Saturday, January 24, 2015

Autopsy (2008)

This review is part of my new Yard Sale series in 
which I try to organize a proper sendoff for all the
expendable DVDs cluttering my overflowing library.

If you don’t mind its unrefined premise, hollow characters and clumsy atmosphere, you might get a mild kick out of this unpretentious gore job. Complete with a rushed setup meant to catapult the viewer right into a seedy netherworld of dark and green, its rudimentary screenplay is swarming with formulaic tribulations roughly stitched up to knit a thin narrative canvas befit only for the crudest of archetypes and commonplaces. Fortunately, the film does find some true inspiration in the grotesque, showcasing potent splatter effects like so many carnival attractions, presented here with all the raucous showmanship and campy sensibility of those nation-building carnies of centuries past. Autopsy further appeals to our nostalgic inner children by retaining the services of genre veterans Robert Patrick and Jenette Goldstein, both in full hammy mode.

Don't be fooled; the bit brace is the star here,
not the very bland Robert Patrick.

Not unlike Adam Green’s Hatchet, Autopsy begins with a handful of careless teens enjoying the Big Easy just like careless teens would, adorning tacky plastic trinkets and greedily indulging in the French Quarters’ alcohol-drenched hospitality. But instead of taking a shady swamp tour, the present teens get into a car crash instead, then right into a shady ambulance on their way to a shady country clinic staffed by shady eccentrics. The dimly lit facade of the building actually seems to be lifted straight from the Big Book of Horror Locales and its inner workings hence hold no surprise for the savvy genre fan. We are thus left to watch with the utmost indifference as the kids are promptly processed by hysterical Nurse Marian (Goldstein) despite their obvious integrity, then left into the murderous hands of two really sketchy orderlies and bland antagonist Dr. Benway (Patrick).

At some point, heroine Emily’s boyfriend casually notices a blood stain on his shirt, which leads him to locate and remove a 6-inch glass shard from a gaping wound in his abdomen. But despite his manly handling of the situation and surprisingly bloodless gash, he is rushed into the operating room, ready to undertake the outlandish procedure necessary for Benway to extract his fluids and reroute them toward his dying, bed-ridden wife. It’s then up to Emily to track down this mangled boyfriend while coping with the good doctor and all of his dodgy henchmen in the inextricable labyrinth that is their medical lair.

Autopsy is a straightforward thematic freak show.

In keeping with the skeletal nature of its premise and utter lack of character development, the film is also simplistic in its narrative construction, alternating bland shots of bland characters walking through empty hallways with gruesome vignettes featuring all sorts of shocking body trauma. As expected from the lazy conventions to which director Gierasch shamelessly subscribes, the whole thing is bathed in a sickly green hue, with the occasional flash of lightning revealing the crooked silhouettes of random lobotomized patients inexplicably roaming through the hospital, hence escaping the piles of pickled body parts chaotically stashed in the basement. It’s all very implausible and monotonous, but then the frequent and repulsive spectacle of wanton bodily harm more than compensates for the occasional tedium, revealing Autopsy’s humble, and somewhat engrossing nature as a straightforward thematic freak show.

That said, no matter how underwhelming the repeated sight of some hospital hallway might be, there is always the spectacle of grotesque mutilations to look forward to. The casual sanding of severed hands, surgical lung removal, oxygen tank headshots, bit brace brain surgery, hollowed skulls and syringe stabbings thus find a strange new relevance here, not necessarily as novel entries in the horror lexicon, but as the ultimate raison d’être of this muscular showcase of the macabre, proof less of the genre’s narrative poverty than of its iconographic power, which is brought to strange new heights with a truly memorable finale in which the twisted fate of the heroine’s boyfriend is finally revealed in all of its gruesome glory. This scene alone actually made me want to revisit the entire film, and I must admit to having expected it with distinctly uneasy apprehension, dreading the moment where Emily would obliviously flick on the light in Bobby’s room to reveal...  

Jessica Lowndes is the all-purpose survivor girl whose
traumatic past is overshadowed by her traumatic present.

In conclusion, while Autopsy will never earn a place in the horror pantheon or wow anybody with its lazy screenplay, I must say that its heart is in the right place, namely in the careless hands of misanthropic orderlies and demented doctors. The film is riddled with crude archetypes, including tattooed drug-dealing baldies, drunken goateed rednecks, procedural mad scientists and the all-purpose survivor girl whose underexposed past is overshadowed by her uncanny ability to withstand punishment. But then, it is only so to accentuate the bizarre quality of its twisted imagery, hence allowing the film to do away with the tyranny of plausibility and celebrate the truly affective, shock-inducing nature of true horror cinema.

2.5/5 - A cheap, but effective exercise in contemporary Grand Guignol. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Number 10 Blues/Goodbye Saigon (1975-2013)

Here's a lost review from Fantasia 2013. 

Number 10 Blues is a film shot in the war-torn Vietnam of 1975, but it was only completed in 2013 by the National Film Center of Japan, after which it was featured at the Rotterdam Film Festival.


This rather conventional Japanese gangster drama from the 1970s scores big point for showcasing footage shot in war-torn Vietnam. With actual army trucks and foot soldiers parading in the background, the feeling of authenticity inherent to this piece of fiction skyrockets, despite some obviously fictitious characters and situations. Hence, the trials and tribulations of a crooked Japanese businessman, his Vietnamese mistress and the local mob boss will appear trivial in comparison with the real-life drama unfolding all around them. This greatly impairs the narrative insofar as it undermines the importance of the main storyline, but it also provides the film with some invaluable lasting power as an exclusive document into the heart of a famous civil war.

The protagonist's importance is relative to the
breadth of the conflict in the background.

Toshio is a Japanese businessman working in Saigon without a care in the world. Business is good, living is easy, and he’s got a gorgeous local girlfriend to complement the wife waiting for him at home. Everything is rosy as can be in his war-free haven until he finds a disgruntled former employee rummaging through his luxurious home. The two men duke it out and Toshio’s assailant is inadvertedly killed by a stray bullet. Skeptic about his chances with the local police after he has killed one of their own, the protagonist then hides the corpse, and wishes for the best. But he is soon found out by the departed’s young bride, who challenges him along with a crowd of locals, one of whom is brutally gunned down by Toshio to cover his escape. The last part of the film depicts the protagonist’s run from the law and mingling with the mob in the process. Most importantly, it takes the narrative out of Saigon, and on the way to Hue by means of infantry-ridden back roads. It is also time to expand on Toshio’s love story with cabaret singer Lan Sing, which will have exactly the dire results one would expect. 

With a limited budget to spend on such generic genre fare, Number 10 Blues is somewhat of a desperate production, shot under any conditions, no matter the results on the quality of the photography. Whether it’s in total darkness, crowded alleyways, the rural countryside, occupied roads or postcard historical monuments, the volatile camera lingers on. There is a directness to it all, which greatly dynamizes the action and gives depth to the characters. However, this realistic style greatly contrasts with the more artificial elements of the film, namely its melodramatic narrative, FX-ridden soundtrack, and theatrical acting. Obviously, one could be said to compensate for the other, but it all matters very little in the end for everything here is made solely in the name of entertainment. And what is more exciting than crossing a war-torn country while being chased by cops and mobsters? Hell, the Vietnam War is not really an issue here. It merely provides an “exotic” background for the action, not unlike in a James Bond movie. As for the ethical implications of the savage assassinations carried out by the protagonist, they are imperiously waved off in exchange for their dramatic power within the narrative, which further proves the chauvinistic nature of the entire enterprise. 

Poor photography and a heightened sense of realism
are two opposite sides of the same coin.

While it is earnestly, if somewhat candidly entertaining, this film would have surely vanished from memory if it wasn't for its incidental documentation of the Vietnam War. Depending on the level of enjoyment you can derive from watching a 1970s-style action film, this might be the only incentive for you to seek out a copy. Don’t get me wrong. There are no actual war scenes in there, just the chilling anticipation of war, with explosions resounding in the far background and army jeeps frequently crossing the protagonist’s path. But then, there is also the beauty of Vietnam, its traditions, humble monuments and life-saving swamps. To better celebrate all of these rare assets, the film eventually transforms into a road movie as Toshio and Lan Sing team up with charismatic half-Japanese gangster Taro on their way to Hue. The film thus becomes an exciting travelogue for both the screenplay's urban archetypes and the spectators watching from abroad, using the portable camera to heighten our involvement, making us not only a part of the unfolding narrative, but of history itself.  

3/5   Undeniably entertaining and energetically produced, this conventional exploitation caper also benefits from some rare images of war-torn Vietnam.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Here's yet another bland exploitation quickie from the Mancuso/Miner team of jobbers. Aside from the 3D gimmick and some truly lovely ladies, the film has almost no redeeming quality. It's slow-paced, boring, devoid of suspense and atmosphere with no intriguing characters, situations or murders to keep you interested. The series' staple "cha-cha-chas" are back on the soundtrack, but the stalker shot is gone, along with the genre's whole perspective on the spectator's gaze. As for returning boogeyman Jason Voorhees, he is not interesting in the least. And while he now dons a shiny goalie mask instead of a gaping sack, he gains nothing in terms of personality, remaining but a lumbering hulk who could unlikely catch a one-legged blind man given a five second head start.

TV starlet Dana Kimmell is a rare asset to
this abysmal effort in redundancy...
... along with some truly inspired 3D sequences.

Having recently bought the 2009 "Deluxe Edition" DVD, I was able to see this stinky slice of cheese in its original 3D iteration, which allowed me to ward off absolute boredom with a few successful attempts at bringing visual depth to its shallow, predictable narrative. Strangely enough, the film opens with a 2D sequence featuring the climactic finale of the previous film meant to ease us into the present follow-up. I doubt that anybody really thought Jason dead from a machete to the shoulder, but it's never a bad idea to recap anyway. Following this dubious introduction, we are witness to Mr. Voorhees' first two murders as he offs the middle-aged proprietors of a nearby convenience store on his way to Higgins Haven, where lovely young Chris has elected to spend the weekend along with a bunch of brainless buddies. Hiding in a barn adjacent to the Higgins' cottage, Jason bides his time until he has regained enough strength to kill all the vacationing idiots in various gruesome ways, leaving Chris to fight him alone and liberate herself from her crippling emotional angst. There's some mild teenage frolicking in there too, and some cringe-inducing attempts at humor courtesy of a curly-haired butterball called Shelly, but very little in the way of narrative depth.

I struggle to find the appropriate metaphor to describe this film. Given its exclusive usage of archetypical characters and situations, and simplistic storyline, I would tend to compare it to a sort of mush, that is a flavorless, easy-to-digest type of food. But then, its uneventful narrative highlighted by the rare and predictable spectacle of swift executions put it squarely in the realm of the "date film", that is a non-film requiring minimal attention, hence favoring prolonged contact amongst teens, which is further made spontaneous by brutal scare scenes. At any rate, here is less of an earnest storytelling effort than a cheap commercial gimmick, one with no lasting value other than as a mere entry in a long-lasting series. But then, the very longevity of the Friday the 13th franchise stems directly from its lack of originality, and the minimal narrative prowess necessary to keep it alive over the years. So there is no actual reason for you to see this film other than utter completism.

As a horror film, Friday the 13th Part III, doesn't even get the basics right, eschewing any attempt at suspense to better focus on the swift execution of unidimensional characters, sheepishly expanding the series' murder portfolio without ever providing an endearing background in which to contextualize those executions. Filmed mostly in broad daylight, the film's idea of suspense is achieved by showing an open barn door, hinting at the presence of a boogeyman whom we know is the killer from frame 1. It's a shame to see such inane attempts at creating affect on the back of such an intriguing opening sequence (and I'm not talking about the embarrassing flashback to Part 2 here). Set amidst a maze of sheets drying in the wind, this scene takes full advantage of its secluded nighttime setting and the illusory depth provided by the 3D technology, pitting the two owners of a roadside convenience store against the machete-wielding maniac. The effect is great, but it is unmatched anywhere else in the film as the decors become more and more familiar and Jason's suspenseful stalking turns into systematic stabbing.

The outstanding opening sequence sets the
stage for a brutal fall from grace.

As usual in those films, almost all of the filmmakers' creativity is depleted in the design of elaborate murder pieces. Hence, we get meat cleaver, knitting needle, pitchfork, speargun, fire poker and machete wounds to the head and chest, as well as a bisection, an electrocution and an eye-popping head crush (see illustration above), the wide gamut of which requires the bothersome addition of some archetypical punk kids, whose presence in the sleepy countryside is perplexing at best. While these murders provide a chance for the FX people to pad their resumes, their stellar work isn't featured onscreen nearly long enough to compensate for the tedious wait therefor. As such, its simple presence hardly justifies our continued attention for the rest of the runtime, especially since the story is almost entirely confined to the Higgins' cabin and adjacent barn. Not unlike the summer camps from the previous chapters, these familiar settings are undoubtedly meant to remind the target teenage audience of their own summertime frolicking. Unfortunately, this makes for a rather underwhelming, shockingly constrictive film experience, which perfectly stands for this entire runaway series.

Scouring the web, I was surprised to discover that Part III is widely considered by fans to be one of the best in the series. And while I prefer Part I, X and XI (all of which showcase at least some measure of originality), I must say that the present film's amusing use of 3D does put it a cut above its competition. Obviously, it ultimately remains a trite exercise in repetition, a desperately commercial endeavor with no other pretension than to make yet another quick buck on the back of the shameless emulation of Italian giallo, but it does boast that little something special. And so I urge you to see the film in its original 3D iteration, or to not see it at all, the latter option remaining the most sound one.

God I hate this guy! If only there was an inkling of
personality behind this bland mask...

1/5   This tedious, lackluster exercise in repetition is saved only by its lovely leading ladies and some truly amusing use of the 3D technology.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Frankenstein's Bloody Nightmare/Neverlost Double Bill

Once in a while, I like to pick out a pair of rarer titles from my film library, films I’ve been sitting on for a while, films that seem to deserve a glimpse despite their relative anonymity. It was just one of those nights, when I decided to indulge in a very unlikely double bill: John R. Hand’s super-8 exploitation dazzler Frankenstein’s Bloody Nightmare (2006) and fussy Canadian thriller Neverlost (2010). I’d been expecting miracles from the latter ever since Donato Totaro (an old professor of mine) called it “one of the most tightly scripted and boldly designed Canadian genre films since Vincenzo Natali’s Cube”, but I had never sat down to see it. I guess I was afraid to find it lacking in either tightness or boldness. Being a fan of Cube, despite its clear inferiority to Natali’s later Splice, I could hardly bring myself to think that Chad Archibald’s oneiric hodgepodge could surpass it. And I was right. Flawed if not outright pretentious, Neverlost boasts far too pedestrian aesthetics to adequately support its intricate, nearly metaphysical screenplay. That said, it would've greatly benefited from Frankenstein’s Bloody Nightmare’s experimental feel, which itself is plagued by mundane narrative elements. In the end, I found that each of the two films possessed the exact qualities that the other was lacking. Unfortunately, seeing them back to back didn’t help them merge into something more meaningful than what they are individually.

Frankenstein’s Bloody Nightmare

From what I can ascertain from the obscure mumblings of the protagonist and the synopsis provided on the DVD’s back cover, the premise of Frankenstein’s Bloody Nightmare concerns the good doctor’s efforts to rejuvenate his dying girlfriend by harvesting human parts with the help of a monstrous automaton. Being an experimental film in nature, its narrative tenets are actually not that important. In fact, they often prove detrimental to our enjoyment, as they justify some truly abominable exposition scenes featuring the atrocious dubbing of all onscreen characters. Personally, I believe that the use of dialogue greatly lessens the film's efficiency. Not only is it fragmented and annoying, but it ruins the otherworldly quality of the images, which continually elevate the mundane locales and characters to a level of artistry unmatched by the vast majority of similarly budgeted efforts. The grainy film stock, saturated colors, moody lighting and crafty visual effects hence vie to create a mesmerizing impressionistic landscape that instills horror in our very soul. Unfortunately, the protagonist’s shrill voice often cuts through that thick impressionistic fog to forward some useless narrative information. And that is the film’s greatest failing. Aside from that, I was entirely satisfied with my experience, which reminded me equally of 1970s American exploitation and the cinema of Shojin Fukui, complete with all their frankly disturbing undertones and undeniable cult potential.


Otherworldly colors and grainy stock help transcend
the film's mundane decors and situations.


Opposite of Frankenstein’s Bloody Nightmare is Neverlost, a shockingly mundane “alternate universe” thriller in dire need of the former film’s experimental quality. Plagued by both college aesthetics and a college mentality, the film features a plain protagonist called Josh Higgins, whose endless lumbering around the diminutive scenery proves not only redundant, but quite uninvolving given his abrasive teenage mindset. Obsessed with his dead high school sweetheart, who perished in a shady house fire years ago, he has now settled down with a curvy, but bitchy new girlfriend, whom he obviously doesn’t like. Josh doesn't like his new life either, plagued as he his by a spell of insomnia that prevents his daily escape into dreams. Only when he is prescribed a potent sleeping drug does he finally manage to sleep, only to wake up next to dead ex Kate, miraculously restored to life by the power of screenwriting. From then on, it’s back and forth between the “real” world of binding domesticity and the “nostalgic” world of carefree love in which the cause of the deadly house fire is finally revealed. 

The premise and story structure are quite intriguing here, but they're sunk by all the usual suspects, boring decors, simplistic characterization and a seemingly tacked-on sub-plot featuring Kate's father.  As for its greatest flaw, one that nearly brings the film to the level of infamy, it lies in some jaw-dropping gender representation. For the umpteenth time, we are thus given the binary opposition between the “good” and the “bad” woman, understood almost directly as the Christian opposition between Mary and Jezebel. One is blonde and kind, flawless in her reverence to the male hero while the other is dark-haired and rebellious, the direct source of the male hero’s angst. Even the decors play to this Christian split as Josh’s current apartment is stuffy and cluttered contrary to his dream house with Kate, which is vast and luminous. Such idiotic iconography is matched only by the idiotic nature of the hero’s nostalgia, who constantly wallows in self-pity and ascribes both his former bliss and his current woe strictly to his girlfriends, thus reducing the entire experience of manhood to that of amorous relationships. 

In the end, it is all of Chad Archibald's screenwriting prowess that is marred by dubious iconography, making his first feature film a sophomoric metaphysical essay at best. At the risk of being impaled by Mr. Totaro and other advocates of the film, I will even say that I found Antisocial (2013), which he wrote and produced, to be a step up from this lame effort, certainly not as original in narrative terms, but certainly more timely and relevant as a whole.


Happiness is white linens and a blonde bride?
Get real, Chad...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

American Mary (2012)

Directed by the Soska sisters, a pair of eccentric twin filmmakers from British Columbia, this unconventional rape/revenge film takes a typically feminine, clinical approach to its subject matter by avoiding the comforting recourse to humor in its depiction of horrific extremities. This allows the directors to tackle a plethora of intriguing social issues such as evolving gender roles and shifting corporal identities with all the emotional maturity necessary to do them justice. And despite a very unsatisfying ending, the result proves entirely earnest, original and genuinely disturbing, a privileged window into a world of dark and deviant fantasies. Further providing a captivating new avenging angel to the roster of rape/revenge artisans, the film also brings some much-needed estrogene to a sub-genre that usually objectifies the women it is meant to empower. Perhaps most important of all, it provides a meaty part for the best scream queen of Northern Hollywood, the lovely and dangerous Katharine Isabelle, my love for whom has actually grown with the spectacle of her gory retaliation against male oppressors and the revolutionary gender politics that it entails.

It's a shame for our national pride to be
dubbed "American" Mary...

I knew nothing about American Mary or the Soska sisters before I wandered into the video store a few months back, which is hardly surprising considering the nature of their work and the popular tastes in these matters. Being both a fan of body horror and women's cinema, I was immediately drawn to the film, and the eminently fetishistic box art featured on the DVD cover. For me, the whole project screamed of innovation, or at the very least, singularity. After all, there are but a few rape/revenge films produced each year, and even fewer outside of Hollywood. Hence, a Canadian rape/revenge film directed by two women felt to me like a once-in-a-lifetime find, and I duly decided to indulge in its revolutionary iconography, hoping that it would subsequently wash the awful taste left by the recent I Spit on Your Grave remake. And so I eagerly got home to indulge myself in the spectacle of artsy reconstructive surgery and bask into the moody light of true horror unblemished by comedy.

The story of the film focuses on Mary Mason, a brilliant medical student on her way to graduate as a surgeon, and thus enter a privileged circle jealously guarded by eccentric macho males. Unfortunately, she is eventually stopped in her tracks by her college's student loan offices, to which she owes a whopping 364$. Forced to come up with that sum within two weeks, Mary applies for a masseuse job in a seedy local nightclub. Dolled up for the interview, but clearly unwilling to partake in the degrading antics expected of her, she ends up wowing the owner by stitching up one his battered henchmen. But then, she also catches the eye of an exotic dancer who hires her to perform deviant reconstructive surgery on a close friend. Initially shocked by the ungodly nature of the operation, Mary finds a new occupation in the process, the path to which is validated when she is raped by one of her tutors during a decadent party in the high-rise apartment of a prominent surgeon. Convinced that her newfound wealth is the product of prostitution, the man seems to think it OK to have Mary drugged, raped and videotaped, which will seal not only her, but his fate as well. With some help from the nightclub owner who previously interviewed her, Mary eventually captures her aggressor and practices her new craft on his unwilling body, creating a monstrous work of art that positively spurs her on. The rest of the film chronicles her dealings with various interlopers as she promotes a home-based clinic for body modification. And while it features many intriguing tribulations on the way there, the film is unfortunately crowned by a clumsy, disappointing twist ending that feels painfully perfunctory.

Beauty and the Beast: Mary wakes up next to her rapist
in one of the film's most uncomfortable moments.

In the end, what I first envisioned when appraising the DVD cover was pretty much what I got: an off-kilter account of the protagonist's shattered innocence and subsequent strive for self-determination untainted by sensationalism and simplistic characterization. Eschewing excessive sentimentalism and oblivious showmanship, the film thus manages to convey a respectful and even-handed portrait of its characters and their deviant passions, using broad caricatures only to depict the self-styled male surgeons. In recourse to social realism, the film turns traditional  representational tropes on their head, scratching off the veneer of the surgical profession and  allowing marginal individuals to come out of infamy. This tactic also applies to the rape/revenge genre itself, which evolves from a shock-based mechanical tradition to a poignant dramatic framework. This is achieved by constantly keeping the focus on Mary and relegating the rapist to the background. Here, the story is hers and hers alone. As for the male aggressor, he is given minimal exposure, just enough to convey his disgusting contempt for women's sexuality. As for his eventual victimization at the hands of the protagonist, it constitutes not an end in itself, but merely a step in her transformation. Hence, while the pivotal rape is the main contributor to Mary's characterization, she does manage to cover some ground on her own, becoming an assertive new version of herself and not merely the shell-shocked killing machine usually associated with male iterations of the genre. 

The film's topsy-turvy take on representational tropes also allows for revolutionary gender politics. Aside from the fact that it features a composed, self-assertive female protagonist, the film is also intriguing in its depiction of her revenge, understood not as a primitive exercise in retaliation, but as a  truly intellectual endeavor. Transforming her former tutor in a truncated and sutured work of art instead of bluntly removing his genitals or shoving a shotgun up his ass, Mary refuses to be brought down to his level of animality. Instead, she achieves four revolutionary objectives in one fourteen-hour session of tentative surgery: 1) she practices her new craft, making a mockery of her tutor's contention to the effect that "surgeons aren't allowed any mistake", 2) she selfishly imposes her will on his body, much as he did during the chilling rape scene, 3) she empowers herself with his craft, thus gaining his elusive professional power and social status, and 4) she transforms a man's body through surgery in order to befit her own needs whereas it is usually the other way around. This clinical venture further proves us that Mary won't be dogged down by male abuse, but will rise instead to take her place in our increasingly competitive world despite crippling emotional hurts. It also begs the question as to what constitute the appropriate punishment for the male rapist. Personally, I was first made livid by the spectacle of Dr. Grant's butchered body and I had trouble sleeping on the night. I don't know why since I am the least susceptible man to incur such a woman's wrath, but I did. And thus does the film showcase the very last word in terms of poetic retribution, spurred on by millennia of unspoken sexual abuse against valiant girls and gals who lacked both Mary Mason's resources and unflinching assertiveness. An unpleasant, but necessary venture into visual extremes. 

Mary's revenge is not beastly and brutal, but poised and
clinical, a liberating effort for all the silent victims of rape.

Revolutionary gender politics also help denature the film's obligatory love story between Mary and shady club owner Billy Barker. First drawn to him by the need to score some quick cash, the protagonist is initially subservient to him, accepting his 5,000$ offer only because she direly wishes to pursue her studies. But after being raped, Mary quickly turns things around, becoming a major transformative force not only in regards to herself, but to all the film's satellite characters. This is made abundantly clear through a very short shot in which she waltzes into Billy's club, asking him if "he'd like to make 5,000$" (by capturing Dr. Grant for her). Using a similar formulation as he previously did, the film entertains no illusion as to who is now in charge. Simultaneously attracted and frightened by the young woman, Billy quickly becomes subservient to her, lending henchmen for her protection and club space for her meetings. He even develops a candid crush for her as exemplified by a fantasy sequence in which she lasciviously dances on his stage. In the end, he even begs her to elope with him, away from rainy Seattle toward sunny Los Angeles. And so it is Billy who eventually loses his poise, unable to dominate his seething emotions and ultimately playing the traditional "female" counterpart of a truly empowered "male" mogul.

(This paragraph contains spoilers)
Unfortunately, while its refreshing politics and accurate characterization allow the film to transcend its male-produced counterparts, I was displeased with two crucial narrative devices: the anemic dramatic trigger and the atrocious twist ending. Call me picky, but I had a real hard time immersing in the story on the back of its perplexing dramatic trigger, namely the fact that Mary is "forced" to take on a sleazy job to generate a measly 364$. Therein lies the credibility crisis of the entire enterprise: if the protagonist is supposed to have money problems, then why does she live alone in a big apartment with a wi-fi internet connection, an iPhone, a Macbook, a car and fashionable lingerie? Are we really supposed to buy this “glamorous starving student” bullshit? Well, I personally couldn't, and it nearly ruined the film for me, seeing how this shockingly ineffective attempt at miserabilism further creates a crisis out of something that isn't, allowing the film to run with the ensuing drama and generate dubious tribulations from it, thus bringing the story into a far darker realm than it should've gone according to common logic. A troubling screenwriting flaw. But then there is the perfunctory twist ending, yet another flaw that compromises the whole enterprise. Having Mary killed by a tertiary character, one that didn't utter a single line of dialogue in the whole film, is a slap in the face to whoever was actually involved in the narrative. But the real insult lies in the fact that the directors had to include a flashback in order to remind us of the killer's identity. Dramatic progression being what it is, you'd expect the ending to be a carefully planned affair involving returning themes and characters. But having a nondescript jilted husband pop out of the closet and off the protagonist, that is plain lazy. It makes for a tragic climax sure, but so would a deadly slip on a banana peel, a device equally irrelevant in terms of true tragedy.

The film's flawed dramatic trigger features an annoying
new archetype: the glamorous starving student.

Despite some small screenwriting flaws, the film is entirely redeemed by its singular imagery. Starting with the breathtaking opening sequece in which Mary practices her craft by dissecting and sewing turkey meat in disturbing close-ups, the film offers a privileged venture in the world of surgical fetish. A frightened novice herself, the protagonist is brutally introduced to that world when she is first asked to perform genital ablation on a troubled fashion designer. Providing a mesmerizing display of ungodly self-indulgence (the discarding of the nipples and vaginal lips being framed in sensuous close-ups), the following operation proves to be quite a brutal introduction for the uninitiated. And while such bodily alteration is considered a form of self-abuse in some parts, it is actually a growingly popular, and distinctly postmodern practice fit for disturbed eccentrics and fashionable cosmopolitans alike. Unbeknownst to many, the art of body modification actually goes far beyond scarification and breast implants, and the film proves quite didactic in that regard, allowing us to glimpse at some lesser known practices such as tongue-splitting and penile sub-incision. It's not always pretty, but it's always intriguing. There's also a quaint charm to it if you can appreciate that sort of stuff. Personally, I thought that watching the devilish Soska sisters waltz in Billy's nightclub, smirking jagged smiles and sporting elegant strands of lace running through flesh bodkins in their backs, was a rare treat. And so is the sight of Mary's happy patients as they display recently forked tongues or slightly infected penises. There's not only pain involved in body modification but also a certain aesthetic enjoyment. By displaying both within the same narrative, the directors create not only a singular, but also an earnest effort in representation.

In the end, while the film is abruptly cut short by the intervention of an obscure peripheral character, the trip was absolutely worthwhile. American Mary, while flawed and catering to some very specific tastes, is a mesmerizing effort in humanistic representation. Denying intricate characterization to the self-serving, self-styled and inhuman "slashers" in their ivory towers, the film gives the spotlight to those marginalized individuals vilified by popular mores, rape victims, strip club owners, beastly bouncers and explorers in the nether realm of experience. As such, it offers a privileged look into an alternative world where women can be empowered as artists and surgeons alike, a dark world obscured mostly by bourgeois tastes, reaching for the light of nobility with some help by the surprisingly talented Soska sisters, who would impress me even more if they were to pull off a worthy sequel to nondescript slasher See No Evil (2006). A very surprising effort from two really intriguing artists.

3.5/5  This revolutionary rape/revenge film brings a whole roster of marginal eccentrics out of infamy by way of a refreshingly humanistic take on traditional narrative tropes. A mesmerizing journey for those open-minded enough to undertake it. 

NB - I'd like to thank my friend Louis for this review. Thanks for your helpful insight, your emotional honesty and your genuine love for women.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cold Sweat (2010)

(Original title: Sudor Frio

This much maligned midnight film is actually a decent example of contemporary exploitation cinema, boasting an exemplary knack for cost-effective filmmaking and some refreshing takes on female nudity and the aesthetics of explosions. Given its minute setting and diminutive roster of characters, director Bogliano favors an impressionistic approach to his craft, hence managing to create a truly immersive film experience. The narrative is absolutely nonsensical, refuting the laws of chemistry, physics and common sense in a bid to fuel a nearly oneiric atmosphere imbedded in disturbing historical fact, but it certainly doesn't impair the sheer enjoyment to be had from this didactic effort in retrospection.

The film stars a clueless young man named Roman. Having recently lost track of girlfriend Jacquie through the intervention of an online seducer dressed as Death Note's L, Roman commissions female friend Ali to arrange a date with the mysterious young man in order to discover Jacquie's whereabouts. Invited for a romantic dinner in a rundown apartment complex on the bad side of Buenos Aires, Ali is then captured by two psychotic old men, former members of the fearsome "Triple A" (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) and holders of 25 cases of dynamite stolen from revolutionary fighters of the 1970s. Having just lost yet another stunning lady to these creepy old reactionaries, Roman must dig deep, put on his thinking cap, assume his balls and get in there to save the day. And while lovely Ali proves to be a more resourceful, charismatic and ultimately better character, it is Roman that really needs to grow up through this ordeal, casting away his childish antics to better face the perspective of manhood.

Blowback: devious members of Triple A come out of
retirement to torture ignorant youths.

The most insistent criticism of the film stems from its nonsensical tribulations. I've seen this time and time again. People complain about what they think is an unrealistic situation, suggesting myriad other ways in which it could've been resolved and applying their "wisdom" to every single issue of every single film. They throw their hands in the air, as if annoyed by the fact that the events onscreen are not verisimilar, oblivious to the actual nature of exploitation cinema. Unable to suspend their disbelief anymore, these spectators are slowly sapping all the fantasy out of movie theaters, subsequently validating the widespread recourse to gritty remakes as a way to streamline Hollywoodian production. Given this new trend, it was inevitable that Cold Sweat would be relegated to the halls of infamy. I personally failed to see this coming, but then I am just a melancholy dinosaur, lumbering around in a world that is quickly escaping my grasp. And while I think that lapses in logic are no basis for criticizing such a sensuous film experience, I cannot defend Bogliano's dubious screenplay other than to say that it conveniently compensates for the production's lack of budget by filling wholes through iffy causality. 

Actually, the film resorts to a fairly common means of narrative economy by using the "house of horror" approach to storytelling, proceeding from a collage of unrelated vignettes to create an horrific atmosphere rather than focusing on a linear dramatic storyline. As such, it proves to be more of a freak show than an actual narrative film, not unlike Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, the latter effort proving equally nonsensical in its patchwork of eclectic influences. Drawing from the tradition of Grand Guignol, both these features boast various horrific set pieces used indiscriminately for their individual shock value and not any sort of dramatic power. Being a Southern import, Cold Sweat throws in a good measure of erotic vignettes, hence providing a touch of burlesque to the mix and making it all the more appealing to thrill-seeking spectators. It's pure exploitation, but the film has no greater pretenses, nor does it try to hide behind dubious morality or any delusion of dramatic grandeur.

Using the "house of horror" approach, the film
trades plausibility for shock value.

Trading emotional realism and narrative logic for sheer expressive power, the film makes use of canted shots, aggressive close-ups and a cacophonous soundtrack to create a sensuous diegetic space meant to convey and not merely portray the protagonists' harrowing experience. Foremost contributor to the film's oppressive atmosphere is the lingering presence of hard rock music, the shriller notes of which are amplified to complement the shocking spectacle of exploding heads and surging intestines. Then, there is the impressionistic editing, which proceeds from a succession of close-ups and medium shots to fragment space into fearsome shards of oppressive scenery. Whether they're intercoms threatening to expose the protagonists' presence or crates full of dynamite, nearly every element of decor seems to reveal a new menace. Not only does this type of spatial construction contribute a dizzying sense of disorientation amongst the viewers and protagonists alike, but it allows the director to make the most out of its diminutive sets, creating a labyrinthine deathtrap from just a handful of contiguous rooms. Drawing from a vast arsenal of economical visual devices, he also uses canted shots and slow motion to create evocative tableaux out of mundane, often overdetermined images. Hence, the climactic explosion of one of the villains becomes a highly stylized affair featuring surging intestines flying through the screen. But despite the sheer amount of cheap building blocks used in its construction, the film heavily relies on one even cheaper plot device, one that can be easily defined as narrative panacea*, and that is nitroglycerin.

The weak screenplay takes many shortcuts, but none more blatant than the inclusion of  a highly volatile "contact" explosive akin to nitroglycerin. Imbued with daft properties, this gooey liquid is said by the antagonist to explode on impact or when exposed to high temperatures. Once its efficiency is proven through the explosion of a naked woman's head, it subsequently allows the director to create suspense out of nowhere, conveying a sense of impending doom with the mere sight of a single drop. It also justifies the shameless exhibition of glistening female flesh in the film's most prominent scene. This happens when Roman finally discovers ex-girlfriend Jacquie (played by nude model Camila Velasco) tied to a table in a dimly-lit basement. Seeing how she is covered in nitro, the young man smartly suggests that she remove her clothes, lest she risks dying from friction. This warrants a fairly large amount of close-ups on Camila's glistening naked flesh, including a peek at her lovely breasts. Obviously, it's all fairly gratuitous, but then so is exploitation cinema, spurred on by narrative rationales akin to excuses meant to justify the showcase of unrestrained violence and unbridled eroticism. Here, you could actually consider the entire screenplay as an excuse to justify the film, but I doubt that this will prove its worth amongst casual viewers...

Glistening female flesh is one of the film's
most distinctive, most enticing features.

Luckily, while the premise of the film appears slim enough, it offers rare insight into Argentinian history, hence becoming a didactic exercise to help enlighten vacuous protagonist Roman and foreign audiences alike. Using archival footage from the "Dirty War" to introduce its anti-communist antagonists and their stolen stash of dynamite, Cold Sweat uses real-life horror not only to help shape our appreciation of those antagonists, but also to expose a gaping wound in the national unconscious kept open by the continuing trials of former military officers accused of heinous war crimes. Drawing from that real-life horror, the director manages to infuse his villains with a truly fearsome agenda, one that seems to find renewed relevance in its opposition against the carefree, uneducated youths of today, further hinting at the unnerving presence of a vengeful reactionary undercurrent threatening the populist gains inherited from Peronism.

Politics aside, Cold Sweat is a straightforward, unapologetic effort in exploitation cinema. Based on a flimsy screenplay tantamount to a convenient excuse for the showcase of tits and blood, the film thrives on a powerfully evocative visual landscape to immerse us into the diegetic world. And while it features a fair share of lapses in logic, the film ultimately succeeds in its humble goals by providing ample amounts of shock and exploitative material. Boasting three stunning brunettes exposed in various states of undress, it also proves to be a rare threat for women enthusiasts and a perfect example of unapologetic midnight cinema.

A single drop of narrative panacea goes a long way.
If you don't believe me, just ask Ridley Scott!

3/5  Despite a flimsy screenplay, this muscular exploitation effort features enough impressionistic shocks and enticing female flesh to please any thrill-seeking filmgoer undeterred by faulty logic.

* I originally coined this term to convey my appreciation of the multi-purpose black goop from Ridley Scott's atrociously penned Alien prequel Prometheus. Used indiscriminately to create a plethora of contradicting effects, this substance constitutes one of the laziest plot devices I've ever seen, begging the question as to what exactly Scott was searching for during the 33 years between the original film and this fourth follow-up: God or narrative panacea?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bad Milo (2013)

This clever phallocentric reworking of David Cronenberg's The Brood begs the question of what would have happened had Trey Parker and Matt Stone been at the helm instead. The answer is a crudely-made, but highly relevant parody of a stressful work-a-day world dominated by wanton lust and greed, fueled by large helpings of meaningful scatological humor. It's never subtle, but it often hits home thanks to a barrage of cringe-inducing jokes and some gorgeous Frank Henenlotter style monster design. Rising comedic actor Ken Marino stars as the anal-retentive protagonist, displaying little of his potential screen presence by retreading into the soft shell of a stuck-up yesman, while Stephen Root shines as the protagonist's father in a surprising miscasting. It's not classic stuff, but it's good fun for an evening with friends and welcome proof that it is possible to deliver the goods on such an outlandish premise.

The story revolves around Duncan, a potentially sterile, chronically constipated and jittery man working as a drone for a shady investment broker. Well-known for his excruciating sessions on the stool, Duncan now has more reasons than ever to feel the pinch of anal disturbance. For one thing, he has just been assigned to do layoffs, a job which he inherited because of his mellow attitude and gentle face rather than any form of self-assertiveness and which he accepted out of servility rather than actual volition. Then, there's the issue of his mother, a sex-starved cougar who brazenly flaunts her indiscrete new beau and brutally intervenes in her son's love life by commissioning a cocky fertility doctor to delve into the biological causes of his childless union with blonde bride Sarah. Things take an hilarious turn for the worst during an hysterical dinner party in which the two prominently "virile" men compete to question Duncan's masculinity, hinting at every possible shortcoming from performance anguish to inadequate penis size. This sorry exercise pushes Duncan near the edge, from which he falls after receiving a call from an annoying co-worker who inadvertently erased an important file from his computer. That's when anger takes over, forcing the painful exit of Milo, a diminutive pre-Columbian ass-dwelling deity who leaves his passed-out host on the bathroom floor as he angrily goes after the guilty party. Lunging forward with outstretched claws, Milo does light work of his foe, spraying his blood all over the walls of Duncan's tiled, toilet-equipped office and showcasing the director's knack for visual economy as spurting red goop replaces the need for elaborate latex contraptions.

Anal retentive protagonist Duncan would be just your average frustrated
chump if it weren't for the pretty bride he inherited from the screenplay.

Following Milo's first attack, Duncan remains blissfully unaware of his presence, choosing to consult a therapist only to please his worried wife. Said therapist (a quirky Peter Stormare) is the one to bring him up to speed, producing an ancient tome in which the Mayans depict the bothersome creature as a stylized feathered deity sprouting from the asshole of a leaning man. Colorful illustrations aside, the man also provides Duncan with loads of sound advice, prompting him to (literally) bond with his inner demon and reunite with his father as a means to grasp the elusive source of his crippling constipation. In the end, the whole issue is solved through dialogue and the willingness of all parties involved to open up their hearts and share their feelings. It takes a while, and several hysterical tribulations (including hypnosis sessions, sock puppet theater and an unexpected demon fight), but harmony for all is eventually achieved when personal issues are thrown out in the open where they can no longer cause crippling blockages. Obviously, the morale according to which self-confidence and emotional transparency can instantly free someone from qualms is dated and blind to the actual intricacies of the human psyche, but it is always relevant, especially now that "nice guys" really do seem to finish last in the cutthroat rat race we call life.

The symbolism inherent to anal retention is obvious in the present context as Duncan proves to be constipated in both the literal and figurative sense. But the film's true interest lies in the appraisal of the sentient ass demon, especially where it pertains to womb envy and the innate limitations of masculinity.  For this purpose, let us first establish a comparison with the source material, namely David Cronenberg's The Brood. In this latter film, Samantha Eggar plays Nola Carveth, an angry woman gifted with an outer womb with which she sprouts sexless albino dwarves who brutally murder the people who have offended her. The manifestation, the "shape" of her rage thus finds physical embodiment through diminutive drones whose sole purpose is to eliminate the source of that rage, much like in the present narrative. Unable to procreate per se, Duncan's only alternative to killer dwarfs rests... in his ass. With recourse to a reversal of gender roles, the film thus playfully mocks man's inability to procreate, further highlighting his subservience to women in the process of child-bearing. And insofar as one accepts that where women have the power to give life, men only produce shit, then the rectum might as well be considered as the male womb. Parker and Stone already proposed the comparaison in a particularly scatological episode of South Park entitled "More Shit", where Randy lovingly eyes the echographic portrait of his record-breaking turd to a syrupy lullaby. The present screenplay makes this association all the more explicit when a panicked protagonist complains at the idea of having to push out a clawed demon out of his ass, to which his therapist replies that the female vagina is constantly faced with such perspectives. The wording lacks subtelty, but the idea is interesting as proof of our previous contention and as a reminder of the unsung heroics of everyday women.

A clever economy of means allows the film to stay afloat.

The idea of rectum as the male womb is made even more obvious in reference to the act of fathering and "bonding" with the bright-eyed little Milo, so-called because of Sarah's affection for this name as potential moniker for an hypothetic son. Don't be fooled, the thing is quite cute despite its large claws, fang-filled grin and nasty habit of mauling people to death. And it is quite expressive, too. Like a naive, toddler version of the vengeful Belial. Its first steps back into his anal "home" are carefully chronicled  and so is his consuming jealousy over the birth of a meddling new sibling, making his likeness to an actual baby all the more resounding. In turn, his existence allows the film to question another aspect of contemporary male anguish, namely the fear of fatherhood. After all, fatherhood is a stressful new burden for modern man, whom is just starting to awaken to the idea of child-rearing as a shared task.  It is a burden for which the wage of inefficiency is jeopardizing the world's future, a nerve-wracking task  for which one also sacrifices personal liberties and comfort. A task for which jittery Duncan is not ready.  Luckily, his own experience of child-bearing will slowly bring him up to speed, allowing him to grow from a child-like state of uncertainty into actual manhood. 

The limitations of masculinity are exposed quite explicitly with Duncan's problematic pregnancy, but they are also conveyed through evolving social mores, which relegate him to a supporting role opposite of his domineering mother and precious young bride. Seen primarily as an economic and organic contributor, the protagonist has a well-defined role within the family order, a role from which he cannot derive lest he becomes obsolete. This perfectly crystallizes male anguish in this era of stiff economical competition and the natural erosion of traditional patriarchal roles. Deprived of his "natural" authority, man now needs to succeed in both the professional and sexual arena in order to carry on to the next generation. As for "losers" and "limp dicks", they are branded for extinction. Never in history have human males been under such pressure. Even within traditional family frameworks, such as the present one, they now need to fight for some form of reverence and toiling at a normal job won't do anymore.  Men now need fancy suits, fancy cars and a radiating self-confidence to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of others. And even then, they remain subservient to the more glamorous and coveted females. This is exemplified by the final scene of the film in which Duncan, after vanquishing his demons and completing his quest for self-assertion, stands tall behind his expecting wife, humbled not only by her glamorous white gown but by her god-like ability to procreate. Of course, the parodic framework of the film helps soften the blow by likening it to a sophomoric joke, but there remains a definite source of  terror in the film and it stems from man's growing fear of obsolescence.

Charming monster design is key to the film's appeal.

Deeper symbolism aside, Bad Milo is a wholly enjoyable throwback to the quirky creature features of yesteryears (Henenlotter's influence is particularly strong here) and it admirably manages to keep a good comedic pace for its forgiving 84-minute runtime. The film hooks you up right away with its quirky nostalgic soundtrack and campy opening credits. And despite a mostly bland protagonist, the  supporting cast makes a good job of delivering many quality punchlines. There's ample bloodshed and many inspired, if consistently lowbrow twists including a memorable stint on the stool preceding Milo's first venture into the outside world. Keep an open mind, and you will surely enjoy this timely expression of male angst. That said, the film is squarely aimed at masculine sensibilities and the overbid of ass references will probably be lost on many female viewers, although they might appear tame compared to many Japanese gross-out comedies with similar themes, most notably the films of Noboru Iguchi.

3/5  This timely variation on David Cronenberg's The Brood is appropriately parodic in its analysis of contemporary male angst.