Critters Attack! • Double Date • The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith • Domino • Lust for a Vampire • One Deadly Summer
A confession: I’ve never seen a Critters film prior to this. Life is short and there are too many films to watch, so I’ve never felt inclined to waste my time on a Gremlins knock-off, no matter how many dewy-eyed Eighties nostalgist try to tell me that they are really good, honestly. If Critters Attack! is anything to go by, it was a wise choice. But in truth, it’s hard to imagine that the original franchise was as plodding as this film, which spends far too long on soap opera nonsense and not nearly enough time with the titular creatures.
In this story, twenty-year-old Drea ((Tashiana Washington) has been rejected by her local college and is filling time working in a sushi restaurant and pouting before getting a job babysitting a professor’s kids, hoping that this will help her next application. There’s a lot of serious back story – some of it literally spelled out by assorted characters – and earnest character development from writer Scott lobdell and director Bobby Miller, none of which is remotely interesting. The writing, acting and directing just isn’t up to the level where you might actually care about any of these characters, all of whom feel one-dimensional and clichéd, and the film constantly plods when it should be running. One thing I’ll say about 1980s horror and sci-fi is that it rarely wasted time – the films might have been juvenile and empty, but they also tended to be sparse and pacy. While Critters Attack! does manage to spread a few monster moments throughout the film, it still crawls whenever the alien fur balls are off-screen – and that’s most of the film. Dee Wallace – who made three or four genre pieces including the first Critters in the 1980s and so is now allowed to coast through fanboy films as a ‘horror legend’ – turns up here for no good reason other than cashing in on her ‘iconic’ status, and she’s awkwardly miscast as a bounty hunter who is hunting the Critters for no explained reason. Her casting seems more cynical than inspired.
Yes, the Critters themselves are all practical effects and that’s fun, and when things finally start moving, the film is passable enough, but it never actually becomes good, and the whole thing feels like one of the more cynical legacy sequels that are seeking to cash in on Eighties nostalgia. I would imagine that all the previous films in the franchise are more entertaining than this, and unless you are a Critters completist – and it’s hard to imagine that such a person exists – then you’d be better off revisiting one of those movies than wasting time with this.
Double Date played the horror festival circuit a couple of years ago, but is only now appearing on blu-ray. It’s hard to see why, as it features a couple of familiar faces in the cast and is not horrible. Actually, that latter point might work against it: this is a fairly laddish horror comedy that seems somewhat out of place in a #metoo world where every horror film seems obliged to explore sexual politics in a determinedly neo-feminist way. Showing women as predatory monsters luring horny, stupid but essentially innocent men to their death – in order to revive their father, no less – might meet with some disapproval from Woke distributors and critics.
The film feels like Jose Larraz’s Vampyres if it was made for Loaded readers – Kelly Wenham and Georgia Groome are the sisters of death who score with mouthy blokes Alex (Michael Socha) and his virginal mate Jim (Danny Morgan, who also wrote the movie) – with Alex promising to help Jim lose his virginity before his thirtieth birthday the next day. It turns out that the girls need a virgin to complete a black magic ritual in order to revive their dead father, and Jim fits the bill perfectly.
This is not subtle stuff, but the crass comedy, the splashy gore and the lack of pretension actually feels like a blessed relief amongst the relentless march of the ‘elevated’ horror film. Sure, it’s sometimes cringeworthy and predictably coy when it comes to sex scenes, but the slapstick violence, cheerfully crass dialogue and pounding score by Goat (who also make an appearance in a nightclub scene) move the film along nicely, and there are a handful of genuinely laugh (or groan) out loud moments. It does take some unnecessary diversions – a visit to Jim’s Christian family feels like padding and grinds everything to a halt – but Benjamin Barfoot’s film is cheerfully disposable and old-fashioned, and I rather enjoyed it. Fast food horror-comedy perhaps, but I’ll take that over the current brand of haute cuisine, frankly.
Rather more respectable is The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a film that Pauline Kael described as “the one great Australian film that I have seen”, which frankly suggests that her international film knowledge was not as broad as we’ve been led to believe. Not that this is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not up there with Wake in Fright or Picnic at Hanging Rock in terms of quality. It is, however, a film that will speak to today’s viewer, being a simmering tale of early 20th century Australian racism as the titular character – a half white, half Aboriginal young man who tries to get ahead in a world where he will never be treated with anything other than contempt – finally snaps after continual humiliation and abuse, leading to mass murder. it’s an intensely angry, if restrained film that allows the sense of injustice to build slowly, without labouring the point.
Of course, some modern viewers might fret over the fact that this tale, told through the eyes of an Aboriginal, is directed by a white man, Fred Schepisi (and based on a novel written by another), the idea of the privileged exploring or exploiting the oppression of others being a bone of contention these days, where ideas of empathy are alien concepts for many. That aside, the simple fact is that there is understandably little entertainment to be found in this grim story. It’s a film very much of its time – and is more arthouse than exploitation – and at times seems to be clutching at respectability when it might be better served by righteous fury; the one explosion of violence is surprisingly ineffectively handled and uncathartic. In the end, this is a more an interesting film than an entertaining one, and at two hours, it’s often heavy going – but it’s certainly worth a look if you have a taste for righteously angry cinema.
Notably, the stories about its inclusion as a video nasty should be taken with a pinch of salt – it definitely appears on a list of seized films, but was never prosecuted and so was probably collateral damage rather than because of any content.
The trailer for Brian De Palma’s Domino makes it look like a non-stop action movie, but the film is thankfully more nuanced and interesting than that. De Palma is perhaps at his best with sexually charged thrillers and psycho horrors, but this tale of Islamic terrorism is a lot better than critics (perhaps more motivated and triggered by the political content of the film than they want to admit) have suggested – not one of the director’s best works, certainly, but compared to a lot of other current action movies, it’s pretty solid. A European hybrid film set (mostly) in Denmark, the film opens with cop Christian Toft (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) leaving his gun at home, an act that dooms his older partner Lars Hansen (Søren Malling) as they arrest ISIS terrorist Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). The film then follows Toft’s efforts to capture the escaped killer while the CIA are protecting Tarzi and using him to find and kill a much more important target.
In truth, the film has little of De Palma’s trademark style, but it’s a gripping enough thriller nevertheless, one that works its way across Europe and feeds into moral ambiguity and ideas of whether or not we have to allow bad people to go free in order to bring worse people to justice. Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten as Hansen’s secret lover don’t bring a lot of charisma to the screen, it must be said, but the plot takes enough twists and turns to remain interesting, and Guy Pearce is wittily chilling as the amoral CIA man. As with many a De Palma film, the melodrama and emotion is cranked up via a Pino Donaggio score – Donaggio seemingly only writes this sort of old-school, high drama music for De Palma, and it works impressively, bringing strength to the film where it might have otherwise lagged. The set pieces are solid and every now and again we get a moment that reminds us of the director’s vintage work. If you don’t see this, it won’t be a huge cultural loss, but it’s a lot more entertaining than you might fear.
If there’s one thing that annoys me (there are actually countless things that annoy me, but let’s not go there) it’s when smug critics and useless hacks call Hammer films ‘camp’. because if there is one thing these films are not, it’s camp. Or trashy. Most Hammer films are deadly serious, well crafted quality productions, and not in any way ‘ironically’ bad. But I would suggest avoiding the Karnstein trilogy if you don’t want to see my claim fall to the ground. While the first film, The Vampire Lovers, is – despite its reputation – a plodding and fairly sexless affair, Lust for a Vampire, made in 1971, has long been dismissed as not only the worst of the trilogy, but also one of Hammer’s most spectacular misfires, usually by the po-faced critics who bemoan the company’s lurch into “soft porn” (i.e. mild nudity) in the early 1970s.
Now, let’s be clear – by any conventional (Hammer) standards, Lust for a Vampire is extraordinarily trashy. But like the follow-up Twins of Evil, this film embraces the camp with a vigour that is impressive – especially as it doesn’t seem especially intentional, at least if you read interviews with anyone involved. Yet this tale of vampire schoolgirls and horny horror authors is so determinedly kitsch that it’s hard to believe that tongues were not firmly in cheek during the production. It’s not just the gratuitous nudity (the film is still several steps from softcore, but it’s the closest any of the Hammer films ever get to it) and the infamous song Strange Love – it’s the dialogue, the performances, the characters that are pure cliché and the moments of unexpected hilarity – Mike Raven suffering the dual indignity of having his weedy voice dubbed by Valentine Dyall (even though his dialogue consists of little more than repeatedly saying “a heart attack”) and having close-ups replaced by stock footage of Christopher Lee’s bloodshot eyes; Yutte Stensgaard (perhaps the sexiest of all Hammer starlets) going cross-eyed in romantic scenes; the shot of the assorted starlets posed artfully in diaphanous gowns; and other moments of pure pleasure that we’ll leave you to discover.
Basically, Lust for a Vampire is Hammer copying Eurotrash gothic horror, which of course was copying Hammer in the first place, and once you get your head around that, the film is hugely enjoyable. Director Jimmy Sangster might have cringed at the mere mention of it, and Hammer purists might mutter into their cravats at the thought of it, but take it from us – this is gloriously kitsch entertainment and all the better for it.
The best film released this month is One Deadly Summer, the title of which is a fairly reasonable translation of the French L’Été meurtrier, and which does little to let you know what an impressive film you are about to see. Far from the disposable thriller that the title suggests, the film is actually closer to Betty Blue, a film made three years later that also deals with a sexually provocative and mentally unstable young woman. In this case, it’s Elle, played with an insolent swagger and pouting provocation by Isabelle Adjani, a twenty-year-old who winds up with her family in a small town in the South of France and becomes involved with Florimond, aka Pin Pon (Alain Souchon). It’s an unlikely relationship, viewed with varying degrees of suspicion by all, but Elle has her own reasons for hooking up with Pin Pon, and they are connected to a dark story in her family’s past.
The film belongs to Adjani, who is truly extraordinary. Though nearly thirty when the film was made, she is entirely convincing as the flighty young girl who has a secret dark side, and moves from aloof sex kitten to shattered innocent with ease as the film moves slowly towards the bleak finale. She’s effortlessly sexy, and frequently nude, but the film doesn’t so much objectify her as worship her – there’s the sense that she really is the sexiest woman ever born as the film presents her as the ultimate sex goddess; a necessary requirement, given that much of what happens is based on her ability to seduce others.
But it’s probably a stretch to call this an erotic thriller, though many have. If nothing else, there’s no sense of a thriller about the film, despite the marketing, and the eroticism is more matter-of-fact than deliberately provocative – though certainly, Adjani is quite the sexually alluring figure for much of the film, whether naked or dressed in eye-catching, skimpy and skin-tight outfits. Jean Becker’s film is actually closer to a tragedy, as mistaken beliefs and the misguided need for revenge sets both the main characters on a path where their lives will be destroyed. It’s a quietly dark film, one that allows the personal tales of the main characters – complete with Rashamon-style multiple narrators telling their own sides of the story – to slowly intersect and diverge, as their and our understandings of the truth become twisted and changed, and the truth becomes more elusive for all concerned. The film unspools at leisure – it’s well over two hours long – but that’s no bad thing in this case, as the movie requires that sense of space and development to allow the story to percolate and peak, as it moves from lightweight romantic comedy to psychological drama.
If you like Betty Blue, then this is definitely worth checking out, as it is cut from much the same cloth. If you don’t, the be warned – like that film, this is very French, and the combination of sexual taboos, extensive nudity and melodrama might be too much for some people. Their loss, I’d say.
Reviews by David Flint