Wednesday, March 31, 2010

'Fallen' is a superb supernatural thriller

Fallen (1998)
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, and Embeth Davidtz
Director: Nicholas Kazan
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Homicide detective John Hobbes (Washigton) captures and witnesses the execution of a serial killer... but a short time later, the murders start up again, as the demon that was doing the killing has found a new host. Will Hobbes find a way to stop a formless, immortal being that slips easily from host to host before it's too late?

"Fallen" is a slow-boil horror film that's low on the graphic violence so many people seem to crave today, but high on suspense. It's also a movie that demands the audience pay attention, because if you notice the various clues and hints scatterered thorughout, the film is that much more exciting. (The way the end loops back to the beginning is particularly cool... I was so engrossed in the going-ons that I'd forgotten the entire film is a flashback that starts with "Let me tell you about the time I almost died.")

The cast is excellent--Denzel Washington is as good in this film as he's been anywhere, I think--and the supporting cast is also great. The photography and other technical aspects are also top-notch, and it's all driven by a perfectly paced script and well-crafted characters.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where inmates run the asylum

The Mansion of Madness (aka Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon) (1972)
Starring: Claudio Brook, Arturo Hansel, David Silva, and Monica Serna
Director: Juan Lopez Moctezuma
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Gaston (Hansel) visits a remote mental hospital and finds a bizarre place where the chief doctor (Brook) has instituted the very unusual approach to curing mental illnesses described in "The System of Dr. Tarr."

"The Mansion of Madness" is based on one of Edgar Allan Poe's creepiest stories, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", and unlike so many films supposedly based on Poe's works, the originating story is still at the heart of this film. However, "The Mansion of Madness" is far bigger than the story, and far creepier. The insanity that permeates the sprawling mental hospital--which seems to be the size of a small city--and the haunted woods that surrounds it, is felt in every second of the film... and along with that madness is an ever-growing sense of surreal horror and dread.

This is probably one of the creepiest and strangest movies I've ever seen. If you like offbeat, low-key horror movies, I think you'll enjoy this one. (It drags at a couple of places, and Gaston has got to be one of the densest people on the planet that he doesn't realize that something is wrong with the asylum AND his host, but the good far outweighs the bad here.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tomie carries a grudge like no-one else!

Tomie: Rebirth (2001)

Starring: Miki Sakai, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kumiko Endou, Masaya Kikawada and Yutaka Nakajima
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A group of friends (Tsumabuki, Kikawada, and Endou) are stalked by the undying Tomie after two of them cover up one of her deaths.

"Tomie: Rebirth" is a drab and boring entry in the film series based on Junji Ito's classic "Tomie" horror comics. The characters are uninteresting, Tomie is more irritating than scary, and the chills and terrors are so few and far between so as to be barely worth mentioning. In fact, the post image is more interesting and disturbing than anything in the actual movie.

This sequel is almost as bad as the original "Tomie" movie, being elevated only slightly above it thanks to a creepy plotline where Tomie returns from the dead by possessing cute, innocent Hitomi, and a sequence where Tomie is reborn from the surface of a painting that had been smeared with her blood. These are also the only elements of the film that come close to matching the chills that Ito's "Tomie" comic book tales inspire when read.

"Tomie: Rebirth" is a film you can skip, even if you're the biggest fan of the "Tomie" series on the planet. It's definately not the first of the series you should watch... that should be "Tomie: Replay" or "Tomie: Another Face", both of which are superior efforts to this one. (The "Tomie" films can be watched in pretty much any order; they are indepedent of each other, and they even have all different casts and directors each time.)

(As of this writing, all the "Tomie" movies and graphic novels are out-of-print in North America.)

Saturday Scream Queen:
Jacqueline Lovell

Using the stage name Sarah St. James, Jacqueline Lovell was a very busy nude model and adult film star during the mid-1990s. She appeared in hundreds of magazine layouts and photo shoots for "adult" websites and online services, as well several dozen softcore and hardcore pornographic films.

Among the producers she worked for was B-movie maven Charles Band, first appearing in sci-fi and fantasy-themed softcore films made for his Surrender Cinema production unit, but later showing herself to have talent for acting beyond disrobing and moaning on cue when she appeared in the Band-directed horror classics "Hideous!" and "Head of the Family".

Lovell gave birth to a daughter in 2000 and for a time left show business to focus on her family. Since 2005, however, she has been taking small parts in television shows and low-budget horror movies.

Click here to read reviews of a few of Lovell's films at The Charles Band Collection.

Friday, March 26, 2010

'When Evil Calls' isn't much past its novelty

When Evil Calls (2007)
Starring: Jennifer Lim, Sean Pertwee, Chris Barrie, Lois Winston, Gemma Chan, Lucy Barker, Dominique Pinon, Rick Warden, Oscar Pearce and Luke Lynch
Director: Johannes Roberts
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A deal that one girl (Lim) makes with an evil spirit (Pearce) unleashes death and mayhem via text messages in a British high school.

"When Evil Calls" is a film version of the first-ever horror series produced for broadcast over cellphones. Each of the 20 episodes was 2-3 minutes long, offering up sex and gory violence brought on by evil magic--magic that causes wishes to come true in twisted and bloody ways. Here, they have been linked together with framing sequences featuring Sean Pertwee as a crazy janitor who is relating the horrible events and trying to be more and more like the Crypt Keeper as he gets more and more drunk.

Given its history, I acknowledge it as a novelty and probably even as a milestone. However, as a movie--and this is how I came to it and how most people will come to it--"When Evil Calls" is a run-of-the-mill low-budget horror effort with predictable and/or far-fetched stories that we've seen done better elsewhere, but which manages to rise slightly above similar material due to a better-than-usual cast. (Chris Barrie was particularly fun as the most oblivous school headmaster ever.)

However, when they were cutting the movie together, they should have trimmed parts of the original episodes. There was an annoying repetion in the film--over and over again, it established the content of text message recieved by victims of the evil magic received, something even the dimmest viewer would be aware of after the third or fourth time. I understand why that detail has to be reestablished every time a new episode is released in a serial, but there's no need for it when the pieces are packaged as a whole.

It also occurs to me that a better title for the film (and the original series) would have been "When Evil Texts". That is, after all, what is going on.

As a curiosity, the film might be worth seeing. Otherwise, I'm sure there are better things out there for you to spend your time on.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

'Darkness' is condusive for sleep

Darkness (2003)
Starring: Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, and Iain Glenn
Director: Jaume Blaguero
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Regina (Paquin), a troubled teen, moves with her family to a house with a dark and mysterious past in the countryside. Soon, strange events start to occur--whenever darkness settles over the house, it's as though a transformation takes place and other residents start to appear. Her parents (Olin and Glenn) remain oblivious to the growing danger and terror, so Regina comes to the realization that it is up to her to unlock the secrets hidden in the house's past if the evil growing within it is to be stopped before it consumes her family.

"Darkness" is a movie that tries to be a haunted house story and fails miserably. The primary reason for this is the same that doomed the Worst Big Screen Release Horror Movie of 2005 "Boogeyman" (my review, at Movies You Should Die Before You See); build-up without pay-off does not make a horror movie, it makes audiences bored. The same true of spooky images of shadowy figures standing just out of view of the principle characters--if nothing comes of them, they stop being disturbing. Some of these would-be horror movie makers would benefit from watching a horror movie or two, I think.

That said, I think "Darkness" will appeal to teenagers, but few others. They'll be able to identify with Regina, as she is the only member of her family with a brain in her head. (The father is coming unglued, her little brother is behaving strangely... yet her thick-skulled mother doesn't notice and refuses to listen when it's pointed out to her.) Yep... the Anna Paquin character will be seen as Everyteen by the 14-19 year-old set. The rest of us will be bored, as "Darkness" contains no scares, a plot that is so muddled it's hard to tell whether the actors are doing a good job or not, because one isn't really sure what they're supposed to be reacting to.

It isn't until the final 15 minutes or so that those of us who aren't teenagers will find something to entertain us in "Darkness," as the secrets of the house come to light and the plot finally stars going somewhere. FINALLY, we get something other than ghosts standing around in rooms and staring at unawares Paquin, Glenn, and Olin, and we get some genuine scares; this final sequence earns the pic a whole Star by itself. The ending of the film is also pretty chilling (even if I'm a bit unclear as to exactly what it means). Still, it's too little and way too late to save "Darkness" from being just another badly done movie.

(Note: I watched the DVD release of the "Unrated Version." I'm not sure what in it makes it "unrated"--other than, I suppose, they didn't send that particular cut to the Ratings Board--so maybe the theatrical release wasn't as tedious.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Beware the voodoo sex dolls of 'Baba Yaga'!

Baba Yaga (aka "Kiss Me, Kill Me" or "The Devil Witch") (1973)
Starring: Isabelle De Funes, Carroll Baker, and George Eastman
Director: Carrado Farina
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Commercial photographer Valentina (De Funes) becomes the target of the twisted effections of immortal, sadistic lesbian witch Baba Yaga (Baker). As Valentina's models and friends start falling victim to mysterious curses, she turns to her filmmaker friend Arno (Eastman) for help. Will they together be able to overcome supernatural lesbianic powers as old time itself?

"Baba Yaga" is a decidedly weird movie. From beginning to end, it has a dreamlike quality about it, and as it progresses and Valentina is snared increasingly by Baba Yaga's dark powers, it starts to feel like a nightmare. Usually, films of the disjointed, somewhat pretentious variety that is represented here bug me. But here, we have a film that is so well done that I can accept the quirky, illogical and random nature of many of the events. The acting also reflects the dream-sense that permeates the film, with De Funes being particularly fun (and sexy) to watch.

Part horror movie, part bizarro softcore Euro-trash sexploitation flick, "Baba Yaga" is strange and well-makde enough that it's worth a look. The climax where Valentina is trapped by Baba Yaga and a bondage voodoo sex-doll come to life, and Arno is attempting to rescue her, is extremely well done.

I hesitate to recommend "Baba Yaga" as a film you should seek out, but I found it an interesting movie.

(Trivia: The movie is based on an Italian comic series, "Valentina". I read a few album reprints when I was a kid, and I remember them as being strange and sexy, just like this movie. De Funes' appearance is also very much like the character appears in Crepax's drawings, which are displayed during the opening credits. So, I guess this sets "Baba Yaga" aside as one of those rare successful comic book film adaptations.)

(Special Bonus Trivia: Artist Crepax based the look of Valentina on actress Louise Brooks. You can check out pictures of the real thing at the companion blog Shades of Gray by clicking here.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'The Return' isn't really worth the trip

The Return (2006)
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O'Brien, Sam Shepard, J.C. MacKenzie, and Adam Scott
Director: Asif Kapadia
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A traveling sales-rep (Gellar) starts having strange dreams and visions when she returns to Texas for the first time in years. When she tries to unlock a mystery that dates to her childhood, she finds herself remembering places she's never been before, and eventually being haunted by phantom voices and stalked by a phantom killer. Will she uncover the truth before she completely loses her mind?

"The Return" had a lot of potential. It still does, if someone were to edit it down to about 53 minutes. It's got good acting, gorgeous cinematography and production design, and a decent (if obvious and predictable) story... but everything is draaaaaged out and the result is that the movie is boooooooring. What tension is built disspates over drawn-out sequences, and subsequently any pay-off feels either pointless or forced.

In fact, because the movie is such a meandering mess, the whole experience is one of emptiness and pointlessness. It's neither scary nor romantic enough to birng about the sort of emotions in the viewer that it is hoping to inspire. Even the climax--where this feeling should dissipate and be replaced with relief and maybe even happiness--has an empty sort of feeling to it. (I wish I could explain more, but doing so might give the movie away completely... and I try not to give too many spoilers in this forum.)

The film also suffers from the fact that we don't really get to know any of the characters in it. Even Gellar's character is a bit of a cypher... although given her nature that's forgivable. But her father, her "rescuer", and even her pursuer should have been developed more. This might have helped to raise the tension a bit, and it might even have helped justify the running time.

"The Return" would have made a great "Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery" episode. It could even have been a decent movie--all the elements are here, they're just not used properly. As it stands, the film is worth seeing so you can admire the beautiful camerawork and production design. Just don't expect an exciting viewing experience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Journalism student receives tip from ghost

It was a toss-up whether to post this review here or at the Watching the Detectives blog. The presense of the ghost made me choose to post it here.

Scoop (2006)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Woody Allen, and Ian McShane
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sondra (Johansson), a bubble-headed journalism student, is contacted by the ghost of recently deceased journalist Joe Strombel (McShane). He wants her to write the scoop he didn't have a chance to: That the dashing and handsome man-about-town Peter Lyman (Jackman) is actually a serial killer. With the help of a third-rate magician (Allen), Sondra goes about getting close to Lyman in order to gather the evidence needed to prove Strombel's accusation from beyond the grave, and get her scoop of a lifetime. But what will Sondra do once she starts falling in love with Lyman?

"Scoop" is a lightweight mystery comedy. The mystery isn't really much of a mystery, and the comedy is of a type that will make you smile rather than laugh.

The characters are, for the most part, well enough acted and the story moves along in a straight-forward fashion, unburdened by a desire on the part of the writer/director to show off his cleverness by throwing in either painfully predictable "twists", or developments that are completely unsupported by the plot. Allen avoids the very thing that dooms many movies of this type that are being made by younger, hipper filmmakers. My hat is off to him for not trying to make this movie seem any deeper than it is, but simply letting it stand as the plain little movie that it is.

I am also impressed by the way that an element of the film that bothered me at the beginning turned out to be one that I very much enjoyed by the end. There are scenes of characters on board Charon's barge as it crosses into the Afterlife, and the first couple of times Allen cut to this mystical scene, I was irritated, because I didn't feel it fit the nature of the film, despite the fact thee's a ghost popping in and out of the story. I felt it was too much of a fantasy element for a film that is, basically, grounded in the modern, everyday world.

However, by the end of the film, Allen pays off the River Styx scenes to the point where, looking back, they're probably the funnest part of the film.

One thing that isn't as fun is the character Allen plays in the film. His character is so socially awkward and downright dumb that it's painfully embarrassing to watch him attempt to mingle at the parties Sondra drags him to in her quest for dirt on Peter Lyman. It also doesn't help anything that there doesn't seem to be a connection between Allen and Johansson on screen--yes, they are delivering lines from the same script on the same set, but there's no sense that either actor is really paying attention to what the other actor is saying or doing. There's no spark between the two, and the comedic timing of every scene they have together is likewise off.

(It's tempting to say that Allen has "lost it" now that he's in his 70s, but this isn't so. He does fine in his scene with McShane, and he's okay when interacting with bit players and even Jackman... there simply seems to be something absent between him and Johansson. However, Allen must be happy with the result, because Johannsson is starring in at least one more Allen production.)

I think anyone who enjoys watching the lighthearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s will get a kick out of "Scoop". Those out there looking for a film with "twists" or lots of sex and violence are going to be bored. (Although Johansson fiills out a swimsuit quite nicely.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

'Rise' is a decent vampire flick

Rise: Blood Hunter (2007)
Starring: Lucy Liu, Michael Chiklis, James D'Arcy, and Margo Harshman
Director: Sebastian Gutierrez
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Features reporter Sadie Blake (Liu) is raped and murdered, but that's only the beginning. She wakes up in the morgue as a vampire, and soon sets out to take revenge on those who killed her and to stop them from doing what they did to her to anyone else. An obsessed police detective (Chiklis) who lost his daughter to the same killers (Harshman) is also on their trail, but will they help each other, or ruin each others quests?

"Rise: Blood Hunter" plays as if it was scripted from the outline of someone's "Hunter: The Reckoning" or "Vampire: The Masquerade" RPG campaign. If you understand what that entails, you'll either know this movie is for you right now, or you'll know it absolutely isn't.

(The title is sort of a dead giveaway if you've seen any of White Wolf's Storyteller games over the past 15 years. There's also the fact that Liu character tells her editor that the "vampires" she just published an article about were a bunch of wanna-bes that were playing "like D&D... but with nipple-rings" makes me believe even stronger there's a gaming campaign somewhere in this film's evolution.)

That aside, it's basically a paint-by-numbers modern-day vampire flick, with a victim who rises from the dead and wants to retain her humanity while getting revenge for her condition. It's an engaging enough movie, but there's nothing terribly original here, and there won't be any surprises for well-seasoned horror fans. (And those White Wolf gamers will find even fewer surprises... although that may be a selling point.)

There's nothing all that bad about the flick, but there's also nothing to make you go "wow!" while you're watching it.

Technically, it's a very pretty movie. The camera-work is decent, and the director has a good notion of now to stage and pace an action flick. He's a little less adept at invoking horror and dread, having to rely mostly on "Boo!"-type scares, although the scene where Liu's character wakes up in the morgue shows that Gutierrez might be able to produce a scarier movie. It's definately the horror high point of the film. (On the other hand, he probably should not attempt comedy. The two scenes that are clearly intended to be comic relief fall flatter than a pancake.)

Acting-wise, the film is mostly decent. Everyone is playing figures more than characters, except for Liu... and she demonstrates that she probably should stick to light-weight action roles or utter coldhearted bitch parts. She was at her weakest when she was trying to portray emotions such as sorry or uncertainty, with only the scene where she calls her mother on the phone after her "death" being the only such scene where her performance is convincing. She does fine as the hardbitten, vampire-asskicker, but her range seems to fail her otherwise.

In the end, I think lovers of slick-looking, Beautiful People Vampires movies will enjoy this film. (You'll enjoy it twice as much if you prefer playing Toreador or Ventrue Clan vampires in White Wolf games.) It might be worth seeing for the rest of you horror and action fans out there, just don't expect anything you haven't seen before.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wes Craven tries to recapture
Freddy Success with 'Shocker'

Shocker (1989)
Starring: Peter Berg, Mitch Pileggi, Cami Cooper and Michael Murphy
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The dreams of a teenaged psychic, Jonathan (Berg), leads to the arrest and eventual execution to a TV repairman who was also a prolific serial killer (Pileggi). But when the maniac is put to death in the electric chair, his paranormal powers are awakened... and he becomes a malevolent force made of pure electricity and resumes his murder spree. Can Jonathan stop the mass-murderer a second time before he kills everyone he loves?

"Shocker" is a gory action/comedy with some horror elements, but it is really more of an action film. It's a movie that teenagers--and adults who never quite made it past 16 mentally--will appreciate for its goofy, brainless quality. Anyone who likes to engage the brain while watching a film will quickly want to turn off the DVD player in disgust.

The film suffers first and foremost from the fact that it was obvious why it was made: Writer/director Wes Craven was waving a bottle around in an attempt to capture the same lightning that led to the creation of Freddy Krueger and the highly successful "A Nightmare on Elm Street" film series. However, where the the Freddy phenom grew out of a film that feels like a genuine artistic effort (not to mention being a damn scary movie), "Shocker" feels like a calculated effort to create another "film franchise". Even as a kid, I noticed the shadow of the marketing machine lurking just beyond the edge of the frame... and watching the film again some 20 years later, it's distractingly evident.

The obvious hope that this would be the "pilot episode" for another series of movies means this film rates among the worst trash. It's somewhat redeemed by the fact the cast are pretty decent actors--I was startled to see Mitch Pileggi in a COMPLETELY different role than anything he's played since--the idea of a "technological ghost", and by the pure insanity of the nature of the final showdown between our dashing young hero and the insane, disembodied serial killer. (I won't go into detail, because if the film seems interesting to you, it's far better if you are surprised.)

Later this year, we'll be treated to a remake of "Shocker" (IMBBPro lists it as "Wes Craven's Shocker"). While it undoubtedly will suck as badly as the majority of the idealess, vapid remakes that so many filmmakers are producing these days, this is one of those movies that could be improved by a remake. IF they make a movie that's viewed as "let's just make a great movie" instead of the launch pad for a series.

Saturday Scream Queen:
Jennifer Love Hewitt

Jennifer Love Hewitt is perhaps best known to horror movie fans for her role as Julie in slasher flicks "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer", but she is also the star of the long-running television series "Ghost Whisperer" where she plays a woman who sees dead people, talks to them, and convinces them to travel to the afterlife before they start tormenting the living.

A talented actress, as well as very beautiful (even if a friend of mine likes to point out that she wears too much eye make-up), Hewitt started her career as a child actress on television, but made a successful transition into life as an adult actress, moving from playing teenagers menaced by killers in horror movies to playing a mother in her current series.

Although Hewitt's film roles have mostly been in comedies, she is returning to big screen horror with the upcoming film "Dead Whispers" that is slated to start filming in April of this year. She will reportedly play a young woman troubled by voices and haunting nightmares.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tomie returns again and again and again

Tomie: Another Face (1999)
Starring: Runa Nagai
Director: Toshirô Inomata
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

One of the greatest talents to ever work in horror comics is Japan's Junji Ito. His tales never fail to send a chill down a reader's spine, and his style is one that even those who "hate" manga will be able to appreciate. (If you're a horror fan and you've never experienced Ito's work, go immediately to by clicking here and order one or more of his books. You're missing out of pure horror genius.)

Ito's most famous creation is that of Tomie, a mysterious teenaged temptress who makes men and boys fall in love with her and drives them insane so they eventually murder her and destroy themselves. Once the carnage is over and before the horror has subsided, Tomie rises from the dead to start the cycle all over again. It doesn't matter how efficiently her body is disposed of... Tomie ALWAYS comes back.

Ito's comic has been adapted into nine different movies as of this writing and they vary greatly in quality.

The first "Tomie" movie (review here) was so awful and boring that it nearly put me off any others in the series. However, my love of the "manga" tales led me to give what I believed to be the next installment--"Tomie: Replay" (review here)--a try. I'm glad I did, because it's a far superior movie, and it calls attention to a fascinating aspect of the monster that is Tomie that even Ito's original tales did not bring into such clear focus.

However, I recently discovered that there was a made-for-TV (or possibly direct-to-video) effort released shortly after the first theatrical "Tomie" film, "Tomie: Another Face". When I further learned it was an anthology film, it became even more of a must-see for me, as I love that format.

The first tale is what you'd call a "standard Tomie story". It's set in a high school setting, and she's one side of a love triangle with the story's narrator... who has lost her boyfriend to Tomie. Tomie's already dead when the story starts, but she returns to prevent the narrator and her boyfriend from reuniting. This, in turn, leads to some drastic high school romance drama that would give even Romeo and Juliet pause. It's a somewhat dull story, but it's got a punchy ending that more than makes up for its overall tepidness.

In the second tale, a professional photographer, who has spent his professional life trying to capture the image of a mysterious woman he developed a crush on while in school, encounters a young girl who looks just like her. Her name turns out to be Tomie and she agrees to model for him so long as he makes her look beautiful in the pictures. Needless to say, things end badly for the shutter-bug. The creep factor is far higher throughout this segment of the film, and, once again, we're given great ending. Unfortunately, despite being built around an element that's appeared in several Ito stories--photos always reveal Tomie's unnatural nature, as well as the fact that her beauty is barely skin deep--this tale presents her in the role of a tart from the beginning. Tomie just isn't Tomie when she's got make-up caked on and is dancing for dollars in dive bars.

In the third tale, we find another Tomie standard set-up... a nebbish loser is wrapped around her finger, and she uses him as the means to kill someone who is immune to her charms or otherwise onto her evil nature. In this case, the target of her wrath is a former coroner who witnessed one of her many resurrections two years earlier and who has been researching and stalking her ever since. The climax to this third tale is one that Ito himself could have cooked up, and viewers will chuckles with mingle with Tomie's fading laughter as the credits being to role. (And that's not a spoiler.... Come on, you know that no one will ever truly destroy Tomie!)

"Tomie: Another Face" is a solid low-budget horror film. While the cinematography is a bit weak and the shot-on-video feel is flat and all-pervasive, it's got a good atmospheric soundtrack and the cast all give a good accounting of themselves. The choice of the actress to play Tomie (Luna Nagai this time out) is a good choice, better than the actress who played Tomie in the original film, who looked entirely too old. (Luna Nagai may be the best actress I've seen as Tomie yet... she is great at switching between being a simpering girlie-girl and a bitch in an instant. For some reason, each Tomie film seems to have a different actress in the part. Maybe they are used as vehicles for the Japanenese Lindsey Lohan's of the Moment when they are made?)

The biggest drawback of the film is that while it stays true to the themes and overall feel of Ito's Tomie stories--something that it enhanced by the anthology format--at no time does "Another Face" manage to match Ito's work in creepiness factor. They come close at a couple of points, but the filmmakers never quite manage to equal their source material. While this may be partly due to the obvious budgetary constraints it was made under, it is also the fault of the director and cinematographer. Better lighting and tighter editing could have gone a long way to making the film far creepier.

"Tomie: Another Face" is far better than the first film in the series, but you should watch "Tomie: Replay" before you bother with this film. (Or, even better, read some of Ito's original Tomie short stories. (Unfortunately, as of this writing, all English-language editions of them are out of print. Actually, even the DVD is out of print as of this writing. But, Tomie always returns....)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

'Dead Birds' is scary, but not scary enough

Dead Birds (2004)
Starring: Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Isaiah Washington, Patrick Fugit, Mark Boone, Jr., Michael Shannon, Muse Watson and Harris Mann
Director: Alex Turner
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A band of outlaws who have violently robbed a bank during the American Civil War, hide out in the manor of a deserted plantation to rest before making their way to Mexico. They soon learn that while human beings may not live there, other creatures do.

"Dead Birds" blends standard elements of haunted house tales and monster movies, puts them in a Civil War setting, and presents them in an atmospheric film that unfolds with a steady pace that is punctuated by horrorfic, shocking moments.

While there are a few clunky moments--the way the curse upon the plantation is revealed and the way a couple of the characters are written out both feel like not enough thought was put into how to properly fit them into the flow of the movie--the overall tone of the film grows steadily more nightmare-like: it's a film that starts darkly and things only get worse. The artful camerawork and excellent use of lighting and sound is also at a level that is all-too-rarely-seen in horror movies these days. The same is true of the acting... there isn't a single actor who appears in the movie who doesn't come across as completely believable.

Unfortunately, the ending leaves a little bit to be desired. After a fantastic build-up, made all-the-better in restrospect because the final scenes of the movie have been very carefully foreshadowed from the time the outlaws first reached the edge of the cornfield surrounding the manor, inconsistencies in how the curse manifests itself in regards to a couple of the characters serves to muddy and undermine what should be the most shocking moment of the film. Those above-mentioned clunky moments rattle quite loudly as far as the "shock ending" goes.

"Dead Birds" is a well-acted and well-directed horror film. It is one of the best efforts in recent years, but it fails to fully realize its potential at the end. It's still worth a look if you enjoy horror movies.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Paddy's Day, me laddies!

It's St. Paddy's Day as I write this, so here's a bonus review to celebrate: My take on the original "Leprechaun" movie!

Leprechaun (1992)
Starring: Warwick Davis, Jennifer Aniston, John Sanderford, Ken Olant, Robert Hy Gorman, and Mark Holton
Director: Mark Jones
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

An angry leprechaun (Davis) goes on killing spree while searching for his stolen pot o' gold.

This may come across as damning with faint praise, but "Leprechaun" remains the best movie that Jennifer Aniston has been in, and she actually shows that she can act. (The tight pants she wears also help bolster her performance.)

With the bashing of an overratd star out of the way (although she wasn't a star yet when she made this film), how does the rest of the movie measure up? Fairly decently. The evil, murderous leprechaun of the title dispatches his victims with a level of gore and glee that only Freddy Krueger can match... and some of the characters are so annoying you're almost happy to see him bump them off. (On the other hand, the characters that we're supposed to be rooting for, are well enough scripted and acted that we care if they live or die.)

The film goes a great job of balancing comedy and horror, but it sags a bit in the middle, and the ending threatens to sputter and stall as it's gearing up for the climax. With some 10 or so minutes snipped out here and there, this could be one of the great horror comedies. (Maybe the TV version does just that, although I suspect they've edited out the wrong bits. This is one film where I'd hate to see the gore edited out... some of it's intermingled with the movie's funniest moments.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The leprechaun is in da hood!

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'm reviewing the very strange horror/comedy "Leprechaun in the 'Hood". (I'll review the sequel tomorrow.)

Leprechaun 5 (aka "Leprechaun in the 'Hood") (2000)
Starring: Warwick Davis, Ice-T, A.T. Montgomery, Rashan Nall, Red Grant and Coolio
Director: Rob Spera
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The story presented revolve around three struggling rappers (Grant, Montgomery and Nall) who steal the magical flute that was the key to the runaway success of crimelord/recording mogul Mack Daddy (Ice-T). Before they can take advantage of their new opportunities, however, trhey find themselves hunted by both Mack Daddy and the revenge-hungry leprechaun (Warwick) from whom Mack Daddy originally stole the flute.

A rapping leprechaun shouldn't work, but somehow it does in this film. The horror elements are chilling and the comedic elements are howlingly funny. This isn't Shakespear, but Mack Daddy and the Leprechaun sharing a joint, and the Leprechaun performing a rap song with zombie hooker backup singers are noteable moments in the history of comedy.

The film really succeeds due to the strength of the talented cast, all of whom show equal talent for comedy and drama. Ice-T is, of course, Ice-T--no matter what his character may be called--but he does a fine job at lampooning himself and his image.

If you're looking for a strange movie that will be a hit at pretty much any Bad Movie Night, you can't go wrong with the this one. It's a very different film from the original in the series, something which can either make or break a sequel, but I think it's well worth the time devoted to watching it. It's a rare, well-done horror/comedy.

(While I'm thinking about it... why are there dramedies but no homedies ?)

Monday, March 15, 2010

'Back to tha Hood' is a return to crappiness

We wrap up the run-up to St. Paddy's day with the fifth (and so far final) sequel to "Leprechaun". But with the Harry Potter series coming to an end, Warwick Davis is going to have to make a living somehow....

Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003)
Starring: Warwick Davis, Tangi Miller, Page Kennedy, Sherrie Jackson, Donzaleigh Abernathy and Laz Alonzo
Director: Steven Ayromlooi
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Emily (Miller) and her ghetto peeps (Alonzo, Jackson and Kennedy) find a treasure chest belonging to an evil leprechaun (Davis). When they start spending the leprechaun's cheese on bling and hoopdies, he claws his way back from the very depths of Hell itself to recover what is his in the most gangsta of ways.

"Back 2 tha Hood" is a step down in quality from the previous film in the series, with an illogical setup (what is the magical lair of a leprechaun who protected the treasure of European kings doing under South Central Los Angeles?), a cast of pimps, ho's, drug dealers crooked cops and potheads that mostly unsympathetic and therefore the leprechaun seems more like he's doing a public service than being evil (only two characters "don't deserve what's coming to them" out of the whole cast), and the jokes just aren't that funny.

Then there's the fact that the novelty of the leprechaun killing gangbangers and potheads wore off with "Leprechaun in the 'Hood". A clever angle can go along way to obscuring other shortcomings, but this film doesn't even have that. (I wondered in my review from yesterday why there aren't any homedies. I think this film has explained why such a category doesn't exist.)

Like "Leprechaun 4", this is a film that probably gets funnier as you get drunker. Also like "Leprechaun 4", it's a film that you can skip without missing much. It is a little better, but not by much.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Monster o' the Irish goes inter-stellar

As a run-up to St. Patrick's Day, I'm posting reviews of some of the "Leprechaun" movies.

Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997)
Starring: Warwick Davis, Rebekah Carlton, Brent Jasmer, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Tim Colceri and Guy Siner
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The efforts of a space-faring evil leprechaun (Davis) to woo an alien princess (Carlton) are interrupted by a group of mercenaries and a mad scientist who carry off both the princess and the gold. The leprechaun doesn't take kindly to having his treasures stolen, and he goes about executing gory and bizarre revenge.

Take a second-rate horror comedy and cross it with a third-rate sci-fi monster flick and you have "Leprechaun 4."

I give the filmmakers credit for coming with a crazy idea--which reportedly came about when an executive at Tristar Pictures had Tom Hanks' face on a poster for "Apollo 13" replaced with the Leprechaun's face--even if the end result isn't quite up to the original film. I also give them credit for having the insight for taking a creature that had basically been played out as a straight horror property over the course of the previous films and going all-out comedic with it.

Unfortunately, for all the credit I give them, it doesn't change the fact that the film is rather dull during its first half. It isn't until late in the movie, after the leprechaun retrieves his princess and unleashes a second monster on the spaceship, that things get interesting. And even then, the film is a little too slow movie, never reaching the level of energy that the concept requires. The jokes never come fast enough for the viewer to not guess the punchline before it arrives, and the gore is nowhere near plentiful enough. In fact, it's near non-existent.

It's a movie that will inspire a few laughs if you're sober, but it is funnier if you have a few beers onboard and the brain isn't quite as sharp as it might otherwise be.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Debra Mayer

Since 1999 and her first starring role in Charles Band's dark comedy "Blood Dolls," Debra Mayer has been one of Full Moon's go-to leading ladies. Click here to read reviews of some of her films at companion blog The Charles Band Collection.

Friday, March 12, 2010

'Tomie: Replay' is a rare sequel
that improves on the original

Tomie: Replay (2000)
Starring: Sakaya Yamaguchi, Yosuke Kubozuka, Masatoshi Matsuo, and Mai Hosho
Director: Tomijiro Mitsuishi
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Yumi (Yamaguchi) receives her father's journal following his disappearance, and she discovers that a name keeps coming up in it: Tomie. Meanwhile, Fumihito (Kubozuka) discovers that his best friend Takeshi (Matsuo) has become obsessed with a girl named Tomie. An accidental meeting between the teens cause them to combine their efforts to locate this mysterious woman, but when they eventually do, they discover that Tomie (Hosho) is beauty and beast wrapped into one.

After the first, awful "Tomie" movie, I almost didn't bother with this one. That first Tomie film is so bad that I posted my review of it at the Movies to Die Before Seeing blog instead of here.

I'm glad I did decide to watch more Tomie films, as "Tomie: Replay" is closer in tone and approach to the original Junji Ito "Tomie" stories, and it has some thoroughly scary moments in it. It also sheds some light on the character of Tomie, giving her an almost sympathetic side. (I say "almost", because she is a monster, through and through.)

Among the highlights of this "Tomie" film (aside from the above-mentioned effort to add a little depth to the monster behind the perfect beauty), there are some nice sequences involving Tomie "regenerating" in more than one place at once that underscore how deadly and destructive her full potential might be. The film also offers a way to kill Tomie for good. It's something that I don't recall from the comic, but it's something that explains why she keeps coming back from the dead. It's an effective departure from the comics that enhances the source material instead of detract from it.)

The film is not without its flaws, though. The frightening scenes (like when Yumi and Fumihito visit Takeshi's apartment, when Yumi's father resurfaces, and when Yumi finally comes face to face with Tomie) are separated by stretches where the film feels like it is being performed by sleepwalkers. Oddly, Tomie feels like the most alive character in the entire film, because she is the only character that projects energy outside scenes of horror. Despite the extremely low-key acting, the movie never gets boring--there's a sense of tension and dread throughout from the opening scene to the very end.

"Tomie: Replay" is a flawed film, but it captures the work of Junji Ito nicely. I think it's worth seeing. However, I post this, "Tomie: Replay" appears to be out of print on DVD, both as a stand-alone and in a multipack.

NOTE: For those who might not be familiar with this film series, "Tomie" was originally a series of comic book horror shorts from Japanese writer/artist Junji Ito. In those tales, Tomie is a mysterious creature that looks like a gorgeous teenaged girl but who inspires the most violent of passions in any man she deals with. Gory murders follow, usually including the death (and rebirth) of Tomie herself. It's a very creepy series and well worth checking out if you enjoy well done horror comics.

If you want to read my review of the original "Tomie" film, click here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

'Death in Charge' is excellent horror short

Death In Charge (2008)
Starring: Marina Benedict, Kylie Chalia and Gillian Shure
Director: Devi Snively
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When an indifferent mother (Shure) mistakes the Grim Reaper (Benedict) for a babysitter and rushes off for the night, Death gains a new perspective on life while spending an evening with a nine-year-old girl (Chalia).

"Death in Charge" is an interesting film that packs more interesting character development into its 15-minute running time than many films manage to do with 115 minutes. Most impressive about the film is the take on the personification of Death, and actress Marina Benedict manages to bring many dimensions to this character, dimensions that range from humorous to chilling. (It's funny to see Death try to get the attention of a mother so preoccupied with her upcoming date that she can't tell the Grim Reaper from a goth babysitter, but it's chilling to watch Death go about her business as the film draws to a close.)

Well-staged and well-acted, the main thrust of the film has us see Death learning about the little joys of life from a little girl, in a part of the film that is humorous and touching... even if we know that something is going to go wrong. And that "something" is when the girl callously kills a bunch of Sea Monkeys, because she is disgusted by the fact they don't resemble the cartoon animals on the box when they come to life in the water. Benedict manages to convey heartbreak as Death--who had been enjoying eating Mac 'n' Cheese, playing video games, and seeing the Sea Monkeys spring to life before her very eyes--sadly remembers her reason for being as she watches the Sea Monkeys die.

Christopher Lee vs. the Devil Cult

The Devil Rides Out (aka "The Devil's Bride") (1967)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene, and Patrick Mower
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Gentleman adventurers the Duke of Richleau (Lee) and his friend Rex Van Ryn (Greene) discover their young friend Simon Aaron (Mower) has fallen in with a Satanic cult masquerading as an astrological society. They stage a rather heavy-handed intervention, ultimately carrying off Simon and a young woman named Tanith (Arrighi). Turns out, Tanith has been chosen to be the consort of a demonic entity--the Goat of Mendes--and soon nefarious cult leader Mocata (Gray) is turning the full force of his supernatural powers on the Duke and his friends.

Although ostensibly a horror movie, "The Devil Rides Out" also has the flavor of the old fashioned action serials like "Bulldog Drummond." The Duke and his friend Rex, for all the Duke's expertise with the supernatural, are a pair of dashing, classic adventurers, and the tone of the film is more akin to one of those classic adventure tales, with a heavy dose of the supernatural via Mocata's Satanic cult thrown in.

Speaking of Mocata, Charles Gray has never been as sinister as he is here. Not only is he performing at the top of his game, but the character's ability to remote-control his followers gives rise to some of the film's most suspenseful moments.

Christopher Lee also gives one of the best performances of his career in this film. Not only is he at his most commanding and heroic, but, unlike so many other movies he appeared in, the director takes full advantage of Lee's ability to dominate a scene. The Duke of Richleau as portrayed by Lee is every bit the impressive figure the story makes him out to be. And the battle of occult skill, will, and personality that he engages in with Mocata is believable--and satisfactory in its resolution--because of the way Lee's presence shines in the film.

In fact, this is another film where director Terence Fisher pretty much has every actor, every set element, and every special effect and film edit, working at the best possible level. He had a gift for making these low-budget Hammer Film releases look like they were made for ten times what they cost.

"The Devil Rides Out" may not be a Hammer Films release that gets a lot of attention, but it's definitely one of the best films that the company produced. The mix of horror and adventure, along with some rather clever plot-twists as the story unfolds, keeps the viewer engaged from beginning to end.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

'Quarantine' brings nothing new to the screen

Quarantine (2008)
Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Steve Harris, Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Rade Serbedzija and Greg Germann
Director: John Eric Dowdle
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A television reporter and her cameraman (Carpenter and Harris) are trapped in an apartment building with a dozen other people who are being turned into rabid killers by a strange disease.

"Quarantine" is a predictable monster/zombie movie that is set apart somewhat by the clever device of having the camera recording the events present within the story, with the camera operator being one of the characters. It's a film that will hold your attention with a number of good scares and plenty of intensity, but it won't offer a single surprise if you're a seasoned horror movie watcher. (And, given the film's R-rating, I don't think the audience will have many in it who haven't seen this kind of story half a dozen times before.

The actors all do decent jobs, but they can't do anything about the fact that there isn't anything in this film you haven't seen before. (The lack originality of the film is even more profound that it seems on the surface, as it's an American remake of Spanish film from 2007 titled "[REC]").

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good concept killed by too low a budget

The Sandman (1996)
Starring: A.J. Richards, Terry J. Lipko, Rita Gutowski, James Viront and Matthew Jason Walsh
Director: J.R. Bookwalter
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A romance novelist (Richards) suffering from insomnia discovers that a monstrous creature is killing his neighbors in their sleep. Will he find a way to stop before he or his girlfreind (Gutowski) become its next victims?

"The Sandman" is a low-budget horror film that has a cool idea at its core but it is one that ineptly implemented from a writing and filmmaking point of view.

First of all, the script is sloppily written, with a major extraneous character that comes and goes throughout the film and whose presence ends up not adding anything to the film but a few mild chuckles and running-time. There's also a redundant delivery of information about the Sandman, information that's delivered primarily for the viewers' benefit but which we have to sit through twice, with one of the instances being particularly badly motivated and unnecessary. (Our hero, Gary, needs to know the legend of the Sandman and the source he gains it from makes a lot of sense--an unhinged Vietnam veteran played for laughs by James Viront who has confronted the creature in the past--but his girlfriend gets the same information and she gets it out of left field in a badly motivated scene.)

Second, the film is badly staged and poorly acted from beginning to end. Only the actors playing the comic relief characters do a decent job (with Lipko and Walsh being the best), while those called upon to drive the horror aspect of the film are very unconvincing in their parts. It's not entirely the fault of A.J. Richards and Rita Gutowski (who play Gary and his love interest respectively), as they are working with some badly written dialogue and poorly edited and filmed scenes. Part of the lack of drama arises from pauses in action or dialogue that could have been fixed with tighter editing, although nothing but additiinal drafts of the script or better filmmaking could have improved the other problems.

For every cool coment in the film, there is a botched one. For example, when Gary tries to shoot the Sandman with a gun, he strikes back with his magical scicle, destroying the gun in a shower of sparks, but then the fight loses momentum when Gary picks up a baseball bat in a badly staged scene where the editing gives you the sense that the Sandman is politely waiting for him to arm himself again instead of pressing the attack.

"The Sandman" is one of those low-budget horror films that had me wishing someone with either more money or more skil would remake (and tighten the script in the process), because there's an excellent fantasy/horror movie that didn't quite make it to the screen with this version. (I've got another of writer/producer/director J.R. Bookwalter's films in my Stack of Stuff that actually did get the remake treatment; both Bookwaler's original film and the remake are on the same DVD, and I'm looking forward to reviewing them side-by-side. He's obviously got good ideas, but is either lacking the talent or the experience to properly bring them forward in this film.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

'Nightmares from the Mind of Poe'
is an excellent anthology film

Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006)
Starring: Ric White, Clayton Cheek, Carey Kotsionis, and Doug Moore
Director: Ric White
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Most movies that claim to be based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe can more accurately be described as "inspired by a story from Edgar Allan Poe" or "borrowing a title from Edgar Allan Poe". That is not the case with "Nightmares from the Mind of Poe", an anthology film that presents some of the most faithful Poe adaptations I've come across.

Even the very best of the films adapting Poe I've seen up to this point have only born a passing resemblance to the material they were based on. The Karloff/Lugosi-starring "The Black Cat" and "The Raven" bear no resemblance to the literary works that share their titles, and even the best of Roger Corman's Vincent Price-starring Poe projects--an anthology film titled "Tales of Terror"--feature segments that may capture Poe's themes but otherwise bear only passing resemblance to the stories adapted or jumble several tales together in one hodgepodge.

Ric White breaks 70+ years of cinematic tradition with "Nightmares from the Mind of Poe" by presenting four screen adaptations so faithful that they use Poe's text word for word. The film presents four stories--"Premature Burial", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "A Cask of Amontillado", and "The Raven", interspersed and framed with quotes from Poe intended to shed light on why he might have written the story in question. In addition to directing and writing the script, White also appears in the film as Poe and as the narrator/lead character in each of the four tales, taking on the same sort of acting task that Vincent Price did in "Tales of Terror" and measuring up quite nicely.

The first adaptation presented is one of "Premature Burial". It's also the longest and the one that strays the furthest from the source material. This is understandable, because it would be virtually impossible to do an adaptation of that story that would be interesting visually without making adjustments similar to those that are made here. The adaptation is nowhere near as far afield as is the norm in a Poe adaptation, and White kept the tone of the tale, including the upbeat ending. Mostly engaging, well-staged and well-acted, the overall high quality of this segment is broken by three bitplayers who are the only actors who give the only bad performances in the entire film. White appears in this segment as Charles, the man who is phobic of being buried alive, and he does an admirable job in portraying him. (If I were as annoying as this guy, I too would fear my wife might want to bury me alive.)

The second tale starts the precise, word-for-word, scene-for-scene adaptations of Poe stories. Here, White takes on one of Poe's most famous works, "The Tell-Tale Heart." The acting is good and White's reading of Poe's writing is even better. The way White emphasizes the mad man's obsession with the Old Man's strange eye is extremely well done, both through the reading and the film work. The adaptation doesn't quite manage to capture the terror of the ending, however. It almost seems to mute the impact. I think a heavier hand in the sound effects department might have done the trick, but it's hard to say. (On the other hand, I may be a bad judge of this piece. The memory of the Berni Wrightson-illustrated comic book adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is one that is seared into my mind, with the final panel beating even Poe's tale itself as far as impact goes. Perhaps I'm trying to make White's adaptation measure up to that, which is unfair.)

The third and best segment in the film is the adaptation of "A Cask of Amontillado". The script uses Poe's narration exactly as he wrote it in the story, and White chose to have the revenge-hungry narrator spend the first moments of the segment addressing the viewer as he addresses the reader as the story opens. A further interesting choice was made in having the narrator attending a party that the hated Fortunato was also attending. This choice helps underscore why the Montessor feels so angry at whatever insults it is that Fortunato has leveled against him as they seem to be of the same social circle. It also helps amplify the moment where we get to see one of those perceived insults--where Fortunato shows himself to be a Mason and Montessor clearly is not. (It's a little tenser here than I've ever considered it in Poe's story--where I always found it to be a humorous exchange.) White once again does an excellent job as the lead in this tale, and Clayton Cheek supports him admirably as Fortunato. The only weak point of the adaptation arises from what undoubtedly were budget constraints--the party from which Montessor lures Fortunato seems to be sparsely attended. Many more extras should have been on hand for the party scenes.

Wrapping up the film is a presentation of "The Raven". The most praiseworthy thing here is White's reading of the poem, which is the best I've ever heard. Like the adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart", he doesn't quite manage to create a cinematic ending with the sort of punch that Poe's pure work has (and here he's not competing with a particular black-and-white drawing in my mind), but if one just listens to White's voice as he reads the poem the full impact of the work is brought to life.

With "Nightmares from the Mind of Poe" Ric White has created a film that lovers of Edgar Allan Poe's work definitely need to check out. Film lovers in general will also find much to enjoy here. The film doesn't have the lush feel of Corman's Poe movies, but it's still well put together.

It's a shame therefore that, as of this writing, you won't be able to rent or buy it at your local store or favorite online dealer. Like a surprising number of well-made independent films, "Nightmares from the Mind of Poe" has not been placed with a distributor that would offer the filmmakers a deal they thought acceptable.

However, there is a very nice website devoted to the film where you can order it direct. Click here to go there. The site also contains dozens of stills from the film, as well as the texts and analysis of the four works upon which the film was based. It's a great site that's well worth a look, even if you don't pick up the movie.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sutherland sees mysterious evil in 'Mirrors'

Mirrors (2008)
Starring: Keifer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Josh Shrapnel and Jason Flemyng
Director: Alexandre Aja
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A retired police officer (Sutherland) takes a job as the graveyard shift security guard in the burnt-out shell of a one-time upscape New York City department store, a structure that hides a number of dark secrets. He hasn't even finished his first shift before those secrets catch up with him by way of strange reflections in the mirrors at the building, his home, and everywhere he goes. He soon realizes that if he doesn't find the truth behind the events, everyone he loves will die.

"Mirrors" is another American (sort of... it was shot in mostly Romania and helmed by a French director) remake of a Korean spook-fest and this one is a little more successful than most. Although this is another tale of a curse/haunting that seems to spread like a bad case of herpes, the vector of transmission seems a little more reasonable than what we have in many other Asian horror films. For most of its running time it builds the tension nicely, as the haunting/curse gains strength and starts threatening and killing innocent people who the hero cares about to get him to do its bidding... and it's on track to being one of the better ghost movies of recent years.

But then it flies completely off the rails in the final act and transforms from a ghost movie into a third-rate monster movie that's more "Resident Evil" than "The Changeling" (or even "Puppet Master"). All the potential built up during the first 4/5th of the film is negated on an over-the-top ending and then tossed on the scrap-heap with a painfully predictable twist ending.

(When will these damn hacks learn that "surprise shock endings" aren't shocking anymore?! For God's sake, stop it! It's okay to end a movie when it's OVER! And if you feel the need to have a denoument, then how about giving us a real shocking surprise ending: End the movie with the monster vanquished and the hero uniting happily with his family!)

"Mirrors" is still a cut above most of what they pass off as horror films these days--it features a few truly surprising scares and a starteling gory death scene that will have even the most hardended gore-hound squirming in their seat, as well as strong performances by Keifer Sutherland as a man haunted both by his past and by his reflection in the mirror; by Paula Patton as his ex-wife; and by Cameron Boyce and Erica Gluck, a pair of more-talented-than-average child actors as their kids--but it has a terrible climax and ending that will almost ruin the whole thing for you.

(By the way, I think anyone who has ever worked night-shift security or who, after dark, has been the last one out of buildings or areas usually teeming with people will find this film scarier and easier to relate to than those who haven't been in situations like that. We know first first hand the creepiness of the open, shadow-filled spaces the film tries to convey, and we know how the imagination can run away if not kept carefully guarded.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

'Demon Under Glass' is an undeservedly
obscure vampire thriller

Demon Under Glass (2002)
Starring: Jason Carter, Garrett Maggart, Jack Donner, and Ray Proscia
Director: Jon Cunningham
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A team of government doctors are charged with studying a captured vampire (Carter), but, slowly, the amorality of the project and the evil of the subject starts to erode the ethics of the physicians and the line between healers and monsters becomes increasingly blurred.

Finding a gem like "Demon Under Glass" is what makes wading through the huge heaps of crap that make up the direct-to-video/DVD releases. With very little violence and lots and lots of talking, this is one of the best and creepiest vampire movies I've seen. The more I think about it, the better it gets.

With a cast made up actors whose credits seem to be mostly character roles on television (you'll recognize just about every lead actor, but you probably won't know where from), who are working with a great script featuring a captivating story that unfolds at a slow, steady, exactly dead-on pace, this is a great horror film that I highly recommend to fans of the genre. Even more remarkable, the film manages to deal intelligently with some weighty moral and philosophical issues admidst the vampire and mad doctor antics, but it does so without turning the film into a boring lecture.

The only complaint I have is that a couple of the character names are a bit cutesy, such as the vampire's surname being "Molinar" and the head of the military security detail being named "Captain Stuebings". These do not subtract that much from the film, though.

Track down a copy of "Demon Under Glass"; I came across it in the "Bite Night" 12-movie collection, but I'm sure it can be found elsewhere or as a rental. I'm sure you won't regret it, because this is a film that will stay with you awhile.

Friday, March 5, 2010

'Dead Alive': Bloodiest move ever made?

Dead Alive (aka "Braindead") (1993)
Starring: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Stuart Devenie and Ian Watkin
Director: Peter Jackson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Lionel (Balme) is a gentle, kindhearted young man who is suffering under the thumb of an abusive, evil mother (Moody). When he falls in love with Paquita (Penalver), a young gypsy girl who works in the local town market, it looks like things might get better for him. But then his mom is bitten by a Sumatran Rat Monkey and becomes infected with a disease that not only reanimates her when she is died, but makes her crave human flesh. Anyone she bites then also becomes a flesh-eating zombie. Lionel's quiet life of torment eventually becomes very loud and very bloody.

"Dead Alive" is one of the goriest movies ever made. Do NOT expect to eat dinner while watching this film (as I tried to do). It will definately spoil your appetite.

And even if you don't lose your appetite, you'll be too busy laughing as the mayhem and madness spirals out of control, as Lionel's troubles expand from his zombie mother, to her plus one animated victim, to her plus four animated victims, to five flesh-hungry zombies and the zombie baby that results from zombie amour, to an entire house-party of flesh-hungry zombies!

With a level of crazed humor that's only been equelled in horror comedies by "Evil Dead II", and a level of cartoony gore that I don't think has been matched anywhere, this is one movie that I think has something for every horror fan. There are even a few in-jokes for the hardcore movie geek to pick up on. It's further strengthened by the very likable heroes of Lionel and Paquita, a pair whose romance the viewer wants to see succeed.

The only complaint I have with the film is that Lionel's motivation is a bit unclear early in the film. I don't understand why he collects the zombies in his basement instead of just calling the authorities. I understand he initially is protecting his mother, but things get so out of hand so early on that it challenged by ability to suspend my disbelief that he didn't throw up his hands and call for help. I know there wouldn't have been a movie if he had, but the Stupid Character Syndrome that infected the movie in that respect bugged me.

Still. I recommend you check out "Dead Alive", particularly if you're a fan of "Army of Darkness" or "Evil Dead II". See it for the incredible levels or gore, see it for the crazy humor, see it for the zombie-baby-goes-to-the-playground scene, see it for the love story, or see it for the Anglican priest who declares, "I kick ass for the Lord!" as he opens a can of Martial Arts Whoop-ass on some marauding zombies... but see it!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Underwater Nazi Zombies terrorize island!

Shock Waves (1977)
Starring: Brooke Adams, Luke Halpin, Fred Buch, Jack Davidson, D.J. Sidney, Peter Cushing, John Stout and John Carradine
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two young couples (Adams, Halpin, Buch and Sidney) are stranded on a remote island as undead Nazi supersoldiers rise from the ocean's depths to take revenge on their creator (Cushing) and all the living.

"Shock Waves" sounds like it should be the ultimate cheese-fest--how can something featuring underwater Nazi zombies NOT be? Especially a movie from the 1970s, made by inexperienced filmmakers on a shoestring budget?

Well, in the case of this film, the inexperience worked in their favor.

With classic horror stars Peter Cushing and John Carradine available each for four days of the film's four-week shooting schedule, director Ken Wiederhorn set out to make a movie in the vein of the old fashioned 1950s and 1960s Hammer horror fests but with a more modern sensibility. What he ended up with was a film that included some of the sexiness of a Hammer picture--Brooke Adams spends much of a film in a bikini and the rest of it in a barely buttoned shirt--and the mood over high velocity splatter that was increasingly in vogue during the late 1970s.

But, Weiderhorn, mostly be accident if the coversation on the DVD commentary can be believed, created a film that is far more of a mood piece than a horror show, with the zombie attacks being as horrorfying as they not so much because they are underwater Nazi zombies that seem to be able to pop up anywhere there's water (even in a disused swimming pool), but because there is an atmosphere of hazy, nightmarish dread that permeates the entire film from the moment our protaganists encounter a strange weather phenomena at sea to the final image of a sunburned, blistering Brook Adams.

With creepy locations, creative camerawork, surpringly creepy Nazi zombies and good performances by all cast members, "Shock Waves" is a film that is undeserving of its obscure status. It's almost worth seeing for Brooke Adams alone, as she is one of the better "damsels in distress" I've encountered in a horror movie, possessing a pretty face, an attractive body, and vulnerable quality that makes you fear for her safety throughout and whince with extra sympathy when she is terrorized or injured.

And then there's Peter Cushing. While this isn't is best performance--his "German" accent is even more suspicious than the "Swedish" one he tried to do in "The Beast Must Die,"--he still draws your attention like metal shavings to a magnet in every scene he appears in. He is thoroughly believable and repulsive as the Nazi commandant who eventually gets what he deserves.

But even setting Adams and Cushing aside, this film is undoubtedly the masterpiece of underwater Nazi zombie movies. Maybe Oliver Stone can do a remake, once he's done showing us all how Hitler really wasn't such a bad guy,(as explained at Shades of Gray) with the Nazi zombies being heroic champions of a Greener Planet. After all, Underwater Nazi Zombies have no carbon footprint whatsoever!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This isn't a Farmer's Daughter Joke

Silent Bloodnight (2005)
Starring: Vanessa Vee, Robert Cleaner, Alexander E. Fennon and Mike Vega
Directors: Stefan Peczelt and Elmar Weihsmann
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A farmer and his son (Cleaner and Fennon) go on a killing spree in a small Austrian town to avenge the rape and murder of the farmer's daughter, and to eliminate any potential witnesses to the rape and their subsequent killings. And then to get rid of witnesses to the killings of the witnesses. When sex-pot local access channel TV reporter Sabrina (Vee) starts to investigate the string of murders, she becomes a target as well.

From its title through the final scene, "Silent Bloodnight" is a stupifying mess. The plot makes absoultely no sense, the reasons for the many killings are nonsensical (even for a pair who must have been psychopathic before the slaying of their daughter/sister), questions are raised in the course of the movie and never answered, and the film SHOULD have been over about thirty minutes in, if the local Chief of Police (Vega) wasn't so incompetent that it broke my disbelief's suspension. (I want to know where to send the repair bill.)

The film also has the further problem that its cast is made up of Austrian actors performing in English. Their Engilsh is decent enough, but I can imagine that those who didn't grow up around a variety of accents may occasionally have trouble understanding what is being said at times. I also think that the fact the film was shot in English instead of German may have harmed some of the acting in it. What we have here is actually a little above par for a low-budget slasher film these days (where anyone with a Camcorder, some red dye, and a few friends with enthusiasm and spare time on their hands thinks they can make a movie), but I can't help but wonder if Vee might not have been better in a couple of the scenes if she hadn't been so obviously focused on enunciation of English phrases that might otherwise be slurred and incomprehensible under her Austrian accent. (Arnold Schwarzenegger makes it seem a lot easier than it is.)

This movie would really have benefited from a few more thousand dollars worth of budget, and a decent group of British voice actors. In fact, this is ready-made to be redubbed, as several scenes have been carefully staged to avoid any signs in German--we don't even see the side of the police car that appears a few times--and the actors are listed in the credits with Anglicized names.

With all that said, the movie still has a number of good qualities. First, lovers of the slasher-genre will enjoy a number of parallels to the early "Friday the 13th" movies, and they should also appreciate the fact that this is an attempt to make a serious slasher film. Second, any horror fan will able able to appreciate the decent camerawork throughout--I wish the entire film had been as spooky as the opening scenes of the barefoot young woman in a white dress doing ballet steps down a country, but what we get is decent enough. Third, the gore effects are expertly done (except for the spurting severed neck we see a couple of times... they should have made the shoulders look a little less plastic). Fourth, Sabrina does her newscasts in a bikini, and she and the most of the other girls in the film are usually wearing tight or skimpy outfits, just like old time slasher-flicks! The film also features a very high degree of nudity and sex. Fifth--a personal favorite of mine--the film features a van that gets turned into a mobile gas chamber!

"Silent Bloodnight" was a film that I had a little harder time than usual assigning a rating to. The movie has some pretty glaring flaws (the weak script that relies to a large extent on Stupid Character Syndrome being the biggest), but there was also a fair degree of craftsmanship and creative energy evident throughout. More importantly, the film kept me entertained, even while rolling my eyes at the lameness of Mike Vega's character, and the entertainment value always is an important factor in how highly I rate a movie. In the final analysis, this film ends up at the low end of average with a rating of Five.