Welcome to the 2nd annual Haunted-House Round-Up! This month we’re deviating a bit and taking a few liberties on what 1) constitutes “new” and 2) how much “action” might make an Action movie. But it’s October! We want to be SPOOOOOKY! We’re sure you don’t mind.
From Spencer Seams:
SALOUM (2021) [new on shudder]
A heist has gone wrong. Secrets and mistrust abound between a trio of legendary mercenaries – Chaka (Yann Gael), Minuit (Mentor Ba), and Rafa (Roger Sallah). Jean Luc Herbulout and Pamela Diop’s Saloum takes seemingly disparate genres and makes a genuinely cool, spiritual, and effective thriller. Picking Senegal feels like a purposeful choice, given two of Africa’s most iconic filmmakers were Senegalese – Dijbril Diop Mambety and Ousmane Sembene. The most impressive feat was making it appear effortless. Starting with a narrator and a dreamy waterscape, you are set up with a modern-day folk tale in the vein of Sembene’s acidic post-colonial satire Xala, Haroun’s complex reflection on revenge, or Daratt and Mambety’s consumerist critique, Hyenas. Naming the mercenaries “the Hyenas” felt a deliberate nod to Mambety. The movie proper then starts with the Bangui Hyenas fresh off a job. It then shifts into something that others have said resembles From Dusk Til Dawn, but that’s a big disservice to Saloum. A minor spoiler, I won’t delve much more into that.
I personally don’t like using terms like “elevated,” however it applies here. Utilizing a mix of mythology, post-colonial commentary, power of community, political unrest, and what makes a hero among much more is packed into a short runtime. I knew this was for me when Thomas Sankara was quoted in a tense dinner scene, “No one can imagine the grain of the poor has fed the cows of the rich in our country.” As packed to the brim with depth and ideas as it is, there was never a point when it was pretentious or messy. Everything clicks and works. With any film, language is important, and the choice of language matters. The languages in Saloum are French, sign language, and most importantly, Wolof. A trend I saw in a lot of reviews of this keep calling it an African film but that irked me. They speak Wolof, which is prominently spoken in Senegal. The film specifies that they are going Dakar, Senegal. Being specific is important. “Africa is a single nation”-ism is an easy trap to fall into. You can’t say it happens with European films; casual racism is common and needs to be called out. Aside from that gripe I have, I want to emphasize the best quality of Saloum. This is fun. This has action, suspense, and the genre fare people love. You can ignore all the political text (it’s not subtle but doesn’t distract) and love this on a surface level. Simply put, it’s a visual feast. The locations are limited but lush and distinct from the opening in the Guinea-Bissau coup to the Saloum compound. It’s cliche to say that the locations are characters but that takes a more literal turn here. With the short runtime and the large cast, every character is established and understood quickly. The character growth is only so much but Saloum gets the point fast and effectively.
This gives me hope that more genre films from all over Africa will make an international splash. Saloum is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2022. It is actively about many real and human things all while wrapped up in the guise of a fun thrill ride.
AFTER BLUE: DIRTY PARADISE (2021) [BLU-RAY AND VOD]
Part of the fun of a blind buy is the off chance you can get something you dig. After Blue: Dirty Paradise is something I dig very much. This checks several boxes that are a guarantee for me to love it. Immediately, I was on board with whatever the ride was going to be. After Blue is at its core, a sci-fi lesbian Western about killing a killer named Kate Bush (not the real Kate Bush, but a Polish serial killer named Katarzyna Buszowska aka Kate Bush). The whole experience is the middle ground between a fever dream and a nightmare with the aesthetics of Barbarella and Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy. Every scene is bathed in intense Argento lighting at all times. The style is both aggressively somber and overwhelmingly hypnotic. Style over substance is an overused sentiment — style can be substance and versa vice. It’s an exhausting ordeal at times and at other times an exuberant psychedelic mirage. The plot is clearly secondary to the mood, set design, and concepts. Taking cues from acid Westerns like El Topo (but much better because no animals were killed for no reason), After Blue is an amplified and dense world that never wants to or needs to explain itself. An alienating approach to cosmically strange nonsense and allegory is refreshing. The world is palpable, striking that fine line between grotesque, beautiful, and obvious artifice. There are living joints to smoke, guns named after prestige fashion brands (Gucci rifles for example), new cultural norms for body hair, a phantom third eye on the vulva, and plenty more oddities thrown into a fully thought-out and developed world. It’s a vibe piece. You’ll know fast if it’s your taste or not. I won’t mince words, this veers into stereotypical arthouse-y fare – pretentious to some, brilliant to others, and indifferent to the rest. The slow pace and strange aura in this meandering mother-daughter psychic march to kill Kate Bush could easily turn some off. There are no action set pieces. At times, too much is happening while seemingly nothing happens. Describing my feelings on this is moot to a point. This is closer to an art exhibition at times than a “normal” film. After Blue demands to be experienced over
The blu-ray from Altered Innocence via Vinegar Syndrome has decent bonus features including a short film, Return of Tragedy, starring the couple David Patrick Kelley and Juliana Francis. This also features a character named Kate Bush. The short film has the same vibe as After Blue, an endless loop of the same scenes but ever-changing variations on the same premise. It’s more grounded, but that isn’t saying much, frankly. The other features include unused footage, the trailer, and there’s a booklet with an interview with the writer/director Bertrand Mandico. All in all, the whole set is good and has enough extra stuff to dig into. I’m glad I took the risk. The journey of After Blue: Dirty Paradise is hypnotic and soothing for me. If this sounds like your jam, by all means, take the chance.
From Brian Miller:
The Warrior And The Sorceress (1984) [Blu-Ray reissue on Scream Factory]
There are no answers to questions concerning what defines a genre. Debates of thriller vs horror are childish; a place for pop culture fans to pretend to be intellectuals. These are not scientific terms and, like so much about art, just words that reflect how one feels about something. The Warrior And The Sorceress offers no scares, and in that sense, does not feel like horror. Yet, the inclusion of so many monsters in this readily recycled Corman fantasy flick gives it the flavor of horror aesthetics that sets it apart from its many clone siblings. So the almost choreographed swords swing freely among scantily clad ladies as expected, with a small, but defining element of cool-looking beasts. Those looking for simple pleasures will find them here. Let the “It’s a Creature Feature” cringe debates begin.
Mutant Hunt (1987) [Blu-Ray reissue on Vinegar Syndrome]
Scanners proved that a movie can be famous for just a head exploding, even if the screen time on it is minuscule. In suit, Mutant Hunt is the movie famous for an arm stretching. Does that sound like a lame flex? Well, that is because it kinda is. Yet, any kid that visited mom-and-pop video shops in the ’80s will at least know this movie from the famous arm stretch on the cover art. And those hoping to see an arm stretch really far will get to see that in this film. One will also get to see some craft store future dystopia settings and mild mutants, so this isn’t a one-trick pony (a pony that stretches its arm really far). On the other hand, it moves like molasses. On mute in the background at a party though, it could easily inspire a lot of wonder as eye candy. Especially when an arm stretches really far.
Human Lanterns (1982) [Blu-Ray issue on 88 Films]
The balance of martial arts and distinctly ’80s B-horror elements in Human Lanterns is exquisite, and sadly the mixed public reaction to Malignant shows that this combination is still far ahead of its time. Those ready for the future though should absolutely embrace this piece of the past. The slasher killer’s mask is up there with the greats and he moves like a spider (spooky!). There is plenty of skinning people alive and of course, wonderful Shaw Bros-style fights. The craft is perfect on all levels resulting in a popcorn flick that should be in the Louvre. God bless entertainment, our only human right.
BARBARIAN (2022) [ADDED TO HBO MAX, STILL IN THEATERS]
I caught this one when it opened theatrically, and I’ll tell you I’m super excited to see it hit a larger audience in streaming this month. Absolutely one of my favorite films of this year, regardless of genre, Barbarian is sleek, suspenseful, scary, funny, nuanced, and honestly, brilliant. Zach Cregger might be runner-up in the “sketch comedian-turned-horror director” race, but his debut absolutely deserves all the attention we can give it. Supported by ace performances from all three main actors (Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgard, and Justin Long), this script is so smartly bananas, tackling an array of social issues, myths, and urban legends, and helps us reform how we think of both monsters and men alike (and how they relate to each other). It’s the whiplash story progression that makes Barbarian so unique; there is not one single moment that the audience can expect coming. The film’s second half is what puts it into crazy action territory, with gore and grue and intense stunts all happening in both claustrophobic and acrophobic settings, both triggering innate fears most humans have whether we want to admit it or not. Cregger already seems to have such a professional and artistic handle on chaotic evil filmmaking that he’s set a high bar for whatever he does next.
DEADSTREAM (2022) [NEW ON SHUDDER]
What starts as another seemingly insufferable take on insufferable social media influencers turns into an imaginative DIY haunted nightmare when you give it the benefit of the doubt. Deadstream takes the found footage concept/genre into another depth with the conceit of a live-stream video happening in real-time. It’s the old story of guy-spends-the-night-in-a-haunted-house-for-a-gimmick, this time as a “comeback” for a socially canceled livestreamer. It turns out pretty slick-looking for a low-budget ghost story, and even though the special effects makeup borders on amateurish, it reads more as charming than ineffective. There’s some great editing going on too, as the film transitions between multiple video sources, several of which include gags of running away from ghouls and jumping out windows and such. If you enjoyed the final segment of V/H/S/99, you might really dig this one, as it’s from the same writer/director team.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, “GRAVEYARD RATS” (2022) [NEW SERIES ON NETFLIX]
Hype surrounds Cabinet of Curiosities probably more than any new series release of the season, but that is to be expected from a name like Guillermo Del Toro. An anthology collection of horror stories in the vein of The Twilight Zone, Cabinet is actually the closest we’ve gotten to a real descendent of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking series in both tone and quality. “Graveyard Rats” is the second episode, written and directed by Canadian cult filmmaker Vincenzo Natali (Cube), and starring the wonderfully quirky David Hewlett. Featuring some real outside-the-box engineering and spectacular creature effects, “Graveyard Rats” is at once charming and creepy. Hewlett plays a desperate 19th-century grave robber who gets in way over his head when trying to pay back gambling debts. We’ll stop there so as not to spoil anything, but please know what ensues is unconventionally thrilling, freaky, and so very disgusting, with a pace that doesn’t let up until the very end. Definitely a highlight of the series.
BLADE OF THE 47 RONIN (2022) [NEW ON NETFLIX]
This direct-to-streaming movie has won the prize for Worst “Sequel in Name Only” Film this year, as it pretends to have anything at all to do with the 2013 Keanu Reeves supernatural action period piece 47 Ronin. Now, it’s okay if a film does this from time to time (the mostly enjoyable Beyond the Door horror series comes to mind) but this one is simply too egregious of an example to get over. A sequel that takes place hundreds of years after the original, fine. A sequel that has no returning characters or even nods to them, fine. A sequel that abandons all tone and careful formula of the original? Highly disappointing. Of course this is a “let’s just slap this name on it” situation. But we go in expecting something with spooky monsters and fantastic mysticism along with cool action set pieces, and what we get is barely any of the supernatural element and fight sequences that go through the motions at best. The performers act like they’ve been directed to aim for their opponents’ swords rather than their opponents themselves. What it translates to is a big yawn, despite the “samurai chic” costuming and eye candy backdrops. Skip this one, trust me.
SLAYERS (2022) [VIDEO ON DEMAND]
We’ve been in the era of online culture for long enough that filmmakers have decided it would be great for their protagonists to be online one hundred percent of the time: streaming content, obsessed with viewership and follower rank, and having little to no self-awareness. Scream 4, Spree, and countless others have utilized the premise of perpetual online life to varying degrees of success. Hell, this is the second movie on this list with that premise. Slayers attempts to do the same with an influencer cohort that is manipulated by the lead, or rather, glorified cameo, of Thomas Jane as a man seeking revenge for his teenage daughter killed by vampires. Slayers, however, fails on so many levels: the action sequences are shallow, the protagonists are unbearable, and the editing style tries to be slick and snazzy yet comes off as nauseatingly try-hard. (Neveldine & Taylor and Joseph Kahn are the only directors who are able to really pull off this style of kinetic schizoid editing.) Slayers might be trying to emulate the irregularity of online life, but this time “taking it up a notch” does not work. This film is just straight-up obnoxious, posing the question of how can an audience get behind a group of heroes when they’re not in any way heroic? Anti-heroes at least have a degree of righteousness, but these influencers-turned-vampire hunters remain detestably vapid throughout. Which of course is a commentary on influencer culture, but what the filmmakers are forgetting is in order to make a satire, something first has to be funny.
FROM JUSTIN HARLAN:
DEATH PROOF (2007) [STREAMING]
Currently streaming on The ROKU Channel for free and both FUBO and Showtime for subscribers, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is among my favorite of the heralded director’s filmography. On first watch, I was easily able to shrug it off, but with each future watch, I began to love it more and more. The cast, the action-packed chases, the witty dialog, and the exploitation throwback feel all contribute to it being a truly fun watch that still seemingly improves with every repeated viewing to this day.
While QT often dabbles in the horror pool, his films are always genre mashups and some horror enthusiasts lament this. While horror is almost certainly my favorite film genre, my favorites often infuse multiple other genres like action, sci-fi, and comedy. In the case of this film, it’s probably best described as a throwback exploitation film with inspirations from both classic and modern action and horror tropes. This, for me, is a potent and delightful blend.
If you’ve never seen it, the film stars Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike,” who is essentially a charismatic slasher villain with his deadly stunt car as his weapon of choice. The film is divided into two major segments, each with a different set of badass women that he has his sights set on. While he mostly has his way with one group, the other invokes the spirit of the protagonists of Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and fights back.
“Who is victorious in this battle?” you ask. You’ll need to watch to find out. And for a truly good time, watch it paired with its original theatrical partner, Robert Rodriguez’s b-movie zombie gem Planet Terror, also on Showtime or FUBO (but sadly not free on ROKU).
Check out the 2021 HAUNTED HOUSE ROUND-UP here!