Sunday, 29 January 2012

Death Bell

Title: Death Bell
Director: Yoon Hong-Seung
Released: 2008
Staring: Lee Beom-soo, Yoon Jeong-hee, Nam Gyu-ri, Kim Sang Bum, Han Na-yeon, Kim Bum, Lee Chae Won

Plot: A group of top-notch students who have been chosen to study over their vacation in order to take a test and impress a sister school. The best students in the school are chosen, but it is to their unfortunate fate. Soon, a sadistic killer traps them in the school and starts kidnapping them one by one. Each kidnapped student is then threatened with a torturous death unless the rest of the students can solve the questions being given to them by the killer.

Review: Seeing how it felt like an absolute age since I reviewed any Asian cinema here on the blog, I though I would correct that situation immediately by watching a title which had been taunting me from the shelves of my local Blockbuster, yet for some reason I’d previously opted to rent other films instead. Right from the beginning though this film grabbed my attention with it’s burning school desks and surprise zombie school girl attack, followed by the even more baffling inclusion of a shot of an embarrassing menstruation, which traditionally has been used to symbolise a change or metamorphosis in a character, although here like the opening shock it ultimately has nothing to do with the rest of the film, apart from to kicks things off with a bang and setting a good pace for the rest of the film, which after the initial half hour of setting the scene, soon kicks back into this high gear and barely lets up this pace for the rest of the film.

Despite seemingly like an amalgamation of “Whispering Corridors”, “Battle Royale” and “Saw”, this film marks a slight return to form for Asian horror, especially with the golden years of the genre now seemingly having long since passed and it was a pleasant surprise to find one film that despite the plot having been seen numerous times before, still had a freshness about it, which might have had a lot to do with it’s refusal to just descend into just gratuitous splatter, as seems to currently be the trend for most Asian horror coming out as of late and it's refreshing to not see it here.

Despite from the outset it might appear that the motive for the films killer might be something relating to the pressure put upon these school kids to excel at their exams, especially with the things being at the point were the school seems to be more of a pressure cooker to the student elite with many seen suffering from delusions caused by this stress and it’s the type of plot which I’d expect to see more in a Japanese film than a Korean film, especially with the country having a social history of it’s youth running wild as a result of the extreme pressure put upon it’s students to succeed and meet the high standards set by their parents. Ultimately though this is yet another misdirection, as the psycho’s motive here is actually more revenge based than anything relating to the educational system, with the fact that he has trapped these elite student in the school, only really serving a purpose with the games he chooses to play, which are all based on the captive students answering questions to free whichever one of their fellow students has currently been captured at that moment.

The traps are all highly inventive when it comes to the methods of despatching the students, with one student stuffed into a dryer, while another receives a candle wax facial and while the majority of the traps being fairly basic in construction and certainly lacking any of the complex workmanship, which Jigsaw brought to his traps in “Saw”, not that it makes much difference as the original deaths on offer help to nudge out any niggling “Saw” comparisons which the film may bring to mind, though it has to be said that the high failure rate of these students, really brings into question that if these are the brightest kids in the school, I would really hate to think what the dumb kids are like.

The cast are all likeable enough with Controversial K-Pop star Nam Gyu-ri pulling of a strong acting debut, though like many of the characters here suffers from the lack of sympathy that she and her fellow students invoke in the audience. Meanwhile Lee Beom-soo possibly best remembered for “City of Violence” makes his horror debut and manages to bring a suitable amount of presence as teacher Hwang Chang-wook, who seems frequently none the more educated than the students he is trying to push into academical excellence, seeing how his presences doesn’t even give them any kind of advantage at solving any of the challenges set outside of perhaps brings more calm to the situation than the eternally panicked students can muster between them.

Director Yoon Hong-Seung had previous to directing this film, had been largely been known as a director of commercials and pop videos and brings a lot of this styling to his feature debut in a genre it is clear he is, as he keeps the tension taught throughout and by trimming the fat of the script has created a lean and fast paced horror film, which keeps the audience hooked for the whole of it’s brief run time, while thankfully opting for old school effect rather than questionable CGI really only helps especially with such a limited budget though you wouldn’t think it from the glossy visuals, which give the impression of the film having a much larger budget than it does.

The soundtrack features a great orchestral score, while resisting the urge to include musical cues to impending doom or shocks, certainly helps with Director Hong-Seung, instead using it more to establish mood rather than trying to impose a fake sense of dread, something which is not an easy trick to pull off and something certainly worth commending here.

While ultimately it might not be bringing anything new to the table, it has given me hope for Asian horror than I have felt in quite awhile and with this film already spawning a sequel, it makes me hopful for the future of the genre, were the output will focus more on genuine scares and less on excessive splatter.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Pom Poko

Title: Pom Poko
Director: Isao Takahata
Released: 1994
Staring: Shinchô Kokontei, Makoto Nonomura, Yuriko Ishida, Norihei Miki, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Shigeru Izumiya

Plot: A community of magical shape shifting Tanuki (or Raccons depending on your translation) battle to save their forest home from being destroyed by urban development

Review: While studio Ghibli’s films may make them one of the best known anime studios in the world, there are still films in the back catalogue which are still unfairly looked over and this film is certainly a prime example of this, especially as it rarely gets a mention when the films of Ghibli are discussed, outside of perhaps a passing comment over several of the films more risque moments.

Based on an idea by Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, “Pom Poko” is one of only three Ghibli films to be directed by the studios co-found Takahata who had previously been responsible for two of Ghibli’s most grown up films “Grave of the Fireflies” and “Only Yesterday” the latter whose release was blocked by Disney due to its references of menstruation, which they couldn’t remove due to a clause in their contract with Ghibli which prevented them editing their films and leaving the film effectively in a legal black hole. “Pom Poko” however is a much more fantastical film while still featuring a strong emphasis on the environment, a favourite theme of Miyazaki and one that has frequently featured throughout Ghibli’s films and here it provides the strong central theme of this film.

Shown from the perspective of the tanuki, who are all gifted with the power to change their appearance from their natural appearance to human raccoon hybrids, who over the years have learned to speak and write Japanese aswell as nominating their own Emperor seeing how they frequently refer to the years of Pompoko. As a side effect of this, they have also developed an inability to remain serious for any length of time, aswell as a worry addiction to TV and Junk food as well as spontaneous partying.

The tanuki throughout the film generally have three main forms with their first being their everyday raccoon form which the human population see’s them as, while their second main form is their more humanoid form which they use when together and out of the sight of human eyes and their third and final form is more of an excuse to pay homage to anime style of Shigeru Sugiura which is far more cartoonish form and generally serves as an in-between form between their first and second forms and generally used when they feel sad or lose control of their humanoid form usually after being hit in the head or panic’d by one of their fellow tanuki.

Some tanuki however are able to this ability to transform further and morph into not only object but take on a human forms as well as more fantastic creations, but it is a not universal gift varying greatly as humorously shown during the initial metamorphosis training, a major plot point which later become integral to the plotline as members of the group are faced with choosing between their own survival and that of their fellow tanuki.

While featuring familiar tones of Richard Adam’s “Watership Down” especially in terms of it’s setting with man’s constant development into the surrounding forests being the main plot and threat here, though unlike that story it is a considerably lighter tone which this film takes and certainly features none of the warrens of blood or rabid characters that the questionable (in terms of the suitable nature of it’s content) childhood classic featured and although it’s a largely comic and fantastical tone throughout it still manages to get it’s message across while even tacking on a nice subtle environmental message in it’s closing thoughts.

What however is slightly more questionable here is the character design which makes no beef about making it’s characters genders clear, as the male tanuki are amusingly drawn with scrotums which even more amusing are used later as a form of attack, aswell as providing my personal highlight when we are treated to the sight of Gonta and his followers parachuting into battle and using their scrotum’s as parachutes in a scene which has to be seen to believed. Still these prominent genitals however are not so much a way of providing a few cheap laughs (and no doubt irking a few more sensitive parents), but due to prominent genitals being an integral part of tanuki folk law, but needless to say this is covered for in the dubbed version were they are referred to as “pouches”, something thankfully left unchanged for the subtitled version.

Faced with the constant city expansion which continues to take over more and more of their forest home, the tanuki are frequently forced to come up with more and more elaborate schemes to combat the human intrusion, frequently using their shape shifting abilities to carry out their plans, culminating in a warped street parade of ghosts and demons, while the tanuki are also frequently forced to use their humanoid forms to fight the human developers, especially at the end were Gonta and his loyal followers launches a full scale attack while the elders fight the constant struggle of keeping their powers secret or to expose themselves to the humans. However it’s this constant struggle for their territory does however mean that it frequently lacks the warmth of some of the other Ghibli titles which has lead to much criticism in the past, but then Takahata as with previous Ghibli films has frequently avoiding sticking to these so called rules or context and storytelling and never being afraid to push the studios boundaries he once again sticks to his own style, even though in comparison to his other two films he has directed for the studio, this is considerably lighter in tone.

The other main problem the film suffers from is that despite a generous run time, it frequently feels like the tanuki are essentially just recycling the same plan over and over and while their morphing antics are frequently humorous, it does however feel like their plans never seem to be overly affective as sure most of it is a treat to watch, but you can't help but wonder what the point is?

Despite it's flaws it still remains one of the lesser watched titles in the Ghibli back catalogue and one certainly worth giving a look, while showing a diffrent side to Ghibli frequently overlooked in favour of thier more popular titles, yet still packed with enough humour and warmth as to not loose the no doubt already devoted followers.

Sunday, 15 January 2012


Title: Inseminoid
Director: Norman J. Warren
Released: 1981
Staring: Robin Clarke, Judy Geeson, Jennifer Ashley, Stephanie Beacham, Steven Grives, Barrie Houghton, Rosalind Lloyd, Victoria Tennant, Trevor Thomas, Heather Wright

Plot: A group of interplanetary archaeologists investigating a series of seemingly abandoned ruins are thrown into chaos when one of them, Sandy (Geeson), is attacked and impregnated by a monstrous creature, which also turns her into a crazed killer intent on hunting down her fellow crewmates.

Review: It was somewhere around the halfway mark of this film, that I actually realised, that I was not watching the film the film I thought I had originally set down to watch, having somewhere along the line confused this film with “Creepozoids” (1987) which had been the film I had originally wanted to review, yet thanks to my confusions with titles I now found myself watching this “Alien” (1979) cash in instead.

One of several “Alien” cash in’s which came in the wake of it's release, all with vastly varying quality, with this film certainly not half as much fun as one of the better ones “Xtro 2: The Second Encounter” (1991) which memorably picked it’s favourite parts from “Alien” and “Aliens” to create a sequel which had absolutely nothing to do with the original “Xtro” (1983). However upon its release it was a radical departure from what had been established as British horror, by choosing a futuristic setting rather than the more favoured gothic setting of the Hammer Films, but all too soon you find yourself drawing similarities between “Alien” and this film, which is ultimatly a lot less gratuitous than this film, especially as it didn’t feature it’s lead actress being impregnated by an alien with a Perspex penis. Still looking at the frenzied and homicidal Sandy running around attacking her crew mates I couldn’t help but draw similarities between these scenes and the screenshots seen in the “Prometheus” trailer which also seem to show something strangely similar happening, though here's hoping that Ridley Scott hasn't decided to return the favour and rip this film off.

Funded in part by legendary Kung Fu producers “The Shaw Brothers” and made on a minimal budget of £1 million, the film would be shot in the UK, despite being given a distinctively American look, with the production shot almost entirely at Chislehurst Caves in Kent, while the island of Gozo near Malta substitutes for the desolate landscape of the alien planet and Warren certainly makes the most of such a limited budget and racks up a surprisingly decent body count, though it’s clear from the handful of alien shots we get, that this is were he cut the most corners as rather than anything resembling HR Giger’s now legendry creations we get what looks like a dime store puppet and no doubt explains why despite it’s setup, we spend most of the film watching Sandy running around like a frenzied lunatic and baring her teeth and generally killing any member of the crew who gets near here.

Due to working with such a low budget another noticeable sacrifice is with the soundtrack which is largely comprised of experimental synthesiser tracks which have such a hit and miss rate, it frequently kills any tension with Warren does manage to create, which made me wish that he had could have argued for a little more budget to get an orchestral score instead.

The plot is largely a nonsensical mess with Warren leaving it to the audience to piece it all together while leaving huge plot holes at nearly every turn with one crew member randomly becoming possessed after coming into contact with a bunch of crystals randomly left lying around for no real reason, while another crew member randomly commits suicide by cutting through her leg with a chainsaw as part of a half assed attempt to free her trapped leg (possibly a more enjoyable experience than watching this film) though this could also be more to do with the sudden realisation of the sort of movie she was in. This randomness continues until Warren clearly just figured that a frenzied Sandy was enough of a threat without really bothering to focus to much on the promised aliens and instead tries to further cover for it, by turning the film into a weird futuristic slasher. Meanwhile the character development is so non existent outside of this is Bob/Fred/Ethel etc and they do something or some importance to the mission and that is about the best you get, making these characters actually lower in the chain than your usual disposable slasher fodder, who normally have something to distinguish between them other than the fact that they are wearing different outfits, not that your really give much of a rats ass about these characters as none are particularly memorable bar Sandy and that’s only because she’s the only member of the crew frequently trying to kill of the others, aswell as some serious over acting on the part of Geeson who really seems determined to make the most of the role.

Warren here is clearly aiming for the sleaze factor; just incase the idea of a cheap looking alien impregnating a woman didn’t already give it away and the impregnation scene is suitably bizarre as a naked Sandy is forced to lye on a table, while the film cuts between gratuitous nudity shots and that now infamous Perspex penis, all while the soundtrack gets weird and for some unknown reason it also starts raining space pixie dust and god knows why the Doctor is in this scene, but alas these are just more questions you will no doubt be left asking if you manage to make it through to the end credits which could essentially just be watched instead as each of the cast are shown first playing their character before then cutting to their characters death scene, which leads me to the sole good thing this film has to offer and that is that you do not only get a very generous body count, but also a bunch of truly inventive kills with spear gun and what looks like a cattle prod all coming into play, while we are also treated to a random cannibalistic impulse by Sandy and it’s these moments were the film almost redeems itself, it’s just a shame that Warren fails to invoke even the most basic of feeling for these characters, which ultimately takes a lot away from these numerous kills.

Despite threatening a sequel with it’s ending, this would thankfully fail to come to anything bare the occasional rumour, leaving this film as the curiosity it is and with absolutely zero interest from myself to see more, after all if I wanted to see an alien wanting to reproduce with humans, I’d honestly rather just dig out “Species” instead.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


Title: Taxidermia
Director: György Pálfi
Released: 2006
Staring: Csaba Czene, Trócsányi Gergõ, Marc Bischoff, Gyuricza István, Molnár Piroska, Máté Gábor, Hegedüs D. Géza, Stanczel Adél

Plot: The story of three generations of men from the same family starting with military orderly Morosgoványi (Czene) during the Second World War, moving onto his son Balatony Kálmán (Gergõ) an aspiring speed-eater during the Cold War and finally ending in the modern day with his Grandson Balatony Lajoska (Bischoff) a master Taxidermist, with all three driven by their own personal obsessions.

Review: While most bizarre or surreal movies such as the kind David Lynch has spent most of his career crafting, usually start off with atleast some sense of normality before spinning on what ever crazy path that the director has choosen to take. Director Pálfi however it would seem here has chosen to take the opposite track, by throwing the audience straight into the insanity and slowly bring the audience back to normality, for we are barely minutes into the film before we witness the hair lipped Morosgoványi not only engaging in one of his numerous sexual perversions (of which there are quite a few), but also turning his penis into a flamethrower! It was also at this point that I remembered why I no longer talk to my parents about the films I review on this blog.

Essentially three short films woven together, the second story moves the proceedings slightly more towards normality as we are introduced to Morosgoványi's son Kálmán and more graphically to the surreal world of speed eating, which in the hands of Pálfi is not the same happy go lucky competitions you may find at the county fair or featuring tiny asian ladies packing away 60 hotdogs in a minuite, but rather tests of sheer gastronomic fortitude as competitors challenge each other under strict time limits to seemingly eat their own weight in a variety of foods including one competition which see’s them attempting to consume gigantic blocks of jellied horse meat, while later scenes of a training camp for potential new champions see’s potentials eagerly shovelling semolina into their mouths ironically from a pig trough, with these scenes frequently followed by competitors purging themselves for the next round. Still it not all gorging and vomit for within this story of Kálmán and his highly competitive battle to be the best, especially when the champions of the sport are treated as heroes of the state, while fantastical mentions of stomach expansion and the Olympic boards refusal to recognize the sport help to keep a surreal edge on things, but what is more surprising here is that this is also a love story as Kálmán falls in love with a female competitor called Gizi (Stanczel) with this love story providing many of the lighter moments such them playfully bathing in the dead sea, while also leading into the third and final tale as Gizi gives birth to Lajoska, who much to his parents concern is born much smaller and frailer than his parents, while also processing none of their monstrous appetite.

Skip forward a several years and a return to normality…well as normal as this film gets anyway, as we rejoin Lajoska as an adult were he is now shown as the polar opposite to his father, a pale and skeleton like man who much to his fathers disappointment, has not carried on his legacy instead having become a master taxidermist, while his father has over the years grown into a human puddle, his wife having long since left him as he spends his days unable to move by himself due to his extreme girth and finding pleasure only in tormenting his son and the dozens of fat cats he keeps in a cage while bizarrely feeding them sticks of butter as part of some masterplan to make them champion eaters, all the while reminiscing of his glory days.

No doubt as a result of his fathers bullying Lajoska lives out a quite and largely solitary existence, with his only passion being for his grotesque work whose examples line the walls of his work shop, while his unquestionable skills bringing with it a variety of unusual requests from those keen to make use of his talent. However what drives Lajoska, is what he is secretly plotting for his masterpiece, which he hopes to be forever remembered.

Despite generating a fair amount of interest upon it’s release, unsurprising from the likes of “Bizarre” who tend to relish the more random and extreme cinematic releases, but since then it has rarely been mentioned since, but at the same time that could easily be attached to the art house styling which makes it far from assessable to a mainstream audience, while it’s subject matter also hardly makes for the lightest of viewing, much less with the frequently grotesque imagery continued within from a hen pecked penis to speed eaters gorging on fatty horse meat, it does feel at times like Pálfi is deliberately trying to test his audience, while more baffling is the fact that this is also branded as a comedy, especially when the few humorous moments should be classed as nothing short of inky black humour at best.

Though highly grotesque Pálfi also shows that he processes enough visual styling to please the tastes of the fans of visual driven directors such as Terry Gilliam and in particular Jean-Pierre Junet & Marc Caro who the films styling is frequently most comparable, with Kálmán’s section of the film certainly coming the closest to their style as especially seen during the scenes at the training camp, which see’s the trough being filled via over head crane, with their training taking place in what would appear to be a refurbished factory setting, meanwhile a continually rotating shot of a bathtub, shows it as being the centre of a household as it’s used for bathing, bread making and even at one point a makeshift morgue for the recently deceased, while the most ambitious shot see’s a pop up book brought to life as part of a particularly worrying fantasy of Morosgoványi.

“Taxidermia” is far from the easiest of films to watch and while no doubt there are deeper messages to be gained from the insanity within, they do have the tendency to get lost in the spectacle, the main focus though is clearly on the individual drives of the three men, be it love, success or immortality and how our drive to achieve these goals affects those around us while questioning to a point the price of obsession and lengths we are willing to go to achieve our goals in life. Needless to say it’s a strangely fascinating film and while it frequently tries to repulse its audience it somehow manages to draw you in at the same time. Needless to say this is bold and frequently exciting film making but one best viewed with a strong stomach and an very open mind.
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