Friday, 27 May 2016

Scarab

Director: Steven-Charles Jaffe
Writer: Steven-Charles Jaffe, Robert Jaffe, Ned Miller, Jim Block
Producer: Luis Calvo
Cast: Rip Torn, Robert Ginty, Cristina Hachuel
Year of release: 1982
Country: Spain
Reviewed from: UK video (Xtasy)

Long before he was Zed in Men in Black or Artie in The Larry Sanders Show, a very young-looking Rip Torn starred in this bizarre Spanish film (shot in English) as Professor Manz, an Egyptologist who summons and assumes the powers of the Egyptian scarab god Khepera. Robert Ginty (The Exterminator, and now director of shows like Charmed and Xena) is Murphy, an American reporter who spots something odd going on when the French Prime Minister, mid-speech, grabs a gun, shoots at his audience then commits suicide.

Murphy follows a nurse with mysterious psychic powers, Elena (Cristina Hachuel aka Cristina Sanchez Pascuel) whom he saw retrieving a scarab beetle from the dead man. His investigations bring him trouble as a mysterious man (who can vanish at will) causes explosions, gunfire and accidents around him.

Turns out Elena is Manz’s daughter. She and Murphy infiltrate the castle where ‘Khepera’ and his followers are holding a sacrificial ritual. Murphy is captured and placed in a sarcophagus and Elena is hypnotised into stabbing him, but remembers when she was forced to commit the same act against her own brother (something you stand no chance of realising unless you read it on the video sleeve) and stabs Khepera instead.

It’s an odd film, that’s for sure. The script is reasonable and Murphy is a likable character if not a terribly competent one (we’re introduced to him when the Swedish Ambassador catches his wife in bed with Murphy at a diplomatic reception!). Hachuel looks a bit like Sally Phillips from Smack the Pony. Khepera’s followers dance wildly in a mixture of masks and body paint while waving flaming torches, in scenes reminiscent of the later Darklands. And Donald Pickering (Zulu Dawn, Executive Stress) has a completely inexplicable role as, well, your guess is as good as mine. Curiously, Torn appears to have been filmed separately as he is never in the same shot as anyone else unless he is wearing a mask or has his back to camera - until the last ten minutes when he’s on screen with both the other leads and twenty extras.

Scarab (Escarabajos Asesinos in its home country) isn’t terribly bad or terribly good. It’s competently made and quite exciting if somewhat incomprehensible in places. Stephen Jones’ Essential Monster Movie Guide (there are no monsters in Scarab) says it has “plenty of naked women” but he’s seen a different movie to me because this just has a few body-painted topless dancers.

This was the only directorial credit for Steven-Charles Jaffe, who had been Associate Producer on Time After Time and Demon Seed (written by his brother and co-writer here, Robert, who also wrote and produced Nightflyers) and who went on to produce the likes of Ghost, Strange Days and Star Trek VI!

MJS rating: C+
Review originally posted 16th January 2005

Scars of Youth

Director: John R Hand
Writer: John R Hand
Producer: John R Hand
Cast: Jeremy Hosbein, Amanda Edington, Bruce Culpepper
Country: USA
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.jrhfilms.com/soy

This is the second feature from John R Hand whose first film, Frankensteins (sic) Bloody Nightmare, is one of the strangest that I have ever reviewed: an avant-garde horror film with a deliberately (I think) impenetrable narrative. The most distinctive thing about Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare - and one of the few things that can be said about it with any degree of certainty - is that many of the shots were extreme close-ups, often lit from unlikely angles, rendering the whole film into a feature-length version of one of those ‘can you tell what this everyday object is?’ photo puzzles.

One of the few things which can be said with any degree of certainty about Scars of Youth is that Hand has at least now decided to move the camera further back so we can see who’s who and what’s what, although some scenes take place in deep, black, impenetrable shadows with only one item - usually a face - clearly lit. And nearly all the other scenes are shot with gels so that there’s a red shot or a blue shot or whatever.

Unfortunately, while the visuals are clearer here, the sound falls down badly. There is not a great deal of dialogue but much of what there is has been distorted so it sounds like an intercom or dodgy microphone. And fairly lengthy stretches of speech are consequently rendered incoherent. This may be deliberate - Hand breaking up the audio just as he broke up the visuals last time out - but I somehow doubt it. And while I’m not sure the film would be any easier to follow if I could hear the dialogue, I would at least have liked to give it a try.

You will undoubtedly have noticed, because you’re an intelligent person, that I have so far completely avoided any mention of what Scars of Youth is actually, you know, about. And that is because I haven’t a damn clue. I can tell you who is in this film, who made it, how long it is. I can even tell you that it is set 200 years in the future, thanks to the opening caption. But the plot? The characters? Hand is as obtuse and avant-garde as he was before.

Unless one is a pretentious wanker who spouts pseudo-intellectual rubbish and believes that every word is true, it is extraordinarily difficult to review avant-garde films. High-concept ones like Phone Sex are slightly easier but this is a film which definitely has a plot and characters, it just doesn’t want to take the easy option of revealing them to the audience.

The central character is called Paul (Jeremy Hosbein). His mother (Amanda Edington) has become addicted to some sort of drug which prevents her from ageing but makes her skin photo-sensitive and she now lives in a derelict building on the other side of a checkpoint. There are walls and fences which were erected a few decades ago by some figures wearing white protection suits (aliens? soldiers? Government agents?). Paul has a friend called Harold (Bruce Culpepper) who regularly smuggles across the checkpoint a small cylinder containing a recording of Paul counting or reciting the alphabet (because it is his voice that his mother needs so it doesn’t matter what he says). Paul lives in some sort of plastic tent with lots of old hardback books. We see flashbacks to when he was young, played by Hosbein’s own son Donovan (his mother, of course, played by the same actress without need for special make-up), and a photographer (John R Hand himself) took a picture of the two of them.

I think.

And most of that I gleaned from the first 15-20 minutes, after which it all becomes hopelessly - but I believe, deliberately - entangled and bizarre. For example, the recording cylinder never seems to be mentioned again. I would be lying if I said I had the slightest clue what is going on.

Let’s see what the synopsis on the JRH Films website says: “In a post-apocalyptic world 200 years in the future, society has broken down into fragmented groups who now dwell within a tangled wood, completely unaware of any civilization that exists beyond and governed by the white-suited agents of some ominous force, which could perhaps be nothing more than a high-tech manifestation of their own guilt and suffering. In this world, a young man living in a decaying wreck of a dwelling struggles to come to terms with his bleak existence while trying to save his mother from the grip of a strange black fluid which seems to prolong life but at the same time leaves it's users in a drug-like haze and causes scar-like tissue to cover their bodies.”

Well, er, that’s pretty much what I said. But that’s the first 15-20 minutes and this runs 82. What actually, you know, happens?

Very little happens, frankly, and it happens at extremely slow speed. There are long stretches where Paul or someone else simply stands still, pausing for a really long time. Maybe they’re thinking deeply.

But you know, all credit to John R Hand. He makes defiantly individualistic, personal, artistic films. The things that set his movies apart from the mainstream, from our conventional definition of a ‘good’ film, are things which he has created deliberately. Every image, every sound (well, maybe not the overly distorted voices), every edit, every bit of this film is Hand making a statement. I don’t know what that statement is, but I would rather sit through a John R Hand film, however incomprehensible (and consequently, it must be admitted, soporific) that might be, than suffer some of the don’t-know-don’t-care amateur rubbish I’ve reviewed on this site.

A few of the cast were also in Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare and one, Evan Block, was also in Drew Bell's Freaks remake Freakshow. Block is credited as ‘thief’ here but I honestly couldn’t tell you what that involved or where he appeared. I don’t recall anyone stealing anything in the film. But maybe they did.

Three years ago I didn’t give Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare a rating because I honestly had no way to judge it, no reference points, no appropriate criteria. I’m going to do the same with Scars of Youth, I’m afraid. How can I possibly give any sort of quantitative rating to a film which I didn’t understand? All I can say is that I think this is an improvement on the last one.

Review originally posted 14th February 2009

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

47 Meters Down

Director: Johannes Roberts
Writers: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Fiera
Producers: James Harris, Mark Lane
Cast: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: trade screening

Following hot on the heels of The Other Side of the Door (due to the vagaries of distribution schedules) comes Johannes Roberts’ tenth feature, and arguably his best. 47 Meters Down takes a very simple premise and runs with it, to genuinely terrifying effect.

Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries) and Mandy Moore (Tangled) are sisters Kate and Lisa. The former is the wild, free-living, risk-taking, not-settling-down type; the latter is the sensible one in a long-term relationship. Which has just ended unhappily, the unseen Stuart accusing Lisa of being boring. A holiday in Mexico with her sister should offer some solace but also a chance for Lisa to show Stuart that she’s more free-spirited than he gave her credit for.

Which is why, after a night of drinking and dancing with two local lads, the girls agree to a trip out to sea for a shark cage-based close encounter. Matthew Modine (The Haunting of Radcliffe House) is Taylor, skipper of the unprepossessing boat with its rusty cage and creaking winch. This is very much not an approved, certificated tourist excursion and Lisa has qualms about both the sharks and the operation, which Kate allays through sisterly – but irresponsible – persuasion.

Inside the cage, lowered to a depth of five metres, the sisters have some stunning but scary views of great whites, attracted by a chum bucket of offal. And thus we come to the end of act one and the predictable cable snap, sending the cage down to the titular depth.

So here’s the predicament. Kate (an experienced scuba diver) and Lisa (new to the underwater realm) are in a rusty cage, surrounded by assorted pieces of broken winch, with a limited air supply – reducing even faster than normal because of their panicked state. The blue water above them has at least two enormous sharks swimming around in it, and a dash for the surface is out of the question because they would get the bends. You don’t really want a slow ascent with a five-minute pause halfway when huge predators are circling.

Can Taylor and his Mexican crew get to them? Can they even be trusted to try, given the dodgy nature of the enterprise? No-one else knows the girls even went out on this boat. Also, they are just out of radio range, which means intermittent communication with Taylor is only possible by briefly swimming up a few metres. So if the boat did decide to leave, they wouldn’t even know.

Roberts and his regular co-writer Ernest Riera wring every ounce of nerve-shredding tension out of this situation. The ticking clock of the air supply, the uncertain reliability of the boat crew and their equipment, the ever-present threat of the great whites. This is an extraordinarily scary, claustrophobic film and one that will have you on the edge of your seat, alternately gasping and whimpering.

The relationship between the sisters is well-defined and it’s to the film’s credit that Ernest and Jo felt no need to include any sort of “I slept with your boyfriend” revelation. There’s enough going on here without adding relationship woes, and besides the sisters’ only chance of survival is working together and helping each other.

And yet, in a sense, there’s relatively little going on here. There are several action sequences, such as a trip across the ocean floor to retrieve a flashlight, but it is surprising at the end of the film to realise quite how few and far between are the actual appearances by any sharks. And that’s a Good Thing. It is the threat of the sharks that drives the terror of both characters and audience. When a shark does appear it’s swift and sudden and terrifying but much, much more than a simple, cheesy cat-scare. That’s what sharks do – they swim fast through the opaque water, suddenly appearing with mouths full of “many teeth, dear”. (Although, despite what that song claims, sharks are not known for their dental hygiene. They don’t really need to, given that they have multiple rows of teeth, constantly moving forward to replace lost ones.)

Putting today’s marine biology lesson aside, what impresses – really impresses – is Jo’s direction. For most of the film he has only two characters, in a single tight location, their faces partially obscured (fortunately they have different hair colours and outfits), their surrounding environment an amorphous haze and no actual sharks on screen. Yet the film remains visually gripping, a situation greatly assisted by the frankly awesome cinematography of underwater specialist Mark Silk.

Now, there have been a lot of dumb shark films made in recent years. If you’re not sure quite how many, take a look at the three-part blog I wrote for Hemlock Books last year here, here and here – and bear in mind that this is already out-of-date, failing to include such low-grade tripe as Shark Exorcist, Sharkenstein and Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre (no, seriously). 47 Meters Down belongs to that much rarer cinematic subgenre, the intelligent shark movie. This is a film that doesn’t have to actually show the sharks to be scary; not because of any fear of audiences seeing through the effects, it should be stressed. The great whites seen here (and indeed all other passing fish) are completely credible, authentic-looking CGI creations.

47 Meters Down proves that it is possible to make a genuinely frightening, serious, intelligently plotted, shark-based horror movie. In fact, I would venture to suggest that this is probably the best shark movie since Jaws – and certainly the scariest. There have been a handful of other intelligent shark movies but none of those have milked the horror potential of the subgenre as successfully as this picture.

Interestingly, the film this most closely resembles isn’t a shark film, it’s The Descent – and not just because of the female cast (discussion of the errant ex-boyfriend notwithstanding, this has no problem passing the Bechdel test). In a review of The Descent in Video Watchdog, which I quoted in my book Urban Terrors, it was noted that the film featured hot actresses in skin-tight outfits yet pointedly refused to objectify them. 47 Meters Down achieves the same laudable goal, avoiding the same easy win.

More than its gender credentials, Roberts’ film resembles Neil Marshall’s in its claustrophobia – the cage is a tiny haven of safety among the blue – and in the way that the situation gets progressively worse, danger piling on additional danger as vestiges of hope are dashed away in gut-wrenching succession. Marshall’s six women were trapped underground by a cave-in and nobody knew they were there and there were subhuman crawlers hunting them down. Jo’s two sisters are trapped at the bottom of the sea and nobody knows they’re there (except Matthew Modine and his crew of questionable honesty) and there are some 20-feet long specimens of Carcharodon carcharias prowling around.

There is also, like The Descent, [spoilers on] a ‘false rescue’, somewhat unsubtly presaged with a Chekhov’s gun comment from Taylor about the danger of nitrogen narcosis-induced hallucination. While it’s apparent, as we watch the sisters make it back to the boat with a good 20 minutes to run, that this isn’t real (unless the film has an extraordinarily lengthy credit crawl…), that doesn’t in any way distract from the very real terror of their ascent and their struggle to make it on board, which is one of the most seat-grippingly scary sequences in the whole movie. A coda of Mexican coastguard divers finally arriving provides the sort of upbeat ending that US audiences (or at least, US distributors) demand. But by fading to black before the surface is reached, Jo allows us to retain the very real possibility that this too is inside our heroine’s mind and no more real than the previous escape. Thus the film offers both the ‘real world trap condenses into mind trap’ existentialist nihilism of The Descent’s original ending, and also the pat ‘with one bound she was free’ resolution of The Descent’s American ending [spoilers off] for those who want it.

And, like The Descent, one watches this film thinking: “Why in God’s name would you even do that?” Why would anyone in their right mind go potholing? Why would anyone with any sense get into a shark cage, even a good one booked through a legitimate tour operator? I mean, I love sharks as much as the next man (a shout out here to Bite-Back, the shark conservation charity which thoroughly deserves your support) but if I want to get up close to them I can do that at the Sea Life Centre, thank you very much. Their glass tunnel is completely safe, requires no specialised equipment or training – and there’s a gift shop at the far end of it. That’s the sensible option right there.

Of course, if Kate and Lisa had sensibly decided not to go out on Taylor’s boat, there would have been no movie. Or, looked at another way, the movie would have been 90 minutes of Mandy Moore and Claire Holt sunning themselves by a pool. Which, now I think about, you know, would also have worked for me…

Produced by the ‘Tea Shop and Film Company’ duo of James Harris and Mark Lane (Tower Block, Cockneys vs Zombies) for Dimension Films, some of the underwater scenes were shot in a big tank at Pinewood Studios. Exteriors and surface shots were filmed in July/August 2015 in the more glamorous locale of the Dominican Republic where this was the first production in the big new water tank facility there. Although one might assume that the nominal stars don't actually appear too much after act one, aside from close-ups where you can see their faces, and perhaps spent much of the shoot warm and dry in an ADR studio. in fact both actresses spent a lot of time in the water, for which props should undoubtedly be given. Nevertheless, credit where it’s due so a tip of the hat also to ‘dive doubles’ Zoe Masters, Elspeth Rodgers and Jenny Stock (I think there was a fourth dive double, but only those three are listed on the IMDB). Only in a couple of shots are the 'actors' as CGI as the sharks and you won't spot those.

Tower Block director James Nunn was first AD, a duty he also performed on F (as well as numerous other BHR titles) and also shot second unit. A terrific score by North American duo tomanandy (Sinister 2, Resident Evil sequels) keeps the atmosphere charged throughout, abetted by corking sound design by Alex Joseph (Tower Block, Green Street 3). Production design by David Bryan (The Other Side of the Door), make-up effects by Kristyan Mallett (Howl), editing by Martin Brinkler (Storage 24) – all top-notch. Outpost FX were responsible for the absolutely enormous amounts of visual effects; basically everything underwater except actors, cage and props is created in a computer while lots of other CGI disguises the fact that this was all shot in, effectively, a big swimming pool.

During post-production the title was briefly changed to In the Deep and that was on the print which was screened (twice) at Cannes in May 2016 (actually it was Johannes Roberts’ In the Deep, but who could begrudge him the possessory credit?). However it has subsequently been confirmed that the film will revert to the shooting title (with that American spelling) on release, probably to avoid confusion with a US-Aussie film called Into the Deep, set for a UK DVD release in September. That is also about people trapped in a shark cage but it looks like a found footage movie (yawn) and so probably not something we need to concern ourselves with and certainly no real competition except among that key audience demographic, people who don’t pay attention when buying DVDs in Asda. The IMDB currently lists a Dutch release date of September 2016 for 47 Meters Down but who knows where they got that from or how accurate it is.

MJS rating: A

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Road

Director: Ron Ford
Writer: Michael O’Hara
Producer: Ron Ford
Cast: Anne Selcoe, Richard Erhardt, Daniel Ray Anderson
Country: USA/Canada
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener disc

The Road has a neat and original central premise, something sorely lacking in most zombie films which are usually content to be the 498th remake of Night of the Living Dead. It is also well-made - given its tiny budget - with some enjoyably bloody special effects that make up for the less-than-convincing acting.

The film’s biggest fault however is that, at 40 minutes, it is either too long or too short, possibly both. It would work better as a tight, 20-minute film, shorn of an unnecessary prologue and a frankly boring and largely irrelevant first act. Alternatively, the basic premise could be expanded to feature-length by replacing our loan protagonist in a car with a minibus full of kids.

But... you get what you get.

We open with a character identified only as ‘The Injured Man’ (Richard Erhardt) crashing his car on a lonely road at night while running drugs from one dealer to another - although this reason for his journey is completely irrelevant and never mentioned again. Stumbling through the dark, he sees a couple of dismembered-but-still-moving people and a dog that has evidently been run over but is nevertheless still walking around.

It’s a comic-book splash panel style of prologue, in that it doesn’t really have much to do with anything but it gets some gore effects on screen in the first five minutes. And it’s a good job that it does, I suppose, because it’s the last ‘horror’ we’ll see for quite some time.

Once the credits start, we’re introduced to heartless businesswoman Jean (Anne Selcoe: Home of the Brave, The Family Holiday) who is on her way to some sort of meeting and rings up her employee Gary (Daniel Ray Anderson) to find out the address (I dunno, I’d have looked that up before I set out). Gary doesn’t want to help her because she is planning to fire her partner Linda; presumably that’s Linda in a photo on Gary’s desk because he reveals to Jean that he and Linda are dating and he won’t help her destroy the woman he loves.

The thing is, it seemed (when I first watched this) that Jean was actually on her way to fire Linda but that can’t be right because she must know her own business partner’s address. Anyway, she blackmails Gary into helping her by e-mailing him from her Blackberry a scan of a newspaper cutting about a fatal drink-drive accident from his past. But he deliberately gives her the wrong address and then sets off after her with a gun.

Unsure about the address, with her mobile and her satnav packing up, Jean turns onto a lane later identified as Bluebottle Road where she occasionally stops the car, gets out, walks around then drives on. At one point she sees somebody but, when they get close, it’s obvious they have no head. (I kept wondering whether ‘Bluebottle Road’ was a subtle Goon Show reference, as in, “You rotten swine, you have deaded me!” But I’m guessing probably not...)

So anyway, is Jean shocked by this headless, walking corpse? Amazed? Puzzled? Horrified? Difficult to tell as she just drives off with no comment and no obvious display of emotion. More to the point, we’re nearly halfway through the film by now. This is where the story starts and it’s difficult to see why we need five minutes of ‘The Injured Man’ injuring himself or ten minutes of soap opera about Jean, Gary and Linda.

Down the road Jean’s car bumps gently into our friend from the prologue, somehow sending him flying several yards onto the verge where he lies, pleading for assistance in a flat monotone. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the line “Oh God, please help me” delivered with less emotion. The dialogue reads like someone panicking but is performed like a note to the milkman: Oh God, don’t leave me. Two extra pints today please.

He’s terrified of being left there because “they’re coming - the dead ones”; the Z-word is never used in this film. So Jean drags him into her car, which has either run out of petrol or got stuck in a rut in the road, possibly both. And then ‘the dead ones’ attack. There’s about ten of them with assorted injuries: eyeball popped out, arm torn off etc. It’s an entertainingly varied group of the living dead including a tall goth bloke with long hair, a girl with a license plate stuck in her head, a delivery boy still clutching a pizza box and of course Bandit the pug, possibly cinema’s first canine zombie.

The most impressive effect is a zombie with a not quite severed head, attached only by a flap of skin at the nape. This hangs down the fellow’s back until he lurches forward at which point it pops back into place, before later flopping back again. This is neat and clever and funny and Ron Ford himself plays zombie-with-head-in-place.

While I salute the non-use of the Z-word (it reminded me of Joe Ahearne’s British TV series Ultraviolet in which no-one used the word ‘vampire’, giving the impression that it was set in a parallel world where vampires do not exist in tradition or fiction), there’s a problem here. What exactly is the threat from these walking corpses? If they were acknowledged as zombies then inherent in that is the fear that they will want to eat you. But although they lurch silently towards the car and then paw at the windows, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to indicate what danger they present. They might grope you, but as they move along in the traditional slow-time shuffle (these aren’t 28 Days Later zombies) they can be easily avoided.

Bereft of context, without the intellectual baggage of zombie-as-cultural-artefact, all we have here is a group of very badly injured people moving very slowly and it’s difficult to see why Jean would be so scared of them. In other words, in order to understand that they are a threat - rather than an inconvenience or even deserving of sympathy and help - she has to know what they are and her understanding has to match ours. She has to be in touch with the, if you will, zombie zeitgeist. Which she apparently isn’t.

Our injured friend does know what they are. Bluebottle Road has some sort of curse which means that anyone who dies on the road is doomed to stay there forever. My favourite part of the film is the little bit of exposition where Jean asks how this could be without the road becoming famous and TIM (as I might as well call him) explains why it is that local people know about the road but the story never goes any further.

But again, there’s a problem. Surely Jean is local? After all, Gary works for her and he’s only a few miles away (as evidenced by his appearance at the end of the film) so why doesn’t she (or Gary) know about Bluebottle Road? This would work much better if Jean was from a long way off and just passing through, in other words without all that boring phone stuff at the start. This would also make her more sympathetic - and TIM would be more sympathetic too if we didn’t have that prologue showing us that he’s a drug-dealer’s goon. What we’ve got here is a drug-pusher and a bitch trying to get away from some people who seem frankly harmless and thereby invite our sympathy much more than the couple inside the car.

I can see what The Road is trying to do, I can see where The Road is, ah, going. But I can also see how and why it’s failing to get there. The script really needed tightening up, divested of all the unnecessary stuff at the start and stripped down to its essentials. If it had to be 40 minutes long, the main story should have been filled out to that time - rather than attaching irrelevant background stuff at the beginning - and there are plenty of problems in this set-up which could be explored and thereby solved through that extra running time for the main story.

I’m being overly critical here. Ron and co have put a lot of effort in and done a grand job but the core of any horror film is the threat and these zombies are simply, well, vague. You really, really need to know what your threat is, in every detail, before you unleash it on your protagonists, rather than just ticking a box that says ‘zombie’ and assuming it’s all okay (even more so if you’re going to avoid using the Z-word). And it helps to have at least one sympathetic protagonist. There are only three characters here: one is an evil, soulless bitch about to betray her best friend; one earns his living by helping to drag people’s lives into drug-dependent misery; and the third one killed several people when he was drink-driving and now plans to murder his boss. Who precisely are we meant to empathise with?

This is deliberate - there’s little doubt about that. The film opens and closes with a radio DJ (played by young Mr Ford) bemoaning the amount of greed in the world and whether there is still time to change the road we’re on - very allegorical. The problem is that those who suffer in this film don’t do so because of their unpleasant nature or past misdemeanours, they just suffer. And with no sympathetic characters, there’s nobody to show us, allegorically, how we might change our ways.

I won’t spoil the ending but it involves Gary, a less than convincing make-up on Jean (it always look wrong when somebody’s face is plastered in blood but there’s none in their hair), an editing inconsistency that suggests Jean has turned off Bluebottle Road although she then seems to still be on it, and a final resolution that is inconsistent with the established lore because by then Jean definitely isn’t on Bluebottle Road.

There’s a car crash at the end which is really quite effective (as indeed is the one at the start, although that has the advantage of being in darkness) and you know, car crashes are extremely difficult to do on a limited budget for obvious reasons. We also get a revelation about TIM (though it has nothing to do with his drug-running job) which includes a brief shot of the best gore effect in the film. It’s all a bit of a mishmash at the end, to be honest, combining possibly the film’s best bit with some of its weakest moments.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy The Road but I did find it frustrating. There are parts that don’t really make sense - why, for example, after eventually driving away from the shuffling zombies, does Jean knock down the same zombies further down the road? - and other parts that aren’t necessary at all.

And while time and effort has been put into the make-up effects, there’s a small but annoying moment when Jean tops up her tank from a can of petrol in her boot (er, 'gas in her trunk’, I suppose). It’s annoying because the container is very obviously empty. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where the characters are wandering around a car park and Kramer is carrying a heavy item that he bought - a video or something similar. Michael Richards insisted that the genuine item be put in the box because, good as he is at physical comedy, you need the weight there to act against. Acting that an empty container is heavy requires world class mime skills. In other words, why not give the actress a genuine can of petrol? Unless you’re Marcel Marceau, it’s virtually impossible to carry an empty plastic container around the same way you would if it was full. Sorry to harp on about something so inconsequential, but I get annoyed by tiny things that would cost nothing to fix.

The Road was written by Michael O’Hara as part of an anthology script (Ron gets an ‘additional material’ credit) and is likely to end up being released as one segment in the third volume of the Goregoyles series from Canadian executive producer Alexandre Michaud’s Helltimate Studios, some time in 2008 (the film carries a 2007 copyright). Hopefully the opening sequence can be trimmed for the feature release so that it doesn’t swamp the film. Let’s face it, this is a movie for folk who love cheesy, gory low-budget horror and there’s no point wasting so much time before getting to the, ah, meat of the story.*

DP Phil Sondericker previously worked with Ron Ford on Fred Olen Ray’s Tiki, which also featured Selcoe and Erhardt in its cast. Ron, Raymond D Biddle and Russell La Croix all get an ‘additional photography’ credit and the editing is credited to Ron ‘with’ Michaud. Make-up effects supervisor Mitch Tiner is another Tiki veteran who also worked on Ron’s little-seen Snakeman, providing - and indeed wearing - the titular effects make-up. He also ‘does’ John Lennon in a Beatles tribute band! Shawn Shay and Jamie Kenmir also get ‘make-up effects’ credits.

David G Such, who scored Ron’s The Crawling Brain, provides the effective music while Christian Viel (director of Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain) gets a credit for ‘digital SFX’ which principally consists of some bullet hits. Tiner, Shay, Biddle and La Croix are all among the zombie extras, along with Ben and Connor Foxworth, Karolyn Clark, Joelene Smith and Richard Lee.

It’s always good to see a new Ron Ford film and I’d love to like The Road more than I do. It’s so nearly there but its deficiencies, in terms of both script and production, make it unsatisfying for those of us who know what Ron is capable of. Still, trimmed a bit and sandwiched between a couple of other horror tales, it would make a passable half-hour of unpretentious horror fun.

MJS rating: B-

* Update: After writing this review, the Goregoyles III project fell through and Ron re-edited The Road, tightening up the picture by six minutes, before releasing it as half of his own anthology Horror Grindshow.

Review originally posted 3rd March 2008

Space Marines

Director: John Weidner
Writer: Robert Moreland
Producer: Talaat Captan
Cast: Billy Wirth, Cady Huffman, John Pyper-Ferguson
Country: USA
Year of release: 1998
Reviewed from: UK DVD

I’m sure John Pyper-Ferguson has done other stuff, but having seen this and his role as ‘Enoch Sean’ in the risible Osiris Chronicles, I can now only see him as an intergalactic pantomime villain. In Space Marines he is a space pirate (and embittered ex-marine) named Colonel Fraser. With his little Van Dyke beard, twirlable moustache ends, flouncy long hair and debonair dress sense, plus an impish delight in making poetic threats, he comes across as a cross between Lord Flashheart and Doctor Evil.

There is also, in an extraordinarily and atypically subtle moment near the start, a shared glance between himself and an underling named Lucky (Kevin Page: RoboCop, Dark Angel) which clearly implies a homosexual relationship. Lucky isn’t much to look at although Fraser’s main henchman is a muscle-rippling, square-pecced Germanic behemoth named Gunther (Michael Bailey Smith) who actually sports an eye-patch. Smith played ‘Super-Freddy’ in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, was the Thing in Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie, and was also in Cyborg 3, Men in Black II, Monster Man and The Hills Have Eyes 2.

The picture opens with a space cruiser carrying some sort of secret cargo that even the blue-collar crew don’t know what it is. Gunther and his goons board the ship, steal the cargo and kidnap the VIP passenger in charge of the stuff, Vice Minister Adams (John Mansfield). The prisoner is taken back to a planet where Fraser’s compound is besieged by a squad of space marines, clad in body armour and helmets which owe a lot to Starship Troopers (released slightly after Space Marines but well into pre-production when this was made).

Commanded by seasoned veteran Captain Gray (Edward Albert: Galaxy of Terror, Sorceress, Mimic 2, Demon Keeper and the voice of both Daredevil and the Silver Surfer in 1990s Marvel cartoons), these include TBG Rudy (Sherman Augustus: The Young and the Restless), loquacious techie nerd Hacker (Bill Brochtup: Rockula, Ravenous), avuncular sergeant Mike (Matt Topkins, who was in several episodes of canine literacy series Wishbone, as were numerous other minor cast members), rookie Tex (Blake Boyd: Dune Warriors, Dark Planet) and, we eventually discover, the movie’s main character Zack Delano (Billy Wirth, whose ridiculous floppy hair makes him look like a young Keanu Reeves, only with even less acting ability). There are also some unnamed, non-speaking members of the squad - in some scenes - who are very much there to make up numbers like the second row of the Walmington-on-Sea platoon. They all fly around in a spaceship piloted by a guy called Hot Rod although as he is never seen in the same shot as everyone else, it takes a while to realise that he’s meant to be in the same vehicle.

The attack is aborted on the orders of pole-up-her-arse Commodore Lasser (Meg Foster: Masters of the Universe, They Live, Stepfather II, Shrunken Heads and both Oblivion movies) aboard the battle-spaceship USS Missouri, whose demeanour and hairstyle show that she is channelling Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. Before the marines retreat, Sergeant Mike takes a hit because of Tex’s inexperience, leading to bad blood within the squad, later seen bubbling to the surface during R&R in a holographic strip-joint, apparently somewhere aboard the Missouri.

The United Planets (or United Federation of Planets - it varies from scene to scene) want to try a diplomatic approach and send in Ambassador Nakamura (James Shigeta: The Questor Tapes, Die Hard, Mulan) accompanied by his diplomatic aide Dar Mullins (Cady Huffman, who guest-starred in episodes of Frasier and Mad About You). Zack is disguised as a diplomat, partly to accompany them but mostly in order to kick off a love-hate relationship with Mullins.

Fraser releases (then kills) the Vice-Minister and takes the other three hostage instead then piles into a spaceship and disappears through a Babylon 5-style temporary wormhole jumpgate star portal thing to an asteroid where his pirates are busy stockpiling antimatter (or something).

Gray and the other marines board the abandoned freighter from the prologue, hunting for the black box flight recorder - for some reason. Possibly my favourite moment in this uniformly silly film is when, on removal of the black box, a warning voice announces that the ship will self-destruct in two minutes and the marines spend a good thirty seconds simply standing around debating what this means. A subsequent raid on Fraser’s asteroid HQ (identified because it is the only mining operation in the sector, apparently) releases Dar and Zack amid a blaze of machine-gun fire but that rascally pirate has already escaped with man-mountain Gunther and the Ambassador, into whose body has been implanted a whole kilo of explosive antimatter.

This sequence really epitomises Space Marines and its skewed priority of action-sequences-before-sense: not only is every single person in Fraser’s HQ equipped at all times with a powerful weapon, whatever their role - and remember that this is a secret base on a lonely asteroid so they are unlikely to have many visitors - but also, despite advances in space travel way beyond the dreams of current technology, the weapon of choice for both pirates and space marines remains the M-16 automatic rifle.

Using Nakamura as a shield, Fraser and Gunther are able to make it to the home planet - and indeed the central council chamber - of the United Planets, where they demand a fortune in gold, or else they’ll detonate the bomb sewn into the Ambassador’s stomach. The Missouri follows them, refusing to answer all the (very reasonable) requests for identification and Gray’s marines, with Dar Mullins in tow, simply race through the council building, guns at the ready, and burst into what must therefore qualify as the worst guarded council chamber in the history of sci-fi politics.

Zack makes a move on Fraser but crumples to the floor because - eh? - he too has something inside him. Why this should make him crumple to the floor at this point is of less concern to the bemused viewer than how Zack Delano, having had plenty of time to shower and change since his release, nevertheless failed to notice the huge new scar on his abdomen. Eventually Tex redeems himself by shooting Fraser with a pistol but dies in the process. Somehow.

All this is presented with a po-faced seriousness (Pyper-Ferguson aside) that belies how silly and camp the whole thing is. This is an action movie without a great deal of action, a sci-fi film without any science fiction beyond a few generic trappings. So the marines are in a spaceship, so what? They could just as easily be in a lorry and it would make no difference to anything. The pirates stealing antimatter could just as easily be stealing nuclear material. The fact that they covet gold and use machine guns shows how firmly rooted in prosaic action motifs this film is, while giving only lip service to the idea of science fiction.

Space Marines is unimaginative, by the numbers, B-movie sci-fi which is only distinguishable from stuff made ten years earlier by dint of CGI spaceships rather than models. It is flatly directed from a dull script with cardboard characters. Having a leading man who doesn’t come to the fore until quite some way into the picture is a disadvantage but not as much of a disadvantage as casting the astoundingly wooden Billy Wirth (whose other genre credits include The Lost Boys, Body Snatchers, Seven Mummies and Last Lives). He gives the impression of having simply wandered onto the set, found there was a movie being made and joined in because he has an hour to kill. It’s impossible to care about him, or indeed anyone in a film where none of the characters are given any space to be themselves. As for the subplot about rookie Tex and his guilt over Sergeant Mike’s death, which looks at first like it might be important, that is completely ignored by the film (and forgotten by the audience) until the denouement.

John Weidner’s short directorial career includes two actioners - Midnight Man and Private Wars - and some TV episodes alongside more regular employment as editor on a batch of other DTV thumpers, such as Fists of Iron and Ring of Fire II. Robert Moreland’s other produced screenplays are aircraft thriller Ground Control and, in a slight change of pace, computer animated feature Happily N’ever After. However the creative ideas behind Space Marines lie with neither gentleman, but rather with the producer, Talaat Captan.

This was the last of a quartet of DTV sci-fi films produced by Captan when he founded Green Communications at the start of the 1990s, following Prototype, APEX and Digital Man. He had been working in distribution since 1983 (handling, among other things, Night Shadow, StealthHunters and kid-friendly horror anthology The Willies) and caught onto the tail-end of the DTV boom but it looks like these films were a means to an end, establishing Green Communications enough to move onto more serious fare. Oddly, he now seems to concentrate on aircraft-related thrillers; as well as the previously mentioned Ground Control he has given the world Jim Wynorski’s Crash Landing and James Becket’s Final Approach. The IMDB also credits him with a brace of hour-long, Christian musical productions in 2005. It must be the same guy, right? There can’t be two Talaat Captans.

Cinematographer Garett Griffin handled second unit photography on Magic Kid II before moving into the DP role on films such as Ring of Fire 3 and Nice Guys Finish Dead. Two editors are credited: Daniel Lawrence cut Captan’s three previous SF movies while Brian L Chambers went on to cut episodes of American Gothic, Sliders and Time Trax. Composer Randy Miller has an interesting genre CV, having scored Dr Hackenstein, Hellraiser III, both Darkman sequels, Firestarter 2 and the first film in the insanely long-running Witchcraft series.

Special make-up effects are credited to JM Logan whose sequel-heavy resume include Texas Chainsaw Massacre IV, The Dentist I and II, Children of the Corn IV, The Prophecy II, Curse of the Puppet Master, Python 2, Species IV and all three Wishmaster sequels. Visual effects supervisor David Hopkins worked on National Lampoon’s Men in White, Power Rangers Lost Galaxy and the title sequence of Reptilian, the US version of Yonggary! Another make-up effects guy, Anthony C Ferrante (Arachnid, Scarecrow) worked as unit publicist and shares credit with two other people for creating Gunther’s eyepatch.

Also in the cast are Angie Bolling (Murphy’s wife in all three RoboCop movies) as the Missouri’s navigation officer - who has one line - and TJ Myers (Time Chasers, Repligator, Bio-Tech Warrior) as a holographic pole dancer.

Quite why the UK release of Space Marines has been saddled with an 18 certificate is a mystery. The violence consists almost entirely of wild machine gun blasts, the sort that can take out a bad guy at a hundred yards when he’s hiding behind a barrel but which miss a good guy in plain sight at ten feet. There’s no nudity, no swearing and no drugs. Perhaps the BBFC official on duty that day was a fan of Billy Wirth and simply took exception to the fact that his name is spelled wrong on the sleeve (on the plus side, it does at least include the Token Black Guy in the cast photo).

MJS rating: C-

Review originally posted 21st August 2007

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

interview: Bill Paxton

I interviewed Bill Paxton in the penthouse suite of the Dorchester Hotel, London in September 1995. He was over here with the cast and crew of Apollo 13 and most journalists wanted to interview Tom Hanks but he had no SF credits to speak of (apart from Big maybe) so SFX had no problem securing a chat with Paxton. Because of the lengthy post-production time required on Apollo 13, he had shot Twister since wrapping the space film, although that had not yet been released. A short version of this ran in SFX at the time.

Apollo 13 looks like it was very hard work. Was it harder than an ordinary movie?
"It was, but like the astronauts we portrayed, we had a tremendous sense of camaraderie. We all tried to make this film as good as it could be. We all felt an incredible sense of integrity and responsibility towards the material because it was a historical re-enactment of this famous voyage. And so we were unified and compelled to make this movie great. Yeah, it was a lot of work. There were a lot of cold days, when they refrigerated the sets so that they could see our breath.

“The flights on the aeroplane were very demanding, but at the same time, here we were as actors and film-makers doing something that had never been done in a theatrical motion picture. They took actors up in a set that had been put on a plane and it would fall out of the sky, and the camera crews would float and shoot it. So it was a unique filming experience. The filming of it was almost like a mission in itself. We all felt unified on our mission.”

Do you remember the Apollo 13 incident?
"I was 15 years old at the time. I didn't know all the myriad of problems that they'd had. I knew something had happened that had damaged the spacecraft, and the big question that I remember was: had there been a compromise in the integrity of the heat shield? Would the command module withstand the intense heat of re-entry? That seemed to be the big question on everyone's mind. When I read the script and started doing research I found out all the different things. One thing that is amazing is the whole idea that their survival literally came down to a plastic bag, the cardboard cover off a flight manual, space age bailing wire, duct tape... Unbelievable! All those things: the manual burn, the course correction, the idea that they almost skipped off the atmosphere before re-entry. So many things there."

Did you meet the real Fred Haise?
"I only had the opportunity to spend the best part of a day with him, down at Cape Kennedy. He was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule. He still is an aerospace engineer, working for Grumman, the same people who built the Lunar Module. He was chosen to be Lunar Module pilot because he was in the astronauts corps but he was assigned to Grumman, and he was one of the men who did all the tests for the Lunar Module. Remember that they were the back-up crew on Apollo 11. If something had happened to those guys before that flight, well it could have been Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the names that we know today."

The Apollo 13 story really is truth being stranger than fiction. Were there any occasions when people started saying, 'No, surely the scriptwriters must have made this bit up...'?
"The whole thing builds to this incredible climax that everyone knows the ending of. You almost feel like it's a Cinderella story. The movie's not a cop-out. It was this incredible triumph after all of this work and resourcefulness, this concerted effort. And the whole world waited. Everyone stopped what they were doing during moments of the flight, but especially at that moment of re-entry. It's so dramatic; they go into radio blackout because of the ionisation on the hull. They're coming in so hard, at 25,000 miles per hour, and there's no way that anyone can communicate with them. So there is that incredible suspense of waiting to see whether they lived or died in re-entry. So it's a natural for the movies. It is really one of the greatest human interest stories of modern times, that's been almost forgotten."

Do you think or hope that this film and the surrounding interest in the Apollo missions might get the space programme going again?
"It's a tall order, but I can only hope that it will pique the imagination of a whole new generation of young scientists. I've just finished a picture called Twister. It's a fictional story of this incredible atmospheric phenomenon we know as tornadoes that actually defy the laws of physics sometimes. I was working with a man who was a technical advisor on the film. He works for the NSSL, the National Severe Storm Lab, and he wrote me a letter. The reason he liked the movie so much was because he felt that it appealed to this generation that's coming along, who weren't born when this happened and have no personal recollection of it. It appealed to the sciences and it's a sad fact that academically the sciences are in a big decline, a decline in people going into mathematical fields and the physics fields. As a meteorologist, a big part of his work is mathematics and science. And this will appeal to young people to go into the sciences, so in that regard, yes I hope it does inspire young people."

You've done quite a few science fiction movies, including several with James Cameron. How did you first meet him?
"I met Jim Cameron when I was 25. It was 1980, he was art director on a Roger Corman picture called Galaxy of Terror and I was hired to be on his night crew as a set dresser. I had been a set dresser originally in the mid-'70s when I first went out to Hollywood when I was 18. In the interim I had gone to New York to study acting. I had come back and I was looking for acting work, but I was moonlighting as a set dresser. A buddy of mine introduced me to Jim and he gave me a job on the spot, and we got to know each other in the course of this production. I was making a small film at the time called Fish Heads that was based on a song by Billy Mumy who was in Lost in Space."

That was when he was half of the musical duo Barnes and Barnes.
"Barnes and Barnes, who were wonderful. I showed Jim this film I'd made to promote this song, and he realised that I had more of an interest than just painting a flat. So we became friends and colleagues. he was telling me at the time about a script that he was writing, that he wanted to direct, called The Terminator. We would be working late into the night and I'd say, 'What does the Terminator do then, Jim?' 'Well, he comes back from the future.' 'Let me get this straight...' It was actually not unlike that. He brought me into his circle - he's a very private man in many ways - but he accepted me as a peer very early on. We've been good friends. We're actually the same age, although I've always thought of him as kind of an older brother. He ended up tossing me a bone, as it were, to do a cameo in The Terminator. A few years after that I got the tremendous role of Hudson in Aliens."

I think that's what our readers know you best for.
"I think before Apollo 13, I've been best known for two films: Aliens, the role of Hudson; and another picture that had science fiction elements to it, that was a teenage comedy, Weird Science."

Aliens was a tremendous follow-up to a tremendous movie. Was there a problem in trying to follow on from such a huge hit?
"The script was incredible. I read the Aliens script and thought, 'My God, he's going to knock this one out of the park!' I remember reading the script for Terminator before it was made and thinking, 'This is one of the best screenplays I've ever read, if not the best.' I read Aliens and weirdly enough I was over here seeing my girlfriend - who's now my wife and the mother of my 18-month-old son, James - and I got the call for the audition. They were all over here starting to do the casting at Pinewood. I went in to meet Jim and read for him, and it's always very difficult reading for your friends because you really have no mystique with them. They know your bag of tricks. I much prefer to read for someone who doesn't know me. That way I can throw a persona at them, and they can't really know: 'Is he acting, or is he really like this? What's his story there?' The magician doesn't like to show how the trick is done, as it were.

“So I had a good reading, but I didn't feel like I'd really set the world on fire. I went back and I didn't hear for - oh God, it must have been six weeks. So then I got a call in the morning - it was night-time here - it was Jim calling to say, 'I want you to play the role of Hudson'. You could probably hear me howl all the way back to California. That was a great experience for me; a great role in a great production. I think Jim was very smart on a fundamental level. Alien was like this ride in a spook house, where you never knew when the monster was going to jump out at you. I'm boiling it way down. So Jim, instead of going down that road that had been so well travelled, he decided to make Aliens this ride on a wild roller-coaster. Alien was a whole departure for science fiction films in terms of the incredible design of HR Giger and the whole evolution of that monster from the pod to the face-hugger to its birth out of the human host to ... God almighty!

“It preyed on a lot of primordial fears: the idea of parasitic oscillation, that feeds off its host. It took a lot of fears: the classic vampire myth; the idea of cancers, of tumours that grow inside you. It really got you on a very gut level, a very primordial level, and it was so cleverly done. To have this heroic part played by a woman - Sigourney Weaver is the heroine of this movie as opposed to the classic hero - it really was an amazing piece of work. Ridley Scott did such a fantastic job on that film: just the sound of that movie and the way that story unfolds visually. I remember seeing Alien in a movie house in Times Square. If you had told me I was going to be in the sequel I would have just laughed at you, thought you were mad."

We have a thing in London called Alien War, which is Aliens as a sort of walk-through interactive experience.
"I've only heard about it. I don't really know anything about it."

If you get a chance while you're in London, you should check it out.
"Maybe I should do that. They'd better not mess with Hudson! That would be incredible. I was offered the chance to do one of these ride things and re-enact Hudson, but it wasn't going to be directed by Jim and I just felt that it was exploitation of the character. There's something sacred about that picture. It's a great piece of film-making, just like Apollo 13 is a great piece of film-making. It's so rare that you get a great story married to a great piece of film-work, with a great cast, under the guidance of a Ron Howard or a James Cameron. They're sacred things. You hold them and you're loyal to them and you guard them from any kind of explanation."

You were in Predator 2 as well.
"God, I've done a lot of science fiction films. Predator 2: for a while there I thought I was going to just do all the great sequels. Another great Hollywood monster. Predator and Alien are probably the greatest monsters to emerge from Hollywood since Frankenstein and Dracula. Predator was a fabulous idea, and I think that the first Predator is hands down a much better film than the sequel, although in the case of Aliens, I think Aliens is an equally good piece of film-making to Alien. I can't say that about Predator 2. I like the director a lot, I think he's very talented. I just don't think that they developed those characters enough in the story. It was shot a little too much in a sort of 'zow! pow!' cartoon character style. I don't think there was enough for the eyes to bit into on those characters.

“I thought the set-up to the first one was brilliant. I think it's one of Arnold's best movies, besides his work with James Cameron. I just love the idea of that monster: man has been a hunter, he's killed everything on this planet, including himself. And now comes this being from another planet who seems very primordial, but God, he's hunting man. I love the idea of that and I love the resourcefulness of the Predator."

And of course, at the end of Predator 2 there's that little shot of an Alien skull.
"Isn't that great? Jim and I both got a tremendous kick out of that. in the trophy case they show that Predator had beaten the Alien. I've seen this comic book - I've never read it - Aliens vs Predator, and I've heard they're trying to make that into a movie. I don't really know what that movie would be. And I heard that somebody's trying to do Starship Troopers, which has been around for a long time. Jim had us read that as a primer as colonial marines. I said, 'What would you read to get into this?' He said, 'I'd read Heinlein, and I'd read that.'"

Was it helpful?
"Oh absolutely. It's almost a throwback to the old times of imperialism, when you'd go out and you colonise different countries, if you were a British soldier. It's the same thing, just set in futuristic times."

You mentioned Weird Science, which is a lot lighter movie.
"I don't usually mention that so much. I'm not trying to distance myself from it but sometimes as these credits get older and you get further away, you like to think that people will know you for your contemporary efforts as well as your past glories. But I've always been proud of that movie. It was the first really great role I had in a studio film. I love John Hughes and I've always wanted to work with him again. Unfortunately we've lost track of each other. I had a tremendous rapport and collaboration with him. He gave me a lot of freedom to explore that character and I had a lot of fun with it. It's become a great archetype. I always liked Animal House and I always liked the actor that portrayed Neidermeyer in Animal House. So for me, that was my Animal House."

Do you worry about typecasting? A lot of your roles have been militaristic, crew-cut guys.
"I like short hair. I think a man with short hair, it's a strong look. It's a very positive strong look. And for that character and The Lords of Discipline, when I played a cadet at the citadel, and obviously, playing an astronaut I wanted to go for a buzz-cut there too. It just depends on the part. I've had hair down past my shoulders on films, like Indian Summer. I've also done science fiction movies that aren't so much science fiction, they're more like 'circus fiction'. The Dark Backward is a very peculiar movie that I starred in with Wayne Newton and Judd Nelson that I'm proud of. It's a really balls-to-the-wall performance. A lot of people said it was over the top but I like to go the wall sometimes in that regard. Obviously in movies like One False Move and Apollo 13 and Twister, Jan de Bont's new movie that I'm making with Helen Hunt, these require a more low-key, let-the-audience-study-you kind of work, as opposed to a full-blown performance."

What can you tell us about Twister?
"The movie follows these storm-chasers who are basically meteorologists who work from grants at local universities in the mid-West, who actually go out and try to put themselves as close to the tornadoes as they can, almost like a bullfighter, in the hope of gleaning certain knowledge about tornadoes. There's still a lot of things that are not known for certain. Obviously they understand the atmospheric conditions that cause these things. It's the most extraordinary atmospheric event there is, in a way; a tornado. This whirlpool, this vortex of air. Tornadoes can have winds of over 230 miles an hour blowing in them. It's not the wind that kills you, it's the debris. It can take a match and stick it right through your head. It can take a piece of straw and stick it into a tree. These things almost defy physics.

“The movie was written originally by Michael Crichton and his wife, Anne-Marie Crichton. It's produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy. It's Jan de Bont’s follow-up to Speed, which was a tremendous international hit and a very exciting piece of film-making. So he's hoping to top himself and I think he's going to with this. I play one of these storm-chasers, I play kind of the gunfighter who walked away from the gunfight. My ex-wife is Helen Hunt who is still an obsessive storm-chaser. In the course of the movie we're trying to place this weather package, which is like a flight recorder, that's how we explain it to the audience. It looks like an industrial washing machine, with aeronometers and cameras and all these devices for measuring different atmospheric pressures. They're hoping to get it into the tornado's path and then it will be sucked up into the tornado and they can learn what really takes place inside of a tornado. There's always been a lot of conjecture about that. There's been a few eye witness accounts, but not too many people have seen the inside of a tornado and lived to tell about it.

“There's a rival team that's headed by Cary Elwes who is the corporate rat and really the big believer in modern technology, such as doppler radar and thermal imaging and all this stuff. Whereas my character is more of the Earth; he studies the signs of nature and almost has a sixth sense about the weather. He's totally corporately funded, he's after it for mercenistic reasons, whereas Helen and myself and the group that we chase with, we're more vocationalist. We're hoping that by unlocking the secrets of this thing that we can devise a better warning system that will save lives. So we're very idealistic, whereas Cary's character, he's more of a nemesis or an antagonist than a villain. The monster is truly the tornado. That's really what it chronicles; this fifty-year storm that's come in and it's just dropping tornadoes and every one of them's getting bigger.

“I've said this in a couple of interviews: I think this is going to be to tornadoes what Jaws was to sharks. Interestingly enough, people's perception of tornadoes is this sort of anthropomorphic entity/beast/rogue/murderer. That it's capricious, it'll kill everybody in one row of houses and across the street it won't even touch them , just break the windows or something. It'll pick up a baby, suck a baby right out of a house and drop it three hundred yards away totally unharmed. By the same token, it'll pick up a cow, suck it into the stratosphere and it'll rain hamburger. These things are amazing what they'll do. I saw pictures of just crazy things that didn't make any sense. I read many accounts.

“Some of the facts about tornadoes: the biggest tornado that was ever recorded in the United States was a tornado called the Tri-State Tornado of, I think, March 6th 1925. It stayed on the ground three hours which is a very long time. It started in a town in Missouri and before it was done it had gone through Illinois and Indiana. It had hit eleven towns, four of which were smeared off the face of the earth. It was very low to the ground and you couldn't even see the vortex. It was described as this 'boiling turbulent mass of blackness' moving across the southern part of the city. It was two miles wide, it cut a damage path 639 miles long, it killed 689 people, and it lasted between one-fifteen and four o'clock one afternoon in March in 1925."

You obviously do a lot of research.
"Well, you've got to. Any time when you're playing any kind of technical role like a scientist or an astronaut, you'd better know what the hell you're talking about because there's a lot of jargon in these professions. You talk about straight-line winds or convection or elicity or some of the terms that these guys use. You'd better know what the hell you're talking about, because if you deliver those lines and you don't know what they are, you're going to get caught. You're going to catch a bullet for your trouble."

Does production style differ between low budget stuff like Roger Corman movies and big budget stuff like Apollo 13?
"It's essentially the same job as an actor. I work just as hard on a low budget film as I do on an $80 million film. I approach the roles in pretty much the same way. If there's a profession involved I try to learn as much as I can about that profession. I find it a challenge as an actor to have a profession, it's a wonderful active thing to play. In any role you define the social background and the occupational background of the character. But there are different styles of acting, different kinds of movies. You do a movie like True Lies; I played the sleazy car salesman who pretends to be a secret agent to seduce these lonely women, and that's more like doing a restoration comedy piece. It's a bit heightened, you can goose it a little more. You can just wink a little more, you can just do a different kind of thing with it.

“Roles like One False Move and Twister and Apollo 13 are more challenging and I'm digging them because they require me to exert myself on a certain level and not always be trying to perform for the audience. I like the idea of the enigmatic portrayal, where you just be a vessel and the audience maybe project their own thoughts on you as they watch you in the dark. It's an evolution, this process we call film acting, or just acting in general. I love science fiction films. I was a nut on Jules Verne and HG Wells growing up, especially Verne who was just a brilliant writer. Those books are really worth going back and re-reading. A few years ago I re-read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

You've been an astronaut, you've been a colonial marine, you've been a cowboy. Have you got any ambitions left?
"I don't know. It really depends on the story and the characters. I don't really have many preconceived things. I'd like to produce films and develop my own stories. Different things will appeal to me for different reasons. I read a story in an old detective magazine of a man who was a journalist for a turn of the century newspaper. He got involved in this case where they found this dismembered body. It's almost like The Magnificent Ambersons meets Silence of the Lambs. It's a magnificent, gothic story, very creepy, and I would maybe like to develop that into a feature-length screenplay. I'm starting to move into that area. If, with Twister and Apollo, I get a little more muscle and I get the chance to produce something I might try it."

interview originally posted 3rd December 2006

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Silent Cry

Director: Julian Richards
Writer: Simon Lubert
Producers: Peter La Terriere, Tim Dennison
Cast: Emily Woof, Douglas Henshall, Clive Russell
Year of release: 2002
Country: UK
Reviewed from: VHS screener

Silent Cry is the 'lost' Julian Richards film. Shot in 2002, it remains unreleased outside Germany (not the first British film to find itself in this situation - see Project Assassin) although it did receive a belated UK premiere at the National Museum of Photography Film and Television in 2004.

Strictly 'work for hire', Silent Cry falls chronologically inbetween Darklands and The Last Horror Movie. While it certainly doesn't have the innovation and cult appeal of the latter, it shares certain stylistic/thematic traits with the former, notably an urban conspiracy based on corruption at the highest level and a protagonist whose accidental involvement in the situation proves to be anything but. I thoroughly enjoyed Darklands, being able to see past Craig Fairbrass' astoundingly wooden performance, but I'm aware that some other folk were less enamoured of Julian's debut feature. So I'm loathe to suggest whether or not Silent Cry is better than The Wicker Man Comes to Newport; I can however confirm that it does not have Craig Fairbrass in it which should be recommendation enough.

Emily Woof (also in the unjustifiably obscure Pandaemonium) is terrific as single mother Rachel Stewart whose baby dies only a few hours after he is born. But through her distress, Rachel realises that when she visited the baby in the hospital nursery on that first night - when he seemed to be perfectly healthy - she saw consultant Dr Richard Herd (Kevin Whately: Inspector Morse, Auf Wiedersehen Pet) up to something; he seemed to be switching ID tags on two babies. Was one of them hers? I may be reading too much into this but the sense that something was seen but not really registered brings to mind Argento movies such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Returning to the hospital, Rachel finds herself stalked by menacing, six-foot Police Detective Betts (Clive Russell: Neverwhere, King Arthur) and in escaping she unwittingly involves hospital cleaner Daniel Stone (Douglas Henshall: If Only..., Kull the Conqueror) in the situation. In short order, Rachel's world falls apart through the Terminator-like determination of the ruthless Betts. All she has to go on is the name of the mother of the other baby, ‘Joanne Dreyer’.

Rachel and Daniel's desperate search for the missing baby takes them into the seedy depths of London's nightlife, pursued at every turn by Betts who will stop at nothing - including cold-blooded murder - to silence them. Fortunately Daniel has friends in low places who provide unexpected help, including one scene where Betts is forced to back down which seems to owe a little to the old Amicus movie Tales from the Crypt.

Also in the cast are Frank Finlay (Ghosthunter, the 1977 TV Dracula) as Rachel's family doctor, Craig Kelly (Beyond Bedlam, Queer as Folk) as a colleague of Betts, Stephanie Buttle (Urban Ghost Story) and Richard Lumsden (from sitcom Is It Legal?) as Rachel's friends and Steve Sweeney (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) as a friend of Daniel's.

Cinematographer Tony Imi also photographed recent-ish British horror thrillers Downtime and Lighthouse and many years ago shot the likes of Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction and Percy's Progress! Darklands’ David A Hughes provides the score. Tim Dennison also produced Evil Aliens and Room 36.

Silent Cry is a cracking little thriller, very tense and - in its third act - shockingly brutal. Julian Richards' direction is confident and effective. The biggest criticism one can make is that Simon Lubert’s script does depend on a maternity unit following practises that British hospitals haven’t used for some years now, such as keeping new-born babies apart from their mothers in a nursery, and other hospital-related aspects - such as easy access to a maternity unit - are pure fantasy. Evidently Lubert’s initial idea for the script came several years ago when this sort of thing could still happen.

Christ alone knows why this gripping, very watchable picture hasn't been able to find a UK release on either big or small screen, considering the rubbish that does make it into distribution.

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 4th January 2005

Solid Geometry

Director: Denis Lawson
Writer: Denis Lawson
Producer: Gill Parry
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ruth Millar, Peter Capaldi
Year of release: 2002
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK TV broadcast

This short story by Ian McEwan was very nearly filmed by the BBC in the mid-1970s but production was cancelled at the eleventh hour because (allegedly) a make-up artist objected to one of the props - a pickled penis in a jar. That may well be true, in fact, as the Beeb was certainly riddled with enough union politics at that time to make it easier and cheaper to scrap a whole production than replace a make-up artist. Now Denis 'Biggs Darklighter' Lawson, having already directed one short, has adapted the story as part of a Scottish short films project.

I haven’t read the original story, but McEwan is a ‘literary’ author, not an SF writer and this production certainly betrays the hallmarks of someone dipping their toe into the genre and then wasting a good idea by completely failing to understand the field’s potential. Basically, Scottish advertising exec Phil (Lawson’s nephew, the ubiquitous Ewan McGregor, who made this the same year that he made Attack of the Clones) receives several boxes containing 42 volumes of his great-grandfather’s diaries plus various esoteric items - including a (very large) pickled penis. His grandfather has endowed £25,000 to Phil if he will edit the diaries, which contain vast amounts of esoteric mathematical formulae and some very naive discussions of sex.

Increasingly obsessed with the diaries, Phil packs in his day-job, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Maisie (Ruth Millar). In a nicely edited flashback we see that his great-grandfather (Peter Capaldi: Neverwhere, Wild Country) discovered an esoteric geometric shape which was in some way multidimensional - “the plane without a surface” - which unfortunately is represented here by an origami chrysanthemum. When perfectly created, this shape will disappear into another dimension, taking with it anyone who happens to curl themselves around the shape.

Phil and Maisie grow more distant, then seem to come back together again, but has Phil really forgiven his girlfriend for petulantly smashing the jar with the penis in, or does he have other plans?

Actually, this makes the thirty-minute film sound considerably better than it actually is. Not only is very little explained (that’s fair enough) but even less is explored. We don’t see or understand Phil’s growing obsession, nor is there even the slightest discussion of what such a discovery could mean, either in the flashback or the main story. Mostly this is an excuse for McGregor to get his kit off yet again and indulge in some lengthy romps with Millar which totally fail to add anything to either character or plot. It’s difficult to make a half-hour short drag unnecessarily, but Lawson has managed it here.

Without knowing the source material, it’s impossible to say how much of this lacklustre story is McEwan’s and how much is Lawson’s creation. But whoever is responsible, this is a real disappointment which simply doesn’t do anything or go anywhere. And why is there a pickled penis? Who knows? It’s entirely irrelevant to what little there is of the ‘plot.’

Some nice digital cinematography by Robin Vidgeon (Hellraiser) and editing by Kant Pan (Summer Scars, LD 50) don’t make up for the lack of story and shallowness of characterisation.

MJS rating: C-
Review originally posted 10th December 2005