Saturday, 27 May 2017

Underworld: Blood Wars

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, and Charles Dance

Director: Anna Foerster

91 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony blu-ray region ABC
[Released 29 May]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

“Don’t think... you’ll hurt yourself.” This fantasy action movie rattles along without pause for much ponderous horror, but Underworld: Blood Wars still offers a highly effective showcase for various gothic a-go-go riffs on the bloody legacy of a battle against beasts within. Following Underworld (2003), Underworld: Evolution (2006), prequel Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009), and previous instalment Underworld Awakening (2012), this is the first of this franchise to be directed by a woman. However, the milieu of vampire-superheroine death dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) looks pretty much the same. Selene is invited back into the coven, where she is betrayed yet again by one of the council.



As a vampire elder, Charles Dance brings gravitas to this movie’s first act, setting up the premise of a new Lycan leader Marius (Tobias Menzies) who wants to end the feudal war, but only with full victory against the vampires, not a peaceful resolution to the seemingly eternal conflict. Sub-plots about festering revenge and unanticipated discoveries a propos the gloomy future of vampirism keep everything ticking over, until the final battles with a pivotal duel. Eventually finding refuge in the frozen north, Selene soon finds that her kind have mutated beyond death into more wraith-like creatures.   


Facing up to revolutionary challenges and the evolutionary changes of techno-modernity, as the 21st century’s science results in weaponised silver and UV light, Underworld has a lively narrative about struggles to maintain order, uphold and honour the ancient familial traditions, and explore the ramifications of a magical yet synthesised mythology. As ever for this genre franchise, and others like it, what makes the movie work as entertainment is the production’s seamless combinations of live-action stunts and photo-real animation (PRA) effects. It’s never difficult to accept the otherworldly qualities of this stylised action  adventure because the polished visuals maintain a superb standard throughout.    


Of course, it would also be easy to view this on-going storyline as a metaphor of class war, with vampires as wealthy overlords - favouring swordfights, and werewolves as the beastly proles - armed with machine-guns like army grunts. Allegorical interpretations aside, twisty plot elements converge on the final conflict where sunlight not moonlight might be decisive, but it is enemy memories derived from blood-tasting that reveals all the secrets and lies. So, in the end, blood will out, one way or another.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Passengers

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

116 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A shipboard romance in space? Yes, sci-fi trappings provide refreshingly cool backdrops to this otherwise insufferably corny adventure of, as the old song goes - ‘if you were the only girl in the world, and I was the only boy’. The boy is a mechanic named Jim (played by the ‘Star Lord’ himself, Chris Pratt), while the girl is Jennifer Lawrence as Aurora, and, perhaps, no other name screams ‘space-girl’ as loudly; not even Stella. Directed by the Norwegian maker of thriller Headhunters (2011), and Alan Turing bio-pic The Imitation Game (2014), Passengers is basically Titanic (1997) with twiddle knobs on, where one rogue asteroid from the cosmic depths replaces an iceberg in the North Atlantic.


While another couple in a movie like Arrival have to deal with first contact problems, this drama has only social contact problems, while it promotes the great human myth of love. Romance is fiction, not fact. Love is the greatest fantasy fixation of literature and cinema and TV, and the stories that we tell each other - to survive life in an indifferent universe. Love is a dream, that we all dream of; but nothing more than that. Love is the singularly perfect thing that cannot be true because all of humanity shares the flaw of an imperfect reasoning bound to our feelings of gross inadequacy. Love is like god because one has to believe in something, and big love makes sense got any pointless life, because it appears to be selfless when, in fact, it is merely evidence of selfishness. That’s why Jim wakes up Aurora when he knows it’s wrong. 



Jim’s awakening from hibernation is an unfortunate accident, just a glitch in the starship systems, but his decision to select a female companion from the trope of sleeping beauty in space is quite premeditated and yet an obvious act of desperation. Passengers is a sci-fi amalgam of various familiar plot details and genre visualisations. Its blatant borrowings include some classics - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), The Cold Equations (1996), Sunshine (2007), and Prometheus (2012), and not to mention an heroic tragedy stolen from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn (1982). The only way forwards for Jim and Aurora is to adapt to their circumstances and accept the curse of their lost futures apart, and tolerate the necessity of a second chance together.


Explosive decompression is another instance common to space opera cinema, and here it might be applied as a metaphor to a cross-genre plot mixing lonely stalker themes with a united-we-stand, like it or not, against impending catastrophe - when the starship seems doomed by failing tech. Can the hero fix it, saving thousands of wannabe colonists and so gain redemption for his betrayal? Passengers is not the worst sci-fi production of this type to appear since Alien Cargo (1999), but the 21st century’s new big-budget space movies should really be aiming higher in terms of concepts than this passable genre-tourist fare.


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

XX

Cast: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, and Christina Kirk

Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Erin ‘St Vincent’ Clark, and Jovanka Vuckovic

78 minutes (15) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.39:1
Soda DVD Region 2
[Released 8th May]

Rating: 5/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

The big lipstick kiss-print on the DVD cover-art, which also forms a skull, neatly catches the tone. Less triple-X status, more a defiant gesture. Although surely a female-centric project such as this is already as much an anachronism as a crusading quartet by gay directors or black directors? At the risk of sounding tokenist, we already have movie-activists Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body, 2009), Drew Barrymore (Charlie’s Angels, 2000), Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012), Karen Rosenfelt (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2, 2012), Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games, 2012), as well as Kathryn Bigelow, Gale Anne Hurd, Sofia Coppola, Emma Thomas, and on. But glass ceilings are there to be shattered, and every splinter counts.


This is an anthology, or portmanteau movie of four 20-minute segments. Arty ‘Twilight Zone’ short story episodes with no obvious theme, linked only by spooked nursery inter-titles of decapitated dolls, butterfly animations, a pincushion with human teeth, and a haunted doll’s house. Cine-literate Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box quotes from George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), but its ambiguity has an inexorably clinical momentum sprung from a seemingly random incident on the 3:55 subway back to the suburbs. Little Danny (Peter DaCunha) asks the stranger with the lazy eye what he has in the red gift box tied up in a red ribbon. After glimpsing inside, he loses his appetite. No breakfast, no evening meal. Is he sneaking junk-food from the school cafeteria? No, despite the delectable culinary food-porn on offer, despite daddy (Jonathan Watton) Robert’s ultimatum, he refuses. After five days without food they take him to the doctor who explains “if you don’t eat, you’ll die.” “So?” says Danny. Mom Susan (Natalie Brown) resumes secret smoking, and Dad’s under pressure. Danny whispers the secret of the box to sister Jenny (Peyton Kennedy), then to Daddy, who both also stop eating. On Xmas Day nobody’s new clothes fit, they’re all too skinny. With the three in terminal intensive care Mom starts haunting the subway hunting the man with the red box. She’s hungry. Zero resolution.


Despite Annie Clark’s primary genre being experimental rock under her 'St Vincent' persona – collaborating with Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne across five albums, her one-woman segment The Birthday Party is a contrasting black comedy, albeit Mom-themed and with a twittering electro-score. Subtitled ‘The memory Lucy suppressed from her seventh birthday...’ it has moments recalling the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper And The Corpse, as effectively-frazzled Mom Mary (Melanie Lynskey) strives to conceal Daddy David’s corpse from creepy Nanny Carla (Sheila Vand), so as not to embarrass her daughter’s birthday event. With dead-Daddy finally revealed as the funky-panda head sitting at the table. Cue kiddy-screams, and long-term trauma.

From domestic interiors to “so fucking epic” vast desert exterior, Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall moves into more gut-wrenching traditional Horror Channel group-jeopardy splatter-core. Four slackers who’s “internal compass has failed me never” go off-trail in a camper-van, and find pre-Native American rock-art in the form of a horned beast territorial marker. “Maybe it’s cursed?” Yup, it’s cursed. Gretchen’s toxic graze turns shock-mutational in a convincingly nasty slasher killing spree. Her physical contortions recall Andy Serkis at his most grotesque. Until the rock-art has a new set of blood-red additional images.


Finally, Karyn Kusama has the strongest resumé, directing femme-actioner Aeon Flux (2005), and The Invitation (2016) as well as cheer-leader flesh-eating romp Jennifer’s Body. In Her Only Living Son single-Mom Cora (Christina Kirk) wears a cross on a chain, while bratty tousle-haired son Andy (Kyle Allen), is a troubled prodigy who also tears classmate Stacy’s fingernails off, spatters bloodstains across the bathroom, and has hairy horned toes. Everyone, including the postman, seems in on the secret that this episode envisages the outcome of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with Andy’s real father – Satan, soon coming to claim him. Which force will triumph, Mom’s love or Andy’s dreams of “empires of misery”? With the same kind of maternal self-immolation as the vivid dream sequence in The Box, where the family carve and devour Mom as she’s sprawled on the dinner-table, making the ultimate sacrifice for their appetites, mother and son crush each other to death in a killer embrace. A closure probably dictated more by time-constraints than by reasoned plotting. By necessity sharp and razored to the bone, as a show-reel, this impressive and disturbingly varied female-centric quartet of miniatures should lead to follow-on mainstream commissions very soon.


Friday, 28 April 2017

The 5th Wave

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Ron Livingston, Nick Robinson, Maria Bello, and Liev Schreiber

Director: J. Blakeson

108 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington  

Rick Yancey’s novel The Fifth Wave was huge on the New York Times ‘young adult’ best-seller lists. So it’s inevitable, in the light of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga franchises, that there’d be a movie. And in that hormonally-driven originality-light kidult sense, it’s a movie that works efficiently. A lone 16-year-old blonde girl with a high-velocity gun, a deserted truck-stop, it’s post-apocalypse-a-go-go… the story of how totally normal high-school girl Cassiopeia Sullivan from “just a happy-go-lucky family” becomes ‘Cassie who kills’. In ‘Anytown America’ she’s into hook-ups with boys with Spider-Man cell-phones, and cheer-leader pom-poms. Until the galactic party-crashers arrive, the ‘mysterious object in orbit’ spotted over white picket-fences Ohio, brings ‘The Others’ hovering overhead.


The First Wave attack is an EM-pulse – cars crash, planes fall out of the sky, product-placement Sony mobiles fail. The Second Wave is quakes and tsunamis that smash every coastal city, inundate islands, and devour Tower Bridge. Cassie and little brother Sam (Zachary Arthur) get stranded in a tree. The Third Wave is a modified avian flu that decimates global populations. Mommy (Maggie Siff) dies. “They’re careful not to damage Earth too much,” observes Daddy (Ron Livingston), “they need Earth.” “But not us,” adds Cassie perceptively. He gives her a handgun, because “there’s nothing safe anymore.” There’s regulation devastation as they travel towards the refugee camp, where the army arrives with news of ‘imminent threat’. The Fourth Wave is happening. The ‘Others’ are tentacular green nasties who’ve descended to inhabit human skulls. The children are to be evacuated in a convoy of school coaches. Daddy is killed when a protest gets out of hand and turns into a bloody riot, and Sam gets inadvertently separated from Cassie, who is left alone in the forest. Walking all the usual highways of endless desolation, stalled auto-wrecks and corpses.

It’s been said the idea of green helmet visors enabling squaddies to see the aliens was lifted from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). True, but equally, there’s not a single idea here that’s not recognisably recycled. Nasty envious aliens have been drawing their plans against us and perpetrating diabolical invasions at least since the 1930s pulp magazines, and sci-fi horror comics. That it’s astutely targeted at a youth demographic to whom it’s freshly-minted doesn’t entirely stack up. Yet there are some fine participants aboard the movie. The very lovely Chloe Grace Moretz, proved her action Hit-Girl credentials in Kick-Ass (2010), and her talent at portraying sensitivity in the remade Let The Right One In (2010). Both qualities employed to good effect here, as Cassie. Akiva Goldsman has writing credits clear across the genre, all the way from the family-in-crisis Lost In Space (1998), to Will Smith in both Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (2004), and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (2007).


Liev Schreiber was also a strong presence in TheLast Days On Mars (2013), as well as his various X-Men contributions. Now he’s Colonel Vosch who delivers crock-patriotic spiel at the Wright-Patterson military base, intent on organising the global strike-back – or is he? When he’s shock-unmasked as an alien himself, training the kids to kill human stragglers, he gets the movie’s best lines, people simply “occupy a space we need.” And when Cassie’s high-school crush Ben ‘Zombie’ Parrish (Nick Robinson) argues that “our kind wouldn’t wipe out entire species,” he retorts “of course you would, you’ve been doing it for centuries.” Ask the dodo. And the white rhino. But putting their roles in context, Ben was named after Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, while Cassie is named after a star-cluster. Needless to say little-brother Sam is processed at the same internment centre as Ben, in another of those tedious boot-camp things that movies seem to love so much, alongside token feisty street-wise punk ‘Ringer’ (Maika Munroe) who is already into the scam, “we didn’t get rescued,” she says, “we got drafted!”


Alien drones hunt survivors. “If you bug-bomb a house there’s always a few cockroaches left. Now we are like those cockroaches. And the Others are picking us off one by one,” Cassie’s voice-over journal explains. She gets major romantic complications when she’s rescued by darkly hunky Evan Walker (Alex Roe), and watches him skinny-dipping in the lake, to libidinous effect. But not everything is as it seems. The full-on end-of-the-world sex got deleted in favour of a chaste kiss, and in the movie’s second switch-around it turns out he’s a planted part-Other sleeper agent. “Our kind believe that love is just a trick. An instinct. A way to protect your genetic future,” he deadpans. “Do you really believe that?” queries Cassie. “I did. But then I saw you.” He can’t be both. He has to choose. He chooses her. He’s been redeemed by love. Which ticks another focus-group box.

In an efficiently undemanding film, there are shoot-outs and an exploding coach in a Middle American war-zone city. As a rite of passage, blowing up the yellow school bus is probably the most extreme form of putting aside childish things. But ultimately The 5th Wave is reassuringly about family values, as the various factions bond around a campfire. Yancey’s novel was a trilogy, so the fight-back goes on. “It’s our hope that makes us human,” Cassie’s final journal voice-over explains.




Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Movies with balls

Phantasm series 
reviews by Steven Hampton 
Yes, there really are two kinds of people in the world...
There are people who watch a mystery movie - a movie with mysteriousness at its heart, and then say: “I don’t get that [frowns]. It’s rubbish!”
And there are people that watch that same movie with a mystery in its dark heart, and say: “I don’t understand that [frowns, thoughtfully]. I’ll watch it again.”

Phantasm (1979)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli 
8/10

Teenage orphan Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) snoops around Morningside cemetery, where the powerful and malevolent Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) lurches about robbing graves and, apparently, uses alien technology to produce midget homunculi (resembling the child-sized Jawas of Star Wars, 1977) for expendable slave labour sent to another dimension or inhospitable alien planet. Mike’s older brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), and the town’s ice-cream seller, Reg (Reggie Bannister), are eventually convinced that Mike’s fantastic story is all true, and eventually this gang of three mount an armed raid on Morningside...

Considering that Phantasm was a low-budget genre offering, it became a remarkable cult success when released on video. The script is clearly the work of a tyro filmmaker, and the cast have more amateurish charm than professional competence, but the movie is an efficiently produced combination of scares and laughs, and boasts an inspired level of real creativity from young filmmaker Don Coscarelli.

Although it features ostensibly supernatural set pieces, Phantasm also has overtly SF elements that are elegantly simple: blue barrels contain and preserve the remains of harvested corpses, a pair of vibrating metal posts (the space-gate) in a secret room mark the dimensional boundary of an interplanetary teleportation device, and there’s a flying mechanical sphere (the sentinel) with built-in power tools. This chromed device latches onto its victim’s head, drills noisily into the skull and then pumps out every last drop of blood. Credited to one Willard Green, it’s like a heat-seeking cannonball from Black & Decker!

Sci-fi paraphernalia, childhood melancholy, and its evocative sense of the macabre aside, Phantasm stands apart from conventional American horror movies due to its ominous surrealism. Mike is morbidly curious because his parents are dead but, in place of the nitty-gritty of mortuary customs, his investigation into the mysteries of death uncovers the shocking and arcane practices of the Tall Man, a figure of terror that later haunts the boy's dreams. The Tall Man is a ‘boogeyman’ more fearsome than Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and perhaps even more horrible than the original incarnation of Freddy Krueger - before numerous Elm Street sequels and the spin-off TV series turned the uncanny serial killer into an icon of black comedy.

The Tall Man lives among the townspeople masquerading as an undertaker, yet Mike perceives his inhuman nature in daylight via psychic visions of him walking in slow motion down the street, his footfalls accompanied by a thunderous noise indicating menace like the beating of some almighty great doomsday drum. This disturbing scene of unreality is heightened by surrealist ambiguity, its meaning unclear beyond adolescent Mike’s emotional response. Another memorable sequence sees the Tall Man’s severed finger (lost in a splash of yellow blood during his frenzied pursuit of Mike), transform overnight into a strange bug creature that buzzes angrily around the boy's bedroom at home.

These startling and fascinatingly grotesque images, and the wholesale plundering of graves, may be interpreted as signifiers of alien invasion and the ultimate enslavement of mankind, but Coscarelli holds back from making these points clear in the first movie.

Phantasm II (1988)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
6/10


After directing sword ‘n’ sorcery adventure, The Beastmaster (1982), based on a fantasy novel by Andre Norton, the more experienced and bankable Coscarelli secured finance to make Phantasm II, though the resulting movie, which featured quality effects work by Mark Shostrom and Dream Quest Images, was (in the manner of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, 1987) a bigger budgeted remake as much as a narrative sequel.

After seven years in a psych hospital, Mike (here played by James Le Gros) is released and immediately sets out with Reg in search of the menacing Tall Man - who has taken to the road in his hearse, emptying whole towns of their buried dead. Breaking into a hardware store, Reg and Mike assemble weapons including a homemade flamethrower and a pair of double-barrelled shotguns fixed together (similar to a heavy duty firearm used by the protagonist of New Zealand director Geoff Murphy’s historical adventure Utu, 1983), and their preparations copy the improvised armoury techniques of TV’s The A-Team. In the devastated town of Perigord, our vigilante heroes find the Tall Man lurking about and stealing corpses from a funeral parlour, and their battle against evil is resumed...

Horror drama concerns the traumatic ‘return of the repressed’, ‘encounters with death’ and the loss of identity. Phantasm II features one of the most inspired screen images ever to touch on the mystery of what death ‘means’. In an early night scene, we follow Mike and Reg as they enter a small town cemetery and, with the camera on a crane, Coscarelli pulls back for a high-angle, wide shot revealing that every grave in sight is empty. The moonlit darkness is filled with headstones, long shadows and the gaping black rectangles of all those deep holes in the ground. It’s an intensely chilling movie moment (representing the physical erasure of entire family lineages and histories, and, by extension, the human past), and by depicting the ghastly impact of absolute evil at large in the modern world it becomes as perfectly realised a glimpse of pure gothic visual imagination as any piece of artwork you may find in this genre.

Perhaps thankfully, though, Phantasm II isn’t all arty aesthetics. Fans of gore and action will also get their money’s worth here. The diversion into road movie traditions recalls Race With The Devil (1975) and yet, unlike director Jack Starrett’s assured mixing of the supernatural with standard car chase thrills, the heroes of Phantasm II are intent upon hunting down and destroying their powerful enemy, rather than simply trying to escape with their lives. Fight sequences offer sufficient amusement value despite some grim use of fire and bullets. In particular, the ever-busy Reg’s chainsaw duel with one of the Tall Man’s masked drones is terrific fun, as it evokes the crazed power-tool abuse of a certain vengeful Texas Ranger (Dennis Hopper) in Tobe Hooper’s cult sequel, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (1986). The ghastliest sequence is undoubtedly foreshadowed by Reg’s sabotage of an embalming machine, which results in the climactic meltdown of the Tall Man when his body is pumped full of hydrochloric acid.

SF riffs in Phantasm II include the unexplained telepathic link between Mike and young blonde Liz (Paula Irvine), another brief but suitably eerie trip through the space-gate to revisit the bleak alien world where midget workers are visible in the distance still toiling away at some unspecified task, new functions for the flying balls, such as a gold coloured variety which fires a laser beam (and mimics the light-sabres of Star Wars), and the first hints that these spheres can enter and re-animate human corpses after they have done killing people.

Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead (1994)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
6/10

As the common attention span dwindles from two hours to two minutes, the film trilogy or series loses impact with each new outing. Scary jolts tend to replace the development of characters because, ever since the halcyon days of 1970s disaster movies, the average life expectancy of supporting players in horror drama is rarely more than 50 minutes.

Phantasm III is not immune to sequelitis and, even though it picks up exactly where the second film left off, and the filmmakers benefit from a further budget increase (enabling better production values), there's little here that's fresh or innovative. With the aid of ex-army girl, Rocky (Gloria-Lynne Henry), and young orphan Tim (Kevin Conners) - who bring kung fu training and shooting skills to the heroes' cause - Reg goes in search of the kidnapped Mike (A. Michael Baldwin returns, in a casting twist that adds another layer of weirdness to this movie series!), tracking the indestructible Tall Man through more Midwest ghost towns with names like Holtsville and Boulton.

”What the hell are you doing here? You’re dead!” Reg and his newfound allies encounter an amoral gang of violent scavengers and explore the creepy marbled halls of yet bigger mausoleums, but are now guided on their quest by Mike’s older brother Jody (who was killed in a car wreck), appearing in human-spirit form and as a dark tarnished version of the multipurpose spheres. In addition to more night raids on cemeteries, looking for any new way to stop the conquering plans of their enemy, Reg and friends find that the Tall Man (the imposing Mr Scrimm is mesmerising here) has no use for ‘corpsicles’ (frozen heads are discarded) and is afraid of the cold. This makes the refrigeration room scene, and the use a cryogenic storage vat is put to, rather predictable in a weak plot that tends to ignore the potential of intriguing SF ideas in the previous movies - as Coscarelli seems content to simply replay, re-stage or restyle scenes from Phantasm and Phantasm II on a grander, though sadly unimaginative, scale. So, when the unexpected closing of a space-gate cuts off the Tall Man's hands at his wrists, they shed disguising skins and transform into a pair of skittering toothy lizard-things.

What saves Phantasm III from watch ‘n’ wipe recycled video ranking is its adroit use of humour. It’s not the first time a horror sequel has been salvaged by memorable in-jokes but here, Coscarelli’s main cast inhabit their roles with such easy assurance that their diehard habits (Reg, as per usual, lusting after the spirited heroine) and characteristic expressions (the Tall Man’s quizzically arched eyebrow speaks in proverbial volumes) are indicative of a finely-honed professional attitude from all concerned behind-the-scenes. And so the witty banter between Reg and Rocky stems from temperament and motivation, and rarely depends on throwaway one-liners, while Mike's confrontations with the Tall Man are fraught with the appropriate wordless intensity of a clash of wills between champion and nemesis.

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
Writer and director: Don Coscarelli
8/10


While many other directors are glad to hand over the reins for their genre creations to others, Coscarelli has strayed bravely from the usual franchising path and maintained a high degree of quality control over his unique concepts, thus ensuring a brand name continuity of vision that many film series lack. In this, he follows the example set by George A. Romero (whose zombie trilogy is now highly respected), and so Coscarelli deserves to be ranked as a genre auteur, rather than just another of that legion of unremarkable, low-budget exploitation-movie directors (you know who they are).

Phantasm IV sees a broadening of the SF and fantasy tropes, which celebrate many key events of the first movie via flashback clips - now re-viewed as fresh interpretations of lucid dreaming and, to some extent, demystified memories - while cleverly redefining the milieu inhabited by the ubiquitous Tall Man with a tour of post-holocaust America for our lost heroes, fielding an allegorical dark fantasy of a shattered human psyche. In redrawing the boundaries of the Phantasm universe, Coscarelli brings the story almost full circle by means of a looped narrative, which permits the sort of temporal paradox that SF fans will recognise instantly.

Reg follows Mike down the highway to Death Valley on a forsaken route leading straight to hell and back. Along this almost mythological road to nowhere, Reg fends off repeated attacks by the hideous dwarves, and deals with the menace of a bullet-proof cop. Out on the heat-hazed desert plain, neat rows of space-gate posts stand like a carpet of needles; a bed of nails for the nostalgic reverie of our chosen survivors. The hitherto unsuspected name of the Tall Man is revealed to be that of diabolical inventor Jedediah Morningside, a mad doctor from the Civil War period, but we must doubt the veracity of such time travel disclosures - because they are inextricably linked to Mike's futile attempt to hang himself in a scene reminiscent of award-winning French short film, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (1963), which appeared as an episode of TV anthology series, The Twilight Zone. The nihilism of our hero’s failed suicide is balanced, albeit imperfectly, with hope (just a smidgen, though). In spite of this film’s downbeat subtitle - Oblivion Phantasm IV has upbeat moments, not of joy but of possibilities for the future.

Genre films tend to appear and develop in cycles. An original work is almost inevitably succeeded by numerous cash-ins and rip-offs, before a spate of parodies brings closure to all prospects for the burnt-out trend. However, the film industry does not always obey this familiar cyclical model of the boom/ bust economy because, occasionally, aesthetics get in the way of passing fads.

Like Romero's classic Dead trilogy, and unlike a majority of other franchised production lines, Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies have worthy artistic merits (provocative symbolism, narrative ambiguity, unpretentious ambition, authentic innovation, creative integrity and, oh yes... balls), which facilitates escape from the video schlock ghetto to rise above their humble beginnings as a low-budget exploitation flick, and challenge audience perceptions and jaded critical judgments of what modern horror films can do, and say, and what they may become.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)
Director: David Hartman
7/10

“I can’t tell what’s real any more because of him.” The series becomes a proper cinematic franchise with its fifth adventure, Phantasm: Ravager. Reggie is back. He’s here to bust balls and cope with early dementia, and he’s all out of crazy. On back roads through small towns, driving along in his favourite muscle car, romantic hero Reg picks up the stranded Dawn, and strums his guitar “in the glow of a new song,” but he soon finds that new horrors are simply inescapable, whether he is actually delusional or not. Even when he’s tooled up, ready to fight the flying spheres of death, Reg must consider whether finding a gateway portal with a giant sentinel is the best answer to his various problems, or just the start of a brand new level of insanity.

While too many sequels, remakes, and re-boots play out their scenarios with borrowed themes like overblown fan-fiction, this feels like nightmare paths crossing from different directions and creative directors. With all of its 21st century genre riffs carrying a similar yet queasy bi-polar intensity of weirdo imagination, teleporting in from realms of acidic flashbacks that are just as startling cruel as before, this belated addition to the Phantasm milieu offers a Matrixology of Caligarism. CGI visions of apocalyptic shock and awesome gore, fully re-animated and manifesting as both tribute and reinterpretation, with vividly composed shots expanding a claustrophobic, suffocating dream into comicbook hyper-reality and beyond. Boy, oh boy!


         

Monday, 10 April 2017

Brotherhood Of Blades

Cast: Chen Chang, Shih-Chieh Chin, and Dong-xue Li

Director: Yang Lu

117 minutes (15) 2014
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Second Sight blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Donald Morefield

Brotherhood Of Blades (aka: Xiu chun dao, 2014) upholds the familiar wuxia traditions while adding Hollywood style polish that Chinese movies have strived for since millennial productions, at least. During the fall of the Ming dynasty, imperial assassin Shen (Chen Chang) arrests a clique of eunuchs, but one wizened reclusive target is allowed to escape unscathed, spared the kung fury of Shen and his gang. The mercifully freed suspect was once a godfather of the secret police and he looks a bit like Gollum, so he always appears guilty and untrustworthy even if he’s actually falling victim to political prejudice. A loose-limbed plot spins off from this act of mercy, but this movie’s basically historical scenario is salted with quasi-dystopian themes.  


The royal court is greedy and corrupt, such that only bribes change anything. Options for survival here seem limited to subterfuge and betrayal. Honour and integrity are seen as a flaw of individualism, and dramatised as wholly unaffordable weaknesses in dealings with authority. Characters wrestle with the burdens of conscience whilst striving for matchless excellence and unattainable heroism. Qualifying for promotion is a formality when secrets are kept, and after debts are accepted. Righting wrongs, such as buying the freedom of a young courtesan or protecting a doctor’s daughter, are just fantasies of a lonely dreamer of peace. Villains are cowardly back-stabbers and brutal show-offs. Superhuman action is a given for this genre and there’s plenty of splattery combat in self-defence and vengeful battles of wits and weapons.



The HD transfer for BOB on blu-ray looks superb, and this edition gets the very best from its production values, historical set designs, and cinematic lighting. Fans of this genre are in for a treat!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Tomboy

Cast: Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Caitlin Gerard, and Anthony LaPaglia

Director: Walter Hill

96 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Label DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Jeff Young

Walter's Hill’s usual urbanite western styling is re-purposed in more ways than one for this potentially controversial movie, which supposes an illegal sex-change operation that makes this a sci-fi thriller like an action-packed variation of The Skin I Live In. It delivers a nightmare castration for hit-man Frank Kitchen. Michelle Rodriguez’s dual role as Frank and (although a distaff name remains unsaid on screen) 'Frankie' makes Tomboy (aka: The Assignment) a quite grimly violent psychological thriller. This plays merry hell with gender stereotyping themes, and it wreaks havoc upon male fears of emasculation, while delivering a perversely inclined drama of feminine, but not fem-Nazi, empowerment.    


Sigourney Weaver plays the genius doctor, depicted as a self-proclaimed medical artist in a straitjacket who is formally interviewed, at length but in an episodic format, by a prison shrink (Tony Shalhoub, best known for TV series Monk). These scenes crackle with twisty tensions of esoteric criminality and misapplied authority that are disturbingly mirrored in the explicitly personal and social predicaments faced by Frank’s makeover into ‘Tomboy’. Although it is basically just a weird kind of rape-and-revenge movie, there’s plenty of fine detail in the plot’s novelty, and its ramifications for the mad surgeon and her traumatised yet sympathetic victim.    


With its low-budget moods and unsubtle ironies, Tomboy certainly is one of those cheap, but decidedly cult-worthy B-movies, like Hill’s own Johnny Handsome (1989), that re-mix juicy clichés with brisk skill and furious enthusiasm for off-beat and sensational material. Fans of Rodriguez should enjoy the picture’s archly satirical aspects as this celebrates the star’s typical screen persona (see Resident Evil, S.W.A.T., Avatar, Machete, etc.), while it also provides her engagingly flawed ‘heroine’ with an expression of troubled vulnerability. Meanwhile, Weaver turns in her best performance in years. She’s not just aloof but unyielding in an acetic characterisation that’s unnervingly convincing, in spite of its obviously comic-book inspired core of super-villainy that sits above humanity while being cursed with the same condition as the rest of the mortal world. 


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Dan Fogler, and Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates  

133 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner blu-ray region B
[Released 27th March]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

Back in the 1920s, fantastic beasts could be found all over the place, apparently. Hiding underground or flittering about in plain sights that nobody would believe you ever saw. This is a lively prequel to Harry Potter and one that’s hatched - with a perfectly judged timing to chime loudly with Marvel’s first venture into sorcery - from the Rowlingverse of wonders just waiting to be discovered far beyond the ken of unsuspecting muggles.


Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, and the sneering space villain of Jupiter Ascending, plays Newt, a British eco-wizard who travels to New York and gets involved with secret investigations into magical creatures and what to do with them, if they are considered even vaguely dangerous. In WW1, Newt “worked mostly with dragons” but now he struggles valiantly, against a largely uncaring world and the mostly sinister authorities of this colourfully esoteric realm, to preserve the secrets and existence of various strange creatures of vastly differing sizes and temperaments. Not really a traditional fantasy variation of Doctor Strange, this movie owes a substantial debt to Damian Kindler’s Sanctuary, a Canadian TV sci-fi series that also offered a fairly impressive medley of wondrous pseudo-crypto-zoology, but Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them presents its creatures for cutesy laughs and modest Disneyesque charm, with only mildly chilling menace that emerges from a smoky darkness.


Of course, this being a franchise addition to 21st century world-building, the conservation of werediversity is in direct conflict with its own secret society of Men In Black fabulation promoting a conspiracy to weaponise weirdness and, there’s no doubt, enslave many of the other dreamland critters. There’s an especially troublesome demiguise - an endearing platypus shoplifter that’s escaped from Newt’s TARDIS-like suitcase, to wreck havoc in places wherever sparkly merchandise is displayed. Larger beasts provide the main spectacle and there are some carefully wrought urban fantasy sequences to challenge the best imagery that any of the current superhero cinema can deliver. A sequel is in the works for 2018. 


Monday, 20 March 2017

Property Is No Longer A Theft

Cast: Ugo Tognazzi, Flavio Bucci, Daria Nicolodi, Salvo Randone, and Mario Scaccia

Director: Elio Petri

126 minutes (15) 1973
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow Academy Blu-ray regions A+B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

The 19th century’s protest by a French anarchist aside, the notion that possessions only belong to a few by right is tested and restated in this Italian comedy of ill-manners, new to 2K hi-def in the UK since its 2013 restoration and re-mastering from the production’s original negatives.

Property Is No Longer A Theft concerns the misadventures of a small cast of fairly symbolic characters. Suffering from acute social and philosophical envy in a European class war, a bank accountant named Total (Flavio Bucci) suddenly resigns and starts a brand new life of crime in Rome. Targeting a local butcher (Ugo Tognazzi), Total steals a knife, a hat, and then quickly escalates to burglary. Overnight, he graduates from cars to kidnapping.


Total prefers his women passive for a kinky fetish, and says “lie down... like a steak.” His captive, Anita (Daria Nicolodi), remains chatty while naked but seems willing to play dead for him. Total’s spree of reckless defiance of convention and order continues with a series of increasingly farcical episodes inciting a serious risk that “thieves become revolutionaries.” But, the underdog’s rebellion aside, “What’s there to laugh about?”

There is a lot of talking to the camera, in scenes that reveal and revel in characteristic foibles. The movie looks askew at the differences between the haves and the have-nots, and spends time (that most precious human commodity!) conjugating the Italian verbs of   possession and possessiveness. In a vividly surrealistic sequence about home defences, director Elio Petri concocts a display of hardware that’s like a cross between a modern art exhibit and security trade show.


“Arresting people is a wonderful thing,” enthuses the police brigadier put in charge of the investigation into Total’s misdeeds. Having introduced the police, the narrative expands to focus upon career crook Albertone (Mario Scaccia), who leads a gang on a heist which Total interrupts, but he’s only there to help complete the robbery while his own capacity for violence and self-destruction increases - along with twitchy habits of scratching every annoying itch.

Soon, raucous cries of “Stop thief!” wake up the wealthy residents of a block of swanky flats, from where a twisted love-triangle develops. Yet there’s no honour among thieves. Betrayal is inevitable when corruption spreads over every side of the law. Total remains quite stubbornly resistant to exploitation by his betters and would rather steal a gold pen than accept a blank cheque specially written just for him. Underworld crowds gather to mourn a dead master-thief and, after one amusingly forthright speech, the really brutal antagonist wrings the scrawny neck of this political satire.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Sole Survivor

Cast: Warren Otteraa, David Leeming, and Alana Tranter

Director: Christopher Jacobs

87 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Miracle Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

It’s no use hunting on the excellent and usually-reliable IMDb for Sole Survivor, because it’s not there. But track writer-producer-director Christopher ‘Chris’ Jacobs through to its previous identity as Lone Wolves and there’s all you need. His debut project is re-issued misleadingly with a new title and DVD cover showing hovering alien motherships strafing burning cities – which is entirely inaccurate. There are no alien motherships. No alien invasion fleet. For this is an entirely different kind of apocalypse. No zombies or runaway viral pandemic either. Just the world made strange. Filmed around Melbourne, using the Wurundjeri aboriginal tribal lands – to whom thanks are duly extended, ‘no actual science was harmed (or used) in the making of this motion picture’, despite its muffled lunges into relativistic particle physics.

We are living amidst a very healthy upsurge of indie movie-productions, as vigorous and gloriously-flawed as all that implies, with new faces and new low-budget spins on themes, pivoting only on the invention and ingenuity of their creators. Here, surly crop-headed Private James Conroy (Warren Ottera) of the Second-Division West has anger-management issues, and plays paramilitary games with guns in the forest, always alert, always preceded by his four-barrel shooter. His voice-over narrative drifts within an over-obtrusive soundtrack, with a debris of occasional indistinct phrases surfacing. “Date unknown. I’m still here. Lost track, still don’t know what happened...” Maybe the imprecision is deliberate atmospherics to imply dislocation? “It looks like everything’s the same, but it’s not... everywhere, things are out of place.” It’s the apocalypse, James, but not as we know it. Everyone vanished – or killed, “a few survive; I survive.”

A glimpse of a devastated city... There’s been no bomb, but there’s radiation, and red-flashes on his RUN life-detector alert him to mutant creatures, horned skull-face red-vision monsters in flickering distortions, what they are, or where they’re from, is unknown. He’s haunted by flashbacks of lost domesticity with his ex, and it’s only when his mobile blips – he answers it “Suzy?”, that things begin to fall into place.

On the down-link is bespectacled Gary Freeman (David Leeming), marooned as Space Shuttle ‘Polaris’ attempts to dock with his 426 orbital station. Both the retro-Shuttle – already made long obsolete by NASA, and the station itself are convincingly modelled by Jacob Matyr, enhanced with visual effects by Leo Flander. The word ‘Laika’ on the bulkhead also hints at affection for earlier space race ephemera. But Freeman is a ‘spaceman’ with a failing life-support system, on the brink of hitting the ‘Purge Atmosphere’ button to hasten the end, when contact with the ground revives hope. They’ve gone from Lone Wolf… to Sole Survivors.

At first he’s suspicious, can he believe Freeman? Was the Moon-landing fake? Conroy sets out to locate a signal-boosting sat-dish to amplify the link which so far equates to “pissing on a coin from the top of the Eiffel Tower.” He meets a thought-projecting monster in the shape of a cute little girl, but realises the subterfuge in time to blast it to messy pulp. He descends into a suitably-dark effluence channel where he meets... himself, or at least, another self, impaled and dying. Then, under Freeman’s direction, he instead erects a makeshift array himself, out of wired-in colanders. It picks up Dr Elizabeth Harding (Alana Tranter), and more bits tumble into place. From a two-hander, two becomes three as the action neatly vaults into triple-hazard threat. If the dialogue is occasionally stilted, and the nasties are Doctor Who aliens come adrift, attacking too fast for clear detail, the action carries its own effective momentum.

Elizabeth is a theoretical physicist, appropriately seen against a revolving vortex of spinning sub-atomic particles. She’d been working with fanatical Dr Edward Fischer (Dan Purdey) on “the bleeding edge of possibility,” opening overlapping inter-dimensional portals with no regard for consequences. The consequence being that Earth is part-sucked through a singularity-portal, part-“trapped in a parallel dimension.” The idea of ‘tearing holes in space and time’, punching wormholes into new worlds, provides a certain uniqueness, but in truth, not much more than a regular Doctor Who storyline. “We have the key,” explains Dr Liz helpfully, “but not the door.”

In a high-tension climax, Freeman’s in orbit, donning his spacesuit to conserve diminishing life-support. Conroy battles his bloody way across dereliction through converging monster-packs to reach her bunker, while Elizabeth packs a pistol across the hi-tech installation to hunt down the mad scientist (who, incidentally, was also responsible for ‘terminating’ her astrophysicist parents!). By the time they blast their way through to Fischer he’s midway into horror-transfiguration, and they must neutralise him before they all mutate into a broken world. Needless to say, the ensuing mega-explosions re-set “the nature of space of time” back onto its correct path, allowing Space Shuttle Polaris to safely dock with Freeman’s orbital habitat, and offering a new chance for Conroy to reclaim his flawed life. While only she chooses to pursue the infinite and ‘move on’ through the portals.

Inventive and playful in the kind of way that, say, early Roger Corman was, this movie is further evidence of a vigorous and gloriously-flawed upsurge of indie movie-productions, whether you call it Lone Wolves or Sole Survivor.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Last Days On Mars

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, and Goran Kostic

Director: Ruairi Robinson

94 minutes (15) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

On Mars “a shrunken sun sank below the horizon and darkness came. Stars gleamed hard and bright through the tenuous atmosphere. A meteor dug a small crater under the palest of moonlight.” In his introduction to New Writings In SF #13 (1968), John Carnell comments, “once, many years ago, the author Sydney J. Bounds worked in the engineering department of London’s Underground system but gave it up for the more precarious life of a full-time writer.” By the time I met Bounds in his book-crammed Kingston-upon-Thames home, he was surviving proudly and impecuniously as a professional story-smith by a strategy of writing at an impressive rate for every available market. Royalties from movie-rights would at least have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter. But he died on 24th November 2006, before this adaptation of his short story went into production.

Archivist Roy Kettle points out that “Bounds didn’t write many novels – just five, but he wrote 100+ short stories which almost invariably appeared only in British SF magazines and original anthologies. However, rather out of the blue, one of his stories, The Animators, was picked up and made into The Last Days On Mars in 2013 (a few years after his death). I rather think it was because the screenwriter, Clive Dawson, spotted it in the anthology where it first appeared because he had the book for the reprint of Arthur Porges’ The Ruum which, apparently, he’d hoped that Hammer Films would make with his screenplay.”

The anthology – Tales Of Terror From Outer Space (1975) was a Fontana paperback original edited by that devotee of the esoteric and the macabre, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, as part of his Tales Of Terror anthology series. And it’s startlingly good, with more than a passing glance at our Red Planet solar system neighbour. Ray Bradbury’s I, Mars introduces the escalating madness of the last survivor of a Mars colony haunted by phone calls from his earlier self. Then Robert Bloch’s carny huckster Ace Clawson gets devoured by a real-life Girl From Mars. For just the 45p cover-price there’s also Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss’ breathtakingly audacious Heresies Of The Huge God, Ralph Williams’ The Head-Hunters (from Stories For Tomorrow, 1956) anticipating the Predator movies franchise, Robert Sheckley, and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Porges’ nail-bitingly tense thriller The Ruum (reprinted from The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1952) – with prospector Jim Irwin relentlessly pursued by an implacable alien weapon left behind in the Canadian Rockies some hundred-million years ago.



The Animators comes around midpoint, previously unpublished, but later picked up and reprinted in Creepies, Creepies, Creepies edited by Helen Hoke (Franklin Watts, 1977). And Ruairi Robinson’s movie shows the advantage of taking an 11-page short story and expanding it, rather than attempting to compress a full novel down to movie-length. There are some minor switches in the interests of racial diversity and visual appeal, a couple of gender reassignments to Bounds’ originally white all-male personnel, but the plot development holds together remarkably well during its transfer to the big screen. The deserts of Jordan stand in for the Martian landscape, with occasional vegetation digitally removed.

“Sidney J. Bounds has had much experience in dealing with assorted horrors, as his many anthologised stories will testify, and he handles The Animators with his usual skill,” comments Chetwynd-Hayes. “The scene is set on the ill-fated planet Mars, but the end results are hell-bent for Earth.” And there are some obvious reference points, John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (2001), where the dead spirits of an extinct Martian civilisation are unleashed to possess the bodies of the miners responsible for disturbing their tomb. And the David Tennant Doctor Who episode The Waters Of Mars (2009), in which a water-borne virus infects and corrupts the human colonists of the bio-dome, which must be destroyed before the ‘Flood’ contagion can reach Earth. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that Bounds story precedes them both, and teases around the rim of speculation. Nothing as outré as extinct Martian cities, merely the possibility of long-dormant microbiological organisms suspended deep beneath the regolith for the millions of years since the warmer wetter Mars that NASA Rover-probes indicate.



The jaunty tones of Jack Hylton’s Blue Skies Are Around The Corner (1938) deliberately contrasts the gathering storm-front beneath authentically dour Martian skies, dust-waves of “the first big one of the season” approaching to engulf Tantalus Base One in which the eight-strong crew have been sitting out their six-month stay... with the 19 remaining hours ticking away before they’re lifted off to the orbiting ‘Aurora’ for “six-months home in a floating coffin.” Until the darkness closes in, Mars swallowing up the puny human toe-hold on the world, leaving only the airlock lens illuminated to resemble a single prescient eye.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute ruse before nightfall, Marko Petrovic (Bosnian-Serb actor Goran Kostic) returns to investigate the test-site of an earlier bore-sample that seems to indicate the presence of ancient microscopic bacterial life. Intent on keeping the discovery for himself he uses the pretext of fixing a broken sensor. Richard Harrington watches him from the clunky Mars Bug, until he’s shocked to see a sinkhole opening up to swallow the geologist. Using the second Bug, an already irritably fraying Captain Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas), is “barely holding it together” as he and Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) prepare to undertake a rescue. Dalby disobeys protocol and climbs down the pit. She also disappears. Both of them are dead, but not for long. Soon, there are two sets of footprints leading away from the pit.


Liev Schreiber, who plays Vincent Campbell, has a heavyweight CV that includes the Scream horror trilogy. Welsh-born writer-actor Tom Cullen – who plays Harrington, also has presence and some impressive movie credits, including an episode (The Entire History Of You) of TV’s Black Mirror and – for those who like that sort of thing, the faux class-nostalgia of Downton Abbey. Olivia Williams – who plays vexed confrontationally-barbed colleague Kim Aldrich, worked with Roman Polanski on The Ghost Writer (2010). They are part of a strong cast. The eerie rasp of over-exerted breathing inside helmets is effective, as is the claustrophobic hallucinatory descent into the sinkhole’s soft-focus darkness.

In Bounds’ story it is Shorty Pugh’s body that Harrington retrieved from the pit, and buries in a shallow grave. Exposure to the bacteria reanimates the corpse. “Then, slowly, it set out across the flat and desolate land with plodding steps. A naked dead thing that moved across the night-dark dust, moved steadily on a direct course for the distant Base.” In the movie the shattered helmet results in the same condition, unsuited zombies Marko and Dalby cross the rift valley back towards base with driller-killer instinct. But, although there’s a fair amount of furious action-hazard, the space helmets and chaotic red-light alert-strobing sometimes limits expressiveness and make it difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom, or why. And there’s no clear confrontation with the reanimated dead, just hints and glimpses of charred and rotting features obfuscated behind shattered face-visors. Where more clarity would help punch out the story there’s no gratuitous shock-horror, no Walking Dead or Z Nation moments. No George A. Romero zombies.



Brunel is wounded – Kim’s microscope betrays the bacterial cell-division infection in his bloodstream, his face tracked with shadow-lines of contagion, before he turns violent, and dies. Taking the precaution of strapping his body down, they inject an antidote, he twitches against his restraints, but the retroviral effect is temporary. The survivors retreat from the resulting mayhem to the hydroponics dome, using a conduit to return through blood-trails and wreckage to transmit a sky-link Mayday distress-call to the orbital ISC Mission Control, only to be pursued back by the zombie Marko. “I was planning on taking a lot of unnecessary risks,” quips Campbell with bitter irony.

Eventually only three remain – Vincent Campbell, Rebecca Lane (male expedition metallurgist in Bounds’ tale, now played by Romola Garai), and panicky mission psychologist Robert Irwin (British actor Johnny Harris of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, 2009) escaping across the Mars night in a solar-powered Bug with battery-power dropping, intent on reaching the lift-off point, with that hanging Cold Equation that she’s infected. “It’s too late for her,” protests Irwin. Should they leave her? Campbell says no. She resolves the dilemma by running off and suicides by removing her helmet. Following her footprints in Mars-sand, Campbell reluctantly stoves her head in with a stone to pre-empt her reanimation.

A significant difference here is that in the short story Brunel is the last die, and “later, no longer human, he joined the living dead aboard the ship. It rose into the purple sky on a column of flame and on course for Earth.” The movie is a little more nuanced. Campbell arrives at the shuttle lost in swirling dust, only to find that the zombies got there first, leaving a trail of dead. As they ascend to orbit, he struggles with an infected Irwin, before ejecting him through the airlock. Little spheres of tainted blood float in space. “This must end here. We can’t let it get back to Earth,” he insists. Campbell messages his report, and prepares to burn up on re-entry. Mars must remain a quarantined world. Unless Mission Control rescues him first..?



No blue skies around the corner. As an adaptation of Bounds’ story, it would have been nice if the film could have been a tad better. But would Syd have approved? Chances are he would. He’d certainly have enjoyed becoming part of the Universal Studios continuity back to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And at least it would have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter.