Human Factors (2021)

Nina and Jan (Sabine Timoteo and Mark Washcke) own an ad agency together and trust me, that brings nothing but stress, particularly with the politically active client they just got hired by.  To escape getting burned out, they take their kids Max and Emma (Wanja Valentin Kube and Jule Hermann) to their seaside vacation retreat, a place that usually offers relaxation but a home invasion makes things way worse and they may not get better.

Beyond just seeing the incident once, we see it from every member of the family, as well as discover the tensions behind the client that Jan didn’t tell Nina about. Max may only be concerned with his pet rat Zorro, but his sister Emma is devastated by the event, which may not have impacted other members of this not-so-tight family unit in the same way.

Director and writer Ronny Trocker has created an interesting movie here that forces you to examine a very simple moment through its very complicated characters. It’s definitely worth your time to track this down.

Human Factors is available on digital from Dark Star Pictures.

Dashcam (2021)

I’m a fan of Giant Drag and Annie Hardy, the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. She’s known for the explicit lyrics in her songs and battling hecklers on stage, which really ties into how she acts in Dashcam, a movie that has her on-screen and livestreaming for most of the movie. As she deals with the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been riding around downtown Los Angeles and singing and rapping on her stream. She decides to go to London to visit her old bandmate Stretch and instantly enrages his girlfriend and makes his food delivery job a nightmare.

Then she steals his car and phone.

That’s when she meets Angela, an old woman followed by someone trying to kill her who offers plenty of money to get her out of town.

That’s when things go wrong.

Directed by Rob Savage (Host), who co-wrote the script with Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd (who wrote Host), this is based on Hardy’s real life, as Band Car was a show that she did where she improvised songs while she drove based on what those in the chat room sent.

So while I’m a fan of Hardy’s music, I am not a fan of her in this movie, which finds her playing a MAGA anti-vaxxer in the broadest way possible when she isn’t freestyle rapping about shoving things into orifices. It feels either too easy or — if earnest — too insipid and too uninspired — the simplest form of shock comedy that has nuance in a burst and is absolutely and utterly grating at 77 minutes ending with a cute idea of her rapping the credits making this feel like it will never end. I’m worried that I’m going to wake up in a Jacob’s Ladder situation and it’ll still be halfway done.

I will never get the idea of doing found footage or streaming movies in the place of a traditional narrative but I lost that battle long ago.

Dashcam is available in select theaters and VOD from Blumhouse and Momentum Pictures.

The Voyeurs (2021)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.

Once upon a time, legendary director Brian DePalma essentially created the “erotic thriller.” The genre had its genesis in the giallo films of the 60s and 70s with obscure plotting, vicious murders, and sex, usually lots of all three of those things. DePalma’s transmogrification of giallo films into the new erotic thriller entailed keeping the almost explicit sex and extremely explicit violence but making the plots more transparent for mainstream audiences and adding a larger dash of comedy, as well as his trademark movie craftsmanship. DePalma is an amazing director. Who else invented an entire genre, other than perhaps George Romero and the zombie film? 

After DePalma’s seminal Dressed to Kill, other less talented folks with less money seized upon the notion of making cheap erotic thrillers. These films, mostly direct-to-video items, were a mainstay of pay services like Cinemax throughout the 80s. Cinephiles who saw names like director Gregory Dark and exploitation movie queen Shannon Tweed on the VHS box or in the Cinemax After Dark listings, knew exactly what they were getting: good looking people mixed up in a blackmail/serial killer/murder-for-love plot punctuated by gauzy softcore couplings accompanied by mist and saxophone riffs. It was a comfortable formula. 

Trashy erotic thrillers eventually lost their charm and fell out of favor, mostly do to the “been there, seen that” nature of these cookie-cutter efforts. But recently, the erotic thriller has returned with a vengeance with the dire Deep Water directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Ben Affleck and current “it” girl Ana de Armas. And then there’s the Amazon Studios film The Voyeurs, a new contender for the title of “most entertainingly trashy erotic thriller.”

After a credit sequence showing close-ups of eyes, scored to a cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” (this film’s anything but subtle), we meet Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria) and Justice Smith (Generation, Jurassic Park World: Fallen Kingdom), an impossibly attractive young couple, getting their impossibly expensive-looking first apartment together in an impossibly great location, downtown Montreal. As this is a film about these two becoming voyeurs by watching their impossibly good-looking neighbors who never, ever draw the blinds, Sweeney works as an optician. Naturally.

So far, so good. We’re playing by the rules of the genre. And as a bonus, this is all well-filmed, acted, and scored. We have a nice build up with some funny dialogue to a Cinemax After Dark version of Rear Window or DePalma’s Body Double with the couple’s spying some impossibly erotic sex in an apartment across the street and then becoming aroused themselves. Things get ramped up when the two manage to sneak a mirror into that apartment so that they can bounce a laser beam off the window and impossibly hear the other couple’s conversations. Then Sweeney sees something bad happen in the other apartment and is guilt-stricken about whether to tell the woman, who has become her friend by the near-impossible coincidence of buying glasses at Sweeney’s optical business.

If that’s not enough, this thing goes completely bat-shit, off-the-rails crazy with a huge plot twist that you’ll never see coming and is clever but impossible if you do any thinking about it. And yet there are more twists to come, including the use of a WiFi-enabled printer on a non-secure network to send messages.

Sweeney, for her part, carries the film even though she’s playing someone who makes so many sharp character turns, it’s like a stretch of the Pennsylvania turnpike. Writer-director Michael Mohan, who has written and directed mostly shorts, teases the viewer for about an hour with scenes moving toward unveiling Sweeney’s sexy body (described by one character as “magnificent”; I think so too) but then stopping just short. That’s even more suspenseful than the plot itself. After all that foreplay, the film finally lets loose with Sweeney in her undraped, uninhibited glory during a two-minute sex scene. (I can’t recall another mainstream film apart from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence that features so much cunnilingus.) Let’s just say that it’s a scene destined to become one of the most viewed clips on the Mr. Skin website.

But wait. There are more plot twists to come before the last one right before the end credits roll. By now, you’ll know exactly how I’d describe them. Impossible.

So does The Voyeurs breathe new life into the erotic thriller? Definitely. Clocking in at just under two hours, it’s a tad long (so many plot twists, so little time) but never boring. For my jaded, voyeuristic eyes, the film was a nice surprise. It’s impossibly preposterous at its core, but it’s played so straight-faced by the cast and crew that it’s almost endearing in its trashiness. Making an entertainingly trashy erotic thriller was not such an impossible task after all. Sometimes films just need to be ridiculously fun. The Voyeurs is all that and more.

They Talk (2021)

Alex (Jonathan Tufvesson) is a sound engineer who has accidentally recorded supernatural sounds while shooting a documentary. The voices that he’s captured may not sound human, but they are trying to warn him about someone or something, With a past filled with mystery and a future filled with dread, Alex is haunted by what he has found. Amanda (Rocío Muñoz) shared a past with Alex and a secret, and when she comes back into his life, she also brings numerous dead bodies. Is she the danger he’s been warned about?

Director Giorgio Bruno has put together a film that looks and sounds gorgeous, yet really doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before. That’s fine — it does have some genuinely wild kills, a bravura moment where a nun is lit ablaze and is way more professional than 99% of the movies you find streaming these days.

I’ve often discussed the sad fact that the Italian horror industry died off by the 90s, but if the films that come out of the country keep looking this good — and can start embracing the off the rails insanity that they once did instead of looking to Hollywood for what’s frightening — then perhaps a comeback can be discussed.

Until then, there are moments in this to enjoy.

They Talk (also They Talk to Me) is available on VOD and DVD from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Mascarpone (2021)

Antonio (Giancarlo Commare) thought he was going to be a family man for life, but then he’s dumped by his husband Lorenzo (Carlo Calderone ). Now he has no place to stay, no job and no purpose, but in the process of finding all of those things, he’ll discover what it means to be independent.

Directed by Matteo Pilati and Alessandro Guida, who wrote the script with Giuseppe Paternò Raddusa, who also is in the film, Mascarpone follows Antonio as he finds a roommate and friend in Denis (Eduardo Valdarnini) and a job in Luca’s (Gianmarco Saurino) bakery. He also discovers that the cooking that he did to feel love from his husband may mean even more. It could be his true calling in life, as long as he passes the rigors of pastry school (which is so much tougher than you’d think).

Re-entering the dating world after a lifetime away, finding your path and forging true relationships are universal themes that this movie explores. I enjoyed the time I spent with Antonio on his journey.

Mascarpone is availabel on VOD and DVD from Dark Star Pictures and Uncork’d Entertainment.

CALGARY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Sundown (2021)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joseph Perry writes for the film websites Gruesome Magazine, The Scariest Things, Horror Fuel and Diabolique Magazine; for the film magazines Phantom of the Movies’ VideoScope and Drive-In Asylum; and for the pop culture websites When It Was Cool and Uphill Both Ways. He is also one of the hosts of When It Was Cool’s exclusive Uphill Both Ways podcast and can occasionally be heard as a cohost on Gruesome Magazine’s Decades of Horror: The Classic Era podcast.

Some films are difficult to write spoiler-free reviews about, and then there is writer/director Michel Franco’s French/Mexican/Swedish coproduction Sundown, a genre-defying work that goes beyond being a textbook example of that and takes the concept to a whole ‘nother plane. If films that leave you with many questions to ponder long after the ending credits roll are your style — and they almost always are for yours truly — then Sundown is absolutely worth your time. 

As the film opens, we meet the Bennetts: Neil (Tim Roth), Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and older teens or young adults (their ages are never mentioned, one of the many puzzle pieces that Franco leaves for viewers to ponder) Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan) as they lounge around poolside at a luxury resort in a beach locale disclosed later in the film. Alice falls apart emotionally when she receives a phone call that her mother has died, and as the four family members rush to the airport, Neil can’t find his passport, and the youngsters lead a distraught Alice to the plane as Neil promises to catch the next flight.

I’ll let you know that Neil doesn’t make good on his promise, and leave the plot description at that. Sundown is a slow burn, focused mainly on Neil and his behavior after he parts with the other family members. Although the premise might not sound exciting from my description, it works magnificently as Roth puts on an absolute acting clinic as a low-key man who is an utter mystery. Franco sprinkles bread crumbs here and there and then sends the proceedings in wholly unexpected directions. One of the first major reveals of the film happens in an understated “Did I hear that correctly?!?” manner, and from there, sudden shocking jolts and subtle divulgences occur, adding to the enigmatic ongoings as clarifications usually only lead to more mystifying situations.

Franco has constructed a remarkable head-scratcher that demands constant attention. He is aided by a splendid cast, which also includes Iazua Larios as local shopkeeper Berenice and Henry Goodman as family attorney Richard. Sundown also boasts gorgeous cinematography by Yves Cape that captures both the beauty and dark side of its setting (again, revealing it here would be a spoiler). Franco and his film ask a lot of its viewers, but if you give yourself over to its decidedly unhurried telling, you may find that it makes a case for being one of the year’s best cinematic offerings.

Sundown screens as part of the 19th Calgary Underground Film Festival, which takes place April 21–May 1, 2022 both at Calgary’s Globe Cinema and streaming on demand online. For more information, visit https://www.calgaryundergroundfilm.org/.

Diabolik (2021)

This was a movie that I wasn’t certain I was ready to watch.

I’ve been outspoken about my adoration for Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik and I knew there was no way that any movie could live up to the artistry of that film.

But what if a film did something so few comic book movies do? What if it actually stayed true to the source material?

The Manetti Bros. started their careers making music videos before directing Zora the Vampire, a movie that wasn’t a great experience for them or anyone that’s seen the film. They rebounded with a movie set on an elevator, Floor 17, and L’ispettore Coliandro, a TV series based on the stories by Carlo Lucarelli (Almost Blue) that references crime and action movies of the 70s and 80s. That show lasted seven seasons and led to further success such as The Arrival of WangPaura 3D, the poliziotteschi comedy tribute Song’e Napule, the musical comedy Ammore e malavita and now, Diabolik.

Diabolik was created in 1962 by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani. Over 800 volumes, he and his partner Eva Kant have evolved from amoral supervillains out to swindle the town of Clerville to growing a code of honor and stealing from other criminals. He was raised on a secret island hideout of King, a crime boss, learning everything he needed to become the world’s greatest villain before killing his would-be father figure before he would be betrayed, taking his name from the black panther that that man had once killed. He doesn’t know his name or where he really comes from. He is only Diabolik. Only one man has a chance to stop him, the valiant, intelligent and incorruptible Inspector Ginko.

This film takes us back to a time when Diabolik (Luca Marinelli, They Call Me Jeeg) and Eva (Miss Italia 2008 Miriam Leone) knew each other, as he plans on stealing a ring from her, thinking she’s just another vapid heiress. After all, isn’t she dating deputy minister of justice Giorgio Caron (Alessandro Roja)? Using his ability to make life-like masks, Diabolik visits her hotel as his archenemy Ginko (Valerio Mastandrea). However, instead of taking from Eva, he becomes fascinated by her.

It turns out that Giorgio is an even worse criminal than Diabolik and he’s been blackmailing Eva, forcing her to date him. She soon falls for the master thief just as his girlfriend Elisabeth (Serena Rossi) discovers his secret hideout and sets him up for arrest by Ginko. A trial follows and Diabolik is sentenced to the guillotine (the judge is Mario Gomboli, author and chief editor of the Diabolik comic. He was one of the writers of the film, along with the Manettis and Michelangelo La Neve, who wrote the Dylan Dog comic, which Cemetery Man comes from).

That’s when Eva reveals that she’s just as resourceful as the black masked master criminal and the two put together a plan that takes out nearly all of their enemies while, at least, showing that even Diabolik has a code that he lives by.

Staying true to the third volume of the comic book, L’arresto di Diabolik (The Arrest of Diabolik), there’s a lot to like about this movie. The exterior scenes create a Clerville that is set in an unknown time, at once having modern technology and others showing a Eurospy sensibility with hidden rooms within brick walls and trees opening to create secret passages.

What doesn’t is the length of the film, taking over two hours to tell its story. Perhaps the explanations of the escapes could have been condensed or tweaked. There are times when you want this to become an action movie and it struggles in those moments.

That said, I came away liking the film, particularly Leone, who plays an Eva Kant who is just as capable as her lover. I do love the way the Manettis approached this film, however.

In an interview with Opentapes, Mario Gomboli said, “I understood that the Manettis could be the right choice when they told me: we don’t want to make a film about Diabolik, but the film about Diabolik. Diabolik is a character outside the box.” He also discussed how Eva had to be her own person, saying “I was inspired by the Giussani sisters: I dedicated all my work to them. They are the ones who created this woman who is a planet, she is not a satellite of a man, she is not at the service of any man.”

Supposedly there are two sequels already in post-production, so I’m excited to see what happens next. In fact, that was my exact thought as I watched this: I want to watch the same actors and creators make another one. That’s my scale for whether or not a movie works.

Hey — it was also nice to briefly see Demons actor Urbano Barberini in this! And I would have loved this even more if we’d had just a hint of “Deep Deep Down” play on the soundtrack.

One more piece of Diabolik trivia: Claudia Gerini, who plays Mrs. Morel in the film, has already appeared in the Diabolik universe. She was Eva Kant in the video for “Amore Impossibile” by Tiromancino, which was directed by Lamberto Bava. John Phillip Law in the video too!

LIONSGATE BLU RAY RELEASE: The Exorcism of God (2021)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally watched this movie on October 1, 2021. Now it’s available on blu ray+ digital and DVD from Lionsgate. 

Exorcism is in this year, if Fantastic Fest is any gauge of the pop culture zeitgeist. It totally is, right? Right.

Between ZalavaAgnes and this movie, I’ve seen plenty of demonic women uttering blasphemy, floating and spitting pea green soup. But hey — I’m also the guy who put together a list of ten movies that I might like more The Exorcist that rip off The Exorcist. Amityville II: The Possession? Enter the Devil? Alucarda? These are the films that I love.

But I have never seen a movie where a demon tries to exorcise God from the soul of a priest, so well done The Exorcism of God and director/co-writer Alejandro Hidalgo (The House at the End of Time).

The open of this film is the end of an exorcism, with Father Peter Williams (Will Beinbrink), going against the church to exorcise a woman. The demon inside her seduces and possesses him, leading to him committing a major sin, a moment of sexual congress ends up having been not consensual, despite the whole possession, and then the priest hides it for two decades as the rest of his small town nearly makes him a saint.

So yeah — it’s kind of hard to see a man who would take advantage of a woman during an exorcism as the hero. That said, this film has some intense imagery, like a possessed Jesus, that will keep the more pious of us up late into the evening.

I’d have also liked this a bit more if it could decide what film it wanted to be: a satire against the hypocrisy of organized religion or an effects-heavy bring out the green vomit horror movie. And hey — a lot of that green goo gets al lover Joseph Marcell, Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, who is really good in the short time he appears.

Look, a possession movie is like a bowl of ramen. I’ve had high-end bowls with butter bombs and organic infusions, fish head ramen at 5 AM in a Tokyo standing shop and all manner of 3-minute bowls and they’re all good. It’s ramen. I love ramen. And that’s kind of how I feel about this movie. It’s not the best bowl of ramen I’ve ever had, but I really enjoyed some of the new flavor that I found when I dug to the bottom — yeah, that demon making a priest renounce God scene is pretty great — and wish that that spice went through the whole dish.

But it still tastes fine.

APRIL MOVIE THON DAY 15: Benedetta (2021)

When Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary came out in 1985, the Catholic Church was so upset they talked about it in my little church in Ellwood City and I’d never heard of Goddard before, so thanks for using indignation to make me discover art. In fact, I’d already been turning to the films rated “O” by the Pittsburgh Catholic as films to hunt down, like Dawn of the DeadCarrie, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural and many, many more.

What does is say when Benedetta is beamed directly into my living room and presents a take on religion that seems to claim that it can exist hand in hand with sexuality and not a single protest happens? I demand more shock and upsetness!

Well, The American TFP — as well as other Catholic groups — did protest and it was banned in Singapore, but in the 80s, they would have been crying at the altar over this.

Benedetta Carlini was born into a family that seemingly led her into the life of Catholic mysticism, living a childhood filled with devil dogs that attacked her and nightingales — the symbol of carnal pleasure — singing at her command. Her family may have been too poor to pay the dowry — yes, Brides of Christ were literally brides then — and she finally joined a smaller ascetic order of sisters, where a statue was said to have fallen on her as she prayed to it.

In 1614, Benedetta’s life changed as she began to see visions of Jesus, who would battle snakes, scorpions and boars to protect her. The priests believed that she was either mentally ill, being consumed by demons or meeting the Divine, but leading to the former, even when she grew sick for two years and then had the visions return in 1617.

Now, instead of Jesus, she was being attacked by a handsome young man who attacked her with chains and swords, demanding that she leave the monastic life. These visions told her that the Church could not save her soul. A year later, as there was a parade through town, she went into a trance where Mary gave her two angels to guard her and she could see Saint Dorothy. Three months later, she received the Stigmata and as a result, she was one of the few women — if any to be honest — able to give sermons within the Catholic Church.

On March 21, 1619, one of the lead priests summoned Benedetta and told her: “Today is the day of St. Benedict, your saint’s day, go in ecstasy at your pleasure, I give you permission.” The next vision she recieved would be Jesus taking her heart and returning with a new one in three days for her. Nuns who felt her heart said that they could not detect it within her body. To maintain her pureness, Jesus ordered her not to eat meat, eggs and milk products and not to drink anything but water. And maintain her spiritual purity, the Son of Man assigned her a guardian angel, Splenditello, to let her know when she was sinning.

On May 27, 1619 — a Feast of the Holy Trinity — Benedetta claimed that she was married to Jesus himself, as others heard her speak in a different voice. Now, here’s where things get interesting. As stated before, women were to be kept silent at this time and most of all, quiet within the Catholic Church. By having these visions, she was able to have power, agency and voice.

She was investigated by the church multiple times, supposedly died and was resurrected, then was accused of being possessed. Her parents were also said to be demonically taken at some point in their lives and it was also claimed that she was avoiding the diet Jesus had given her by eating salami and Cremonese-style mortadella. More damaging was the discovery that she was causing her own spiritual cuts and wounds, as well as sleeping with a fellow nun, Bartolomea, acts that her guardian angel would say were not a sin.

No one is sure how Benedetta was punished, but the town of Pescia revered her even as she was kept within the convent for the rest of her life.

Basing his movie on Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown, director Paul Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke offer no easy answers. We do see the striking visions of Jesus that Benedetta is given, but it’s left to interpretation if what she sees is the madness of the divine. Virginie Efira is quite striking in the way that she can appear at once in charge and yet be pulled and pushed by the whims of God and man.

The director would not make this movie with the writer who started the project, Gerard Soeteman. He was not involved in the rewrites and filming of the movie due to his growing dissatisfaction with the director’s emphasis on sexual content. Soeteman saw Benedetta as being concerned with a woman’s struggle for power in a male-dominated world, but was disappointed by how Verhoeven had instead concentrated on making a nunsploitation movie.

I was intrigued by the stories of the other women in this movie, as Sister Felicita (Charlotte Rampling) has been the leader of the order with power that exists only inside the walls of their home. Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) has left an abusive family and sees in Bendetta a partner to change her life and feels left behind — and is permanently damaged as a result of their relationship — as her lover’s power changes her existence.

For a movie that has a budget of every nunspolitation movie ever made all added together, this stays somewhat classy —  I say that in full knowledge that a statue of Mary is carved into a phallus — and presents a world where its heroine can achieve both spiritual and carnal ecstasy. This idea remains incendiary two millenia after the church began. It’s also a film that dares to have a violent and sexually inviting image of Jesus, attacking snakes and inviting the young nun to disrobe and embrace Him as he’s nailed to the tree.

“Sometimes it makes me tremble.”

The Sacred Spirit (2021)

“Cosmic Pharaoh” José Manuel is a member of the ufology association Ovni-Levante (UFO-Raise), which meets weekly to exchange information about the latest messages from the stars and abductions down here on Earth. When their leader dies unexpectedly, José becomes humanity’s only hope, the keeper of a cosmic secret. Even more mysteriously, that knowledge ties in to the disappearance of José’s niece Vanessa from the town of Elche.

This movie packs in every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard — ancient aliens, organ harvesting, secret societies — and places them alongside the very human drama of growing up weird in a dysfunctional family in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Director and writer Chema García Ibarra has put together something quite strange here and that last image of the Sphinx — inflating as it brings the goofiness, the strange and the everyday together much like the rest of this film — is one that will stick with me for some time.

And that first scene, where Vanessa’s twin sister Verónica gives her class a speech about what devil worshippers look for when they kidnap children? It perfectly sums up the rest of the film, a story about how believers search for meaning and yet often miss the darkness gathering around them if it doesn’t fit the mythology they’ve created for themselves.

You can watch this movie first on the ARROW PLAYER. Head over to ARROW to start your 30-day free trial. Subscriptions are available for $4.99 monthly or $49.99 yearly. ARROW is available in the US, Canada, the UK and Ireland on the following Apps/devices: Roku (all Roku sticks, boxes, devices, etc), Apple TV & iOS devices, Android TV and mobile devices, Fire TV (all Amazon Fire TV Sticks, boxes, etc), and on all web browsers at https://www.arrow-player.com.