Friday, October 12, 2012

Full Moon Friday: When Toys Attack!

A recurring theme in the films produced by B-movie mogul Charles Band are killer toys. I'm not talking about the hottest Christmas toys, or the gadgets for the man-cave, but actual killer toys. Toys that creep up behind you and stab you and slash at your legs until you fall down so they can rip out your throat.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy killer toy movies from the Full Moon Fantasy Factory. When reading the reviews, you will notice that I reference the "Puppet Master" films repeatedly in the following reviews. If you are unfamiliar with those, you can come back next Friday when I cover the best entries in that long-running film series.

Dolls (1987)
Starring: Carrie Lorraine, Stephen Lee, Ian Patrick Williams, Guy Rolfe, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Hilary Mason, Bunty Baily and Cassie Stuart
Director: Stuart Gordon
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Stranded travelers spend the night in an old mansion inhabited by an elderly couple (Mason and Rolfe) and their magical dolls... dolls that don't take kindly to abusive adults or house-guests that behave badly.

"Dolls" is a comedy/horror flick that has the feel of a fairy tale--a feel the filmmakers purposefully work to evoke and this atmosphere makes the movie that much more interesting viewing.

The film has also has qualities about it that evoke classic horror films and thrillers from the 1930s and 1940s, primarily the sub-genre that get's referred to as "dark old house movies". The pacing of the story and the "just rewards" given to the characters as it unfolds have a "Tales From the Crypt" or "House of Mystery" feel to them that makes the film even more fun to watch.

At the same time, "Dolls" was also groundbreaking. If not for this film, "Puppet Master" might never have come into being, as much of what goes on here feels like a rough draft for that movie and franchise. (There's even a bit from here that is echoed several times in the "Puppet Master" films, but not surpassed, and that's the appearance of filmdom's most unusual firing squad.)

The film is artfully shot and edited, features an excellent score and has a cast of actors that are all perfect in their parts. Comic actor Stephen Lee has a nice turn as a man whose childlike wonder and innocence protects him from the rampaging killer dolls; veteran British character actors Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason are great as the elderly masters of the dark old house; and the rest of the cast present characters so obnoxious that you can't wait to see them get bumped off. Even child actor Carrie Lorraine is far better than most children her age. It's a shame she quit acting after this film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ragdoll (1999)

Starring: Russell Richardson, Jennia Watson, Freda Payne, Bill Davis and Tarnell Poindexter
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Young up-and-coming musician Kwame (Richardson) turns to his grandmother's book of voodoo spells to get revenge after New Orleans crimelord Big Pere (Davis) has her beaten to the point she's in a coma. Kwame inadvertently unleashes uncontrollable killing magic--in the form of a ragdoll--that not only goes after Big Pere's gang but also those whom Kwame loves.

"Ragdoll" is a fun little flick that features all the "typical" Full Moon elements, including a killer puppet. If you enjoy that special atmosphere that hovers around most of the best features that have the name Charles Band in the production credits, you're bound to enjoy this movie. In fact, it may represent the last gasp of Band's Golden Age as far as the film's he's helmed. Although the VERY low budget is evident throughout the film, the magic is present to a degree that we won't see again until "Doll Graveyard" (and, even there, it's stronger in this film). Of course, it may also be that the film ends up as strong as it is because it is helmed by one of the most talented editors and directors who has worked with Band, Ted Nicolaou.

The film succeeds primarily due to strong performances from Russell Richardson (the handsome lead, playing Kawme), Jennia Watson (the very attractive love interest, Teesha) and Freda Payne (the target of the gangster attack that triggers the events of the film and whose skill with sorcery will be Kwamie's and Teesha's only chance of survival). Their acting talents go a long way to making us buy into the danger and threatening nature of the killer puppet in this movie, which isn't anywhere as impressive as the Demonic Toys or Andre Toulon's puppets, and which sounds like an angry cat. The film's climax also wouldn't be anywhere near as suspenseful if not for the skills of these three actors.

There were only two things that got in the way of this film rating perhaps a point higher that I am currently assigning it.

First, the film could have done with a little more of a denouement than it has, or perhaps a brief reappearance of the Shadow Man, the devil-figure with whom Kwame makes the deal that unleashes the "killing magic"; his take on the turn of events would have been interesting. I like the fact the movie ends when it's over--with no "surprise shock ending" or the likes tacked on--but a little more of a wrap up would still have been preferable.

Second, for a film with a running time that barely breaks 80 minutes, a lot of tme is taken up by acts performing songs. There are three rap songs and two pop/soul tunes of mediocre quality included in the film, and, knowing Charles Band's love of using movies as promotional vehicles for other ventures (and other ventures as promotional vehicles for his movies), they are undoubtedly there in what was a failed attempt at branching out into a Full Moon pop music venture. (I suspect "The Horrible Dr. Bones" and "Blood Dolls" were part of that same scheme.)

An over-abundance of average pop music aside, "Ragdoll" is a fun flick that should prove entertaining, especially if you add it to the line-up of a Bad Movie Night (or, since I am posting this round-up in October, for viewing at a Halloween get-together)..
Doll Graveyard (2005)
Starring: Jared Kusnitz, Gabrielle Lynn, Anna Alicia Brock, Kristyn Green, Hannah Marks, Brian Lloyd, and Scott Seymour
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

In 1910, a little girl (Marks) is killed by her abusive father and buried with her dolls in the backyard. 95 years later, one of the dolls is unearthed after a storm and cleaned up by a dorky young collector of action figures (Kusnitz). That night, the vengeful spirit of the girl animates the rest of the dolls and they go on a rampage during an illicit party thrown by his older sister (Lynn) while their single, back-in-the-dating-scene-again is out of the house.

"Doll Graveyard" is one of the best Full Moon movies of recent vintage. The script is decent and straight-to-the point, the acting is pretty good, the film is suspenseful, and the staging and other technical aspects are all well-handled.

Unfortunately, it's still a far cry from the films that Charles Band helmed in 1990s, a period that is increasingly starting to look like his Golden Age.

The first and biggest problem with the film is that the "straight-to-the-point" strong suit mentioned above is also one of the film's weaknesses. It's too straight-to-the-point. The film would have been far more effective if we'd gotten to see the characters in their normal, every day lives. We should have seen the kids at school, we should have been told what happened to their Mom, we should have seen what their Dad was like before the dolls attack--and before he found a certain item in the backyard. (Hell, we should have seen him FINDING the item in the backyard.)

At a running time 71 minutes, there was plenty of room for expansion in this film, and it would have been far better if we had gotten to know the characters a little better. It would have heighted the suspense and the humor, and it would have made this a much better movie. Of course, it would have required two or three more locations, which would have meant many thousands of dollars more for the budget. I understand why the film is structured the way it is, but I don't have to like it.

A second problem with the film is the ending. The ending is weak and badly conceived. Does Dad live or die? What's the deal with the spirits? (And what about those dead bodies? Someone's going to jail for murder, because the cops sure aren't going to buy "the dolls did it!")

The third and final problem is that the killer dolls here are little more than retreads of murderous toys that Charles Band has already done with more punch in previous movies. The Samuari doll and the Prussian officer doll are retreads of Blade and Tunneler respectively from the "Puppet Master" movies, while the cutesy doll is very similar to Baby Oopsie from "Demonic Toys" (except more nonsensical... why does a demon possessed doll with a porcelain head suddenly develope the ability to gnaw on people?)

For all these complaints, however, "Doll Graveyard" still is entertaining if you like that Charles Band brand of weirdness.

Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys (2004)
Starring: Corey Feldman, Danielle Keaton, Vanessa Angel, Silva Suvadova, Nikolai Sotirov and Anton Falk
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producers: Charles Band, Jeff Franklin, Bob Perkis and Jörg Westerkamp
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

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

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

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

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

Demonic Toys 2 (2010)
Starring: Michael Citriniti, Alli Kinzel, Lane Compton, Leslie Jordan, Selene Luna and Elizabeth Bell
Director: William Butler
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A wealthy collector of oddities (Citriniti) and his entourage travel to a deserted Italian castle to acquire a legendary mechanical dolls known as Devoletto. Once there, however, demonic spirits that have been lurking in the castle for centuries possess other grotesque toys he has collected and a bloodbath begins.

The tagline for this movie reads, "Playtime is over." I fear I must agree.

With not only the promise of the legendary Demonic Toys returning to action, but also the presence of Dr. Lorca from Charles Band's spectacular film "Hideous!" (review here) and the film being shot in the same castle as "Castle Freak" and "The Pit and the Pendulum" this should and could have been a nostalgic return to the Old Days of Full Moon's Golden Age of the 1990s. It's a direct appeal to fans of all those classic Full Moon pictures. Unfortunately, the film falls short of its promise.

The cast gives a performance of typical Full Moon caliber, with Michael Citriniti as Dr. Lorca and Elizabeth Bell as his unfaithful, gold-digging wife being especially fun to watch. The rest of the cast is also pretty good, but they are let down by a script that feels as if it needed another draft or two, and by shoddily done special effects.

First, the puppetry is weak, as has been the tendency in most recent Full Moon efforts--it's not as bad as that featured in "Skull Heads" or "Decadent Evil," but it's also not as good as what we saw in "Doll Graveyard" and it can't hold a candle to the original "Demonic Toys."

Second, the gore effects are also weak and vastly inferior to the original "Demonic Toys." As mentioned above, this film should have been a return to the 1990s since it is built around evoking films from those days. The gore effects should have been Old School--red corn syrup, fake guts... the works. Instead, we're treated to not-very-convincing computer-generated effects (with a supposedly severed head and blood spray from the neck being especially pathetic). Maybe the new generation of Bad Movie Lovers are satisfied with such cartoony gore, but us Grognards need a little more to be happy, especially when it comes to a movie that plays on nostalgia. (On a positive note, the CGI-created muzzle-flashes on the gun that Lorca fires in a couple of different scenes is very well done. Not all the computer effects are poorly done.)

And, finally, there are the demonic toys. Like everything else that invites comparison to previous Full Moon efforts, they come up short. The reason for them being animated is vague and the reason for them starting to kill is nonsensical in the greater context of what's going on in the story. Jack Attack, due to the crew's limited ability to engage in actual puppeteering is ineffectual dramatically because they are completely unconvincing. Worse, the "Baby Ooopsie" in this version is voiced in such a way that most of its lines are incomprehensible. Sure, it's great that it speaks like a baby... but an actor with strong enough ability to enunciate words should have been hired so he could speak like a baby AND still deliver lines that could be understood.

I sat down wating to like this movie. I wish I could give it a better review than I am. I think I might have been able to, if just a little more money and time had been spent on making this movie. Charles Band has always made cheap movies, but they didn't use to look and feel cheap... and with the computer generated gore effects and the substandard puppetry, this film both looks and feels cheap.

In the final analysis, the only truly good things I can about the film is that Alli Kinzel makes an appealing female lead and I hope to see her in more Full Moon pictures in the future, and that I feel Dr. Lorca may not be dead and that he might be back for another misadventure in the future. (The rating I'm giving the film is about as low a 4 as I can give.)

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