Director Olivier Assayas’s latest features the now-requisite fine Kristen Stewart performance, typically absorbing Assayas mise-en-scène, and a way more explicit representation of the supernatural than I had expected, even from early on. Of course it defies genre — it’s not primarily a horror movie or a suspense thriller but simply a character study, with the delicacy that term typically implies but also with a freakishness it doesn’t usually portend. I’ll cheerfully admit that the story is underwritten, particularly the half-baked police procedural that threatens to swamp the third act (Assayas backs away from it before it becomes too, too much) but the sleepy nightmarishness of it all appeals to me. Stewart, too, seems forever in a somnolent state of dressing and undressing, her vulnerability on display; she’s lost in the world, laden with sadness, weary beyond her years. She gets at something about grief, yes, but also mortality — the pale fragility of the human body and perhaps, though she is loath to concede it, the delicate impermanence of the soul. Spooky, for real.
If you’re going to steal, they say, steal from the best. It almost works out for Life, which borrows the fundamentals of its premise from Alien–hostile, shape-changing lifeform let loose in the confines of a spacecraft grows larger and more powerful as it eats its way through the crew–and rides that pony for a good forty-five nerve-jangling minutes before running out of oxygen. Alien‘s setting was an interstellar mining vessel that doubled as a haunted mansion, with long hallways, high vaulted ceilings, and other shadowy spaces where the boogeyman could wait for his prey. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lose some of those gothic atmospherics by setting their story on board the International Space Station, since it imparts a more sterile, sci-fi feel. Moreover, in what’s arguably a more brazen case of cinematic larceny, director Daniel Espinosa, best-known for the 2012 thriller Safe House, swipes his anti-gravity stylistics from Alfonso Cuarón, opening the film with a single, very long, VFX-heavy take that sends the camera around in gentle swoops from character to floating character as the space station itself tumbles slowly around its axis. Continue reading
John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, perhaps incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake — that’s not homage. It’s a declaration of principles. Hell, it’s a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space — the magical Méliès, perhaps, to Chaplin’s more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the influential athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back directly to Keaton’s knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the most musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee’s lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan’s more broadly comic (but no less precisely conceived and executed) on-screen fighting style. Jackie Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining rom-com mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves’ into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.
Fondly remembered in cult circles as a surprisingly well-acted low-budget horror diversion, this Reagan-era creature feature boasts a roster of game performances, a plethora of vintage locations from the days when New York City was scary enough by itself, and, of course, that title–one of the most vivid and ludicrous acronyms in film history. A CHUD, as any red-blooded Fangoria subscriber could have told you many months before the movie itself made its way to their hometown, is a cannibalistic humanoid underground dweller. OK, it’s not the most elegant acronym. For one thing, if the underground dwellers are cannibalistic, does that mean they eat humans, or just other humanoids? And if they do eat humans, doesn’t the fact that they are merely humanoid mean they’re not technically cannibals after all? But forget all that. Cannibalistic. Humanoid. Underground. Dwellers. What else do you need to know? Continue reading
So bad it’s good? I wouldn’t go that far. But Blood Diner is definitely something—a no-frills pastiche of 1950s disembodied-brain sci-fi potboiler, 1960s Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter movie, 1970s cannibal-cuisine flick, and early-1980s buddy-cop movie. I’m tempted to say it stitches together a Frankenstein’s patchwork of genre movies because it has no vision of its own, but that’s too glib. If nothing else, 20-something Asian-American director Jackie Kong (Night Patrol) loves L.A.: she wrapped all of those genre influences around a love letter to the city’s underground music scene circa 1987, casting punk rockers and rockabilly singers as extras, bit players, and movie stars in a story about a pair of pretty-boy sibling serial killers who run a popular foodie destination on Hollywood Boulevard where the vegetarian dishes are, unbeknownst to patrons, boosted by the presence of human flesh in the recipe.
Conceived as a direct sequel to the late H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast (partly in hopes he would come out of retirement to direct the film himself), Blood Diner‘s characters’ names have been changed, though the new story picks up roughly where the old one left off. It opens with young brothers Michael (Rick Burks) and George (Carl Crew) being visited by their Uncle Anwar (Drew Godderis), who makes a quick detour in his flight from the cops to gift them with ancient Egyptian amulets before running back outside to be gunned down by police. Long story short, the boys grow up, disinter their uncle’s body from the grave, put his brain in a jar, and follow its spoken instructions. Uncle Anwar’s brain has them stitching together female body parts to create a vessel into which the goddess Sheetar (Tanya Papanicolas) may be summoned following a suitable “blood boo-fay.”
The tone is comfy, taking every opportunity to wink at the audience. Burks and Crew play their characters as jackass Angelenos whose pleasant handsomeness masks the American psychos lurking underneath. (One minute, Burks is asking his date if she’s ever heard of “battered girlfriends;” the next, he’s slathering her in an egg-and-flour mixture and shoving her head in hot oil.) The police duo assigned to investigate the murders is a mixed bag: while the guy is played very broadly by Roger Dauer as a sexed-up schlemiel who gets slugged by his boss on the regular, his straight woman, detective Sheba Jackson (LaNette La France, never heard from again after this movie), has cute bangs and a devastating side-eye. She should have had her own franchise of dopey serial-killer movies.
It’s lucky that a woman was at the helm of Blood Diner (a “PMS Filmworks” production), as Kong’s interpretation probably went some way towards diffusing the misogyny inherent in a script about men who take orders to seduce and murder everyday “tramps” in order to pave the way for the return of a mythical goddess. It’s not that Kong backs off on the film’s gonzo nature; rather, she embraces it and shapes its energy. When Uncle Anwar starts reminiscing fondly about his life in crime, Kong cuts in footage of old black-and-white “roughies” featuring scenes of sexual violence set to good-timey polka music as flashbacks—acknowledging her own movie’s place in the continuum of exploitation cinema while simultaneously criticizing its problematic nature. There’s a fun scene where one of the Tutmans interrupts a couple having sex, dispatches the man, and then comes at the nude woman with an axe. Instead of running and screaming or simply falling under the blade, she assumes a martial arts stance and beats the hell out of him. And during the big rock-concert set-piece, Sheetar comes back to life unexpectedly, revealing a chomping vagina dentata running vertically from between her breasts down to her belly button–all the better to chew your dick off.
Yes, Blood Diner is unfocused, with too many amateurish performances, but it is committed to its premise, and it somehow manages to fill 88 solid minutes with a new idea lurking around every corner. Topless aerobics! Zombie attacks! A wrestler called Little Jimmy Hitler! Think of it as outsider art. It’s not well-made by any traditional yardstick of quality, but it is simultaneously possessed of genuine wit, feminist sensibilities, and a weird aesthetic integrity.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Blood Diner debuts on Blu-ray as part of Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series with a straightforward HD transfer that gives it an adequate but certainly not flashy revival. The box copy indicates that it was “restored from original vault materials,” and they have been handled pretty conservatively. The picture here is a little on the flat side, with low contrast and muted colors. If I generally wonder if Blu-ray images are cranked to pop too much, this is the rare transfer that could have used a tad more oomph. Dust-busting and grain-reduction don’t wreck the presentation but are definitely in evidence; the video bitrate runs at an average 27 Mbps, though I’d like to see what it looks like with less noise reduction at around 35 Mbps. The frame is opened up slightly from the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio to an HDTV-friendly 1.77:1. (As with the concurrent Chopping Mall, the packaging misidentifies the AR as 1.85:1.) Sound quality of the 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is quite good. There’s not a lot going on in the monaural mix, but what’s there is clear and well-balanced. Much of the dialogue seems post-sync’d and is rendered with especially good definition. The selections from Wagner are clearly detailed, and the rock music from the climactic club scene has a decent, bassy thump that suggests a live-concert environment.
Extra features are fairly extensive, starting with Michael Felsher’s five-part, 65-minute documentary “Killer Cuisine: The Making of Blood Diner“. In part 1, screenwriter Michael Sonye (a.k.a. Dukey Flyswatter from L.A.-based horror punk band Haunted Garage) and Jimmy Maslon recount the movie’s origins—basically, Sonye and Maslon had bonded over a shared love of Blood Feast, to which Maslon owned the rights. After trying and failing to interest Lewis in directing, they cut the budget substantially in hopes of getting a green light. In part 2, Kong talks about coming onto the production after the success of her previous film, Night Patrol, got Vestron interested in finding a script for her. She reveals that Blood Diner was made on a $330,000 budget, and says the bond company was betting against her being able to complete it at all. Part 3 features interviews with actors Carl Crew, Roger Dauer, and Drew Godderis that add color commentary on how the project came together. (Rick Burks would probably be here, too, but the poor guy passed away in 1989, at the age of 29.) Part 4 is an interview with composer Don Preston vis-à-vis his synth score, and part 5 lets cinematographer Jürg V. Walther have his say about what it takes to make a good-looking movie on a tight schedule and a low budget.
For whatever reason, none of these interviewees appear on screen together. That’s the source of some frustration because they sometimes contradict each other. Specifically, Kong claims (both here and in her audio commentary) that the script she was given was “as serious as a heart attack” and that she had to work to inject humor into the proceedings. Yet Sonye relates a story about calling Maslon up to discuss his ideas for the film. He claims that if Maslon didn’t laugh—if the ideas weren’t inherently funny—he didn’t use them. It’s possible that Kong was just on a completely different wavelength from Maslon and Sonye when it came to humor, but there is a fundamental disagreement here on who was responsible for the picture’s overtly comic tone. Sonye also mentions that he had hoped to play a role in the film but was barred from the set by Kong, so there’s that.
I’m not trying to throw shade in Kong’s direction. I’ve sat through too many audio commentaries from directors of low-budget 1980s horror movies who talk about their film like it’s an unloved child to have any quarrel with someone who’s as proud of her genre work as Kong is of Blood Diner. Although it’s true that her yak-track covers much of the same ground as her 20-minute documentary segment, it’s nice to be able to see what she’s referring to when she describes a dolly move or makes the point, repeatedly, that she transcends her budgetary limitations in part by making sure shots have a foreground, a mid-ground, and a background to suggest the depth and complexity that’s often missing from movies made on the cheap. She also discusses her penchant for planning every shot in detail, down to drawing lighting diagrams in order to ensure the truck is loaded with exactly the lights that are required for specific effects, rather than a generic indie-film roll-out. I especially like her idea to go out unrated, which Vestron apparently embraced, as opposed to trimming this and that in an attempt to appease the MPAA. I don’t know how many indie directors have the talent or the temperament to be as demanding in this regard as Kong is, but it sounds like pretty good advice to me.
Also on board is an 8-minute HD interview (dating to 2009) with Eric Caidin, the owner of Hollywood Book & Poster Co., who had a hand in Blood Diner‘s development and who died unexpectedly last year. The film’s lightly comic trailer, featuring food critic “Phil A. Mignon” directing adventurous diners to dangerous eats at Blood Diner, is included in two versions (both HD), along with a pair of derivative TV spots and three unrelated radio ads. Closing this joint down for the night, a slideshow of production stills clocks in at 5:34.
Chopping Mall is not the shopping-center slasher-movie its title suggests. Here’s what you really need to know: It includes a scene where a woman clad in light-blue Playboy panties runs screaming through the spacious halls of the Sherman Oaks Galleria in a hail of laser fire, chased by a killer robot resembling a cross between a Dalek from Doctor Who and Number Five from Short Circuit. The opening sequence features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in a cameo as their Paul and Mary Bland characters from the cult classic Eating Raoul. The always-game Barbara Crampton, who had just shot Re-Animator, takes her top off. And, like the maraschino cherry on top of a soft-serve strawberry sundae, the great character actor Dick Miller plays a crusty janitor who trash-talks one of the malevolent tin-can tyrants like a Jet giving the finger to Officer Krupke. Continue reading
It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it’s intermittently remarkable despite its modesty. Continue reading
David Carradine wears a dress and nobody says a word about it for the duration of Sonny Boy, a low-budget thriller set in a timeless Panavision desert where the preferred modes of transportation are dirt bikes and dusty pickup trucks. It eschews mainstream cultural signifiers–the one glaring exception is the blonde with tousled music-video hair and ridiculous outfits straight out of Desperately Seeking Susan–and instead dedicates itself to world-building, making its arid small-town environment a microcosm for the cold world outside. So complete is Sonny Boy‘s conception of a cruel universe in miniature that it comes with a downbeat theme song written and performed, right there on screen, by Carradine himself. (A lyric from said song* is engraved, I kid you not, on Carradine’s tombstone.) Carradine is the big name, but the whole cast is better than it needs to be, and that makes a difference. They add a recognizably human element to an otherwise demented scenario and, even more importantly, they keep a film that sometimes feels almost like outsider art from amplifying its self-conscious idiosyncrasies to the point of out-and-out parody.