Elite

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“Because Mediocre  wouldn’t sell as well.”

A mission in central America against drug cartel boss Reynaldo Benitez (Garza) goes wrong, leaving eight Special Ops soldiers dead. This includes the husband of Naval Covert Operations Command agent, Abbey Vaughn (Gregory), who is intent on discovering the truth about what happened to her spouse. She links up with the only survivor of the operation, Lt. Sam Harrigan (Scarbrough), now living in a trailer, and spending his time drinking and practicing golf. Together with the rest of their team, they investigate the case, only to find the tentacles of organized crime are deeper embedded than they appear, and their inquiries put not only themselves, but Abbey’s family in serious danger.

The performances here aren’t the problem. Gregory and Scarbrough are both effective enough, and the supporting cast are equally watchable – special credit to Rousseau as team hacker Jazz, a character of whom I’d have liked to have seen more. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are also better staged than I was expecting. It appears a lot of the performers have MMA experience, along with indie wrestler Mike Dell, and this gives the fights a solid amount of credibility, with the punches appearing to have an impact on their recipients.

If only the same could be said for other aspects, which outweigh the positives overall. First, and largest, is the bane of many low-budget movies: bad audio. I had to sit with my finger on the remote control, perpetually adjusting the volume – one scene too loud, the next inaudibly quiet. The foley work on the gun-battles was simply laughable, using electronic bleeps and chirps that made bursts of semi-automatic fire sound more like birdsong. In general, anything involving armaments was problematic and unconvincing, with the production able to afford little or nothing in the way of collateral damage, to people or property.

The other main problem for me was the script, consisting of a collection of clichés and by-the-number plot points, without any genuine surprises to be found. It might have passed muster for a less discerning audience in the mid-eighties. Though unless they found the basic concept of moving pictures novel enough to be a distraction, I’m not even sure they would be satisfied. For example, immediately we saw the heroine’s father and daughter, I could guess exactly what their role in the film was going to be, and went 2-for-2 in my expectations.

It was particularly disappointing, because story-line is an area where resources shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, it will limit the scenarios open to the film-maker; however, you should still be able to do more than trot out hackneyed elements, arranged in a way that alternately bores and confuses (quite why an NCOC agent was conducting an investigation of a drug cartel escapes me, and I’m still uncertain whether a major character ended the film alive or dead). Even with a higher tolerance for small-budget cinema than most, this was still more chore than pleasure.

Dir: Mark Cantu
Star: Allison Gregory, Jason Scarbrough, Ione Rousseau, Larry Garza

The Eyes of My Mother

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“Eyes without a farce.”

“Post-horror” is now, apparently, A Thing. It refers to horror films that subvert the traditional tropes and style of the genre in some way. Though based on the so-tagged example of it I’ve seen, the main subversion appears to be “not being frightening.” I think there’s a spot of pretension mixed in as well, since horror is generally regarded as marginally above pornography in terms of critical appreciation. By calling it something else, this gives those who turn their nose up at “horror” a chance to appreciate it. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword for marketing, because you’re as likely to lose fans of “true” horror, who have been burned badly by films riding on the genre’s coat-tails.

There’s nothing particularly new about this. Films which rely on implied rather than explicit horror have generally been more warmly received by critics. Think of Psycho, The Shining, or even contrast the receptions of the original Cat People and Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake, which took all the repressed sexuality of the original and brought it front and center. Critics hated the latter. It’s one of my top 10 films of all-time – but I can also love the original, even though it’s so understated as barely to qualify as horror by modern standards. There’s room for both, and neither is innately superior. However, it generally takes a bit more skill to provoke an audience reaction with unseen terrors, especially if the viewer has seen their share of genre entries.

Which (finally) brings me to The Eyes of My Mother, a black-and-white film, which I guess is post-horror. For while it tells the story of a family of psychos living in the country, with a fondness for kidnap and torture… This is not exactly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It starts off as a family affair, with young Francesca living on a farm with her mother (Agostini), a former Portuguese eye surgeon, and father (Nazak). A home invasion results in a death, but the perpetrator is captured, and becomes Francesca’s tormented plaything as she grows into adulthood (Magalhães), honing her surgical skills on him. That turns out to be just the first victim, as Francesca if a firm believer in crafting a new family by abduction.

It’s all too highbrow for its own good, Pesce apparently believing that cutting away from virtually all actual violence, and draining the colour from proceedings is equivalent to art. He’s wrong, for you also need to be a Hitchcock or a Polanski. Although some day, Pesce might reach those heights, this is his feature debut, and the style instead comes over as unbearably pretentious: art purely for art’s sake, instead of serving the story. Not to say it gets everything wrong; the lead performance is deliciously chilling in its utter placidity, going to the other extreme from Texas, and all the more effective for it. But when Chris’s first post-screening comment is, “I wonder how they paid their electricity bill?”, you know that any supposed horror movie (even a post-horror one) has fumbled the ball badly in terms of impacting the viewer.

Dir: Nicolas Pesce
Star: Kika Magalhães, Olivia Bond, Diana Agostini, Paul Nazak

La Esquina del Diablo

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“Stuck in a corner.”

You’re in deep in Devil’s Corner
And you already realize it’s hard to get out.
What would you do if there’s no place to run
Sharpen your senses and defend yourself well

In Devil’s Corner, walking towards love
Dodging bullets and risking your heart 
It’s so hard to escape from Devil’s Corner 
Defying death I came here to fight 
And to love 

Thus goes the peppy pop ditty which plays over the opening credits of this Colombian telenovela. It stars Ana Serradilla, whom we previously saw as the heroine of La Viuda Negra. Here, she’s on the other side of the law, playing cop Ana García. She wants to be assigned to the special operations group. But her temper gets the best of her when she’s given a surreptitious test, interviewing a suspect who’s actually a policeman, and is deliberately trying to provoke her.

Fortunately, she gets a second chance to make a first impression, and is inserted in an undercover role to the aptly-named “La esquina del diablo” – the Devil’s corner. It’s a no-go zone for police, a ghetto perched high up on the hills overlooking the city. The area is controlled with an iron hand by the Velasco family, led by patriarch Angel (Tappan); they run drugs and other criminal activities, and have been a thorn in the side of the local authorities for years. Local cop Eder Martin (de Miguel) sends Ana into the area as a social worker, to gather information, after a helicopter crash supposedly kills Angel. However, it quickly turns out this was merely a ruse by the boss, to get the cops off his back. Can Ana embed herself deeply into the local community to complete her mission?

That’s just one – possibly not even the main one – of a number of plot threads which are woven into the fabric of the 70 episodes. Additional elements include:

  • Angel’s second-in-command, Yago (Pernia), who was a childhood friend of Eder
  • Angel’s son, Angelito, who is an ambitious loose cannon with psychopathic tendencies
  • Eder’s relationship with the mayor’s daughter, and its conflict with the growing attraction to Ana
  • Meanwhile, Ana’s gradual realization that Yago may not be as bad an apple as he seems
  • The mayor’s political aspirations and presidential campaign
  • Yago’s son is a promising football player, but is also on the verge of being recruited by Angelito
  • The other undercover cop, who befriends Angelito in jail and helps him escape
  • The mysterious “He”, a rival crime boss who inhabits the upper echelon of the city’s elite
  • The serial killer who is leaving a trail of women’s corpses, tattooed with numbers on their shoulders

Phew. This cornucopia of plot-lines likely both the series’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There’s no doubt it’s actually very well-handled by the writers and cast: even the relatively minor characters are given an impressive amount of depth, and the script never gets jumbled or confused. This is a sharp contrast to Camelia la Texana, the show I’m currently watching: you don’t so much follow the plot, as desperately cling to it, as various groups of sideburn-wearing people scheme against each other. It’s also a contrast, in another way, to Viuda Negra, which was unashamedly about Griselda Blanco. In this case, the breadth of focus inevitably leads to a dilution of why we’re here, with poor Ana often sidelined.

This is a shame, since the heroine here is shown in the first episode, as fully capable of single-handedly taking out and/or down multiple villains with her skills. The mission here is much less direct: it’s very much undercover intelligence-gathering. She can’t kick ass, because that is not what social workers do: if she did, anyone who saw it would have cause to suspect Ana’s real identity and mission, immediately becoming part of the problem. So instead, there’s a lot more skulking around, trying to earn the trust of Eder, and narrow escapes from being caught by Velasco’s gang. After what we saw at the beginning, this passive approach seems like a sad waste of her law-enforcement talents.

This is the main reason for the relatively low score above. For in some ways, it’s the best of the shows I’ve seen, in terms of combining characters and plots in an engaging way. I’m impressed with the non-specific nature of the location, mentioning no particular country or city. The sharp divide between rich and poor, with the latter living in ghettos run by a largely criminal element, reminded me of the Rio favelas – I highly recommend you watch the amazing Elite Squad if you want a glimpse of the hellish life there. But I would imagine it’s equally likely to be Colombia, since that’s where the series was actually shot. The series does well too, in portraying the moral grey-scale: between Ana at one end and Angelito at the other, most making choices based on pragmatism rather than idealism.

There are a lot of interesting supporting characters: not so much Eder and Yago, who are fairly cookie-cutter in terms of being opposing romantic heroes, with dark, troubled (and somewhat shared) pasts. It’s mostly on the fringes of Velasco’s gang that all the fun is to be found. Cachalote (Julián Caicedo) is a burly thug with a surprisingly soft heart – he has an unrequited crush on the mayor’s daughter, formed during her kidnapping. Meteoro (Erick Leonardo Cuellar) is the gang’s drug chemist, though he looks and acts like a methed-up version of Giorgio Tsoukalos, from the Ancient Aliens show. Most notable of all is Michelle (Estefania Piñeres, right), a hard-nosed barrio brat who is more than capable of holding her own in the tough environment, and is ferociously loyal to her boss. She would have enough stories to tell for her own, lengthy series, I’ve no doubt about that.

However, as an action heroine series, it’s undeniably a disappointment: I was expecting much more focus on the central character, based both on Negra and the first episode. And, indeed, much more action. As a regular TV show, it would deserve a higher rating, likely a full star better, since I genuinely did enjoy it. It just isn’t quite the fit for the site which I was hoping to see.

Star: Ana Serradilla, Miguel de Miguel, Gregorio Pernía, Christian Tappan 

Even Lambs Have Teeth

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“Romy and Michelle’s Vicious Vacation.”

Katie (Skovbye) and Sloane (Prout) are teenage BFF’s, who head off to spend time on an organic farm – though their real goal is the weekend shopping in New York which will follow it. On the way, they are distracted by a couple of bits of prime young, rural manhood. But before you can say “roll in the hay,” they are drugged, the pair waking up to find themselves chained to duplex shipping containers, from where they are rented out as sex slaves to anyone interested. Their sudden dropping off the grid concerns Katie’s uncle Jason (Richards), who happens to be an FBI agent. He heads to the area to investigate, unaware the local sheriff is in on the plot. However, there’s only so far you can push a person, before they break. When Katie and Sloane snap, and escape, rather than heading for safety, they decide to stick around, so they can get thoroughly medieval on those responsible.

This could have gone thoroughly grindhouse, as is the usual approach in the rape-revenge genre. Credit Miles, therefore, for zigging in another direction, with the actual assaults far more implied than actually shown. This is something of a double-edged sword: there isn’t the same resulting sense of horror or outrage, but on the other hand, I’m always far more about the revenge half of the equation. As the review tagline above implies, the film also manages to be surprisingly light in tone, given the subject matter. That’s particularly the case in the second half. For instance, the ladies get the shopping spree they want – except, it’s in the local hardware store, picking up tools for their vengeance, rather than going down Fifth Avenue.

It’s also as much about the relationship between the two women, with the switch in their characters between the two sections. Initially, Sloane is the outgoing and dominant one; however, it’s Katie who instigates the switch from passive to active, and takes charge thereafter. When they were making up alternative personas for the trip, shortly before departure, let’s just say there were apparently good reasons why she chose “Ripley” as the name of her alter ego.

The main weakness is likely the overall sense of restraint, which unfortunately applies equally as much to the revenge – precisely the aspect which needs to be ramped up to 11. And, really, given the entire town is apparently in on it, including the police department, I was expecting much more of a reaction from the locals. Even when Katie and Sloane drive through town in a stolen truck, dragging the body of one victim behind them… nobody so much as notices. There’s not any sense of escalation either. Arguably the worst fate, happens to their first target, although some credit is due for imaginative use of a weed-whacker.

The results are all amiable enough entertainment – and that’s probably the first time I’ve ever used the word “amiable” in regard to a rape-revenge flick. If these lambs have teeth, this movie is more an affectionate nibble than a fully-fledged bite.

Dir: Terry Miles
Star: Kirsten Prout, Tiera Skovbye, Michael Karl Richards, Garrett Black

The Eagle Huntress

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“Where eagles dare.”

No matter how bad-ass you are, you’ll never attain “13-year-old Mongolian girl, standing astride a mountain, holding the trained golden eagle she raised from a chick, after climbing down a cliff to get it” levels of bad-ass. That’s what we have here, folks, in this documentary about Aisholpan. She’s a Mongolian teenager who wants to become an eagle huntress, a profession traditionally reserved for the male lineage. Her father Rys learned the skills necessary (and, presumably, inherited the really large, very well-padded glove) from his father, and so on.

In the absence of a suitably-aged son, and given Aisholpan’s interest, Rys is happy to show her the ropes. Literally. As in the ones used to prevent her falling off the steep cliff-face she has to descend to pluck her eaglet from its home. For, as we learn, there’s only a brief period between the chicks being able to survive away from their mother, and them leaving the nest, during which they can be taken. We also discover, there’s apparently no word in Mongolian for “child endangerment.” There’s then the training process, as the bird grows up, for instance to get it to come when called. Though “politely asked” would be wiser than “called”. You don’t order around something like the full-sized and scary creature shown on the right.

The first dramatic moment is Aisholpan’s participation in the annual golden eagle festival, which takes place in a nearby (by Mongolian standards – it’s only a day’s ride away) town. She’s not only the youngest participant, she’s the first woman ever to take part. Some of the veterans and elders are interviewed, and are not exactly happy about it. Though their opposition doesn’t appear to go any further than mild levels of harumphing; it’s not as if there’s any active attempt to stop her participation. This could be because the film does seem to over-state Aisholpan’s uniqueness for the sake of cinematic drama. History actually provides much evidence for her female predecessors.

However, there’s still an enormous amount here to appreciate and enjoy, not least a plethora of panoramas, sweeping across the staggeringly beautiful Mongolian plains. You also get a new respect for eagles, creatures whose size is not apparent in the air, and only when you see one perched on the heroine’s arm, it’s razor-sharp beak inches from her eye. Then there’s Aisholpan herself, who clearly gives not one damn for any constraints “tradition” might want to place on her, and goes about her eagle-training business with an infectious smile. Oh, and she’s studying to be a doctor when she grows up. If she went on her rounds with an eagle on her arm, so much the better, I’d say.

Finally, we get to bask in the gloriously stunned silence of the elders, after Aisholpan has demonstrated her skills (and, admittedly, those of her avian familiar) at the tournament. They then point out that, well, anybody – even a girl – can do well enough in the comfortable setting of a field. She could never withstand the harsh conditions faced by real hunters, in the mountains. Guess where Aisholpan’s next stop is? Yep. She takes her bird and heads off into those mountains, through snowdrifts which reach up to the flank of her horse, to hunt foxes for their fur. In terms of teenage empowerment, it sure beats getting a tattoo and hanging out at the mall.

Dir: Otto Bell
Star: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (narrator)

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

Eye for An Eye

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“No-nonsense crypto-fascist cinema.”

eyeforaneyeSubtle, this ain’t. But if you’re looking for a knee-jerk tale of vigilante vengeance, when the lily-livered justice system has failed, kowtowing instead to the “rights” of the guilty… This has certainly got you covered. Karen McCann (Field) is on the phone with her teenage daughter, planning a birthday party, when their call is interrupted by the arrival of serial rapist and murderer, Robert Doob (Sutherland). Karen can only listen as her daughter is brutalized by Doob, then bludgeoned to death with an ice sculpture. While his DNA is found at the scene, Doob walks because of a prosecutorial blunder, leaving Karen and husband Mack (Harris) aggrieved, and investigating detective Joe Denillo (Mantegna) powerless to help, even when Karen follows Doob and finds him apparently preparing to strike again. She joins a support group for those who also lost their kids, only to discover some of the members have an additional agenda; to help each other take revenge, where the law has been unable to do so. However, it turns out the FBI have also been monitoring the group, so what is Karen to do?

It’s entirely straightforward, pitting the perfect American family against an utter sleazeball; Sutherland is extremely creepy in his portrayal of Doob, and it’s quite eye-opening if you’re more used to him as (the similarly crypto-fascist) Jack Bauer. This reaches its apex when Doob confronts Karen and her surviving six-year-old daughter, Megan, whom he has been stalking, and whispers to the mother, “I don’t even really like kiddie pussy – but I’m willing to make an exception…” Yeah, I think that was probably the point at which the last vestiges of my liberal sensitivities checked out, and I could throw myself fully behind Karen’s mission. Just don’t expect anything approaching moral balance, or philosophical insight: this is rabble-rousing cinema at its most elemental. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s following in a long line of such movies, going back at least as far as Dirty Harry in 1971.

On the other hand, I can’t really argue with Roger Ebert, when he wrote, “Movies like Eye for an Eye cheapen our character by encouraging us to indulge simplistic emotions – to react instead of analyzing.”  For this certainly is simplistic, and if Sutherland is impressively one-dimensions as the villain, Field is less convincing as Karen, in what needed to be a rather more nuanced performance, if it was going to rise above the material [There’s also an unexpected cameo from Cynthia Rothrock, of all people, as her self-defence teacher]. However, not all cinema needs to be “deep” or “thought-provoking,” and Schlesinger clearly has no such aspirations. Even if the targets here are hung low, it still hits more than it misses.

Dir: John Schlesinger
Star: Sally Field, Kiefer Sutherland, Ed Harris, Joe Mantegna

Earthkiller

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“In space, no-one can hear you yawn.”

earthkillerIf one and a half stars is likely kind, I know how much work goes into micro-budget film-making, and this is clearly a labour of love. However, if ever there were evidence more than that is needed… this would be it. At some point in the future, an android, “Helen” (Kurtz), reboots to find herself on a space-station with no memory of why she is there. It turns out, she was part of a mission sent to the space-station, involving a massive weapon located there, capable of creating a black hole and destroying the Earth below. Some want to destroy the weapon; others want to set it off, in order to fulfill religious prophecy. Helen initially assists the former side, but as her memories return, it turns out that may not have been her originally programmed mission. As well as the fanatics, there are also nanobot-infected zombies [I think – my notes grew a bit vague on the details of some elements, as my interest waned!] who must be avoided or fought, for Helen to make her way through the station to the Doomsday device’s location.

Which would be okay, if the film-makers could deliver anything approaching the productions values necessary for this kind of epic science fiction. Instead, we get what feels like the same three sets, shot repeatedly from slightly different angles, in a touching and severely-flawed belief that no-one will notice; “zombie” make-up which looks like an Alice Cooper look-alike contest got left out in the rain; and perhaps one of the worst “acting” performances of the decade. Though, I have to say, this does not belong to Kurtz, who acquits herself adequately as a robot. She spends the first 20 minutes of the movie naked, for no reason ever satisfactorily explained, and I wondered is she was going to go all Lifeforce here. Kurtz is – how can I put this? – more reminiscent of Tilda Swinton than Mathilda Maym and it’s about the least erotic nudity you can imagine, but I kinda respect her and the director for that. Anyway: no, the acting Razzie for this one gives to whoever is playing her boss, who delivers his lines with considerably less enthusiasm than the zombies. It’s certainly memorable; unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

Throw in poorly conceived and badly-executed CGI blood (something I generally dislike and rarely used except out of laziness),  exposition that manages to be uninteresting during the minority of the time when it is intelligible, and digital effects that run the gamut from acceptable – the space-station exteriors aren’t bad – to 8-bit video game, and you have something which even the best will in the world can’t save. Sometimes, reining in enthusiasm is good; sometimes, realizing you aren’t yet ready for public consumption is better.

Dir: Andrew Bellware
Star: Robin Kurtz, Lisa Marie Fabrega, Stacey Raymond
a.k.a. Total Retribution

Evangeline

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“Revenge – less eaten cold than luke-warm leftovers.”

evangelineWhile I can’t find any sources to back my memory, I vaguely recall hearing a while ago about plans, either for a sequel or a reboot, to make a female version of The Crow. This seems like much the same thing, though based on the incoherent results here, they probably should bury the concept alongside Brandon Lee. Eva (de Lieva) is a preacher’s daughter, who has apparently led a sheltered life before enrolling at college. It’s not long, however, before she is attending her first frat party; unsurprisingly, this leads to her driving the big white bus. Things then go from bad worse, as a subsequent invitation from a fellow student leads to her being drugged, taken to the forest, gang-raped by a trio led by Michael Konner (Harmon), and left for dead. Or perhaps actually dead. For what happens next is either a) Eva’s corpse is possessed by some kind of demonic entity, and restored to life to take revenge, or b) she merely thinks that’s what happened, this being her psyche’s way of explaining and justifying said revenge.

Both, widely disparate explanations are equally plausible, and writer/director Lam seems to have little or no interest in clarifying matter, perhaps because, from what I’ve read, she was more interested in making “feminist response horror,” whatever that is. As the quote mis-attributed to Sam Goldwyn put it, “If you have a message, call Western Union.” While I’ve no problems at all with messages in films, feminist or otherwise, they should always be secondary to the film, and you don’t get the feeling that’s the case here. Admittedly, this is because so little effort is put into telling a decent story: when you’ve so little idea of what’s going on, there’s no reason to care about any thing the creators are trying to say. Here, for example, there is also a confused and superfluous subplot about a PTSD-afflicted veteran, living in the woods, as well as an apparent serial killer, “Mr K”. The purpose of both these are obscure, since neither seem to add much of significance.

This is a bit of a shame, since the look of the film is much more decent than its content, aspects such as the photography, sound design and special effect meshing to an okay degree – even if some of the visual techniques do appear to have been lifted wholesale from a far better film about someone’s sanity falling apart and/or demons, Jacob’s Ladder. That creature, mostly seen in its grey, spindly fingers, is undeniably a creepy motif. However, particularly in this genre, style can only take you so far, before it emphasizes and exacerbates a lack of content. In that area, I kept hoping the film was going to deliver enough to justify its existence; but the end-credits rolled, and I was still left entirely unsatisfied.

Dir: Karen Lam
Star: Kat de Lieva , Richard Harmon, Mayumi Yoshida, David Lewis

Eko Eko Azarak

ekoekomanga“Into every generation a sorceress is born.”

No, Buffy was not the first schoolgirl with supernatural powers, tasked with ensuring the denizens of hell were kept under control. Beginning in 1975, Shinichi Koga’s manga series Eko Eko Azarak, serialized in Weekly Shōnen Champion, told the story of Misa Kuroi, a young girl who transfers in to a new school, bringing with her occult abilities as a witch. This is not the first, nor will it be the last, darkly-troubled educational establishment attended by Misa, whose name can loosely be translated in Japanese as “Black Mass”. In this case, it’s the focus of a Satanic cult, who are killing students at precise locations around the city, as ingredients in a ritual with the intended end result of summoning Lucifer himself.

This and the subsequent adventures of Misa, ran for three and a half years, and was subsequently collected into an 18-volume manga series. The title comes from a Wiccan chant, first recorded in the 1920’s, and which also shows up during a 1971 Doctor Who serial, The Dæmons. [Its meaning is obscure, but the names appear to belong to old gods and goddesses] But it took more than two decades for the series first to be turned into a live-action film. This pre-dated the breakout hit of Japanese horror, Ringu, by two years, which may explain why it didn’t receive a fraction of the attention. However, it did begin a series of adaptations which intermittently continued, across various media, for the following 15 years. This included six films, a pair of separate television version and something best described as pseudo-anime. Let’s take a look at some of those, pausing only to hold hands and chant as one:

“Eko Eko Azarak, Eko Eko Zamelak.
Eko Eko Kernonos, Eko Eko Aradia.”


Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness

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ekoeko1Someone appears to be offing pupils at a Tokyo school, in messy “accidents”, such as getting their head crushed by a falling girder: the death scenes form a pentagram, with the school at its centre. Into this strained atmosphere comes Misa Kuroi (Yoshino), who soon established herself as someone with a solid knowledge of certain occult arts, by taking care of a grubby male teacher who has, shall we say, a “hands on” approach to education. She and 12 classmates are ordered to stay behind one day and take a test: on completion, they discover they can’t leave the school, with every exit either sealed, or taking them right back inside again. Worse soon follows, beginning with a drowning in a toilet cubicle: the number 13 which appeared mysteriously on the blackboard, becomes 12, and it’s clear that someone has malicious intent towards the group, with the aim of sacrificing them all, in order to resurrect Lucifer himself.

Who might that be? Creepy classmate Mizuno  (Takahashi), who is openly interested in black magic, yet keeps pointing the finger of suspicion at Misa? The predatory, lesbian teacher, Miss Shirai (Takaki)? And even if she finds out, what can Misa do, given the binding which traps her and the rest of her colleagues, has also severely weakened her own powers? While low-rent in nature, and obviously shot on video, this is decent enough, and despite being just past its 20th birthday, hasn’t dated too badly, in the wake of what seems like a million and one J-horror films set in similar establishments. There’s something of a Buffy echo (though the manga was decades before even the Kirsty Swanson version), in that Misa has come to a new school under murky circumstances, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. However, I’m not quite sure who the target audience is: one would presume a young adult one, based on the high-school age of the characters. Yet, there’s a lengthy lesbian sex sequence, which seems to be aimed at a rather different set of viewers, shall we say, and according to the (female) director, were required by the film’s producers. [I just realized she also did the Western film, Tale of a Vampire, starring Julian Sands, which I remember seeing and enjoying, not least since I was living near some of its South London locations]

The film does occasionally suffer from being too obvious. For instance, we really do not need repeated shots focusing on a pointy object, to foreshadow the fact that someone will shortly be falling onto it. Nor do we probably need 13 victims before we get the idea, and the film seems to realize this, wiping out half of them in once particularly messy incident. Misa, herself, is also somewhat disappointing: we never get any real appreciation for her powers, before she’s robbed of them for much of the film. Maybe this is better explained in the manga, though reports indicate her character there is much more of a vengeful bad-ass. Which, to be honest, sounds more interesting. However, as a messy romp, perhaps in the vein of a Japanese Dennis Wheatley adaptation, this was interesting enough to keep me interested and entertained.

Dir: Shimako Sato
Star: Kimika Yoshino. Miho Kanno, Naozumi Takahashi, Mio Takaki

Eko Eko Azarak II: Birth of the Wizard

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ekoeko2It took me quite some time to realize that this in not actually a sequel, it’s a prequel, telling the story of how Misa (Yoshino) came to realize her powers, and what awakened them. The history of that actually dates back more than a century, when a misguided attempt to resurrect a dead woman, actually triggered the extermination of an entire village. The demon responsible then goes into hibernation for a century, waiting for an appropriate vessel to be born. A century later, this happens: that would be our heroine. When the demon’s mummified body is dug up by unwitting archaeologists, it is awakened, and it foes in search of its new home, possessing those unfortunate enough to cross its path. Saiga (Shihôdô) is sent forward in time from the 19th century to locate Misa. Plan A has her untapped potential being triggered, since she is the only one capable of killing the demon. Plan B, in the event of Plan A, not being possible, is to destroy Misa, since allowing her to be taken would lead to horrors of unimaginable proportion.

Yeah, it’s basically a shameless occult knock-off of the first two Terminator movies, albeit with the time-frame flipped and someone coming from the past to protect the future, rather than the other way around. There is a nice touch, in that Saiga has previously met Misa when she was a little girl, and she has held a candle for him ever since, even into high-school. However, the obviously derivative nature is definitely a step back from the first film, and nor does it help that Misa spends 95% of the time with her powers dormant, just as Linda Hamilton spends most of the first Terminator film running and screaming, reliant on the superior fire-power of her male protector. It’s a curious decision by Sato who, unlike for the first film, also wrote the script here. Everything seemed set up nicely at the end of part one, for a kick ass sequel that shows her putting her abilities to full use, so I was disappointed this went in, literally, the opposite direction, with an origin story.

Don’t interpret this criticism to mean it’s actually bad, for Sato again does wonders in terms of generating atmosphere on a low budget, and this also moves on at a steady pace, with few dull moments. For other purposes, this would certainly rank half a star, perhaps a full grade, higher. However, we’re all about the action heroine on this site, and the paucity of such here leaves me with a clear sense of disappointment and feeling it was a lost opportunity, failing to capitalize on the promise shown in the original.

Dir: Shimako Sato
Star: Kimika Yoshino, Wataru Shihôdô, Chieko Shiratori, Eisei Amamoto

Eko Eko Azarak: The TV series

 

In between the second and third entries of the movies, there was a television series that ran between February and May in 1997. Information on the show, which ran for 26 episodes of twenty-five minutes, is hard to come by, beyond it starring a new actress, Hinako Saeki in the role of Misa Kuroi. It appears in some ways to be a supernatural version of Sukeban Deka, with Kuroi acting as a roaming investigator, who attends various educational establishments where paranormal or occult events are taking place. I’ve only seen the first three episodes (embedded above, with English subtitles), but according to the IMDb synopsis, “Carrying a dagger and a heavy leather bag, she uses her powers to eliminate the evil forces that thrive on deadly sins of the human race… Her parents were changed into wooden miniatures and her beloved sister is captured by the demons. Her ultimate aim is to cleanse the earth and rebuild her broken family.”

The opening trio all take place in the same location, Huirigaoka High School, but tell separate stories. The first deals with a rash of suicides, which initially look like the work of a vengeful spirit, but it turns out there’s something nastier at work. This also sets up Misa’s  “Scooby Gang” of fellow pupils – Ikuo, Hiromi and Taketo – whom she saves from dark forces in this episode. The second is kicked off by an unofficial beauty pageant held by the pupils: when the reigning champion discovers Misa poses a threat to her crown, she attempt to use black magic to ensure her victory. But it isn’t Misa’s first time at the magical rodeo, and she reflects the curse back to its perpetrator, with face-melting results. The third sees a teacher at the school getting married, but Misa has serious qualms about her fiancé, especially when she sees the occult relic sitting in pride of place on their mantelpiece.

Having seen barely 10% of the series, I can’t give it a rating, but based on these three, I was generally impressed, particularly with the writing. Between opening and closing credits, there’s little more than twenty minutes to work with, but the show does a good job of telling a complete tale, without seeming rushed. The Misa we see is clearly experienced, well-versed in the dark arts, and largely doesn’t give a damn who knows it. When a dagger falls out of her bag and is spotted by Taketo, she straight up informs him, it’s for use “In rituals, to offer blood sacrifices.” Containing some surprising nudity – maybe it was a cable show? – there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of character development or an over-riding story arc – certainly none of the topics mentioned in the IMDb synopsis – but it’s still early. I just hope the fan-subbing group which did the first three, will eventually get back to working on the remaining 23.

Eko Eko Azarak III: Misa the Dark Angel

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ekoeko3With a new director and a new actress in the role of Misa Kuroi – Hinako having carried over her role in the TV series from the previous year – this has a somewhat different feel, but works better than the first sequel, simply because Mida is fully aware of her powers, which lets her kick more ass. The story kicks off with the discovery of a horribly disfigured dying young woman, who whispers “Misa Kuroi” with her last breath. Conveniently, the autopsy doctor is Misa’s uncle, so she is aware of the presence in the victim’s possession of a play script. This takes her to the unsubtly-named St. Salem School for Girls, where she hooks up with the local drama club, under head-girl Hikaru (Hagiwara). They are working on a play which, shall we say, appears to have more than its fair share of occult symbolism, and the dyfunctional bunch of teenagers are about to head off on their traditional summer camp in a remote mansion. What could possibly go wrong?

If you are in any way surprised to learn that the answer to that question is, “Just about everything.” you need to watch more Japanese horror movies. For what unfolds is unsurprising more in the details, which harken back to an earlier attempt, first, to create a homunculus – artificial life – and then, imbue it with a human soul, this lack being what distinguishes it from the rest of us. The process, again unsurprisingly, involves a lot of human sacrifice, and Misa is the only one savvy and gutsy enough to stand in the way. There also appears to be a Lovecraftian subplot, with the gods invoked in the ceremonies being taken from the Cthulhu mythos; unfortunately, the subtitler appears blithely unaware of this, so you get frequent references to “Yog Sototo” instead of Yog-Sothoth. It’s a small matter, but the lack of attention to detail does rub me the wrong way.

Hinako does bring a different approach to the character from Yoshino, both in look and temperament, she’s less “cutesy”, seeming more angular and cold, as if by this point Misa had seen too many things and failed a few saving throws on her “Humanity” skill.  Katsuhiro borrows liberally from the classics, in particular a shrubbery assault lifted from The Evil Dead, but more subtly, a sense of atmosphere that seems to echo Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But it’s also its own beast, and it’s good to see Misa getting a far greater chance to be the heroine whose potential has only been occasionally glimpsed in the first two episodes. The ending is both surprisingly poignant, and unexpectedly final: it doesn’t appear to leave significant room for a sequel – but just as in Western horror franchises, it appears that if the box-office returns prove adequate enough, a way will always be found for another entry…

Dir: Ueno Katsuhiro
Star: Saeki Hinako, Ayaka Nanami, Yuki Hagiwara, Chika Fujimura

Eko Eko Azarak IV: Awakening

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ekoeko4After a few years’ break, the series returned in 2001 with a fourth installment, that took a radically different approach – and one which, for my money, was all the better for it. It’s actually a reboot – the Japanese release was simply Eko Eko Azarak, with the suffixes only being added for the bootleg edition available in the West from the usual sources. Certainly, the Misa Kuroi we get is initially again one who is unaware of her powers. We first encounter her as the sole survivor of an apparent massacre in a forest which left five corpses, all badly mutilated. Misa (Kato) is carted off to hospital, unconscious, where the police wait to question her and find out what happened. But even as she lies unconscious, the body-count continues to mount.

Needless to say, the media has a field day, especially after Misa escapes the hospital, leaving the body of a nurse by her bed, turned into a starched-white popsicle. The film has a lot to say about how the media twists a story to its own purposes and sensationalizes or trivializes things in pursuit of ratings. For instance, they prepare two versions of the initial story, depending on whether they want to portray Misa as a virgin bravely defending her honour, or a psycho slut who was asking for it. As one hardbitten journalist puts it, “If you don’t come up with a sensationalist headline immediately you see something, you aren’t going to make it.” The defense for this is that television is just a mirror for society, and “A mirror doesn’t have a soul, does it?” So, they frame the story as they want, even going so far as to hire a fake to pretend to be Misa, leading to the climactic confrontation at the TV station between media, police, pseudo-Misa and the real thing, where the journalist taunts Misa into revealing her true powers

This goes about as well for him as you’d expect.

What works really well is the sense of foreboding, with a brooding atmosphere which is incredibly well realized. Rather than explicit shocks, it relies much more on things happening out of sight. While this can often be a cop-out [you don’t have to budget for what you don’t show!], in the right hands this can also be highly effective. Suzuki is clearly the right hands, and is a master at using sound – or even the lack of sound – to create apprehension in the viewer. This is reflected in things like a really creepy answering machine message left for Misa by her mother, or at the end, when the camera pulls slowly away from a closed studio door, leaving you to imagine what awful forces are at work on the other side. While the others are easy to write off as genre entertainment, that isn’t the case for the combination of social commentary and thoroughly effective chills that you get in this installment. Smart and scary like this is a rare combination.

Dir: Kosuke Suzuki
Star: Natsuki Kato, Mitsuho Otani, Hassei Takano, Ken Mitsuishi

To Be Reviewed

There are a number of other entries and adaptations of the character, which I have not yet been able to find, or which only exist at this point in Japanese language versions, without subtitles. First of all, 2004 brought a further television series to TV Tokyo, lasting 13 episodes, called Eko Eko Azarak -eye-. In 2006, there were a pair of features, released two weeks apart theatrically: R-Page and B-Page. The first saw a journalist investigating a string of mysterious deaths in a rural town, who teams up with Misa Kuroi to find the (supernatural, unsurprisingly) cause behind them. In the second,  Misa continued her search for the demon Ezekiel, bringing her into contact with a wheelchair-bound doll maker.

Around the same time, there was also an anime OAV with two stories in one volume – though by most accounts, this was less “animated” than using still images with voiceover narration (a medium known as “ga-nime”). Finally, there is The First Episode of Misa Kuroi, a 60-minute story which came out in January 2011. It was supposed to have been released in the West by Tokyo Shock, first in December 2013, then was delayed to August 2014, but does not appear to have turned up at all. As/when I get access to an understandable version of these, I’ll include them here.

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Eko Eko Azarak: R-Page
Dir: Taichi Ito
Star: Narumi Konno, Mitsuki Koga
Eko Eko Azarak: B-Page
Dir: Shinichi Koga
Star: Narumi Konno, Rina Takagi
Eko Eko Azarak:
The First Episode of Misa Kuroi

Dir: Shinichi Koga
Star: Nozomi Maeda