Sunday, May 29, 2011

'Divine Intervention' is a well-done first outing

Divine Intervention (2007)
Starring: Ingrid Fenn, Alyssa Jayne Hale, Kyle Erha,Patrick Pitu, Vic Clay, Kevin Cirone, Salvatore Marchese, Jonathan La Mantia
Director: Rufus Chaffee
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Holly (Fenn) and Sarah (Hale) travel to a small town for a night of partying, but they soon find themselves in the caught up in a struggle of nerves between the town bad-boy (Erha) and a third-rate thug (Cirone). Things go from bad to worse when a crazed meth-head (Clay) goes on a murder-spree motivated by a theology based on the Bible and lessons learned from the reality TV show "Survivor", and a belief he is harvesting souls for the Army of God.

"Divine Intervention" is a low-budget thriller that occupies a space somewhere between "Scream" and any one of a dozen exploitation flicks from 1960s and 1970s where innocent young people find themselves menaced by evil and crazed druggies in the isolated countryside. For most of its running time, it's a better film than both contemporary and old-time examples of this type of movie, because it moves forward at a steady pace, is free of padding--there is not a single scene of characters wandering through the woods or driving aimlessly down the road--and features actors who are familiar enough with their craft and their lines to actually portray characters instead of just run lines and keep to their blocking.

Another aspect that sets this film apart from others like it is the professionalism with which it has been produced. Real money was spent on cameras, lights, and sound equipment-no camcorder microphones here, nor any badly done day-for-night shots. The film has also clearly been carefully editing and taken through the entire post-production process, aspects many low-budget filmmakers don't pay anywhere near enough attention to. (There are still a couple of rough spots here and there--like ambient noise changing between a close-up and an over-the-shoulder shot during an conversation between two characters, and an obvious lack of discharge from a gun that gets fired into the camera--but these flaws can be found in movies made with ten times the financial and technical resources that Chaffee and crew had at their disposal, so they are not at all damning. Particularly not when one considers the state of post-production on most other low-budget films.)

"Divine Intervention" is also blessed with a superb casting. The lead actors are all decent, and the Beautiful People look of the majority of the cast makes the ragged meth-head look of Vic Clay's "Father Reynolds" character that much stronger. (In fact, Clay has a number of great moments in the film, moments which would have fallen flat if he had been a lesser actor. Look in particularly for the scene where he is trying to impart one of his Bible/"Survivor"-based lessons to his brain-fried homicidal minion.)

The film's dialogue is also well-crafted for most of its running-time. A number of characters have unique voices, something that screen-writers achieve all too rarely. In fact, the whole idea of incorporating "Survivor" into the fabric of Father Reynolds' psychosis was a great idea, as it lends both humor and creepiness to the character... and it's references that virtually everyone seeing the movie will understand and laugh at. I know this, because I've never seen a complete episode of "Survivor", I can't think of a single friend who was a fan of the show, yet "Survivor" was a large enough part of pop culture for a while there that I picked up enough about it to understand every reference that Father Reynolds' makes.

Unfortunately, for all the good things about "Divine Intervention", the film starts to fall apart as it enters its third act. Characters start behaving illogically and downright stupidly for the purpose of nonsensical melodrama, there are some VERY lame fight scenes, and the quality of the acting and the dialogue also seems to deteriorate a bit. It also doesn't help the ending that there are a couple of useless characters that bog it down--the slutty mother of another minor character and the obligatory tough-talking black guy. (The presence of the slutty mother makes no sense at all, other than perhaps Chaffee felt that every "sinner" had to be disposed of in the film. He would have been better off leaving her out of the climax, though, particularly since the way we never see her face toward the end makes me think the actress who played her earlier in the film wasn't even present.)

I think with one more draft of the script before filming started--to get rid of some of the useless characters and subplots, and to tighten up the film's ending to a large degree--Rufus Chafee could have had himself a fantastic first outing as a feature film director. Instead, because of the way the film falls apart in the third act, he's ended up withing something that's at the low end of average.

I hope that Chaffee tries his hand at another feature. Based on the high level of quality here, I suspect he's a creator who learns from his mistakes, and I think a second movie will be much, much better.

I hardly ever say this, but I think Rufus Chaffee is a talent to watch for in the future.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Nicole Kidman

Although born to Austrailian parents, and an Australian national, Nicole Kidman was actually born in Hawaii and spent her earliest years in Washington, D.C. She broke into film at the age of 16, and, after gaining much acclaim in the Australian films "Bush Christmas" and "BMX Bandits," her career swung into an upward trajectory that brought her back to the United States and Hollywood and to the status as an international movie superstar.

Kidman has appearing in chillers since her very first role--the Australian TV movie "Chase Through the Night" in 1983)--and her first film for the international market and an American studio was "Dead Calm".

Kidman has some 50 movies to her name, and close to half of those are dark thrillers, horror films, or comedies that include supernatural elements. Foremost among these are the aforementioned "Dead Calm (1989), To Die For (1995), "Practical Magic" (1998), "The Others" (2001) and "Bewitched" (2005).

Kidman has four movie projects in varying stages of production, with "Tresspass" (slated for release early this fall) being perhaps the closest thing to a horror movie among then. Kidman stars as a woman being held hostage with her husband (played by Nicolas Cage).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

'Purvos' is one to pass over

Purvos (2006)
Starring: Dave Workman, Stephani Heise, Nathan Day, Conrad Brooks, and Natasha Rogers
Director: Jerry Williams
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When a sleep disorder researcher (Heise) starts finding similarities between the dreams of several patients--including her own ex-lover (Rogers)--she starts to believe there may be a paranormal connection. Her investigation eventually leads her to a deadly confrontation with a serial killer (Workman).

"Purvos" is one of these shot-on-video productions that has amateur written all over it. It's one of those films made with more love than skill, so I find myself hesitating to pan it--and therefore review it.

However, "Purvos" is available both in the "Demented Deviants" and the "Tomb of Terror" DVD multipacks from Pendulum Pictures, and as a stand-alone DVD from Brain Damage Films. Someone other than the filmmakers obviously believes this film is worthwhile, and I can't bring myself to agree with them. So, I feel like warning those who haven't been exposed to it yet.

At its best, "Purvos" rises to the level of solid mediocrity. The camerawork, editing, lighting, any other technical aspect of the film are average for what I've come to expect from filmmaking at this level. In fact, the editing is slightly below average, but I think this stems from a problem with the director rather than the editor, as I more than once had a sense that veteran film actor Conrad Brooks was repeating himself during a scene so the best delivery of a line could be included, but instead the repetition is included in the film.

Where things start getting really bad is the acting. Universally, the acting is of the sort I'd expect to find in a community theatre production, not in a movie. In fact, most of the actors are delivering their lines as if they on a stage. Almost every performance is stiff and unnatural... and, frankly, feel more like they are rehearsals than final, film-ready performances.

Of course, the bad acting may not entirely be the fault of the actors. The film features some pretty awful dialogue. It's not quite the worse I've ever encountered, but it is close. Perhaps if the dialogue had sounded more like the way people talk instead of sounding like it came from the first draft of a story submitted to a fiction workshop.

But the bad dialogue is only part of what drags "Purvos" down from being a standard amateur horror production to being barely worth watching. In fact, the rest of the script makes the bad dialogue seem like it's not that big an issue. We've got bad pacing, badly motivated characters, badly explained or utterly worthless plot elements, and a non-ending that makes no sense anyway you choose to look at it.

I think the most frustrating things about this film is that the two worst elements of the script and the way the film is executed could have been the most interesting parts of the film. There are good ideas somewhere here, but they are so badly executed that it's hard to recognize even their potential.

The worst of the badness is the mad slasher, Uncle Max/Purvos (played by Dave Workman with gusto but not terribly convincing). How/why is his causing nightmares in his niece? Why does he want to kill her? Why is his backstory so damn trite that it would have been best if it had been left out all together? The supernatural tie-in here--manifested by some sort of psychic link between Uncle Max and one of his intended victims--could have been a saving grace for the picture, but it remains mostly unused and it's completely pointless in the overall flow of the picture. (There is a far more plausible path included in the film to involve the film's main character in the events than she's uncovered some sort of pyschic activity.)

The second worst is the character of Professor Jessup (played by Conrad Brooks with... um... I'm not quite sure with what, but something involving 80-proof comes to mind). In the first place, his character is a worth appendage to the film, almost as if it was inserted after what passes for the script was written and someone said, "Hey... my dad knows Conrad Brooks, and he's going to be in town for the weekend, and he wants to be in our movie!" And, to make matters worse, his character is featured in a nonsensical ending that I'm sure is intended to be some sort of twist. But it's not. It's just bad. Yet, if this part had been better written and more tied to the story of the film, this could have been place to fully develop the supernatural angle of the story.

In final analysis, "Purvos" is a film that's barely worth watching. It's harmless filler in the 50-movie collection "Tomb of Terror", but it's bound to be drag on the value of your movie-watching dollar in the "Demented Deviants" set, and it's certainly not worth whatever the price for the stand-alone DVD is as a purchase or a rental.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Travel Advisory:
Town not on the map? DON'T STOP THERE!

The Vampires' Night Orgy (1974)
Starring: Jack Taylor, Dianik Zurakowska, Jose Guardiola, Charo Soriano, Fernando Romero, Sarita Gil, and Helga Line
Director: Leon Klimovsky
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After the driver of their bus dies of a heart attack, a collection of domestic workers on their way to new jobs at the castle of a wealthy Eastern European recluse detour to a village off the highway in a shadow-shrouded valley. Although it is not on the map, the citizens seem friendly enough, particularly the Countess who owns the entire settlement (Line). But that's only until the sun sets, at which time the outsiders become what's for dinner.

"The Vampire's Night Orgy" is one of those movies that is entertaining and scary almost despite itself. The characters are universally bland and ill-defined;--except for the "hero" who first noticed the heroine while peeping on her as she undresses, and who continues to secretly watch her even after they've met... and who ultimately decides to save his own skin over that of a little girl who may or may not still be alive; the script is a jumble of barely explained and completely unexplained events--the town is home to vampires but it is also home to some sort of spirit that looks like a little boy spirit and that seems to be at odds with the vampires, and then there's the cop-out ending to the film; the soundtrack is one of the most inappropriate and badly done I've come across, with Musak-style easy listening tunes playing as a vampire attack happens; and, finally, the acting is sub-par, be it on the part of the original cast or the voice actors doing the dubbing.

However, the film's pacing is perfect and clever staging and editing of scenes, plus decent cinematography go a long way to make up for the crummy actors. (Out of all the performers, only Jose Guardiola and Helga Line are any good... probably because they were called on to play parts like ones they've done before where they are called upon to seem friendly yet still carry a mysterious and undefinable sinister air about them.)

Also, despite the fact that one of the story's secrets is given away in the title--there's going to be an abundance of vampires showing up at some points, and what better place than a town where the sun never shines and that isn't on the map?--the way the vampires are deployed as the film unfolds is handled very well. For someone who's watched as many vampire movies as I have, it was particularly refreshing to have a scene where a vampire woman is chasing a half naked man around the bedroom instead of the other way around. It's a little thing, but it's one of the many quirks of this film that makes it fun.

Another thing that's well-handled is the use of children in the film. Often-times, children are annoying in horror movies, either because the child actors aren't any good or because their use in the plot is predictable. While the screenwriters Gabriel Burgos and Antonio Fos must not be parents, must not have had siblings, and must have been raised by wolves with the way they portray children and parenting in this film, they did manage to create a very horrific graveyard sequence build around the mysterious ghost/demon child and the young daughter of one of the traveling domestic workers. As the scene unfolded, I grew increasingly apprehensive for the girl, because I thought I knew where it was going... even if I was equally certain that there was no way the filmmakers were going to dispatch a child in the way it looked like they were going to. And yet they did! It almost makes up for the fact that earlier in the picture, the girl witnesses a man being brutally mutilated yet says nothing to any of the adults. (I'm not going to go into details about the graveyard scene involving the little girl... it has to be experienced.)

The touches of black humor throughout the film are also adeptly done, especially those revolving around the meals served at the inn while the characters are staying there. I can't offer any details without spoiling the movie, but it'll make you think twice about eating any "local delicacy" while traveling ever again.

The strengths of "The Vampires' Night Orgy" almost make up for its weaknesses. If a little more effort had been put into giving it a decent ending, I would probably have given it a Six or Seven Rating. It's well worth checking out, especially if you're looking for a vampire movie to round out a Bad Movie Night that can be seen by young teens.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Erika Blanc

Born in 1943, Italian actress Erika Blanc's career spans four decades--with her debut taking place in 1963 and her most recent movie appearing in Italian theaters in 2010--and every virtually every existing film genre.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Blanc starred in literally dozens of Italian and German horror films, ranging in quality from Mario Bava's excellent "Kill, Baby, Kill!" to Emilio Marigilia's excrement "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave". Her output slowed a bit during the 1980s and 1990s, but she continued to be a familiar face in European horror films and thrillers. From 2002 through 2008, she was a regular cast member of the Italian detective show "Carabineri".

At 68 years old, Blanc remains a popular and respected actress in her home country of Italy. In the rest of the world, she ties with Helga Line as the most memorable redheaded Scream Queen of the 1960s and 1970s.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fear-filled Phantasms: The Art of Jeff Jones

Here is a small sampling of the chilling paintings the late Jeff Jones (1946-2011) created over his career.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

'Sinister' nails feel of a 1970s horror flick

Sinister (2011)
Starring: Donna Hamblin, Donny Versiga, Lucien Eisenach, Luc Bernier, and Isabelle Stephen
Director: Steve Sessions
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Emily (Hamblin) comes to believe she is being haunted by the ghost of her mother, she enlists the help of her brother (Versiga) and a ghost hunter (Bernier). The discover that the root of her problem is actually an enraged voodoo conjurer (Eisenach) who has placed a death curse on her. Will Emily and her brother be able to harness the power of voodoo themselves and reverse the evil magic before it's too late?

In the years since the retro-flick "Grindhouse" captured the imagination of filmmakers with an affection for low-budget thrillers and horror films from the 1970s and 1980s (if not that of the movie-going public), there has been steady stream of movies made with the intent emulating "classic" drive-in movies.

Many of these efforts have been gimmicky failures, being run-of-the-mill direct-to-video low- or no-budget films with digital "aging" effects added. Even those pictures where the filmmakers tried to capture the essence of movies from the time frame, they usually failed to get the look, the feel, or the nature of the acting right.

But with "Sinister", writer/director Steve Sessions hits every right note to bring us a modern film that would have fit just as well in the 1970s as it does today.

When the opening credits appeared on the screen, the chosen font and the music both made me think that Maxim Media--the parent company of Brain Damage Films, Pendulum Pictures, and Midnight Releasing--had found an old movie that they were re-releasing along with their usual current-day indie fare. However, it quickly became apparent that what I was watching was not an old movie, but a movie where someone had finally captured "grindhouse" atmosphere in a new picture, because the featured actors were mostly not born, or were in pre-school during the '70s.

It isn't that Sessions tried to make a period piece--the film is full of cellphones and other 21st century references--that makes the film an effective mimic, but rather he actually seems to have watched and paid attention to those old time horror flicks.

From the use of lighting to the color schemes, from the cinematography to the soundtrack music, from the nature of the special effects to the style of acting, everything about this movie has a genuine "retro" feel about it. Even the pacing is reminiscent of an old style movie, with a shocking murder to get things going and then a quiet period while the film builds toward its terrifying finale.

If you can't get enough of those "grindhouse" movies, I think you'll find "Sinister" well worth your time.

(My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with a screener copy of this film.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

'Paper Dolls' deserves distribution!

This review originally appeared in a slightly different form on my old Rotten Tomatoes blog. It's of a film I saw at the 2008 STIFF festival in Seattle. Production company Bad Fritters Films was looking for a distributor then... and they still seem to be looking. That's a real shame, because this is an excellent horror film.

Paper Dolls (2007)
Starring: Adam Pitman, Nathaniel Petersen, Gill Gayle, Kent Harper, Rian Jairell, and Sarina Hart
Directors: David Blair and Adam Pitman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Two best friends (Pitman and Petersen) decide to celebrate their high school graduation with a "men's only" trip to Canada. When a strange gas station attendent (Harper) tells them about an old logging road that will bypass the clogged border crossing, they encounter some horrifying creatures in the woods... creatures that prove the legend of Sasquatch is all too real. Or do they? As Sheriff Domain (Gayle) and his deputies investigate, they uncover disturbing facts that point to a different, but equally dark, chain of events.

"Paper Dolls" is a film that is part thriller and part monster movie with a dash of teen slasher flick added to the mix, and it succeeds at being all those things to a far greater degree than what is common for horror films. It's also the scariest Sasquatch/Big Foot movie that I think has ever been unleashed on the general public.

Although it gets off to a shakey start--we have a prologue that will make you think you're in for another "Blair Witch Proect"/"Dairy of the Dead" movie consisting of video clips, which is then followed by what seems like the real credit sequence and then some nature shots that feel like a credit-less credit sequence--"Paper Dolls" finds its proper voice and direction shortly after that, treating the audience to a film that features a level of technical craftsmanship and professionalism all-too-rarely seen in low-budget horror films like this.

The cinematogrpahy is excellent and the movie is shot with a style that's modern yet stylish in a way that hasn't been seen since the early days of the horror flick; the directors recognize that the scariest monster can be the one you never get to see clearly and the monsters in this film are always hidden in shadows or seen fleetingly as barely discernible tangles of fur and hair as they attack. The movie also looks better than many of its modern counterparts, because it was actually shot on film rather than video (digital or otherwise)--the deep shadows of the night forest are truly black on screen. And, finally, the filmmakers didn't give sound a short-shrift in their film, and many scenes are as scary as they are due to the sound design.

The film also sports a well-development, well-written script. Each character has a unique voice, and it gives the talented cast the tools they need to fully bring the characters and the story to life. When the script is funny, it's very funny and when it's scary, it's VERY scary. The filmmakers also managed to come up with a perfect ending (well, two endings, really) that maintain the film's momentum to the very end. I particularly love the return to the videotaped talking-to-the-camera that the movie opened with, with a final shot that's perfectly framed and timed and edited.

For more information about this film, click here to visit the website of production company Bad Fritter Films.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This movie should have been interred with Evelyn

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)
Starring: Anthony Steffan and Erika Blanc
Director: Emilio Marigilia
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A nobleman (Steffen) is released from an insane asylum... only to find himself haunted by the ghost of his dead wife as he starts getting his life back together. Will he end up back in the booby-hatch, or will the secret behind the restless spirit be uncovered in time to save him?

I've seen some pretty bad movies, and "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" ranks up (down?) there with the worst of them. First, the restless spirit is being caused by the most cliched of causes in this kind of film. Second, the character with whom we are expected to sympathize is an active, masochistic serial killer who is picking up hookers and torturing them to death in his estate. Finally, the attempts at twists in the film (even beyond the "shocking" truth behind the walking ghost of Evelyn) are pretty much all so lame and goofy when viewed in the context of the "hero's" murderous actions that one has to wonder if anyone saw the entire script during production.

The thing I find most mystifying about "The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave" is that I've actually seen positive reviews of it. Now, I realize that there are few things as subjective as A&E reviews, but I can't fathom that anyone could say anything nice about this utterly awful film (other than, maybe, "Erika Blanc is easy on the eyes.")

If you know of what appeals to audiences about this film, I'd love to hear your viewpoint.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Jamie-Lynn Sigler

Best known for her role in the acclaimed television series "The Sopranos", Jamie-Lynn Sigler's acting debut was in regional theater productions in New York State at the age of 7. Her career has mostly been divided between the stage and television series, but along the way she has also made half a dozen movies, three of which are independently produced horror films.

Sigler's second film role was in the 2001 anthology picture "Campfire Tales". She was also featured in "Dark Ride"--which was part of the 2005 "After Dark Horror Fest" line-up--and her most recent excursion into the realm of fright pictures was a starring turn in "Beneath the Dark" in 2010.

Born in 1981, Sigler turns 30 this Sunday, May 15.

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Jason Takes Manhattan' is squandered potential

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Starring: Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves, V.C. Dupree, Kelly Hu, Sharlene Martin, and Kane Hodder
Director: Rob Hedden
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A chartered boat full of high schoolers celebrating their graduation crosses Crystal Lake, and in doing so dredges the undying killer Jason Vorhees from his temporary watery grave. Mass murder and massive amounts of mayhem follow, aboard a ship and on and under the streets of Manhattan Island.

Someone came up with the clever idea of trying to breath new life into a played-out slasher movie series by moving the murder spree from shadow-haunted woods to the debris-strewn alleys of New York City. And that's where any cleverness and creativity stopped.

From the shipload of super-intelligent Asians, hyper-athletic black kids, bitchy white party girls with big hair, and Jason hacking and stabbing his way through the stereotypes with wild abandon, aside from a change in setting, there seems to have been little or no effort put into writing a decent script. In fact, the writers don't even give us kills as impressive as we've seen previously. Worse, they almost completely squander the basic idea's potential for a really terrifying film, what with the set-up of the close confines of a ship by going with all sudden shock kills/attacks instead of mixing in a few slow-build terror sequences. Hell, they even fail to fully deliver the promise of the tile; Jason doesn't get to Manhattan until the final 1/3rd of the movie, and he is even absent from the film for a bit at that point. Perhaps "Jason Goes for a Boat Ride" would have been a better title?

Near the end of the film, Jason is washed away by a wave of toxic sludge. Perhaps this is the one clever bit in the movie--with the writers commenting on what they believe the nature and effect of their "contribution" to the franchise will be?

There isn't much to be said about the acting, the music, or anything else about the film's technical aspects, other than the camera's always in focus and gore effects are well done. At least some effort was put into that. Lead "survivor girl" Jensen Daggett is easy on the eyes, and she does an adequate job, but supporting cast members Kelly Hu and V.C. Dupree are far more interesting both as characters and as performers on screen; naturally, then, given how bad this movie is, they are both killed off early.

Hardcore fans of the series and the world's biggest lovers of slasher flicks, are probably the only viewers who will enjoy this movie. It's not as bad as "Jason Goes to Hell" but it's close.

The house always wins in 'Haunted Casino'

Haunted Casino
(aka "Dead Man's Hand: Casino of the Damned") (2007)

Starring: Robin Sydney, Scott Whyte, Kristyn Green, Wes Armstrong, Lily Rains, Kavan Reece, Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Jessica Morris, and Rico Simonini
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After his mobster uncle dies in prison for five murders committed forty years ago, Matthew Dragna (Whyte) inherits his long-closed Las Vegas casino, the Mysteria. Together with four friends (Armstrong, Green, Rains, Reece, and Sydney) he starts restoring the place, hoping to reopen it while preserving its archaic look as a way to revive the spirit of Vegas' early years when the Rat Pack and mobsters ran the show. But, they soon discover that the spirit of mob-ruled Vegas is already very moch alive within the walls of the Mysteria, in the form of long-dead gangster Roy Donahue (Haig)... and he has score to settle with the Dragna family.

"Dead Man's Hand: Casino of the Damned" is a straight-forward, barebones traditional haunted house story. It unfolds quickly, with not a moment of screentime wasted. Unforunately, it's so barebones that several of the characters barely get any development and the ultimate resolution of the plot feels a little rushed and too easy.

Because of its very traditional and straight-forward nature, the film also is fairly scare-free for most of its running time. It's not rated, but I suspect it would be a PG-13 film, and even when compared to other horror films at that level it's tame. Even the teens will be unimpressed, as the first hour unfolds as a steady, but tension-free pace. There's just enough going on to keep your interest, but not much more than that. (The lack of ability for a character to "get it up" and the interaction with his bitchy girlfriend is the most interesting activity during the first part of the movie.)

As for the rest the cast and the film's effects, they're okay. As mentioned above, the actors are all well-cast. I wish the puppetry on the ghosts aside from the slot girl had been a bit more effective, and Sid Haig wasn't as impressive here as he was in "House of 1000 Corpses", but the puppets and his performance were passable.

"Dead Man's Hand: Casino of the Damned" is worth seeing primarily for Simonini and that really cool slot ghost; they earn it a full point on their own, lifting it from a low 4 rating to a medium 5. It's not necessarily a movie I recommend you go our of your way for, but it's got moments that make it worth checking out.

Monday, May 9, 2011

'Moon of the Wolf' is okay, but not spectacular

Moon of the Wolf (1972)
Starring: David Janssen, Barbara Rush, Bradford Dillman, and Geoffrey Lewis
Director: Daniel Petrie
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A small Louisanna town is terrorized by a string of brutal, savage murders. Sheriff Whitaker (Janssen) gradually comes to the realization that the murderer isn't quite human, and the trail leads to the front door of the town's leading citizens, Louise and Andrew Rodanthe (Rush and Dillman). But can such a thing as a werewolf really exist?

"Moon of the Wolf" is a pretty straight-forward werewolf movie, complete with the skeptic initially saying "there isn't such a thing as werewolves", the fortune teller who sees doom for the next victims, the wealthy family with a history of strange illnesses, and a list of possible candidates for who the werewolf might be, thus lending a "who-dunnit" aspect to the film until the creature is revealed.

Given that this is a made-for-TV movie that dates from the 1970s, it perhaps goes without saying that the werewolf (when is finally revealed) is in a less than impressive costume--but at least the director seemed to have realized this, and he tries to dwell on it as little of as he can, and he doesn't foolishly attempt any on-screen transformations that his budget doesn't allow for. So, the somewhat underwhelming werewolf doesn't harm the movie any.

Where this film does stand out, however, is that it doesn't take the usual movie route and portray the smalltown Southerners as a bunch of moronic bigots, nor are the wealthy people shown as exploitive racists. Instead, it shows a community where everyone works together... and interracial relationships happen and are accepted. In other words, the film gives a truer portrayal of a small town in the late 20th century than most movies bother to give us. And that keeps the movie in the "Fresh" category. The film also offers an interesting little tidbit: In the world of this movie, lycanthropy can be controlled with the right sort of medication, if taken in the right, timely doses. This is a small (but crucial) part of the plot, and it's the one semi-original thing that the movie brought to the table.

"Moon of the Wolf" has a solid cast that give good performances, and a decent script that brings a couple of minor variations to what we're used to from this sort of movie. I believe lovers or werewolf films will probably enjoy it, but it's not a "must-see.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Cheyenne King

Actress and dancer Cheyenne King made her film debut in the independently produced action/horror flick "Fist of the Vampire". She went onto star in three other indie horror movies, including the just-released "Wendigo: Bound by Blood", as well as the recently completed comedy "Scamalot".

King is a Native American of Ojibwe heritage and she is very active in that community.

Friday, May 6, 2011

'Bound by Blood: Wendigo' is a packed chiller

Bound By Blood: Wendigo (2011)
Starring: Brian Anthony, Cheyenne King, Leon South, and Bob Dobiesz
Director: Len Kabasinski
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In the dead of winter, a small town sheriff (Anthony) and a doctor (King) face off against a band of ruthless assassins hunting a Federally-protected witness and the body-hopping, cannibal spirit known as Wendigo.

This is one of those movies that was much cooler in concept than execution. I absolutely love the set-up and the way the movie unfolds with three story lines--the Wendigo spirit cutting gory swath through the back country, the mysterious assassins honing in on their target, and the sheriff who you just know is in for the worst day of his life when he inevitably gets caught in the middle of several situations he can't even begin to understand. Or, rather, never gets a chance to understand, because the bullets are flying and the bodies are dropping too fast.

The biggest problem with the film is that here's simply too much going on. There are too many characters up to too many things at any given time. While Kabasinski is skilled enough as a writer and director to keep all these balls moving through the air in a steady and orderly fashion, he has to move back and forth between the sheriff and the doctor, the wendigo claiming victims, the FBI protection detail, and the hit team, with such frequency that the viewers never really get invested with one set of characters or another. The end result is not one that builds suspense but rather one that builds impatience. We don't care more for one set of characters than the other, so all we want is for the film to reach the three-way confrontation it's promising.

That's not to say this is boring movie. Kabasinski gives us plenty of action and gore as the film unfolds, and he generally keeps things moving at a fast pace. The only boring bit happens right at the beginning, in the pre-opening credits sequence. While I appreciate the need to set up the presence of the Wendigo spirit, that sequence could have been done in half the time and it would have freed up a few minutes later for some more time with the lead characters--the sheriff and the doctor portrayed by Brian Anthony and Cheyenne King respectively--or perhaps with the most interesting secondary character--the leader of the hit team portrayed by the director himself under the stage name Leon South.

This is the third film I've seen by Len Kabasinski, and it's the third one I've enjoyed. As harsh as my review of Kabasinski's "Curse of the Wolf" was, I still found it entertaining and with plenty of merit. He showed improvement as a filmmaker with his second movie, "Fist of the Vampire", fixing most of the flaws I complained about previously and showing improvement in just about every technical area. That development as a filmmaker for Kabasinski continues with this film.

With "Bound By Blood", Kabasinski continues to marry the action genre with the horror genre, but he has become far more adept in staging and filming the martial arts fight scenes. Camera placement is such now that viewers have the illusion that punches and kicks are being thrown and actually hitting home. The use of sound design to further the illusion has also improved over previous efforts. The only problem with the fight scenes is that choreography continues to feel under-rehearsed; with a little more practice time, perhaps the fights could be a little faster paced and the use of editing to conceal the fact they're not continuous could be reduced? I understand, though, that this might not be possible due to the budget constraints that Kabasinski operates under.

Kabasinski also once again deploys CGI effects with great skill through the picture, moreso than in his previous ones. Once again, it's mostly muzzle-flashes and bullet impacts, but it's done very effectively. He tripped up a bit when he decided to use CGI for a gore effect involving a character being shot in the head, but I've seen worse in movies with bigger budgets, so I can forgive him that one excess.

"Wendigo" is not a perfect film, but it's pretty good. I hope that Kabasinski eventually finds a backer who can give him enough time and money to make a movie that's closer to perfect, because I think he has the potential to create a kick-ass action/horror hybrid film.

Regardless, I'll be looking forward to his next movie with great anticipation.

"Wendigo: Bound By Blood" debuted on DVD from Midnight Releasing on May 3. My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with a preview copy.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'From Dusk Till Dawn' is one of Tarantino & Rodriguez's best

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Starring: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Cheech Marin
Directors: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Professional criminals Seth Gecko (Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Tarantino) take a family hostage (including Keitel, Lewis, and Liu) and flee to Mexico following a robbery gone bad. Here, they take temporary refuge in an isolated strip club until they can meet up with their contact. But the club harbors are dark secret, and the Gecko Brothers and their hostages must work together if they are to survive the night.

There are a rare few movies that take as sharp, surprising, and, frankly, genre-hopping plot turns as "From Dusk Till Dawn" and not lose control and explode into a fiery wreckage. Even fewer do it as effectively as is done here, as, for the most part, they have no re-watch value, because the main point of the film is the sudden change in plot direction and once you've experienced it, there's no reason to go back.

But "From Dusk Till Dawn" is so jam-packed with action and grim humor that it's worth coming back to every few years; you will either find something in it that you missed the first time around, or there is simply so much going on that you only remembered the highlights.

The film succeeds first and foremost because of its strong script. Quentin Tarantino's writing has never been as good as it is here... maybe he should try writing a few more linear screenplays every now and then so he can focus on character and dialogue instead of trying to be clever. Nothing he has written before or since has so many funny lines and really well done black humor; like some of the best moments in "Pulp Fiction", you will find yourself laughing so hard you'll tear up, even if you know you shouldn't be laughing at the gory, nasty action unfolding before you.

Secondly, the direction from Robert Rodriquez is rock solid at every stage of the film's unpredictable course from the opening to closing credits. The first half is a tense, border-line psychological thriller about violent killers on the edge and innocent victims trapped in their grasp. The acting is solid and the cinematic approach is intimate in the way scenes are filmed. We can feel the emotional and physical threats that the various characters pose to one another, and we know that whatever will unfold in the hijacked RV, it's not going to end well.

But there's no way we can predict exactly how badly and strangely things are going to end, because the first half of the movie gives no hint whatsoever what is to come...

And Rodriquez not only manages the transition from thriller to gory and over-the-top violent horror movie monster fest, but he does so with such efficiency and style that the viewers are startled and surprised by the sudden genre change, but we are not confused or put off by it. We all have a "what the hell just happened?!" moment, but Rodriguez is in such tight control of his movie that even as the story explodes into complete and utter mayhem, he never loses our attention for a moment. In fact, the shock only pulls us tighter in. And, of course, his control is bolstered by the exceptionally well-crafted script from Tarantino.

Finally, there is the acting. Every performer in this film may be portraying stereotypical characters, but they do it with great conviction and zest. Every actor in the film brought their A-game to the shoot, and every character seems fully alive on the screen. Clooney is fantastic as the handsome but dangerous hood with a (small) heart; Tarantino is great as the whiny but crazy hood; Lewis rocks as the rebellious teenager who doesn't comprehend the danger she's in; and Keitel excels as the concerned and deeply religious father who just wants to get himself and his kids out of the situation alive. (Keitel is perhaps gives the most admirable performance of all, because it is unlike almost everything else I've seen him do.}

The supporting cast is equally superb in their performances, with Salma Hayek leading the pack as the strip club's main attraction--a stripper whose act involves a boa snake and other twisted elements--as she manages to be very sexy and very menacing, at the same time on occasion. Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Danny Trejo stand out as a pair of outlaw bikers that join the Geckos in their desperate attempt to survive the night, while B-movie mainstays Cheech Marin and John Saxon also appear in small but memorable roles, due to their good performances.

"From Dusk Till Dawn" is a film that succeeds on every level. If you have a taste for trashy entertainment and don't mind gore, it's a film that you absolutely must see. (And if you're reading these words and haven't seen it yet, you shouldn't waste another minute. Rent or buy it NOW!)