Starring Laim Cunningham, Stefania Rocca, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento
Directed by Dario Argento
I wonder what it’s like in Italy. In America, when John Carpenter (or hell, Woody Allen) releases a movie, everyone clambers up to the box office in hopes that maybe – just maybe – it’ll be another masterpiece. Critics couch their comments with phrases like, “Well, it’s not quite The Fog/Stardust Memories, but it’s His Best Work In Years.” Sadly, that’s hardly ever true anymore.
Is it like that in Italy when a new Dario Argento movie comes out?
Before it was shot, soon after Argento’s daugher – Asia – backed out of the lead role in Card Player, a friend of mine who knows all-things Argento told me that, sadly, Card Player‘s script was pretty awful and that they didn’t have much hope for the thing. I thought that was too bad as Argento’s non-supernatural cop pics always held a certain appeal for me. But then I went and saw the film and though it’s slightly better than Argento’s recent cop thriller Sleepless, it’s just not a good movie until it starts getting going about two-thirds of the way through the thing. But by then, you don’t care.
You remember that “Simpsons” episode where Stephen King (was it “Simpsons”?) started talking about doing a book about a “killer lamp” implying he had run out of ideas? Okay, so The Card Player is about online poker. One cannot help but imagine Argento sitting in a room somewhere in his Rome offices playing video poker and when somebody poked their head in asking him what his next movie would be about, he shrugged and said, “Online poker.” Yes, that’s a troubling thing to type, but wait until you see the movie.
The plot of the movie is this: Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca – an Italian doppelganger for Bjork) is a loner cop who is targeted – for no given reason – by a serial killer who sends her an e-mail one day with a photo of a recently kidnapped British tourist and the instructions that to save her life, she must play a game of poker with him online. If she wins, the girl lives. If she loses, each “hand” lost will result in “something” being cut off until finally the victim’s throat is cut. Anna alerts her boss, but he refuses to bow to blackmail. When the appointed time arrives and an online poker game launched, a small video window pops up as well so the police can view the victim, bound and gagged and inevitably screaming. After the police commissioner assumes the Card Player is bluffing, the woman is killed on screen and later recovered from a bog somewhere.
Naturally, the British send their own investigator in hard-drinking, hard-worded John Brennan (Dog Soldiers‘ Liam Cunningham who does fine here). Naturally, he and Anna are cut from the same cloth – two tough cops – and just as naturally, end up in bed and falling in love with each other as more victims are kidnapped by the black-gloved Card Player. On the second go-round, the police decide to play poker, but lose and another woman is killed. Determined to beat the Card Player at his own game, John and Anna hunt down a twenty-something kid who is a genius at online poker to play the Card Player in order to buy them more time (the cops have computer experts trying to trace the Card Player, but in true movie fashion, he’s a computer super-genius who has routed his line all over the world). The stakes are raised when the police commissioner’s own daughter – Lucia (Dario’s other daughter, Fiore Argento) – is kidnapped and suddenly, John and Anna have to turn up the heat to stop the psycho.
Okay, I have to say there is absolutely nothing new here. If this “plot” was done in America, it would be a straight-to-tape flick starring Dean Cain and Angie Everhart (and Malcolm McDowell as ‘The Card Player’). One of the things meant to increase the horror in the film is that when the online poker games are being played, the “victim” is sitting there in one corner of the screen screaming their heads off. After each victim does this and the games go on in semi-real time, you get to the point where it’s just comical. The poker game rolls on and there’s just this cacophonous siren next to it wailing and wailing and wailing. On top of that, compared to some of the more recent Argento films – particularly Trauma – there’s not even that shocking of gore scenes. In fact, there was only one death – a delightfully unexpected impaling – that kind of woke me out of the morass that the film had kind of lulled me into. But then the movie just kind of trundled forward to what was genuinely as laughable a conclusion as Clint Eastwood’s Jeff-Daniels-is-a-maniac-with-a-machine-gun in Blood Work.
It’s too bad that this movie went down this way, but as I mentioned as a first impression to someone else, it’s like some new filmmaker “doing” Dario Argento straight out of film school. You look at Cabin Fever and you see a clever, more realistic version of Evil Dead 2 on the screen and you think, “Hey, neat first film! Wonder what Eli Roth’ll do next.” But then imagine if somebody said, “Um…dude? Cabin Fever was directed by Sam Raimi.” You’d be like, “Oh. Ouch.” That’s kind of like Card Player. There’s a scene where you see black gloves coming out in front of the camera “to strangle!!!” and you’re like, “Heh – go get ’em!” but then you remember, this is Argento referencing Argento. The Card Player’s weapon? A box cutter that’s used to slit peoples’ throats on screen (uncomfortable shades of Daniel Pearl and the 9/11 kidnappings flashed through my head). The Card Player’s lair? An old shack somewhere in Rome. In the days post-Seven where serial killer movies are so played out, this is three steps back.
At the end of the day, I didn’t hate The Card Player, I just didn’t care. The only reason I went to see it was because I grew up on Dario Argento movies, consider him to be one of the absolute greats and will always wait and hope that his “next one” will be a return to form the way horror fans still go see John Carpenter movies. But when you have a movie this cookie-cutter – where a killer uses an incredibly silly way to toy with the police and the equally silly police then decide, “Oh, he likes living on the edge – let’s try to track down people who have been involved in games of Russian Roulette or other extreme games!” and it works – it just makes you feel that Argento has run out of gas even further. The Card Player is a mere shadow of what Argento once accomplished with his great audacious horror films and crime thrillers. What separates this film with the kind of Ashley Judd-starring thrillers Paramount is in the business of making is not that much, sadly, which is a depressing thing to say. There’s really not that much to recommend The Card Player.
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Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Yafit Shalev as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!
Starring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman
Directed by B.D. Benedikt
Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision
Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.
Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.
Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.
The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.
Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.
The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.
There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.
“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.
“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
- Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
- The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.
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