Friday, 22 April 2016

the zero boys

the zero boys follows a group of 'weekend warriors' - three young men who like to spend their free time shooting guns in simulated combat scenarios to impress their non-participating girlfriends. however, the zero boys soon have an opportunity to put their skills to the test in real life when a weekend retreat turns into violent conflict with the local crazies.

the central concept of zero boys is actually pretty cool. yes, this is a film about six young people deciding to stay the night in an abandoned cabin in the woods only to be picked off one by one by machete wielding killers. even in 1986 this idea must have been starting to feel old, and now, after scream de-constructed the slasher and cabin in the woods de-constructed it even further, watching a movie with that particular setup can be tough going. however, the fact that our protagonists are wannabe war heroes and are going into this armed to the teeth does put a different spin on things.

pacing in a slasher film is one of those things that's really tough to get right (i have begun to realise this having just started writing one myself). start the kills to early and we don't know enough about the characters to care, start too late and we're bored by the time it kicks off. personally i think the latter approach can work brilliantly if the characters are well-written and we are made to care about them. the best recent example of this was in the norwegian movie cold prey, which doesn't add anything to the genre in terms of originality but the characters are so interesting and likeable that we want them to survive, which adds a huge amount to the tension. the zero boys attempts a similar approach with the violence not really starting until around forty-five minutes in, but unfortunately the characterisation isn't there to justify spending so much time with these guys. the three men are basically the same character - they even look the same. the women are only more diverse in that one of them has a plaster cast on her leg, otherwise they are pretty much indistinguishable. the only story we have to hang onto is that kelli maroney's character has been forced to go on the trip because the lead guy daniel hirsch's character won her in a contest. she goes along reluctantly, and that's the only real drama we have for the first half of the film.

that said, kelli maroney is the only one in the cast who really stands out and actually for a slasher film blonde her character is pretty interesting. she mentions studying anthropology at one point and later on there is a moment where she and the other girls change into army gear, which made a nice change from the way women are usually treated in slasher movies. also, both times the bad guys are bested it's down to the women in the group and overall the men are portrayed as being pretty pathetic. in that respect perhaps the zero boys is a more forward-thinking slasher film than it first appears, although i'm not sure carol clover would approve.

i did wonder if there was some hidden anti-war message here too because the zero boys does bear some similarities to the far superior walter hill movie southern comfort (if you haven't seen southern comfort first of all fuck you, and second of all what are you doing still reading this? go watch that film right now and don't you dare show your face around here until you're finished. then we can talk). ultimately, for all their training and preparedness the heavily armed zero boys fare pretty badly against two hicks with a machete and a crossbow.

one element that works really well is the idea that the bad guys are making snuff films and when the heroes first discover the camera set-up it's actually quite disturbing. unfortunately when the killers do eventually reveal themselves they are kind of disappointing, and mostly look like guys from the crew, like kane hodder and gunnar hansen pulled out at the last minute so they pulled in a couple of grips to take their place. there is, however, a brilliant shot of one of them at the end of the film that's so great it actually feels like it's from another movie. hard to describe without spoiling it, but trust me the final shot is amazing.

for a film we've all seen a thousand times before the zero boys actually has some really unique ideas and a few nice moments to make it stand out. unfortunately the main characters really let it down and the film feels incredibly slow-moving at times as a result. that said, it's certainly an interesting watch and you will want to watch the extras afterwards just to figure out what everyone on the crew was thinking.

arrow video release the zero boys on dvd and blu-ray on 25th april 2016

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

the ninth configuration

the ninth configuration tells the story of a military-owned insane asylum populated with soldiers suffering from mental illness. the military are concerned that the men may be faking it so they bring in a new army psychiatrist, colonel kane (stacy keach), who will attempt to unravel the problem with his unorthodox methods. in practicing these methods kane comes into contact with sgt. christian, a former astronaut who challenges kane to prove the existence of god in a world full of suffering.

this isn’t a film that’s easy to describe, i mean it’s a kind of an absurdist theological comedy-thriller, like catch-22 and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest with some god stuff in there as well. that’s what makes it work, the fact that you will never have seen anything else like it, but it also makes it a really tough watch at times. there are moments where the absurdity is so extreme that it descends into pure farce, but then the very next scene will contain a really raw, emotional moment followed by a scene that shocks you back into the drama of the story. the fact that writer-director william pater blatty (who also wrote the exorcist, but if you're reading my blog you already know that) wrote two versions of the novel on which it is based (a comedy version and a straight dramatic version) and has re-edited the film a number of times suggests that even he doesn’t know what it’s really about.

perhaps it’s the atheist in me but i found all the god talk in this film just as crazy as moses gunn’s character thinking he is superman or jason miller’s character putting on a production of hamlet with a cast of dogs. i actually found it somewhat surprising when at the end of the film it becomes apparent that the question of the existence of god is a central element to the story. however, i’m not even sure that’s a criticism because the world blatty presents and the world that has ruined these men is a world without god to a degree so suggesting that an insane man can be cured by the answer to that question actually makes sense.

the ninth configuration is essentially built on two performances – stacy keach as kane and stephen powers as christian. both men do an incredible job at portraying not only levels of madness but also degrees of humanity. [the looks they share in the climactic bar scene speak volumes with barely any lines of dialogue. keach in particular is fantastic as a man perpetually on the verge of cracking himself. there’s also a brilliant performance from ed flanders as kane’s contemporary - a fellow doctor who has given up on the idea of curing any of the patients, except one.

the film has an odd, stagey style with some scenes containing ten minutes of dialogue or more delivered between two actors in the same room. as impressive as the castle is as a set, it begins to feel claustrophobic after we’ve spent the whole film there. when we do leave is for me when the film really picks up. the bar scene towards the end is one of the most tense, bizarre and well-crafted sequences i’ve ever seen, and it's kind of frustrating because it almost seems at odds with the rest of the film. it’s hard to talk about the bar scene without spoiling the film, but the ninth configuration is worth a watch just for that sequence alone.

overall, the ninth configuration is a confusing and often chaotic film but notably it never feels messy; there is clearly method to the madness, it’s just not always obvious where that method is taking us. with the protagonists being as crazy as the film it’s really hard to sympathise, root for or even care about what’s happening at times, all you can do is sit back and try to make some kind of sense of the whole thing. luckily this dvd release has been crammed with extras including an archive featurette in which mark kermode raves about the film. there is clearly something important and special happening on screen in the ninth configuration, i’m just not sure blatty has figured out the best way to show it to us yet and i’m not sure i have the patience to look for it.

second sight release the ninth configuration on dvd and blu-ray on 25 april 2016

Sunday, 10 April 2016

bride of re-animator

bride of re-animator picks up the story of herbert west eight months after the events shown in the first film (which i reviewed here). west and fellow medical student dan cain have fled the country and are helping out as volunteers in a south american civil war, which gives west the perfect cover to continue testing his reanimating serum. when cain is injured they decide to return home in the hope that the heat from the miskatonic university massacre has died down, but they soon discover that the full consequences of that adventure are still to come.

producer of the first film, brian yuzna, takes directing duties on the sequel and there is a noticeable shift in tone and focus. yuzna, of course, is no stranger to directing bizarre movies and made the insane and squelchy horror film society in the same year he made this film. while the effects in re-animator were wonderfully excessive and suitably disgusting, here they are taken to a new level with added weirdness as west becomes obsessed with joining random body parts together. yuzna clearly loves this element of the film and makes the most of it, particularly in the finale.

jeffrey combs is as awesome here as he was in the first film. it seems odd to describe any performance as understated in such a flamboyant film but combs delivers his lines with a subtlety that actually adds a contrasting layer of reality to the story. all the genuinely funny moments in the script come from combs too, mostly because of the perfect timing of his deadpan delivery.

the focus on the bizarre effects does take a toll on the story, which doesn't feel as focused as that of the previous film. west wants to continue his experiments and needs cain's help, so in order to get his friend on board he offers to resurrect cain's ex-girlfriend, megan halsey (barbara crampton's character in the first film), using her heart and body parts from other corpses. this is where things become a bit complicated story-wise, because of course it's not really about the bride of re-animator but in fact the bride of his friend and sometime assistant. in fact, you could argue that the title is completely misleading because the bride isn't going to be cain's lover at all, it's a child. stick with me on this...

there are three key factors that have lead me to this conclusion. first of all, from the moment west tenderly helps a wounded cain to his feet in the opening sequence it becomes clear that this is most definitely a bromance. the film doesn't give us any solid reason for west to need cain's help. in the first film west is presented as being completely asexual, and while the same could be true here, he expresses definite frustration in the scene where he hears cain having sex in the room above as he works. he also disfigures the dog belonging to cain's girlfriend and shows her the results in a clear attempt at driving her away. when you put all this together it seems obvious that west only wants cain around because he's in love with him,

secondly, cain doesn't care about megan all that much, certainly not enough to risk jail to bring her back from the dead. cain has two female love interests in this film, which suggests he's not all that torn up over the death of his ex. west's plan to get cain onside by resurrecting also megan seems like a typical closeted movie homosexual subplot - gay guy convinces straight guy to like him by offering access to the woman he's in love with. however, the fact that cain doesn't seem too bothered by megan's return and yet helps west anyway suggests that perhaps cain also has feelings for his friend.

finally, there is a strong sense of west and cain being social outcasts because of west's experiments, and west mentions a few times that they have to act in secret because no one will understand what they are trying to do. two men experimenting in secret in a basement because they feel 1989 society at large will not understand them if they come out. that's why i think the bride is more representative of a child, because it's a story of two men finding a non-biological method of human reproduction.

if you follow that reading of the film there's actually a really touching moment when west is about to inject his serum into the bride and cain takes the syringe from him so he can do it himself. it's the first time cain injects the serum into anyone so it's a huge moment and west clearly feels it. there's probably a deeper reading involving serum and penetration, but i think you get the general idea.

whether you're with me on the above or not, bride of re-animator is a really imaginative film with an amazing and subtle central performance from jeffrey combs. it is also worth seeing for the special effects, particularly as it shows off some of the early work of effects giants k.n.b. and maverick genius screaming mad george. the film looks great on blu-ray and there are some great special features including a fascinating interview with yuzna and three commentaries.

arrow films release bride of re-animator on dual format blu-ray and dvd on monday 11th april