Xtro (1982)

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I knew very little about “Xtro” before popping it on, so when I discovered it was set in England and made by an English writer/director, I was rather surprised (plus, it’s an early movie from New Line, aka the producers of the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies). There’s something about English horror of the 80s – well, I can only think of “Lifeforce”, “An American Werewolf in London” and “Hellraiser” here, but please bear with this analogy – that seems dingy and miserable in a way American ones just didn’t seem to be able to manage. Plus, I just realise, all those movies have American actors in major roles, as if they knew to sell it over the pond would need an accent US audiences could relate to. But anyway, I’m wandering away from the point here. Xtro!

 

Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) is abducted by aliens while staying at a cottage with his son Tony, an event that still traumatises Tony three years later. I mean, this is on the back of the VHS box, so I’m not giving anything vital away here. Sam’s wife Rachel (the strikingly beautiful Bernice Stegers) is now living with American photographer Joe (Danny Brainin), plus French au pair Analise (future Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, in her first role). They really don’t seem wealthy enough to need an au pair, but presumably someone went “this horror movie needs nudity, and Stegers is married to a famous director so we can’t force her into doing it” so whatever.

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One day, the aliens show up again and drop off one of their crew, in a scene that gets trotted out every now and again by particularly credulous believers in alien visitation before a thousand people shout at them “it’s from Xtro, you idiot”. This odd-looking fellow kills a few people on a dark country lane before…and perhaps I missed a bit here…laying an egg inside some poor unfortunate woman and then disappearing from the movie forever? Anyway, the upshot of all this is, she gives birth to a full-sized adult man, aka Sam from the beginning of the movie. After cleaning all the goo off himself and learning how to talk again, he pops off home to reclaim his family.

 

Obviously, he’s got ulterior motives, and one of these is sucking some of the lifeforce from his son, which also gives him alien powers. These powers are used to animate a midget clown and an Action Man figure to kill his nasty downstairs neighbour – played by Anna Wing, who shortly after this movie cemented her place in UK pop culture history by getting the part of Lou Beale on “Eastenders”. Oh, and he kills Analise because she’s insufficiently committed to a game of “Hide and Seek” – don’t worry, I couldn’t make any sense of that bit either. There’s one bit where he wakes up in the middle of the night, covered in blood, so a doctor is called, who can find nothing wrong with him. Horrible, right? Well, it’s just ignored the next morning, as if children waking up drenched in mystery blood is a terribly common occurrence.

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I’ve possibly made it sound more interesting than it really is. It grinds to a halt when Sam shows up again, becoming a sort of dull kitchen-sink drama for a good twenty minutes or so, and only really kicks off again when Sam and Rachel go back to the cottage to see if they can figure out what went on. I feel worst for Joe, who gets treated as an afterthought in the conclusion of the movie.

 

One thing “Xtro” got right was the special effects. The alien (as seen above, if I can get a decent screenshot) is extremely effective, and the liberal use of goo and gore is refreshing for a British horror movie too (director Harry Bromley Davenport said he wanted to make it even more disgusting, but New Line stopped him). That it’s mistaken for one of the 72 “video nasties” is completely unsurprising, because it is gross!

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Plus, I like how the inspiration for the plot feels English. I’d lay good money on this having something to do with the Rendlesham Forest incident – which happened two years before this movie was made. Complete nonsense, mind, but it’s got that home-grown flavour to it. Of course, it might have just been rush-released to get some of that “ET” money, but we shall never know (by which I mean I can’t be bothered to check).

 

SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING: Rachel, having seen her boyfriend die, and her husband and son go off to space, was (in the original ending) supposed to go back and find her home full of clones of Sam, but the special effects looked terrible. Then it was supposed to finish with her just sitting down in the field, but Davenport said that was too abrupt. The ending we’ve been left with is Rachel walking back into her house with a Mona-Lisa-esque knowing smile on her face, and picking up one of the eggs that Sam left behind. If it had cut off with her smiling at the eggs, it would have been quite creepy and interesting, but what they did was have one of the eggs pop open and attach itself to her face, killing her, which is stupid.

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It’s got one major positive (the special effects) but everything else works against it. The plot is about halfway to being decent, but just throws all that out of the window towards the end; the acting from the women is excellent, but the men – including the kid, who’s just awful – leaves a lot to be desired. It’s fun to see the British have a real crack at an exploitation film, but it could and should have been much better than this. And despite their other horror franchise pumping out the sequels regularly, New Line wouldn’t produce the second “Xtro” for another eight years, with part 3 a further five years after that.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Annabelle (2014)

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The Conjuring was released a couple of years ago and was a fairly uninspiring horror movie (based on the same real life story that would inspire the Amityville Horror).

At the beginning of The Conjuring, there is a little prelude about a china doll called Annabelle. That prelude is used to set up the concept of conduits, demonic influence and the paranormal investigation team.

That small sequence was really creepy and very effective, more so than the actual film. And so it doesn’t surprise me that they decided to make a prequel based on it.

Annabelle opens with the same prelude from The Conjuring. Set the year before that scene, this film shows how Annabelle came to become a conduit for a demon and how it terrorised a suburban family.

As always, I will keep my plot summary brief as I don’t like to give away too much: Ed and Lorraine Warren are newlyweds expecting their first child. Lorraine is a collector of china dolls and Ed has gone to great expense to find one of a set she is missing, which takes centre place in the collection.

"I refuse to believe that anyone would actually collect these in real life."

“I refuse to believe that anyone would actually collect these outside of a horror movie.”

There is some stuff about cults, a ritual, conjuring a demon, possession, all which result in the devil’s doll. Then there is the usual running around, seeing things through the corner of your eye, fast cuts and people deliberately turning around really slowly… look, if you’ve seen any number of horror movies in the last 40 years (man, is The Exorcist really that old?), there’s nothing new here. It’s slow paced, so as to build tension and atmosphere and has its fair share of ‘jump scares’… you know the drill.

Say what you will about the ‘found footage phenomenon’, at least Paranormal Activity injected some creativity into the horror genre (which of course was aped and then suffered ‘sequelitis’ to the point where it was no longer creative).

There are a few things which make this film stand out from its peers (and notably more interesting than its parent film). For starters, Annabelle herself. Now, I don’t like china dolls. I think they are inherently creepy. Presumably I am not alone in this and therefore that’s why they made a china doll an evil doll of evil. The pre-demon version of Annabelle is pretty terrifying and the post-demon version is a nightmare come to life. So in that sense, good show prop department!

"A demented verison of Joanna Lumley as a doll."

“A demented verison of Joanna Lumley as a doll.”

Also, there are a couple of genuinely creepy scenes: the whole basement sequence for instance (which is only ruined by the director by breaking the cardinal rule of ‘never reveal the face of the monster, because it can never be worse than the imagination’) and any time the doll is just on screen, being creepy (there was only one moment I called ‘bullshit’ and that was very late in the movie, they otherwise restrain themselves from the doll doing anything other than looking really wrong).

"At no time does any of these people attempt to burn the creepy demon doll. I call bullshit."

“At no time do any of these people attempt to burn the creepy demon doll. I call foul.”

The ending, to be blunt, is so overwhelming telegraphed I am sure people who have never even seen a horror movie could figure it out.

I’m not a fan of the horror genre because I find it creatively moribund. Very much like it’s cousin, the slasher movie, it is tired and worn with little new to offer.

And, like comedy, it is a very subjective experience, so what one person finds scary, another finds laughable. For instance, I think that The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Paranormal Activity are great films, both very creepy. Friends of mine found the Mothman Prophecy to be terrifying but I only thought it was a good film, not particularly scary at all.

To me, The Conjuring was fairly representative of modern horror and didn’t really offer anything new. The prequel, Annabelle, is much the same, only I find china dolls to be freaky and so I was a bit creeped out at times, possibly more than I should have.

I can’t say I particularly recommend this film. Like its peers, it isn’t particularly original or scary but it is competently made and the direction is very good. The performances are good and really, there’s nothing wrong with this movie, if you haven’t watched any of the major horror movies of the last 40 years.

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That said, if you find china dolls to be creepy and fancy a bit of a scare, you could do a lot worse than this.

TL:DR “Competently made, not particularly original horror movie about a possessed china doll. The china doll really is the scariest thing about it.”

Auteur (2014)

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Directed by: G. Cameron Romero

‘Auteur’ is by George Romero’s son. This is an important fact during the closing scene of the movie, as the camera pans around a video store; it zooms past a section devoted to George Romero. It’s as if George’s son Cameron is acknowledging his position, like Stephen King’s son, John Lennon’s son and any other son who’s had to follow a successful Father, he’s had a difficult act to follow. But good on him for trying to step out of those giant foot prints.

Cameron Romero first came to our attention with 2009’s ‘Staunton Hill’, which was a patchy cliché ridden horror. The film had a notoriously weak plot. With ‘Auteur’ Romero has at least rectified this problem, and the story is actually pretty strong. What lets the movie down is the string shot budget, if the film had any money behind it then most of which was probably given to Tom Sizemore. More on him later.

‘Auteur’ explores the myth behind reclusive director Charlie Buckwall and a fictional unreleased horror movie titled Demonic. A number of legendary horror movies have spooky behind-the-scenes stories and talk of curses, for example ‘The Omen’ and ‘The Exorcist’, and ‘Auteur’ plays upon this, but it can’t quite get the balance right between whether it wants to be a found footage film or a mockumentary.

‘Auteur’ is about an aspiring documentary maker called Jack Humphreys, whose Father works in the film industry. Jack is keen to make a name for himself in the biz. He is obsessed by the story behind Demonic and interviews a number of people who were involved in the project. There a few talking heads, but this approach is used more to set the story. Most of the action follows the eager Jack as he runs around Hollywood trying to get the big interview with Charlie Buckwall that will be the centre piece of his documentary.

What exactly is Tom Sizemore’s role here? He plays himself, one of the talking heads, an actor talking about Demonic, but Sizemore does so in such a half-arsed way which gives the impression that he probably granted Romero and co half an hour of his time for a ridiculous appearance fee. Sizemore seems to be talking about a different film and different actors to the film he is supposed to be talking about, and towards the end decides to give up, and just talk about himself for a couple of minutes.

The film builds up to what is referred to by all the talking heads as its “ground zero” moment, which is the exorcism scene. The exorcism scene is pitiful, and plays out like it was directed by Ed Wood. This really counteracts the movies’ insistence that Charlie Buckwall was a misunderstood genius. Ian Hutton, who plays Buckwall, actually isn’t that bad as the wayward director, but Christ when it comes to this pivotal scene, we have dubious levitation, polystyrene concrete blocks, and all the usual guttural devilish growls and latin gibberish sound tracked by the most generic of spooky sound track music.

‘Auteur’ is a baffling B Movie, which in a weird way is quite gripping, but whenever something scary happens in the film we are left with a wet fart moment. I suppose a better way of explaining this is to imagine yourself being held hostage by a gun man. After an hour and fifteen minutes the gun man decides to shoot you. When he fires the gun a little flag pops out with the word ‘bang’ written on it. He decides to shoot you with the gun half a dozen times.

– RJW

5/10

Auteur on IMDB

Scary Movie (1991)

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I felt right from the beginning I was going to enjoy this one – the production company has the brilliant name “Generic Movies, Ltd” and the title popped onto the screen with a barcode underneath it, a joke (so my wife tells me) on the proliferation of generic products and barcodes at the time – famously, a year after this movie, President George HW Bush had no idea what a barcode was, another nail in his electoral coffin.

“Scary Movie” really loaded the deck in its favour with the first few minutes too. There’s future Oscar nominee John Hawkes, in what must be his first starring role; plus the soundtrack features Butthole Surfers, whose early stuff is some of my favourite music. Hawkes is Warren, an extremely nervous and paranoid young man, who’s about to go into a haunted house with his “friends” (who just seem like people who insult him slightly less than everyone else). Haunted houses seem a fairly uniquely American thing- someone will convert their home (or a barn, in the case of this movie) into a series of rooms with various spooky goings-on, grotesque tableaux, and the like; then charge people entry. It’s a whole industry, and seems quite good fun to be honest, but it’s never made it to this side of the pond.

On the same night, a prison transport truck carrying mental patient / killer John Louis Barker overturns and Barker is nowhere to be found. After overhearing the local sheriff, Warren becomes convinced that Barker has taken up residence inside the haunted house and is trying to kill Halloween merry-makers, and his mental state deteriorates as he becomes “trapped” inside the house. Will he survive? Why are his friends such idiots? Why does the hot woman think he’s cute?

There’s a lot to like about this, which makes the fact the director was 19 years old when he made this even more remarkable (plus, even though I can’t find out, I guess he’s a relative of the great Roky Erickson, Texas psychedelic musician, which makes me like him even more). The sense of Warren’s increasing disorientation inside is well-captured, he does well with his actors and considering the no doubt miniscule budget, everything looks fine. The leader of a gang of leather-jacketed thugs gives us the movie’s best line, “If I wanted to hear from an asshole, I’d fart”. There is, of course, a but.

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The film isn’t so much slow as devoid of incident for long stretches. The queueing to get into the Haunted House takes up more than half an hour when it could reasonably have been dealt with in about five minutes; plus, the repetition of Hawkes’ bugged-out eyes and the teasing stops having any extra significance after a while. Same goes for the running round the house – he runs through the same room multiple times and I began to get a bit bored of it all, like I wanted to shout at him to just run through a wall or something, anything, other than look extremely unhappy all the time.

It’s got a very curious denouement, one which I think would feel more appropriate in an episode of the Twilight Zone. In fact, this would work a huge amount better as an episode of that show – there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, but it would make a really solid 45 minutes. All this is really disappointing, thanks to how much I enjoyed the opening of the movie – it felt like we were in safe hands, there was a light comic touch and it looked like a winner. Then it just slowly ground to a halt.

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I got this film thanks to the internet – as far as I know, it’s never been released on DVD, and even a VHS release looks a bit sketchy. This is a shame, as despite my criticism of it, it’s a fascinating curio, filmed in the small Texas town where it was set, soundtrack full of amazing bands, and a very odd plot. Director Daniel Erickson went on to make a lot of music videos after this movie, but came back after a near 20 year absence with the movie “Eve’s Necklace” in 2010, a micro-budgeter (including the voice talents of John Hawkes, who presumably did it as a favour) with an all-mannequin cast. I almost literally cannot wait to find and watch this movie, it sounds amazing.

Rating: thumbs in the middle