Monday, November 12, 2018

A note on Stan Lee

Historians and older comics fans continue to debate Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel Comics universe. The debates were initially fueled by the perception that Lee, who died today at age 95, tended for a long time to downplay if not minimize the contributions of artists Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, and especially Jack Kirby. If the question is who created characters or came up with specific concepts, then the credit often and rightly goes to Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby, who created nearly everything else until 1970. Lee's distinctive and crucial contribution was twofold, one part of it becoming only more obvious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe conquered multiplexes in the Stan the Man's last decade.

What was more obvious early on was that Lee gave all the comics, whether drawn by Kirby, Ditko or others, a specific authorial voice that helped set Marvel Comics apart from DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That voice took the idea of a narrator character from earlier crime and horror comics and applied it to superheroes. Lee wasn't an "onscreen" narrator like Mr. Crime or the Crypt Keeper, but established his authorial, brand through his constant explanatory  footnoting and a narrative tone that could be several things at once: bombastic and bufoonish, bardic yet self-mocking. It gave a wide range of readers leeway to take Marvel as seriously as each one chose, or to appreciate it at multiple levels simultaneously, and it allowed Lee to be campy and sincere at the same time. His narration probably strikes most people as corny today -- it's even worse when he speaks it aloud on bad cartoons of the 70s and 80s -- but in those formative years it didn't keep readers from feeling genuine emotions about the Marvel heroes.

In the long run, Lee really laid the groundwork for the 21st century success of Marvel movies by giving Marvel Comics a "universal" vision that neither Kirby nor Ditko might have given them on their own. In his later career especially, Kirby preferred to isolate his creations from the rest of his employers' product, balking at crossovers when they were suggested, while Ditko arguably never got along with others that well. Of course, the heroes of any given comics company had been joining forces since DC's Justice Society of America in the early 1940s, but outside the designated team books they rarely if ever interacted with each other. At Marvel the constant crossing over of characters was an essential part of Lee's world-building, and for all that Marvel heroes tended to fight each other on their first meetings, they were inherently more compatible as components of a shared universe, once someone actually tried to do that in movies, than DC's iconic  characters have proven to be so far. One could argue that Kirby and Ditko could have come up with all their great creations with no input from Lee, yet could not have come up with the Marvel Universe as either comics or movie fans understand it today without Stan Lee's vision, however self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing it seems to his critics. This note certainly won't end the Marvel debates, but it should make it more clear that however clownish or crass he was at times, Lee was one of the great pop-culture geniuses of the 20th century, with a legacy sure to last well beyond his lifetime.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

OUTLAW KING (2018)

Most people's primary reference for the career of Robert the Bruce is Mel Gibson's Braveheart, in which the Scots hero is shown as a well-meaning but vacillating young man increasingly ashamed of his leprous father's cynical realpolitik until, finally his own man in more than one sense, he avenges William Wallace at the decisive battle of Bannockburn. Whatever else you say about the Gibson film, it gives the Bruce a great character arc, the absence of which is felt throughout the new film by Scots director David Mackenzie, in which Robert (Chris Pine) is the main character. Inescapably, Wallace haunts the film, literally and gruesomely in one scene as a quarter of him is displayed in a public square. This is shown to be just about the last straw that pushes Robert into rebellion, after humiliating treatment by Edward I (never called "Longshanks" here, and played by Stephen Dillane) in the opening scenes. With Wallace at bay at that point, Robert is made to watch the English attack Stirling Castle with a massive trebuchet hurling a fiery payload, and made to marry the Irish noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). A widower, Robert slowly warms to Elizabeth as she warms to the Scots cause, but cools toward Scotland's subjugation to England. His Rubicon is the killing of a pro-England Scots rival in a church. The Scots clergy are willing to forgive this (though the Pope, unmentioned, wasn't) and crown Robert King of Scots in return for a vague promise of support for them. The uprising is nearly aborted by a treacherous night attack, but Robert survives to take up guerrilla warfare with the archetypal ragtag band, while Elizabeth flees from castle to castle until the English catch her and cage her outside a grim castle.


The first time I ever heard of Robert the Bruce was in a school reading textbook that had the legend of his encounter with a spider. Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as it appears onscreen) invokes that legend by making Robert the spider at the center of a marshy web in the climactic battle of Loudon Hill. One must assume that the English learned their lesson from this catastrophe, presuming that it played out in history as it plays here, as they subsequently dealt with the French more or less the same way during the Hundred Years War. This film's big battle scene inevitably must be compared with the Stirling battle in Braveheart, but each aims for a different effect. Gibson expresses furious exhilaration -- I still remember a woman behind me starting to laugh like a madwoman at the peak of the action when I first saw it -- while Mackenzie adds a note of horror to whatever satisfaction audiences may feel on seeing the English get their comeuppance. At first glance, Outlaw King strikes me as a more gory film than the massively violent Braveheart because of the more overtly horrific presentation. Mackenzie doesn't show it in a particularly lurid way, but in a matter-of-fact fashion that makes such moments as the casual disembowling of a man all the more horrifying. While Braveheart could be accused of glorifying war, Outlaw King is less vulnerable to that charge, though it goes too far to equate it to the alleged antiwar aesthetics of the superficially similar marshy combat in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, to which Mackenzie's battle scene has been compared. There's no denying, after all, that in the context of this film that fight was necessary.


I wonder how self-consciously Mackenzie and his co-writers strove to make their film "Not Braveheart." Not having William Wallace as a character is probably the most obvious way to make clear that this is going to be a different kind of story. More interesting is their attempt to make the Prince of Wales, later Edward II (Billy Howle) as the main antagonist, with his dad remaining in the background until he dies, ahistorically, en route to Loudon Hill. Outlaw King reimagines Edward II as a Messala-type character who once was Robert's buddy but becomes his most dogged enemy for reasons of state. Ironically, in light of what Gore Vidal often said about his conception of the Messala character in Ben-Hur, the new film goes out of its way to avoid anything that could be interpreted as homophobic (as in Braveheart) in its presentation of Edward II, to the point that the casual viewer would have no idea that he was reputedly homosexual. On the other hand, Edward's sexuality has nothing to do with his or his father's policy toward Scotland, so there really isn't any need to address it here, and it's arguably a fair hit on Braveheart that it's treatment of the character was gratuitous. Both films take huge liberties with history, including Outlaw King's placement of Edward II, king before his actual time, in command of the English troops at Loudon Hill and engaged in single combat with Robert at its close. That scene really hurts the film, since the writers take too many and not enough liberties at the same time. If you're going to have the English king fight the Scots king on the field of battle, and have Robert disarm and decisively defeat Edward -- which obviously didn't happen -- why not go all the way and have Robert take Edward prisoner and force the liberation of Scotland ahead of schedule. It looks stupid to just let him go, especially if the writers' excuse is "well, he wasn't captured historically." That aside, Outlaw King is a decent historical drama, though lacking much of Braveheart's primal passion, especially in Pine's relatively dispassionate but conventionally stalwart performance. I'll give him and the film credit for one thing, though. The standard before-the-battle speech is quite nicely done here because it boils down to: I don't care why you're fighting with me as long as we win. Whether you find it better or worse than Braveheart, or don't believe in comparisons, at least it's a legitimate change of pace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

APOSTLE (2018)

Gareth Evans, the director of the Raid movies, arguably the best martial-arts films of the 21st century so far, returned to his native Wales to make an action-horror period piece set in Edwardian England. It starts slow, introducing us to former missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), who infiltrates a Welsh island that's been taken over by a religious cult. The cult, which has scriptures of its own and a putatively charismatic leader in Malcolm (Michael Sheen), has kidnapped Richardson's sister and is holding her for ransom. They've been reduced to that because a once-flourishing community has seen harvests fail, but some cult members believe that even more extreme measures are necessary to revive the crops.


Probably because Evans is more interested in the fantastic horrors to be revealed later, Apostle makes it hard to believe that Malcolm's cult could attract as many people as it seems to. As Malcolm, Sheen simply isn't that charismatic, and we see pretty much nothing to explain the cult's appeal. Evans himself seems to realize the limitations of the Malcolm character, since about midway through he builds up Malcolm's second-in-command, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) into the real villain of the piece. Quinn disapproves beyond all reason of his daughter's romance with the son of another cult leader, finally killing the girl, framing the boy for the crime and executing him with a gruesome machine that bores a hole through the back of his head. By this point Quinn has gone over the edge entirely, determined to overthrow Malcolm and take the leader's daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) -- as well as Thomas's sister (Elen Rhys) -- as a broodmare sex slave.


While Malcolm is at best a half-baked conception of a cult leader, Quinn proves a villain worthy of an Edwardian horror story. By this point in the picture we've learned that the cult leaders had some time before captured a sort of earth goddess (Sharon Morgan) who subsists on human blood. By sacrificing to her, the cultists initially enjoyed good harvests. But just as she seemed ready to die when they found her, so she seems reluctant to go on living on the diet they offer her. It's bad enough that Malcolm sheds his own blood to force-feed her and has others do the same. Quinn quite explicitly wants to treat the goddess like a machine, hoping to jump-start her power by gorging her with full-scale human sacrifice. That rings true as a particularly 19th century (or so) form of villainy or industrial-strength hubris combined with control-freak patriarchal insanity. Jones runs with the idea and his over-the-top villainy pretty much saves the picture.


It helps, too, that the latter half of the film has more action, allowing Evans to show off his real strengths as a filmmaker. The two big scenes are Thomas's fight with a "Gimp"-like henchman who operates a human-sized meat grinder for Quinn and his final battle, assisted by his sister and Andrea, with a nearly indestructible Quinn. Jones has been such a despicable villain that Quinn's gruesome demise is the picture's indisputable highlight. Unfortunately, Apostle still has to resolve Thomas's character arc. He lost his faith, you see, when his church was burned and friends were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Were this a different sort of film, you might expect his struggle against real evil to revive his faith, but faith doesn't come into it, since he instead encounters, for all intents and purposes, a real god. Better still, he gets to become a real god by the end of the picture as the old goddess passes her mojo on to him. Is this a good thing? Much of the cult village has been burnt down by this point, but Malcom is still wandering around and gets to see Thomas's transfiguration. Does that mean the cult gets to start over again, only better this time? It's probably better not to ask. Apostle adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there is genuine horror in it, just enough to justify its presence on Netflix over the past Halloween season, and maybe enough to justify a look at other times of the year.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (1970 - 2018)

Updated on November 5 after watching the accompanying Netflix documentary,  
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. 
Orson Welles and Netflix might have been a perfect match. There wouldn't have been any worries about how many paid admissions each project of his could draw, and they wouldn't have depended on him overmuch to attract new subscribers. All that would have mattered, presumably, was how much money he spent and when he delivered the product. Of course, what sort of product he proposed to deliver would make a lot of difference. Batting out something like F for Fake on a relatively regular basis might not have been much of a problem. A narrative film, alas, would have been a different story.

It's interesting that Welles brings up Hemingway in this picture, since it reminded me of some things Hemingway said. Hemingway said of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon that the it was no masterpiece in the making, but that it showed that Fitzgerald had just enough skill to keep publishers interested enough to advance him more money. Of a Norman Mailer novel -- The Deer Park, if I recall right -- Hemingway said that the author had blown the whistle on himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles portrays his director protagonist (John Huston) as a Hemingway type, if not more obviously a darker version of himself. Wind, however, is an attempt at what Hemingway, describing his own efforts, called a bank shot, touching several thematic bases at once. It's a work of self-criticism to an extent but also a satire of the whole cult of the director, almost as contemptuous toward "cineastes" (a repeated sneer-word here) as those filmmakers of the generation before Welles who hated (or affected to hate) analyzing their careers. It could be seen equally as an indictment of the creative bankruptcy of auteurism or a confession of Welles's own creative bankruptcy.

The way he tells the story clearly interests Welles more than the story he tells. That story, based on what Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich and others have salvaged from the surviving footage, attempts to account for the creative exhaustion of the Huston character, Jake Hannaford, who's showing excerpts of his in-progress production "The Other Side of the Wind" at a birthday party in the hope of raising the funds needed to finish the project -- much as Welles himself screened scenes at his AFI lifetime achievement award ceremony. The film within the film is both to some extent a parody of Zabriskie Point and a way for Welles to show what he can do visually in color and widescreen. A man stalks and courts a mysterious woman (who may be a terrorist) who goes about naked a lot (Oja Kodar) and torments the man in many ways. They wander through an old move backlot before she meets such fate as she has in the desert. As a commercial project it seems hopeless, but what's specifically stalled it is Hannaford's falling out with his neophyte star, Johnny Dale (Bob  Random). The director made a project of the young man, apparently a drifter, after rescuing him from an apparent suicide attempt, but became suspicious of his authenticity. Dale turned out to be a boarding-school dropout involved in some sort of homosexual scandal. Hannaford tormented him on the set of the movie until Dale stormed off, buck naked, after a scene that teased his castration. His departure, and a failure of funding, has let the film a confused jumble, and it's unclear that any amount of money, in the absence of the original inspiration, can solve its problems.

The film proper is kaleidoscopic, showing Hannaford surrounded by fans, sycophants, critics and parasites, many of whom are shooting their own documentary or home-movie footage of the film party. The fatal flaw of the film as a whole is Welles's belief that diversity of film stocks could substitute for diversity of character. None of the characters feels genuinely fleshed-out; you get the sense that Welles knows more about them than the footage used here actually shows, but you also get the suspicion that he knew more about them than he could or cared to show. Many are probably analogues for cronies of Welles himself, and Bogdanovich definitely and almost masochistically -- taking over for an absconding Rich Little -- plays a version of himself as a pushy superfan with ambitions of surpassing the master. The mock-festive setting reminds me of a truly amateur movie of the same period, Norman Mailer's Maidstone -- and Welles' raving about improvisational filmmaking, captured in the accompanying documentary, suggests at minimum a coincidence of his thinking and Mailer's -- while the flailing experimentation anticipates a similar work of what we could call neo-amateurism, Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. Unfortunately, Wind lacks any sense of spontaneity, mainly because of Welles's late-career choppy style of editing together shots taken months or possibly years apart, and probably because his control-freak auterism had overcome his interest in improvisation at some point in the production. You get one shot of a character talking, and then we cut to a shot of the next character talking, when what's arguably needed is the more naturalistic overlapping dialogue of Robert Altmann's films. To be fair, Welles may have meant to mix the sound differently -- and for that matter I think I would rather have seen the film without a music score in the absence of any Wellsian input on the selections --  but there's no way to know that for certain.  What seems inescapable is a sense of exhaustion with storytelling even as Welles remains fascinated by the possibilities of editing and composition. In simplest terms, the ultimate subject of this film may be not the death of cinema, but the inevitable if not necessary demise of a certain kind of filmmaking, with the far more lively F for Fake showing the way ahead. The really sad thing about Wind is that, as the documentary makes clear, much of it was filmed after Fake, as if Welles hadn't realized, or wouldn't admit, that the project was a creative dead end.

Demoralizing as it may be, The Other Side of the Wind probably should be mandatory viewing for movie fans, if only for the unexpected encores it provides for so many long-gone character actors, from Mercedes McCambridge to Cameron Mitchell, from Edmond O'Brien -- bloated and roughened to the point that he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. -- to Angelo Rossitto. One would have liked the film to have proved a buried masterpiece, but contrary to what the film itself may suggest, even the ambitious failures of an auteur like Welles can reward watching, as cautionary tales or tragic hints of what could have been. As a work of art it isn't much, but like any Welles film it has many memorable moments of pictorial power. As a historical document, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Too Much TV: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)

As a warning to those who haven't watched any or all of the series yet, this review contains spoilers.
  
To turn most novels into ten-part TV shows, liberties must be taken. Extraordinary liberties have been taken to turn Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House into Mike Flanagan's Netflix series, but the results for the most part worked on their own terms, though one of the greatest strengths of Flanagan's adaptation proved ultimately a weakness. People who binged their way through it quicker than I did have already noted its structural resemblance to This Is Us, a critically-acclaimed multigenerational non-linear family drama. Hill House travels back and forth in time from the present to 1992, reimagining the paranormal investigators of Jackson's novel as a family unit, and the house itself as a fixer-upper that the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, with Timothy Hutton taking over for the present-day scenes) hope to renovate for a huge profit. We see each of the five damaged children as a troubled adult, and we see how the ordeal of Hill House contributed to their individual and collective dysfunctions. Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) turned his experience into a dubious best-seller, earning the ire of most of his siblings. Despite making himself a specialist in haunted-house tales, he doesn't really believe in the supernatural. Blaming the family tragedy on hereditary madness, he had a vasectomy to keep from having insane kids, compromising his marriage in the process by keeping that detail secret from his wife. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is an obsessive-compulsive mortician who especially resents Steven's book and sees any family who took the royalties he offered as a traitor. Theo (Kate Siegel), the show's obligatory lesbian, is a child psychologist whose tactile sensitivity to the paranormal leaves her abrasively reluctant to maintain emotional connections with people. The fraternal twins Nelly (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are the youngest and most traumatized by the Hill House experience, Luke becoming a heroin addict, while further tragedies in her life drive Nelly to kill herself at the old house. Her death reunites the family and opens old wounds as the legacy of Hill House threatens to draw them all back so the house can finish what it started long ago.

Hill House enhances the non-linear formula by adding a layer of premonition that ties present and past even closer together. In the most horrific instance, Nelly has been haunted since her time at Hill House by visions of  "the bent-neck lady." When she hangs herself, more driven by the house to do so than willing her own demise, she realizes in her final moments of life that she was the bent-neck lady. At Hill House, the mother, Olivia, is terrified by premonitions of the terrible fates awaiting her youngest children, though it takes her a little bit to recognize the actors we know as grown-up Luke and Nelly as her babies. The moment when Nelly, done up mortuary style for her wake in the present, tears the stitches from her mouth and cries out, "Mommy!' is probably the next most horrific moment. Overall, the show is more horrific than scary, though there are plenty of jumpy moments for scare fans. The family drama underscores the long-term horror of Hill House, and the effort given to flesh out the Crain family pays off thanks to terrific ensemble acting. At the end, however, the series becomes too much about family for its own good.

In Flanagan's imagining, Hill House seems less evil than monstrously overprotective. It wants to keep the people it acquires and seduces the most overprotective member of the family, the mother, with a promise to protect her children, the twins especially, by "waking" them from the "nightmare" that will be their adult lives. To wake them, Olivia tries to kill the twins by feeding them tea laced with rat poison, and ends up actually murdering the caretakers' daughter who just happened to tag along. Conveniently, the caretakers were homeschoolers who had hidden their girl from the outside world. Traumatized by the tragedy but consoled by the appearance of their little girl as a ghost, they agree to cover up Olivia's murder of the girl as long as her husband backs off from his plan to burn the house down. The show ultimately goes too far in portraying the house as an actual comfort, albeit one most people should reject. Olivia and then Nelly seem not to be extensions of the house but autonomous spirits that can feud with earlier generations of spirits or fight off its attempts to claim the rest of the family. Finally, present-day Hugh makes a deal with Olivia and/or the house, sacrificing himself while the rest of the children go free. In an unconvincing epilogue, this final ordeal appears to have cured the surviving Crains of their hang-ups. Steven reconciles with his wife, Shirley with her husband, whom she'd accused of an affair with Theo; Theo commits to a steady girlfriend and Luke is clean for two years and counting at the very end. This seems like a betrayal of the tragic complexity of the lives shown us earlier, unless you really believe, as Flanagan seems to, that all of it was Hill House's fault. Family ends up being not just the real subject of Hill House but its feel-good rallying point, yet any horror project that seeks to make audiences feel good at the end, for the sake of "family" or any reason, is suspect. I'm not saying I wanted Hill House to wipe out the Crain family, but I'd like to think that any viewer will find its conclusion too neat in a way that undermines a project that until then was working fine as both a spook show and a psychological horror. I'll still recommend it, since at it's best it's nearly great, but unless "family" gives you the unconditional "feels" you may share my disappointment at something so good failing to stick the landing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

KOMMISSAR X: THREE GOLDEN CATS (1966)

At the height of the Sixties spy-film craze the Germans made a series of seven films based on the pulp fiction character Kommissar X, who despite the name is neither a Communist nor even a spy but a globetrotting American private eye. Three Golden Cats (also known in the U.S. as Death is Nimble, Death is Quick) is the second film of the series. As they did throughout, Tony Kendall plays Joe "Kommissar X" Walker -- the nickname isn't used here -- and Brad Harris plays his sort of friend/sort of rival, policeman Tom Rowland. Co-directed by Rudolf Zehetgruber and Gianfranco Parolini, the latter later best known for the Sabata spaghetti westerns, the film benefits greatly from its Sri Lanka locations and the colorful cinematography of Klaus von Rautenfeld. Our heroes end up in the erstwhile Ceylon to protect an American heiress (Ann Smyrner) -- who seems resourceful enough not to need their help much -- from the kidnappers of the Golden Cats, a former anti-imperialist guerrilla group that turned into gangsters-for-hire after independence.


Behind the Golden Cats, we learn toward the end, is a mad scientist who wanted ransom money to finance the biological warfare projects that got him thrown out of the U.S. This Bondish sort of villain exists mostly to put some of the protagonists in a death trap and is completely eclipsed,  by the Cats' head karate killer, King (former Hercules Dan Vadis). This may be Vadis's finest hour on film. Bald and mustachioed and coolly glowering, making a fetish of donning a headband before a kill, King has an indisputable menacing charisma that upstages the ostensible stars on every occasion. Vadis and Harris staged their own fight scenes -- Rowland is also a karate expert -- and did many of their own stunts in this action-packed picture. They make it look more like a precocious martial-arts movie than a Eurospy film -- the training sequence involving scantily clad Sri Lankan policewomen definitely doesn't defuse that impression -- and their final showdown in the Cats' temple is a bravura blend of camp theatrics and succinct brutality from two plausible looking bruisers.


You also get an acid attack in a shower, an assistant assassin who specializes in nitro capsules, a cool boat chase with our heroes pursued by a futuristic vehicle through an exploding swamp and a climactic collision between a speeding car and an airplane on the tarmac. You also get ladies' man Walker getting kissed by an elephant and getting dumped at the end by the heiress, an equally capable Sri Lankan heroine (Michele Mahaut) and the elephant at the same time.


Kendall's horndog antics date the picture to its time, but Harris and Vadis's commitment to pure action make Three Golden Cats feel more like a contemporary action film than may of its actual contemporaries. Judged by the standard of any time period, it's an enjoyable piece of unrepentant pop trash that inspires confidence in the rest of the series.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

ERREMENTARI (2017)

The Spanish affinity for traditional gothic horror extends to the Basque country, which gives us Paul Urkijo Alijo's grim fairy tale of a film. Based on a European legend that also influenced the "Howling Man" episode of The Twilight Zone, Errementari is set at the time of the First Carlist War in 19th century Spain. A deserter from that war is Patxi the blacksmith (Kandido Uranga), who made a pact with the minor demon Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy) in order to be reunited with his wife, only to find that she, presuming him dead, had shacked up with another man and had a daughter, Usue (Uma Bracaglia). The tragedy results in  the other man killed, the wife a suicide, Usue a despised outcast raised by foster parents taunted with tales of her mother suffering in Hell, and Patxi the keeper of a terrible secret. The arrival of a government official with stories of a hidden stash of gold at Patxi's forge hastens the revelation of the secret, but it's Usue, hoping that the smith can repair her headless doll, who makes the discovery. Believing the smith a fresh murderer (in fact, a trespasser has died by accident), Usue discovers evidence that Patxi is keeping a child in a cage. Naturally, not having watched The Twilight Zone, Usue frees the pathetic victim, who promptly reveals himself as Sartael in all his folkloric if not cartoonish splendor: red skin, horns, presumably cloven hooves, etc. The demon tries to avenge himself on Patxi, but the blacksmith could not have held a demon captive in the first place without being knowledgeable and resourceful. In folklore, demons are very vulnerable. Far from invulnerable to physical attack, they're also hypersensitive to the ringing of bells and, like some vampires, they're compelled to count chickpeas cast on the ground. Worse, mess with the pile and the poor creatures have to start counting over again. It soon becomes clear that for all his frightful appearance and taunting, Sartael's actually a pretty pathetic excuse for a demon, a laughingstock among his peers, and especially his superiors, for getting himself trapped and detained so easily by a mortal. When another hellish emissary arrives, planning not only to claim Patxi's soul at last but also to demote Sartael to a fate worse than death in the infernal hierarchy, old enemies will join forces, each seeking redemption of a sort through kindness to Usue and the memory of her much-wronged mother.  Boasting lavish art-direction, lurid cinematography and a satiric attitude toward Carlist conservatism (their side supported absolute monarchy) that echoes in Europe and elsewhere today, Errementari feels like a crossbreed merging Spanish historical gothic and a more Burtonesque sensibility in its sympathy for a devil who never entirely becomes a good guy. Available for streaming on Netflix in its native language and an English dub, it may be the most charming new horror film you'll see this Halloween season.