Tuesday, June 29, 2010

'Very Bad Things' is either
very clever or very dumb

Very Bad Thngs (1998)
Starring: Christian Slater, Jon Favreau, Cameron Diaz, Jeremy Piven, and Daniel Stern
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a prostitute is accidentally killed at a bachelor party, self-help course fanatic (and closet psychopath) Boyd (Slater) convinces the five friends in attendance to cover up her death. As the wedding day approaches, one of the five (Stern) starts cracking under the guilt of what they did, and things go from bad to very bad. With the wedding threatened, Kyle (Favreau) soon learns that the only person in his life more deadly and crazy than Boyd is Laura, his bride to be (Diaz).

"Very Bad Things" is a black comedy that's either very clever or very dumb. As the end credits started to roll, I found myself asking, "Okay... what exactly was the point of that?"

Either the filmmakers wanted to tell a story where the moral was "karma's a bitch" because almost everyone who finds themselves dead, maimed, or otherwise hosed have somehow previously wronged someone or been immoral; or maybe the story's lesson was about what happens to otherwise civilized people when they decide to treat murder casually. Whatever the point of the story, I'm not sure I got it.

Nonetheless, the film had a snappy, funny script--assuming one can laugh at multiple murders and the total breakdown of human decency-- with plenty of interesting and well-acted characters (with the exception of Jeremy Piven... I'd describe his performance more as annoying than funny or believable). The best moments in the film went to Cameron Diaz, though, as she transformed from a high-strung bride-to-be, to a shrew, and beyond... until she too gets her just desserts in the film's final moments.

I enjoyed "Very Bad Things", and uttered evil chuckles as the chaotic events of this dark movie unfolded, but the mild confusion I felt when it ended makes me wonder if I "got it," and this costs the film a point on my rating scale.

Anyone out there care to tell me what I missed? I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I ultimately did.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kate Jackson provides chills in
'Satan's School for Girls'

Satan's School for Girls (1973)
Starring: Pamela Franklin, Kate Jackson, Jamie Smith-Jackson, Lloyd Bochner, Cheryl Ladd, Jo Van Fleet, and Roy Thinnes
Director: David Lowell Rich
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

While searching for the truth about her sister's suicide, Elizabeth (Franklin) enrolls as a student at the all-girl boarding school she attended. The faculty and girls all seem friendly enough--especially insta-best-friend-on-campus Roberta (Jackson)--but with a title like "Satan's School for Girls", you gotta know there's witchcraft, evil rites, and guest lectures by the Horned One himself going on.

"Satan's School for Girls" is a better-than-average made-for-TV movie from the mid-1970s. Although uneven in its pacing (partly due to the constricting nature of broadcast TV and the habitual, barely veiled recapping of what's happened to catch up those who tuned in late), there is a nice aura of unease that hangs over the whole film, and it even manages to envoke a real sense of dread at several points. (The best of these is when Elizabeth heads into the main building's cavernous basement in search of clues.)

This could possibly have been a 7-Star film if not for the fact that it starts to fall apart in the third act. Up to that point, the filmmakers play a nice game of "maybe it is, maybe it isn't"... as in, maybe Satan WON'T be making an appearance in this film, despite the title. But then there's a really lame murder scene (where the victim could easily have simply reached up and grabbed at the girls who were poking at him with sticks, and thus made his escape), lots of over-the-top melodramatic acting, and an ending that is flat and unsatisfactory, because it's exactly what we expect it to be all along.

Despite its flaws, I think this film is enjoyable for those who like suspense and horror movies that are driven more by atmosphere than sex and gore. Fans of Kate Jackson (like yours truly) will also enjoy it, because she gives a fine performance.

Saturday Scream Queen: Megan Fox

Megan Fox's first major role as a recurring part in the American sit-com "Hope & Faith," which ran from 2003 to 2006. From there, she went onto starring in the back-to-back toy-based, sci-fi action blockbusters "Transformers" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." (She reportedly did lots of screaming in those two films, although I've not seen either.)

Fox has lately turned to the horror genre, with starring roles in 2009's "Jennifer's Body" and the 2010 horror-western "Jonah Hex." She will reportedly not be returning to the "Transformers" series, so time will tell if she appears in future horror films. (Her next film is "Passion Play," a comedy, but on a most distant horizon is the comic book adaptation "Fathom," which could be an excursion into sci-fi horror, depending on what elements the filmmakers choose to emphasize on the screen.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here are the REAL fractured fairy tales

Deadtime Stories (aka "Freaky Fairy Tales") (1986)
Starring: Scott Valentine, Nicole Picard, Cathryn DePrume, Matt Mitler, Kathy Fleig, and Mike Mesmer
Director: Jeffrey S. Delman
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A babysitting uncle (Mesmer) who wants nothing more than to watch porn on cable in peace, tells three twisted fairy tales to his young charge in hopes of getting him to shut up and go to sleep.

Generally speaking, you can't go wrong with an anthology film, if you like the horror genre. Anyone tale may not be to your liking, but they're all usually short enough that they don't ruin the whole movie for you. This is one of the reasons I enjoy the anthology film, and I seek out as many of them as I can.

In the case of "Deadtime Stories", we have three bizarre spins on traditional fairy tales that are placed within a framing sequence featuring an less than enthusiastic babysitter and his demanding charge. The camera-work, lighting, and soundtrack are all pretty decent, as is the acting, but the script is severely wanting throughout the film, with both the jokes and scares being far inferior to what I suspect the writers thought them to be.

The film leads off with a straight forward fairytale yarn, featuring two hideous witches who have purchased a slave boy (Valentine) to help them bring the third member of their coven back to life. Unfortunately for them, he falls in love with the beautiful maiden (Fleig) they had intended to be their prime sacrifce. The most straight-forward tale within a "fantasy" setting, it is also the funniest at time, probably because it's not trying so hard to be funny.

The second tale, a modern-day spin on "Little Red Riding Hood" sees Rachel (Picard), an oversexed teenaged girl, and her grandmother get stalked by a very upset "wolf" (Mitler) after a mix-up at the neighborhood pharmacy. While this story is funny early on--Uncle Mike's frustration at missing the bikini special on TV is shining through--the humor quickly fades. While this is also three of the stories that attempts to present the most straightforward horror aspects, it never quite manages to ratchet up the tension or the fear... mostly because of all the time spent with Rachel and her boyfriend having a rendezvous in a maintainance shack by the public tennis courts. "Uncle Mike" was just a tad too obsessed with horny teenagers, and thus, as the kid he's telling the story rightfully said, it became boring.

The third tale, a modern-day and quite bizarre spin on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" has Goldie Lox (DePrume), a teenaged sexual psychopath with amazing telekinetic powers team up with the Bear Family, a clan of homicidal criminals. The neverending stream of puns and sideways fairytale allusions, plus the slapstick nature of the action,clearly demonstrates that this was supposed to be an allout comedic romp with horror overtones. However, just like the second story fell short of its mark, so does this one. There are some chuckles in the piece, and the Goldie Lox character and her house full of boyfriends presents the film's most chilling moments, but overall the tale feels like it has "first draft" written all over it.

I think that if the script for "Deadtimes Stories" had been taken through a draft or two more, we might have had a film to rival great anthology films like "The House That Dripped Blood" (click here for review), but as it is, we've got a halfbaked piece of work that barely rises to acceptable levels of filmmaking. It's a shame, because this one had real potential.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Acquanetta

Acquanetta's breif film career was at its high point in the mid-1940s when she appeared as the tragic and monstrous creation of mad science in a pair of Universal Pictures' lesser horror films, "Captive Wild Woman" and "Jungle Woman", and a savage high priestess in "Tarzan and the Leopard Women". Her exotic beauty can be enjoyed in half-a-dozen or so other pictures, but her acting career went nowhere and she abandoned it in the early 1950s after marrying an Arizona-based car dealer.

Although the Universal Pictures' marketing department nicknamed her "The Venezuelan Volcano," there is no trace of Venezuela in her blood nor in her family tree. Her real name was Mildred Davenport, she was born in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1923, and was of Arapaho decent.

After quitting the movies, Acquanetta appeared in television ads for her husband's cardealerships, created and marketed Native American-style jewelry, and was active in a number of Arizona art and Native American charity fund-raising efforts. She passed away in 2004.

For reviews of a couple of movies featuring Acquanetta, click here to visit the Shades of Gray blog.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Well... that hombre LOOKS like Jonah Hex

But whut's he doin' in a movie witha script even those "Brisco County Jr." fellers woulda reejected?

Jonah Hex (2010)
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbinder and Megan Fox
Director: Jimmy Hayward
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When an ex-Confederate general (Malkovich) builds a super weapon with which to destroy Washington, D.C., the United States government calls upon scar-faced and ultra-violent bounty hunter Jonah Hex (Brolin) to track him and stop him.

The long-awaited "Johan Hex movie (by me, at least, a big fan of the Johan Hex comics from the 1970s and 1980s... and somewhat less so of the horror-tinged incarnation of the 1990s and the often hollow "return-to-basic" version of the late 2000s) was released today. Sadly, this is yet another example of a Hollywood movie where a bunch of semi-literate filmmakers thought their comic book source material wasn't comic-booky enough. As a result, they have made a Johan Hex movie that has the superficial veneer of the best of Johan Hex, but under the surface it's insipid garbage.

Jonah Hex was at his greatest when he was featured in stories flavored like spaghetti westerns... only with even more violence and grimness. He was at his best when he was down-to-earth tales where he might have a reputation of being some sort of supernatural being... but in truth is just a man who is very, VERY good at killing people. He was a man of honor who had been saddled with a reputation of betraying his best friend and his entire regiment during the Civil War.

That Jonah Hex is not in this movie. Hell, the Jonah Hex from the Tim Truman-illustrated western horror comics from the 1990s ("Riders of Worms and Such" is the one series I can think of at the moment) isn't even in this movie. The writers took away everything that was cool about Hex and replaced it with comic book hash. Bad comic book hash.

I understand and appreciate the need to streamline Johan Hex's back story for the purpose of the movie. I can even understand and appreciate the need to turn Quentin Turnbull from a small in-the-big-picture-but-looming-large-in-the-life-of-Hex "The South Will Rise Again"-type maniac.

But why did they feel the need to give Jonah Hex the ability to talk to dead people? Why did they feel the need to equip him with an arsenal of silly weapons, such as double-horseback mounted Gatlin guns and dynamite-flinging crossbows? And why did they decide that it wasn't good enough to have Turnbull as a monster threatening to destroy Hex on the way in pursuit of reviving the Confederacy--you know, keeping it more personal like the comic book did--but instead gave him a dimwitted "steampunk" super weapon with which to destroy Washington, D.C.?

People like to talk down about comic books, especially older ones. Because back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were no "graphic novels" and there were no "mature comics." However, the Jonah Hex stories reprinted in this book are far more intelligent and entertaining that I suspect either of the writers and producers and director involved in the "Jonah Hex" film would be able to produce in their wildest dreams. Why? Because they are apparently too arrogant and ignorant to recognize when a "comic book" is not "comic-booky" and that its good qualities go beyond the superficiality of drawings and should actually be read if it is to be adapted to another medium.

"Jonah Hex" is a movie that proves that Hollywood IS populated by illiterate people. The only possible way it could have turned out the way it did is if no one involved actually bothered to READ the Johan Hex comics but instead just looked at pictures and had their assistant's assistant skim a DC/Warner Bros licensing bible and summarize it for them. They've got the scarred bounty hunter, they've got the gun play, and they've got the occasional explosion... but they missed everything else that makes Jonah Hex what it is. And they filled that void with the worst kind of comic-booky crap.

This review would be appearing in Movies to Die Before Seeing if not for the excellent performance of Josh Brolin. Despite the trash he has to work with, he gives an excellent portrayal of Jonah Hex, and I can only dream about what he would have done if the writers had left the character with some of his true personality. The film's production crew also earns some credit for the dingy frontier towns that Hex visits during the early parts of the movie, the parts that actually bear a passing resemblance to the source material.

The only truly good performance is from Josh Brolin, but I can't really be too disgusted with John Malkovich and Michael Fassbinder, because they are probably just doing what they were told: That they were in a comic boom movie, so they had to ham it up like larger-than-life comic book villains.

I will, however, blame Megan Fox for sucking. If she was this lifeless in the "Transformers" movies, how can she possibly have a career beyond taking her clothes off in magazines and someday hoping to be a third-tier Bond Girl (if they ever bring those back)? The woman simply cannot act, and she brought nothing to this movie except a little bit of bare skin.

Don't waste your time and money on this movie, even if you might feel tempted just to go watch it for the explosions. You will regret it, even if it's only 70 minutes long. (Although the running-time did make me wonder what Charles Band would have been able to do with the sort of money this movie was made for. Whatever it might have been, it would have been better than this... which is at a level of below-average Band in everything but special effects.

Oh, and just in case my reference to "Brisco County Jr" at the top of the review made this film sound interesting, I apologize. That late lamented television series was a comic-booky and outrageous western with sci-fi and horror overtones that was GOOD. This film is very bad.

Spend your time and cash on the Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex book, or maybe on the "Brisco County Jr." DVD set.

But, whatever you do, don't see "Jonah Hex" until you can get the DVD as a cheap rental. Or, even better, not at all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

'Killer' is deserving of cult classic label

Killer (1989)
Starring: Duke Ernsberger, Andy Boswell, Mark H. Creter, Jeri Keith Liles, and Terry Loughlin
Director: Tony Elwood
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A maniac killer (Ernsberger) descends upon a small town, butchering random people that annoy him. When he kills Ash's adopted father (Loughlin) and kidnaps Ash's girlfriend (Liles), Ash (Boswell) and his best friend Calvin (Creter) take it upon themselves to end his rampage.

"Killer" is one of those movies that shows that when it comes to movie-making, creativity, skill and talent is more important than big budgets. Made for just $9,500 over a couple of weeks in the late 1980s, it towers quality-wise over films made with one-hundred times that amount of money.

Although far from perfect--some of the acting and writing leaves a little to be desired in spots, and there are several shots where you can tell they were quickly losing daylight--these flaws can be overlooked because of the raw intensity of the overall movie. Shot on Super 8 film with mostly handheld cameras, it has the feel of a much older movie. It feels like it dates from the early 1970s, as the slasher subgenre was being defined, but it incorporates fully mature tricks and techniques, making it a unique film experience.

What is also unique is the performance given by Duke Ernsberger. He gives one of the creepiest, most intense portrayals of a maniac murderer ever captured on film. His tour-de-force performance in the last half hour of the movie--from his chilling conversation with the captured girl about how he is going to slowly slice pieces off her and eat her while she's still alive (and thus fulfill a life-long dream, to his his monologue about how the doctors in the mental hospital drilled holes in his head and allowed his soul to escape and thus made him immortal, to his crazy Russian Roulette gamel, and the extended final chase scene--is one that ranks among the greatest screen maniac performances. I've no doubt that if this film had been made by "serious filmmakers", Ernsberger would have won all sorts of awards and accolades for it. (Forget Jack Nicholson's annoying display in "The Shining". Ernsberger delivers the REAL goods! It's too bad he hasn't appeared in more movies than he has.)

The label "cult classic" gets slapped on a lot things by marketeers and overzealous critics. Mostly, it's code for "this thing sucks, but let's trick people into buying it", but in the case of "Killer" it's well-deserved. It's a movie that deserves a lot more attention that it's ever gotten, and it deserves it now more than ever with a DVD release that features a re-edited and ditially cleaned-up version of the original film with a new soundtrack. It's a film that should be seen by anyone who is a fan of the slasher films--and it's an absolute MUST if you consider yourself an aficionado of the genre.

The DVD director's cut of "Killer" is available from Amazon.com and it's worth every penny. In addition to the movie, the DVD contains an interview with director Tony Elwood and screenwriter Mark Kimray that is interesting and informative--unlike the usual self-congratulatory and/or infomercial crap that often passes for interviews on DVDs--and a second audio track on the film that has Elwood and several of the cast members discussing the shoot and commenting on the differences between the original release and the re-edited DVD version. It's great stuff and well worth the time to sit through.

All in all, this is a DVD that belongs in the library of every fan of the horror film genre.

Decent low-budget film undermined by bloat

Hellbound: Book of the Dead (aka "Cadaver Bay") (2003)
Starring: Elizabeth North, Jeff Dylan Graham, Sequoia Rose Fuller and Lucien Eisenach
Director: Jeff Sessions
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Diane (North) murders a man and tries to reanimate the corpse with black magic. When the spell appears to fail, her husband (Graham) chops up the corpse and throws it in the sea. But as he is getting ready to dispose of the parts, the dismembered corpse animates. And things only get worse after that....

"Hellbound" is film that features some nice camera work and some fairly decent make-up effects. The acting is also better than most modern direct-to-DVD horror flicks; in fact, Elizabeth North and Jeff Dylan Graham actually show some real on-screen chemistry and viewers may become invested in their relationship and come to care about them... if they lasts through the first muddled, boring first half-hour of the film.

Even though "Hellbound" leads with nudity and mysterious murders up front, the scene is so protracted that it inspires boredom rather than whetting the appetite for more sex and violence. It also doesn't help that the segments that follow likewise drag and seem totally unconnected with the opening scenes. Even the most patient viewers will start to lose that patience and wonder if this movie is going anywhere by the time everything starts to come together.

This is one of those films where patience (or the ability to multi-task while watching movie) is a virtue, because when this film's story finally gains real focus, at about thirty minutes in, it actually turns into a rather atmospheric and almost classical horror flick, with some very stylish lighting and photography at times. The director shows himself to have a good eye for framing a scene.

However, as good as the final two-thirds of this film are, the weak start drags it down severely. Another weak spot is that I think it features the worst fake blood I've seen in any picture. Usually it's too thin and too brightly red, but here it's so dark to almost be black; it might even be black. (I wonder if someone was reading about the blood effects in "Night of the Living Dead" but attempts to redden-up the chocolate syrup failed and they had to keep going due to budget and time constraints.

Despite it's flaws, I think this movie is worth checking for those with an interest in low-budget horror films. One just has to get through that first excruciating half hour. (With some heavy re-editing and trimming, this film could easily have been a Six-star effort. It would have been about 60 minutes long, but it would have been far better for it.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Stuff: Snacks that become one with you

The Stuff (1985)
Starring: Michael Moriarity, Andrea Marcovicci, Scott Bloom, Garrett Morris, and Paul Sorvino
Director: Larry Cohen
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When industrial spy "Mo" Rotherford (Moriarity) is hired by the ice cream industry to discover the secet forumula for The Stuff, a new dessert food that's taking America by storm, he discovers it's bizarre parasite that first controls the minds of those who consume it, then consumes them. Together with the publicist who made The Stuff popular (Marcovicci), a cookie magnate who lost his company to The Stuff (Morris), a media tycoon and his militia of right-wing wackos (Sorvino) and a kid who became aware of the daner before anyone else (Bloom), Mo sets out to save a nation easily swayed by advertising and the promise of a calorie-free tasty snack from itself, as well as The Stuff.

"The Stuff" is a fast-paced sci-fi comedy that's presents spot-on satire of the instant-gratificiaton, marketing-sensitive American public and the image of industrial tycoons as people who are willing to do anything to make a buck. (One can even draw a direct parallel between The Stuff and cigarettes and other drugs if one chooses, because the film shows that even after it's shown to be outright deadly, there are still people who want it.)

The special effects are pretty impressive for the pre-CGI era, with the roiling waves of Stuff when it attacks our heroes toward the films climax and well-done miniature shots of exploding buildings and such. The film is also graced with a fine cast of actors who are given opportunities to shine thanks to some sharp dialogue, hilarious situations, and, according to the director's commentary on the DVD, some excellent on-the-spot improv'ing. (Michael Moriarity is particularly fun as Mo, a character whose disarming, Southern good-ole-boy mask hides a dangerous and coldhearted man who will stop at nothing to acheive goals set by his clients or himself.)

As I post this, it's exactly 25 years since "The Stuff" was first unleashed upon the world, and it has held up nicely to the passage of time. The film is as relevant today as it was when it was first released, which is a tiny bit sad, because, if anything, the American public has gotten more gullible and easily manipulated by ads and the promise of instant gratification than it was in 1985.

Check out "The Stuff", and you'll find yourself enjoying a certified sci-fi classic. It's the perfect addition to the line-up for a Movie Night... and it'll be even better if you serve bowls of vanilla yogurt to guests while watching it. (There are even a couple of unintentionally funny moments that the attententive viewer will be able to mock in addition to all the purposeful jokes.)

The Sarah Landon Franchise: DoA?

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour (2007)
Starring: Rissa Williams, Brian Comrie, Dan Comrie, and Jane Harris
Director: Lisa Comrie
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Teenaged Sarah Landon (Williams), shortly after losing her best friend to a drunk driver, spends the weekend in a town she hasn't visited in ten years. While coping with her memories, she reconnects with a boy she used to play with as a child (Brian Comrie), and learns that his older brother (Dan Comrie) believes a vengeful ghost will kill him on his 21st birthday... which is coming up Monday. Sarah sets out to find the truth of what is going on in the small California town.

"Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour" is a film that's part mystery and part supernatural thriller and intended primarily at young girls who would enjoy material like "Nancy Drew" books, the "Clubbing" graphic novel by Andi Watson and Josh Howard, or whatever series featuring girls playing detective and coming up against supernatural forces (or the appearance of supernatural forces is popular these days).

Given that I am not the target audience, the film is a little hard for me to judge. For my tastes, the film was a little slow in getting started, because of the artificiality of the stories Sarah was being told when she first arrived in town. It wasn't that a dark chapter of the town's past was being revealed to her that didn't ring true, but rather the way the people were relating it to her. It sounded like they were telling her a ghost story instead of relating something they considered to be tragic facts. Now, young girls may not mind this, but to me it gave the opening parts of the movie a stilted, artificial quality that even old and stilted mystery movies don't have.

Some things I am capable of judging are the qualities of the movie that apply to all films, no matter who the target audience might be.

In some of those areas, "Sarah Landon" is what I would expect. The story, once it gets past the tediously executed setup phase moves along at a nice pace, the camerawork is decent, the film feels well-researched (the paranoid, deathmarked brother sounds and behaves like he's been spending entirely too much listening to "Coast to Coast AM"), and there are even a couple of well-done "boo!"-type scares and a genuinely scary sequence where one of the characters is confronted by what appears to be a ghost.

However, in other ways, the film is severely lacking. The dialogue is very clunky and what few lines that sound like they might be spoken by a real person are ruined by wooden delivery. None of the performers are especially good, but for a cast of first-time screen-actors being guided by a first-time director, they aren't as terrible as some I've witnessed, except for Brian Comrie. It's not that he was particularly bad, but the role he plays really needed to be performed by an actor with more experience and greater emotional range than Brian Comrie shows in this film.

"Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour" was obviously intended as the first installment in a franchise that was to continue either in future movies, novels, comics, or all of the above. I liked what I saw here to the point where I might give another film a try, or perhaps even pick up a graphic novel if the art is decent.

However, as I mentioned when I originally reviewed this film back in 2007, I doubt there will be a follow-up. And given that it's almost three years later and Sarah Landon hasn't been seen anywhere, I think this film performed badly enough to not warrant any follow-ons.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

'The Devil's Nightmare' is a dream of a horror flick

The Devil's Nightmare
(aka "Castle of Death", "The Devil's Longest Night" and "Succubus") (1971)

Starring: Erika Blanc, Jacques Monseau, Shirley Corrigan, and Jean Servais
Director: Jean Brismée
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A tour group (six travelers and their driver) who takes refuge in an isolated castle during a storm falls victim to the family curse of its owner, Baron Von Rhoneberg (Servais), as a succubus (Blanc) proceeds to kill them one by one after tempting them into performing one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Will a young seminary student be able to save their souls, or will he too be tempted to sin?

"The Devil's Nightmare" is a nifty little film that meshes gothic horror and 1970s pop mysticism with great effect. While the actiing is terrible--with the exception of Erika Blanc (who shows herself to have an astonishing ability to transform her face from sexy to sinister with very little help from make-up and lighting), and Jean Servais (who in his relatively brief time on screen manages to present a character who is both sympathetic and monstrous)--and the dubbed dialogue is nothing spectacular, the swift pacing of the film, the clever deaths of the characters, and the curious, almost fairytale-like atmosphere that hangs over the proceedings easly make up for the film's shortcomings and make it a fun viewing experience.

Erika Blanc's revealing dinner/victim-stalking outfit is also a plus in the film's favor. :D

As with many of these European horror films from the 1960s and 1970s, there are several cuts available, often under the same title. The version watched for this review was released by Redemption and can be found in at least one DVD multipack from Brentwood ("Kiss of Death"). It includes a baby-stabbing scene and an extended bit of lesbian nookie which I don't recall from when I saw the film a few years ago. (And I'm pretty sure I would have remembered both of them.) As such, this is probably the best cut avaialable, and if you're interested in the film, it's the one you should seek out.

There's an odd little "extra" that's included on the Redemption Cinema and Brentwood versions. It's got an Elvira wanna-be and a pair of bare-breasted lesbian cannibals doing some sort of half-assed introduction--and it's so half-assed that a text screen eventually provides information about the film. While I suppose it might fill a need for boobage, I personally found myself shuttling past the nonsense to get to the movie.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Soledad Miranda

The annals of genre film are full of tales of beautiful women who show up as the leading ladies in a film or two, and who then vanish almost as quickly as they seem to have appeared.

One such actress was Soledad Miranda, an obscure Spanish B-movie actress in her day who has gained a cult following with the advent of first the home video market and later the el-cheapo DVD multipacks. She had a gorgeous face, a gorgeous body, great screen presence... and she must have had an almost supernatural ability to inspire the directors she worked with, as she starred in the several of the halfway decent movies from hack filmmaker Jess Franco, "Vampyros Lesbos." (She actually appeared in over 30 films betweenthe years of 1960 and 1970, but it was appearances in Franco's films that she is known for today.

Miranda may have been destined for bigger and better things. Reportedly, her films with Franco had opened a door for her with a major German film producer, but before she could even sign the contract, she was killed in a traffic accident in August of 1970.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

'The Shunned House' is a messy place to visit

The Shunned House (2003)
Starring: Giuseppe Lorusso, Federica Quaglieri, Emanuele Cerman, Silvia Ferreri, Michael Segal, Cristiana Vaccaro, and Roberta Marrelli
Director: Ivan Zuccon
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Alex (Lorusso) and Rita (Quaglieri), while working on Alex's latest book, investigate an abandoned inn with a reputation for being haunted, cursed, and generally just Plain Bad News. While they wander through the decaying structure, Rita starts having disturbing visions as the past and present being to collide, and the evil in the house reawakens....

"The Shunned House" is a kinda-sorta anthology film that loosely adapts three Howard Lovecraft short stories. I say kinda-sorta, because all three stories are intermixed, unfolding in an almost random order, with bits of other hauntings that take place in the inn creeping in around the edges. The tales flow in and out of one another, with sometimes no more than a lighting change or a switch in the musical score to alert the viewer to the fact that we have switched storylines again.

The three stories that take place in three different time frames are intermixed, as Rita has visions and nightmares during her stay in the decaying rooms of the Crossroads Inn. The grisly and mysterious death of a sleepwalking mathematician whose formulas may have opened doors that should have stayed closed during the 1940s (an adaptation of "Dreams in the Witch-House"), and a writer and a young girl who spends her nights playing music to keep demons at bay during the 1920s (an adaption of "The Music of Erich Zann"), are interspersed with the modern day developments of Rita growing increasingly sick from the house's influence while Alex takes notes for his book (an adaptation of "The Shunned House"). There may also be a fourth storyline... I can't quite make sense of where the torturer, his victim, and his vengeful employer that appear at various points in the film, and I can't remember such elements in any of the three stories adapted here (although it has been several years since I've read any of them), but it's the only one that seems to feed directly into the overall developments relating to Alex and Rita.

The way the storylines of the film are presented is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the jumbled, organic nature of their presentation gives a dream-like quality to the movie that feeds the sense of unease and horror it so expertly invokes, but, on the other hand, only one of the stories actually reaches a conclusion, and none of them fully manages to build to the fever ptich of terror that is the hallmark of a Lovecraft plot. ("The Music of Erich Zann" is the one that comes closest, and even it doesn't quite manage to capture the sense of a Lovecraft climax.)

Part of the problem with the adaptations here lies, I think, with a lack of understanding on the part of the screenwriters of what makes a Lovecraft climax work. I think that when stripping out the florid language that makes his stories such interesting reads (but which can, of course, never be brought into a movie) they failed to notice that while his stories always end with copious unanswered questions, they do end. With the exception of the storyline of the violinist playing to ward off demons from the darkness, every plotline here just sort of trails off. Unlike a Lovecraft tale, we don't get a climax in the end, but just unanswered questions.

Another weakness of the film is the actors. While they are far better than what I've seen in many movies of this type, they are still come up short. The worst of the bunch are Giuseppe Lorusso and Federica Quaglieri, not so much because they are individually all that bad, but because there is no on-screen chemistry between them whatsoever... and this is a vitally important aspect to make us care about the characters and to make a third-act revelation by Alex have any real impact on the viewers. (The two other on-screen couples are somewhat better--with Emanuele Cerman and Silvia Ferreri in the "Dreams in the Witch-House" segments being the stongest performers of the bunch.)

For all those complaints, though, this movie was a fine viewing experience, far better than I had expected.

The photography, lighting, and production design on this film are spectacular. It is plainly shot on video, but it has virtually none of the flat quality that many of films recorded on that media do, and there's nothing cheap or substandard about the technical work that is on display here; the film looks better than many horror movies that were made for twenty times the cost of "The Shunned House".

The high-quality photography and lighting is complimented by an equally impressive display of skill on the part of the sound designers and the composer of the musical score. Many scenes include subtle ambient sounds that serve to heighten the creepiness and mystery of the haunted inn. I was also impressed with the musical cues that are used to help the audience keep track of the mystical flashbacks when first start fading in and out. Very few low-budget movies are blessed with music as well-done as what we find here.

Even more, the violin music in the "Music of Erich Zann" storyline is nothing short of amazing. It's the one place where I must eat my words that Lovecraft's "florid prose" can't be presented on the screen--the music that Carlotta Zann plays late at night is supposed to be unlike anything protagonist Marco has ever heard, and we are presented with haunting, unusual music that actually makes us believe it's possible. (The audio distortions--part of the music actually being run backwards?--that get added to the music at points in the story makes it even more believable. For a sample of the violin music in question, visit the official website devoted to the film. Make sure you have the sound turned up on your computer.)

"The Shunned House" is a film that's visually striking and technically competent in every way. It manages to create and maintain a sense of dread throughout its running time, and I wish I could like more than I do. There are so many good things about it, but the weaknesses of the film loom large when it is viewed. They are severe enough that this barely rises to the level of an average movie, and I really wish I could have given it a better score in the end.

Still, this is a film that the creators of big-screen crapfests like "Boogeyman" and "The Skeleton Key" would have been well-advised to have seen and emulated when they did their films, as Ivan Zuccon did far more with far less than they did. It should also be considered a must-see by anyone out there who is considering making their own low-budget horror film. This is (in everything except the story) an example of how it should be done.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Elvis vs a soul-sucking mummy!

Bubba Ho-Tep (2003)
Starring: Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis
Director: Don Coscarelli
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Someone, or some thing is creeping through the halls of Shady Rest Retirement Home and stealing the last bit of life from its defenseless residents. In the face of an uncaring staff and world, its up to nursing-home residents Elvis (Campbell) and JFK (Davis) to put an end to the evil before it condemns the souls of every oldster in Shady Rest to eternal torture and damnation.

"Bubba Ho-Tep" is a horror movie that balances goofiness (it really IS an aged Elvis who is battling an undead evil in a retirement home, although JFK is obviously just a poor man suffering from senile dementia) with social commentary about how our culture discards and mistreats our senior citizens.

Although a bit slow moving at times, "Bubba Ho-Tep" has enough of humor, horror, and touching moments to keep the audience watching. Davis and Campbell both give excellent performances, and the dreary look of Shady Rest is the perfect setting for the story.

By the way, you need to watch the film at least twice. When you watch it the second time, make sure you do so with the DVD audio commentary by The King himself. :)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Kelly Brook

Kelly Brook started modeling at the age of 16, and layouts for British men's magazine eventually led to acting opportunities, including a stint on "Smallville" and in horror films such as "House of 9".

Brook has spent the last three or so years appearing in "reality-based" television series, but she is returning to horror (as opposed to the horrible) with a vengeance, as 2010 sees her involved with three different pictures that are in varying states of completion.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Evil spirits stalk the city in 'Tokyo Babylon'

Tokyo Babylon Animated Series (1999)
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The "Tokyo Babylon" DVD contains both episodes of an animated series that focuses on Saburo, a young man who is the heir to Japan's greatest psychic/medium tradition and the most recent in a long line of mystics who have served the nation's movers and shakers for as long as there have been a Japan. Other main characters include his sister and their veternarian friend who is more than he appears. (By the way, I'm ASSUMING Saburo is male, although the character is about as asexual it can possibly be. I would actually assume it was girl, if not for the male name.)

Saburo and his sister are curious multicultural/multi-dominational mystics/psychics, displaying crosses and other Christian paraphenalia on their clothes and in their home, but practicing traditional Japenese magic and spritiualism. I like the sense of "whatever it takes to get the job done" that this conveys, that there's a little bit of truth in all religions.

The first episode in the series sees Saburo called in by one of Japan's captains of industry in order to see if the skyscraper his company is building really is being haunted by evil spirits. Before he even arrives to take on the new job, his employer is killed in the latest of the mysterious disasters. Instead of walking away, he becomes deeper involved... to his own peril.

The second episode has Saburo crossing paths with a post-cognative with whom he eventually teams up in order to solve the mystery surrounding a series of killings on the Tokyo underground. The mystical forces arrayed against the young medium are less formidable than those in the first episode, but the danger to his life and those she cares about is still very real.

Both "Tokyo Babylon" episodes feature average animation, okay voice actors, and fairly decent stories. While the first episode serves as a nice introduction to the principal characters--summarizing relationships that I assume one could understand better if one had read whatever comic book the cartoon is based on--the second episode is far stronger story-wise... and far more chilling.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

'Behind the Mask' is an excellent
slasher mockumentary

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007)
Starring: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethas, Kate Lang Johnson, Britain Spellings, Ben Place, Scott Wilson, and Robert Englund
Director: Scott Glosserman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Journalism grad students Taylor (Goethas), Todd (Spellings),and Doug (Pace) are invited to do a documentary on the secret world and culture of the artful serial killer, like Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger and to follow the preparations and first mass-murder of teens at a forbidden, drunken party as young Leslie Vernon (Baesel) makes his first big debut.

"Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" is part mockumentary, part slasher flick. It's like a Christopher Guest and Wes Craven film got fed into the apple-presser featured in one scene of the film, and out came a singular work. It is not a film for everyone... in fact, I think you need to fit the description of "having seen entirely too many slasher-films" in order to truly enjoy this film.

The first two-thirds of the film pokes fun at journalists, artists, and the slasher-film genre in equal parts. I had a constant smile on my face, as the film created a world where Michael Myers is actually a sort of performance artist who exists in a subculture that is devoted to being the monsters of the modern age. The explanations and rationalizations of the "rules" of the slasher-flick are hilarious when they are coming from a "professional" like Vernon... and they're even funnier when he discusses his workout routine and how hard it is to look like he's walking when he's really running to keep up wiht terrified victims. The final third... well, I don't really want to say what happens in the final third, because it might ruin effect of it. (I came to this film not at all knowing whatto expect, and, while the twist and what unfolds held no real surprise, it was so expertly handled that I enjoyed it immensely.)

Director Scott Glosserman (who also co-wrote the script) exhibits a keen sense for just when to cut a scene for maximum comedic or emotional impact. The interview that ends with the awkward silence when Taylor asks Vernon if he is pro-life is hilarious. The transition between the first part of the film and the second part was also so expertly and artfully handled that it made me wish that more filmmakers had the sort of talent that Glosserman shows here.)

As for the cast, they all do an okay job, but four actors in particular shined. First, there is Nathan Baesel, who is wonderful as the charming, boyish, soon-to-be mass-murderer who walks the filmmakers through the basics of what it takes to be a legendary serial butcher in the modern world... if someone more sinister, or without the sort of comic timing that he displays here, the film wouldn't have been nearly as funny. Second, there's Angela Goethas, who plays a great "straightman" to Baesel for most of the film while subtlely capturing Taylor's growing unease with what she is witnessing. Third, there is Kate Lang Johnson, who does a fine turn as Vernon's chosen "Survivor Girl"--the virginal blonde who will be transformed from victim to fierce fighter and thus square off against him in a final battle of good against evil. Johnson has some truly great moments and even better lines in the final third of the film. Lastly, but far from least, there is Robert Englund, who, in a small but crucial role, takes a nice turn as a Dr. Loomis sort-of character... the gun-toting, topcoat wearing hunter of the evil who is Leslie Vernon.

"Behind the Mask" may be a send-up of the slasher-genre, but it is one that was done with evident love, respect, and great creativity. It is a far more effective film than any recent "serious" entries in the genre have been. It is a film that I think any old-time fan of slasher-films should seek out, because I guarentee you will enjoy it.