Enough with the preamble. It’s been a heck of a week, so let’s talk about some movies.
February is WOMEN IN HORROR MONTH, which means it’s high time to celebrate some of the (thankfully) increasing number of female directors, writers, cinematographers and producers who are continually perking up a genre that can easily fall into the trap of being same-y. I’ve always been a big booster of the W-I-H campaign, and have tried to showcase the wide variety of female talents that surround low-budget and no-budget filmmaking. As with all genres, women remain shockingly underrepresented. So, if you’re a woman who has a movie they want reviewed.. let’s have it!
Anyway, this time I’m starting with Christina Raia’s slasher/thriller/mystery film SUMMIT, which comes to us thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign way back in 2012. IMDB has also deemed to label it as a “comedy”, but NOPE. Another miss, IMDB! It’s actually a fairly sedate take on the FIVE-FRIENDS-IN-SECLUDED-LOCATION formula, except with a smaller body count and plenty of slow – though still oddly fast – psychological breakdowns.
A plot summary is really simple. Five friends – three guys and two girls – head out for a ski-lodge vacation, but their GPS ends up taking them to a secluded (and, apparently, abandoned) cabin. Low on food, water and cell phone coverage, tempers flare amongst the group as they struggle to reach the outside world, with things coming to a head when one of them ends up dead. Sounds pretty standard, right? Sounds a bit like COLD PREY, or any one of a dozen other slasher movies.
Except it’s really not. For one, the first death doesn’t occur until about 3/4 through the movie. Up till then there’s lots (and lots) of driving, some tense explorations of the abandoned cabin (that never really pays off) and a good dollop of character development which will (sorta) pay off once fingers start being pointed in the last ten minutes. Viewer patience will be rewarded, but those expecting a slaughterfest might find themselves getting irritated with the slow build.
Obviously, a film which requires us to spend so much time with its cast lives and dies by the quality of its acting, and thankfully SUMMIT has collected a fine group of performers to carry the load. The best of the bunch is Ricardo Manigat as the fun-loving, but ultimately pragmatic, James. His calmheadedness makes him a good counterpoint to Rob Ceriello’s fiery — and potentially abusive — Sean. Sadly, that leaves Ryan Kramer — who also produced — as the weak link on the male side. He seems to struggle with wrapping his lips around the dialogue, and edges towards spoiling some of the climactic moments. Both of the featured women are terrific, with Lauren A. Kennedy standing out in what could have easily been a thankless role.
Despite a low-budget, Raia (and cinemtographer John L. Murphy) make great use of color — and lack thereof — and do a quality job as showcasing the remote, snowy landscapes which surround our protagonists. Tension builds slowly, but reaches a fever pitch once shit starts going down. The eventual murder is bloody, tragic, and unexpected, and the interplay between the characters up to that point is realistic and relatable. Right from the start, this is obviously a more polished production than most similarly budgeted efforts.
Sadly, the ending is a bit troublesome. A couple of days without food leading to a complete, Jack-Nicholson-In-THE–SHINING mental breakdown (even with hints leading up to it) is pretty hard to swallow, and the choices made in this sequence – and the eventual reveal of who is responsible – feels unbelievable and, essentially, unearned. For being a rare film where characters generally act responsibly and sensibly, it’s too easy to feel Raia (who also wrote) pulling the strings in the final few minutes.
Despite not sticking the landing, SUMMIT remains a tense, well-structured whodunnit which deftly sidles up to genre cliches while still cleverly avoiding them. The set-up may be familiar, but quality acting and some interesting twists keeps the tension mounting, and I found myself engaged right up to the final scene. A nailbiter.
Want to sheck out SUMMIT? It’s available to watch via Vimeo on-demand right here.
PUZZLE (aka L’uomo senza memoria) (1974/Italy)
Duccio Tessari may not have the profile of Italian directors like Martino, Fulci, Argento or Bava, but like them he paid his dues with peplum films (Colossus and the Amazons, Hercules in the Haunted World), spaghetti westerns (A Pistol for Ringo), and Bond rip-offs (Dick Smart 2007) before moving on to stylish giallo crime thrillers in the 1970s. PUZZLE (L’uomo senza memoria) may not stack against the very best of the genre, but it’s a tense, wonderfully plotted (by the great Ernesto Gastaldi) mystery that manages to squeak out a few moments of genuine tension while maintaining a surprisingly small body count.
As with many of the best gialli, PUZZLE deals explicitly with the idea of memory, and specifically about a detail (or set of details) that – once recalled – will reveal the wider plot. Here we have the bland Luc Merenda as Ted; an amnesiac struggling to remember the person he was, who narrowly misses a sniper’s bullet while getting treatment in London. Discovering a previously unknown marriage, Ted heads to Italy and meets up with his beau Sara (the lovely Senta Berger), who has partially moved on since Ted’s disappearance nine months earlier; spending most of her time with sports doctor Daniel (Umberto Orsini). There are continual hints that Ted was involved in some very shady business pre-accident, particularly the presence of snot-nosed criminal George (Bruno Corazzari), who threatens to kill Ted if he doesn’t come up with.. get this.. heroin packed into sausage casings! Will Ted’s memory return before his number is up, or is his amnesia just part of another big con?
Not as stylistically inventive as similarly themed efforts of the time, PUZZLE succeeds thanks to a tight script that doesn’t show its hand too early, as well as an absolutely terrific Hitcockian climax involving heroin, a leg cast, and — eventually — a chainsaw. It’s a beautifully tense sequence, and one that showcases the Berger at her very best. She’s the heart and soul of the film, and remains competent and sympathetic even while the viewer becomes increasingly suspicious of Ted and his motivations.
Some might find the pacing a bit sedate, but Tessari maintains the tension expertly, and not even a REALLY annoying child performance can distract for long. Not every grat giallo requires lurid murder scenes, black-gloved killers and pounding prog rock soundtracks. Sometimes you just need a good murder mystery with a bit of razorblade slashing and a great climax. PUZZLE might not reach the dizzying heights of DEEP RED or BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, but it’s a worthwhile, smarly plotted entry in a genre that too-often relies on style over substance.
.357 MAGNUM (1977/USA)
After 1975’s CRIMINALLY INSANE/CRAZY FAT ETHEL proved that Nick Millard could do more than peddle quality smut, he returned with his own unique take on the action/revenge genre with 1977’s .357 MAGNUM — which manages to be exactly what you would expect a Nick Millard-directed action movie to look like. That means tight (TIGHT!) framing, a ludicrious plot and lashings of the old ultraviolence (and sexy sex!) that go by so quickly it’s awfully hard to make out what’s going on.
What’s going on is REVENGE! Specifically, the revenge of James Bond-ish globe-trotting secret agent Jonathan Hightower, who – along with crackshot pal Steve — are set up to take the fall for SOMETHING because of REASONS. But first they have to shoot cans, trees, silver dollar and each other (?!) with the titular .357 Magnum. Steve is also on the trail of a chinstrap-sporting hired goon who gets to walk around Japan, China, and San Francisco before encountering his long-deserved comeuppance. There’s also a six minute scene of vibrator fellatio that happens in the final ten minutes! Nick, you scamp!
Acting is, of course, awful. Direction is… uh… servicable. You might think a porno movie is about to start at any random point, but it never does — though the dildo bit skirts the line. Most of the dialogue is shot in rapid fire close-up, with the actor’s mouths often cut off by the frame, likely to help with the omnipresent post-dubbing. There’s lots of gunplay – and some truly unique gun handling — but often it’s hard to undestand who is getting shot, where they are getting shot or why they are getting shot.
It’s all wonderfully ludicrous, of course, and despite looking, sounding and being absolutely awful, it has a unique, shaggy dog charm that gets you to the finish line in one piece. It’s basically an American version of one of those Turkish films discussed last week, with the same stilted action and choppy editing. In fact, you could toss TURKISH JAMES BOND onto the title screen and nobody would bat an eye. Far from high art, but Jesus.. what were you expecting?