There’s something about a B movie. It may not reach the heights of beauty, of artistic expression, of emotional or intellectual profundity that a great film might, but a good B movie does something else almost better than anything else you’ll see on a screen: entertain. So while no critic in his or her right mind is ever going to try to convince you that Centurion (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray) is a great film, no film fan with even a little popcorn butter running through his or her veins will be able to deny its B-movie fu.
It helps if said film fan is or has been a 13-year-old boy, because this is the stuff of pubescent dude awesomeness. B auteur Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) takes up the fading neo-swords-and-sandals epic with a tale of Romans fighting the savage Picts in the bleak north of England in the second century A.D. Icy-eyed Michael Fassbender (300, Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) plays Quintus Dias, the title Roman officer, who commands an isolated garrison harried by the hostile natives. After a few melodramatic plot turns and double-crosses, he winds up as one of a handful of Roman survivors of a series of slaughters by the Picts, and he and a scant few legionnaires (including esteemed U.K. character actors Liam Cunningham and David Morrisey) must try to make it back south to the Roman lines while pursued by a band of Picts led by a lithe woman warrior (fierce former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) with no tongue and a serious hatred for Romans.
This isn’t ground-breaking stuff: The dialogue is often cliché, most of the characters are stock types at best, and Marshall even recycles the basic plot outline from his last film, the dissatisfying Doomsday. But Fassbender’s considerable charisma and manly action chops help sell his paper-thin hero, and Kurylenko’s spear-wielding, woad-smeared huntress provides what a film like this often needs most: an excellent villain. More than anything else, though, Centurion succeeds by rarely flagging its pace. Plot points tick by at a breathless clip, and action set pieces model brutal efficiency. Indeed, Marshall and editor Chris Gill innovate in the fight sequences by metronoming the quick cuts to the steady ssnikt ssnikt ssnikt sound of blades slicing flesh. Marshall somehow even manages to shoehorn in a love interest via a witchy Pictish exile with perfect makeup (Imogen Poots) without invoking major eyerolls. (Well, not too many.) Deathless cinema? No. Perfect for a Saturday on the couch? By all means.
Then there are films that require a whole new alphabet. Don’t be alarmed if the opening reels of recently buzzed-about 1977 Japanese cult item House (Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray) inspire you to sigh and silently wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. While there are kitsch smirks to be had as teenage schoolgirl Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her BFF Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba) giggle and squeal and plan their summer holidays amid a baffling mix of bizarro shots and weird painted backdrops, it doesn’t get off to a promising start. Just wait. By the time House and director Nobuhiko Obayashi have hit their stride, you’ll be wondering, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
After Gorgeous pitches an Electra fit over her father’s new girlfriend, she and Fantasy make their own summer plans with five giggly classmates—the “fat” one, the tough one, the smart one, etc.—and decide to start their vacation by visiting Gorgeous’ long-lost aunt (Yôko Minamida) at her remote hilltop mansion. They are greeted by a stately white-haired woman in a wheelchair, but as Gorgeous’ friends start disappearing, the aunt gets more spry and younger-looking and things get weirder and weirder and weirder. Like, a flying disembodied head that bites people on the ass. Like, a carnivorous piano played by stand-alone severed fingers. Like, a rising tide of glowing supernatural house-cat blood.
Obayashi was reportedly inspired by the imaginings of his own pre-teen daughter and set out to do them surreal justice. There’s no shortage of cheap ’70s-vintage special effects here—crude blue-screen, stop-motion animation, the occasional fake bird swinging by on a string, you name it—but House’s head-exploding visual zing and uncanny oddness weren’t added in post-production. Obayashi’s camera is not only unmoored, it’s unhinged, and then filtered through a crazy-quilt of wipes, dissolves, and irises to boot. As the girls dwindle and the aunt and the house reveal their true sinister natures, the editing builds to a complementary frenzy. And while House is too slapstick berserk to not be funny, an image of blood cascading down the front of a white garment, say, or an eyeball shot to rival “Un Chien Andalou” for indelible ickiness provoke genuine shivers. Crazier still, the standard-issue horror plot holds together, even as the film abandons its dreamlike logic for pure mania. House remains a minor pleasure, but if you’ve been searching for an unheralded missing link between Suspiria and The Evil Dead, look no further.