Movie review: Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It (2021)

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And so it comes to pass that one of the Surgeons of Horror’s favourite film festivals rears its beautifully ugly head to shed light on the dark and distrubed side of the celluloid screen.

Opening up the 2021 season of the Sydney Underground Film Festival is an Australian premiere from Kazakhstan that at face value can be poorly judged based on the opening 10 minutes. We’re painted a picture of a guy, Dastan (Daniar Alshinov) who seemingly is trapped in a loveless marriage, which he is forced to endure because of expecting their first child. This tone suddenly shifts however when Dastan suddenly goes on a fishing road trip with his two best friends, one who is trying to tap into his business prospects, the other a district police officer, all of who are bumbling buffoons, well outside of the comfort zone and trying to make the most of their outing. 

To damn their characteristics isn’t one that scoffs at their downfall but more so embraces their faults with a humorous response to their ill choices along the way.

I read somewhere about the comparisons to The Coen Brothers movies in style and tone, and for this I can totally picture it, especially some of their earlier movies such as Blood Simple. The similarities see these loveable characters trip and fall over their own blunders in a journey that will question if they will see the end and live to tell the tale.

Along the way our trio fall foul of a quartet of questionable characters from the underbelly of the criminal world, who also come with their own level of ignoramuses. These brothers argue and object to their own decisions, tripping over each other to gain a level of power over one another, much to their own detriment.

In a chance encounter, Dastan and his friends witness the brothers blow the head off of a minion. From her on in, Dastan must strive to last the night and find their way back home without the know-how or intellect to do so.
Throw into the mix, other oddities in a one-eyed spiritual kick-ass vigilante hell-bent on the revenge of the death of his dog; an enraptured odd young lady with the aid of her equally strange father, then we’re treated with a unique and funny tale that s a joy to behold. 

The Diagnosis:

Let this one absorb you and you will be entertained by the farcical, heightened dark comedy on display.
There is a lot of fun on display here, and director Yernar Nurgaliyev manages to dance with the sense of humour aimed at your everyman trio subjected to the ridiculous in order to survive and provide a wake up call to the things that matter to them.

A great festival opener.

  • Saul Muerte

Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It will be available to stream from September 9, 2021 7:30 PM GMT+10 

Movie review: Queen of Spades (2021)

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In a similar way to the recent Candyman feature, Queen of Spades tries to tap into a mythological and sinister presence that channels its energies through mirrors or reflected surfaces. Where the previous movie was strung together through depth and integrity, QoS unfortunately does so through superfluous means and never strikes at the heart as a result.

Both films falter on getting the villain to rise or be invoked to carry out their will, and seem only too happy to just get to the nitty gritty, but without that substance to generate real fear from the entity in question, we left without the grit and just the nit.

So, cue troubled teen Anna (Ava Preston) with her mother, Mary (Kaelen Ohm) who is struggling with the burden of being a single parent. Cue a trio of friends/victims; Katy (Jamie Bloch), Sebastian (Eric Osborne),  and Matthew (Nabil Rajo), who form the quartet of invokees, blindly following a path without fully being aware of the repercussions.

Cue the invoked spirit who welcomes the calling so that she can spread her curse and ruin the souls of those she encounters. 

Cue the knowledgeable character who bears the weight of understanding and the key to stopping the spirit in her tracks, Smirnov; a man who’s own son fell prey to the Queen of Spades.

Maybe I’m just a bi disheartened by the lack of originality on display. Newcomers to the genre may well get a kick out of it, but the performances aside, all of which are solid, there is nothing to grip onto to shake the kernels and add a little creativity outside of the tracks and into the realms of new ground. Same old stuff on display here.

The Diagnosis:

Despite some fairly decent performances, it’s not enough to shirk off the tired cliches that the film relies upon to keep you engaged.

Mediocre at best.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Hell Night (1981)

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Despite being released in arguably the biggest year in horror, Hell Night is one of those forgettable films that could easily be buried in the midst of the other dark genre movies of the time had it not boasted The Exorcist’s Linda Blair as its scream queen heroine.

The concept is a fairly simple one, casting four college students who have been drawn the short straw to spend the night in the local mansion, which previously housed the murder/suicide of a man named Raymond Garth, along with his wife and deformed children. Local legend talks of a fourth son, Andrew, who may have survived the ordeal and lurks within the mansion walls.
So why stay there at all? Apart from to spark life into the film’s narrative that is. For the four students, it’s to win the right to initiate their pledge into Alpha Sigma Rho.

The four students consist of Marti (Blair), a smart, yet poor girl; Jeff (Peter Barton), a boy of wealthy upbringing; Seth (Vincent Van Patten), a stoner/surfer; and Suki (Denise Dunsmore), the licentious and adventurous member of the group.

There are numerous scares that have been set up by the existing house members, to try and liven up their doomed night and scare them away, but this has a negative impact of ‘the boy who cried wolf’ proportions when the murders begin and the body count begins to rise.

Hell Night had enough ingredients to make this work, and with a strong production team behind it which included Chuck Russell (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) and Frank Darabont (The Mist), but ultimately it struggles to lift itself out of a mediocre plotline, that is essentially a haunted house, boogeyman set up. It has since picked up a cult following which I find a little baffling, but each to their own. Unfortunately Blair also delivers a pretty shoddy performance that garnered her a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress that year.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Ravage (2019)

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There are moments in this film that are painfully slow and arborous, which is a shame considering it’s a tale of survival against the odds.
And yet, there are moments that are peppered throughout the narrative that give rise to the piece and show signs of promise for Teddy Grennan in his directorial feature debut.

Chief among this is in his lead, Annabelle Dexter-Jones (Under The Silver Lake) delivering a powerful performance as Harper, a nature photographer who witnesses a brutal crime. Stranded in a remote woodland terrain, she is captured and tormented by the culprits. Against the odds, Harper escapes and must use her guile and knowledge of the wild to find her freedom and bring her assailants down.

Her moments of revenge are satisfying on MacGyver style proportions and Harper is truly alone in her fight for survival, as everywhere she turns, she is faced with conspiracy.

There is also a suitably strong performance from Bruce Dern (Silent Running) as a quirky hermit character, and due nods should go to Robert Longstreet (The Haunting of Hill House, and soon to be seen in Midnight Mass, and Halloween Kills) who taps into the darker psyche bringing the alpha villain Ravener the amount of depth needed to make the ordeal more intense.

So far, so middle of the road viewing which neither excites or disappoints,  but when the final reel comes around, it is so out of left field and out of keeping with the narrative thus far, that you have to question its placement other than for shock value. The trouble is that it comes across as a misbeat and sours the rest of the film. Not enough character development is put into place to give the shock factor the payoff that the director was aiming for.

The Diagnosis:

It’s a decent enough narrative around survival against the odds, packed with solid performances, but it can’t shake off the mediocrity and then suckerpunches with an incredibly disjointed ending. 

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Nella stretta morsa del ragno aka Web of the Spider (1971)

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Web of the Spider is potentially an example of someone who is obsessed with a vision and is determined to fulfill their satisfaction to keep pushing an idea to make it work.
Director Antonio Margheriti (Cannibal Apocalypse) had already tried his hand at the tale of a man challenged to authenticate a story by Edgar Allan Poe by spending a night in a haunted castle and surviving, in 1964 with Castle of Blood starring Barbara Steele. Said film performed poorly at the box office but despite this Margheriti felt compelled to return once more to his source some seven years later, but this time in colour.

There is a part of me that kind of gets this, by having American writer Poe, known for the macabre with a lilt towards romanticism, tired of people judging the authenticity of his work. His claim is that all his fictional stories are based in truth, especially the spiritual or paranormal components. It is equally compelling having the eccentric performer Klaus Kinski take on this magnanimous personality to inject the strange yet driven nature that Poe possesses. In Castle of Blood, Poe was played by Silvano Tranquilli (Black Belly of the Tarantula) who appears this time around playing William Perkins, one of the “spectral” residents of the castle.

This time around, it’s a journalist, Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosca – Tenebrae) who takes up Poe’s bet to spend the dreaded night in the castle, where he meets a number of ghostly spirits of those who have been murdered in the castle walls, and throughout the night play out the moments leading to their deaths.
Curiously Foster becomes infatuated with one of the inhabitants, Elisabeth (Michèle Mercier), who equally appears to have fallen for him. As Foster begins to question his sanity and the events that are occurring around him, the big reveal turns out to be that these so-called spirits are in fact vampires, luring him to become their next victim. Foster must now try and fight his way out of the castle before he succumbs to their ways.

Web of the Spider has moments that could genuinely work well but I can’t help but feel that the storyline would serve best as a theatrical presentation where the location and sets can lend weight to the telling of the story using the tricks of the trade. It just doesn’t translate as well in celluloid form and hence why Margheriti falls short of accomplishing his vision for a second time. It would be one that he would openly admit to being a failure and a “stupid to remake it”.
I for one am inclined to agree and the less said about the ending the better.

  • Saul Muerte

Retrospective: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

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Perhaps this was indicative of my mind not entirely being in tune with this movie at the time I viewed it, but I completely failed to see the vampiric element throughout until I read up about it afterwards. At which point, it thrust the point of the stake firmly into my cognitive mind, along with the inspirations of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. What was more obvious to my mind was stimulus drawn from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting, along with the death of free love and the sixties hippy movement.

The theme of Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is one that seemed to have been prevalent in many movies of its time, tapping into the psychological paranoia embodied by its lead. In this instance, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) is the victim. We learn through discussions among the central characters that Jessica has been through some kind of psychotic episode, and that she has only just returned back into society, albeit in the smallest sense, with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman); a man who has given up his career as a string bassist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to be with her during this time; and their close friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). The aim is to have a quiet life building up a rundown farmhouse near a lake in Connecticut. They are surprised however to find a drifter, Emily (Mariclare Costello) squatting in their new abode. As this is the era of free spirits and tranquility though, rather than turf her out, the group decide to allow her to stay with them some time. A decision they would come to regret as there is more to Emily than meets the eye.

Throughout the narrative Jessica’s state of mind is always in doubt as she witnesses a strange blond haired lady in the nearby woods, which no one can support her claims, and bears a sparkling resemblance to Abigail, a lady supposedly murdered back in the late 1800’s. 

Slowly, all those around Jessica, from the townsfolk, to Emily, and to Woody and Duncan, start to pull away from her, growing distant, or in Emily’s case, trying to attack her by biting her neck.
Is this some kind of hallucination or is there something sinister at play?

The atmosphere and dark tension created by Director John Hancock and the Cinematography by Robert M. Baldwin is slowly built up and excellently executed, it’s little wonder that it would generate cult status. This film may not be for everyone, as its style is subjective, but it definitely warrants its place in the horror vault through the eerie narrative and haunting nature that it projects into the celluloid universe.

  • Saul Muerte

Candyman (2021)

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It’s been with much anticipation that I’ve been waiting for a return trip to Cabrini-Green and one that doesn’t sour the original feature directed by Bernard Rose based on the Novella by Clive Barker was released back in 1992.  
Where Freddy Krueger haunted my dreams and ignited my love of horror, Candyman pushed me deeper into the genre and I’ve been… (ahem) hooked on it ever since.

Just check out our thoughts on the original movie below:

Surgeons of Horror podcast: Candyman (1992)

From the creative mindset of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), Win Rosenfeld (The Twilight Zone), and Director Nia DaCosta (Crossing The Line) we are presented with a ‘spiritual’ sequel.
It’s clear from the get-go that this film won’t exactly walk the same route as its predecessor with the inverted shots of skyscrapers shot from beneath, looking up to a foggy skyline, in juxtaposition to Bernard Rose’s helicopter shots over an expansive cityscape.
While this latest offering trips over a little in bringing our central characters into the mythology surrounding Daniel Robataille, which may disappoint devotees, but those that are familiar with Peele’s work (myself included among them) will soon succumb to this interpretation.
In effect, the key component that really makes the 2021 version a must-see movie, is that it takes the Barker/Rose vision one step further and gives ownership to the titular character to Black America and its history.
Where the story behind Robitaille, Helen Lyle, and Cabrini-Green is the stuff of legend, it is one of many that has embedded itself in America’s racial divide. With each passing generation, the scars have been etched over the years and with every Daniel Robataille, there’s a Sherman Fields. The physical and mental weight has taken its toll and is ripe for the Candyman to return and leave a path of bloody retribution.

Where DaCosta casts the narrative this time around we follow struggling artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – Us, Aquaman), a name that may be familiar to some. In order to reawaken his artistic expression, McCoy discovers the true story behind Candyman and in doing so, rekindles the horrors that lurk just beneath the surface. Just as it seeps out of the woodwork of Cabrini-Green and out of the mirror, Candyman breathes new life and old fears into the neighbourhood whilst affecting the souls of those closest to his awakening.

The Diagnosis:

All the cast deserve high praise, standing alongside Abdul-Mateen II is Teyonah Parris as his partner, Brianna; Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as her brother, Troy; Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) as the keeper of the legend, William Burke; and Vanessa Williams reprising her role of Anne-Marie. 

It is the myth that really shines through here though and the artistic expression from a bold and creative team to take it in a direction that is not only a powerful commentary on the state of our times, but an important one.
It’s not perfect, but it’s as near as and earmarks a new chapter in the Candyman legend; one that may herald more stories to come.
Heaven knows the dark chapter of American history has a lot to explore and a perfect avenue for Candyman to continue to spread fear and devastation, if you dare to say his name and expose the truth.

  • Saul Muerte 

Retrospective: L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco aka The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971)

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Almost a decade prior to L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco aka The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire was released, Director Ricardo Freda had already proved a hard hitting director with The Horrible Dr. Hichcock starring Barbara Steele and Robert Flemyng.  

Where he strode to great lengths in producing a horrifying tale in the 60’s, the idea of Freda turning his head to the popular sensational Italian thrillers of the 70s called Giallo seemed like a logical one, but somewhere between pen and film a huge misfire took place.

Lost was the gloriously stylised visuals that the genre had become synonymous with and in its place was this hard-edged, brutal portrayal of murder.

The tone of the movie was set from the beginning when a woman is killed when acid is thrown into her face by an unknown assailant before having her throat slit by a razor. Her body is then discovered in the boot of a Swiss Ambassador (Anton Diffring – The Man Who Cheated Death), who it turns out was her lover and prime suspect, especially as he is unwilling to help the law in their investigations.

In comes Detective John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a brutal cop who stops at nothing to get results, but is soon seduced by the Ambassador’s daughter, Helen (Dagmar Lassander).
The film then disintegrates through a messy script twists and turns towards a highly unsatisfying conclusion.

It’s a shame that it didn’t make the grade as on paper, it showed signs of potential, but by the film’s release even Freda had distanced himself from the production, unhappy with the result and replacing his name with a pseudonym.
Perhaps Freda had lost any enthusiasm to the material, especially as he was disappointed in the cast attached. Who knows if this would have been different, had Freda won his first choice to play Detective Norton, a certain Roger Moore. As it stands, L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco is a poor representation of the giallo movement.

  • Saul Muerte

Movie review: Mosquito State (2021)

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I cannot stress enough that this film falls firmly into the ‘be patient’ basket.

I really struggled with the opening 30 minutes of the movie that seemingly dragged along at a snail’s pace. And it didn’t help that the dialogue is dripping with a specialised niche dialogue that smacks of wankdom, but this is exactly the intricacy of its lead that cements and provides a complex character. 

The cinematography is equally stylised and polished to encompass the lifestyle and setting that elevates the feel of the movie, but could easily be strained too far… That is until the storyline sets and takes effect.

It’s clear that Director Filip Jan Rymsza is drawn to the inner psychosis of humanity and here he infuses it into the biological makeup of mosquitos, and juxtaposes this imagery alongside that of honeybees. All of which is embedded in the murky depths of trading and the stride towards success. But what exactly defines success? This defines the moral of the film.

As mentioned, our lead character, Richard (Beau Knapp) is a quirky and lonely figure, driven by his compulsive obsession with financial data, analysing the movements in trading figures. In many ways the symbolism of his character reflects the tragic gothic figure Quasimodo from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame,  isolated in his tower, in this instance the apartment overlooking Central Park in New York.

His stride for perfection is what initially steers his love interest, Lena (Charlotte Vega – Wrong Turn, The Lodgers) away, but there is a hint of a connection that doesn’t deter Richard in his pursuit. 

The mosquitos too are part of this imagery that surrounds Richard’s psychological collapse and the infestation that has taken hold of both the apartment and his state of mind. The contagion soon takes hold of Richard and us (the viewer) embedding into the psyche and dictating his every action and one that is represented in his own disfigurement as he becomes a walking human feeding/breeding ground for the parasite.

It is this incubation that can ensnare you and for me lifts the film into a loftier response. Once Richard starts to fall from the successful heights embedded in his own ambition, he not only gains in confidence, breaking out of his shell, but subjects himself deeper into isolation and on to a journey that only some can follow.

The Diagnosis:

This movie is highly intelligent and beautifully shot. It’s the kind of film that gets under your skin.

It takes a while for it to take effect but once it does it pulls you in and infects you.

There are many elements at play with each layer revealing the dark truth behind the powers and money of the world.

Mosquito State has successfully infested my mind, a mark for me is always an important ingredient in filmmaking.

I’m still letting it resonate as I write this but I find at this stage I’ve fallen for its charm and lulled by the hypnotic score.

  • Saul Muerte

Mosquito State streams on Shudder from Thursday, August 26th.

Movie review: Nightmares (1980)

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Nightmares is one of the pioneer movies from the Ozploitation scene, released in 1980 by director John D. Lamond who had set out to make the most gratuitous movie that he could.
The auteur of the genre would openly admit that it’s by far from being the perfect film and had room to be better.
Provided with the opportunity to make a low-budget, quick feature was in his grasp and the weaknesses are clearly on show here, but this is also part of its appeal.
A gritty, voyeuristic journey from the mind of a deeply psychologically scarred antagonist, a product of her environment, where it is little wonder that she would become unhinged. 

As a young girl, Cathy (Jenny Neumann) tries to prevent her mother from copulating in promiscuous behaviour with a strange man, but a car accident results in her mother’s fatality and her father is more intent on blaming her for the outcome than on the reasons behind his wife’s infidelity.

The story is possibly one of the weaker components without much drive for Cathy to enact her episodic killing sprees which centre on an acting troupe for a theatre production that she is one of the cast members of called Comedy of Blood. Among her fellow cast members is a certain Gary Sweet (Police Rescue) in his feature debut and possible love interest. It’s not all doom and gloom however as there are whispers of promise from screenwriter Colin Eggleston, who had notably directed another Australian classic two years earlier with Long Weekend.

The film trudges along to its own drum, and despite the misbeats, the kills are relentless and exposes humanity at its most vulnerable, and with the full frontal deaths doesn’t shy away from brutality.
It also throws in some interesting characters ripe for the kill into the mix, which you just hope will meet their due comeuppance, a hook that keeps you engaged to the end.

The Diagnosis:

The literal meaning of the words in this piece is unimportant… the beauty and the drama is contained within the drama and the opposite nature of the juxtaposition of the words . That and the comedy of death.

George D’alberg

The words of the theatre director in the movie sums Nightmares up nicely.

It’s the thin line between comedy and horror that blends in a gratuitous way, cementing the film firmly in the Ozploitation scene.

It’s either your thing or not, but for me, a solid night’s entertainment, especially if you take it for what it is, and not scrutinise too deeply.

Nightmares is currently available as a Blu-ray release as part of Umbrella Entertainment’s Ozploitation Classics collection.

  • Saul Muerte