Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Pieces' is lots of gory fun

Pieces (1981)
Starring: Christopher George, Frank Brana, Lynda Day George, Edmund Purdom, Paul Smith, Jack Taylor, and Ian Sera
Director: Juan Piquer Simon
Rating: SPLIT--4/10 if viewed as a straight slasher film; 7/10 if viewed as a comedy)

Someone is cutting up beautiful college girls with a chainsaw and carrying off pieces of their bodies to create the world's first full-sized, flesh-and-blood person puzzle. The police (George and Brana) are stumped, so rather than conduct a full investigation, they recruit random faculty members to help with investigation and ask a random student to keep an eye on an officer who is sent in under cover as the school's new tennis instructor (Day). Who is the killer? The effeminate anatomy professor (Taylor)? The brutish groundskeeper (Smith)? The randy Big Man On Campus (Sera)? Or the quirky University Dean (Purdom)? Who's got bodyparts and a chainsaw hidden in their closet?

Some films are so bad they become unintentionally funny, and they end up being more funny than supposed comedies. "Pieces" may be an awful horror movie--hence the Four Tomato rating--but if it had been a slasher movie spoof, it would rate Seven Tomatoes. From the most incompetent cops ever put on film (not only do they recruite a possible suspect to watch their undercover officer, but they give him access to police files), to the least subtle serial killer to ever roam a heavily populated area (it's a residential campus, and he uses a chainsaw to kill people), to the Kung Fu fighter who shows up out of no where to attack the undercover cop for no reason what so ever, to the date-rape drug-fueled climax, "Pieces" gets funnier and funnier as it progresses. The lame, wanna-be "Goblin"-style electronica score only heightens the fun. (I'll grant the filmmakers one good scare, though. There's a bit near the end that I didn't see coming at all, and it made me jump.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

'Prey for the Beast' is not worth digesting

Prey for the Beast (2008)
Starring: Ray Besharah, Lisa Aitken, Mark Courneyea, Brett Kelly, Anastasia Kimmett, Amanda Leigh, Sonia Myers, Jodi Pittman, and Lenard Blackburn
Director: Brett Kelly
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Visitors to a remote corner of Canada's grand wilderness are stalked and killed by a cunning monster with mysterious powers. Two groups of campers--one consisting of all-male Beautiful People and one all-female Beautiful People--join forces in order to survive.

"Prey for the Beast" features a great creature. I often knock low-buget horror films like this because they include monsters that look cheap and goofy instead of impressive and scary.That's not the case here. The monster in this film is very made, its attacks are convincing, and it holds up nicely to the extended shots that its featured in. It's a rareity among films at this production level, and I congratulate Kelly and his special effects team of Ralph Gethings (who did the gore effects and make-up) and Matt Ficner (who built the monster suit) for excelling in this area.

The script for the film is also pretty decent. Its characters are a bit on the generic side for the most part, but its got some nice concepts and a climax is well-paced. It also gives the creature a suite of unexpected powers, such as the ability to animate the corpses of victims it doesn't fully consume and a venom that causes paranoia and hallucinations in those who survive its attack. One is also left with the impression that the creature has the ability to teleport itself from place to place and turn invisible at will, but I don't think that was intended by the filmmakers. Rather, I think the creature's amazing ability to stand unseen directly behind its intended victims is a reflection of the Ed Wood Problem as it is manifested in "Prey for the Beast".

"The Ed Wood Problem", so named because it was an ever-present elements in the movies and written by Edward D. Wood Jr., is what occurs when the script calls for a certain kind of location, the actors behave and deliver their line as if they're in that location, but even the most unobservant viewer can recognize that what's on the screen and what the actors are describing or reacting to are two different things. In an Ed Wood picture, this problem would typically manifest itself through characters commenting on how fancy or opulent a room was while standing on a set that made a flophouse look luxurious.

In "Prey for the Beast", the Ed Wood Problem has a script that calls for a wilderness far removed from civilization, a deep, dark forest that is hard to access and in which human feet rarely tread. What we have seems more like a place that's no more than 100 yards from the visitor's center of a national forest or large city park. (The Problem starts maniesting early in the fllm with the film's mail title credits running over stock footage of a mountainous forest and wild giver, intercut cut with four of our soon-to-be-beast-prey charaters pulling across a placid lake in a rowboat; by none of the characters possessing any camping gear worth noting; and by the survivors of the beast attack reaching a road, a shack, and ultimately a picnic area, within no more than half a day's worth of hiking.)

The setting for the film doesn't feel as remote and isolated as it needs to, and this is a major strike against any real suspense and terror being generated as the film unfolds. It also leads to seeral eye-rolling moments of unintentional hilarity when the monster is lurking a mere two-three feet away from its victims, yet they do not see it. This is because the action is supposedly taking place in thick, old-growth forest and not among the thin forest the actors are actually performing in. It keeps the viewer from taking the film seriously and it keeps the film from having any real impact, despite the effective creature design and well-done gore effects.

Actiing that is more suited for stage than film on the part of most of the cast, and illogical behavior on the part of several characters (because if they didn't do something stupid, the monster wouldn't have a chance to kill them) also serves as a drag on the overall level of enjoyment derived from watching the film. The only castmembers who didn't have me cringing at some of their line-readings was director Brett Kelly, Anastasia Kimmet, and Lisa Aitken.

If you're a fan of low-budget monster movies, "Prey for the Beast" is worth checking out for its well-done monster. The rest of the movie is fairly mediocre. There are a couple of jolts here and there, but even at its scant running of just over an hour it feels over-long and there are more than point where you'll wish for the pace to picked up a bit.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen:
Sienna Guillory

British actress Sienna Guillory has been working steadily since landing her first big role at the age of 20 on the television series "The Buccaneers" in 1995. Although she has appeared mostly in historical dramas, her starring turn as Jill Valentine in "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" earned her a spot in the hearts of horror fans (even if the overall movie wasn't all that good).

Scheduling conflicts made it impossible for her to appear in "Resident Evil: Armageddon," but she returns to the series with "Resident Evil: Afterlife," which is slated for release next month.

Friday, August 27, 2010

'The Last Exorcism' all but ruined by ending

The Last Exorcism (2010)
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, and Louis Herthum
Director: Daniel Stamm
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A professional minister and exorcist who has lost his faith in God (Fabian) cooperates with the making a documentary intended to expose exorcists and exorcisms as the frauds they are. However, with a two-person film crew in tow, he comes face to face with a girl (Bell) who may truly be possessed by a demon.

"The Last Exorcism" is, for most of its running time, a well-executed horror film in the "Paranormal" or "The Blair Witch Project" mode. The documentary feel is scrupulously maintained, and there's nothing shown in the film that couldn't have been captured by the camera carried by the documentary filmmaker. The script is lean, tightly focused, and it sets up everything that occurs in the picture nicely.

The film also benefits from a main character, Reverend Cotton Marcus, who, despite admitting up front to having turned from preacher to conman and trickster, is a sympathetic throughout. Even better, Cotton Marcus is a character who has a conscience and a heart--and perhaps more faith left in God than he realizes--and he tries his best to help a young girl in serious trouble, first exploring every possible logical explanation for her condition... and ultimately exploring supernatural ones. He transformation from huckster to hero that Marcus undergoes makes him a character that the audience is rooting for more strongly than most horror movie characters. Of course, it helps immensely that Patrick Fabian is perfectly cast in the part.

Also perfectly cast is Ashley Bell. She's in her mid-20s, but she nonetheless passes just fine as the 16-year-old she is playing. She also shows that maybe she is being wasted in the primarily voice acting roles she's played up to this point, as she is fabulous as Nell, being equally sweet, sinister, or absolutely bat-shit crazy depending on what is called for vis-a-vis portraying a girl who might be demonically possessed. Louis Herthum as her deeply Christian father is likewise excellent in his part, seeming likeable but with just enough of an edge that the audience can buy into the suspicions that start to form around him halfway through the film.

Unfortunately, all that is good about "The Last Exorcism" is undermined by its absolutely awful ending. It's an ending that's carefully set up as the film unfolds, and it's to be expected given the genre and the general tend for horror movies to be home to various degrees of irony and "poetic justice", but in this specific case the ending destroys the carefully constructed illusion that we're watching a documentary. As the end credits start to roll, even the most unquestioning and generous-minded viewer will be asking with some irritation, "Given what just happened... who made the movie?"

I don't know if this was the filmmakers intent, but what they ended up doing was the modern-day equavenent of the ending on "The Mark of the Vampire" or "The Ghoul" where the 1930s filmmakers ended their films by reassuring audiences that there is no such thing as the supernatural. With "The Last Exorcism," the filmmakers do the same by completely destroying the pretense that everything we've just seen unfold on film was just so much make-believe, reassuring us that there is no such thing as the supernatural. However, in the case of the classic horror films, the entirety of what had been built up was not swept away as it is here.

If "The Last Exorcism" has been five-ten minutes shorter and/or given an ending that was in keeping with the illusion of reality the film had set up--even if that ending involved demons taking on physical form--this could have been a great horror movie. Instead, it ends up barely rating as average.

'Resident Evil: Apocalypse' is a failure

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory and Oded Fehr
Director: Alexander Witt
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

This film is a direct sequel to the original "Resident Evil," and it sees Alice and a small group of survivors struggling to escape zombie-infested Racoon City before the city is destroyed by a nuclear blast intended to prevent the spread of the dead-animating T-virus and to hide the evidence of Umbrella Corporation's massive screw-up. Along the way, they have to defeat the company's latest superweapon, which it released in the city as a final field test.

I enjoyed the movie on a "sit back and watch the fight scenes and mayhem" level, but it fails as a horror movie or even as an action film. The plot had holes in it that you could fit a dump truck full of zombies through, the scares were mostly predictable, and the dialogue was at times so awful that "insipid" is a mild term for it.

In fact, think the potential in the sequel set-up at the end of the film is more exciting than the movie that led up to it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

'Deadly Memories' is worth forgetting

Deadly Memories (aka "Body Shop") (2002)
Starring: Phillip Newman, Rachel Robbins, L.P. Brown III, William Smith, and Robert Z'Dar
Director: Donald Farmer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Small-town body shop owner Art Gary (Newman) is still trying to piece his life together two years after the accident that killed his wife and left his daughter comatose when a neighbor (Z'Dar) manages to identify the teenagers who caused the accident with their reckless driving. They start dying under mysterious circumstances and all signs point to Art having snapped. But is there more to the story?

"Deadly Memories" is a so-so thriller that's done in by an unfocused, meandering plot and characters that are almost too real in the way they're written and acted. They are so real that they will remind you of your own mechanic, or maybe your Uncle Bob, or your next door neighbor. In other words, they're boring. (And at the opposite end of the realism scale, the murder victims are so completely and totally obnoxious that you'll want to reward the killer for putting them out of our misery.)

The best thing about the film is that it provides enough suspects and sheds enough doubt on who the killer might be that it's an open question until he is revealed. However, this bit of quality is itself undermined by an ending that starts out weak and which is underminded further a desire on the part of the filmmakers to make sure this film included all the elements we've come to expect from a slasher film. (The overlong, completely gratuitous shower scene with Tina Krause's naked body being shown in loving detail I can forgive, but the lame attempt at a surprise shock return of the killer I can't. Especially not when it's as badly done as it is here.)

I do give the film good marks for actually offering an upbeat ending--there are entirely too few of those on horror movies these days--and I think that Phillip Newman gave a decent performance as the body shop owner who may or may not be a psycho killer. It's a shame that this seems to have been his last movie.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eastwood stalked by psycho hose beast!

Play Misty for Me (1971)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills and John Larch
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A small-town disc-jockey (Eastwood) sees his life turned upside-down when an obsessed fan (Walter) starts stalking him.

Dave (Clint Eastwood) and Evelyn (Jessica Walter) at the point things get REALLY crazy.
"Play Misty for Me" is a nifty thriller where a completely innocent guy gets sucked into the fantasy life of a psycho chick with deadly results. It's the film "Fatal Attraction" wanted to be--something director Eastwood observes in a documentary included on the DVD when he calls it a "remake"--but has neither the style, class, nor properly tuned moral compass of this flick.

In "Fatal Attraction", the characters are almost universally dislikeable and Michael Douglas' character pretty much gets the life he deserves. In this film, skillful casting has guarenteed the characters are likeable--even the psychotic stalker wench has some charm about her, due to a well-done performance from Jessica Walter--and we further have a protagonist whose side the audience is completely on. (Eastwood's character Dave is not married and has been seperated from his girlfriend for several months when he crosses paths with his futuer stalker--he is not betraying any promises or commitments when he gets involved with her, nor did he make any promises to her. It's all-too-rare to see a movie of this type with a completely innocent main character... and for all his womanizing ways, Dave doesn't deserve the hell that comes down upon him and those around him.)

The scenic locations and some intense attack scenes when Eve also this movie very, very strong. I also admire the way Eastwood gave us a "false ending" halfway through the film, going all idyllic and romantic on us when Dave's stalker is apparently put away. The sequence goes on a little too long, but it was a great idea and when Evelyn reappears, the anticipation of her next strike is that much more intense.

If you enjoy movies like "Fatal Attraction"--and want to see that movie done better, over a decade earlier--or if you want to see Clint Eastwood in a role very different from the ones he usually plays, you should check out "Play Misty for Me".

Sunday, August 22, 2010

'Hide and Seek' was not worth finding

Hide and Seek (2005)
Starring: Robert DeNiro and Dakota Fanning
Director: John Polson
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Robert DeNiro plays a psychiatrist whose wife commits suicide one night, apparently completely out of the blue. His young daughter (Fanning) is deeply traumatized by the event, so the widower relocates her and himself to an isolated country house so they can both get a fresh start. Soon after they arrive, the daughter's behavior becomes increasingly irratic. Things grow ever worse when she picks up an invisible friend named Charlie... and things get really and Charlie starts doing destructive and violent things.

I've written that capsule summary before, for a different movie. For several different movies, in fact. And most of the times I've written that summary, it's been for a movie that started out promising but fell apart in the end.

And, boy, does "Hide and Seek" fall apart at the end. It starts strong, it builds, it looks like it might make it... and then in the final act it simply collapses.

"Hide and Seek" was another marker along the road to the final death of the thriller, yet another film with a twist-endings that I'm sure the writers and directors think are oh-so-clever, but which really are oh-so-stupid and oh-so-predictable.

In the case of "Hide and Seek," the twist-ending which is supposed to be oh-so-clever falls completely flat because a) it could only occur in a world where EVERYONE has the intelligence of fruit flies, b) it drags on and on and on and on, and c) unless the secret of the twist-ending was already a staple of life in the family's household before the death of the wife [which the movie implies that it was not], the character played by Fanning is old enough that she would have had a different approach to dealing with her father and Charlie than she does in the movie (but that circles back to the 'characters are dumb as fruit-flies' problem).

"Hide and Seek" is another thriller with supernatural overtones that would have been much, much better if the filmmakers had recognized that just because you think you're clever doesn't mean you are. It could certainly have benefited from another draft or two by someone who can actually tell a decent twist-ending story. As it is, a campfire story like "The Hook" is more satisfying.

(I will give Dakota Fanning high marks for being a creepy little kid. She does a great job, and she's worth a full Tomato. Deniro, unfortunately, overacts something fierce.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Milla Jovovich

This is the second time Milla Jovovich has been featured in "Saturday Scream Queen," because she's just that good. Well, that and she'll be starring, starring and starring in the soon-to-be-released "Resident Evil: Afterlife," so I figured I'd play my part in making sure she's found everywhere you look. (Unfortunately for her fans and the movie-going public, it's yet another one of those 3D abominations. I can't wait for a couple of those to bomb so this craze will end. I suppose it might even be unfortunate for Jovovich... see if you can figure out why.)

(If you want to see more of Milla Jovovich, click here. She's been featured a couple of times on "Picture Perfect Wednesday" at Shades of Gray. You can also read about a couple of her movies at The Universal Horror Archive.

Friday, August 20, 2010

'Resident Evil' moves into the neighborhood

Resident Evil (2002)
Starring: Milla Jovovich
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

If you like action flicks AND are a fan of the classic horror flick "Dawn of the Dead," you're going to love "Resident Evil."

In a future where the global trade and politics is dominated by Umbrella Corporation, something goes terribly wrong at a top secret research installation under a major metropolitan area. A crack commando team is sent in to discover what happened... and come face to face with ravenous hoards of undead and other nasty critters created by the corporation's military/health research department. Meanwhile, a young woman, Alice (Jovovich), is trying to recover her memory and learn how she might be connected to the outbreak... and if she might be the key to stopping it.

The scares are neat, the action is non-stop and well-conceived, and, while the plot doesn't really stray from the "science goes horribly wrong and now the dead walk!"-type plot, it is very well executed and there are a couple of nice twists and interesting moments.

And some scary moments, too. The infected dogs are horrifying and the revelation of who Alice is very well done and it give Milla Jovovich a chance to actually act instead of just look tough and sexy.

Even better, although I've never played the video games this film was based upon, I could see the "levels" and the "challenges" of the game play out on screen without seeming too hokey. It's nice to see something that remains true to the nature of its source material, yet still create an adaptation that works in the new medium.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Destined to make you look at the clock

Destined to Be Ingested (aka "Holocaust Holocaust") (2010)
Starring: Kitty Cole, Kris Eivers, Noshir Dalal, Theodore Bouloukos, Manuel Fihman, Suzi Lorraine, Bill Weeden, and Randall Heller
Director: Sofian Khan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In 1987, four Yuppies (Bouloukos, Cole, Eivers, and Lorraine) were stranded on a South Island. The title of the film gives away part of what happens next--and even if it didn't... has there ever been a south sea island that wasn't home to cannibals or people-eating monsters?--but it won't prepare viewers for the Tarazan-esque love story, nor the arrival of the zombies.

First off, let me admit that I may be ill-equipped to review this film. I may even be committing the sort of Reviewing Deadly Sin that I ranted about in this article(and numerous others), because I have seen very few of the movies in the cannibal horror/jungle savage subgenre this movie belongs to,and I've reviewed even fewer.

And that could be the reason why I'm not entirely sure how I was supposed to take "Destined to Be ingested". The title and the preview for the film both scream comedy, but the execution is straight-laced and so restrained that I can't help but think it was intended to be viewed as a straight horror movie, perhaps even a homage to films like "Cannibal Holocaust" and "Slaves of the Mountain God". The fact its set during the 1980s--when many such films were being made--can be used to support either approach, as can the sound mixing. Like many films where quick and cheap dub jobs were done, the dialogue is crystal clear and obviously recorded in studio; either the filmmakers were doing it intentionally, or the soundtrack needed to be mixed better.

Whether it's to be taken seriously as a homage to the cannibal and zombie pictures of the 1980s, or viewed as a spoof of those movies, the film's flaws are the same. First off, it takes entirely too long in getting to the violence and mayhem everyone knows is coming--nearly one-third of the movie's barely over an hour running-time. The movie spends one-third of its running time on setting up characters that never rise above the level of cliches, setting up sex scenes that we don't get to see because the scene cuts away, and setting the stage for some of the most tepid violence you'll ever see in a horror flick featuring cannibals (unless the Hallmark Channel decides to make one).

But even when it gets going, it moves in fits and starts. We have a burst of violence and suspense as the cannibals make their first attack on the hapless Yuppies, but then we're treated to another stretch of nothing... where boring characters wander around doing boring things. Even though in theory there are vicious cannibals in loin clothes and body paint lurking nearby, we get the feeling that the greatest threat facing the characters is that they'll run out of beer before they are rescued.)

It isn't until one of the cannibals falls in love with Kitty Cole's character in violation of the traditions of this culture, and gets her knocked up, that the film starts to get interesting. By this time, however, the film's well over half gone, and there's really no saving it. It gets even more interesting with the hints dropped about the background of the cannibal tribe's chief, but nothing at all ends up coming from that.

The film's one redeeming feature is the way it introduces the zombie aspect. As I do with the vast majority of films I watch and review, I came to this one with no real knowledge of what it contained beyond a little blurb supplied by the distributor. I truly did not see the zombies coming, until they were chowing down on the cast members. (Yes, they're set up their arrival through ominous dialogue about the village being cursed because of Kitty Cole becoming a baby mama instead of a human sacrifice/finger food, but I hadn't expected the curse to be manifested as zombies.)

Unfortunately, the zombies also come to represent the film's biggest inconsistency and the most clear example of how its various pieces--cannibal horror, love story, zombie rampage--don't quite fit together. It's hinted that the cannibal chief is a product of a forbidden union, just like the child his son's outsider love will give birth to. But if this is the case, then why didn't the zombies destroy the village then? Did the curse come to be later? The film doesn't even provide a clue to that question, so as enlivening as the sudden appearance of zombies were, they ultimately end up making the experience of viewing this movie an unsatisfying waste of time... the only benefit you'll gain from this film is the opportunity to check your watch. First, you'll be looking to see if it's working because time seems to be passing slowly, and when the end credits start to roll, you'll be double-checking the movie's length, because it has to be longer than an hour. (It's not, though.)

And that's too bad, because "Destined to be Ingested" is actually a fairly well-done movie as far as the cinematography goes, and the acting is pretty decent all around. With a more focused and better developed script, this could have been a decent movie. (Unless I'm missing something, due to my basic unfamiliarity with the cannibal horror genre.)

"Destined to be Ingested" has been kicking around since 2008, but it will receive wide distribution on DVD through Midnight Releasing on October 5, 2010.

Monday, August 16, 2010

'Reborn from Hell' should have stayed dead

Reborn From Hell: Samurai Armageddon (1996)
Starring: Tamorowo Taguchi and Yuko Moriyama
Director: Kazumasa Shirai
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

During Japan's Edo Period, a particularly vile warlord sets his sights not just on domination of Japan, but on the entire world. Using dark magics and seven evil samurais resurrected through blood sacrifices, he sets about accomplishing his goal. One man stands in his path, however... the fearless warrior Yubei Yagyu.

I'm told by friends that know more about Japanese history that I do that "Samurai Armageddon" is to be taken as a spoof of the samurai soap opera genre. Apparently, almost every character that appears in the film has a real-world historical counterpart and that if I were more learned, I'd "get" the film.

They may be right, but a bad movie is still a bad movie. For example, I don't know a whole lot about Japanese mythology, and even less about classical Japanese poetry, and yet I enjoyed "Mask of Zeguy", which relies heavily on the viewer having knowledge of both.

My knowledge of history (or lack thereof) does not change the fact that "Samurai Armageddon" is full of dull fight scenes (some of the worst Kung Fu films of the 1970s would shine by comparison), features some really awful special effects, and sports a storyline that's messy and so confused it trips over itself on more than one occasion.

To make matters worse, the film doesn't have an ending. "Samurai Armageddon" sets up the conflicts and the bad guys, has the hero squaring off against them, but where you'd think it should start building toward some sort of climax, the film instead ends. It's as if someone forgot to write a third act and no one noticed.

I like movies that have some semblance of a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if that ending is an obvious set-up for another sequel (like "Back to the Future 2" or "The Two Towers"). "Samurai Armageddon" has a beginning, at least part of a middle, but doesn't even come close to delivering an end and a proper pay-off to what has been set up. Yeah, perhaps if I were a student of Japanese history, I'd know where the end will be going... but one can enjoy "Tombstone" just fine without being an expert in American history.

It's a shame that this film is so bad, because pretty much every actor featured in it gives good performances (and they're earning this flick Two Stars just for that).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Naomi Watts

Australian actress Naomi Watts has appeared in films of almost every mainstream genre in the two decades that make up what will hopefully be only the first half of her career. A number of these have been in horror genre, such as "The Shaft," "The Ring," and the horror-tinged sci-fi television series "Sleepwalkers."

Watts stepped into the slippers and torn dress of the original Scream Queen Fay Wray when she starred alongside much CGI in Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong." Her name has also been mentioned in connection with an upcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," so we'll presumably see her step into the place once occupied by Tippi Hedren.

You may feel like you've been shafted
after watching 'The Shaft'

The Shaft (aka "The Lift" and "Down") (2001)
Starring: James Marshall, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, and Michael Ironside
Director: Dick Maas
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The express elevators in New York City's famous Millennium Building suddenly develop minds of their own... and they are minds bent on murder! Will a slacker ex-Marine hunk turned elevator repairman (James Marshall) and a sexy, plucky girl tabloid reporter (over-acted by Naomi Watts) uncover the truth of what's happening, or will they fall victim to elevator industry cover-ups, mad scientists delving in Elevator Technology Man Was Not Meant to Know, and renegade killer elevators?

This often unintentionally funny horror movie features a script that should have gone through a draft or two more; copious overacting (everyone is SO over the top here that Michael Ironsides--featured in a small but pivotal part--seems subdued and restrained); and too many 'because the plot requires it' moments to count. There's enough interesting things here to keep the viewer's attention, but ultimately the movie is unsatisfying and lame, mostly because it has the killer elevators perform truly amazing and physically impossible feats without even bothering to attempt to explain how they manage to do it. (Sadly, one of my favorite killer elevator scenes is tied into one of these... the death of the obnoxious rollerblader. While I'll buy into the building's express elevators developing a mind of their own through the wonders of mad science, I can't accept that lets them completely ignore the laws of physics.)

A fun film, if you can get it cheap or for free... and if you have absolutely nothing to do, or nothing better to watch.

Friday, August 13, 2010

As bad as this is, it should have been the end

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Starring: John D. LeMay, Kari Keegan, Steven Kulp, Steven Williams, and Erin Gray
Director: Adam Marcus
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Infamous serial killer Jason Vorhees is revealed to be a creature of supernatural origins and only bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Williams) knows how to kill him once and for all. But will anyone be able to meet the price he demands before Jason kills the few remaining citizens of Crystal Lake?

While the "Friday the Thirteenth" movies have never been big on logic or continutity, this one doesn't try to be even internally consistent. It's so sloppily written that key characters change persoonalities and natures from one scene to the next and not even the slightest attempt is made to explain the hows or whys of the connections between characters--like the bountyhunter Chreighton Duke played by Steven Williams who goes from purely obnoxious and psychotic for most of the film to suddenly helpful and self-sacrificing in the film's climax... and who has a history with Jason that remains unrevealed along with the source of his supernatural knowledge. The character of Duke is only the worst example of this in the movie. Time and again, viewers feel like they are not only watching part two or three of a series but that they also must be having blackouts becuase there seems to be chunks of the story missing. Neither is true... this movie introduces a whole new set of characters and circumstances that have never before appeared in ANY of the "Friday the 13th" series, and their relationships to one another and why they behave the way they do is likewise never made clear.

It's a shame that the script for this movie is awful, because there are some nice moments in it, mostly at the beginning--I love the scene with the coroner--and the end, starting with the slaughter at the diner. But everything in between is badly paced, badly written, and nonsensical. There are some nice some nice gore efffects and kills, but even they can't make up for the messy storyline.

In fact, this story might have played better if it hadn't been presented as part of the "Friday the 13th" series... and the writer/director might have even have been motivated to bring logic to his story instead of jokes (such as the Necronomicon from "Evil Dead 2" being present in the Vorhees house and crates in the basement that are either a Lovecraft reference or a reference to "The Thing").

It's also a shame to watch a cast of decent actors be wasted the way they were here. And I won't even bother commenting on the factthe title promises something the film doesn't deliver, primarly because my twisted imagination is more than Hollywood will ever match. (I envisioned "Jason Goes to Hell" as a tale where Jason Vorhees dies as he does here... but he then goes on a killing spree in the Underworld, eventually fighting his way back to Earth because he's simply too evil for Hell.)

Despite some good ideas, this is probably a movie that even the hardlest of the hardcore slasher movie fans can skip.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

'Kill Them and Eat Them':
Low-budget horror with a classic feel

Kill Them and Eat Them (2005)
Starring: Sandy MacDonald, Richard Archer, Francoise Snobel, Lloyd Cameron, Hugh Gibson, and Wil van der Zyl
Director: Conall Pendergast
Steve's Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a geneticist nicknamed "Dr. Gore" (MacDonald) goes renegade, two incompetent corporate security agents (Gibson and van der Zyl) track him down to stop his mad experiments. Unfortunately, Dr. Gore and his psychopathic assistant (Archer) have been turning homeless people into bizarre, flesh-eating mutants. Will our hapless heroes be able to save the day, or will they be the next test subjects for Dr. Gore?

"Kill Them and Eat Them" is a unique film that offers an interesting viewing experience. And when I say "unique" and "Interesting", I mean it in both good and bad ways.

On the one one hand, it is painfully amateurish, filmed with what must have been Camcorders and probably funded with whatever spare change the cast and crew could find between couch cushions in their homes. The acting is inconsistent by everyone who appears--each actor has a few decent scenes, but they are negated by ones where they are awful beyond description--and the story seems to unfold in a random and haphazard fashion. While some creativity went into designing the creatures, the extreme lack of funding for this film is also evident in them. When this movie is at its weakest, it is very, very bad. Strange, but bad.

On the other hand, there's a sort of wild, creative energy that runs through this whole production the likes of which I've rarely come across outside a few low-budget films from the 1930s and 1940s. When the actors are at their best, the lines they speak and their delivery of them reminds me of those old horror flicks as well. There's also a intentional sense of the absurd about the whole movie, and, to top it off, the climax is a monster slapfest the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Spanish horror flicks of the 1970s. During its high points, the film comes across like a homage to the old fashioned mad scientist movies.

The classical low-budget horror flick air about "Kill Them and Eat Them", plus the fact it's pretty funny (intentionally so) at times, went a long way to helping me forgive its many of its flaws.

(Flaws I can't forgive are the scenes with bad sound, and those that seem to be in the film for no reason other than to pad the run-time. I really wish low-budget filmmakers would stop thinking the microphone on the Camcorder is good enough when it comes to making a movie... and for crap's sake, filmmakers, if you think your movie is running short, WRITE SOME MORE SCENES. Don't pad it with shots of actors wandering through the woods, or repetitive and/or unnecessary establishing shots.)

While I would hardly describe this as a good movie, I don't regret spending time watching it. I think that Conall Pendergast shows a talent for screen-writing that many of this contemporaries do not. I think that if some more time and effort had gone into polishing the script, and if Pendergast had been a little more realistic in the sort of film he could make with the resources at his disposal (the monsters really did require a bit more money to look good... and the same can be said for the lab of the mad scientists, although Pendergast had a funny in-movie reference that took care of that, even if it came a bit too late) I think he might be able to turn out a funny movie. If he sticks with the script-writing, he might be pretty good some day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

'Don't Look in the Basement' is
average low budget

Don't Look in the Basement (1973)
(aka "The Forgotten", "Death Ward 13" and "Don't Go in the Basement")

Starring: Rosie Holotik, Annabelle Weenick, Bill McGhee, and Gene Ross
Director: S.F. Brownrigg
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Beautiful Charlotte (Holotik) comes to work at the Stephens Sanitarium, hoping to be part of Dr. Stephens' revolutionary treatments for the mentally deranged. Soon after her arrival, terrible, violent events occur, and she starts to fear the insane are literally running the asylum.

"Don't Look in the Basement" is a cheaply made horror film that has "amateur" written all over it. The acting is about average for a low-budget horror flick, the camerawork is dodgy and the lighting even moreso. However, as the film unfolds, an evergrowing atmosphere of strangeness and dread start to fill it, and this helps overcome the shortfalls and draws the audience in.

The film is also helped by its straight-forwardness. It keeps to its mystery-oriented, proto-slasher movie plot, making some nice attempts to keep the audience from guessing what is really going on at Stephens Sanitarium but still playing fair with those who are paying attention. Entirely too many modern horror movies fail to properly set up their "suprise twists" in the third act; here, we are given all the clues up front to the true state of the asylum and its doctors, so when the Big Reveal happens, it doesn't feel like a cheat. Instead, for those who have been paying attention (or those who have seen waaaaay too many films of this genre), it's a satisfying one, and for those who haven't been, it's a shocking suprise that they will feel like they should have seen coming.

"Don't Look in the Basement" is a staple of the DVD horrror and thriller multipacks, and it should be considered a value-adding feature to any one it is included in. (I'm not sure I'd recommend getting it any other way, but it is a film that anyone thinking about making a slasher or mystery film should take the time to see. The plotting is well-deserving of being a textbook example.)

By the way, this was one of the 70+ movies that made up a list of movies banned in Great Britain (known as the "Video Nasties."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fear-filled Phantasms: Ghosts of the Past....

Every day that goes by, is a day we're closer to death. I scanned a number of pictures while visited family this past week... many of them were old snapshots of cats who lived in my house with me during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved everyone one of them, but they're all dead now....

First, there's Misse.

She was the first cat I had when I came back to live in the US. She was loving toward me, but onery toward most other people and cats, so she got the nickname "Crabby Tabby."

Misse was clumsy, near-sighted, and, despite bad tempers are supposed to cut your life short, she lived to be well past 22 years old.

Then there were Dusty and Melvin. Dusty was Misse's kitten, and she came about because Misse was so scrawny when I took her off the street that I thought she was a kitten and that there was no hurry to get her fixed. Ooops. Dusty lived to be 18 or so. Melvin was part of a litter that a stray had in one of the upstairs closets. He always wanted to be Dusty's friend, but she couldn't stand him; he would always wait until she was sleeping and then creep up and lay down next to her. Melvin lived to be about 20.

Maude and Mindy were sisters from the same litter as Melvin. (And the mistake made with Misse wasn't reapeated; both girls were fixed in plenty of time.) Friends their entire lives, they both lived about 15 years, passing away close to each other.

Rufus was one of the most loving creatures I've ever come across. He loved everyone and was loved by everyone--even Misse tolerated him some times. He baby-sat the litter that got dropped in my upstairs closet when the momma cat went out for a bite. He was old when he moved into my house, and he lived there for seven years before passing away.

Below are Melvin and Rufus with Doc Brown (center, rear) and Ophelia, the last of Melvin's sisters. Doc was another cat abandoned by neighbors, and he lived with me for about ten years. Ophelia vanished when she five. She was last seen walking north along the top of the back fence.

And then there's this guy. Time has left absolutely no trace of him....

'Shock-o-Rama' has old school chills, laughs

Shock-O-Rama (2005)
Starring: Misty Mundae, Rob Monkiewicz, Caitlin Ross, David Fine, A.J. Kahn, Julian Wells, Duane Polcou, Michael Thomas, and Sylvainne Chebance
Director: Brett Piper
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

I love anthology films, because even if I don't care for the segment I'm watching, I know there's another one coming shortly that will hopefully be better. Plus, a well-made anthology film is like getting three or four or even five movies for the price and time-investment of one! So, whenever I discover a new anthology film, it usually goes to the top of the Stack of Stuff.

Which brings me to this review of "Shock-O-Rama". When I sat down to watch this film, I had low hopes. I associate most of its stars with low-budget softcore lesbian porn with horror themes--and I think Misty Mundae has appeared in more films I've assigned Zero-ratings to than any other single performer--but my expectations rose with a nifty, retro-style opening credits sequence... and as tales unfolded, I found myself enjoying an unexpected treat.

"Shock-O-Rama" is a comedy-horror anthology film that consists of three stories that are kinda-sorta interwoven in a fashion that brings to mind great anthology pictures like "The House That Dripped Blood" or "Charade", and with a fun, light-hearted style that's reminicent of the equally great anthology picture "Creepshow".

The movie starts out with "Zombie This!", the main story that binds the film together, as it unfolds around and inbetween the other elements in the package. In it, low-budget Scream Queen Rebecca Raven (Mundae) is fired by the slimey executives (Fine and Thomas) in charge of the studio that has produced all her movies so far over creative differences and a dispute involving Rebecca's cup-size and her refusal to get surgery to make increase it. She's burned out on garbage horror movies anyway, so Rebecca is happy to for the vacation and retreats to an isolated country house for peace and quiet. The traquility is shortlived, however, as Rebecca accidentially animates a zombie (Polcou) that comes after her, hungry for flesh.

Meanwhile, back at the studio, the execs are realizing they don't have an actress to replace Rebecca in a film that starts shooting Monday--a pre-sold film at that! They watch a couple of movies from other studios, hoping to find the fresh talent (and breasts) to replace their former star. The films they watch are the other two stories featured, so "Shock-O-Rama" ultimately becomes an anthology film that features movies within a movie about a horor movie star for whom the horror becomes all too real. The rampant self-referentialism and mockery of the sorts of movies that Mundae and the target audience for them that it adds up to will either make you howl with laughter or become purple with rage, depending on your sense of humor.

The first film the studio execs watch is "Mecharachnia", a goofy sci-fi thriller where a tiny, psychopathic space alien crashlands in a junkyard and proceeds to toroment its obnoxious proprietor (Monkiewicz) and his shrewish ex-girlfriend (Ross).

They then check out "Lonely are the Brain", the segment that comes closest to delivering what I expect to see in a movie where Misty Mundae, Julian Wells, and A.J. Kahn have top billing. In it, a volunteer in a sleep study (Khan) comes to discover that creepy Dr. Carruthers (Wells) and her secretive research partner are is as dangerous in real life as they are in sexually charged nightmares about lethal lesbianism.

The quality level across all three segments is pretty consistent, with a decent acting and fairly light-hearted scripting throughout. The special effects are as retro as the feel of the movie--with stop-action animation and model spaceship battles the likes of which we haven't seen since "Return of the Jedi". (I'm not saying the special effects are par with what ILM created, just that the methods are the same and that it's nice to see the old standbys in this day of CGI overkill.)

Usually, in these reviews, I provide a rating for each segment, but that's not necessary here, because everything here rates a solid Six. "Zombie This!" is the strongest of the three stories on both the acting and writing front, but the movies-within-the-movie are almost equally fun.

The only real complaint I have about the film is that "Mecharachnia" could have done with a little more polish, both script- and editing-wise. It needed to be tightened up, as the bickering between the junkyard owner and his girlfriend get redundent (so much so that it feels as if both takes of an insult exchange were included when the director should have chosen the best one) and the running battles between Man and Space Invader feel sluggish because of repeative establishing shots, build-ups that needed to be trimmed.

However, these minor flaws are more than made up for by the zany humor and real moments of terror in "Zombie This!". Although Mundae's co-star in that segment--Duane Polcou, who vasilates easily from scary to funny; wait until you see the "zombie jig" that got me laughing so hard I paused the DVD so as to not miss the action that followed--Misty Mundae's performance is what really makes the segment stand out.

I saw that Mundae might posses a glimmer of comedic talent in the awful "Mummy Raider", but in this film she shows that she actually might have the talent for far more than horror-themed lesbian nookie fests. She proves she has range, comedic timing, and a healthy dose of charm and charisma that shines very bright when she has a good script to work with. (Up until now, the only "Seduction Cinema" regular that I thought had any dramatic talent--or even enough presence to succeed outside of low-budget skin flicks--was Julian Wells. Now, I need to add Misty Mundae to that list. I hope to see more of her in movies like this (even if she keeps her clothes on).

"Shock-O-Rama" is a fun anthology flick that's equal parts tribute to old-school horror movies like those Amicus and American-International used to produce, and send-up of modern low-budget horror/skin flicks. Lovers of both kinds of films should get a kick out of this one. (The only dissapointed viewers will be those who, as Rebecca Raven would say, live in their parents' basements and watch with the remote in one hand and their pecker in other.)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Vampirella

In the summer of 1969, Warren Publishing launched "Vampirella Magazine." It featured a host who introduced the stories, just like their other magazines, and just like countless other horror comic anthologies since the 1950s. However, this particular host was destined for greatness even the Crypt Keeper must envy, as she was soon given her own series... and she remains the sexiest alien vampire to ever walk the Earth to this very day.

Vampirella's back story, presented in a couple of episodes written by Forrest J. Ackerman and which were more humorous than horror-oriented, had her hitch a ride to Earth from the planet Drakulon where blood flowed in rivers and her people drank and bathed in it just like we do in water. Or at least it had at one time--Drakulon was dying, as its rivers were drying up.

Fortunately for Vampirella, she hitched a ride on a space ship from Earth--where there is plenty of blood in the veins of humans--and landed a job as a horror host for Warren.

All very fun and cute. And that might have been the end of it, if not for a series of tales brilliantly written first by comics legend Archie Goodwin, and later by Steve Englehart and others; and gorgeously illustrated by Jose Gonzalez.

While not completely abandoning the whimsy of those first couple of stories, Goodwin took what had been a gag concept and developed a full-blown horror universe from it. Vampirella's world was an adventure-filled place where sci-fi elements swirled together with classic horror movie tropes and Lovecraftian cults and extra-dimensional horrors. Goodwin (followed by Steve Englehart, and T. Casey Brennan) put in place a foundation that the best Vampirella tales built on for the next few years. The cast of characters established by Goodwin, Vampirella's friends and foes, remained at the center of the strip, with the only a very few new creations taking on the importance and depth that those put in place during those early years did.

No one has managed to match the creative heights obtained by those early contributors to the Vampirella property. That point is more clearly than any spoken word by the above-painting from Joe Jusko, a collage of just about every iconic character and image associated with Vampirella. Every one of which was created during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Since Harris Publishing took over the character in the early 1990s, the strip has been one "re-imagining" after another, a never-ending scrapping and rebuilding of Vampirella's world without creating anything of lasting impact (or that held the interest of readers, as all the flailing about demonstrated). The only truly interesting thing that Harris did was a "cyberpunk"-type series where they Manga-nized Vampirella and placed her in the future in "Vampi." And even that didn't last.

After struggling for more than a decade to restore Vampirella to her former glory, Harris sold the rights to Dynamite Publishing earlier this year. Time will tell if they will fare any better with the character.

I hope they do at least one more "re-imagining" of the character... and that they bring her back to being a sexy alien vampiresss from Drakulon who is equally at home whether she is beset by horror monsters or sci-fi creatures.

So far, all I've seen from Dynamite is the promise of high-priced reprints of the classics. But, I'm one old grognard who is holding out hope that the grand old lady of horror will have another happy Halloween yet.

For more about the early Vampirella tales, click here to visit the companion blog Shades of Gray.

And you can read that very first Vampirella story at Rip Jagger's Dojo by clicking here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A New Picture Series: Fear-filled Phantasms

Joining Tectonic Tuesdays, Picture Perfect Wednesdays, and Saturday Scream Queens is "Fear-filled Phantasms," a semi-regular series of horror-themed pictures that I stumble across while wandering the web.

First up... a couple of items to print out and put on the fridge to help you with that diet.

(I think that confused cat that wandered into the first picture is probably my favorite element.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The baffling 'Crypt of Dark Secrets'

Crypt of Dark Secrets (1974)
Starring: Maureen Ridley, Robert Tanet and Wayne Mack
Director: Jack Weis
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A Vietnam vet (Tanet) retires to "Haunted Island" is murdered by three dippy locals who want his money. Luckily for him, an Aztec voodoo spirit named Damballa (Ridley) has fallen in love with him. She resurrects him to fulfill his destiny.

While reading my summary of "Crypt of Dark Secrets", you probably said to yourself, "An Aztec voodoo spirit?" Well, that's just one of the questions you'll be aksing yourself as you are watching this slow-moving disjointed film that has so little meat to it that the padding is padded. Other questions will be "Where is the crypt from the title?", "Is this movie going anywhere?", and "Was this the first work of the monkeys who wrote the latest video from that al-Qaeda freak with the bulls-eye birthmark on his forehead?"

However, just as you have had your fill of bad dialogue delivered by even worse actors, and you're about to give up on the film, there's a scene with the very sexy Maureen Ridley wearing very little or nothing at all. If there ever was an actress who was cast in a movie for no reason other than looking fabulous while naked, it's Maureen Ridley... she is miserable to watch whenever she tries acting, but when she's writing around naked or wandering around in a buckskin bikini, her lack of talent as an actress become irrelevant.

I'm giving this film a 3/10 rating, even if it's a very low 3 and it probably should be a 2. But, the combination of Maureen Ridley's bare flesh and a certain weirdness factor to the story that made me think, "I see an interesting Ravenloft scenario here" and "I wonder how this would have turned out if it had been made 20 years later and Charles Band was directing?" causes me to give it a little extra consideration.

For the record, if Band had helmed this production--given what he did with "Blood Dolls", "Hideous!" and "Head of the Family"--I think this film would have been a thoroughly perverted and thoroughly hilarious slice of voodoo weirdness. If you're a hardcore fan of his films, maybe this is worth a look. Although, don't blame me if you don't like it.)

Click here to read about "The Naked Witch" at Movies You Should Die Before You See.

Monday, August 2, 2010

'Slave of the Cannibal God' has no surprises

Slave of the Cannibal God (aka "Mountain of the Cannibal God" and "Prisoner of the Cannibal God") (1978)
Starring: Ursula Andress, Stacy Keach, Claudio Cassinelli, and Antonio Marsina
Director: Sergio Martino
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Susan Stevenson (Andress) arrives in New Guinea to launch an expedition to search for her husband who has gone missing. A former collegue of is (Keach) reveals that he traveled secretly to a mostly unexplored island to study cannibals who worship a holy mountain. Suan convinces him to help her in her search, and they head into the unknown, along with her sociopathic brother (Marsina).

"Slave of the Cannibal God" is about what you'd expect from a movie with the words "Slave" and "Cannibal" in the the title, starring Andress, and made by Italians. I'd expected more gore, nudity, and sexual perversion, but I suspect I may have seen the "censored" version.

Storywise, the film was reminicent of a 1930s jungle adventure film, or a Joe Kubert-penned Tarzan tale--most of the explorers are in the jungle for reasons that are not at all what they claim they are--but production-wise, it's all cheesy Italian production from the 1970s. (You know you're not going to be watching the cream of the film crop when the first shots in a film are images of random animals in the jungle.

However, the film is mercifully light on filler animal footage, the acting is better than is usually found in these sorts of films, and the story moves along at a good pace. If you like jungle adventure movies, you can do far worse than this one. On the other hand, if you're looking for a gory cannibal flick, you should probably pass on it. I'm still not sure who the "slave" of the title is.)