the byword for, worldwide.

Andy Sidaris: Big In Japan

Each one of these films is given a feature spread, but the real juice comes from the interviews dotted about the book. Sidaris had a lot of recurring characters over the span of the 'Malibu Bay/L.E.T.H.A.L Ladies' movies, which means a lot of his actors worked with him on multiple occasions and thus can give a real insight into the man and his moviemaking process, just as Andy and his wife Arlene are capable of sharing some interesting tidbits and recollections about them.

The ridiculously sexy Cynthia Brimhall was a Playmate back when Playboy still had standards...

Aside from the laundry list of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets who've featured in his films (whose names won't mean anything to you, dear reader, as you don't look at that sort of thing on the internet...right?), there are also a number of names that (if you're a genre film obsessive like me) will ring a bell. Danny 'Robert Rodriguez doesn't make a film without me' Trejo, Pat 'Mr. Miyagi' Morita, Al 'The most killed guy in cinema history' Leong, Erik 'CHiPS' Estrada and possibly the sexiest woman to ever step before a camera, the one and only Sybil Danning.

Austria's other gift to world cinema, Sybil Danning

The book also reproduces Sidaris-related interviews and extracts from such diverse sources as Spain's 'Gotham' magazine and Maitland McDonagh's 'Filmmaking On The Fringe' (of which I will also be posting a full review of shortly...it's an excellent book), and there is a whole slew of pictures from behind the scenes, such as a particularly eye-opening photo montage of Andy himself ostensibly demonstrating to Penthouse Pet Julie K. Smith how to do a striptease and pole dancing routine. There's also a bunch of interesting pictures regarding Andy's life away from the set, hobnobbing with the likes of Gerald Ford and Hugh Hefner. As you do.

If you're looking for porn, look elsewheres. Sidaris' films, in a purely sexual sense, are best described as "(Tits and) Ass With Class". They're a distinct step below late-night softcore in terms of explicitness of sexual content, yet ten steps above in terms of plotlines, production value and execution. It's a curious niche, and to say that it is one that Sidaris made his own would be the understatement of the century.

Beautiful women in exotic locations, the Sidaris hallmark.

It's not as if nobody else could make these kind of movies, but the fact remains that nobody is making or even attempting to make these movies, and certainly not at the level of overall quality that Sidaris did it at. The fact remains, if anybody did succeed in replicating the formula, the first response you'd elicit would be 'It's kinda like an Andy Sidaris film'.

Al Leong, Gyrocopter, Bikini Babe. What more could you want from a film?

Given a choice between an Andy Sidaris flick and either of McG's "Charlie's Angels" movies, I'd have to go with Sidaris every time. I'm heterosexual, plus I like movies that are movies rather than 90-minute music video medleys.

Value for money? Yes, I'd say it's priced about right for what it is. I'd imagine most hardcore Sidaris fans will probably already have a copy, but if you're one of those who are sitting on the fence with regards to this book, or have yet to discover the works of Andy Sidaris, then I can happily give it the thumbs up. All three of them...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

INFESTATION



TRAILER
Distributed by Blackhorse Entertainment (now defunct)
Directed by Ed Evers-Swindell

In the near future, a deadly virus has decimated the Earth's surface and forced humanity to dwell underground in vast subterranean cities. When an expeditionary team fails to report back, a ragtag unit of military misfits and misanthropes (including team leader Sash and brooding anti-hero Loki) is hastily thrown together and sent topside to find out exactly what has happened to them. Scientists have developed a serum which gives limited immunity to the virus, but that deadline has passed, so the expeditionary team should (in theory) all be dead.

The giveaway line is 'We're still getting activity readings on their personal locators'...dyed-in-the-wool fans of genre cinema will know exactly what to expect!

'Infestation' hits the ground running with a prologue comprised of two terrific action sequence wherein Sash and Loki fight off members of the 'Tunnel Rats' terrorist outfit with a mixture of gunplay and fisticuffs, which then seamlessly segues into CGI jetspeeder chase throughout the labyrinthe of the underground city's erstwhile skyline (if that makes sense?) which is every bit as good as the similar sequence in Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones, and doesn't feature Hayden Christensen either! What's not to love?

Loki (Ross Evison). Could Lisa Rogers tell the difference between him and Ralf Little after a few drinks? Probably not...

Loki disobeys a direct order to abandon the pursuit of the last remaining terrorist, and in doing so causes an accident in which civilian lives are lost. He's kicked out of his job and we next find him some months later drowning his sorrows in a bar, having drifted into depression. Fortunately, his old colleague Sash has just been handed a mission which would suit a near-suicidal pilot down to the ground, and so Loki is brought out of his enforced retirement to join the team going up to the surface.

Sash is starting to regret taking this assignment on...

After the team is introduced, there's a needless but well executed sequence in which the one of thrusters on their rocket elevator malfunctions (again done with CGI), meaning they could miss their window with the automatic, override-proof vents and doors which their craft is supposed to navigate, and thus be killed. Unsurprisingly, they make it after the thruster miraculously kicks in again. Like a Bond film, you know they're not going to die (at least not this early on...) but the scene is staged in such a way that it still grabs your attention and has you wondering how they're going to find a way out of it. As such it's rather a disappointment when the answer is simply good fortune. I felt this would have been a good opportunity to add a little characterisation to the team, to see how they cope with and rectify the situation? Which one panics? Who's the aggressive one who'd rather argue than fix the problem? Who takes the lead and sorts the problem out, and how do they do it? All this sequence establishes is that Freeman, their Commander, doesn't really care much whether they live or die, but we'd pretty much gathered that already, especially where Loki is concerned.

This picture gives a much better impression of what the film is like, although I've no idea where it's from or where it's used.

The opening scenes all have that sort of bleached-out, post-processed blueish-greenish hue which seems so beloved of music video directors working with nu-metal bands and the people who made 'Saw'. Of course, when filming in an ostensibly underground location, one must limit oneself solely to artificial light sources, and it has the added bonus of complimenting the CGI sequences which are largely green on black in the style of a nightvision camera, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. It's simple, logical and it works, and it's also probably cheaper and quicker than doing it in full colour.

Once topside, the mood of the film changes somewhat, as does the colour pallette, but more importantly so does the pace. The second act is extremely slow, all the more noticeably so having come off the back of the action-packed first act. Very little happens (too little, to be frank) save for some exposition and the added problem of having to find an hidden access hatch so that they can get to the ship which will take them home before their immunity to the surface conditions expires.

I've seen bits of 'Infestation' on TV a couple of times, and every time I was compelled to switch over and watch something else. It's only now that I have seen the full film that I realise it was because I was always coming in midway through the second act. It's the Achilles' Heel of this movie.

What makes the second act appear to be even more of a dog is the fact that it is sandwiched between the first and third, which are both very well done save for a bizarre shoot-out sequence near the film's climax. It's hard to put your finger on why it doesn't work specifically...things happen, the plot advances, people die, but possibly it simply takes too much time to do so.

'Mad Dog' Maddox lets 'em have it!

Still, if you can make it through, your patience is well and truly rewarded with the third act, the highlight of which is surely Loki and the remaining survivor of the original team taking on a horde of zombies within the claustrophobic confines of the makeshift command centre, including a nifty escape into an attic that the likes of Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa would be proud of!

Overall, in terms of 'bang for your buck', it's safe to say the producers got more out than they put in. Aside from the sagging second act, this is really quite a respectable little movie. I've no doubt it could be a lot more polished overall if they had a bigger budget to play with, but as it is, and for the money that was spent, it's a creditable achievement. It's further differentiated from other films of the same budgetary ilk by some undeniable quality in terms of the music used, the impressive opening title sequence, and the CGI.

I believe this is the cover for the Asian market...it bears little resemblance to the film itself!

Refreshingly, the CGI is actually used fairly sparingly, which is quite a rarity these days. The only moments it is jarringly bad are the end of the opening chase sequence and a couple of the explosions at the film's finale. Other than that it is extremely well done, especially when one bears the miniscule budget in mind. You'll see a lot worse in one of the Sci-Fi channel's made-for-TV movies or an Asylum flick, for example (not to knock or disparage either of them in any way, just using them as a frame of reference).

The effective and judicious employment of the CGI could perhaps act as a metaphor for the film as a whole. It never makes the fatal mistake of trying to cram too much in or overreaching its limitations to the extent that it makes them too glaringly obvious. It's not bogged down by too many subplots or ancilliary characters, and whether this is due more to budgetary constraints or the filmmakers simply be very disciplined and trimming the unnecessary fat is ultimately irrelevant. In short, it works.

The DVD is not exactly overloaded with extras...there's a commentary track and scene access, and that's it. However, the commentary alone is worth more than its weight in gold (yes, I'm aware DVD commentaries have no physical weight per se, but I'm mixing metaphors here!). It's brutally honest, self-deprecating and hyper-critical, and fully acknowledges all of the problems with the film that I had identified while watching it. It also provides a lot of eye-opening insights into a number of things I hadn't noticed. Evers-Swindell states at the beginning that people who buy this DVD will fall into one of two groups: those with an interest in low-budget filmmaking, and those who will be taking the DVD back to the store tomorrow and asking for their money back. As you may have guessed, I class myself firmly as the former.

US cover, I believe...something of a '28 Days Later' riff if we're honest.


Truth be told, it's something of a low-budget filmmaking masterclass, so much so in fact that producer Stuart Fletcher is one of the feature interviewees/case studies in The Guerilla Filmmakers handbook, alongside such notables as Jake 'Razor Blade Smile/Evil Aliens/Doghouse' West, deltacinenomophile Neil 'Dog Soldiers/Descent/Doomsday' Marshall (Infestation cover blurbee, no less!), Edgar 'Shaun of The Dead/Hot Fuzz' Wright, the guys who produced Saw, Blair Witch, Open Water, and some guy called Christopher Nolan, whoever he is. That's some pretty fast company in anybody's book.

Perhaps Evers-Swindell is correct in his assertion regarding audience reaction, that 'Infestation' will prove to be the archetypal 'Marmite movie'...you'll either love it or you'll hate it. If you, like me, love no-budget genre cinema (which I'd assume is the reason you're here reading this) then you'll likely get a kick out of 'Infestation'.

On the other hand, if you prefer your movies in the multi-million dollar, overblown orgy of CGI with some gangsta rapper in the token black role contemporary Hollywood moviemaking paradigm, then 'Infestation' will come as something of a cinematic culture shock. You'd probably be better off waiting until the Hollywood braintrust tires (read: totally exhausts) of remaking/reimagining/remixing films and instead adopts the musical mixing technique known as the 'Mash Up' and applies said technique to 'Aliens' and 'Day Of The Dead'.

(While we're on the subject of throwing together film franchises, how much cooler would 'Alien vs. Predator' have been if they'd called the sequel with the hybrid creature 'Alienator', thus spawning a hybrid franchise and giving us a cooler name than 'Predalien'? Lighting it so people could actually see what was going on would have been a big plus too, I feel.)

In terms of value for money, I got my copy of 'Infestation' off of Ebay dirt cheap, so I feel it represents excellent value, especially given the gut-spilling commentary track. If you see it at a price you feel happy paying, my advice would be to go for it. At the moment, it seems many of the titles that were being distributed by the now defunct Blackhorse Entertainment are popping up for some pretty high prices simply due to the relative rarity factor, so you might have to do some digging to turf a copy up at a reasonable price. In my opinion, it is well worth the effort in doing so.

Failing that, 'Infestation' does sometimes crop up on Movies4Men late at night, but this is a cut version whereas the DVD presents the film in all its uncut and gory glory.

All told, it's another one that is going to be finding itself a permanent home on my 'keep' shelf (the Vatican Library of low budget genre cinema, I tell you!). If you have any interest in low budget movies and the makings thereof, then this one is an education and a half. You might also be interested in checking out the three-part 'Making Of Infestation' BTS (inexplicably not included on the DVD version I have) on Evers-Swindell's own YouTube page, although it's nowhere close to being as near to the knuckle as the commentary track...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

LEFT FOR DEAD



Running Time: 105 mins
Distributor: York Entertainment (US)
Website: Left For Dead
Directed By Ross Boyask
Written By Adrian Foiadelli
Produced By Phil Hobden

@Amazon.co.uk


Ask and ye shall receive! Having read of my difficulties in my review of 'Ten Dead Men' of getting the free download version of Left For Dead to play, the good people at Modern Life? have kindly provided me with a review copy.

In an ideal world, I would have watched Left For Dead (henceforth L4D) and Ten Dead Men (henceforth 10DM) in chronological order, and thus have been able to chart the progression and improvement between the two films. Sadly, it appears that the world we live in is far from ideal, so as per usual I've done things arse-about-facewards and watched them in reverse order.

The beauty of blogging is that I can go back and make retroactive amendments to my original 10DM review now that I have a slightly more informed perspective on it, so fortunately it doesn't make too much difference in the grander scheme of things, but I thought it fair to inform readers where I'm coming from in this respect.

Now, on with the review...

'Left For Dead' tells the tale of Williams (Glenn Salvage), a veritable killing machine in the employ of Hope City's criminal kingpin Kincaid (Adam Chapman). Williams has decided he wants to quit, but Kincaid decides to have his fellow assassins Dylan (Kevin Akehurst) and the trigger-happy psychotic Taylor (Adrian Foiadelli, more recently seen getting shanked with a screwdriver in 10DM's garage fight) retire him instead, and his retirement gift isn't going to be a gold carriage clock, but rather a lead enema.

Taylor...prone to going off on one.

As you might well imagine, Williams is none too taken with the idea of being shot full of holes, and thus makes good his escape from his would-be assassins (and former colleagues), but not before taking a round in the shoulder.

I really like this shot, good composition.

As if his day wasn't already going badly enough, he's then subsequently poisoned by his treacherous ex-lover Sonya (Vicki Vilas). As we will go on to see, there are no such things as 'old friends' in Hope City when you're on the wrong side of Kincaid.



We are then introduced to Kelso (Andy Prior), an up-and-coming kickboxer who somewhat unwisely chooses to rub Kincaid up the wrong way by refusing to take a dive in his fight. Kincaid sends Taylor and his thugs to break Kelso's fingers, thus effectively ending his career, and tells him to get out of town before he reaps some more lasting, or perhaps even permanent, consequences.

Again, there's an added significance to this scene because Taylor is an old friend of Kelso, and is thus the man selected to put Kincaid's offer on the table. When Kelso refuses and wins his fight, Taylor is again selected to be the messenger boy, but this time he has to redeem himself in the eyes of the enraged Kincaid, and in such a situation it soon becomes apparent that in Hope City old friendships count for nothing, or perhaps even less. It's a nice cameo of Kincaid's rule-by-fear approach in action...people fear Kincaid's thugs, and Kincaid's thugs fear him. Ergo, everybody fears Kincaid.

To add insult to literal injury, Kincaid's boys also brutally murder Kelso's promoter/mentor Roarke (PL Hobden, again getting reduced to a bloody pulp for art's sake) just for good measure, and with Taylor delivering the fatal coup de grace it effectively doubles Kelso's motivation to come after Kincaid's organisation and Taylor specifically.



Following a chance encounter whilst both seeking the highly dubious medical services of a no-questions-asked underworld surgeon, the two erstwhile heroes decide to team up and take down Kincaid and his criminal empire the only way they know how...with feet, fists, and any weapon that's handy. As you might readily expect, a wanton orgy of indiscriminate arse-kicking ensues.

Right off the bat, there's a nice contrast between the two main protagonists, and you can see it's intentionally done. Happily, it avoids the classic cliches of the buddy movie as Williams and Kelso never become 'buddies' or share some breakthrough 'moment'. They just have an uneasy alliance based on the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Aside from the differences in outward appearance (Williams: Long hair, beard, black suit; Kelso: Short hair, clean shaven, sportswear), there is also a difference in their respective moralities, with Kelso being reticent to kill or use drugs and Williams killing people as if it was second nature. This is nicely illustrated by a brief scene where Kelso takes him to task for killing Sonya, and Williams puts him straight about the gravity and reality of their situation. Besides, believe me when I say that the bitch had it coming anyway...



The first thing that strikes you about the content of the film itself is that whereas 10DM is largely an action movie with some martial arts elements, L4D is the other side of that proverbial coin. Yes, there is a fair bit of gunplay spread out over the course of the movie, but the onus is on martial arts of the leaping roundhouse kick variety rather than the sort of close-quarter brawls that viewers of 10DM or the Bourne Trilogy might be more familiar with. I know the latter is more 'realistic' in the minds of a lot of people, but it is nowhere near to being quite as cinematic.

Part of this prevalence of a more classic style of screen fighting is due to the internal reality of the film. It's a martial arts film that doesn't pretend to be anything else nor make an apology for being what it is.

For example, there's a scene where Taylor has his gun snatched from him after sneaking up on a kickboxing foe, who then proceeds to cockily toss it away and instead engage him in hand to hand combat. If this kind of thing has you jumping out of your seat, tearing your hair out and screaming at the TV to 'Just bloody shoot him!', then L4D probably isn't the film for you. Whilst we're on the subject, I'd also probably try to avoid watching any James Bond films as well, as they also have a habit of putting Bond and his comely companion in some sort of elaborate-yet-easily-escapable deathtrap peril (usually right after the villain has boasted to him about all the details of his nefarious masterplan) rather than just shooting him in the head and being done with it. Let's just say that people like Scott Evil would most certainly not approve.

The internal reality of the film is also graphically displayed when Williams takes on Kincaid. I'm not going to give away the ending, but you'll either love it or hate it, and it tends to suggest the influence of certain fighting video games, as do other aspects of the film which I will address in due course.

The other reason the fights are bigger in terms of scale is because there is room to have the fights with the big moves, rather than the somewhat more claustrophobic locations of 10DM. Indeed, even the outdoor fights in 10DM are relatively constrained and close-quarter in comparison.

Kelso takes out two at once

Unlike 10DM, which by and large has 'feature' one on one fights with identifiable characters as Ryan works his way through his list, L4D has a whole lot of nameless henchmen getting the stuffing beaten out of them. This allows for a lot of one-hit 'set pieces' which serve to both drive home the abilities of Williams and Kelso, and mark out those foes who don't go down in one to be more serious, credible threats with their own impressive arsenal of moves and manouvres.

The other key difference with L4D's fights is one of motion and, perhaps more importantly, progression.

Dylan prepares to take on Williams in their final battle...or is it?

For example, Williams assault on the dojo (recalling Bruce Lee's visit to the Karate school in Fist Of Fury) progresses from being a one-against-many brawl to a rooftop one-on-one with Dylan, and I for one certainly enjoy fight scenes which progress and evolve in terms of the challenges facing the hero (number of opponents increasing/decreasing, the gaining/losing of a weapon, a hostile/advantageous environment, etc.). One of the more familiar examples I could point to would be the House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill Vol. 1. The challenge faced by 'The Bride' is constantly changing (different types/levels of fighters, different weapons, different amounts of fighters), as is the environment (thanks to some clever lighting tricks and some fun on the balcony) and that's what keeps it fresh and interesting. Only the final battle of 10DM has this progressive quality, but due to the relatively brief and largely mismatched fights, it never gets to be fully developed as one might hope it would be.


Happily, one gets this same sense of progress in both spatial and storytelling terms in a number L4D's fight sequences, and I for one appreciate the variety. Whether it's the exterior to interior of the opening sequence, the dojo to rooftop fight, or the fight to reach Kincaid, the key sequences have this quality, and thus allow the action to advance the story rather than hold it up.

Indeed, in many respects, the final assault on Kincaid's HQ is like Bruce Lee's 'Game of Death' on amphetamines, especially after the swathes of low-level lackeys have all been disposed of.

Williams takes on Kincaid's henchman

Again, like with Williams and Kelso, each of the significant 'feature' foes is nicely differentiated from the other (and from the masses of faceless henchmen) by some means, be it personality, mode of dress, fighting style, choice of weapon or even race/gender. It's the same clever trick used so well in Predator, where each member of the unit has their own subtle little modification to their uniform (headwear, sleeve length, etc.), different weapons (grenade launcher, minigun, etc.) or character trait (constant shaving, tobacco chewing, joke telling, pendant rubbing). In short, it creates slightly more developed characters without the need to sacrifice running time to accomodate scenes of explicit characterisation or backstory. L4D wisely does this from the very beginning, as despite being universally clad in all black, the trio of Taylor, Dylan and Williams are easily distinguishable from one another by their weapons of choice, (namely guns, swords, and bare hands respectively) and their respective approaches and demeanors in combat.

These more distinguished feature villains are what the Playstation generation kids might refer to as 'End of Level Guardians' (namely Williams' former partners in crime Dylan and Taylor, Kincaid's tazer and balisong-wielding henchman, a not-quite-so-criminally-underused Cecily Fay, and of course the Big Boss himself).

Proof that you can't keep a good villain dow...Dylan vs. Williams Redux

To continue the videogame metaphor further, it might work best to try and imagine L4D as a sort of live-action version of something like Final Fight or Double Dragon and you'll be getting pretty close to the mark.

(Actually, on second thoughts, forget the part about imagining a live-action version of Double Dragon. They did that already, and it made me seriously reappraise the merits of Uwe Boll's videogame adaptions. We're taking worse than Super Mario Bros. bad here...but, on the plus side, it has inspired a generation of amateur filmmakers to make good on their boast that they 'could do a better Double Dragon movie than that piece of shit!', and judging by some of their efforts, they were right, too...so much so that I'm going to have to do a post on fan films sometime soon!).

You know, now that I think about it, the Final Fight comparison suddenly becomes a lot more plausible when the two martial arts heroes draft in the powerfully-built (and slightly older) brawler Loader (Adam Hawkins). He's like the Haggar to Williams and Kelso's Guy and Cody respectively. For example...

Haggar cleans house with a double clothesline...

...as does Loader.

Haggar puts a lifting chokehold on some chick...

...as does Loader again!

Having said that, nobody's daughter/fiance has been kidnapped, Loader is not the Mayor of Hope or Metro City, and the villain isn't a wheelchair-bound millionaire/crossbow enthusiast, so perhaps I'm reading a little bit too much into it. Then again, Kelso does have his hands all taped up, just like Cody...also, there's an occasional computer-generated map showing our heroes' progress (which FF also has), and there's a Metro City too? Hmmm...

I've seen various reviewers remark that it has a 'comic book' sensibility to it, but to my eye it is actually about the nearest thing in spirit to a 'video game movie'(and by video game, I'm talking specifically of the clasic 2-D side-scrolling beat 'em up model) that I have seen, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. It's not trying to be a videogame or pay lip service to the idea (Unlike such smug toss as the pov sequence in doom). I mean instead in terms of clear, linear progression...of fighting in order to advance the plotline and progress to a goal, opponent or new level, with Kincaid sitting at the very top of metaphorical tree, which in reality is actually the top floor of a rather forboding high rise building.

Of the fights themselves, there's something of a showreel element. If someone can do a backflip, then they're putting it in rather than constricting the performers to a set fighting style or set of moves. Kelso, for example, has a neat line in launching himself off of objects like cars, walls or benches into a leaping spinning roundhouse kick, to devastating effect.

Kelso gets some airtime via the hood of the car

It's used at least three times that I counted, but I have no problem with the repetition. I'd rather see people doing what they know they can do well instead of doing something half-baked and thoroughly unconvincing.

Kelso launches into another one of his trademark kicks.

The key element for me is that it looks good every time he does it, as does Salvage's trademark kicking combo. In short, there's plenty of highlight reel stuff mixed in with the more mundane moves, as well as various other set pieces (like the knock-the-guy-into-the-transformer-substation electrocution or Dylan using the long grass as camofluage) that obviously weren't improvised on the spot. My favourite would have to be an unsuspecting smoking hoodlum getting his neck broken by Williams. As his lifeless body slumps to the floor, we see his cigarette packet with the legend 'Smoking Kills' emblazoned upon it, and the Benson & Hedges logo has been craftily altered to read Boyask & Hobden. It's a very nice touch, and one that certainly caught my attention.

The desire on the part of the filmmakers to constantly punch well above their weight and transcend the limitations of their budget is apparent throughout. With a film like this, providing you have a handful of people of the requisite proficiency in martial arts, then you can put together a number of fights with only a small group of performers. Again, just like the relatively small-scale 'Game Of Death', you don't need a cast of thousands to successfully execute a progressive fighting/revenge movie, especially if you're working on a tight budget.

For starters, there's seemingly a small army of people involved in this movie as low-level hoodlums who get killed off by the bucketload. I'm sure there must be some 'recycling' somewhere (dressing the same actor differently and using them again), but if there is, it's not particularly obvious.

Another particularly eye-catching sequence involves a gang of motorcyclists being called in to hunt down the escaping Williams. When asked how many to send, an exasperated Dylan demands 'All of them!' We're teased at first by being shown three of them, which seems like an ample number to do the job, but looks a little low-rent if three constitutes 'all of them'. However, it is shortly revealed that there's actually enough bikers to hold a pretty substantial motocross rally. It's a cinematic sucker-punch wherein the filmmakers draw you in, lower your expectations, and then completely blow them away.

Just like the sizeable swathes of hoodlums, it's a bloody impressive sight which serves to further distance L4D from the sort of "3 men and a dog" aura of fiscally-enforced minimalism which tends to haunt some lower budget productions, British or otherwise. It's all very well and good to portray Kincaid as the iron-fisted ruler of an immense criminal empire, but nothing backs that idea up quite so well as actually physically displaying that he can bring a small army into play if he feels like it.

Obviously, it is not without a few faults. I'm not a fan of digital blood effects, nor the opening title sequence & episodic nature of the story with chapter titles a la Tarantino, but that's just me.

On the other hand, I think digital muzzle flashes are brilliant because you can stage full-on shootouts without all the unnecessary noise and disturbance, as they do in L4D's opening sequence. Having said that, there's a digital ricochet effect in the scene where Williams is escaping from Dylan and Taylor which is so weak I'm rather surprised they left it in.

Again, Director Ross Boyask isn't backward in coming forwards about the films that have influenced him and including a little nod here and there. I won't detail them all (spotting them for yourself is half the fun, after all), but the most obvious has to be Kincaid's introduction being given 'The Marsellus Wallace Treatment'*.



(*By 'The Marsellus Wallace Treatment', I don't mean forcibly sodomised in the basement of a pawn shop, but rather the fact that he is only shown from behind for the opening portion of the movie)

As per my review of 10DM, Boyask again excels at action sequences rather than people sitting around talking and so forth. The good news is that this is a very action-heavy film, ergo we get a lot of superlative fight sequences, which is what you want from a martial arts film.

As you might expect from a low budget production, the standard of acting varies a great deal. However, one compensation L4D can offer is that it's not too dialogue-heavy, plus if someone's acting really gets on your nerves, you know they're not going to be talking (or walking) anymore after Williams and Kelso get through with them.

Two things that really stuck out for me with regards to the acting were as follows.

I expected Glenn Salvage to be a lot, lot worse. I've not yet seen 'The Silencer' (check the trailer out HERE), but the very concept of it, with Salvage being rendered mute by a gunshot wound early in the film, seems to send out the message that 'this guy is great at martial arts but utter toss with dialogue'. Fortunately, it seems I have jumped to the wrong conclusion, as I've seen a lot worse.

Secondly, having watched the trailer of L4D, I had already seen bits of dialogue scenes which had me thinking 'That's a bit of a clunker' or 'They can't act for toffee'. Maybe you will have had the exact same thoughts. Bizarrely, when you watch those snippets in their proper context, most of them actually work quite nicely.

Having said that, I didn't come into this movie expecting Branagh-esque displays of outrageous thespianism, and nor should you.

Everyone has to start somewhere, though, and low budget films like L4D provide an important opportunity for people to get their foot in the proverbial door and cut their metaphorical teeth. The biggest example in L4D would have to be none other than Joey Ansah. One minute he's getting the crap beaten out of him by Glenn Salvage in the dojo fight, the next thing you know he's getting killed with a bathtowel by Matt Damon in 'The Bourne Ultimatum'. That's showbiz, baby!

When all is said and done, on just about any individual aspect you might care to pick, be it acting, effects, cinematography, etc., L4D is plainly inferior to 10DM (as you would naturally expect...progression not regression), yet perversely the sum is greater than the constituent parts, so much so that given the choice, I'd probably rather watch L4D over 10DM.

Perhaps it's because L4D is more obviously low budget when compared to the more illustrious 10DM (which benefits greatly from the flatters-to-deceive production value afforded to it by the various unique locations employed throughout) that I'm more than willing to cut this one some slack.

Despite being set in a desolate, crime-ridden hellhole, it's overall a much less bleak and nihilistic film than 10DM. There's a little more humour, for starters, mostly provided by Dylan who has all the best lines (although my favourite has to be Taylor's "I can't believe you made me take my fucking coat off!"), but also in scenes such as the one where Kelso demonstrates to Loader how he plans to fight with his badly damaged hands, or the the knowing look given before a nameless thug is electrocuted in the opening battle.

The relative simplicity of the storyline (Introduce Williams, Introduce Kelso, Team up and take down Kincaid) means that it flows a little more readily than the multiple characters and storylines of 10DM. Less apparently is more, after all.

The other key distinction is the fact that the plotline is entirely linear, save for some very brief flashbacks featuring Williams' now-deceased wife (cleverly done using leading man Salvage's real-life wedding video. Now that's what I call production value!), and a sequence wherein Taylor is shown to be a cold-blooded killer, but we knew that already. 10DM, on the other hand, is largely non-linear with many flashbacks. As such, there are no real distractions from the general thrust of the plot. The 'softest' part of L4D in terms of advancing the plot would most likely be the sequence detailing our heroes healing up and getting ready to take on Kincaid, and that's wisely condensed down into a brief montage. Other than that, the film literally flies by. 'Fast paced and hard hitting' sounds like a marketing cliche, but in L4D's case it's extremely appropriate.

So, if you have the opportunity, I'd advise you grab this one first. I just like it better. It's markedly less polished or professional than 10DM, but it's ultimately a lot more fun and easy-going. If you're looking for practical and realistic, look elsewheres. If you want a fighting-for-fighting's-sake low budget martial arts rampage, l4d delivers the goods in impressive style.

It's hardly appropriate for me to comment on value for money as I got it absolutely free. My version bears the logo of the widely-despised York Entertainment, so I assume it was the US version. How the current or subsequent UK versions may differ in terms of running times and extra features, I couldn't say, but it would really have to go some to top 10DM in terms of extra features. These BTS features do exist, as you can see on producer Phil Hobden's YouTube Channel, but whether they are or will be included on a DVD version remains to be seen (by me, at least).

I think the most telling comment I can make on value for money would be that I am now resolved to find a retail copy to replace my current screener version with. Yes, I'm the kind of completist anorak who likes cases, sleeve art and all that jazz rather than MP3s, blank disks or portable hard drives for my media. I'm so old school I still buy CDs. This movie is definitely one I want to see added to my collection in the proper manner. In short, a keeper with plenty of replay value.