Feb 14 2017

Creepy (2016)

Horror comes to Shochiku for the venerable Japanese studio’s 120th anniversary with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s aptly named Creepy, a mystery-thriller purposely too close for comfort.

While we’re on the topic of anniversaries, one year has passed since the police detective Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima, Kazuo Umezu’s Horror Theater) nearly was killed by a crazed suspect during an unsuccessful hostage negotiation. Now a university professor of criminal psychology, Takakura and his homemaker wife, Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi, Ringu), make a fresh start by moving homes. The neighborhood doesn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon. In fact, the guy next door, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa of Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django), possesses such abhorrent social skills that it is he from which the film draws its name.

As Nishino unnerves the couple with his sheer awkwardness, unusually acting daughter (Ryôko Fujino, Solomon’s Perjury) and seemingly nonexistent wife, Takakura learns of an unsolved crime in a nearby town, in which three family members disappeared, leaving behind one very perplexed middle schooler (Haruna Kawaguchi, Screaming Class). Suspicious “as hell” and unable to leave the itch of his old profession unscratched, Takakura secretly teams with a former colleague (Masahiro Higashide, Parasyte: Part 1) to investigate the cold case.

Perhaps best known for 2001’s Pulse (which spawned 2006’s deficient Hollywood remake), Kurosawa is almost diabolical in his setup, taking delight in taking his time in winding us up the way a rubber band loops around a pencil. Once he lets go, after the first of two hours passes, the twists come fast and loose. Unfortunately, his handle on the material (which he co-adapted from the Yutaka Maekawa novel) escapes him, and incredulity shoves craft aside.

Ultimately, the Creepy vibe decomposes to the level of being merely languid, all because the final act has been built atop a wobbly, half-Shyamalan shock that simply does not work because it is completely out of character, at least from the information the viewer has been given. I’m surprised that a filmmaker with Kurosawa’s experience and reputation even would entertain the notion of trying to squeak it past his sophisticated audience. Then again, our lead character of Takakura isn’t much better, failing to see the forest for the trees, even when they’re labeled, respectively, “FOREST” and “TREES.” —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jan 4 2017

The Silence of the Tomb (1972)

No tombs exist in Jess Franco’s The Silence of the Tomb, but that omission is all fine and dandy, considering the cult-fave filmmaker does include something he often neglects: a plot. Bonus: It’s a lucid one at that!

A supposedly fabulous (and definitely fatuous) actress, Annette (Glenda Allen, Franco’s Dolls for Sale) invites all her superficial friends for a wine-and-dine weekend on the island she has purchased with her wealth and now calls home. Well, it’s home when she’s not on set or jet-setting the globe. Her bastard child with film director Jean-Paul (Francisco Acosta, Franco’s Kiss Me Killer) lives there, but is raised by Annette’s extremely jealous sister, Valerie (Montserrat Prous, Franco’s The Sinister Eyes of Dr. Orloff), who serves as our unreliable narrator.

Collective weekend plans of fun in the sun (and sack) go awry when the child disappears from his bedroom, with a ransom note demanding 2 million pesos left in his place. Given the heavy privacy of and limited access to the island, the culprit must be among the 10 or so people sleeping under Annette’s roof — perhaps even Annette herself. But who? And why?

And then the murders begin.

In setting up Silence, writer/director/producer Franco uses Agatha Christie’s iconic And Then There Were None as his jumping-off point, but then veers wildly to give the whodunit his own stamp. The Franco faithful know that typically entails a streak of sexual perversity — just not in this instance. Nor is that cause for alarm, because while The Silence of the Tomb is colorfully accessible to mainstream audiences, this mystery is by no means conventional. From the leisurely score to breathtaking scenery (courtesy of Spain and the striking Prous), enough era-emblematic elements are present for the project to be unmistakably Franco’s, even if he kept it in his pants, so to speak, and even though the story originated in a novel by Enrique Jarnes. Franco changed the book where it counted, primarily to turn the reveal and subsequent explanation into something so ludicrous, we happily can attribute it only to Mr. Vampyros Lesbos himself. Well played, Jesús. —Rod Lott

Get it at Dorado Films.

Dec 29 2016

The Department Q Trilogy (2013-2016)

Based upon Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series of crime novels — currently six volumes strong — The Department Q Trilogy collects the three films thus far, all smash hits in their Eastern Hemisphere homeland: 2013’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, 2014’s The Absent One and 2016’s A Conspiracy of Faith.

After an act of questionable judgment that serves as The Keeper of Lost Causes’ holy-crap prologue, police detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Angels & Demons) finds himself downgraded to the basement’s Department Q, a new initiative in which he is to sort through 20 years of cold cases — essentially, a demeaning desk job that removes him from on-the-street investigation, which is one of the only two things at which he excels. The other is being an alcoholic.

In Assad (Fares Fares, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), Carl is assigned an assistant against his will, and something about the case of a missing politician (Sonja Richter, When Animals Dream) sparks Carl into actions he’s no longer supposed to pursue.

In The Absent One, Carl and Assad gain a secretary (Johanne Louise Schmidt, in quite a coup for her debut feature) and dig into a double murder presumably carried out by entitled prep-school bullies. Although the heinous crime was committed a generation prior, the fallout continues to spread like cancer in present day, thanks to a callous CEO (Pilou Asbæk, Lucy). Finally, A Conspiracy of Faith, involves a longtime serial killer (Pål Sverre Hagen, 2012’s Kon-Tiki) who preys upon the guileless and gullible followers of religious sects.

While the mysteries at the heart of each film prove full-on riveting, The Department Q Trilogy is more than mere whodunit. Its installments — and, I suspect, Adler-Olsen’s books — are made special by the richness of two lead characters who could not be more different. Carl is a mess of a man (aided by Kaas’ weary, knuckle-sandwich mug) who believes only in the bottle, whereas Assad, an Arab, lives a life so orderly, it’s reflected not just in his thoughts, but in his daily sartorial choices. Part of the joy in binge-viewing the three is witnessing the duo’s relationship evolve: Lost Causes sees Carl barely tolerating anyone, himself included; by the time of Absent, they are more or less equals; and Conspiracy finds the team dynamic flipped, with Assad assuming point duty because Carl barely can function. The filmmakers assume audience members are smart enough to fill in the gaps between stories, rather than spell them out.

With Lost Causes, director Mikkel Nørgaard (Klown) establishes a grounded world followed through with stylishness and consistency for his own follow-up and for Conspiracy, for which Hans Petter Moland (In Order of Disappearance) takes over in a seamless transition. Whether consumed individually or as a whole, these crackling crime procedurals come highly recommended and should fill the void left by the conclusion of the Dragon Tattoo‘s own trilogy. Of course, once A Conspiracy of Faith reaches its end frame, your Department Q withdrawal will begin immediately. So B it. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jun 23 2016

The Gorilla Gang (1968)

gorillagangAlthough today’s audiences know him for co-scripting 1933’s classic King Kong (if they know him at all), the prolific Edgar Wallace once held name recognition so powerhouse-high, he was his own brand, with hundreds of his novels and short stories adapted for the screen. Some of them, The Gorilla Gang included, even begin with an audio welcome from the man as his blood-spattered logo appears over the action.

So what if he had been dead for more than 30 years? The Wallace moniker made bank, baby! It’s easy to see why. His mysteries are simple, often deceptively so, as is the case of this Gang, alternately known as The Gorilla of Soho.

gorillagang1Represented by Inspector Perkins (Horst Tappert, in a role he reprised for the following year’s The Man with the Glass Eye) and his investigation partner, Sgt. Pepper (Uwe Friedrichsen, No Survivors, Please), Scotland Yard is baffled by a string of slayings in which the victims — all males traveling from other countries, yet with no UK relatives — are killed only on misty nights and retrieved from the Thames. Our heroes also possess knowledge of a syndicate whose members work solely under the shroud of fog and dressed in gorilla costumes, but Perkins and Pepper fail to consider potential linkage, despite it being as obvious as a connect-the-dots page torn from a preschooler’s coloring book.

It takes the translation skills of former nurse and current African language specialist Susan McPherson (Uschi Glas of Wallace’s The College-Girl Murders, also directed by Alfred Vohrer) to realize that 1+2=homicide, after she is brought in to decipher semilegible hieroglyphics scrawled on a plastic baby doll discovered on the waterlogged corpse of a millionaire wool merchant from Canada. Bringing Ms. McPherson along for assistance, romantic possibilities (for Pepper) and eye candy (for you, dear viewer), the law enforcers track leads that take them to a Salvation Army-esque nonprofit, a nudie bar, a nunnery and — none too soon — the lair of the acrobatic “apes.”

Aided tremendously by a swingin’ Peter Thomas score as big and brassy as some of the ladies for hire in the aforementioned club, The Gorilla Gang is colorful with its criminals, both in characterization and eye-popping appeal. Going down smooth, just a tad naughty and (in case you weren’t paying attention the first time) involves murderers disguised as goddamn gorillas, this is one Bacardi-and-dice-game of a killer krimi. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 30 2016

Gorilla at Large (1954)

gorillalargeWhile the exact year escapes me, I recall with fondness that time in grade school when one of Oklahoma City’s local UHF stations was televising a 3-D movie marathon. It took some heavy pleading on my part to convince my mom to drive the quarter-mile to the nearest 7-Eleven, where a pair of those cellophane-lensed cardboard specs — one red, one blue — could be yours for something like 50 cents.

She gave in, and I happily awaited the four nights of cominatcha cinema whose lineup remains burned in my brain: 1961’s The Mask, 1977’s kung-fu Dynasty and two flicks from 1954: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Gorilla at Large. Try as I might, I don’t think I made it past the first commercial break of the latter. I didn’t deserve Gorilla then, but I deserve it now.

gorillalarge1And so do you. Directed by Harmon Jones (Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title), the novel whodunit is as if King Kong were the idea of Agatha Christie. Despite its off-putting name, the Garden of Evil carnival boasts two star attractions: Goliath, hawked as the “world’s largest” gorilla, and Laverne (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate), the trapeze artist whose gimmick is to swing perilously over his caged habitat.

When a man is discovered murdered at said cage, suspicion falls upon Goliath … but wait, didn’t the carnival’s owner (Raymond Burr, Airplane II: The Sequel) just order a gorilla costume for the barker (Cameron Mitchell, Blood and Black Lace)? A police detective (Lee J. Cobb, preparing for his Exorcist role) noses around to find out; look for eventual Delta Force colonel Lee Marvin as a patrolman!

Although unapologetically a B picture, Gorilla at Large has more to offer than talentspotting future A-listers. Many of Jones’ shots possess a depth of field even projected flat, and his camera soaks up the color of the carnival backdrop. That’s not just there for show, either, as great pains are made to incorporate various attractions into the script, from the tilt-a-whirl and merry-go-round to the roller-coaster finale. The most memorable sequence finds The Bride and the Beast’s Charlotte Austin is pursued through the mirror maze by a gorilla — whether real or fake is immaterial at that moment of suspense. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.