Movie review: The Medium (2021)

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Once more the Asian horror scene rocks the foundations of the genre, this time hailing from a Thai/South Korea production of The Medium and garnering critical acclaim on homegrown shores. Now it has the opportunity to awaken the soul for a ‘western’ audience with the streaming platform Shudder.

The Medium could easily be misjudged however, due its preambling of the story, presented as a dramatised documentary in the vein of a found footage film. The film is shot by a team of documentarians drawn to a north eastern town in Thailand to film a local medium, Nim (​​Sawanee Utoomma) who channels the spiritual deity of Bayan. Bayan has been possessing females in Nim’s family for generations. Interestingly though, (and this is a potentially clue to how the film will end) is that the intended possessed was supposed to be Nim’s sister, Noi, who turned her back on this tradition in favour of Christianity. The rest that follows could be heralded as the fears transpired by spiritual damnation or confused devotion to a conflicted cause. Either option is doomed to a corrupt and foul conclusion.

The film struggles to connect with its audience at first as the screenplay draws out a slow burn through observing Nim’s niece Mink, who starts to show signs of curious behaviour and the hallmarks of multiple personalities. This does not worry Nim however, who initially believes that these traits are the signs that Bayan is about to transfer his soul from her into Mink. Such a promise compels the film crew to start following Mink with some shockingly curious actions from Mink, leading them and the villagers to believe that all is not as it may seem. The more they try to contain her though, the more wild and crazed her actions become to the threat of those closest to her.

The creative team of Director Banjong Pisanthanakun and screenwriter Na Hong-jin finely craft a film that builds in atmosphere and tension, managing to keep it on the right side of dramatic flair without seeping into ridiculousness.

The conclusion is driven with such pace that for those who watch will question who will survive the ordeal when faced with an unknown entity hellbent on destroying them all.

The Diagnosis:

There is plenty to fire the coils of curiosity, but it is a slow ignition to get the heat truly sizzling, and as such takes a while to pull the audience into its simmering turmoil. The advice here is to let yourself soak into the narrative and you’ll be rewarded with a rambunctious and bloody end.

  • Saul Muerte

The Medium is currently streaming on Shudder

Retrospective: Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)

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The last quartet of movies to be released in October by Hammer Films Production in their 70s evolution would pit their new blood, new generation actor Ralph Bates in the lead for their reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Their bold approach to the story, especially for its time, would fuse a gender-bending with Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel Murders of the late 19th Century.

It’s setting would combine the gothic themes of yester-year upon which Hammer forged its name with this twist in the tale that was an extremely modern approach to storytelling.

Charged with steering the direction was Hammer regular, Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit, Scars of Dracula) alongside screenwriter Brian Clemens (Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter; The Professionals) who between them managed to tread the fine line of humour and horror with what is essentially a delicate subject.

As the title suggests, Dr Jekyll is set on finding the elixir of life using female hormones due to their longer life expectancy when compared with men. In order to do so, much-like Dr Frankenstein looks for fresh cadavers to perform his experiments upon, so employs known grave robbers Burke and Hare (Ivor Dean and Tony Calvin) to carry out the deed. 

When the need for more fresh cadavers arise, Burke and Hare take to killing women in the name of Jekyll’s science.

Things take a drastic turn for Jekyll however when his experiments transform him into a female version of himself who he calls Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick). Part of the film’s appeal and one which allows for a stronger sense of believability is that Beswick has a strikingly familiar appearance to Bates. The idea is well executed and the shifts and changes in the narrative are incredibly advanced for its time, marking this film as a significant movie in the Hammer Films canon.

To hook the audience further, there is the potential love interest between Jekyll and Susan Spencer (Susan Brodrick), and similarly the seduction of Susan’s brother Howard (Lewis Flander) towards Mrs. Hyde. Both relationships are predominantly on the tipping point of danger as the murders increase and police start honing in on their suspect.
Can Jekyll find the formula to reverse the transformation, or will it ultimately lead to ruin?

Looking at the movie now, it has admittedly aged but there is something incisive about the way Hammer Film Productions and its creatives chose to deliver the narrative that lends weight to the final product. The performances are on point and direction cutting to the point that this film should be praised and is one of the last great films that the production company released in its final years before they would be resurrected again in the 2000s.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Just Before Dawn (1981)

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If there was a year of slashers, it would be 1981.

Pamela Voorhees had just set the tone and formula for which all slasher films would inherently adopt and with her own offspring Jason carving up the screen halfway through 1981, it was inevitable that other killers would walk in his shadow and dominate.

It says something though that it’s not just about a token killer roaming the woods or alternate location killing promiscuous teens left, right and centre. There is another magical ingredient, that when struck right will bring the audience into the cinema and generate a cult following.

The 80s was ripe with this dedication to the genre with a no-holds barred approach to filmmaking that would provide creatives with free license to explore their craft. 

In steps Director Jeff Lieberman who had already made waves with his eco-horror film Squirm in 1976 and his experimental drug horror Blue Sunshine in 1978 to add his own twist on the sub-genre.

Unfortunately, whilst the ingredients are there, it is missing that magic to hook you into the fold. 

Set in the mountainous range of Oregon, there are the usual teen victims who take no heed of warning from Forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy) to venture into the mountains. Of course, they come a cropper from some The Hills Have Eyes style hillbillies who pick off the characters one by one. You can clearly see inspiration for future films here though, especially in Wrong Turn which uses a similar plot device.

What it does boast though is some stunning cinematography by Dean and Joel King who manage to capture the remote landscape and activate some disturbing scenes into the mix. And the musical score by Brad Fiedel (The Terminator, Fright Night) using the haunting whistling motif from the movie with an unsettling effect.

If like me this one passed you by and you’re a fan of slasher films, definitely check it out but don’t expect too much as it does wander of the path too much, sticking too a very mediocre approach to sub-genre.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb (1971)

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October would prove to be a prolific time for Hammer Film Productions as far as output goes as they looked at ways to reinvent themselves and draw in a younger generation of audience. The month had already seen the release of double feature Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper and for their third release the British film company would look again to the movies that shaped them, inspired by the Universal horror films that were so successful in the 1930s.

In spite of three previous films released based on The Mummy, Hammer would once again look to the source for creativity in Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars shaped for a modern audience courtesy of screenwriter Christopher Wicking (Scream and Scream Again).

The film itself would be seeped in tragedy with its initial star Peter Cushing stepping aside to play the role of Julian Fuchs (replaced by Andrew Keir) after one day of filming to be by his wife’s side, following her diagnosis with emphysema. Furthermore, the film’s director Seth Holt (Taste of Fear, The Nanny) suffered a heart attack five weeks into the shoot and producer Michael Carrerras would step in to complete the shoot.

Despite all this, there is a visual style to the narrative that is in keeping with the direction that Hammer was hoping to achieve which stands up. Despite its obvious deviations from Stoker’s novel, there is a level of tension that is successfully established with the dispatch of the archaeological team (consisting of great actors in James Villiers and Aubrey Morris) who unearthed the tomb of evil Egyptian queen,Tera (Valerie Leon).

Throw in the added component that Julian Fuchs’ daughter Margaret bears a striking resemblance to the villainess, then we’re presented with a body possession flick into the equation too. Coupled with an ambiguous ending that leads us to question which personality survived as the closing credits roll

There may be questions around a potential curse surrounding the films’ production which clouded peoples’ perceptions. There are also glaringly obvious misbeats in the muddled storyline strung together by Carreras in an attempt to fill in the blanks not yet captured in the films shoot, but for me Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb climbs above Hammer’s previous two Mummy outings for its bold and and visual approach to an age-old tale. 

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: V/H/S/94

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Continuing the found footage short features each directed by a different visionary, sewn together for the VHS movie franchise comes a further instalment entitled V/H/S/94. Much like its predecessors, the audience are presented with a collection of stories framed by an overarching narrative that takes us from one tale to the next.
Charged with encasing these stories is Jennifer Reader’s Holy Hell, a kind of purgatory set in a warehouse filled with various rooms containing television sets displaying static, and cultists who appear to have their eyes gouged out. It sets the tone of the film with a SWAT team going from room to room in search of answers to what took place in this world of anarchy.

From here we are taken to Storm Drain by Chloe Okuno, which follows news reporter Holly Marciano and her cameraman in pursuit of a story through the mysterious ‘ratman’ lurking in the sewers. Is he real or simply a fabricated story by the homeless community living in the depths of the tunnels. Already we start to see commonality with the prologue, with the pursuit of the unknown and the dangers that lurk within as the protagonists venture beyond their means. In this instance Holly stumbles into a story that will change her and perhaps the world forever.

The next story, The Empty Wake is potentially my favourite and with little wonder as it is helmed by Simon Barrett, who was involved in previous VHS instalments and some of the mumblegore feathers such as You’re Next and The Guest. It’s a simple but effective story with Halley assigned to oversee a wake at a funeral home, where the corpse may or may not actually be completely dead. To raise the tensions, a thunderstorm hits, plunging Hailey into darkness. Filled with humour and fear, a fine balancing act is played out effectively.

Another VHS contributor, Timo Tjahjanto delivers the next short feature with The Subject, which is also equally as efficacious. It’s a warped and twisted version of the Frankenstein-like subject of creating humanity but with the fusion of technology. This is thrust front and centre as we bear witness to a disembodied human head attached with robotic spider legs. The creator of this abomination is Dr James Suhendra, hellbent on carrying through his vision. When at first it appears he is successful with Subject 99, the gods have other plans, and humans are in turn subjected to their own destruction.

The last short, Terror directed by Ryan Prows is one that follows a militia, who are invested in ridding America of evil. Their extremist views them to enact torture on a man whose blood holds some curious symptoms where it can explode in sunlight. They begin to run tests, but fuelled by booze and absent-mindedness, the group bite off more than they can chew, and must then fend themselves against an evil they may not be able to contain.

The final scenes bring us back to the epilogue with Holy Hell, where the true masterminds behind the collection of macabre videotapes is revealed. 

The Diagnosis:

Each story that is presented is weighted in individualistic style, connected by a common theme. Some are admittedly delivered more effectively than others, but each are united with enough substance to ensnare the audience and to show humanity at its darkest hour.

  • Saul Muerte

V/H/S/94 is currently streaming on Shudder

Retrospective: Full Moon High (1981)

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Director Larry Cohen was renowned for directing and producing exploitation movies such as The Stuff and It’s Alive, often with a satirical edge to grip the audience.
I was looking forward to watching Full Moon High coming in with high expectations, especially with the casting of both Alan and Adam Arkin in the mix but there were a few things that didn’t click into place for me. The movie is filled with that zany mad-cap humour that is typical of American filmmaking back in the day, but it feels strangely offbeat in this setting.

Adam Arkin plays teenager Tony, who is drifting aimlessly through life and disconnected which feels in large part due to his father, Colonel Walker, a man who is brash and ego-centric. When Tony is forced to accompany his father to Transylvania, he is left to his own devices, which unfortunately leads to him being bitten by a werewolf and gifted with the curse of an ever-lasting life. What he does with his life is the question though. Will he learn from his ways or be doomed to repeat the same mistakes all over again?

The cyclical theme is well in abundance here, as Tony returns to his old stomping grounds to reinvent himself, and finds that he wants to rekindle his school years.

Easier said when done, as he is doomed to get his lycanthrope on every full moon, and constantly trapped inside the body of a highly sexualised being.

That and the need to hide his identity from past friends and girlfriends is a constant issue for Tony.

The energy of Full Moon High doesn’t let up however it never feels like there are any downbeats in the movie to take a break from the relentless humour or attempt there at on display. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Arkins, I may have been inclined to turn off, but they at least are engaging enough to bring you to the logical conclusion.

Maybe it’s just me and that Full Moon High simply isn’t my humour, but the struggle remained throughout the film and I have to mark this down as one I could have easily let pass me by and I would have been content to have let that happen.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Destiny (1921)

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My first experience of the German expressionist movement came from the classic films, Metropolis and M. It was a highly influential period of filmmaking that had a deep and lasting impact on the craft through various lighting techniques and camera techniques.

Released a century ago Destiny is a great example of Lang’s work. It is evidently inspired by an Indian folktale called Savitri and Satyavan and is essentially a story that questions where love can triumph and win over death? In this case, it focuses on a young couple who inadvertently pickup a “Death” who is posing as a hitchhiker, only to have the male partner taken from the female. Distraught, she pleads with Death for the return of her lover, and being the good sport that he is, Death acquiesces on the provision that she prevents one of the three candles (representations of life in balance) from being snuffed out.

The tale is told across three distinctive sections: The Story of the First Light; The Story of the Second Light; and The Story of the Third Light, all of which play out the female lovers’ attempts to save a life in the name of love. Unfortunately she fails on all three accounts.

Once again though, Death proves he’s not such a heartless bastard and give the female lover one last chance in what ends up being the most riveting and complex moments of the film. With the power to win back her lover, the young woman is conflicted about the actual charge of ending another’s life in order to do so. This age-old predicament sees the woman honing in on the elderly to see if they would be willing to end their lives in the name of love, and even at one point she contemplates murder when brough to drastic measures. When a fire breaks out in a local building, a baby becomes trapped, and in doing so becomes a potential soul that could be taken in exchange for love. But can the young woman bring about the end of such a young life for the sake of her own happiness?

It is these questions that elevates Destiny onto a higher critical plane, which is remarkably well received among its homegrown German audience. It would only be when accepted by the French film-going community, that it would become more accepted. It has since become earmarked as an early pioneer in film-making and embraced for its bold, stylised visuals. It is noted in particular for having a profound effect on both Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock respectively and evidence of this can be found in a number of their films.

It also further cements my own passion for Fritz Lang’s work and German Expressionism.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

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Halfway through watching Willy’s Wonderland I started to feel like I’d walk this walk before with The Banana Splits Movie, which although it didn’t have the pull factor of Nicolas Cage did manage to capture the mayhem and obscurity of evil animatronics hunting down and killing victims in ruthless and bloody fashion.

On paper, Willy’s Wonderland sounds fantastic and in some cases appears to have resonated with some of its audience. The idea of Cage playing a socially silent recluse in the form of a janitor, who is wired to exact rage on these mechanical beings would be a filmmakers dream , but the inner turmoil that spills over into exaggerated mania and anarchy that we have borne witness to in previous outings such as Mandy or Color Out of Space are strangely absent here with Cage and Director Kevin Lewis choosing to play out a far more reserved figure in ‘The Janitor’ and as such, I personally found that I wasn’t able to connect with this character. It’s simply missing that humanitarianism, as if this detached persona is just as soulless as the eight animatronic characters that he goes head to head with in the abandoned entertainment center.

Before any of this unfolds however, we are first introduced to Cage’s janitor when his car breaks down in a rural town. With no cash to pay for it to be fixed, we’re presented with the old trope of paying off his dues through physical labour. In this case, to help clean up the afore-mentioned and titular entertainment diner. Unbeknownst to the Janitor however, Willy’s Wonderland is run by psychotic animatronics that are possessed by evil, satanic killers and the towns figureheads, Sheriff Lund (Beth Grant), Tex (Ric Reitz), and mechanic Jed (Chris Warner) have made a pact with to lure in town drifters as a sacrifice to curb the excessive killing sprees around town.

Joining Cage in attempting to put a final end to these macabre deeds is wayward teen Liv (Emily Tosta) and her friends, the latter of which serve as fodder for Willy and his serial killer robots to dispatch.

The Diagnosis:

There are too many tropes in the mix here from breaking down in a small town and possessed dolls/animatronics that there doesn’t feel like anything fresh or new on offer.

We could easily have had Cage as a Bruce Lee style of action flick in the vein of The Big Boss pitting him against a series of evil robotic killers, each with specialised skill of wielding death, and have him slowly work his way up to the ultimate killing machine in Willy. And with each level, have Cage slowly dial up the mania.
Instead though, we have a muddled and half-hearted attempt at having Cage flit from one scene to another with admittedly a sense of coolness but with nothing to emote from or to, ends up feeling listless.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Hands of the Ripper (1971)

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While Twins of Evil ignited a certain visual style and direction as spearheaded by Hammer Horror film producer Michael Carreras, (who was also the son of the British production company’s founder, James) Hands of the Ripper, which was released as part of a double feature struggles a little under the weight of its premise.

It’s actually a pretty cool idea, presenting Angharad Rees as Anna, the daughter of the notorious Whitechapel murderer Jack The Ripper. As an infant, Anna witnesses her father’s brutal attack on her mother. Years later, we’re introduced to her again aiding a medium trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the paying customers. Unfortunately, it is also discovered that her trauma can be awakened by a flickering light followed by a kiss on her cheek, igniting a menacing steak that lies deep within and turning Anna inot a psychotic killer.

Hammer were fortunate to cast acting veteran Eric Porter in the role of John Pritchard, a doctor and psychiatrist who believes that he can cure her of her ailment, unaware of just how deep her psychological scars go. He also doesn’t anticipate how enraptured he would become with Anna, falling for her charms and in doing so, makes ill-judgement to cover up her misdeeds in the hope that he can steer her back on the path of sanity.

By the time the film’s climax comes around at the famous London landmark St. Paul’s Cathedral, we are destined for tragedy. Pritchard, already mortally wounded, rushes alongside his son Michael to rescue his son’s fiance, Laura (Jane Morrow) from the hands of evil.

It acts as a slow burn much like Director Peter Sasdy’s earlier feature Countess Dracula starring the brilliant Ingrid Pitt. Both films prove hard to connect with due to its pace, but are equally well composed and directed making them strong films as far as production is concerned, but ultimately prove hard to connect with and may turn some people off.

Of all the original features that Hammer produced though, Hands of the Ripper could easily be remade with a different lens today, if it were to immerse itself into the gothic time, place and setting. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Twins of Evil

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This movie will always have a strong place in my heart, and quite possibly in my loins if you’ll forgive me for being so crude. 

It would have been late night on BBC 2 or Channel 4 when I first began to discover Hammer Horror films in my adolescent years and my earliest memories were of Mary and Madeleine Collinson decked in the yellow dresses or their negligee that would reveal so much to this impressionable mind.

The Collinson’s would go on to become the first twin playmates to stir the sense of male youth and this was the perfect recipe for young horror fans that Hammer Film productions were hoping to lure into their cinematic fold. It clearly worked on this writer and I became enraptured and was intrigued by the whole virtuosity vs temptress component that these twins of evil were to portray.

It helped that this film would also feature Peter Cushing, who for those who know me well understand that I had developed some kind of man-crush on the dignified English Gent, Cushing alongside Christopher Lee would become synonymous with Hammer films and even though Lee would be absent in this feature, Cushing more than holds his own as the Matthew Hopkins inspired witchfinder, Gustav Weil. This tyrant of a figure, Weil is hellbent on steering everyone to his purtiancial ways and ridding the world of sinners and those who practice in the dark arts. Struck by his passionate beliefs, Weil with his Brotherhood will drive out the women fallen to sin and burn them at the stake. His main prize though is towards Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas), a man who is drawn to the dark arts and enticed by one of his ancestors, Mircalla (Katya Wyeth).

Twins of Evil also rounds out the Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust of a Vampire) that Hammer had focused on through Mircalla and finding inspiration from the Camilla story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
What I particularly liked about this feature beneath the thinly-veiled sexual exploitation, is a story that paints its characters in grey rather than black and white. As puritanical as Weil is in his mission, he is conflicted by his own dedication to his cause and that of the notion that his nieces could have fallen prey to evil temptation. It is his blinded view of the world that leads him to his own ruin.
The twins would be the symbolic pendulum between what is deemed good and evil, each representing the yin and yang in this equation. Count Karnstein is deeply entrenched in sin but also shows signs of uncertainty when tempted by Mircalla before ultimately being consumed by darkness. And the local school teacher, Anton (David Warbeck) would also display signs of weakness, who despite his pure values is tempted by Frieda’s wilder streak before realising that it is Maria’s innocence that needs protecting.

There is a nice conclusion to the piece too which sets up mistaken identity, before pitting the two actual twins of evil in The Count and Weil against one another. Twins of Evil, directed by John Hough would mark an important step in Michael Carreras trying to reinvent Hammer Horror for a new generation and arguably succeeds in this instance. It would set up the tone for the 70s and the last great hurrah for the British film company that brought Dracula and Frankenstein onto the screens again in the 50s. 

There are certainly some misses more than hits during this time, but I at least enjoy succumbing to the visuals and narrative that is embedded throughout this feature and it is one that I find that I am drawn to time and time again.

  • Saul Muerte