Sunday, January 31, 2010

The mindblowing power of 'Scanners'

Scanners (aka "Telepathy 2000") (1981)
Starring: Steven Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill and Lawrence Dane
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a private security company's program to develop psychics/psionicists as a company resource (referred to as "scanners") comes under attack from the secret organiation of scanners led by crazed megalomaniac Darryl Revok (Ironside), Dr. Ruth (McGoohan) recruits powerful scanner Cameron Vale (Lack) to locate and perhaps even capture him. But as Vale investigates, he uncovers a tangled conspiracy that is even more frightening and deadly than the powers of the scanners themselves.

"Scanners" is a fast-paced, exciting movie that exists on the ground where sci-fi and horror meets the spy thriller. It's a John Grisham or Robert Ludlum novel with psionicists instead of lawyers and/or spies. The movie oozes atmosphere and tension in every scene... and the exploding head in the film's first five minutes really is a sign of things to come: The plot twists and the ethical issues raised in this film will blow your mind as you watch it unfold.

If you're looking for an intelligent, well-written and well-acted sci-fi flick with horror overtones, you can't go wrong with "Scanners". It's a film that was so good it not only spawned its own sequels ("Scanners II", "Scanners III" and "Scanners: The Showdown") but also two installments of the "Scanner Cop" series. None of these films come close to the original, however. If you haven't seen it, I can't recommend it highly enough.

(BTW, a dim memory of this film was one of the inspirations for my "Mind Over Matter" d20 Modern RPG supplement from a few years ago. I was gratified to see that this was one of those rare cases where my memory of the film held up to watching it again.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Zombies stalk the Wild, Wild West

Undead or Alive (2007)
Starring: Jamie Denton, Chris Kattan, Navi Rawat, Matt Besser, Chris Coppala and Leslie Jordan
Director: Glasgow Phillips
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Two hapless outlaws (Denton and Kattan) team up with Geronimo's niece (Rawat) to escape an Indian curse that's rapidly turning southwest America into a land of undead, flesh-eating zombies. All the while, an undead corrupt sheriff (Besser) and his zombie posse is hot on their trail.

"Undead or Alive" is a fun zombie-western comedy (or "zombedy" as its referred to in the opening credits). It's well-acted, well-paced, and well-written with a surprise ending that, although you're going to suspect where the film is going to end up, you won't know if the filmmakers are actually going to go there until the final scene.

Fans of zombie movies and westerns alike will find alot to like about this movie. Some of the anachronistic aspects of the verbiage of a couple of characters may seem a little grating... but, like they said in the opening song of "Mystery Science Theater 3000", just remind yourself it's a movie and relax. The anachronisms are funny if you take them in the right spirit.

Saturday Scream Queen: Brinke Stevens

Brinke Stevens is one of the great B-movie scream queens of the past three decades, appearing in over 120 horror and sci-fi films (and a handful of comedies and softcore porn entries) since 1982 after giving up a career in marine biology for one as an model and actress.

Born in 1954, Stevens' continues to appear in horror films, managing to successfully transition from lethal sexpot into more "mature" roles, overcoming the age hurdle that has ended so many careers, or forced actresses behind the camera and into other production roles.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A film Roman Polanski would love?

Tormented (1960)
Starring: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, and Juli Reding
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Tom Stewart (Carlson), a third-rate ladies' man, lands himself a beautiful girl with more money than brains (Sanders) and is about to tie the knot> However, he first has to dispose of his former girlfriend, Vi (Jeding). Unfortunately for Tom, he failed to realize that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, whether she's alive or dead... and he soon finds himself haunted by Vi's floating head and other random detached body parts.

The "hero" of this film is perhaps the singularly most unlikable character I've ever been expected to feel sympathy for in a movie. Not only is Tom rotten to the core, but I get this child-molester vibe off him whenever he's around his fiance's little sister. (Of course, part of that is because he thinks she may know that he killed Vi and he's working hard to gain her trust, and eventually he tries to do the ultimate slimeball thing and kill the little kid, but there's still that vibe...)

The greatest problem with this film, and it's only partially because of its low budget, is the way things that are supposed to be scary--like when Vi's ghost manifests--are laughable. The overall flatness of the acting is also a crippling factor. Carlson does a good job as the ultimate scumbag, and little Susan Gordon gives a surprisingly good performance for a child actor... particularly when one considers that she probably got the part first and foremost by being the director's daughter.

The film does have some interesting visual flourishes, and there are several suspenseful scenes that take place in an old lighthouse. In fact, all the movies suspenseful scenes take place in the old lighthouse; whenever we get away from that location, things tend to drag a bit--except when Carlson is giving off "dirty old man" vibes around Gordon. The horror is strong at that point, whether the setting is the lighthouse or not.

The basic idea of this film--which crosses a film noir sort of attitude with a ghost story--is one that appeals to me. The execution here is sorely lacking, however.

Someone should ask Roman Polanski if he has seen this flick. I'm sure he'd have all kinds of sympathy for Tom if he did. He might even want to option a remake and relive the excitement of his youth by having Tom feed Sandy roofies and then rape her before deciding she knows too much and must die.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sometimes, the murdered won't stay dead

Dominique is Dead
(aka "Dominique" and "The Avenging Spirit") (1978)

Starring: Cliff Robertson, Jean Simmons, Jenny Agutter, Simon Ward, and Ron Moody
Director: Michael Anderson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After David Ballard (Robertson) finally murders his rich wife (Simmons), he becomes the center of a series of ever-stranger events. Worse, his wife, Dominique, still appears to be roaming the halls of their mansion. Is it her vengeful ghost back from beyond the grave, or is something even more sinister unfolding?

"Dominique is Dead" is an atmospheric little gothic thriller that's not terribly original in the way it unfolds, but the cast delivers such good performances and the solid story moves along fast enough (with complications delivered at just the right moments) that it is still an enjoyable experience if you like this kind of stories.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The past comes a'slashing on the 'Terror Train'

Terror Train (1980)
Staring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, and Derek McKinnon
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

On New Year's Eve, a murderer is stalking and killing a group of college students onboard a moving train that's host to a costume party. As the victim's pile up, Alana (Curtis) discovers the link between them... and realizes that she is likely to be next.

"Terror Train" is a cross between "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Halloween" (the original... not the turdish 2007 remake). It's got a great setting from which a host of possible victims can't escape, it's got gory kills, and it's got a killer who is moving freely among his (or her) unsuspecting victims, and the killer's identity is even one that be puzzled out by an attentive viewer before the characters realize it, so it's a movie that plays fair like any good mystery does. It's a film that should please those who like lots of suspense and mystery in their slasher-movies, although there are a couple of gory moments to keep the other half happy, as well. (Like most early--and superior--slasher-films, however, most of killing happens off-screen and is left mostly to the imagination of the audience).

Three primary elements combine to make this film the successful thriller that it is.

First, it features some great acting and sound design. The way the actors occassionally sway while moving through the train hallways and the everpresent train-sounds lend a great deal of believability to the film, more than is found in many movies set on trains where little details like uneven and constant motion beneath the actors' feet is often forgotten by sloppy directors.

Second, it features some fine performances by actors who are working with a meaty script. Ben Johnson as the firm-handed train conductor, and Jamie Lee Curtis as yet another "Survivor Girl" (to borrow a bit of terminology from "Behind the Mask") both get to fight the mad killer and be heroes. Curtis also gives what I feel is her best performance in any of her early films, including "Halloween" and "Halloween II". She's also positively gorgeous to look at throughout the movie. Hart Bochner also takes a turn as a truly dispicable character whom the viewer is almost glad to see get his.

Finally, the film features some great lighting and even better cinematography. These help to make the train set seem more real, but they also play a big part in making it frightening and in making help seem very far away when characters are confronted by the killer, even if it might be just a few yards along in the next train car.

Although rumor has it that director Roger Spottiswoode is embarrassed over having made this movie, I think "Terror Train" is an underappreciated movie that is worth seeking out.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe! (Belated)

I tried to schedule posts to go up automatically... and I screwed up.

In celebration of Jan. 19, the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, here's a review of one of the best movies based on his writings.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee, and David Weston
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As a plague known as the Red Death sweeps across the countryside, Prince Prospero (Price) believes the walls of his castle and his devotion to Satan will keep him and his foul friends safe. But one evil act too many brings a mysterious guest to a masquerade ball the prince throws.

This is the only Roger Corman film I've seen so far that I felt I could give a glowing review without tacking on ANY qualifications. "Masque of the Red Death" is a fine horror film that engages both the mind and the gut as it unfolds. It is proficiently acted, well-scripted and perfectly paced, expertly filmed within amazing sets... everything here is clicking. What's more, the film evokes its horror and dread through a well-told story rather than gore and other special effects. If there ever was a Corman film that should be described as "great" and that is worth seeing by fans of good movies (not just cheesy ones), then this is it.

Vicent Price is in top form as the evil prince, and Hazel Court also shines brightly. It's obvious that some of Corman's very best work was done while filming under the umbrella of a taxshelter in Great Britain, and "Masque of the Red Death" is the best of that work.

Click Here to read the original story this movie was based on, as well as other great works by Edgar Allan Poe.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

'The Hearse' is a so-so ride

The Hearse (1980)
Starring: Trish Van Devere, David Gautreaux, and Joseph Cotten
Director: Gregory Bower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jane (Van Devere) is recovering from a nervous breakdown when she decides to spend the summer in a remote house she just inherited from her mother. Once there, she finds the townsfolk less than friendly, with the handsome and mysteriously alluring Tom Sullivan (Gautreaux) being the one exception. Worse, whenever Jane travels the road into town, she is pursued by a massive hearse that no one but she can see... and when its driver starts appearing in the house, it's clear that something strange and possibly supernatural is going on. Or is Jane merely coming unglued?

The flaws with "The Hearse" are many, but two major ones is that the script establishes a level of creepy tension early on and stays there instead of building, and the fact that Trish Van Devere is the only decent performer in the film. She out-acts everyone, partially due to script issues (Jospeh Cotton has nothing to do other than be an obnoxious old man, for example) but also because with few exceptions none of the other "actors" show any acting ability.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the film is the characterization of the sullen citizens of Blackburn town. It's a requirement of a gothic thriller that our mentally troubled protagonist be isolated from any possible help, but "The Hearse takes it a step too far, particuarly in its characterization of the town's sheriff. Even the most corrupt cop wouldn't behave the way he's shown as behaving. Finally, the film's ambigious non-ending leave the viewer wondering, "Hey, shouldn't there be at least three more minutes before those credits start to roll?"

The film does have some technical highpoints, though. The multitude of night scenes are genuine night scenes--no lame night-for-day blue camera filters here!--and they are expertly lit. (There are some issues with the climactic hearse chase scene, but otherwise the crew does a bang-up job.) Also, the sequence where the hearse driver appears in Jane's house for the first time is a genuine shock and fright. It is rare that I am surprised anymore by a "Boo!" sort-of scare in a film, but this one got me good.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When low budgets attack....

Sting of Death (1966)
Starring: Joe Morrison, John Vella, Valerie Hawkins and Jack Nagle
Director: William Grefe
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After being ridiculed for his theories and tormented by a bunch of partying college kids, a marine biologist's assistant, Egon (Vella) transforms himself into a human jellyfish monster and goes on a murderous rampage. Will Beauty (Hawkins) conquer the Beast yet again, or will she die screaming in pain from his poisonous jellyfish touch?

"Sting of Death' is one of those movies that has a decent script at its core, but just about everything else about it is otherwise awful.

The actors featured are uniformly bad--with only John Vella, as the assistant who steps into the role as a mad scientist, and Valerie Hawkins, as the ever-screaming love interest, showing even the slightest bit of talent. Although that might be a bit unfair to the actors. The awful, stagy way they deliver their lines, with everyone politely waiting for lines to be completely finished before delivering their own, even when they are supposed to be interrupting and talking over another character, has also got to be the fault of the director to some degree.)

The special effects are almost as awful, with the film's giant jellyfish appearing like plastic bags with a little coloring in them, and the half-man, half-jellyfish monster looking like a guy in a bodysuit with an inflated garbage bag over his head. When we just saw its hands and stinging tentacles, it was creepy but the "big reveal" at the end made it just seem pathetic.

This is a film that clearly demonstrates that if you don't have the budget for decent costumes and effects, you really, REALLY need to make up for it by keeping your monster unseen or by camouflaging it with clever lighting and camera angles.

When the Jellyfish Man is scary...

... and when he is not, in two scenes from "Sting of Death"

"Sting of Death" would rate a 3 if not for a handful of very well-executed scenes. There's an attack by the jellyfish man that put me in mind of "Jaws" it was so well done, followed by a very creepy credits sequence. Later, an attack by monstrous jellyfish on the passengers of a sinking boat reminded me of the disabled catamarans in "Jaws 2". Then, there is an attack scene on land that someone should license for an anti-smoking commercial.

With the exception of the final battle between the jellyfish man and dashing young Dr. John (Joe Morrison), all the monster scenes in the film are very well done... better in fact that is the norm for the sort of no-budget school of filmmaking represented here. Combined with some nice cinematography, "Sting of Death" ends up being just entertaining enough to hold your attention as it unfolds, despite the bad actiing and the padding with dance party sequences (where the same footage of shaking booties gets used again and again).

The second feature on this DVD is reviewed at the companion blog "Movies to Die Before Seeing." You can read about it by clicking here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

There ain't no foolin' Satan

Beast of the Yellow Night (1971)
Starring: John Ashley, Mary Wilcox, Eddie Garcia, Vic Diaz, and Ken Metcalfe
Director: Eddie Romero
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Joseph Langdon (Ashley) sells his soul to Satan (Diaz) and receives a new life as Phillip Rogers, a successful American businessman living in the Phillipines, with the express instructions to tempt those he encounters to commit corrupt and evil acts. However, he cannot bring himself to destroy Rogers' loving wife, Julia (Wilcox), nor his honorable best friend, Earl (Metcalfe). Whenever he rebels, however, he is transformed into a murderous demon and remains in his form until he has eaten the flesh of a human being. Will Langdon be able to break his deal with Satan before the transformations become permanent... and before Julia falls beneath the claws of the Beast?

"Beast of the Yellow Night" is a decent low-budget chiller. The acting and camera work is mostly pedestrian and the pace is a little slow, but there are some nice flourishes when Langdon is conversing with Satan. A great weakness of the film, however, is that it hardly shows any of Langdon's efforts to fulfill his pact with Satan. (There are some vague hints, but I'm certain that someone who is as evil as Langdon seems to be at the beginning of the film would be working merrily toward his goal... at least until he encountered the truly decent Julia and Earl.)

This is by no means a spectacular film, but it's watchable.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bava delivers stylish tale of gothic hauntings

Kill, Baby... Kill!
(aka "Curse of the Dead", "Don't Walk in the Park", and "Operation Fear") (1966)

Starring: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dalin, and Max Lawrence, Valeria Valeri, and Giana Vivaldi
Director: Mario Bava
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Dr. Paul Eswai (Rossi-Stuart) arrives to assist with a murder investigation in a remote village. He finds the place gripped in fear of some evil whose name they don't even dare to mention. Although he at first dismisses it as superstitious nonsense, Paul finds it increasingly difficult to deny that the town is being haunted by the ghost of a vengeful little girl (Valeri)... particularly after he and a young woman with a mysterious past (Blanc) become targets of the spirit's wrath. Will he discover the secret behind the hauntings before it's too late to save himself?

"Kill, Baby... Kill!" is an Italian production that has all the production values and moodiness of some of the best Hammer gothic horror films from the late 1950s and early 1960s. If it wasn't for the bizarre color schemes that director and cinematographer Mario Bava likes to use to light his sets--lots of reds and greens, even in outdoor night shots-- and a somewhat more ponderous pace throughout, one might mistake this film as coming from the hands of the likes of Terence Fisher.

The film has a decent cast, an engaging, convoluted story that keeps twisting and turning up to nearly the very last moment of the film, and a very creepy little girl ghost. (Yes, the stringy-haired Japanese ghost chicks weren't the first underage phantoms in skirts to massacre the fearful.)

On the downside, the film suffers from a pace that never quite gets to where it should be. Bava treats us to some great visuals but he goes overboard with them and they become drags on the film at several different times than mood setters... there's just a little too much calling attention to the tricks of the trade than simply applying them. (And here's where Fisher leaves Bava in the dust... he made gorgeous, moody pictures, but he never felt the need to call the audience's attention to his work... instead, we just absorbed the whole.)

Aside from Bava's cries for attention throughout the movie, the end also suffers from a touch of "deux ex machina". It's an ending that makes sense and which is well-founded in the events of the film, but I would have liked the hero and heroine to have been just a little more directly involved in the resolution. I can see the rationale for why they weren't--the fact that the village sorceress (Dalin) is ultimately the one who stops the ghost plays into the conflict between science and superstition that is part of the movie's core. However, I think the ending would have worked better if science and sorcery came together to resolve the curse that gripped the town.

(And, frankly, given the way the sorceress deals with the root of the problem, even Erika Blank's damsel-in-distress character could have played a part.)

Although flawed, "Kill, Baby... Kill!" is a decent ghost movie. Fans of European horror films from the '60s and '70s should enjoy it. Heck, the fans of stringy-haired Japanese ghost girls will find quite a bit to like in this film, too.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Pop stars make cute vampire slayers

The Vampire Effect (2003)
Starring: Charlene Choi, Gillian Chung, Ekin Cheng, Edison Chen, Anthony Wong and Jackie Chan
Director: Dante Lam
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"The Vampire Effect" is a light-hearted Chinese film about fearless kung-fu fighting vampire slayers who are called upon to stop an evil vampire lord from gaining the collective powers of all vampires and ushering in a new era of darkness and evil on Earth.

The film is populated by likable (if goofy) characters, and features great fight- and wire-fu scenes, and is genuinely funny on many occasions. There is a romantic subplot where the teenaged sister of the chief vampire hunter falls in love with the slacker son of the Chinese vampire king that is a bit too sappy (and too close to what a genuine teenage love affair is like--contentless phone conversations and lame dates--but the rest of the film more than makes up for it. Jackie Chan is featured in a small part, but his performance is funny and actually revolves around an important plot point.

I might have given this film Eight Stars--it is funny and it kept me entertained from beginning to end--but the lack of a wrap-up at the end cost it a point. In the same way the first kung-fu vampire movie just sort of ended when the action was over ("Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires" starring Peter Cushing, review coming soon), "The Vampire Effect" likewise starts rolling credits almost immediately after the spectacular final fight is over. I was left wanting a bit more of a wrap-up for the Jackie Chan character. He had been drawn into what is implied to be a secret international war against the vampires, and yet the character is just dropped. It was the one sour note that was struck during this otherwise entertaining film.

One comment totally unrelated to this film: About a year after seeing it, I learned that it was made as a vehicle for Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, who were big pop stars in China at the time it was made. Oh, if only American girl pop-singers could be put in vehicles one-tenth as good as "The Vampire Effect."

Saturday Scream Queen: Darian Caine

A varsity cheerleader in high school, Darian Caine has remained physically active in her film career... and she wore even skimpier outfits or nothing at all. Since her screen debut in 1998's "Alien Encounter: Girl Explores Girl," she has appeared in nearly 60 films, most of them horror-tinged spoofs full of softcore, and even hardcore, pornography and lesbian sex scenes. She more recently branched out into more mainstream horror films, being a featured player in several low budget horror films, including Len Kabasinski's martial-arts themed vampire and werewolf movies (for which she did all her own stunts and fight scenes).

Caine's films range from craptacular to spectacular, so reviews of films featuring her will be appearing here and at the companion blog Movies to Die Before Seeing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Vampires + martial arts = gory fun

Fist of the Vampire (2008)
Starring: Brian Anthony, Leon South, Darian Caine, Cheyenne King, and Brian Heffron
Director: Len Kabasinski
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two police officers, the beef-cakey Lee (Anthony) and the babealicious Davidson (King), infiltrate an underground extreme fighting ring, only to come into direct conflict with the vampires that run it (Caine, Heffron, and South).

"Fist of the Vampire" is a rarity among low-budget action films. It sports a decent cast, a well-conceived script, and some effective use of both CGI and blue-screen effects. Overall, it's an entertaining film that fans of vampires and street fighting will enjoy.

The film derives most of its strengths from a solid script that moves along speedily from beginning to end. There isn't any big surprises in it, but it makes full use of both the vampire and extreme fighting angles. The good script also gives the lead actors plenty of material to work with, and they all do a good job in their parts. The weakest performer is Brian Heffron, who plays the vampire ring leader. His role called for someone to be completely over the top, but instead he seems subdued in most scenes. He is reportedly a professional wrestler who goes by the name of the Blue Meanie, so this is surprising to me. If anyone can ham it up, it's professional wrestlers!)

Another strong point in the film is the use of CGI. It's become commonplace for low-budget films to use CGI to simulate muzzle-flashes and gunfire and we have that here, too. The degree to which it's done is the most impressive I've seen so far. (The filmmakers go a little overboard here and there--such with an animated bullet speeding through the air that's cool the first time we see it but which gets tiresome when they use it a second and third time.) The CGI explosions, fire, and other blue screen effects are also very nice executed, particularly the ones where vampires meet their fiery ends.

Unfortunately, for all its good parts, it also features a number of weaknesses that are often present in low-budget action movies.

The most glaring of these weaknesses is in the fight scenes. While the staging of the action and the cinematography is superior to what I've seen in many films at this budget level, they are still obviously staged and choreographed. The angles the fights are being filmed from successfully hides that full-on blows don't connect, but the actors are under-rehearsed and blows and parries are telegraphed so far in advanced that nearly all illusion of reality is dispelled.

In final analysis, I think "Fist of the Vampire" is worth seeking out if you like vampires and martials flicks. Despite its flaws, it's a fun and fast-moving picture.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

'The Traveler' is a good movie I'll never watch again

The Traveler (2006)
Starring: Jonathan R. Skocik, Shawn Burke, Melanie D'Alessandro, and Megan Hartley
Director: Jonathan R. Skocik
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Seven people are trapped in an abanonded house by a supernatural force, and an immortal man with monstrous strength (Burke) soon appears and forces them to torture each other to death. But he is keeping his most special, most terrble plans in reserve for young married couple Alan and Suzan (Skocik and D'Allesandro (with Hartely providing the voice of Suzan).

Once in a blue moon, I come upon a film that I can say is fairly decent, but that I will still never watch again and that I am hesitant to recomment to anyone else.

"The Traveler" is one such movie.

I have never seen violence this graphic and terrible in a movie before. I'm the first one to admit that I'm a bit squemish when it comes to slasher-flicks and torture scenes--I know the reality of severe pain, so I can't stand watching it staged on-screen, and you'd probably laugh if you saw me squirm and look away while viewing many movies--but it's rare where I am shuttling past extended sequences because they are making my skin crawl and because they are just too horrible to watch.

"The Traveler" features six such terrible, extended, extremely graphic scenes. And the violence mostly looks horribally realistic--only once did I think "that looks fake"... but that could just have been because I was zooming past the guts spilling out from one of the characters at x4 speed.

I did watch snippits of each of the death sequences (yeah... most everyone in the house dies most terrible, anquishing deaths, and I don't consider that a spoiler in the day and age of "Saw" and the various imitators, of which this is one). The violence looks horribly realistic and the well done sound effects make it even more stomach-turningly believable. The best (or most horrible) torture sequences were the one where the "host" takes a spike and a hammer and shatters a victim's teeth one by one--and we get a top view so we can see it happen-- the one where another victim gets hoisted into the air on a meathook that penetrates the roof of the mouth and exits through an eye-socket, and the one where a victim's face is literally shaved off.

Despite my revulsion at the graphic violence, despite the fact that I will never consider watching this movie again, I admire the technical know-how that went into creating it.

This is a well-made film over-all. There are a few clunkly moments here and there--tinny dialogue, flat acting, a special effect here and there that don't come off quite right--but overall it features decent camerawork and staging, it's free of all the padding and time-filling garbage that ruins so many horror movies, and it even offering a story that's interesting and engaging,

What's more, the director has the ability to honestly assess what worked and what didn't work in the movie; the camera lingered on the gore and special effects that worked with terrible convincingness, while those that clearly didn't work as I'm sure was hoped are passed by with fairly quick cuts. (There's a "regenerating head" sequence that I think fits this bill.) Too often, low-budget filmmakers allow the audience to see their film's shortcomings too clearly by dwelling on them. Not so with Skocik... he's clearly a filmmaker with a good eye, and I'd be interested in seeing what he might come up with in the future (even if I have to shuttle past portions of the movie).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

'Terror at Red Wolf Inn' is pretty terrible

Terror at Red Wolf Inn (aka "Terror House", "The Folks at Red Wolf Inn", and "Terror on the Menu") (1971)
Starring: Linda Gillen, Mary Jackson, John Neilson, Arthur Space, and Margaret Avery
Director: Bud Townsend
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Ditzy college student Regina (Gillen) wins an all-expense-paid vacation at the scenic Red Wolf Inn, a complete surprise to her since she didn't enter a contest in the first place. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth--or even ask where it came from--Regina heads off for her vacation. The inn is run by a kindly old couple (Jackson and Space) with help from their grandson (Neilson) who seems to be nice enough when he's on his anti-psychotic meds. When a fellow guest and contest winner (Avery) mysteriously dissapears, Regina starts to wonder if there might not be something strange going on... and what is the big deal about that walk-in freezer in the kitchen that's always locked?

"Terror at Red Wolf Inn" is either a failed horror movie or a failed dark comedy. My money's on the former, but the latter is themore likely possibiity. Whatever the filmmakers had in mind, the film is neither particularly scary nor particularly funny. Plus, it's got one of the most annoying main characters I've encountered in my many years of watching trashy movies.

The main character/heroine of "Terror at Red Wolf Inn" is one of the dumbest characters to ever be written, and her idiocy goes a long way to making this film the dissapointment that it is. The film asks us to believe that she's a college student, but she is shown to be such an idiot that one has to wonder how she even graduated from high school, let alone be admitted to a university. Who else but a complete idiot would "forget" to tell her parents--or anyone for that matter--that she's won a free vacation and that she is being rushed to take it until she's about to board a plane chartered just for her? And who other than a complete idiot would get on the plane without telling anyone, just because the pilot insists she does? Or call from the airport she arrived at? Given how stupid Regina comes across, it's clear she's only in college to land herself a husband (the film is from the early 1970s when this was still common), but someone this stupid would barely be able to hold a job as a hotel maid.

Regina's idiocy coupled with a couple excrutiatingly boring dinner scenes--the director was undoubtedly trying to be clever, thinking they were serving as "the gun over the fireplace" and the audience would reflect on them as the story progresses with an "aha!" but he drags them on for waaay too long--and the director's apparent ability to create scenes that are completely suspense free all combine to make the movie the failure that it is. Once one adds the many inexplicable events, unexplained crucial details, and underdeveloped characters, we end up with a film that's not worth the time you'll devote to watching it.

"Terror at Red Wolf Inn" is another one of those movies where I feel sorry for the cast, because they all do a good job. Gillen manages to play Regina in such a way that she never becomes annoying, despite her boundless stupidity, while Jackson and Space play the elderly couple who operate the inn and prepare its unusual menus, with just the right amount of sweetness to make them perfect for the story--in fact, they're the best part of the whole movie. With a better script, I think these three could have been fanrtastic in their parts.

But even good acting doesn't make up for the fact the movie starts flawed and doesn't get better.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Good idea, lousy execution in 'Castle of Evil'

Castle of Evil (1966)
Starring: Scott Brady, Virginia Mayo, David Brian, Lisa Gaye and William Thourlby
Director: Francis D. Lyon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Thourlby) invites his relatives to his remote estate where his robot double proceeds to stalk and kill them in order to avenge a disfiguring accident he suffered years before.

I don't usually give away story twists in my teaser summaries, but in the case of "Castle of Evil", it doesn't matter. Despite the rating of 4, I don't recommend that you waste your time with this movie.

Which is too bad, because the script for this film is actually pretty good. It's a great retro-fusion of the "dark old house" and "mad scientist" film genres that flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, and the featured actors all give respectable performances in their various parts.

Unfortunately, the writer and cast are let down by an incompetent director. The staging of every scene is flat and lifeless, no opportunity for padding is left untapped--except for the ending that is inexplicably sudden and abrupt--and all the bad choices sap every bit of life from the film, driving even the most friendly-minded viewer into a stupour of boredom.

I love the "mad scientist" and "dark old house" movies--as the countless reviews of films in those genres here attest to--and I really wanted to like "Castle of Evil". But, it's just too incompently done. That is a terrible shame, because there's an excellent script that went to waste here.

(THIS is the kind of movie that Hollywood big shots sould be remaking, not "Karate Kid" and other movies that were already good. They should show themselves to be REAL artists and filmmakers who, if they are so devoid of creativity that they can't make original films, should at the very least take misfires and give them second chances. Hey, this one is even long out-of-print, so there's another reason to remake it: Audiences can't get easily get the original version if they're so inclined.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

'Cursed' is a fine mix of old and new horror sensibilities

Cursed (2007)
Starring: Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Mya, Joshua Jackson, Shannon Elizabeth, Portia de Rossi, and Christina Anapau
Director: Wes Craven
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Christina Ricci stars as a young TV producer who finds her inner beast unleashed after she and her brother are bit by a werewolf. Put "Cursed" next to also-rans like "Boogeyman" and "The Grudge," and it's more clear than ever that Wes Craven remains the king of horror flicks featuring Beautiful People Vs. The Monsters.

"Cursed" is at once a by-the-numbers werewolf flick (complete with pure-hearted victims trying to fight the curse and a storyline that invites the viewers to guess which of the supporting characters is the monster) and a clever, engaging film that keeps the viewers guessing right up to the end. The film is full of elements so well used they've become cliches, but it embraces them in a way that's both respectful of all the films that have gone before and light-hearted. "Cursed" moves from suspenseful, to funny, to scary with ease, and folks who enjoy good horror movies will love this one.

(I spend a lot of time railing against films that don't bring anything new to their genres, but "Cursed" puts all the old elements together is such a graceful and fun fashion that I can't mount any complaints. Craven clearly knew he was making a cliched movie, and he took full advantage of that fact. If more directors and script writers would take that approach, maybe their retreads would come together more effectively.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Victim pays back killer from beyond grave

Hatchet for the Honeymoon
(aka "Blood Brides" and "The Red Mark of Madness")(1969)

Starring: Stephen Forsyth, Laura Betti, Jesus Puente and Dagmar Lasssander
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A serial killer and designer of bridal gowns (Forsyth) commits his murders in an attempt to unlock a traumatic event from his childhood that he has blocked from memory. But when he murders his wife (Betti), he experiences some of the horror he has been visiting on his victims as she makes good on her promise to "never leave him."

"Hatchet for the Honeymoon" is a stylish little horror/ghost movie that fans of the TV show "Dexter" may enjoy. The protagonist is cut from the same kind of cloth--he's a serial killer who knows exactly how twisted he is and who functions as a perfectly normal and successful human being. Well, in the case of John Harrington, the murderer in this film, he functions normally until he kills one victim too many. (It should be noted that John is not quite a likeable as Dexter and that his victims don't fall into the category of "deserving it". But, like in "Dexter", this movie turns the traditional murder mystery on its head, and we watch it unfold from the side of the killer.

Aside from being one of the few films where I didn't feel like Mario Bava's trademark stylish flourishes were all about calling attention to his clever camerawork--here the odd shots of reflections in pools of liquid or strange angles and lighting choices worked to underscore the mood of the film instead of just being there for the sake of being there--the film is populated with a host of characters who come across as real due to little touches presented through actions rather than dialogue.

This is a film where strong performances from talented actors and skillfull direction combine to create a world that draws the viewers in, whether we want to be or not. We never sympathize with John Harrington, but he and his victims come across as fully realized enough that we care about what happens.

Another impressive aspect of "Hatchet for the Honeymoon" is that Bava manages to present a brutal murder with showing very little gore. The murder of Harrington's wife and his confrontation with the police immediately afterwards are among some of the best thriller moments ever put on screen... and it's the sort of sequence that justifies those comparisons to Hitchcock that some Bava fans like to make.

It's also impressive that the movie doesn't fall apart or lose momentum when it starts morphing from a psychological thriller into a ghost movie. (And it really leaves very little room for doubt; the ghost that haunts Harrington in the second half of the movie is eventually shown to not be a figment of his diseased imagination.)

From the movie's prologue and its chilling opening scene--where John tells us about who and what he is--to its final moment, "Hatchet for the Honeymoon" is a great blend of horror and drama. Although I rarely see the film mentioned on lists of Mario Bava's greatest work, it's another one that makes me understand why some consider him a genius on the level of Hitchcock.

"Hatchet for the Honeymoon" can be ordered from I highly recommend adding it to your collection.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Double Feature: Tales of the Astro Zombies

Ted V. Mikels is one of those filmmakers who is spoken of in the most glowing of terms by creatives and B-movie fans alike. However, from what little exposure I've had to his work, I think he might be to those enthusiasts as Charles Band and Full Moon is to me: You either like his movies or your don't.

In the case of Mikels, I think I may be in the "don't" category. I've only seen two, but I was led to believe that "The Astro-Zombies" was among his best. Maybe I was misled--it could be a fellow reviewer was playing a cruel prank on me!--but my reaction was that if "The Astro-Zombies" is Mikels' best, then I don't get the appeal.

This is the first of two Ted Mikels Double Feature posts I'll be making--I have his "Grinder" movies sitting in my 'To Be Reviewed' stack, and I'll get to them some day. If you have an opinion on his work in general, or these two movies in particular, I'd love to hear it.

The Astro-Zombies (1968)
Starring: John Carradine, Tura Satana, Joan Patrick, Wendell Corey and Tom Pace
Director: Ted V. Mikels
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A disgraced NASA researcher (Carradine) trying to create the perfect astronaut using dead bodies, hi-tech, and radio waves uses the brain of a homicidal maniac for one of this creations... and it runs amok. A sinister Mexican spy ring gets wind of his creation and dispatch sultry psycho Satana (Satana) to secure it for their use as a super-soldier. Meanwhile, the Astro-Zombie is stalking the beautiful nurse that was the last person he saw while alive (Patrick).

"The Astro-Zombies" is one of those flicks that mix all sorts of genres into a wild B-movie stew. In this sense, it's a In this film, we get horror, we get action, we get spy vs. spy intrigue, we get blood and guts... we get everything but excitement.

Despite all the plots and subplots and characters crammed into this film, it is still very, very boring. If it had clocked in at a crisp 60 minutes, it might not have been so bad, but an additional 20 minutes are added to the running time through padding. We overlong and pointless scenes of Carradine's mad scientist puttering around his lab uttering techno-babble, we have long and pointless scenes of characters driving about, and we have lonmg stretches of badly delivered expository dialogue that's only slightly more boring than watching Carradine puttering around the lab set.

Aside from the padded, we can add that the film is universally badly acted--except perhaps the performances from John Carradine and Joan Patrick, but the characters they play are so archetypal and flat that all they're doing is delivering their lines competently--weakly directed, and full of illogical plot conveniences without which the story would fall apart.

There are a few moments in the film that let us see what might have been if it had been more competently mounted--such as the climactic confrontation between mad doctor, evil secret agent Mexican bitch and Chad Squarejaw of the FBI--but they are too few to save the movie from a very low 4 rating.

Mark of the Astro-Zombies (2002)
Starring: Sean Morelli, Robert Southerland, Tura Satana, Brinke Stevens, and Shanti
Director: Ted V. Mikels
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Evil aliens unleash machete-wielding Astro-Zombies upon unsuspecting shoppers at mini-malls as a prelude to their plan to invade Earth (I think). While the greatest scientific minds of the United States try to figure out where these murderers are coming from, an opportunistic psychopath (Satana) sets about conning intelligence agencies from around the world that she commands the unstoppable killers and that they can be theirs for the right price.

"Mark of the Astro-Zombies" is a kinda-sorta sequel to the 1968 "cult classic" from the same writer/director, although the connections make absolutely no sense. (Why do the alien Astro-Zombies look like the ones created by an Earthling in the first movie? Why did it take the twin sister of the evil Mexican femme fatale super agent in the first movie 35 years to mount her revenge? And just how and why did they keep John Carradine's head alive for all that time?)

The film further suffers from two major problems. First, it feels like director Ted V. Mikels took the approach "we shot the scene, so we gotta use it!", which leads to a number of redundant and repetative dialogue exchanges, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the main thrust of the story and just serve to bore and annoy viewers. Second, it's script is so atrociously bad both in story organization and in dialogue that I sincerely hope it was ad-libbed from a loose outline and that said outline morphed as filming took place. The only thing that works in the script is the comedy... oh, wait. The comedy here is almost entirely unintention. NOTHING works in the script!

There are a few ideas here that made me give the film a very generous rating of 3. The notion of an uscrupulous and well-connected member of the intelligence community attempting to take advantage of a global crisis to con corrupt regimes like Iran, North Korea, China and Venezula out of piles of money is pretty cool. It's completely botched here due to a non-existent budget (if international spies can be fooled into thinking a guy in a Halloween mask is an industructable super-soldier, then it's not at all surprising that Saddam Hussein fooled them all into thinking he had nukes and chemical weapons) and sloppy writing.

Despite liking some of the ideas in the film, there is really nothing here to recommend it. The behind-the-scenes footage included on the DVD make it look like everyone had a good time making the movie--and I get that sense from watching the film unfold as well--but the end product is simply not worth the time you'll waste watching it.

Ted V. Mikels is about to start production on his second Astro Zombies sequel, "Astro Zombies M3: Cloned". He will be casting and interviewing potential crew on 1/19/2010, and cameras are slated to roll on 1/31/2010. You can read more about the project and watch a teaser trailer at his official website by clicking here. (You can also see pictures of Mikels and his cool moustache there.)

Saturday Scream Queen: Fay Wray

Born in 1907, Fay Wray was the original "scream queen," appearing in a string of horror movies and thrillers during the early 1930s, with "King Kong" being the one she is best remembered for. Wray had mostly retired from the screen by the time WW2 came to a close, but she continued to occasionally appear in movies through the 1980s. Wray passed away in 2004.

Click here to read reviews of movies starring Fay Wray.