February 2008

Two Evil Eyes

Originally released in 1990, Two Evil Eyes is – loosely speaking – a collaboration between George Romero and Dario Argento. Each director made an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story and these two shorter films were brought together in this anthology.

Romeros entry, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar focusses on Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau), a trophy wife who is determined to wring every last penny out of her almost dead husband (Bingo OMalley). In this, she is aided by Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), a doctor who she is stringing along with promises of sex and wealth, and who is hypnotising Mr. Valdemar to ensure that he liquidates his investments and signs all of his money over to his wife before he dies.

Things start to go awry when the very ill Mr. Valdemar shuffles off his mortal coil a couple of weeks before everything is signed, sealed and delivered. So they put the body on ice – literally. And then things go really wrong.

Mr. Valdemar was under hypnosis when he died which has left him stranded between the realities of the living and the dead. And there are other entities out there that would like to use him as a portal to pass through to the world of the living

The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar is very much a psychological thriller and one that takes full advantage of the rising tension between Jessica Valdemar and Dr. Hoffman. The rising tension in this film is palpable and a testament to the fact that George Romero is very good indeed when it comes to developing complex and interesting characters, and finding actors who are capable of bringing them to life.

Both Adrienne Barbeau and Ramy Zada deliver incredibly strong performances and generate a real empathy for their characters. And this, more than anything else, is what keeps you on the edge of your seat right up to the point where the film should have ended.

The Black Cat – Argentos segment – is a very different beast indeed. The film opens with some very striking imagery and – if you werent sure where the inspiration came from – our protagonist (Harvey Keitel) is named Roderick Usher. Usher is a photographer with a macabre obsession that has led to his specialising in crime photography.

All seems fine until Ushers girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter) introduces a black cat into the household. Usher and the cat dont get on – to say the least – and, when he tries to move beyond his crime photography roots, the cat becomes a victim.

Consequence is piled upon reaction as the film progresses and User steadily goes to pieces. And here. Argento manages to engender a real sense of claustrophobia as well as striking us with some genuinely shocking imagery.

Hes on less firm ground when it comes to maintaining some consistency for either the characters or the plot – people often appear to do things for no reason other than the requirements of the script – but Keitel is a strong enough actor to hold this together as the film builds to its final shock reveal and inevitable climax.

Both Romero and Argento are icons of the horror genre and, if nothing else, putting their films back to back in this manner is a fascinating exercise in comparing the strengths of each. It helps immensely that both films in the anthology are solid entries in the respective directors oeuvres.

Genetics

Liyla (Molly Feigh) is a slob. Overweight, messy and lazy she seeks solace for her out of control life in comfort food, drink and cigarettes. Amelia (Pamela Sutch) is – in her own way – just as bad. Wealthy, privileged and arrogant, she has managed to reach her early 30s without actually doing anything with her life.

Inevitably, the two women encounter each other and clash quite energetically. And, in mid-clash, they are struck by a special effect which results in Liyla finding herself in Amelias body and vice-versa.

One of the strengths if science fiction as a genre is that it allows writers to explore hypothetical questions. In the case of Genetics, Pamela Sutch asks what would happen if someone who blames their failings on the hand life has dealt them is suddenly dealt an entirely different hand. Or, in this case, an entirely different body.

Both Lilya and Amelia find themselves confronted with a completely new set of challenges and opportunities and the film essentially stands back and allows us to watch how they respond. This character-based approach informs much of the films comedy as well.

Although there are several deliberately funny scenes, much of the humour is allowed to emerge naturally as the characters develop. This approach is, of course, helped immeasurably by the strength of both of the lead performances.

Both Molly Feigh and Pamela Sutch really bring their – and each others – characters to life and manage to make them sympathetic enough that we do start to care about what happens to them. By the end of the film these characters have become quite likeable, which is an especially impressive feat given that, as the film starts, they are a pretty unpleasant pair.

Genetics is a gently entertaining comedy with a serious point to make about the way in which we often take the comfortable route of seeking excuses – either by blaming others or insisting our faults are part of our nature - for our misfortune rather than facing up to the extent to which we are responsible.

Nightmare Detective

Nightmare Detective Over the years Shinya Tsukamoto has ranged across a variety of genres – from the mind bending SF of Tetsuo to the grimy eroticism of A Snake of June. Although both the genre and the plot can change from one film to the next, Tsukamoto’s consistent reworking of similar themes and his kinetic visual style gives his films a distinct auteurial stamp that is difficult to miss. While Nightmare Detective, his foray into the horror genre, may well be the director’s most accessible film to date, it is still very much a Shinya Tsukamoto film.

The film centres on Keiko (Hitomi), an up and coming detective investigating her first hands-on case – an apparent suicide. Although the senior detective is keen to treat it as an open and shut case, Keiko is less sure and wants to dig a little deeper. She is especially interested in “O” (Shinya Tsukamoto), the last person the suicide victim called.

Keiko’s investigations eventually lead her to seek the help of a tormrnted individual (Ryuhei Matsuda) with the unfortunate ability to enter other people’s dreams. As her pursuit of “O” becomes increasingly out of control, she finds herself forced to face own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Although marketed as a horror film, Nightmare Detective plays out more as a cross between a police procedural and a supernatural thriller. That said, the film does maintain an effectively eerie atmosphere throughout, often by acknowledging – and then subtly inverting – many of the tropes that have become familiar with the recent rise of Japanese horror.

And when the film takes a turn for the horrific, it becomes very horrific indeed. Tsukamotos frenetic editing of these scenes manages to keep you off balance but is accomplished enough to ensure that you understand as much as the director wants you to understand of what is going on.

The films use of colour and lighting to accentuate the mood and themes covered fit this very firmly into the directors filmography, as does the attention to character. The characters here are all adults and very well drawn and really do engage you fully with the film.

This is helped by the fact that acting is both solid and believable throughout, with Hitomi especially putting in a sterling performance in this, her first lead role.

With Nightmare Detective, Tsukamoto has merged popular concerns with internet suicide pacts with his own themes of alienation, despair and a loss of humanity. The result is a darkly ambitious film that manages to be genuinely chilling.

Freaky Farley

Freaky Farley claims to be a tribute to the low budget horror films of the 1970s and 80s but its much, much more than this.

The film opens with Farley Wilder (Matt Farley) behaving in the manner that you would expect of someone labouring under the nickname of Freaky Farley. And if you assume that I mean hes peering through windows at semi-naked women, youd be completely right. Farley has, of course, progressed beyond being a mere peeper, as is apparent from the fact that much of the film is told in flashback by a now incarcerated Farley to his psychiatrist (Ruth Tyler).

As Farley tells his story it becomes clear that he checks all the boxes we have come to expect from a rampaging psychopath. His mother died when he was young and his father – a local celebrity – is both domineering and distant. Jobless, hopeless and still living with his father, Farley is a loser going nowhere.

And then he meets Scarlett (Sharon Scalzo) who is both attractive and confident and starts to bring Farley out of his shell. Inevitably, Farleys growing confidence causes him to start to clash with his father, and to ask questions his father doesnt want to answer. We know that things will end badly, but its a good fifty minutes into the film before they start to do so.

Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley are a lot less interested in throwing gore at the screen than they are in spending time with the – invariably cheesy – characters that populate so many of the direct to video gems of 30 years ago. So we have a cast of characters ranging from the slightly odd to the outright weird, all spiting deliberately cheesy dialogue at each other. And a ninja, because all films are invariably improved by the inclusion of a ninja.

And then, in the last third of its running time, the film takes a turn for the brilliantly bizarre.

Freaky Farley is less a homage to late 70s and early 80s horror films than it is a satire of these films. And, as a satire, it works brilliantly. The comedy is quirky without being either contrived or self-indulgent. We have a set of characters here that could easily have been lifted from any number of films thrown together and the humour is allowed to emerge from their interactions with each other.

The look of the film does such a good job of transporting you back to the films preferred period that it is easy to forget that it was only released last year. Its light on gore and the nudity is implied rather than shown, all of which works very well in the context of what the filmmakers are trying to achieve.

Roxburgh and Farley clearly know and love their preferred genre and have managed to very effectively reflect everything that was fun about the original direct to video boom in a way that allows us all to enjoy it all over again.

Die and Let Live

With a 75 minute running time, Die and Let Live certainly doesnt hang around. The premise is efficiently set up and we see our first zombies before the the opening credits roll.

Then we meet our heroes and things slow down a bit. Benny (Josh Lively) and Smalls (Zane Crosby) are a pair of sex obsessed teenagers (arent they all) and – reasonably enough, since no-one yet knows about the zombie outbreak that is just getting going – they are obsessing about the sorts of things that teenagers obsess about. And when Stephanie (Sarah Bauer) splits up with her philandering thug of a boyfriend, Benny ropes Smalls into helping him throw an impromptu party so that he can make his move on her.

Die and Let Live does take a while to get to the meat of the movie, so to speak. Benny and Smalls are pretty archetypal characters and the extended coffee shop conversations dont really tell us anything that we hadnt already assumed. Although the conversations here have aspirations towards the sort of slacker dialogue that Kevin Smith can be very good at, its a bit too teenage and theres a bit too much of it for it to really work.

That said, once the party itself gets going, so does the film. From this point on the main characters become increasingly well rounded and much more likeable.

The party, not surprisingly, quickly spirals out of control. And, of course, we have a gathering horde of zombies so its not hard to guess whats going to happen next.

Although, on the face of it, Die and Let Live looks like another teen-in-peril zombie film, its a lot smarter than either its characters or its roots. And its this that makes the film such an entertaining experience.

Being a zombie film there is, of course, plenty of gore and this is well handled. But what really makes this film stand out are the jokes. These come thick and fast and range from the puerile to the inspired. Not every joke works, but there are so many of them that you will find yourself laughing out loud. Repeatedly.

Die and Let Live is a film that takes several familiar genres and draws them together into an original and genuinely funny teen-romance-zombie-comedy. Its not Shaun of the Dead, but its a huge amount of fun in its own right and on its own terms and is well worth tracking down.

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