Anyone who follows enough film fans on Twitter will know the fondness of horror hounds for October-long marathons of all the genre has to offer. It may be coming right toward the end of the month, but it seems VOD is eager to get in on the game, this week’s greatest influx that of Italian horror legend and arguable giallo inventor Mario Bava. First coming to rise with 1960’s Black Sunday—originally slated for Netflix release this week, but pulled courtesy of an embarrassing mix-up with John Frankenheimer’s film of the same name—Bava went on to direct many films in the horror genre and others. The other major constituent element of this week’s crop is recent releases, none of them great, but several at least worthy of attention. Make them last: This Week On Demand takes a minor hiatus next week; we’ll be back with a typical bumper first-of-the-month update on November 4th.
Easily the most rampantly chaotic of the director’s films to arrive this week, Bava’s Bay of Blood begins with the gruesome murder of a wealthy countess before embarking upon the relentless mayhem of sanguine flows as a large cast each attempt to kill absolutely everyone else to ensure their inheritance of the deceased’s considerable fortune. Brandishing the sort of audacious bloodshed for which giallo has since become primarily known, and offering an obvious inspiration to the wave of American slasher films that would emerge a decade down the line, Bava’s film is an all-but essential gorefest, his distinctive creepy atmospheres here traded for the effect of crimson tides, a style with which he proves himself just as skilled. The focus on trend-setting death detracts from any sense of character identification, not much of a problem, but nevertheless one which makes keeping up with who’s decapitated whom a bit of a task. RECOMMENDED.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow up to his 2006 success with the infamous Borat continues with much the same brand of brash, boyish humour, combining the aesthetic of hidden camera TV show with a ludicrously satirical caricature in the form of Bruno. Inevitably attempting to upstage himself, Baron Cohen makes a hideous mess of things almost immediately, the strained farce that forms his register just painful in the extent of its childishness. Hardly functional as satire—its provocative moments consist of saying rude things and filming reactions, hilarity incarnate—Bruno is left to play on gay stereotypes and racial quips, none of which ever raise more than the mutest of titters. It’s the kind of film that thinks the height of comedy is the sexual harassment of somebody’s grandfather, and that simply indulging in stereotypes qualifies as pointed satire thereof. It’s not, and it doesn’t. Not even for one of these achingly drawn-out, comically vapid moments. AVOID IT.
A sumptuous musical romance as passionate in its representation of Cuban jazz as in the relationship of its main characters, Chico and Rita earned a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this year. The detail of Fernando Trueba and Javier Marascal’s in recreating 1960s Havana is jaw-dropping, bringing the city to vibrant life on-screen through extensive archival material and gorgeously rendered traditional animation. Yet even for all the energy of the music, the romance, and the pace of contemporary life, there’s an overriding sadness to the film, a bitterly true sense of cruel fate keeping apart lovers who seem obvious for each other. Trueba and Marascal portray their lives together and apart with heart-wrenching honesty, the all-too fleeting moments of passion surprising in their sexiness. Despite a certain conventionality to the structure that withholds the level of greatness that might arrive from a more unforeseeable story, Chico and Rita excels as a beautiful fusion of culture and love. RECOMMENDED.
It may be time for even the most devout and forgiving of film fans to acknowledge that the Robert De Niro we once knew and loved, once looked upon as among the greatest actors to ever live, is no long gone. To work with 50 Cent is bad enough for the two-time Oscar winner; to do so a second time—not to mention in a film that makes Righteous Kill look like The Godfather—is an atrocity. Freelancers is a film so bad that even De Niro, whose constant there-for-the-money jobs still sport decent performances, is sucked into its dense black hole of badness, his entire time onscreen spent snarling, smiling, and shouting in the most abrasively irritating manner. Nothing more than a distressing and morally infantile vanity project for its star, it’s a film without a single merit to offer, the direction as flat as the writing, the characters about as far from sympathy as those that portray them. UNWATCHABLE.
At once fascinating and frustrating, Nina Conti’s immensely personal ventriloquism documentary offers an intriguing insider portrait of an art commonly looked down upon. Based around the comedian’s journey to “Venthaven” to inter a doll of recently deceased mentor Ken Campbell, Her Master’s Voice also doubles as Conti’s rigorous process of self-reflection, the physical journey as much a mental one where she must come to terms with her path in life and the decisions she has made. Not an unlikeable screen presence, Conti maintains the attention adequately throughout, the brief excerpts from her act amusing and her overview of her art consistently interesting. Where the trouble arrives is in the intentions of the piece; heartfelt though it is, this is a curiously self-indulgent work, an impassioned cry for attention that often stoops to embarrassing levels in its search for profundity. Tonally aggravating as it is, Her Master’s Voice is an entertaining mess, a personal look at a personal matter. WORTH WATCHING.
Certainly counted more among his group of films where atmosphere and intensity take precedence, Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill! makes a minor excursion into the supernatural, its plot along the way encountering a witch who attempts to help cure the curse which besets a small village. Eerily strange throughout, the film is most notable for its terrifying ghost child, Bava’s haunting mastery of an all-too-often misused genre trope lending his film exactly the right touch it needs to be elevated above the campy tone it otherwise maintains. The harrowing image of frozen youth aside, Kill, Baby… Kill! has no great deal to offer, its story otherwise one of standard structure and outcome. Even with tales quite this stilted we see Bava’s talents; it’s not hard to see what might come next, and yet all the time we remain fixated on the screen, our attention grasped firmly in the palm of a genre master. WORTH WATCHING.
Sadly, it seems, Bava had limited success outside of his established genre; Knives of the Avenger sees the director turn to Viking warfare, this the story of feuding kings, pious maidens, and children of uncertain father. While certainly a good deal from being a bad film, it’s not nearly as interesting as even the dullest of Bava’s horrors, his consistent gift for the creation of oppressive atmospheres here all but useless. The sprawling story, concerned with rivalling warlords with personal vendettas to add to their land issues, is tough enough to follow in its own right, even more so when combined with the host of forgettable characters between whom it all happens. Only truly remarkable in a small host of battle scenes, where the director’s blissful penchant for striking gore makes itself known, is Knives of the Avenger ever anything more than a plainly tolerable Viking tale. SO-SO.
Easily the strangest, most surreal of Bava’s output to arrive on demand this week, Lisa and the Devil casts Telly Savalas as Satan himself… or does it? The devilish vibes of his mysterious character send the terrified Lisa fleeing after she loses her way in Toledo, eventually winding up in a carriage headed toward a decrepit mansion where the Lucifer lookalike serves as butler. Eventually incorporating everything from suggestions of necrophilia to Oedipal desires, Lisa and the Devil is just a plainly weird movie, its oddity often as alienating as it is enthralling. As creepy as Bava’s best, it’s an effective work of horror, complete with one of the most amusingly strange ending among his oeuvre. Also available to watch is The House of Exorcism, the American recut of the film, hammily restructured as an exorcism movie to capitalise on the popularity of The Exorcist. It’s reputed to be as dreadful as it sounds. WORTH WATCHING.
Its title boldly and categorically promising to throw back the curtains on the sexual life of the constituent unit of French society, Sexual Chronicles of a French Family pulls no punches in its attempts to meet this aim, the frank approach of directors Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr seeing each member of the cast variously stripped of all attire and thrust into the throes of passionate embrace. Only it’s never terribly passionate, the entire point of the piece that the sexual side of our lives is generally just as banal as the rest, and so a perfectly natural and healthy topic for family discussion. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one Arnold and Barr deliver with a light touch of comedy, yet one restrained by the sheer boredom of so many tastefully shot sex scenes. The film’s problem is that its point, though well-argued, is made within the first five minutes, leaving the remaining seventy seeming little more than pretty but pointless porn. SO-SO.
“The most provocative filmmaker in the world” is the quote exalted on all promotional material for Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador, the journalist’s undercover voyage into the depths of African political corruption and widespread diplomatic abuse of human rights, and it’s in a sense this very provocativeness which holds the film back from ever reaching its full potential. A story ripe with important human drama and genuine horror is chiefly exploited by Brügger for self-serving comedy, he always the centre of attention rather than the pertinent issues he ostensibly aims to cover. It’s at least fortunate that the comedy is very funny, and despite its flaws as a work of investigative journalism The Ambassador thrives on its wry ability to mix entertainment value and enlightenment. Brügger may misstep in making himself far more the subject of his film than any of the exploited natives, cheapening the value in the process, but it’s at least a fun piece of work throughout. RECOMMENDED.
Widely considered as the first giallo film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much sees Bava’s uncanny ability for tonal horror at its best, the foreboding strangeness of the film beautifully represented in the dark shadows of its black and white aesthetic. Following a vacationing young American woman whose ill aunt dies on the first night of her visit, it’s a consistently creepy experience that boasts its director’s considerably talents at a still-early stage. Be it the allure of the monochrome across her face or the impressive performance of Leticia Roman, Nora stands as one of the more interesting of the director’s characters, a strong and sympathetic woman. Though the motivations and methodology of the killer devalue the film to an extent with their silliness—Bava himself dismissed the story as trite and instead focused on perfecting the visual elements—The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a hugely effective work, almost claustrophobically eerie even despite its narrative drawbacks. RECOMMENDED.
It’s been a busy year for Ethan Hawke, his terrific performance in Sinister doing a great deal to gloss over the wider flaws at work in the plot, his top-secret scripting and shooting of one of the most anticipated forthcoming films earning him and his co-workers much respect in an age where nothing remains long under wraps anymore. The Woman in the Fifth is undoubtedly the low part of his 2012, its staid drama and stilted thrills leaving him traipsing about the alleys of Paris speaking French very poorly and occasionally consorting with Kristin Scott Thomas for a steamy affair. Pawel Pawlowski’s film is reasonably well-directed, it’s just so fixated on drawing the audience in to its mysteries that it forgets to ever make them all that interesting in the first place. Playing a struggling writer, as ever, Hawke is fine but little more, the role never strong enough to allow his talents the room to express themselves. SO-SO.