Haute Tension

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As Judge Dredd almost said: “I am the saw!”

This Thanksgiving viewing – that may say more about our house than anything – was a suggestion by our teen daughter, which is somewhere between a incentive and a put-off. Normally, she won’t view anything with subtitles for more than two minutes; but her tastes are closer to Anchorman or The Notebook than French slasher pics. Reviews I read in advance were similarly split: either enthusiastic hype (“arguably the best horror movie since The Blair Witch Project” wrote James Berardinelli), or disparaging critiques which condemn it for a cheap twist (“Treats me like a jackass that will swallow anything”, says a writer at eFilmCritic.com).

The truth, as usual, lurks between: a warmed-over rehash of genre cliches, it’s done with sufficient verve to be tolerable. And while the surprise holes the plot sub-waterline, it is, at least, an attempt to modify conventions largely unchanged since Leatherface revved up the saw back in 1975: outsiders + loony locals = carnage. In this case, Marie (de France) and Alex (Maïwenn) head for a study weekend to the farm where Marie’s parents live. However, a single-minded psychopath (Nahon) kills Ma & Pa in spectacularly gory fashion – in the unrated version, at least – then kidnaps Alex, leaving Marie her sole hope of survival. The madman always seems one step ahead, in a way reminiscent of The Hitcher, though the killer here is scuzzy sleazeball rather than charismatic prankster. The cat-and-mouse chase leads deep into the remote countryside, before a final confrontation and the twist, which I have to say wasn’t a surprise. My first guess was a post-orgasm fantasy by Marie; it’s not (except tangentially, perhaps), and my second stab proved right.

But does it work? In hindsight, probably not; it needs too much cheating of viewpoints for everything before to become plausible. Much of the rest, however, is fairly effective; the lack of backstory works for the killer, and the deaths are great, in-your-face, nasty pieces of slaughter. Director Aja doesn’t really have much of an idea about tension, thinking that the absence of action, combined with ominous music, is sufficient to this end. Yet there is talent and potential present, and you can see why he has signed to a remake of the similarly-themed The Hills Have Eyes. Until then, this post-post-feminist slasher pic is a failure, albeit an interesting one.

Dir: Alexandre Aja
Star: Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon
a.k.a. High Tension

The Blackburn & Scarletti Mysteries Volume I, by Karen Koehler

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“The X-Files meets Hellsing. In a very dark alley.”

Take an FBI agent with some psychic ability, January Blackburn, and partner her with part-vampire Catholic priest, Dorian Scarletti. Intrigued? Me too. That’s the premise of the three stories in this book, where our odd couple investigate paranormal crimes around the US. The results are somewhat uneven, yet with much promise: Blackburn is probably a more interesting character, possessing both great inner strength, and quirks that make her vulnerable and more human. In contrast, Scarletti, thus far, seems a bit like a “vampire by numbers”, with all the standard moping around, relationship angst and so on, too familiar to be of more than passing interest. Though, must say, his weapon of choice – hundreds of cross-shaped throwing knives inside his coat – is worth cool points in my book (even if I presume he doesn’t go through airports).

The structure of the book is also somewhat irritating, bipping back and forth between present and past. For example, one scene has our pair undercover at a strip-club run by werewolves(!), where the residents have discovered Blackburn’s true nature and rush towards her to… End of chapter: cut to Scarletti in Victorian London, befriending the Elephant Man during the Ripper murders, for the next ten pages. “Aaargh!”, went this reader, skimming furiously. That’s a shame, because when Koehler sticks to the modern era, the stories are real page-turners, which on at least one occasion, made me late to work after lunch. The world it depicts has a huge amount of potential, and has clearly been well-thought out. In particular, the second story, The Hyde Effect, is a fabulous piece about killings in Boston that might – or might not – be werewolf-related. And that’s another good thing about these stories; the author is not afraid to mix occult and prosaic explanations.

As yet, Koehler is best known for her Slayer series, a lynchpin of the “industrial gothic” movement. [The protagonist there, Alek Knight, turns up in the third story, a smart bit of marketing!] But I see no reason why this shouldn’t become even more popular, if she concentrates on what makes her stand out from the field. Blackburn certainly has the potential to surpass Anita Blake as a horror-action heroine of literature. Let’s just hope Koehler, unlike Laurell K. Hamilton, can keep the soft-porn out.

By: Karen Koehler
Publisher: Black Death Books, $14.95

In the Line of Duty III

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“The harder they come…”

Firstly, in case you’re wondering, there was no In the Line of Duty 2, or even In the Line of Duty. Well, not as such… In the Line of Duty is the European title for Royal Warriors, and In the Line of Duty 2 is Yes, Madam!. Even though the latter was made first, they were released in a different order in some territories, with the success of In the Line of Duty/Royal Warriors leading to a swift re-titling for marketing purposes of Yes, Madam!. However, one presumes makers D+B Films decided to save time, simply adopting the name for the third “installment” in the – really, non-existent – series. I hope you’re paying attention at the back. This will be on the test. ;-)

There was, however, a problem. Namely, the star of the previous two films, Michelle Yeoh (at that time, better known as Michelle Khan) was unavailable – having married D+B owner, Dickson Poon. Their choice was “Cynthia Khan”, a name obtained by combining that of the two Yes, Madam! stars, Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan. Like her predecessor, she was not from Hong Kong, coming from Taiwan, and was also both a martial-arts novice and a former dancer whose aspirations in that direction had been limited by injury. [You can also add Moon Lee into the “former dancer” category] Despite this lack of long-term background, she slots right in, and the result is a solid action heroine flick.

The plot is largely based around revenge; the catalyst is a Japanese cop (Fujioka), whose partner is shot by a terrorist (Ong) during a jewel robbery. He reckons the jewel owner, Yamamoto, was doing an insurance scam, and follows him to Hong Kong, since there is too much influence to press charges in Japan. The terrorist and his partner (Nishiwaki) have also come to Hong Kong, seeking to buy arms with their loot, but discover the jewels are fake, and they too have been scammed, so want to take it out on Yamamoto. Meanwhile, Madam Yeung (Khan) has joined the police squad run by her uncle; he doesn’t want her to do anything risky, despite her being the most talented officer on the roster, so assigns her to babysit the Japanese cop, show him the sights and keep him out of mischief.

No prizes for guessing exactly how well that works – or for predicting that it will all lead to a brutal brawl in a warehouse between Nishiwaki, Khan and Dick Wei, as the various agendas of revenge come into conjunction. It’s rough-housing at its best, with everything save the kitchen sink (but including an industrial drill) being used as weapons. While the doubling for Khan is occasionally apparent, there are also moments you think she’s being doubled, until she swings round to show her face. Overall, for what was basically her debut, it’s pretty impressive, and credit to action directors Chris Lee, Tony Leung Siu-Hung, Brandy Yuen and Yuen Cheung-yan, as well as, of course, to Khan herself.

in-the-Line-of-Duty3-001The script is not bad. It does suffer from the usual unevenness of tone, with occasional comedic interludes that detract from an impressively dark tone, especially as the film progresses. The worst offender there is a meaningless cameo by Eric Tsang and Richard Ng (well-known HK actress Sandra Ng also shows up in an early supporting role), but there are nice moments which help give all the characters depth, and the storyline makes basic sense, which is more than can be said for some entries in the genre. Though let’s just hope, it isn’t as easy to get a bomb – complete with ticking digital counter – into the heart of a Hong Kong police station these days!

What I particularly like about the film, is the nicely-built sense of escalation. The opening scene, in which Khan handles a traffic-offender, then a robber, is light fluff, like you’d expect from the Inspector Wears Skirts series. Almost immediately, however, the body count starts to rise, not least since the terrorists’ approach involves a startlingly reckless disregard for human life. While Khan’s acting talents are, perhaps wisely, hardly tested, Nishiwaki delivers a good performance of striking intensity, and it always struck me as a shame that she didn’t get many lead roles like this one: she’s more known for her cameos, as in God of Gamblers or My Lucky Stars.

This is undeniably a fun time-passer, and a good example of the HK girls-with-guns genre that flourished in the mid-80’s and has never quite been replicated since. There’s a moment towards the end where it’s suddenly made clear that anyone could die at any moment in this film: something you’ll rarely see in a Western flick (outside the horror genre, at least). It’s perhaps a shame they didn’t do this earlier, since from that moment on, this has a reckless, unpredictable attitude which ranks with the best action movies.

Dir: Brandy Yuen and Arthur Wong
Stars: Cynthia Khan, Hiroshi Fujioka, Michiko Nishiwaki, Stuart Ong

It Waits

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“It Sucks.”

This appears to be aiming for a leg-up on The Descent bandwagon and its theme of “chicks vs. cave-dwelling monsters in a remote wilderness”; though there’s only one of each here, rather than it being a team sport. “Troubled young ranger” Danielle St. Clair (Vincent) is atop a remote tower, watching out for fires, but a careless use of dynamite unleashes an ancient Indian evil that’s been trapped in a cave for centuries. Fortunately, despite said centuries, the monster still knows how to disable satellite dishes and trash Jeeps, as well as ripping the heads off everyone in the area it meets – except for St. Clair, of course, whom it merely terrorizes. The inevitable native American (Schweig) gets wheeled on for one scene of indigestible exposition, trotting out the usual cliches about how we’ve lost touch with our inner child, or some such New Age guff. Not that the beast cares much, I was pleased to see.

Wholly deficient on just about every level, it sent both myself and Chris to sleep, independently, just after the half-way mark. Though things did pick up thereafter, that might have been because we’d been refreshed by 8 hours’ sleep and a bowl of Wheaties. The pacing is particularly bad, with far too much weight given to Danielle’s past trauma, which is of no interest or relevance, and is not exactly helped by the depressing, sub-Tori Amos songs on the soundtrack (the director’s wife, I believe). The title is particularly appropriate, as the viewer is also kept hanging around, waiting for something entertaining to happen. There’s pretty thin pickings on that front, I’m afraid.

When Danielle finally decides to leave the forest, it’s a bit more energetic, though has nothing to offer beyond reheated leftovers you’ve seen before. I mean, when she runs over the thing in her truck, is anyone surprised when the body isn’t there? Not to say the idea isn’t without potential, as was shown in The Descent – and, possibly even more so, in Dog Soldiers. However, when your script is as flawed and uninteresting as here, a film really needs to pull up its socks in the areas of acting and direction. It Waits is mediocre on these fronts, at best, and as a result, the whole thing fizzles out like a damp squib.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Stars: Cerina Vincent, Dominic Zamprogna, Greg Kean, Eric Schweig