Friday, October 26, 2012

Full Moon Friday: Devils (and Demons) Moon

On this, the last Friday before Halloween, I'm bringing you reviews of some of the best Full Moon features that have demons and devils as part of their make-up. (Two of these are the best Charles Band's produced in a decade.)

Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994)
Starring: Angela Featherstone, Daniel Markel, Mike Genovese, Michael C. Mahon, Richard Barnes, Nicholas Worth and Kehli O'Byrne
Director: Linda Hassani
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A rebellious teenaged demon (Featherstone) travels from Hell to Earth to see the Sun and the sky, but once here she takes up her God-given responsibilities of punishing sinners. Along the way, she also manages to find true love in the form of a young, pure-hearted doctor (Markel).

"Dark Angel: The Ascent" is an engaging horror/fantasy film from the Golden Age of Charles Band's film career that features a stereotypical rebellious teenager ("my daddy doesn't understand me, my teachers don't appreciate me") but gives her a very unusual background and circumstance: The teenager here is a demon.

The concept is well-implimented in that it offers a fully realized version of Hell based on actual mythology, with a heavy slant to the idea that it is a place populated by fallen angels who still serve and worship God. Stylish photography, well-done make-up, and witty dialogue further augment the film.

Unfortunately, star Angela Featherstone isn't quite up to the task of playing our heroine. She delivers virtually every line in the same flat monotone, and, while she is very pretty, she also seems to just have one facial expression whether she is sad, angry or happy.

Featherstone's weak performance drags the whole movie down, particularly when it is contrasted with the more lively performances of character actors like Nicholas Worth who plays the (literal) father from Hell and Mike Genovese and Michael Mahon who play homicide detectives trying to solve the rash of brutal murders the dark angel leaves in her wake as she punishes the wicked.

Despite a flawed performance from its star, "Dark Angel: The Ascent" is worth a look for anyone who has fond memories of classic Full Moon movies, or who enjoys films that effectively utilize Christian mythology in creative ways.

Doctor Mordrid, Master of the Unknown (1993)
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Yvette Nipar and Brian Thompson
Directors: Charles Band and Albert Band
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Anton Mordrid (Combs) is an unaging sorcerer who is lives secretly in the modern world, guarding Earth from demonic invasions. When the evil alchemist Kabal (Thompson) escapes from what was supposed to be his eternal prison, Mordid must turn to mortal woman Samantha Hunt (Nipar) for help if humanity is to survive.

"Doctor Mordrid" is a neat little modern fantasy film that, like a number of other Full Moon releases is surprisngly good for a direct-to-video release that dates from the early 1990s. It's got an interesting hero who acquires a cool woman sidekick in the course of the film, a villain who gives other fantasy film bad guys a run for their money, and hints at a much large, extremely interesting cosmololgy than we only get a small glimpse at in this film.

Actually, getting a small glimpse of something bigger is the way I feel about the whole movie. It feels like it should have been at least 30-45 minutes longer, and with with the scant development that's given to a number of concepts and charactes, it could easily have supported the additional running time. If all the skeletons of nifty ideas and characters that appear in movie had been more fully fleshed out, this could have been a great movie. As it is, it's okay, with decent acting and good special effects. It's worth checking out, particularly if you like movies and books like "Harry Potter" or "The Dresden Files".

Ghoulies (1985)
Starring: Peter Liapis, Lisa Pelikan, Scott Thomson, Michael Des Barres, Ralph Seymour, Keith Joe Dick, Mariska Hargitay, Jack Nance and Peter Risch
Director: Luca Bercovici
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Jonathan Graves (Liapis) discovers his father was a demonologist and decides to pick up where he left off, summoning nasty little demons to his bidding. He soon conceives of a plan that will give him ultimate power (as well as the complete obedience of his hot girl friend, Rebecca (Pelikan)), but, as always, the demons goals of their own, goals that will see the ressurection of their true master (Des Barres).

"Ghoulies" is a rollicking horror comedy that was a major hit in the mid-80s, thanks in a large part to the poster displayed above. It was also one of three movies that established the Charles Band trademark of featuring weird little creatures in his films (the other two being "Troll" and "Dolls").

It's the least of the trio, a little slow in getting started and never reaching quite the heights of wackiness as "Troll" nor delivering frights as effective as "Dolls", but it's still a fun and entertaining movie that makes great viewing for a Halloween-themed gathering.

The film's greatest flaw is that it's a bit too slow in getting started, but as it builds, you'll be able to have fun with the bizarre characters that make up the circle of friends that will eventually become ghoulie victims and demon-summoning ritual fodder. Once Jonathan puts on his demon summoning duds and actor Peter Liapis goes into Overacting Hyperdrive, the film becomes truly hilarious. Unintentional comedy, such as when an undead warlock turns himself into a sexy chick in order to lure one of the characters to his death, makes the film even funnier. (In the middle of alll the laughs, unintentional and otherwise, we also get a few genuinely creepy moments, such as when Jonathan turns Rebecca into a mind-numbed sex slave and later when it becomes aware of what a huge mistake he's made.)

"Ghoulies" is one of the best films to be cranked out by the Charlie Band Movie Factory, and it holds up nicely although it's nearly 25 years since it was first unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. it's one of those films that's the very definition of "guilty pleasure." You know it's garbage, but you still have a great time watching it.

Killjoy 3 (2010)
Starring: Trent Haaga, Spiral Jackson, Jessica Whitaker, Darrow Igus, Victoria De Mare, Al Burke, Olivia Dawn York, and Michael Rupnow
Director: John Lechago
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Four college students (Jackson, Rupnow, Whitaker, and York) become the latest victims of the demonic clown Killjoy (Haaga) when they inadvertently place themselves in his clutches. Killjoy, together with his newly created clown posse that includes Punchy (Burke) and Batty Boop (De Mare), is seeking revenge on their professor (Igus), who is in turn seeking to control Killjoy for his own mysterious reasons.

Finally, a film that is a solid reversal of the ten-year downward-trend that's been evident in the vast majority of Charles Band production. Not only is this a really fun movie, but it's what the original "Killjoy" film SHOULD have been!

As 2010 has wore on, I have been growing increasingly depressed in regards to the future outlook of my favorite source of movie madness--the Charles Band Film Factory. After two less-than-impressive sequels to films from his glory days--Demonic Toys 2 and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil--and a dearth of decent finds as I turned to Band's more obscure efforts in collaboration with producer JR Bookwalter, I was getting ready to call this blog "good enough" and turn it into an archive.

But then the good people at Full Moon Features sent me a little care package, which included "Killjoy 3", their final release of 2010... and my hope for more Full Moon viewing in the future has been restored!

"Killjoy 3" is not only the movie that the original "Killjoy" should have been--a weird and colorful romp of evil clown-driven supernatural murder and mayhem--but it also captures the darkly humorous mood of classic Full Moon films like "Demonic Toys", and "The Creeps". It's a fast-moving, sharply focused story that doesn't waste a second of screen time and which keeps accelerating and growing more intense and insane until it reaches its gory climax. And writer/director John Lechago even manages to throw in some bits of characterization for both the demons and the victims without slowing the film, making this one of the best scripts for a Full Moon feature in a while. Heck, it even features a denouement that is dramatically appropriate and not just a half-assed sequel set-up.

A large portion of the credit for this film's success rests with Trent Haaga and Victoria De Mare, half of the demonic clown act that kills its way through the the college kids who get caught between Killjoy and the professor that is the object of his wrath. Although Haaga didn't originate the role of Killjoy, he makes a vastly superior killer clown to Angel Vargas from the first film. Vargas was one of the best things about "Killjoy", but he his performance was unfunny and more annoying than scary... he only looked as good as he did, because everything else was completely awful. Haaga on the other is both hilarious and scary, often both at the same time. He has some nice lines and he delivers them with great gusto. The same is true of De Mare, who plays a succubus in clown make-up; writer/director Lechago praises her as "fearless" in the behind-the-scenes material included on the DVD, and she would have to be as her costume consists of hooker boots, a feather boa, and full-body make-up. But in addition to being courageous, she is also able to deliver a performance as crazy and scary as the one given by Haaga. De Mare's best moments as Boop comes during a sequence scene where she is trying to seduce straight-arrow football quarterback Michael Rupnow and him him betray his fidelity to his good-girl girlfriend Jessica Whitacker, while Whitacker is trying to trick Killjoy by pretending to seduce him. De Mare, like Haaga, is both scary and funny during these scenes.

Other nice performances come from Spiral Jackson (as shy football player Zilla) and Al Burke as Punchy the Clown, especially during the scene where Zilla tries to convince Punchy that it's time for him to throw of the yoke of servitude to Killjoy and fight for the emancipation of demonic clowns everywhere.

Finally, Darrow Igus turns in another excellent performance for Full Moon as the enigmatic Professor. The plot twist and tie-back to the first "Killjoy" film wouldn't have been nearly as effective is a lesser actor had been cast in that part

However, as fun and enjoyable as this film is, it's not perfect.

Although demonic realm of Killjoy is far better realized in this film, it still feels cramped due to the film's small sets and budget. Also budget is the one truly weak spot in the film--the demonic clown known as Freakshow (and played by producer Tai Chan Ngo). The character is supposed to be a conjoined twin, but the person supposedly growing out of his side is a virtually unaltered, off-the-shelf baby doll. The film would have been much stronger if this character had been cut, since it add anything significant to the story and there wasn't money to do it right.

On the flip-side of this, I felt like the film would have benefited from a little more set-up of the main characters. While Lechago took more time to do this than in any other Full Moon film in recent memory, there were still some elements that could have done with a little more development. For example, one of the girls (played by Olivia Dawn York) is presented as the "slutty one" by inference in some of Killjoy's comments, yet there is no actual evidence of this in the film. Everything surrounding this character would have been so much stronger if it had been her caught with a guy in the closet during the film's opening scenes, even more-so if she was being "eaten" by the guy. Everything surrounding her would make more sense and be more dramatically appropriate.

Despite these flaws, however, this is a film I feel great about recommending to all fans of classic Full Moon efforts.

Killjoy Goes to Hell (2012)
Starring: Trent Haaga, Victoria De Mare, Jessica Whitaker, Stephen F. Cardwell, Aqueela Zoll, John Karyus, Jason R. Moore, and Randy Mermell
Director: John Lechago
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After one of his victim's escapes death by his hand, the demon-clown Killjoy (Haaga) is called before Satan himself (Cardwell) to answer for his failure... and for not being evil enough. Will his ex-lover Batty Boop (De Mare) and the rest of the demonic clown posse come up with a way to save him before all his names are struck from the demonic record and he fades into oblivion?

"Killjoy Goes to Hell" is another Full Moon winner for John Lechago. In this direct sequel to "Killjoy 3" (which is being re-released by Full Moon under the new name "Killjoy's Revenge"). he builds on what was started in that previous film while taking Killjoy and related characters in a completely different and unexpected direction. The result is the sort of crazy mix of fantasy. humor, and horror present in some of the greatest Full Moon releases of years past. We also have some honest-to-God plot and character development present in this film, something which has been lacking in most recent pictures from the Band fantasy factory and which has been in short supply in the "Killjoy" films until now. To make the package even more enjoyable, the film features passable digital effects, nice sets, and great make-up jobs.

Trent Haaga, in this third outing as the demonic clown, gives his best performance yet, actually managing to give a little depth to what is basically a killer cartoon character. Similarly, Victoria De Mare, returning as the clown succubus Batty Boop, as quite a bit more to do than just be silly and look sexy and deadly--like Haaga with Killjoy, she gets to give Boop some texture and depth.

In fact, every single character in the film--from the girl who survived Killjoy and his clown posse's rampage  in the previous film (now committed to a mental hospital) to minor characters like the Demonic Bailiff--has one or two character defining moments if they utter any dialogue at all. Even the do-nothing character of Freakshow from "Killjoy 3" serves a purpose and gets to shine in this outing.

And because writer/director Lechago actually took the time and effort to write a decent script that gave the actors something to work with, there's enough material that he was able to create a full-length 90-minute movie, instead of sneaking over the finish line with 65-70 minutes that seems to have become the Full Moon norm. The strong script also makes the fairly pointless side-business of a pair of homicide detectives trying to piece together the truth about the events of Killjoy 3" tolerable even while you're wishing the film would get back to the insanity of the trial in hell.

The fact this film is as good as it is is even more remarkable when when considers the fact that it was made on an extremely small budget, was shot over 7 days in May of 2012, and that I am writing this review in late September of 2012, not from a rough edit but from the final version that will be on sale at in two weeks and showing up in Redbox rental outlets in time for Halloween.

Is it perfect? No, but most of the problems I could call attention to would amount to little more than nitpicking. This is a fun flick that is full of the spirit that old time fans loved Full Moon for back in the 1990s. It's the sort of film I hope for as I keep coming back to the House That Band Built... and it's a film that has just put John Lechago high on the list of names to watch for. He's two for two as far as Full Moon films go! (Three for three overall, if I count his non-Full Moon picture that I've seen.)

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