Tuesday, July 19, 2011

La Horde

Zombies were what got me into b-movies, monster flicks and horror in general. Though I was never the bravest of film-goers back when I was young, from the moment I watched Night of the Living Dead and then Dawn of the Dead, I was smitten. (But not bitten!). So I went out and hunted other zombie films, read books about zombie films (Jamie Russell's Book of the Dead is fantastic) and generally immersed myself in the world of the zombie.

Over the next few years, I watched some gems, some forgettable films and some utter atrocities (Lake of the Zombies, I'm looking at you!). Sadly, however, it doesn't take very long until you find yourself pretty saturated with zombie films. The downside of a reliably consistent mythology such as zombies is that they very quickly all become the same. Even the Great Debate of zombie cinema is only concerned with the speed they move... Plots, films, set-pieces and characters all very quickly blur into one, leaving only a few stand-out films or scenes that hang around in your memory (like Zombi 2's underwater zombie fight!)

It's certainly well-documented that zombies have, over the last few years, been very much back in fashion, but this doesn't necessarily bode well for decent movies. Whilst the Resident Evil games are fun, the film cross-over (at least, the first one) was pretty dire and Zombieland was a sentimental, overhyped, deeply-flawed trampling of the zombie legacy. There've been some decent funny approaches to the zombie - Shaun of the Dead and Dead Snow both show much love for the genre they parody but, whilst parody is fun at times, there has been little meat for the lover of zombie cinema to get their teeth into. The first half of 28 Days Later is probably the height of 21st century zombie cinema, if we're honest. All of which should go someway to explaining quite how refreshing it was to watch La Horde, France's contribution to 21st Century Zombie Cinema!

La Horde has had some pretty mixed reviews across the internet, but I must say that I thought it was great, a fabulously fun ride from start to finish that reminded me how long it was since I'd seen a zombie movie even half as good. I would quite confidently suggest that a large number of those who've been negative about this film didn't like zombie cinema in the first place. And this is important. Whilst La Horde is great fun, it's certainly no crossover hit in the sense of 28 Days. This is a film made for zombie lovers by zombie lovers.

What we get here is a film that's fast, funny, fresh and gory enough to maintain interest yet that treads very carefully within the boundaries of the zombie mythology that we know and love. The set-up is essentially a familiar one, a group of people who do not get along at all are tasked with relying upon each other to survive a relentless mass of the living dead. This has been the broad set-up for many a zombie film and, provided the interaction between the characters is fresh and interesting, it's a set-up that still has much to give. The choice to align a criminal gang and a police force in La Horde is an inspired one, and one that becomes still more inspired as it the film slowly messes with our opinions on exactly who the 'goodies' and 'baddies' are within the group. Refreshingly, the woman of the group is utterly bad-ass too. Women in zombie films have so often had to accept the role of screaming idiot, so Claude Perron's snarling, zombie-smashing character is decidedly welcome.

The Zombies, as so often in a decent zombie film, do not steal the limelight at all (there are thankfully no humorous or particularly distinctive examples) and exist to snarl, snap and splatter, bashing endlessly against locked doors and hunting down the living. They're fast - but that's fine - and they're dead. The reason for their zombification is never really explained and hardly even alluded to (cue much disgruntled muttering on the IMDB messageboards) but this is simply not a problem: anyone who thinks a zombie film is about an explanation for what might provoke a zombie attack is misunderstanding the genre. Zombies are the eternal 'other'. They embody threat, fear, isolation and death, they are nightmares; finding plausible reasons for their existence is somewhat besides the point.

Mostly, what appeals about La Horde is that it is a great fun film. A frantic dash through walking corpses full of suspense and... some good splatter.

And splatter is what a decent zombie film is all about...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yakuza Deka: The Assassin

Given that I know a fair bit about horror and thrillers (especially the lowbudget 70s European attempts!), they're not that difficult to write about or evaluate in some form. I do, after all, have plenty else to compare them with. This becomes a sort of self-sustaining reason for me not really writing about much else on this blog. You see the word 'Western' in the banner above? Not once have I written about a Western (although I have watched loads...). The same with Noir. And, for that matter, Slashers flicks too.

Nowhere in the banner above does it say 'Japanese Action'. I don't know much about Japanese action. I'd even go so far as to say I know almost nothing about Japanese action films. The 'almost' in that sentence is important, however, as I am currently sure of one important fact concerning these Far Eastern flicks: Sonny Chiba kicks ass.

---This review does, technically, contain spoilers.---
---But they won't spoil your enjoyment of the film---

I bought volume 1 of Optimum Asia's digitally remastered Sonny Chiba collection some time ago and, although I have previously watched all three of the films, a re-watch of Yakuza Deka: The Assassin last night reminded me just how good they are. Chiba is a relentlessly charismatic star, his round-ish face and wry smile grinning out from under a wide-brimmed leather hat announces his arrival in the film and, with no disrespect to the other actors, the scenes without Chiba on screen positively drag compared to his screentime.

Yakuza Deka: The Assassin gives us a fairly routine action plot: Chiba plays Hayata, a policeman is sent deep undercover by his force, infiltrating and working for a Mafia gang, a gang whom he later betrays - in a wonderful blaze of gunfire - in order to earn the respect of a rival marijuana smuggling gang. He does, of course, eventually gun the rival gang down too. Whilst none of this is exactly ground-breaking stuff, it does allow us to go on a fast-paced dash through streets, brothels, drug-dens, amorous horserides (!) and Mafia HQs.

And that's where my action flick vocabulary runs out. I think it's a mark of a decently paced action film that they do, in fact, resist description. There's hardly a moment to pause to think amongst the double-crossing, the sniper rifles, the chases and the fighting and this is very much to the film's advantage (the only slow scenes - especially a drug-induced hallucination - are pretty tiresome). All I shall add is that the movie does manage a satisfactory explosive ending, rather than limping to a quiet finish, and will almost certainly leave any fan of action films grinning from start to finish.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Horror of Frankenstein

Ahh, just as I was about to go to bed, having finished and (briefly) written up Humanoids From the Deep, I spotted that ITV4 were running Hammer's The Horror of Frankenstein. In HD.

Well, how on earth could I refuse? Horror of Frankenstein is a fabulously tongue-in-cheek offering from Hammer in their latter days. As something like the sixth in their Frankenstein films, it's much heavier on the camp action, the smiling buxom women and the smutty jokes than it is on the suspense (Sample line: "I really need to go home and complete my anatomy homework. Will you help me, Maggie?" "Oooh yes, shall I take my clothes off now or later?") but sometimes a bit of cinematic trash is more than welcome. Hell, did I say sometimes? Cinematic trash is always welcome!

Young Victor Frankenstein is played by Hammer regular Ralph Bates (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Lust for a Vampire etc.), preparing to spend a summer away from school doing all the things that normal college kids do: scientific experiments, pursuing the secret of life, re-animating dead flesh, kid-stuff like that. Bates' leering aristocratic arrogance is so wonderfully repulsive that he becomes utterly captivating. He's certainly no Peter Cushing nor Christopher Lee but, to my mind, Bates carved out his own minor Hammer legacy: a sneering, slimy legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.

As a whole, there's no denying that this is on the lower end of Hammer's output. Several of the mid-film scenes really do drag and, other than Ralph Bates, little of the actors have much to recommend them (although I don't think any of the women were cast for their acting abilities...). Despite this, the fun moments are as fun as they mean to be and even the dull moments are lightheartedly dull (everyone knows that earnestly dull is far, far worse!).

The monster, when he finally appears, is satisfyingly monstrous, although anyone familiar with the book (or any half-faithful film) will be disappointed at the monster's instinctive brutality: we all know the monster is supposed to be a sadly misunderstood mistake of nature. Instead, this film plays out as a kind of cross between Karloff's Frankenstein - as imagined by someone who's never seen the film - and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein - albeit without much in the way of jokes.

This might all seem a fairly negative dismissal of what is, essentially a very enjoyable film; I don't mean it to be. The Horror of Frankenstein is a fairly flawed but entirely watchable blend of diluted horror folklore and camp period drama. It's hardly memorable but it is great fun.

Note: The HD transfer is, though better than the standard definition print, none-too-astonishing. I'm no expert - not by a long stretch - but I've certainly seen much crisper HD versions of old films. Whilst I obviously can't complain too hard (it was, after all, on TV for free) this is someway short of HD worth paying for.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Humanoids From the Deep

Sometimes it's nice to follow one movie with a similarly themed one. But, I asked, where on earth do you go after The Island of the Fishmen? How could I possibly follow up this Roger Corman distributed, low-budget thriller about an island plagued by half-men, half-fish creatures?

Well... how about a Roger Corman produced, low-budget thriller about a small town plagued by half-men, half-fish creatures? It's time for Humanoids From the Deep! (1996 version)

Right from the start it's pretty apparent that this is a (slightly) more upmarket affair: the opening credits feature soldiers, flamethrowers and guns! Humanoids From the Deep, for all it's shlocky monster fun is a pretty neat little film, all told, and whilst it's missing some of the too-crappy-to-be-believed charm of the Island of the Fishmen it's definitely an entertaining film. A shady fishing company is dumping chemicals in the water, chemicals that might well be having a terrifying effect upon the local sealife. It's paint-by-numbers monster horror in many respects but it's none the worse for it.

I don't really want to say too much about the plot, suffice to say that within the fishing company we have the necessary conscience-stricken good-guy and the profit-at-all-costs badguy, content to poison the water with unknown growth hormones. Of course, the situation comes to a bit of a head when Good-guy's daughter goes missing (along with several local environmental protesters) and he starts to investigate. Before long, Government agencies have arrived, scary fishmen are grabbing people all over the place and all hell has broken loose. The film suffers from the occasional dull moment in it's opening half but, from about 45 minutes in, it's a rollercoaster of murder, mayhem and fish!

This is not the original Humanoids of the Deep (1980, IMDB page here) but rather the 1996 remake. This new version is, by all accounts, less sleazy and less splattery. While that might be a shame, as I haven't seen the original I am in no position to judge this one in relation to it. I know for sure that this is an awful lot of fun and, thankfully, doesn't take itself too seriously at all. If the original's even better... well, I'd better watch that one too!