Monday, September 15, 2014

THE SACRAMENT (Ti West, 2013, USA)

1. A rite believed to be a means of or visible form of grace, especially.

From one addiction to another, a group of lost souls build a Commune deep within a South American jungle to escape the violent world. There they fall under the godspell of Father whose secret ambitions may be worse. Director Ti West uses the “found footage” genre to re-create a modern version of the Jonestown Massacre, where those failing to understand the past are destined to repeat it. Ti West’s film becomes a warning about the corrupting influence of religion especially when focused through one charismatic figure, with ethics as ethereal as light separated by a multifaceted prism.

The film begins with talking heads on the VICE Channel, a peripheral news network seemingly more concerned with entertainment than actual facts and supporting evidence, who are speaking directly to the camera . We are quickly introduced to the main characters Patrick (the fashion photographer), Sam (the interviewer) and Jake (the cameraman). These three decide to travel together to interview Patrick’s troubled sister Caroline who has joined a Commune and written a letter asking her brother to visit. The directions are vague and cryptic and the three soon decide it would make a great story. Ti West uses the setup of an entertainment channel (think Entertainment Tonight) to propel the subjectivity of the “found footage” viewpoint to reveal much of the narrative. However, he soon rips that POV apart and edits it within the parameters of a standard subjective viewpoint of a horror film. It works fairly well and the viewer quickly forgets who is filming what, or why we are seeing medium close-ups perfectly framed while Jake’s camera is shooting another angle or is turned off.

Though it’s not hard to guess what happens (as we all know the Jonestown Massacre, right?) Ti West takes his time and builds the suspense step by step in a realistic and believable manner. As they set down in a clearing after flying for presumably hours over impenetrable jungle, Patrick, Sam and Jake’s first sign of trouble is the men wielding machine guns who are to take them to Eden Parish. Why would a peaceful commune need weapons? Here it becomes obvious that the three “reporters” have not been honest because only Patrick requested a visit with his sister and not the whole crew. A tense argument erupts and one doesn’t argue with an armed guide! However they are allowed to proceed and meet Caroline at the entrance.

Now the tension slowly builds as Patrick is separated from them and Sam and Jake roam the compound trying to interview members. Most people hide their faces and shuffle uncomfortably away. A mute little girl tries to make contact but she is quickly called away by her mother. On the surface everything seems fine as a few people spout mundane accomplishments and even the hospital seems well stocked and antiseptic. But Sam wonders how a small field hospital can care for so many elderly residents and support the newborn babies. Here it is revealed that Sam is awaiting his own first child back in the world which sets up more tension as he eventually fights for his life.

Soon an interview with Father before the whole congregation is granted and Sam and Jake prepare rather mundane questions. Though they both have a slight feeling of being led astray or lied to, Father is an engaging and charismatic man. He is also excellently portrayed by Gene Jones (any relation to Jim?) and really carries the whole weight of the film: if he’s not believable then the structure crumbles and the story doesn’t work. But Jones is up to the task and is wonderful and forthright as the spiritual center of the compound. He expounds upon the members who have given up everything to build this new beginning, away from the negativity and violence that Sam and Jake are still blinded by. Though Father speaks with a hypnotically loving voice and has kind mannerisms, he can also be understood to speak in masked threats. Sam is shaken up and overwhelmed and almost comes under his spell. Soon things all over the compound are shaken up!

The outsiders soon bring the promise of corruption to Eden Parish and Father now flexes his religious and spiritual muscle. An inebriated Caroline reveals that father is trying to seduce her brother into staying so their wealthy parents will send money. Father realizes that when this story breaks to the world that his vision is doomed. So Father has them all gather and offer their very lives to the Lord: it’s not suicide, it’s a Sacrament. Some resist but most drink the blood-colored Kool-Aid and those who don’t are shot. Meanwhile the three protagonists are struggling to survive by hiding from gunmen all night and trying to reach the helicopter which will return at daybreak. In one brutally realistic scene Caroline injects her brother with poison as he’s tied to a chair. He struggles and screams and fights against the onrushing darkness as his body jumps and convulses. Ti West is not masking the physical horror in this religious fanaticism: we see a child’s throat slit, brains and clumps of hair, vomiting and slow death. The path to their god is littered with violent intentions.

Sam and Jake eventually make it back to the helicopter but they are far from safe. The pilot has been shot and as they take off and circle the compound, we get one last long look at the cruelty and violence that was supposedly left behind in the real world. Here, condensed in microcosm, is a reflection of that world.

Final Grade: (B) 

Friday, September 12, 2014

GENOCIDE (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968, Japan)

“The insects are singing about destroying humanity.” 

GODZILLA spawned the Kaiju genre which is literally translated as “Giant Beast” and the monsters quickly grew taller, nastier, campier and rubberier. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu shrinks the genre to the size of the insect world to complete the destruction of the human race.

I would like to write a short plot description but the narrative makes little sense and seems to be pieced together from disparate films. Or the story was remade each day before shooting and Nihonmatsu just shot whatever the fuck he felt like; presumably after ingesting hallucinatory drugs or Kaiju-ish amounts of alcohol. But this isn’t necessarily a criticism as much as it is a caveat lector so one doesn’t wander into this warped celluloid reality unprepared!

The film begins with a stark pronouncement (all in capital letters): THE MOMENT MANKIND HARNESSED THE POWER OF THE ATOM, HE IMMEDIATELY BEGAN TO FEAR IT. In the background mushroom clouds blossom and fold their fiery entrails inwards as if devouring themselves, harnessing their own energy as they grow taller and consume the heavens. Then the title and opening credits are shown over close-ups of insects, making these tiny creatures seem disarmingly creepy and savagely beautiful. The camera then slowly zooms earthward from the heavens and focuses upon a couple sunning themselves on a rocky shore. Nihonmatsu exploits the bikini blonde as he begins the point-of-view shot at her feet while it crawls slowly up her shapely legs, tight skinny waist and buxom chest until it reveals her full sensuous lips and dark mascara eyes. When the man turns over to embrace her she pushes him away and turns over on her back. It’s a bit surprising to see a bi-racial couple especially in a late 60’s Japanese film but the metaphor becomes exhibition by the final act: the American girl leads the Japanese protagonist astray in order to destroy the human race! Now the story gets weird.

The man looks skyward and we see from his POV a contrail from a jet plane. The camera slowly zooms in (this quickly becomes the director’s primary visual trait) to a model of a B-52 Stratofortress. Cut to the interior and five American airmen in orange jumpsuits and their payload: an H-Bomb. Suddenly, the black airman who sits at the controls directly in front of the bomb starts acting strangely. As he begins sweating profusely and rubbing his face and neck, he swats at an insect and looks towards the porthole: a wasp crawls sluggishly across the thick glass. Then he violently grabs his head and screams while WWII scenes are cut into the narrative as hallucinatory flashbacks. As his cohorts attempt to calm him he screams that he won’t go back to the Front and accidentally hits the bomb-bay door switch so it opens. Charley, the addled airman, is the only black man among the crew of five. He begs for drugs because he won’t return to the Front to fight anymore: he’s obviously lost his mind somehow. One crew-member gives him an injection (of what?) which he carries in his sleeve (huh?). Soon a black cloud of swarming insects attacks the plane, their buzzing mass causing the engines to flame-out and forcing the crew to abandon their airship. The Stratofortress bursts into flames and explodes in cool miniature effect and we see four parachutes descending to the island. The Japanese man forgets his blonde girlfriend and jumps up to investigate…which he will soon regret.

Now the film gets convoluted and very very strange. We soon learn that Joji, the Japanese man seen in the opening act, is married to a kindly Japanese girl who is being molested by an Innkeeper while he is out searching for poisonous insects to send back to his boss in Tokyo. Of course he’s having an affair with Annabelle, the voluptuous American blonde seen sunbathing with him. Three American airmen including Charley survive the crash and make their way to a mysterious cave where someone has been secretly trapping insects in bottles. There are some skulls and other human detritus cast about. Joji goes looking for the airmen but Charley goes berserk and stumbles off a cliff. Joji is arrested for murdering the other two Americans and injuring Charley since Joji was discovered trying to sell a watch belonging to one of them. As Joji is held in custody his wife and boss come to visit vowing to find evidence to free him. And it soon learned that Annabelle is a Russian agent who sells her poisonous venom (hence the bottles in the cave) to the Eastern Block but is also much more: she is a survivor of Auschwitz and seeks the destruction of the entire human race!!

Let us think about this for a moment. It’s bad enough that Charley is a WWII veteran with a drug habit as he looks to be in his thirties and still in the Air Force (which didn’t exist during WWII). The story is set in 1968 and the War ended in 1945 which is 23 years prior: Charley would have been a teenager during the War! Annabelle curses all humanity because she suffered terrible abuses while a prisoner of the Nazi Death Camp Auschwitz. She even shows her ID number which is tattooed…on her breast. Now that seems strange but Soviet prisoners were indeed tattooed on the upper part of their left breast in Auschwitz (a new fact I just learned researching this review!). But Annabelle is obviously American (blonde, dark eyes, curvaceous like an American movie star) but could she possibly be Russian? She is working for the Eastern Block. Well, the film never explains and she is out to betray mankind anyway! If Annabelle was indeed in the Death Camp 23 years prior she must have been a little child…but it’s possible. So because she is full of hate she is on the side of the insects and orders them to destroy the world. She must be some kind of Insect Whisperer because it’s never explained how the insects know this! And her proclamation comes out of left field as we’re only expecting her to be the “other girl” Joji is seeing. And the thought of casually using the Holocaust as a plot device in a cheapo horror movie is quite interesting because that would never be written off so easily in an American or European production. Even to this day it is not a topic for minor genre films.

In one of the strangest scenes in cinematic history, as Charley lays recuperating in the hospital he is interrogated by Joji’s boss who is looking for answers as to who (or what) really killed the other airmen to prove Joji’s innocence. And he does this by showing films of insects devouring one another! It’s fucking bizarre but played perfectly straight, as if this type of questioning is within normal parameters of any interrogation protocol. Poor Charley is mentally unbalanced and suffering greatly to begin with but he is able to remember that they were attacked in the cave by a buzzing mass of insects! Joji’s Boss leaves to search the cave for further clues and the American Officers, who have been hanging around looking confused, then slap and assault Charley because he doesn’t know where the bomb landed! How’s that for Patriotism.

So the bomb is discovered and the insects are taking control of it by crawling over its surface. To scare the creepy crawlies away, one of the guys fires his gun at the H-bomb! Yes, the story just gets more insane. Joji’s boss also injects himself with a small amount of the venom because he was working on a cure at the time of this disaster, and can suddenly understand all of the insects chanting GENOCIDE! at the top of their…ummm…little crickety legs (since they don’t have lungs). He survives and they track down Annabelle and her gang (whom she also betrayed) as the Americans wander around in a somnambulist daze totally incompetent, and want to drop a bomb on the island to kill the intelligent insects. We are occasionally shown stock footage of insects chewing on what looks like human flesh with their clacking mandibles. Joji’s wife jumps in a boat and rows out to sea to save herself and, yes you guessed it, her unborn baby belonging to Joji! The Japanese argue against the use of the bomb (again) because the fallout will destroy Tokyo but too late: the H-bomb is detonated by the Americans. We see a growing mushroom cloud reflective of the opening credits as the island is annihilated…and supposedly the insects too. The film ends with a white hot sun rising in a blood red sky; the inverse of the Japanese flag.

Director Nihonmatsu has made an anti-war, anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-human and eco-terrorist diatribe against the World that we have razed and spoiled in our quest for atomic fire. It’s an interesting concoction of seemingly disparate elements that creates a sometimes enjoyable but altogether insane science fiction film with faux-political sentiments. We end up feeling more sorry for the insects than the human race.

Final Grade: (B-)

Thursday, September 4, 2014


George is an antiques dealer who discovers a new axiom: those who unearth the past are doomed to be devoured by it. Writer/Director Jorge Grau evokes the spirit of both George Romero and Michelangelo Antonioni in this classic horror film, creating drama from the sludge piles and belching factories of RED DESERT, sporting an ultra-cool and suave protagonist whose motorcycle rockets through the arteries of London, a reincarnation of David Hemmings in BLOW-UP, and the mystery of the rising dead and cultural clash that was so well defined by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

A chance encounter propels George and Edna upon a diabolical journey into the unknown, where they become trapped in a vault of horror. Grau devises a scientific premise for the reanimation of the recently dead as a local farmer is using ultrasonic radiation to destroy the simple nervous systems of insects: it seems to be less toxic than pesticide. But this has an effect on both newborns and the newly deceased causing psychotic violence and cannibalism. A unique and interesting major plot point is in the deduction that these zombies can use their own irradiated blood to create a brotherhood of corpses.

The use of heart-thumping sound precedes an attack and creates a crescendo of fear which is utilized to great effect. One chilling scene in particular has our protagonists and a police officer trapped in a basement while the dead begin to push aside their caskets: Tobe Hooper’s homage is evident in the Marsten House basement scenario from SALEM’S LOT. The police investigate these series of murders blaming the deaths on Edna’s drug addled sister and corrupting youth culture represented by George in his leather jacket and shaggy good looks. As in classic science fiction films, the young hero discovers the source of the apocalypse but his pleas fall upon the deaf ears of his elders, so he must take matters into his own hands.

These zombies think and move quickly, the core of some basic reasoning still existent in their gray matter, and the disease can be passed by blood: again we see another influence that haunts Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER. George fights his way through a demented hell to save Edna, who was a stranger only hours before, and the nihilistic vengeful finale is reflective of the culture and social temperament of its time: the dead shall indeed inherit the Earth.

Final Grade: (B)