Freejack (1992)

Freejack

This review of Freejack contains spoilers.

Mostly forgotten now, Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)’s 1992 SF-action turkey Freejack got some attention back on its release for starring the one and only Mick Jagger. And as a twelve year old at the time the film was getting premiered on Sky’s movie channels, I was certainly interested in it because I thought the ads looked good, plus anything futuristic was always going to fascinate me after having been bowled over by Back to the Future Part II on the big screen a few years earlier. Unfortunately (or so I thought), those movie channels were out of our price range so I forgot about Freejack until it was premiered on BBC1 a few years later.

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By then I had become more aware that the film was meant to be… how can I put it… a bit shit, so I geared myself up for a bumpy ride of some sorts. I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it’s awful, but from the moment Jagger’s bounty hunter/’bonejacker’ Victor Vacendak lifts up the future-visor on his head and says, in that unmistakable camp London accent of his, ‘Okay… let’s do it! I knew I was going to love this film.

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I had the foresight to tape Freejack at the time and made a point of rewatching it over and over again. Well, the good bits anyway. Bits of this film are really dull. But the good bits (and by that I mean the really bad bits) were pure comedy gold.

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Based on Robert Sheckley’s novel Immortality, Inc. (more on that later), Freejack is set in a future where advancements in technology have made it possible for a mind to be transplanted into another human body. Meanwhile in present-day 1992,  hot shot racing driver Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is apparently killed mid-race when his car explodes in front of his adoring fans, his adoring girlfriend Julie (Rene Russo) and his adoring agent (David Johansen from the New York Dolls!). However, he’s not really dead because he re-materialises in the year 2009, surrounded by baddies in bacofoil who are ready to lobotomise him with a freaky laser. Luckily, Furlong escapes into a dystopia where people are either living at the top in sleek, plush surroundings or at the bottom where the only things to eat are rats or soup that’s so tasty that people are willing to kill you if you spill it all over them.

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Furlong realises that he’s now a ‘freejack’, a fugitive wanted for his BODY by a mystery party. Everyone he turns to for help either betrays him or slams the door in his face, except for a gun-toting nun, aka Mother Exposition, played by Amanda Plummer a few years before she threatened to execute every motherfuckin’ person in the Big Kahuna burger joint in Pulp Fiction. It turns out there’s a thing called the Spiritual Switchboard, which is a kind of cloud where human minds can be uploaded and then downloaded into a different body. Furlong’s body appears to be hot property because it comes from a time before something called the Ten Year Depression and isn’t contaminated with all the toxins, poisons and mutations that today’s underclass have been exposed to. Ah, but why doesn’t Furlong’s mystery party just take his pick of a body from 2009’s non-toxic cultural elite?

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Nope, it’s got to be Furlong, and the one who wants him is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who I forgot to mention in this review so far because he didn’t make much impression on the plot up until now. I’m sure he made an impression on viewers at the time – this was the first film he’d made after his award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs. This was not the first instance of an actor starring in a total turkey immediately after their Oscar win, and it wouldn’t be the last. It turns out his character in this – the mysterious and recently deceased tycoon McCandless who owns everything in the future and therefore was always untrustworthy – has fallen in love with Julie and of course the only way to win over someone who’s already attached is to possess the body of her boyfriend!

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The ending was clearly this was meant to be the Ultimate Trip, the kind that would leave Kubrick whimpering. Forget 2001, this was 2009, baby! This is where Furlong and Julie enter the Spiritual Switchboard, past loads of pixels, squares, time lapse skies and altering environments, culminating in a confrontation with McCandless, who seems to be able to smoke cigars in this virtual world – how does that work? – and who also suspiciously appears to have regretted his rash decision to try and nab Furlong’s body, offering to give everything to him, his riches, his job as an apology … but we know it’s all lies and stalling, as Vacendak shows up and Furlong still ends up undergoing the old switcheroo in a sequence of, and let’s be generous, rather funny special effects that includes a trippy flashback nightmare that, like all bad dream/hallucination sequences, features not one but two random bits of people laughing wickedly.

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Weasely deputy villain Michelette (Jonathan Banks), who doesn’t want McCandless in any form to survive as that would prevent him from inheriting the company, destroys the transfer device and we’re all left wondering which mind is currently occupying the disoriented body of Furlong. Michelette has the right idea – if whoever this guy is can correctly identify McCandless’ personal security clearance number then he’s obviously the real deal. The thing is, he actually can! It must be McCandless, god damned McCandless! Michelette shakes his head in despair, laughs to himself and attempts to go out in a blaze of glory before being instantly gunned down by Vacendak.

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So Furlong’s dead, right? No. He was just guessing the security number and Vacendak went along with it because, let’s face it, nobody likes Michelette. Furlong’s a bit of a twat about it though, not telling Julie what’s happened until we the viewer also got to find out, which was a bit mean of him, stringing her along like that for what must have felt like a long few minutes. So, Furlong assures Julie that everything’s going to be alright and off they drive. In fact, his specific final line is ‘Come on, buckle up, let’s see what this baby can do!’ which is a line almost as cheesy as the one in this clip:

Haul Ass to Lollapalooza!

Cue anthemic metal from whistle-friendly favourites the Scorpions and roll those credits. Terrible ending. Saying that ‘Hit Between the Eyes’ is a fun song. I remember hearing the guitar squeals over that old Sky ad for the movie and I remember thinking this film was going to be ace.

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So, what we have here is a film that was probably the last attempt to make Emilio Estevez an action star, but he’s just not well served by the direction or the script. Also, he just doesn’t convey enough of the overwhelmed mind-scramble of what it would be like to be in a new time. Even though the Estevez smirk is almost as good a thing as the Bruce Willis smirk, he’s just too cocky here for us to really care too much. We also have future Breaking Bad legend Jonathan Banks in the role of Michelette, and compared to the dry, been-there-done-that persona of Mike Ehrmentraut, his character here is entertainingly obnoxious, stressed-out and seemingly despised by everybody. The scene where Jagger crushes a Faberge egg and chucks it over to him whilst calling him an asshole is one of the funniest in the film. Banks and Hopkins get the play-it-straight-but-chew-the-scenery-at-the-same-time thing beautifully, which can’t be said for Estevez and Russo. There’s little to no chemistry between the two, which makes their potentially thrilling, 16-year overdue catch-up a little flat. To be fair, the tragedy of their extended separation isn’t helped by the bit just as Furlong ‘dies’ when the camera rapidly zooms into Julie’s face – it’s hilarious. I think even Warners/Morgan Creek realised it was funny as early as 1993, because Brad Pitt’s waster character in True Romance is watching that exact same moment on the telly.

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But never mind that.

Let’s talk about Mick Jagger.

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Now I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love their sixties stuff, I love their seventies stuff and I even like some of their eighties stuff. And I love Mick Jagger. What a frontman. I mean, there’s precious few like him. Yet there’s always been something kind of hilarious about him too. It’s that preening, camp, lip-smacking sense of mischief, right there even from the start. Like David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg found something intrinsically cinematic about him and both of them enjoyed their best big-screen performances under his wing. However, unlike Bowie, Jagger didn’t really have much of a film career afterwards. I’m not saying Bowie was a screen legend, but he also had The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Prestige among others under his belt, whereas Jagger had few other roles of note. There was Ned Kelly, and then there was Freejack.

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I love Jagger in this film – he can’t really act but he does his individual thing and he does it very entertainingly. As I’ve already mentioned, his very first line is a classic of camp delivery, but pretty much everything he says here has this kind of delightful amusement to it. How the hell do nothing lines like ‘power it up’ and ‘he’s good’, both uttered by him in the opening race sequence, end up being so gigglesome? It’s all in the execution. His best extended sequence outside of the Faberge bit is the chase scene involving the ugliest and reddest tank in history. Furlong has escaped in a car/champagne crate and Vacendak and crew are in hot pursuit. Using some kind of bluetooth connection to tap into Furlong’s car, he starts pestering his quarry throughout the car chase, and even though Furlong tries to hang up on him (leading Vacendak to hilariously exclaim ‘Oh no! I hate the dark!’) he just won’t go away. He laughs like a madman, delivers lines like ‘you can’t get rid of me that easily!’ ‘I want him without a scccraaatch!’ and ‘the brake pedal’s the one on the right’ and of course ‘DON’T DO IT!!!!’ with the kind of relish someone who actually gets paid a lot of money to say this stuff does.

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So what about the book that Freejack was based on? I wasn’t expecting Robert Sheckley’s 1958 Immortality, Inc. to be so entertaining, but it really is a proper tear-through ride of a novel that is crammed with ideas and twists. Okay, the female characters get short shrift, but for the most part it’s great. To be honest, to adapt it faithfully might have made for a pretty crammed feature-length film, but compromises could nevertheless have been made and we could have got a striking, spectacular SF experience.

When you come down to it, Freejack is mostly a lot of chases, fights and shoot outs, only really going into overdrive (some would say for the worse) for its finale. Immortality, Inc. has a lot more fun delving into the future world that Thomas Blaine (not Alex Furlong) has found himself in. At first his arrival into the future is exploited as a publicity gimmick for the Rex Corporation (there’s no McCandless here) who want to show him off as the world’s first person to be snatched from the past and put in a new body, but is soon forgotten by the media and even his own captors once the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a target for capture, Blaine is more or less stranded in the future in a new body and with no way to make a living… I don’t want to spoil the rest of the novel as it’s a revelation for those only aware of Freejack, but if you do get round to reading it you’ll be dazzled by how much stuff there is here. Then you think about all that could have been accomplished in adapting this novel and you see what was actually made and released in 1992 and it beggars belief. Freejack essentially adapts a tiny portion of the story – the concept of an old mind occupying a younger body and the presence of the Spiritual Switchboard – and scraps the rest. I mean, there were suicide booths in the novel! Why would you not put something like that in the film? There’s merely a small electronic billboard for ‘suicide assistance’ that you can just about make out in a couple of shots. At least Futurama recognised a great (if fucked-up) SF idea when it saw one. It’s frankly insulting to see what they’ve done to the novel. If there are better examples of just how dumb the worst of Hollywood can be in adapting other mediums, then please let me know.

Of course, there was nothing in Immortality, Inc. that was as funny as the shot below, so both have their own individual merits, I suppose.

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PS: Amazingly, one of the co-writers is Dan Gilroy, who would end up directing the terrific Nightcrawler!

PSS: Some of the main characters have alliterative names, like Victor Vacendak and Mark Michelette. Those that don’t are nonetheless played by actors with alliterative names, like Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. The only exception is Anthony Hopkins as Ian McCandless, but given he had just won an Oscar, I suppose he could get away with it.

PSSS: two non-Jagger highlights from the tank chase scene to mention – the music by Trevor Jones here is really enjoyable, great chase music. And secondly, yes that is a sample of James Brown screaming as a pedestrian jumps out of the way. There’s a few of these in this film, but it wasn’t the first action romp to feature a Brown sample. Raw Deal did it too, spectacularly. Hit me!

PSSSS: Here’s a shot of David Johansen, simply because there hasn’t been one yet in this review.

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet: A brief look at Dario Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’

The wild and weird output of the landmark Italian horror/thriller director Dario Argento can neatly be split up into three chapters.

The middle and most famous chapter, from 1975’s Deep Red to 1987’s Opera, is heralded by those who love him as one of the all-time great runs of genre cinema, films of such verve, idiosyncratic extremes and horrific beauty that it’s no wonder they’ve inspired the kind of intense devotion that true cults are made of.

The third chapter, which covers everything from 1989’s Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes right up until now, is where Argento’s mojo starts to slip away and we get a much spottier output, some of it good, some of it bad.

Then there was the first chapter, when Argento was just starting out. In this period he delivered three fine thrillers that you could (and I try not to, but I ultimately do) regard as mere build-ups for what was to come, but they also mostly work very well as films in their own right. They’re often referred to as ‘The Animal Trilogy’ for no other reason than their titles. Those titles by the way are just so much fancy window-dressing – they sound cool, mysterious and unique, but they barely relate to the actual bloody films, bar a shoe-horned reference here and there. Compared to Argento’s golden period, these films are far more modest in their ambitions and impact, but something like 1969’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is actually a pretty neat entry-point for those who aren’t at all sure about how to approach this most extreme of filmmakers. What’s interesting about Bird is not only how relatively normal it is for an Argento film but also how many of his motifs and themes were right there from the start. Scary paintings, unreliable memories, helpless murder witnesses, obsessed protagonists, unique cinematic tricks, cats – it’s all here. The seeds were being sown.

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The plot involves blocked writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnessing the stabbing of a woman in a museum by a mysterious black-clad assailant. He’s unable to help because he’s trapped in-between two sets of glass doors (Argento would take this motif of helpless watching to one hell of an extreme in 1987’s Opera), but nevertheless develops his own obsession with the mystery as the film proceeds, becoming amateur detective (another Argento regularity) and dancing perilously close to death as a result. Argento’s been criticised for his unbelievable characters, and some might balk at the scene when Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are in bed going over the clues (and various grisly crime scene photos) with an enthusiastic glee that surely no sane person would adopt if any of this were real. But if you consider that Argento could be letting his characters approach the case in the same way a viewer would approach a mystery film, then it almost makes some kind of perverse sense. Sam and his girlfriend’s reactions are almost like if you and I were going over the plot of say, a TV crime series the day after it had been screened. This might put some viewers off though for being too remote, and not how people in real life would react, but Argento and ‘real life’ have always been a tricky combination. There’s also a bit earlier Sam is walking home (down a beautifully eerie, foggy street) and is almost hacked by the killer – he pretty much shrugs it off and later relays the previous night and day’s events with a wry dismissal. Blimey.  With stuff like that, you’re either happy to go along for the ride or you aren’t. Besides, this is nothing compared to the infamously odd scene in Opera where the heroine, having just been forced to watch her boyfriend get a knife up through his jaw, behaves if she’s only mildly inconvenienced. That really did annoy me.

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The violent extremes that Argento would become famous haven’t been reached yet – the first murder takes place entirely off-screen (!!!!), but there are still some unsettlingly nasty moments here – I imagine they were pretty damned strong for 1969, and to think that this director would only get more and more cruel, elaborate and gory from here on in! Also, one thing that differentiates this from Argento’s other gialli is that this has a reasonably happy ending – think of all the others from 1970’s Cat O’ Nine Tails onwards, they have a sting in the tail, are uncertain or are pretty damned bleak.

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Speaking of Cat, this is an Argento film that has always been relatively easy to find in the UK – on video it was distributed by Warner Bros. It got a rental release in 1987 to presumably cash in on Argento’s cult popularity (the cover refers to Suspiria and more recent films like Creepers – aka Phenomena – and the Argento-produced Demons) and was also re-released as part of Warners’ very cool Terror Vision collection of horror movies. However, while Bird was a hit in the US, Cat was not. Oddly enough, for a director who has featured kitties in many of his films, Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t star any felines at all. This is very disappointing. The plot is a twisty-turny tale of murder, theft, kind-of incest, genetics etc. and while it is no Argento classic, I love it for its tension between giallo grotesquerie and Stateside potboiler. Even though it’s not set in the US, it nevertheless feels like an episode of a crime series like Columbo and The Streets of San Franscisco at times, understandable given that the latter’s star Karl Malden is one of the two leads here.

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The plot – something about the criminality of the XXY chromosome and the killer’s desperate attempt to cover up that they have it – is even more convoluted and silly than the one for Bird, and hinges on implausibilities: the one that’s currently bothering me is the second murder: why would the killer bump off the photographer to conceal the fact that a murder took place originally? All you could see in the original photo was a hand! Talk about compounding the situation! To be honest, I’ve watched Cat three times now and the last two times I had forgotten who the murderer was, so this isn’t really a film that revolves around a particularly important revelation. Maitland McDonagh, author of the brilliant Argento book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, suggests that the film is a lot more fun if you already know who the killer is. I kind of agree with that – as a whodunnit, Cat is hardly a classic, but as an exercise in style and flair, it’s very enjoyable indeed. One thing that Argento has already upped his game with substantially is his handling of murder scenes. The first, a gruesome killing at a train station, is spectacularly nasty. We also get some pretty vicious first-person kills that are protracted, garish and pretty damned ugly. It’s also a cynical movie – note the way the photographers are distracted from the murder of Calabresi (the first victim) with the arrival of the celebrity arriving on the train for whom they were originally there for, and ‘Smile bitch, your train just killed a guy’ is one of the cruellest asides in any Argento film. In addition, it’s the little extra sadistic touches that stand out – after strangling the photographer, the killer slashes each of his cheeks. The vomit in Bianca’s mouth as she’s getting garotted. When the killer falls down the lift shaft, he/she attempt to hold onto the lift cables but that ends up causing so much friction that their hands begin to smoke – ouch!

And of course, this shot.

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Argento, more than in Bird, is clearly interested in set-pieces and individual stand-out moments. Aside from the murders, we also get a car chase, an excursion to a cemetery, a suspense-scene involving poisoned milk and a funny scene at the barber’s that’s half amusing, half squirm-inducing. These are the stand out moments, but Argento joins the dots nicely thanks to charismatic performances from James Franciscus (soon to venture Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and Karl Malden, whose character in turn has a cute double-act with his niece. Catherine Spaak represents that rare thing in an Argento film – a love interest – and even though the dynamic between her and Franciscus isn’t as sharp or fascinating as the one between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, it’ll do well enough, despite a love scene that’s so drained of heat it’s almost alien. Some neat uses of editing (like jumping back and forth in-between scenes as an arresting form of transition, the cutaways that suggest that Malden’s blind character has some kind of second sight), the memorably nasty (and oblique, if you go along with McDonagh’s theory that the killer wasn’t lying about his final victim) ending and great shot composition makes this is a relatively modest but still above-average slice of genre fare.

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Accidental murder, phoney murder and out-and-out intentional murder, as well as self-loathing gender identity, filial hatred, infidelity and yes, feline abuse form the bulk of 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which is the darkest and weirdest of the Animal Trilogy. It was given some kind of Holy Grail status over the decades due to how rare it was to track down but don’t get excited, this flawed film is most definitely not a ‘lost masterpiece’ as the cover of the eventual Blu-Ray excitedly release claimed it to be. Still, I like it for the most part – it sees Argento venture even further out there in regards to technique and idiosyncrasy. There are some tremendous moments to savour. The opening sequence blends music and visuals brilliantly as we get a prog-rock band in rehearsal whilst the camera explores a guitar by perching on the top of its neck or even occupying a space INSIDE it – we see the hand strumming the strings! There’s a great protracted suspense scene as a doomed maid finds the zoo she’s in becomes deserted and, as she’s pursued by the killer, seems to turn into some kind of cobwebbed catacomb! The final scene proves you can make anything beautiful as long as you add slow-motion and Morricone. Fans of Argento’s later work will notice little touches here and there that he’s repeated later on. Puppets, slow-motion bullets, that sort of thing. As for the absolutely insane method of detection that involves taking the last image seen by the victim before they died? Well, it comes out of nowhere so late in the narrative and is frankly complete twaddle, but it’s so mad that I can’t help but admire its nerve.

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However, any resemblance to conventional thriller fare that his first two films might have had are slipping away, and to be honest, we’re occasionally in an awkward middleground between the immediately satisfying if relatively unambitious likes of Bird and Cat and the more successful craziness of Deep Red. Sometimes the film feels flat, and this isn’t helped by Michael Brandon in the lead character of Roberto, a drummer who thinks he’s killed someone (in a spectacularly abandoned concert hall) but hasn’t, yet is still guilty of being a dickhead. He certainly looks the part (and his resemblance to Argento himself has been noted) but he’s one of the director’s more charmless leads. His performance is most odd – at times he seems to be barely reacting to anything. His scenes with girlfriend Mimsy Farmer as she’s practically breaking down in front of him are some of the coldest you’ll ever see. Is it because Roberto is so remote he’s barely there, or is the actor not really trying? Incidentally, Brandon was some way down the list of preferred actors for the role – if you can believe it, the likes of James Taylor (yes, that one) and Tom Courtenay (yes, that one) were considered!

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There’s also a would-be humorous element that doesn’t quite work – the bit when Roberto first encounters ‘God’ and this out-of-the-blue musical snippet of ‘Hallelujah’ appears out of nowhere is really bloody weird. Other broadly jokey bits, including a put-upon postman, don’t really work, though the digs at hipster arty-banter are quite amusing – I wish more of these prats had been killed off to be honest. The only light element that truly succeeds is the character of the gay private detective who is hedging his bets on a successful result after eighty-plus unsuccessful cases. It’s an affectionate performance and too sweet to be offensive or patronising, though some viewers might object to it. Nevertheless, he’s the most engaging character in the film. Incidentally, the fact that one of the reasons that a character in Cat O Nine Tails is suspicious because he’s he’s gay  is the kind of dated stuff you have to take as a given in a film that’s almost fifty years old, I suppose.

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In regards to subtext and themes, Four Flies is definitely the most complex of Argento’s first three films – the killer’s motivations are fascinating for example – but it’s difficult to get swept up in the whole affair mainly because the director has not found the confidence to go full-pelt with his vision. It’s simply not Argento enough. After an anomolous diversion into comedy for his fourth film (The Five Days of Milan), Argento would truly find his thriller-horror mojo from 1975 onwards.

One point of interest regarding these three films is the hiring of Ennio Morricone as composer – Argento’s collaborations with Goblin and its various members are his most celebrated, but the Morricone stuff has a magical appeal all of its own. Sometimes it’s generic, but othertimes it’s very nicely complementary, memorable and effective. Compared to the Goblin and Emerson stuff though, it’s just too damned normal!

These three films, had they been the only ones that Argento had ever made, would I’m sure still be as warmly remembered by cultists now as they are in real life. Those who object to the director’s more out-there and excessive later work might even find that the likes of Bird and Cat are their own personal favourites of the work. For hardcore Argento fans though, it’s unlikely any of these three will occupy the top spot, but they are still essential viewing for anyone who want to delve further into the man’s work, and also pleasing (if er, unpleasant) viewing for anyone who wants a bit of vintage late sixties/early seventies thrills.

Samurai Cop (1991)

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Please note that none of the imagery in the above poster for Samurai Cop actually takes place in the film itself.

An astoundingly inept action thriller that’s become quite the cult favourite for how jaw-droppingly awful it is. From the sub-Streets of Rage title music onwards, there is absolutely nothing in this film that is intentionally worthwhile. Join our two McBain wannabes Joe and Frank as they take on the killer from Maniac Cop and his endless parade of disposable henchmen! Prepare your flabber to be well and truly gasted at the horrors to follow!!

Where to start?

  • Well, the dialogue appears to have been recorded with the cheapest mics available. When they do actually manage to pick up the actors’ voices, it’s usually muffled and hissy – I think there was some fluff on the mic.
  • The shooting script must have got mixed up in the post – various scenes appear to jump back and forth throughout the daytime, making it look as though the sun in this film’s world goes up and down like a fucking yo-yo.
  • The editing is horrendous – after watching this you realise that most films do indeed get the fundamentals right to the point where you sort of forget you’re watching a film. In Samurai Cop the rhythm is totally off – shots begin too early or too late, the music stops and starts intermittently and the whole thing feels like a hastily put together rough cut. The most notorious example is when the police chief gives our two ‘heroes’ a load of shit and then sits back down in his chair, after which the camera keeps rolling and the actor just starts laughing.
  • In addition to the above, the fight scenes are incompetently staged – none of the actors appear to be properly interacting with each other. Their reaction time to impending danger is so off that it’s no wonder they keep getting killed. Death throes are sometimes accompanied with unconvincing splats of blood (in one case, paintball has clearly contributed to a character’s death) but more often than not with no squibs or gore whatsoever, so all we see is a lot of writhing around with no apparent physical trauma.
  • There are three ‘love’ scenes that are some of the most inert and unerotic ever staged for a film. We’re talking fast-forward fodder that’s on the level of The Room here, people.
  • The acting is hopelessly stilted and off-key. The director seems to be insisting that when not speaking, his actors must be posing awkwardly, either by leaning on banisters or perching one of their legs on steps or chairs to try and look casual.
  • The dialogue is very poor – the intentionally comic scenes (the camp restaurant waiter, the nods to the fact that Frank is black, the ‘would you like to fuck me?’ bit) feel very awkward, while the overheated confrontation scenes are hilariously stilted. The best example of this is Joe’s threat to the criminals at the dinner table.
  • The plot is complete bobbins – plot holes, illogical behaviour, unrealistic physical attraction between characters… it’s all here. My favourite is when Frank protests to Joe about the killing of the big bad guy (‘stop it, you’re a cop!’) even though the both of them have murdered at least a thousand criminals over the last 90 minutes. Bit late to develop a conscience there, mate.
  • This film features the most passionless, bored delivery of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song in cinema history.

Of course, I really enjoyed this film for the most part – there are plenty of dull bits but there are also loads of moments to laugh yourself silly to. Whether its Joe and Frank’s mild irritation at running over a bad guy with their car (‘oh, man!’, indeed), Matt Hannon’s occasional (and obvious) dependence on a wig (he had to come back for additional filming after he’d slashed his locks) or the little mad touches (why do the bad guys have a Defender arcade cabinet in their flat?) – it’s a proper chuckle. It’s also one of the worst films ever made.

Oh, and by the way, here’s some choice dialogue snippets:

LAWYER: ‘I’ll see you in court!’
POLICE CHIEF: ‘You motherfucker, I’ll see you in hell!’

and:

JOE to FRANK: [on discovering a mid-level bad guy smooching naked with his girlfriend] ‘Looks like this is his last FUCK!’

MULLETED VILLAIN: ‘I want his head on this piano!’
MANIAC COP: ‘I will bring you his head, and I will place it on this piano.’

Hellraiser (1987)

Thirty years on and this film still delivers the goods…

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This is one of the best horrors of the 80’s. I watched it at a too-young age, and what struck me about it was how dark, adult and grim it was. Oh, and gory. Bleurgh. It’s also pretty funny in places though, especially towards the end, but in an era when horror had become sequel-fatigued and very self-aware, Hellraiser gave us horror straight-up, extreme, nightmarish, yet also original, clever and imaginative. What might surprise newcomers to the series is that ‘Pinhead’, despite being the main focus when the film was originally marketed, is not the chief villain here, not in the same way Freddy or Jason was. He’s not even called ‘Pinhead’ – that was something that caught on with the fans, and apparently Clive Barker is not a fan of the name. Still, he was happy to call one of the others (in the credits) ‘Butterball’, so it’s not like he’s not got a sense of humour.

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No, the main bad guy here is a pretty despicable piece of shit named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) who makes the mistake of purchasing a puzzle box that, when solved, opens up a gateway to Hell or somewhere equally horrific, where extreme pleasure is matched with extreme pain by the deeply freaky Cenobites. We don’t get to see much of the pleasure element in this film – most of what we see is torn-apart faces, upside down torture and hooks through skin. Sometime later, Frank’s brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) move into Frank’s former digs, and a bloody accident results in Frank being able to return to Earth, albeit in extremely primitive, barely-there form. His ‘resurrection’ is one of the best scenes in the film, and not one to watch whilst eating – it’s bloody minging. Yet it’s also given some kind of grand beauty by Christopher Young’s amazing, epic score – honestly, ‘Resurrection’ is one of the best pieces of music I have heard in a film, ever. When Julia and what’s barely-there of Frank are reunited, a particularly fucked-up plot to bring him fully back to life begins to form…

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This was Clive Barker’s first film, and given that he was adapting his own work, there’s very little in the way of compromise – of course, handling your own work is no guarantee of success, but he proves himself to be a near-perfect director of horror. The sense of dread, foreboding and nastiness has rarely been matched. This made a lot of horror back then seem awfully adolescent in comparison. When I first watched it I was repulsed, fascinated and scared. Even something that could be could considered a major flaw – the decision during making the film (enforced by the studio) to change the location from England to the US, kind of works in its favour, the film occupies a strange Nowherestown mood where, for instance, the accents are American but the British Rail symbol is still present in the background in one scene! The special effects are variable – hooks go into some clearly rubber skin at one point, yet later on they look horribly effective when they’re stretching a particular character’s face apart. Additionally, the light-show effects at the end have never looked great but the resurrection scene is one of the best uses of stop-motion and practical effects in cinema history, and is utterly bloody repulsive too.

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As for the Cenobites, they’re sparingly used, but extremely effective whenever they are on screen. Doug Bradley made for an instantly iconic ‘Lead Cenobite’ – the scene when he and the other three threaten to take Kirsty to Hell is incredible, and that ‘we’ll tear your soul apaaaarrrrt!!’ line is just one of many brilliant slices of dialogue. Other performances? A few of the supporting ones are a little iffy (the fact that they were dubbed to go with the new US setting doesn’t help), but Clare Higgins makes for a deliciously complex villain, Ashley Laurence as Larry’s resourceful daughter makes for a great, gutsy heroine and Andrew Robinson gets to do a hell of a lot in the role of Larry, especially in the final act.

Top marks for this classic – it’s still got the goods, even almost thirty years on.

PS: Here’s that British Rail logo! It’s from a speeding train, so forgive the blurry image.

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PSS: That is not Alan Moore playing the role of the ‘derelict’.

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