A Third Stupid Time Mining the Seagal Seam…

What a long, strange trip Steven Seagal has taken. As mainstream stardom has left him further and further behind, Seagal has crept deeper and deeper into the extremely dubious bosom of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In between commissioning ghostwriters to write incoherent takedowns of Obama-era immigration policies in his name, Seagal has largely become infamous for bizarre Russian propaganda in which various Aikido students do energetic flips to trick people into thinking Seagal is tossing them about because they know if they don’t they’ll get a bullet in the back of the head. What Putin gets out of stroking the ego of this increasingly strange man with an increasingly dubious #MeToo record, I have no idea.

Similarly, I have no idea why I’m back reviewing more Seagal movies, save that there’s a certain horrible fascination in watching them these days. In my first and second articles on the man’s work, way back in Ferretbrain times, I more or less exhausted all his work which saw an actual cinematic release; this article is less systematic than those and is more of a grab-bag of some of his straight-to-DVD work. Watching these movies gently fail in front of you creates an experience which is deeply uncomfortable but also is difficult to look away from – like witnessing a slow-motion car crash, except most of these movies don’t have budgets that allow for really exciting car crashes.

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 1: The First Step Into the Shadows

So, we’re dealing with an iconic 1990s TV series here, in the pilot episode of which (Pilot) we have a young woman showing up dead on the outskirts of a small woodland town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. Thanks to parallels with a number of deaths elsewhere, the FBI become involved, represented in part by a handsome agent who reveals slightly eccentric habits and even more eccentric beliefs. The death turns out to be part of a web of local intrigue that belies the bucolic charm of the town, and there’s frequent hints than higher powers are involved in all this.

This is not, despite all of the above, Twin Peaks; instead we’re dealing with the start of The X-Files, lovingly crafted by Chris Carter, though he’s letting his Peaks fan flag fly here. The first episode sets the formula for most of the series’ “mythology” episodes: Mulder and Scully zoot about uncovering evidence of creepy alien activity, Mulder buys into the supernatural interpretation of events, Scully resists it but increasingly finds herself coming around to Mulder’s point of view step by baby step, they discover some incontrovertible evidence that something outright fuckabooie is going on but the sinister government conspiracy as represented by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) manages to destroy the evidence yet again.

That’s a formula we’ll see repeated over and over during the run of the series, with incremental bits of additional motifs and recurring thingamuffins creeping in here and there to give the impression that we’re getting somewhere, but a quarter-century later and we all know goddamn well that it isn’t really going anywhere impressive – and with Gillian Anderson comprehensively fed up of the whole thing and no longer willing to come back after the mytharc episodes in 2018’s season 11 bombed, it looks like short of a full reboot we’ve had all the X-Files we’re ever going to get. (Conveniently, nice blu-ray sets of the TV episodes are widely available at a reasonable price, and the HD-remastered episodes are available on iTunes and other platforms at that.)

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Dead of Winter? Dead On Arrival

Struggling actress Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is hired by retired psychiatrist/polar bear hunter Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubeš) to replace Julia Rose (also played by Steenburgen) – the lead actress on an independent film that the wealthy doctor is somehow connected to (presumably as a financial backer). Katie is told that Rose stormed off the set, leaving the production high and dry and desperately in need of someone who resembles her closely enough to finish off her scenes – but before she heads up to the main set in Canada, she has to visit Lewis’ snowbound estate in upstate New York to film some preliminary scenes.

Of course, as the audience we know a little bit more than Katie; most importantly, we saw the prologue sequence in which Rose, travelling incognito, seems to be involved in some sort of shady deal involving the transfer of a large sum of cash, only to be murdered. As it turns out, Dr. Lewis is playing a very long and curious game with the powerful Evelyn Rose, Julie’s sister (also played by Steenburgen), and has brought Katie into the conflict as a pawn in order to trick Evelyn into thinking Julie is still alive. This leaves Katie in danger both from Evelyn and the forces that killed off Julie in the first place, and Dr. Lewis himself, who sees her only as a tool to be used for this specific purpose and then… well, who knows?

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Bido’s No Bava

Giallo is an Italian genre of cinema which can best be described as an arthouse precursor to the good old-fashioned slasher movie, combining a reverence for Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock with brazenly violent and sexual content. To a large extent The Bloodstained Shadow has Antonio Bido working as an acolyte of Dario Argento’s school of giallo, as perfected on Argento’s run from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to Deep Red. Combine the classic hooded-and-black-gloved killer that’s been a motif of giallo ever since Mario Bava’s genre-defining Blood and Black Lace, a string of murders beginning with the slaying of a medium, a killer motivated by the suppression of information about a long-forgotten crime, a painting that proves to be a crucial clue, a prog rock synthesiser soundtrack, a fakeout ending where the protagonists think they’ve caught the killer when in fact at most they’ve only dispatched an accomplice, a decades-old killing shown at the very beginning which turns out to be the catalyst for all the action, a creepy toy motif, and a recurring emphasis on the artistic, the aesthetic, and the erotic, and you end up with a film in peril of turning into Argento-by-numbers.

Bido almost saves himself; certainly, as far as Argento imitators go he pulls off a really masterful job, producing a piece which for the most part could sneak its way into the grandmaster’s own canon through the back door had it a mind to – were it not for a bungled conclusion that makes the whole thing unravel.

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Burning Tensions and High Stakes In the Civil War

Released in the States as The Conqueror Worm for the sake of implying a connection to the successful run of Poe adaptations that Roger Corman had helmed and Vincent Price had starred in, Witchfinder General only shares Vincent Price in common with those movies. It was directed by Michael Reeves, an up and coming talent whose career was cut short when he died shortly after making this of an accidental overdose, and produced for Tigon, a production company making a bid to outdo Hammer by offering up films with similar subject matter fronted by horror icons and often featuring content more extreme – and more imaginative – than Hammer themselves were willing to offer at the time. (The production was also co-funded by AIP, home of the Poe adaptations – hence the retitling, hence the involvement of Price.)

The story takes place during the English Civil War (the famous mid-17th Century one, not the earlier one with Stephen and Matilda). Richard is a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, fighting the Royalist forces whilst hoping to make a future for himself and his fiancee Sara once the war is done. Their happy plans, however, are disrupted when their sleepy home village is visited by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) whilst Richard is away on duty. Hopkins, accompanied by his disreputable assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell), roams around the country exploiting the disorder and panic caused by the war, showing up in towns and villages which have written to them asking for their help and presiding over witch trials that make those in Salem look like a model of balanced and fair jurisprudence.

They are well paid for this work, and they relish the opportunity to torture their suspects to their hearts’ content (though Stearne is much more honest with himself and others about how much he enjoys this part of his work than Hopkins, who maintains a holier-than-thou facade. They’ve been summoned to the village to interrogate the local priest – Sara’s uncle – and Hopkins wastes little time in extorting sexual favours out of Sara in return for stopping the torture. Eventually, Stearne ends up raping Sara, Hopkins loses interest in her, and her uncle and two local women are eventually strung up for witchcraft. When he returns and discovers what has happened, Richard embarks on a campaign of revenge that he’s determined will put an end to Hopkins’ reign of terror – but what will he end up losing before the job is done?

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Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Direct Like a Sleazeball

Italian B-movies aren’t exactly averse to sensationalism or extreme content, and in his prime Ruggero Deodato wasn’t averse to cranking both dials up to 11. Most known for infamous video nasties with a shockingly nihilistic ethical worldview such as Cannibal Holocaust and The House On the Edge of the Park, Deodato also turned out this entry in the poliziotteschi subgenre – a particular style of Italian crime film from the 1970s which emphasised extreme violence and a murky worldview in which the line between cop and criminal was thin at best.

Perhaps the closest equivalent in American cinema would be Dirty Harry, since like that movie the poliziotteschi genre often entails applying the amoral worldview and extreme violence of Sergio Leone-esque Spaghetti Westerns to a modern-day cop story. Even by such standards, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is an ugly and bleak piece. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock) are police officers in a special undercover squad, which uses highly advanced computer intelligence correlation systems to predict the actions of organised crime and help the cops get to where they need to be before crime happens. They’re also vicious thugs with little compunction about, for instance, straight-up murdering pursued criminals if they reckon they can get away with it, and wildly irresponsible to boot. (There’s a great scene at one point where they practice their sharpshooting skills by running around shooting over each others heads at tin cans, in a sort of William Tell-themed obstacle course.)

The major target of their squad is the organised crime gang headed by Roberto “Bibi” Pasquini (Renato Salvatori), and their heavy-handed tactics only get more brutal when Bibi’s goons assassinate one of their colleagues on the squad. Torturing goons, burning the parked cars of rich clients of one of Bibi’s elite casinos (along with two car park attendants/guards), it’s all fair game as far as they our cop “heroes” are concerned. Maybe Fred and Tony do get results – but there’s a mole in the police department who’s willing to leak their identity to Bibi. Once Bibi finds out who they are, can the duo survive his revenge?

Deodato rarely misses an opportunity to get sleazy and exploitative – there’s a bit where the two cops confront Lina Pasquini (Sofia Dionisio), Bibi’s sexy young sister, and she more or less literally drags them into bed with her – and he’s also got a real way with violence, opening the film with a really over-the-top motorcycle chase that might just qualify as the movie’s best action sequence altogether. However, it’s also kind of a chore to sit through – you cut from heartless, self-centred, amoral policemen to heartless, self-centred, amoral gangsters, and sooner or later you find that there’s nobody to really root for in the movie.

This would be fair enough if it were something like The Shield, where underpinning the tough cop talk and ruthless action there’s a more nuanced and serious examination of corruption in police work and violence begetting violence and so on. However, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man doesn’t carry itself like that – instead, it gives every impression of wanting to be a light-hearted Lethal Weapon type affair – if Lethal Weapon had implied at one point that Danny Glover and Mel Gibson raped the big bad’s girlfriend, directly showed them murdering and torturing people, and then showed their boss coming out of nowhere at the very end to kill off the bad guy whilst the aforementioned implied rape is happening offscreen. Like Dirty Harry and its imitators, the polizioschetti films are often accused of being fascistic celebrations of vigilante violence on the part of the police; Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is one of those movies where such accusations hit the nail on the head.

Also, when Bibi’s boat gets blown up at the very end, it’s very obviously just a tiny model boat floating in a puddle.

Dragged Into Mediocrity

Sam Raimi’s return to horror after Spiderman gave him a big dose of mainstream credibility opens up with a prelude establishing its demonic (and kind of racist) premise: in 1969 medium Shaun San Dela (played here by Flor de Maria Chahua) tries and fails to help a young couple whose son has been cursed after stealing a necklace from a gypsy – a curse which causes the boy to be physically dragged into hell, as the movie’s title promises.

In the present day, loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is angling for a big promotion, and her boss Mr Jacks (David Paymer) drops a hint that what he’s looking for is someone who can make hard-nosed, tough decisions. On top of that, she overhears a conversation between her boyfriend, Psychology professor Clay Dayton (Justin Long), and his mother suggesting that she won’t approve of Christine unless she demonstrates more career ambition, and Christine’s main competitor for the post is Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), an utter douche who uses shady tactics to make Christine look bad and to suck up to Mr Jacks.

Thus, when Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly woman, comes in to request an extension on her loan repayments, and Mr Jacks suggests that this is just the sort of hard choice that he’s thinking of as far as the promotion goes, Christine is more than ready to deny her the extension, even though she knows it means Sylvia will be evicted from her home. (The direction also makes strong suggestions that Christine fines Sylvia’s personal habits physically repulsive, which might colour the way she presents Sylvia’s case to Mr Jacks in the first place.) Pushed beyond her limits, Sylvia curses Christine with the same manner of curse the child from the prelude had. Will four decades of mediumship experience help Shaun San Dela (played in her elder form by Adriana Barazza) beat the curse this time, or is Christine as inexorably damned as the kid in the prologue?

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