Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Monday, October 26, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Known as “Rinne” in Japan, “Reincarnation” is the film Shimizu made after the incredible “Marebito”, and before production commenced on the Japanese “Ju-on 3″ and, I would wager, the American “Grudge 3″. Shimizu is an enigma to me, a filmmaker who is quite talented and yet seems to be both driven and repelled by the motion picture factory mentality. While “Marebito” was definitely a change of pace for Shimizu, “Reincarnation” is back to his J-horror roots of long black hair and vengeful ghosts. But it’s once again what Shimizu does with the material that distinguishes it from the rest, not the trite material itself.

I also think Shimizu set out to make a film that was more in line with a Hitchcockian thriller than a full blooded horror film, so those expecting a terrifying movie will be disappointed. The score and credits sequence more than merely reference Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock; the animation of the credits is clearly inspired by the work of Saul Bass, Hitch’s title designer on films like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”, who created abstract patterns onscreen that somehow distilled the themes of the story.

The story of “Reincarnation” is another contrived piece of “Shimizuscript”, in which two separate yet related storylines come closer and closer together as the film progresses. The fascinating element of this picture revolves around its spin on “The Shining”, with 11 people murdered at a mountainside hotel in the 1970s by a deranged Professor who filmed the whole thing with an 8mm camera. Years later, a self important film director, Matsumura (Kippei Shiina), brings a cast and crew to the hotel to work on his own fictional film about the murders, and casts a timid young actress, Sugiura (Yuka), in the lead role of the professor’s young daughter.

Sugiura has all kinds of visions and nightmares and begins to feel that she is the reincarnation of the professor’s daughter in real life. She finds herself “Phantasm”-like, moving from one state of reality to another, from dreams to visions to scenes she plays in the movie within the movie to flashbacks to the past. In a parallel narrative, a college student is suffering her own sense of deja vu, and with the help of an occult-wise actress, tries to find out her own connection to the hotel’s past.
The brilliance here is not in the day old plot, but in the way Shimizu moves the differing strands of reality closer and closer as the movie comes to its climax. In the last ten minutes, we watch Sugiura play the professor’s daughter in a scene while she “sees” events playing back from the past in visions. Meanwhile, Sugiura’s agent is watching the killer’s actual 8mm footage of the murders, and this is cross cut with the other action to create a sense of reality on top of reality as it all begins to bleed into one another. At the end, we are shown perhaps the creepiest “living doll” ever filmed.

I have to applaud Shimizu’s clever resurrection of the “rubber reality” movie so popular in the 1980’s, following the release of Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. Shimizu’s direction is so assured that he is able to fully integrate a “Dawn of the Dead” reference without a blink
“Reincarnation” was probably the best of the three I saw at “Horror Fest”, and the one most deserving of a theatrical release.


Friday, October 23, 2009

SAW III Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

Saw III is the latest installment of the horror franchise specializing in the violent cutting of both flesh and celluloid. The flesh we expect. The celluloid is fashionably cut to please the supposedly fickle audience attention span. Utterly paranoid of inducing anything resembling boredom, the entire film is jacked up to the nth degree. This includes the soundtrack which is mixed with all the subtlety and finesse of a runaway vacuum cleaner. Images jump, blip, strobe, and shock like an epileptic seizure - all the result of director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lack of trust in his screenplay, his cinematographer and his cast. This is a shame since all three elements are much better than his direction.

FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE: Jigsaw’s not doing too well. After spending two films creating torture devices of extraordinary magnitude, he is now aware of his own mortality. It seems as though he is about to turn over his house of horrors to his loyal assistant, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Another game is about to begin and this time it involves an attractive young surgeon (Bahar Soomekh) who is tasked against her will to perform brain surgery on the ailing madman. Apparently, Jigsaw wants only to teach the world about “forgiveness”. His pawn this time is Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a vengeance driven man who lost his son in a hit and run accident which destroyed his entire life and those of his ex-wife and young daughter as well. Jeff is placed into Jigsaw’s rat trap and offered up the object of his hate as the prize if he can only make the “right” choices and survive the gauntlet.

Leigh Whannell’s screenplay is much better than usual for this type of film but seems overly committed to making a slasher film about moral choices. Unfortunately, when the choices come between watching a man being drawn and quartered mechanically or saving him, the film is at complete odds with itself. Of course we want to see the man drawn and quartered; hopefully in great detail. The entire point here is to watch characters get tortured and killed in inventive ways. Morality is the anti-thesis of this entire genre. It’s based on breaking taboos. No one came to this party armed with condoms and a designated driver. So, while the film’s dialogue makes pleas for the pointlessness of vengeance, the film’s images revel in bloody, bone crunching Grand Guignol.

Along with the thematic confusion, the production is also damaged by its very frugality. Sets are cramped and are merely unimaginative variations on the “rusty old factory” location found in most survival horror video games. But the most aggravating aspect is its use of stock footage. In some ways Saw III resembles one of those budget episodes that sitcom producers roll out when the season proves too costly. Gather the Friends around and have them reminisce about that time when…cue the dissolve to footage from episode 97. Saw III is packed with stock footage from the previous two Saws to the point where it seems less like an actual movie and more like a mad mix tape. The Bloody Best of Saw!Of course, most of what is shown is pointless filler.

The hyperactive filmmaking itself would be effective if it occurred in moments of great tension set apart by scenes photographed and edited more conventionally. However, the film is cut like an action film in even the quietest of scenes. The cinematography by David A. Armstrong is drenched in atmosphere but the cutting ignores it completely, chopping it up into pieces like one of Jigsaw’s ingenious devices.

Performances are nearly impossible to judge. Angus Macfadyen was so good in both Braveheart and as Orson Welles in The Cradle Will Rock. But here, he is seen emoting in occasional flash cuts which explode in and out of scenes like subliminal advertising for emotional dysfunction. I’ll have to go back and watch him in slow motion and freeze frame. As the dying Jigsaw, Tobin Bell continues to employ the David Caruso technique of whispered acting. His quiet line readings are almost the only refuge from the screaming. Besides that, the only actual performances not drowned out by the cinematic sound and fury are those by the women. Both Shawnee Smith and Bahar Soomekh give performances that shade in the pencil sketch characters they were given. In Smith’s case, I doubt the script called for much more than mere stage directions to enter and exit. As a whole, the entire cast is better than this film deserves.

In the old days they used to make these movies more honestly. They were “banned in 47 or 68 countries” and titled Faces of Death. That series was nothing more than a plotless “documentary” featuring a series of violent tortures and deaths. It was fictionalized snuff without the pretense of some kind of illogical story. This current genre of torture erotica set in jigsaw mazes, hostels, and hills with eyes wastes time with the narrative facade. The teenage horror audience wants to see someone get his tongue cut out or his hands crushed. No one cares WHY this is happening and I am sure it would be scarier if it happened to a series of innocent people without reason. For all its nervous noise and mechanical tension,Saw III isn’t very scary, just annoying. Their popularity aside, these are hard films to enjoy. They are designed to fill the viewer up with the most primal tension of bodily dismemberment and then leave them hanging without catharsis. Saw III ends with its protagonist completely screwed. At least Eli Roth had the presence of mind in Hostel to allow his lead character some level of cathartic vengeance on his torturers. This is why the theme of Saw III is utter nonsense. Forgiveness? Maybe in real life we could learn a thing or two about the emptiness of revenge, but in this loud, screeching video game meat grinder, everything is reduced to the lizard brain. KILL! CUT! SMASH! SURVIVE! DESTROY! The fact that Saw III is so intent on jerking us off without a “happy ending” is the real torture.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

The title tells all in this jumbled mess of a horror film. After a funeral, several of the deceased’s old friends get the “Big Chill” and decide to celebrate life by dancing on some graves. Unfortunately they dance on the graves of three very pissed off psychos, whose ghosts rise, having exactly one month to kill their desecrators.

Mike Mendez made a fairly popular comic horror film several years ago called “The Convent”, and spent the next several years trying to raise funding for this ghost story. Why he felt so compelled to bring “The Gravedancers” to the screen escapes me, but I can imagine he thought it would be a fun William Castle type horror picture. With either a larger or smaller budget he may have achieved that goal.

As it is, the film is budgeted at the deathly mid-level, where a known French actor like Tch’ky Karyo (the bad guy in most Luc Besson movies, as well as Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys”) can be afforded, and the film has to abide by tight scheduling and union rules. A guerrilla styled DV version could’ve taken the concept and went Sam Raimi mad with it, inventing all kinds of unforgettable sequences that would take days to shoot.

While watching “The Gravedancers”, you just feel the need for more money, through effects that just don’t cut it, actors who really, really need that extra take, and “ghosts” that are little more than silly looking rubber mask affairs. And while Karyo lets us know that he knows he’s in a ridiculous movie by camping things up, he never lets the director or the other cast members in on the joke, and they seem to be incredibly square as a result.

“The Gravedancers”, while never boring, is not much above the level of the standard Sci Fi Channel production.


Sunday, October 04, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Although he is not generally considered to be an auteur, Dan Curtis is a filmmaker whose work is instantly recognizable. Part of this comes from his love of the zoom lens, his often hurried, chaotic staging, and the sudden stings of dramatic music by his usual composer Robert Colbert. All of it creates an atmosphere that immediately brings to mind the film and television of the early 1970s.

The soap opera Dark Shadows was Curtis' baby and it ran on ABC from 1966-1971 hitting the peak of its popularity with the release of this film in 1970. While the show had many long running storylines and even storylines in different eras, Curtis decided that the film version was going to tell the Barnabas vampire tale alone. Audiences were a bit shocked by how much harsher the film version of the show was, with a Barnabas that was much less sympathetic and violence that was, well, violent.

With a tightly focused vampire story, Curtis produced a film which has the feel of a classic Hammer film. This is ironic as the real Hammer Films had been struggling with a way to bring their gothic style into the modern era as evidenced by their early 70s failures Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Curtis realized that it wasn't achieved by including blue jeans, nightclubs and airplanes but by drawing the story back into an insular world that is essentially timeless. The film is aided immeasurably in this regard by its location photography in upstate New York and Connecticut. It's a film of old cemetaries, large monasteries and country houses.

The biggest difference between the show and film is that the show often traded on a certain low rent charm. Cheap looking FX, wobbly sets, and actors who became lost in the dialogue. The film is well mounted and stylishly produced. In what must've seemed like a luxury, Jonathan Frid had time to learn ALL his lines.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Producer Val Lewton was the driving force behind a series of innovative B-horror movies for the RKO Studios beginning with “Cat People” in 1942, and ending with “Bedlam” in 1946. He developed a new style of horror film storytelling by presenting credible characters living and working in the real world amid real day to day problems. The supernatural element was dropped into this mundane reality and seemed all the more suspenseful in contrast. Now, I don’t know if writer-director Kareem A. Bland is a fan of Lewton’s films, but he’s definitely on the same wavelength.

Amid the buckets of blood and breasts on hand in most indie Horror thrillers, “Bleeding Rose” stands out as something entirely different. I was very pleasantly surprised at how easily the movie balanced its desire to express something more than mere genre while still satisfying the needs of the genre. One of the great traps filmmakers fall into is the “anti-genre” film, where they intentionally subvert all of the pleasures of the chosen genre to make some thematic or moral point, but only end up producing a “feathered fish”. That is, something neither fish nor fowl that pleases neither the indie/art film crowd nor the ordinary moviegoer looking for his genre fix. “Bleeding Rose” wants to be more than a thriller but still takes the time to respectfully construct an effective suspense thriller narrative.

“Bleeding Rose” centers on Ebony Rose (Sakeenah Nicole), an attractive young woman haunted by strange dreams and visions of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Alex (Nicholas Vitulli), while trying to start a new life back home in New York City . She is reunited with an old friend named Cedric (Archie Ekong), who is working hard to establish his new record label. Cedric and his “genius” lyricist partner and best friend Kyle (Duane Littles) are looking for a new voice and ask her to come down to their studio and audition. The three eventually form a love triangle and become suspicious of one another as Ebony’s friends and family are stalked and killed one by one by an unknown killer.

There is a great, relaxed quality in the first act of “Bleeding Rose”. It hints at the thriller beats to come, but holds its focus on Ebony’s new life and circle of friends, with the documentary like feel of the scenes at the recording studio and the almost improvisational feel of the performances coming across as natural and real. There is a confidence that Bland demonstrates throughout these scenes that draws us deeper into the story, without feeling obliged to hit us over the head with one shock after another. Instead, the film concentrates on telling its story through its characters. The suspense builds and the thriller set pieces emerge, more effective since they involve characters we’ve been given the chance to know.

One of these set pieces, involving Ebony’s friend Candice (Elizabeth Ruelas) actually seems to be a tribute to Lewton, who designed his movies around a series of what he and director Jacques Tourneur called “Buses”. This was the name given to the sudden jumps they began in “Cat People”, in which actress Jane Randolph is stalked along a New York street until suddenly she and the audience is jolted by the hiss of a bus stopping in front of her and opening its doors. Bland revisits this in his movie’s best set piece, as Candice is stalked in a subway and we are jolted by the sudden arrival of the train.

Unlike most ultra low budget films, “Bleeding Rose” is not hampered by its lack of resources, unknown actors and effects. It also has the intelligence to leave the classic model of low-budget filmmaking behind and use the freedom of new technology to expand its canvas. The old way of making a horror movie fast and cheap required bringing a cast together to a single location and murdering them one by one, in an intense shoot regulated by the high cost of camera, sound and light rental, and the complexities of moving cast and crew from place to place. However, in this digital age, a very accomplished movie can be produced with small cameras and sound equipment the filmmaker can afford to own, and with the use of available light, move from location to location with real speed, giving the movie more production value and a real sense of place.

“Bleeding Rose” has a nice feel for its New York locations and its steady handheld style is effective, using the new technology not to mimic some large Hollywood movie, but to do what they do best — eavesdrop, lurk, and watch like an electronic voyeur. The only criticism I have of the movie is one that I have to excuse. There are moments when the sound is not as clear, or the lighting is not quite perfect. Jumps in editing that seem to be the result of missing scenes near the end as the movie rushed headlong into its conclusion. These are all technical points and they are found in all indie movies and are always solved by throwing more money at the screen. So, maybe somebody should throw Kareem A. Bland some money and see what he can achieve.

Outside of those criticisms, “Bleeding Rose” is a skillfully made thriller with some interesting themes involving racial identity and abusive relationships. These are not separate things, but instead are effectively part of one complete story. Hopefully, Bland’s “Bleeding Rose” will find a niche amid the more exploitative fare on the DVD shelves. In any case, it stands as a very effective example of what can be accomplished on a low budget and meager resources.

Kareem A. Bland (director) / Kareem A. Bland (screenplay)
CAST: Sakeenah Nicole, Nicholas Vitulli, Archie Ekong, Duane Littles

Thursday, October 01, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

I caught this on one of the many Encore Cable channels last night and since it was a Blaxploitation film shot in Philadelphia in the year I was born I thought I would look at it for a few minutes. Well, a few minutes turned into 89 and as the end credits rolled I must say I was quite impressed. This wasn't the standard "pimp and ho show" but rather a smart, character based crime flick about two hustlers just trying to survive in the City of Brotherly Love.

Based on the novel by Iceberg Slim, Trick Baby is the story of veteran black conman "Blue" Howard (Mel Stewart) and his young white protégé "Folks" O'Brien (Kiel Martin). Folks is the "trick baby" of the title, the son of a black hooker and a white John who passes convincingly as white. "Blue" took the young man in at an early age and they have a strong father-son bond that insures a strong trust while scamming the short money day in and day out. Just as "Folks" decides to retire from the risky grind, he seizes an opportunity to lure $90,000 out of a group of racist bigwigs. But this last "sting" becomes increasingly perilous as they have to keep one step ahead of a crooked cop (Dallas Edward Hayes) they shortchanged and the local mobster who has placed a price on their heads for their involvement in the death of his uncle following a con.

"Iceberg Slim" was the pseudonym for Robert Beck. Under that playful name, Beck quickly became one of the most successful African-American authors of the '70s. His acclaimed 1969 debut novel, "Pimp: The Story of My Life", an autobiographical account of his days as a hustler on the streets of Chicago in the 1930s and 40s was first optioned by Universal for a motion picture adaptation but concerns regarding the raw subject matter made them switch to TRICK BABY instead.

This film is not really "blaxsploitation" at all though it shares some of the same concerns and conventions of that genre. The film's focus on the relationship between Folks and Blue is what distinguishes it. The pair make a very conscious use of their skin color and the inherent racism of their "marks" in order to pull off their scams. Like a game of good cop/bad cop, Folks gets the trust of the white community and uses their desire to rip off the black man against them.

The performances are uniformly excellent but the late Kiel Martin really steals the picture as Folks. There's something charismatic about him that makes Folks likable even when he first appears onscreen pretending to be a villainous racist while pulling a con with Blue.

Visually, the film makes great use of its rundown Philly setting, staging scenes in street corners, alleys, and elevated train stations during the grey days of winter. It also features some very inventive editing that places dialogue in counterpoint to the image and an incredibly tense foot chase that works not so much because it's so well staged but rather because the stakes are so high for the characters. This is the key to why the film really works-the personal stakes are raised so high and yet the film keeps reminding the audience that death is imminent. Folks can sense it and keeps trying to convince Blue to forget the big score and just walk away. This is Standard Plotting Procedure for most crime films but here there is an underlying sense of mortality much like Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. A seemingly random attempt to pull a pigeon drop on a "naive" black businessman becomes quite dangerous as the man tells Blue that he's going to kill Folks for the hell of it. They make it out of that jam but the scene leaves a mark on the scenes to follow and make it clear that the ending will not be anything but tragic.

If that's not enough to recommend it, Trick Baby also comes complete with Ted Lange (a.k.a Isaac the Bartender from The Love Boat) as Melvin the Pimp.