Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Bloodstained Lawn (1973)


I’ve never been hitchhiking.  I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker.  I never will.  You can call that callous or unadventurous if you like, but it’s never going to happen.  I understand some folks hitchhike out of necessity; they’re down on their luck, broke, or what have you.  But if film has taught me anything, it’s that hitchhiking never turns out okay.  I’m sure this is paranoia fueled by negative reinforcement in genre narratives more than anything else, as I’m also sure that the vast majority of hitchhikers and people who pick them up are nice people, their time together passing uneventfully as one person helps a fellow in need and gains a little companionship for a brief stretch of time.  But let’s face it.  If you allow someone into your car or get into a car with a complete stranger, you make yourself vulnerable.  Agree with me or not, but there are more than a few people in this world who want to take advantage of this kind of vulnerability, be it for money or because of some psychosis.  Again, it’s not because I totally lack empathy, but I tend to cling to the old adage of better safe than sorry.  Then again, I haven’t had my coffee this morning, so I’m feeling particularly misanthropic.

Speaking of hitchhikers, Max (George Willing) and his unnamed female companion (Daniela Caroli) get picked up on the road by the shady-looking Alfiero (Claudio Biava).  He whisks them off to the estate of Dr. Antonio Genovese (Enzo Tarascio) and his wife (and Alfiero’s sister) Nina (Marina Malfatti).  There they meet other “strays” Al recently picked up: a gypsy (Barbara Marzano), a prostitute (Dominique Boschero), and a drunk (Lucio Dalla), all of whom are perfectly content to lap up the Genoveses’ hospitality, and all of whom have no idea what’s really in store for them (hint: it’s death).

Riccardo Ghione’s The Bloodstained Lawn (aka Red Stained Lawn aka Il Prato Macchiato Di Rosso) has absolutely nothing to do with a bloodstained lawn (unlike, say, Blood Beach) outside of the direct reference Max makes to the title as he and his girlfriend saunter past a field teeming with red flowers.  That said, the film does have a lot to do with blood, as you would expect.  As it opens, an UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Agent (Nino Castelnuovo) opens a crate of wine and smashes a bottle open to watch blood, not vino, drain out.  The first thought that sprang to my mind was that this film was about vampires, and in a certain, non-literal way, it is.  Like the lion’s share of cinematic vampires, Nina and Alfiero are cold, detached, vaguely Eastern European (blonde, pale, enjoying the works of Wagner, et cetera), and aristocratic.  Similar to the eponymous Martin, they don’t bite their victims, they don’t burn in sunlight, and they aren’t afraid of crosses, but they do prey on other people and drain their blood in order to survive.  Yet, they don’t drink the blood for sustenance.  They sell the blood on the black market in order to grow and maintain their wealth.

Class war, then, is a heavy element of the film.  The Genoveses don’t prey on just anyone.  They prey on the perceived dregs of society, people no one will miss, whose disappearances won’t raise suspicions (except over there at UNESCO).  More than this, the people they take in are outcasts in their behaviors.  The prostitute is apathetic, thinking that everyone just wants to have sex, and for her, this is nothing more than a business transaction.  The gypsy is a thief, and she has a slightly crazed look in her eyes, like a wild animal.  The drunk has a cacoethes for booze that makes him do just odd things with the stuff, including, but not limited to, trying to pour wine in his eye because “it’s thirsty.”  The drifters are essentially hippies; smoking weed, getting naked wherever, throwing silky blankets around their room, playing acoustic guitar, you name it.  All of them are beneath Nina and Alfiero, who feel that they are of “a superior race.”  The monkey in the middle, so to speak, is Antonio.  While he is aligned with the “Aryan” siblings, he is not completely like them (his penchant for clown-esque bowties being the first and most prominent visual indicator of this).  Antonio invents machines that are looked down on by Nina and Alfiero as nothing more than toys, despite some of their practical (but still science-fiction-y) uses.  He tries to hide the drunk in a small clubhouse out on the estate (clearly intended for children).  Unlike Nina and Alfiero, Antonio actually gets excited about things.  He tries to maintain his distance from the human flotsam in his manse, but he simply can’t help himself.  At a key moment, Antonio is overcome with lust for the prostitute (to the point of allowing his signature neckwear to be untied), losing his composure and caressing her body, fawning over it.  Being called out on it, he recomposes himself and refers to the revelers as “worms.”  His mind is with Nina and her brother (to a point), but his heart is with the quirkier members of society.  

Although Antonio has some empathy for the outsiders, he is still crazily obsessed with machines.  Further than this, he believes that machines will perfect humanity, make them immortal.  He avers that nature is fundamentally flawed, and only he can fix it.  By this thinking, the rejects in his house are imperfect, and this imperfection needs to be punished/purged.  That being said, these same rejects are the ones who appreciate Antonio’s machines (or at least fake an interest), so the achievement of his goal would actually eliminate the very people who would respect it.  Interestingly, it’s the struggle between Antonio’s heart and head, his own imperfection, that makes him seek to remove this uniqueness.  In this sense he is obliviously self-destructive.

Despite The Bloodstained Lawn’s offbeat aspects, it gets dragged down by having a story that’s pure vanilla, in execution if not in plot specifics.  After the initial mystery of the blood in the wine bottles piques the interest, the story then bares just about all of its surprises, and the rest becomes a waiting game.  Additionally, the subplot with the UNESCO Agent is bland, dry stuff that kills the film’s pace and doesn’t add anything at all to the proceedings, other than to provide an excuse to cut away from the estate and stretch the film’s running time.  And speaking of dry and bland, the only engaging character in the film is Antonio, all the others merely living down to their stereotypes and amping them up to the level of cardboard (maybe corrugated cardboard, but cardboard nonetheless).  It’s unfortunate, because there is a lot of material to mine with these characters and their situations, but they are nothing more than their exterior tics in this film.  Still, this is a film worth seeing, even if only for its superficial peculiarities.

MVT:  The weird atmosphere is intriguing enough to maintain some interest, even though it practically begs you to pay attention to it, like a child putting on a magic show (or Antonio showing off his inventions).

Make or Break:  The party in the “ballroom” (you should see the entrance) is visually striking, and its metaphor using distorted mirrors adds a (somewhat obvious but still valuable) level of substance to the film’s themes.

Score:  6.75/10

Monday, July 25, 2016

We Are Still Here (2015)

Twenty minutes or so into “We Are Still Here” and I was struggling to see what the hubbub was about. For the past year, all I’ve heard is how good of a ghost story it is. Yet, I found the buildup to be too pedestrian. A married couple, Paul & Anne Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig & Barbara Crampton), move into an isolated house in New England following the death of their son. Pictures of their son begin to crack, the floorboards creak, and the cellar smells like smoke and is always burning up, despite there no signs of reason.

Once the reasoning is revealed, the film is still rather pedestrian. The townsfolk reveal the former denizens of the Sacchetti’s new home hid dead bodies in the cellar, selling some to universities for study and others as a secret ingredient in the town’s food establishments. Once word got around, the family was ambushed by an angry mob and killed. The family still haunts the
place, awakening every thirty years to feed.

Paul & Anne just so happen to have friends who perform séances, despite Paul’s skepticism. Those friends are Jacob & May Lewis (Larry Fessenden & Lisa Marie) and not only are they invited, but so is their son, Harry (Michael Patrick), and his girlfriend, Daniella (Kelsea Dakota), for the sole purpose of building a body count. For as much as this is a ghost story, it’s also a slasher flick at heart. Characters are introduced in order to move the story along and to be ghost fodder.

A better comparison would be to state that “We Are Still Here” is like a Lucio Fulci movie. The story itself is formulaic, using the mechanics of a common story to accompany Lucio’s trademarks. The ghosts are represented as human charcoal and are as fierce as a demon. There’s no shortage of bloodletting, with characters being badly burnt, having their hearts ripped out, and their heads lopped off. It’s all grimy and intense.

The only difference in Ted Geoghegan’s direction is his slow build approach. He takes his time setting up the characters and paranormal activity, which is both a good and bad thing. A good thing because it develops tension and makes the events all the more impactful, as they’re not crammed down one’s throat throughout. The bad thing is it’s too vanilla to hook the viewer, causing some to give up before the film picks up.

Once it does pick up is when I realized why people are so gung-ho about this film. Get past the pedestrian aspects of the story and you’re in for a treat! The aforementioned Lucio Fulci influences help spice things up and pique one’s interest. However, it’s Geoghegan’s writing and direction that eventually puts this film on the map.

While the general flow of the film is threadbare, Ted incorporates many nice little touches to make it move smoother. Little touches such as having Paul constantly drinking (practically in every scene) but never drawing attention to it. He develops the fact that Paul has resorted to alcoholism to deal with his son’s death without being too overt with it. It shows great restraint on his part and allows the audience to connect with the characters without anything being forced upon them.

What really helps set the film apart is its little twist in the formula. A house needing to be fed every thirty years isn’t altogether new, but the gimmick hasn’t been used to such intelligence as it was here. Geoghegan uses the gimmick to explain away the downfalls that normally plague ghost stories. Paul & Anne aren’t going to immediately leave due to Paul’s skepticism and Anne’s belief that it’s their son communicating with them beyond the grave. Even when they decide it’s time to leave (in timely fashion, no less), the townsfolk won’t let them. Dave McCabe (Monte Markham), the leader of the town mob, reveals that, if the house isn’t supplied a family every thirty years, the spirits escape and can overtake the town. This adds significant threats all around and is a good excuse as to why everyone is entrapped by the house. It also coyly explains why, early on in the film, one of the ghosts is able to escape the house and hunt down Daniella.

“We Are Still Here” suffers from its formula, but Geoghegan is able to overcome those shortcomings with clever writing and tight direction. It may take a little while for him to find his footing, but once he does it’s smooth sailing.

MVT: Ted Geoghegan. His script and direction helps set the film apart from other ghost stories. Once the shit hits the fan, he does an excellent job of keeping a tight grasp on it all.

Make or Break: The reveal that the townsfolk are purposely sacrificing families to the house. This helped in not only moving the story along, but providing sufficient drama, tension, and reasoning for everyone’s actions.
Final Score: 7/10

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wild Team (1985)


On the fictitious island of Manioca (incidentally, Manioca is a starch used in Tapioca), Tiquito, the son of deposed President Cordura (Franco Fantasia) is kidnapped by minions of the tyrannical (and very European-looking) General Gomez.  A mining company with interests on Manioca hire super nice mercenary Martin Cuomo (Antonio Sabato) and his team to rescue the boy.  Explosions and double crosses ensue.

Umberto Lenzi’s Wild Team (aka Thunder Squad aka I Cinque Del Condor) is a Men on a Mission film with a slightly different angle.  Rather than being hired by a crooked government agency, the team are hired by a crooked corporation.  The basic idea is that it’s money, not government, that truly controls the countries of the world.  Cordura is a freedom-loving idealist, but he has to make a deal with this devil in order to save not only his son but also his country (the former takes precedence over the latter).  Martin only cares about the money he’ll get for this job, but of course he and his crew become more personally invested as events unfold (or at least that’s the idea; I never felt that anyone in this film gave much of a shit about anything other than being a warm body in a movie).  The corporation, headed by fat cat Harker (Geoffrey Copleston), cares only for their bottom line.  Consequently, they have no qualms about betraying Martin and his team and the people of Manioca as soon as there’s the faintest whiff that the winds of change are going to blow.  The corporation starts off working with Gomez, switches to Cordura, then back to Gomez.  It’s baffling, since they had projected a fifteen percent increase in profits under a more democratic government, but I’m not enough of a global economist to parse out the reasoning.  This is a theme running though many Action films of this bent: The people holding the purse strings and/or the leash are never trustworthy.  No matter how many guarantees they give, they’ll screw over their operatives if it suits their needs (and many times, they are never forthright in their goals and motives in the first place).  So, pro-tip: If you’re a mercenary with a high price tag, get paid up front, and always cover your own ass.

There are a couple of touches in the film that come out of left field, though they make sense in an Italian genre film sort of way.  The first is the use of psychics (yes, really).  Three people with ESP are hired by the mining company to help locate Tiquito.  They are strapped into a computer, and as they describe the “hits” they get on the boy, the computer “interprets” what they say and pukes out unhelpful data.  This scene is, number one, just plain odd.  I mean, why would you hire psychics, who are unreliable at best and charlatans at worst, when you can fly surveillance planes over the area to find what you’re looking for (and to be clear, it’s not as if Gomez’s camp is all that well-hidden)?  They certainly have the resources for it.  Number two, this sequence is way longer than it should be (always a sign that there’s simply not enough material to make one decent film).  This section of the film stands out because of the focus on it.  Yet, there are no parapsychological or fantastic elements in the entire rest of the film (I’ll admit, I got my hopes up for a fight with a giant snake toward the end, but naturally, they were dashed).

The storming of Gomez’s camp takes up a large part of the film’s middle portion, but it leads off with our heroes hang gliding down into the valley.  As with the psychic scene, this sequence is entirely too long, and it stops the film dead (this in a film without much life to begin with).  More than this, it’s bewildering because the hang gliders they use are the most brightly colored things they could possibly find.  Obviously, being covert is not a big priority on this covert mission.  Maybe Martin got a great deal on the hang gliders that he couldn’t pass up?

This leads into another interestingly flubbed facet of the film.  One of the team members is Sybil Slater (Julia Kent), and she is their explosives expert.  Apparently, her brother was meant to be in on the mission, but he’s in jail (let’s assume for blowing things up), and Sybil needs money for an attorney.  In order to prove herself, she blows up a ramshackle hut while she’s inside it (she gets a couple of black smudges on her face).  Sybil is also very aggressive.  As soon as the men pull up and commence drooling over her, she warns that she’ll “blow [their] balls off.”  For as tough as she’s supposed to be, however, she’s just a girl in a man’s world.  She’s scared by a snake in the jungle, and all the guys get a good laugh over this.  She lands her hang glider in a tree and can’t get down by herself, and all the guys get a good laugh over this.  In her defense, Sybil does blow stuff up real good, but she’s not going to win any awards for being a strong female role model.     

I’m going to be honest with you.  I’m not the world’s biggest Lenzi fan.  I know a lot of folks go apeshit over films of his (especially Nightmare City, which is decent fun in an incoherently incompetent way), but for me, they tend to be middle of the road at best, and Wild Team is no exception (in fact, it’s maybe more middle of the road than other films of his).  Granted, it was made with a tiny budget, but I’ve seen films with less money behind them made by people with less experience than Lenzi (who was used to low budget filmmaking) that were more cogent than this one.  Even Sabato, who normally provides some magnetism in his films (funny enough, his and Lenzi’s Gang War In Milan is a film I do enjoy), is as plastically charmless as the toy guns the actors use.  If you like seeing things explode, you’ll find something to like here, but this isn’t essential as an Umberto Lenzi film, an Antonio Sabato film (or an Ivan Rassimov film, take your pick), or an action film in general.

MVT:  For as blandly slapdash as it’s shot and edited, the action in the film is the only thing holding this film together, like a cheap brand of duct tape.

Make or Break:  We are introduced to Martin and his team during a training exercise for soldiers.  After beating the soldiers quite handily, Martin’s crew still come out of the site in handcuffs (and if they didn’t, it sure looked like they did from where I was sitting)!  There’s absolutely no logical explanation for this, and it lets you know just how dumb this whole thing is going to be.

Score:  5/10

Monday, July 18, 2016

Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Jim Van Bebber subverts expectations with “Deadbeat at Dawn.” It’s ultimately a revenge fable, but it isn’t structured like a common one. It looks as if it’s going to go down the beaten path at the outset, but turns a corner into a dark alleyway. The entire film feels like it takes place in a dark alleyway, basked in the seedy underbelly of a rundown neighborhood. This is an unpleasant film, albeit a well-made one.

Goose (Jim Van Bebber) is looking to leave his gang, the Ravens, in favor of a life of solitude with his squeeze, Christy (Megan Murphy). His cohorts don’t take kindly to this, breaking into his home and brutally murdering Christy. Goose believes the murder was at the hands of their rival gang, the Spiders. Naturally, he seeks vengeance.
Except “Deadbeat at Dawn” isn’t a natural revenge flick. It moves to the beat of its own drum with the rhythm coming across as chaotic and out of tune. You slowly realize this is the point. Bebber isn’t concerned with telling a generic revenge story. He’s more concerned with examining how a lowlife thug copes with loss. Not just loss of his girlfriend, but loss of his life. Without the love of his life or his gang, Goose is directionless. He has nothing left to lose and, as we all know, there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.

Goose is a sad sack for the majority of the film, moping around aimlessly for the first half (and understandably so). He has no intentions of hunting down the Spiders, feeling more comfortable wasting away his existence in bars or in his father’s broken home. He goes to the latter first seeking comfort, but gets none from his abusive alcoholic of a father. He’s more concerned over his son replacing his beer and helping him get his fix than comforting him.

The father scenario is a tricky one. On paper, it’s reasonable; necessary even. It exists to show how Goose fell into the wrong crowd, a broken home damaging him emotionally. His father’s PTSD from serving in Vietnam parallels the war Goose engages in on the streets constantly. It even highlights Goose’s desire for compassion, hoping to bond with his father despite knowing that won’t happen. The problem is Bebber directs the father angle too comically. The father’s attitude is too over-the-top, resulting in unintentional laughter at points. Any time the drama and tension from the scenario begins to surface, it’s sunk by the overbearing performance.

This is a problem that plagues “Deadbeat at Dawn,” though it’s thankfully not consistent. While the film is always manic, as are the performances, most of it is complementary to the tone. The gang members can get away with being over the top, as that matches the lunacy of their carnage. Their outlandishness is reigned in via their heinous actions. It’s hard to laugh at them when they’re viciously beating people with bats or mowing enemies down with guns.
Bebber revels in the sleaze and grime. While this can be off-putting for some, it’s not sleazy for the sake of being sleazy. It’s representative of the world created, a languid cesspool riddled with crime and despair. The gangs exist because they have to out of survival. None of the denizens in the rundown neighborhood are given a chance to escape by society. Their Hell is a creation of segregation.

The only reason Goose is able to live out his revenge fantasy is by circumstance. He’s forced back into the gang, no longer the leader but the errand boy. He’s tasked with aiding in a theft, the kind all thugs dream of: the big one that can secure them for life. It’s through this theft that Goose is able to exact his revenge, slowly piecing the puzzle to his girlfriend’s murder along the way. He really only obtains his vengeance out of defense, snapping and turning his hand against his own gang as well as their rivals. And man, is it something! Goose becomes a badass, a one man gang who eliminates his enemies with nunchucks, guns, beheadings, and even ripping a man’s throat out!

“Deadbeat at Dawn” is no doubt a vile film. It’s one that goes too over the top at times, but never loses focus. It’s structured awkwardly, but that’s purposeful. The awkward structure matches the awkward nature of Goose’s life. It’s a disgusting life, resulting in a disgusting film. It’s not always easy to stomach, but it’s satisfying in its execution.

MVT: Jim Van Bebber. He has a tight grasp on the film and the world he created. He has a concise vision, even if the structure says otherwise. The repulsiveness of it all could have easily become too overbearing, but he does a fine job of anchoring it.

Make or Break: Strangely enough, it’s the father scenario. While that may be one of the weakest scenes due to the comical performance, it doesn’t break the film. It represents the path the film is going down, what Bebber is most interested in, and does a lot to develop the character of Goose. The scene works in spite of the comical performance, making the film as opposed to breaking it.

Final Score: 7/10