Friday, October 2, 2015

31 Nights of Halloween: Turn Around When Possible

Two girls, on an isolated forest road. What could possibly go wrong?

Turn Around When Possible (2014)
Starring: Megan Prescott and Holly Hoyle
Directors: Dave Caleb and David Mead
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Monday, August 24, 2015

Full Moon Mini-Film Festival!

On August 29th, 2015, it's a full moon... and a great excuse to invite some friends for a mini-film festival (or, if you will, a Bad Movie Night) featuring killer doll movies from Full Moon!

I've got the program all laid of you you:  Start with "Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge" (starring classic B-movie stalwarts Guy Rolfe and Richard Lynch), then watch "Demonic Toys" (starring Tracy Scoggins), and cap it off with "Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys (a one-time SyFy Original Picture, starring Corey Feldman and Vanessa Angel)!

Here are write-ups of the three movies to help convince of what a good idea this is!

Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Richard Lynch, Ian Abercrombie, Kristopher Logan, Aron Eisenberg, Sarah Douglas and Walter Gotell
Director: David DeCoteau
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a vicious Gestapo commander (Lynch) murders his beloved wife Elsa (Douglas), Andre Toulon (Rolfe), a puppeteer with the ability to bring his puppets to full and independent life, turns his creations from instruments of mirth and entertainment into tools of hatred and revenge.

"Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge" takes viewers back to a time fifty years before the events of the other films to fill in some of the backstory of the magic puppets that are the main monsters of the film, and to explain why they and their creator is so hate-filled and driven by an urge to destroy.

(It's not quite in step with "Puppet Master II", but then it doesn't seem to fit well with anything else in the series. As a matter of fact, none of the various Puppet Master movies are perfect fits for each other as far as continuity goes.)

The film has a cast that's each perfect in the role that they play, with the classical-featured Guy Rolfe as Andre Toulon and ferret-faced Richard Lynch as the despicable Major Krause being giving especially noteworthy performances, and a script that actually feels like it could been lifted from a horror movie set during the time the film takes place. (In fact, the pacing of this movie and the style of the dialogue is one of the things that makes this movie so good... it has a classic 1940s-era horror film feel to it, while still delivering all the Full Moon stop animation and creepy puppets that we expect. Leech Woman is as gross here as she ever was. That we witness her tragic origin makes her even grosser in some ways' I wonder if Toulon ever had a lucid moment in which he asked himself, "Why in God's name did I do that to what was supposed to be an immortalization of my wife's beauty?!")

"Puppet Master III" is a film I think any lover of cheesy horror flicks can find something to like in. (Plus, we get to watch Nazi Ubermenchen be killed by tiny puppets while shrieking like schoolgirls. How can you not love a movie like that?)

Demonic Toys (aka "Dangerous Toys") (1991)
Starring: Tracy Scoggins, Bentley Mitchum, Daniel Cerny, Michael Russo, Peter Schrum, Ellen Dunning, William Thorne, Robert Stoeckle, and Jeff Weston
Director: Peter Manoogian
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Police Detective Judith Gray (Scoggins) pursues gunmen who have just murdered her partner and father of her unborn child (Weston) into a warehouse full of toys. When a demon (Cerny, voiced by Stoeckle) that has lain dormant for decades under the building's foundation senses her, it decides her baby will be its physical form and it animates toys in warehouse to capture her and kill everyone else inside. Will Judith, together with a teen runaway (Dunning), a hapless fast-food delivery boy (Mitchum), a lazy security guard (Schrum), and a mad-dog killer (Russo) be able to fend off the demon and his cute-but-deadly minions, or will she become the unwilling mother of Hell on Earth?

"Demonic Toys" is another highly entertaining movie from Full Moon's Golden Age of the early 1990s. It offers a perfect blend of horror and comedy, and it's a far creepier movie than the demon-possessed toys that are its main selling point led me to believe.

In fact, while much of the film is definitely played tongue-in-cheek, the concept of a demon seizing a woman so it can possess her unborn child is one that creeps me out just thinking about it. The concept is made even creepier in execution here, as the demon generally presents himself as a little boy (played on-screen by child actor Daniel Cerny, but voiced with great effectiveness by Robert Stoeckle). Seeing a child talk about spiritual rape and murder is very, very disturbing.

The whole "demon replacing the soul of an unborn child" plot of the film actually adds some (perhaps inadvertently) depth and controversy to the film. Judith is barely one month pregnant, yet the film makes it clear that her fetus is most definitely already a baby, complete with a soul that is looking forward to being born and experiencing life on Earth. Fanatical pro-abortion supporters should stay away from this flick, but those right-wing pro-lifers in the audience should check it out (at least those of you who don't mind foul language used with great comedic effect).

The acting in the film is good all around, with the aforementioned Robert Stoeckle providing a great demon voice, and Bentley Mitchum coming across as a young version of Bruce Campbell's Ash from "Evil Dead 2" as he battles the killer toys. Leading lady Tracy Scoggins has a tendency to chew up the scenery, but in a movie featuring demon-possessed killer toys a touch of overacting isn't that big a deal.

Other noteworthy players in the film are the toys of the title. They are more funny than scary, but that's intentional on the part of the filmmakers. In fact, the knife-wielding, foul-mouthed Baby Oopsie-Daisy (and its uncredited voice actor) has some of the film's funniest moments and best lines. The puppetry and stop-motion animation used to bring the toys to life are very well-done, particularly in the case of Baby Oopsie-Daisy, the killer teddy bear, and the toy soldier who joins the fray late in the film. However, as funny as the toys are, they inflict some very gruesome deaths on some of the characters, and thus give rise to some displays of gore effects that are as impressive as the craftsmanship involved in animating the toys.

This is a fun romp of a movie. If you're looking for some comedy-tinged horror that might even inspire a thought or two as the mayhem unfolds, "Demonic Toys" might just be the film for you.

Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys (2004)
Starring: Corey Feldman, Danielle Keaton, Vanessa Angel, Silva Suvadova, Nikolai Sotirov and Anton Falk
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Eccentric inventor and toymaker Robert Toulon (Feldman) and his teenaged daugther Alexandra (Keaton) recreate the secret formula that can bring inanimate objects to life, and they use it to revive some of the puppet's created by Robert's grand-uncle Andre Toulon--Blade, Pinhead, Jester, and Six-shooter. It's a good thing they do, because the sinister president Erica Sharpe (Angel) of Sharpe Toys has been selling demon-possessed toys which will come to life Christmas morning and kill millions of Americans, sacrificing their souls to the demonlord Bael (Falk) and elevating Erica to ruler of Earth. Only the Toulons and the magic puppets can stop them... if they survive long enough.

"Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys" is one of the better movies to come out of the Sci-Fi Channel's original programming department. Yes, it's goofy and illogical and the special effects won't be winning any awards, but it's a fun and funny movie.

Although the creator of both the Demonic Toys and the Puppet Master concepts, Richard Band, had no direct part in the creation of this film, the presence of an old-time Full Moon script-writer (C. Courtney Joyner) and a director who worked on a number of Full Moon features (Ted Nicolaou) the spirit of the original movies is alive and well in this one. In fact, it's better than much of what Band has been producing and directing lately.

Corey Feldman in particular is great fun as the gruff grand-nephew and last male decendent of the Toulon line, and teenaged actress Danielle Keaton gives a nice performance as a cute and well-mannered kid who patiently puts up with the dad's weird nature. The father/daughter relationships in this movie is one of the things that makes it such an interesting film, particuarly when the Toulons are considered in the light of the relationship that Erica Sharpe must have had with her father. There's nothing deep here--like most films from the brain-trust that is/was the Full Moon gang, the emphasis is on gags, gimmicks and gore rather than characterization--but it's enough to make us interested in the characters, enough to make us care.

If you're looking for an unusual movie to mark the Christmas season, "Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys" could be the one to reach for. There might be a few too many fart jokes and exploding eyeballs for grandma's sensibilities, but I think most kids will get a kick out of it.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Franco foul-up almost saved by unintentional comedy

Neurosis: The Fall of the House of Usher (aka "Revenge in the House of Usher" and "Zombie 5") (1982)
Starring: Howard Vernon, Robert Foster, Lina Romay, Jean Tolzac, Olivier Mathot, and Fran├žoise Blanchard
Director: Jess Franco
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Dr. Alan Hacker (Foster) travels to the castle of his old professor, Dr. Usher (Vernon) where he quickly learns that his old teacher has gone mad. Aside from claiming that he is 200 years old, Usher is obsessed with resurrecting his dead daughter by giving her blood transfusions from girls he’s kidnapped.

With "Neurosis" (as the film was called in the on-screen titles even though the DVD case told me I was going to see "Revenge in the House of Usher"), Jess Franco manages to make himself look worse than usual. Not only does he do a half-assed job of adapting the classic Poe story "Fall of the House of Usher" but he uses 15-20 minutes of footage from one of the few good movies he's made--"Awful Dr. Orlof"--as a flashback sequence so the viewer can compare what he did in 1964 with what he did in 1981. 1981 Jess Franco does NOT look good when compared with 1964 Jess Franco.

The fault in using the old footage is embodied first in the character of "Morpho", Dr. Usher's blind (one-eyed?) assistant who is more in love with Usher's semi-undead daughter than even Usher. Morpho's make-up in the 1981 footage is pathetic when compared with the 1962 footage... when it should have been the other way around, given the improvement in the art in the two decades that passed between the production of the two films. Secondly, the old footage is simply better over all cinematography-wise. The shots are better composed and framed, more interestingly lit, and just more dramatic over-all.

As for the film overall, there is no logic to the story and the scenes appear to be strung together almost as random, with characters dropping in and out--like the horny stable boy; or important characters being introduced out of the blue in the third act--like Usher's wife, who may or may not be a ghost. We never do find out what she is or how she managed to creep around the castle without Usher's loyal housekeeper and would-be lover Helen seeing her (if she wasn't a ghost).

Speaking of Helen... if someone can explain her character arc to me, I will bow down to you as the superior reviewer. She becomes a completely different character all of a sudden. I could chalk it up to delusions on the part of Usher, but Dr. Hacker was the one who was primarily involved with her inexplicable transformation.

While watching the film, I actually did wonder on more than one occasion whether it was a satire of gothic horror films that misfired rather than a serious attempt at making a horror movie. If viewed as such, it suddenly becomes a mediocre movie instead of a terrible one. Certainly, the bad acting on the part of the men dubbing Robert Foster (as Dr. Hacker) and Howard Vernon (as Dr. Usher) gives rise to much hilarity... and the people responsible for voicing Lina Romay and the rest of the cast are almost as effective with their comedic stylings.

But I doubt this was intended as a comedy, so the film ends up here, with the rest of the cinematic trash. There are actually a few well-done scenes of horror sprinkled here and there throughout the film, but overall it's another cheap-jack Jess Franco Failure, with another of his trademark botched endings. (Free advice to filmmakers: If you're going to adapt "The Fall of the House of Usher" and you're going to have a building collapse... for God's sake, budget some miniature shots or buy some stock footage, because the way Franco does it here is a textbook example of what NOT to do.)

That said, the bad voice, the incoherent storyline, and the outrageously random behavior on the part of the characters also make this movie the exact right kind of trash for those who enjoy riffing as bad movies unfold. With the right group of friends, this movie can be a lot of fun.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Orchestral arrangements of great horror themes

Well, time and a dearth of horror films I've felt strongly enough to comment on over the past couple of years have pretty much put this blog out to pasture. But, given that it's the horror month of Halloween, I feel like posting SOMETHING here. So here's a some commentary horror movie theme arrangements by Mac Styran.

Mac Styran is a German composer who's been writing scores for a range of media projects for more than 15 years. He is a classically trained pianist who has several works available through More samples of his work can be found on his personal website.

Mac Styran at work

The videos featured here were all edited by his wife Doro Styran. They are all very well done and compliment the music perfectly.

First, here's my favorite of Styran's arrangements -- appropriately enough John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme." Styran adds a number of his own musical elements here, but he keeps what made the original tune great.

Next is Styran's take on "Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds." This version is highlighted by its perfectly timed flourishes and a nice instrumental version of "Forever Autumn"--a tune that most people butcher when they try to cover or rearrange it. I would have liked a stronger callback to the "Eve of War Theme" at the end, but otherwise this is a perfect track.

Finally, Styran has also tackled Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave's "Theme from Phantasm." The original piece is a favorite of mine, and the "Phantasm" movie holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the works that prompted me to be a writer, because I wanted to tell stories like that.

Styran's bombastic arrangement of the "Theme from Phantasm" captures the killer dwarfs and flying silver balls of death perfectly--and the balls are also the focus of the video--but I think it needed more quiet moments. It should either have built up to the powerfully noisy elements, or it should have had a quieter bridge. For me, the quiet stretches contribute even more strongly than the savage scenes to what makes "Phantasm" such a unique and creepy movie. Still, if this is any indication, Styran would be a great choice to score another entry in the "Phantasm" series if one was ever made.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bonus Scream Queen: Cherie Johnson

For the third year in a row, I bring you a flag-draped Scream Queen for the Fourth of July, officially making it a tradition.

Celebrate Independence Day with Cherie Johnson, a child actress who got her start on "Puniky Brewster" and made a successful transition to adulthood in front of the camera with roles in horror films such as "Dead Tone", "Killer Weekend" (both 2007), and "Raven" (2010).

Friday, June 7, 2013

A film of a child molester's nightmares?

Terror Toons (2001)
Starring: Beverly Lynne, Lizzie Borden, and Kelly Lui
Director: Joe Castro
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Sisters Candy (Borden) and Cindy (Lynne) are left home for the night while their parents attend a wedding. Cindy receives a DVD called "Terror Toons". When the violent, insane cartoon characters of Dr. Carnage and Max Assassin leap from the screen into the real world, the cartoon violence soon causes real blood to flow.

Regular readers probably have probably seen me rant multiple times about filmmakers needing to take their budget and available talent-pool into account when conceiving and executing projects.

"Terror Toons" is exactly the kind of horror film that SHOULD NOT be made on a tiny shoestring budget. It's abo an animated DVD (which looks atrocious) from which cartoon characters emerge to slaughter people in the real world (through painfully cheap effects and in costumes that look worse than the animated world they emerged from) and a need for copious gore effects (which the film's tiny budget apparently couldn't even handle).

There's also an issue with the casting. Candy in particular is problematic. I can't tell if she's supposed to be very young or simply retarded. In either case, the casting is bad, first and foremost because of the very, VERY bad boob job the actress is sporting. (And if she's supposed to be a young kid, then the sort of airbags she's sporting on her chest must mean she's the kind chick convicted child rapist Roman Polanski has nightmares about.)

The difficulty of getting a read on what the viewer is supposed to make of Candy is perhaps also a problem with the script... it doesn't seem like the writers put a whole lot of thought into her or any other of the characters in the film; the two cartoon killers seem to be the most realized characters around. And then there's Satan and his monologuing. Huh?

We can add the direction and camerawork to the to the parade of awfulness that is present in this flick, although all i can say about either is that aside from there obviously was a camera present, I'm not convinced the person running it had much in the way of an idea about how to set a scene. And the acting... it is almost uniformly awful. Lynne and Lui are the only two appearing that seem to have even an iota of talent; everyone else deserves to be murdered by cartoon characters come to life for thinking they should appear on film.

With all the negativity I'm spewing at this film, why did I give it even Two Stars? Well, I'm giving some credit for Lynne and Lui, a couple of semi-bright spots in the otherwise pathetic cast of actors. I'm also giving some credit for some nice looking sets once the cartoon characters invade the house and transform it into a cartoon-house (the place still looks like someone's basement or trailer, but at least some effort was made). I'm also giving some consideration for a neat idea, even if it was one that was far beyond the meager means and talent that were available to execute it.

"Terror Toons", despite a concept that seems appealing to lovers of weird movies, is a film that the vast majority of us are better off avoiding. However, it should be required viewing for those of you out there thinking about making your own movie. It's an illustration of why you need to plan your project carefully and realistically before you start. It's a film that the people involved simply were not able to do justice, and you can learn from their example and not repeat their mistake.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Knight Chills": A horror movie that captures the reality of the table-top RPG experience?

Knight Chills (2002) 
Starring: Michael Wayne Walton, Tim Jeffrey, Laura Tidwell, and DJ Perry 
Director: Katherine Hicks
 Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A mentally unstable roleplaying gamer (Walton) loses track of the lines between reality and fantasy and kills himself over the unrequited love of a part-time game-group member (Tidwell). The tragedy quickly turns to terror for the surviving gamers, as they are one by one stalked and killed by someone (or some thing) who appears to be the dead player's character.

I really wanted to like this movie. As a long-time roleplaying gamer, as well as a professional roleplaying game writer, I thought the premise of "Knight Chills"--a game group that ends up being stalked by one of the RPG characters coming to life--sounded very, very cool. I still think it's a great concept, but it's not one that is really used to its fullest potential here. Not even close.

While "Knight Chills" is better than many of the low-budget movies of its kind (the ones providing filler for DVD multipacks with names like "100 Horror Films" or "Gory Graveyards"), with overall better acting, better technical competence, and a better score, it is still crammed full of filler material and displays many of the typical cheap movie flaws... with badly scripted and redundant "character development" scenes being the most prominent of those flaws in this movie. To the film's flaws, we can add kill-scenes so lame and without resolution that we aren't even sure if the character dispatched is dead or just fainted due to low blood sugar or something.

Further, "Knight Chills' goes a great job of conveying what is must be like to be a spectator at a roleplaying game. The wife of my friend and fellow writer John Rateliff once described roleplaying game sessions as "two minutes of action crammed into four hours."

The gaming scenes in "Knight Chills" made me more fully understand what she meant than I had before. They rang true to life, with the Gamemaster (Jeffrey) and the I-game-because-my-boyfriend-likes-his-geeky-friends-and-I-like-my-boyfriend chick (Tidwell) seeming particularly realistic. And that could be the problem. RPGs ARE boring, unless you're in the game, playing a character.

So, as much as I wanted to be able to give "Knight Chills" a rave review, I can't. I can't even recommend it, unless you're a GM who wants to show his players what bad gaming protocol is.