Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Joey Wang

Born in 1967, Taiwanese actress and photo model Joey Wang (sometimes credited as Joey Wong) made her film debut at 14 in the mystically-tinged drama "It Will Be Cold By the Lakeside This Year" and proceeded to work steadily in horror, fantasy, and action films through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, making more than 65 films. She retired from acting in 1998 after getting married and moving to Canada. (Wang has appeared in a couple of films since, but she shuns publicity and avoids the public eye.)

Wang's stature and willowy beauty made her the idea actress to play ghosts in Chinese period films, and her most famous films are indeed the "Chinese Ghost Story" series.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Bite Me!' is done in by a bad script

Bite Me! (2004)
Starring: Misty Mundae, Michael R. Thomas, Sylvianne Chebance, Julian Wells, Caitlin Ross, Rob Monkiewicz, Erika Smith, and John Paul Fedele
Director: Brett Piper
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A failing strip club is invaded by monstrous spiders whose venom either bring out repressed sides of a victim's personality or turns them into hideous mutants.

"Bite Me" is a goofy film that spoofs the monster movies from the 1950s and the softcore porn films of the 2000s that many of the featured actresses have been in. It's not a bad little movie, but it could have been much better.

The problem is not with the actors. They're all pretty good, with Caitlin Ross (playing a doped-up stripper who manages to save the day while basically sleepwalking through the mayhem of monster spiders and crazy gunmen), Michael R. Thomas (as the brash club owner), and Misty Mundae (as a mild-mannered stripper who becomes Rambette after being bit by one of the spiders) being especially funny in their parts.

The technical aspect of this low-budget production is also very good, with decent camera work and lighting, nifty stop-motion animated monsters, and well-executed green-screen and CGI elements. The film actually looks better in many respects than movies with budgets that were probably ten times what it cost to make "Bite Me!"

What drags this movie down from, based on the concepts, the acting, and the technical execution, could have been at least a 7 rating to a very low 5 is the script.

The script is unfocused, flabby, and at times redundant. While there are some very funny bits in the beginning of the film but they are surrounded by material that sets up a subplot that never really pays off. The same is true with subplot about organized crime elements who are trying to take over the stripclub. An interesting character in the club's bartender is not given the development she should get, and the same is true to the club's owner. If the script had been taken through another couple of drafts, I'm certain writer/director Brett Piper would have noticed these flaws, saved the government conspiracy stuff for another movie and focused more on the stripclub and its denizens. That's where the heart of the movie is, and it's a shame that the time isn't there to develop it properly.

Still, "Bite Me!" is a fun little movie. It's worth seeing it you like cheesy monster films or if you're a fan of Misty Mundae or any of the other actresses appearing in it; they actually get to act in it, and they're good! (They mostly keep their clothes on, though, so if you're looking for the usual lesbian nookie, this is not the film for you.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Rosalba Neri

Italian beauty Rosalba Neri (who is often credited under the stage name of Sara Bey) began her acting career at the age of 15. She appeared in at least 99 movies over a thirty year span, from 1956 to her retirement from acting in 1985. (Sources vary on the exact number of movies she appeared in.)

Neri appeared in films of just about every genre, often as a sexually charged villainess, the majority were soft-core erotica, thrillers, or horror flicks. Among her most famous films are "Lady Frankenstein", "The Lion of Thebes", and Mario Bava's "Hercules in the Haunted World.

'Lady Frankenstein' mixes monster-making
with sexual perversion

Lady Frankenstein (aka "Daughter of Frankenstein") (1972)
Starring: Sara Bey, Joseph Cotten, Paul Muller, Mickey Hargitay, and Paul Whiteman
Directors: Mel Welles and Aureliano Luppi
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Tania Frankenstein (Bey) proves psychopathy is an inherited trait when she continues and perfects her dead father's work in reanimation and monster-making... by creating her perfect mate and sex-toy, using the body of a hunky handyman, and the brain of her father's former assistant (Muller).

"Lady Frankenstein" is a fast-paced--once it gets started... it opens rather slow--decidedly sleazy twist on the typical Frankenstein film. Monsters are created, monsters run amok, and torch-wielding villagers burn the castle down, but the twist here is that Frankenstein (played with class above this movie's station by Joseph Cotton) dies at the end of the first act, leaving his twisted daughter in charge of the murder and mayhem. Boy, does she rise to the challenge.

This film is most remarkable for the most disturbing sex scene I've seen so far on film with Tania Frankenstein having an orgasm as her lover is being murdered under her. Twisted stuff, but in perfect keeping with the overall tone of the film. It is also remarkable for having just about the lamest-looking monster of any featured in a Frankenstein film. (Yes, even lamer than the non-monster in "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter"... what we have here looks like the Toxic Avenger's retarded country cousin.)

Decently acted, and featuring better music, camera work, and sets than many films of this kind, "Lady Frankenstein" might be worth a look if my comments above haven't warned you off.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

'Adventures of Johnny Tao' are worth taking

The Adventures of Johnny Tao: A Kung Fu Fable (aka "Quest of the Dragon") (2007)
Starring: Matthew Twining, Matt Mullins, Chris Yen, Kelly Perine, and Lindsay Parker
Director: Kenn Scott
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When his best friend Eddie (Mullins) is possessed by a demon who is turning the citizens of the small desert town of Dry Springs into zombies, gas station attendant and would-be Kung Fu master Johnny Dow (Twining) teams up with a gorgeous demon hunter named Mika (Yen), a bumbling sheriff's deputy (Perine) and his girl friend and town council candidate (Parker) to save the day. But how far can ancient mysticism and all the moves Johnny's learned from a lifetime of watching Kung Fu movies carry our heroes once the demon steals the guitar Johnny's father built around the spear that's the only thing that can kill him?

"The Adventures of Johnny Tao" is an excellent, low-budget action/adventure comedy in the spirit of the B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s--complete with bumbling cops, tough hoods, sinister secrets from the Orient that threaten to destroy us all, and a Little Guy as the hero-- which is crossed with a traditional Kung Fu tale storyline and infused with very modern American humor and pacing.

What's more, this film is superior to the majority of independent horror movies out there, be they the ones that get released directly to DVD or that show up on cable channels/ The script is is tighter, the acting is better, the camera-work and set design is generally more creative... it's just a good. In fact, with a more experienced crew and a few thousand dollars more worth of budget, this film could easily measure up against some of the recent big screen releases.

The staging of the various key battles of the demon and his minions were particularly impressive. The fight between the demon and the butt-kicking, motorcycle riding demon hunter played by Yen was very suspenseful and its climax startling, while the final battle between Johnny and demon at the fortune cookie factory was very cool visually--with thousands of scraps of papers containing fortunes swirling in the air around them while they fight.

This is not to say the film is perfect. While the filmmakers definitely have every dollar showing on the screen, there are some rough spots that I think can attributed to budget constraints, and perhaps inexperience on the part of crew members.

As impressive as the fight scenes are, they still feel choreographed in many instances; this is particularly true of the fight that introduces us to Mika. Then there's the fight where Johnny takes on a zombie with a shopping cart... it's a Jackie Chan "homage", but its too slow-moving and it once again feels overly choreographed and staged.

There are also some odd costuming choices that jarred me out of the film, like the local smalltown thug who walks around in a viking helmet.

However, the negative stuff aside, I have to say that the sound editing in this film is up to the highest levels of professional standards. The foley artists here (led by Darwin Clarke and Tony Kucenski) did a FANTASTIC job. I can't count the number of low-budget action and adventure films that don't pay enough attention to the power of sound. A fight scene falls flat and seems exactly like what it is--a couple of guys playing make-believe--if the exaggerated "thwaks" and sounds of things breaking aren't put in in post-production. A suspenseful moment is ruined if the right ambient sounds aren't heard. All hail the director of "Johnny Tao" and his sound department, because they did a MASTERFUL job on this frequently underappreciated element of filmmaking!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Ellie Cornell

Born in 1963, Ellie Cornell's first big horror movies roles came in"Halloween 4" and Halloween 5" (in 1988 and 1989, respectively) where she played a teenager unfortunate enough to be standing between maniac killer Michael Myers and his intended victim. She took a 13 year break from acting soon afterwards to raise her young children, but returned to the screen in 2003 in "House of Dead", one of Uwe Boll's notorious video game adaptations (and one of his best, actually) and has been appearing in movies and television shows steadily ever since.

Since resuming her career, Cornell has appeared in nine horror films, including "Prank", a segment in an as-of-yet unreleased anthology film directed by her former "Holloween" co-star Danielle Harris, and the sequel to "House of the Dead" (cleverly titled "House of the Dead 2".

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Best of Halloween, Part Two

This is the second and final post presenting reviews of the best Halloween films... and the only Michael Myers slashers that are worth your time.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris, and Michael Pataki
Director: Dwight H. Little
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ten years after Michael Myers brought real terror and bloodshed to Halloween night in the small town of Haddonfield, he escapes while being transferred between two asylums. He returns to his old stalking grounds, but finds that his sister, Laurie is now out of his reach. However, his young niece Jamie (Harris) is not so lucky. Soon, the bodies start to pile up, and Jamie and her teenaged protector (Cornell) may not survive the night, even though Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) is once again stalk Michael as he stalks them.

With “Halloween 4,” Myers joins the ranks (whether he is elevated or if he falls depends on your point of view) of all the other indestructible psycho-killers, since he was burned to a crisp on camera at the end of “Halloween II.” However, Dr. Loomis, is also back (and he didn’t fare much better than Myers in that fire), so he is probably the only slasher-flick hero who is as indestructible as killer himself!

Unfortunately, this film is another step down from the heights where it all began. Like “Halloween II” was an inferior film when compared to the original, so is “Halloween 4” weaker than both its predecessors. The greatest flaw is the setting of Haddonfield. Where Carpenter and his crew managed to infuse the town itself with a sense of dreadful anticipation, the director of this film just conveys that it is like any other little town. Because of this, the movie doesn’t seem quite as suspenseful as those that came before. Yes, there are plenty of shocks, and Myers is now conducting himself as we have come to expect from a man in his like of work (like Jason, and Freddy, and dozens and dozens of other cinema maniacs that appeared in the decade since Myer first cocked his head at Laurie Strode), but the same level of tension is never quite reached.

Acting-wise, however, the performances are as good as they were in the first pair of movies. Curtis isn’t in the film—her character reportedly died in a car accident shortly after she gave birth to a daughter—but instead we have Danielle Harris, a very talented child actress playing Jamie, Myers new target. Cornell also puts on a good show as the stubborn teenaged girl trying to keep herself and Jamie alive as Myers is killing people all around them. At first blush, Pleasance’s performance seems to be a bit much, but if one considers that Dr. Loomis has shot Myers in the chest six times, in the face twice, and burned him alive, and still the human monster fails to die, then it would make sense that the character has gone completely nuts. In that light, his performance is perfect.

Like “Halloween II”, this installment suffers from script problems. In this case, the script isn’t ponderous, but instead is burdened with some useless and annoying subplots (such as one involving brave rednecks hopping in their truck to go kick Michael-ass). I suppose the filmmakers sensed the other problem with the film’s storyline—that Myers was starting to no longer be scary. We saw all his tricks in the first two films, and all we had now was the same as before, except he was so monstrous that he would go after a very young child.

This problem with Michael Myers is what let to some truly stupid missteps in the three movies that followed. Someone, somewhere, decided to take Dr. Loomis at his word. Soon, the series was burdened with bizarre Satanic cultists. It's almost a shame that "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers" marks the point at which the series tips over the edge of the abyss and plummets into the Bottomless Depths of Truly Crappy, because it has what I've always thought to be the most striking poster/home-video cover image of the entire series--Michael holding his trademarked butcher knife with the blade fading into an image of a young girl in a harlequin costume. Harris and Cornell are also both back with excellent performances. It’s a shame the overall movie isn’t have been better. (That's the illo at the tip of this post, by the way.)

The final word on “Halloween 4” is that it’s worth seeing if you like your slasher-flicks with some good acting. But you should avoid everything that follows it... with the exception of "Halloween: H20"

Halloween: H20 (1998)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, and LL Cool J
Director: Steve Miner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Keri Tate (Curtis) has spent the past twenty years trying to put a single night horror behind her. Her successful career as an educator has helped, as has the love of her now-teenaged son (Hartnett) and the fact that she faked her death and changed her name when she became pregnant with him. But now, the past is coming back with a vengeance... Keri will no longer be able to deny that she is Laurie Strode. Michael Myers is back, and he still wants her.

"Halloween: H20" is the only entry in the series since "The Return of Michael Myers" that is worth your time. In fact, it's one of the best slasher movies to emerge from the late 1990s when the genre enjoyed a bit of a revival, because it doesn't engage in self-mockery and remains true to the tone and mood of the original "Halloween" films while presenting a slasher story with a slightly different structure than what we're used to.

Arkin), and likable innocents who are soon to run into the human killing machine that is Michael Myers.

Also like the original "Halloween", this film does not rely on body count and gory, creative butchering of characters. Instead, it relies on the fact that the audience actually cares about what happens to the characters in the film. With its well-written script, solid cast--Curtis in particular is fabulous as a broken Laurie Strode who suddenly finds the strength to fight not only for herself but for the life of her son--and a highly underrated director at the helm, the audience is drawn into the action and terror as it builds and unfolds.

(I feel Miner is underrated, because this and other horror films he's done shows that he understands that there needs to be a pay-off to any build-up of suspense, and that the key to making a horror movie truly scary is that the characters in the film need to be human and sympathetic. Both of these facts seem to be lost on many modern horror film directors who believe that one fake scare after another and flat characters surrounded by CGI monsters is all that's needed.)

"Halloween: H20" was a great way to celebrate twenty years of Michael Myers striking fear into the hearts of audiences around the world--it almost managed to reach the great heights achieved by Carpenter and Company in the original film. It remains the last worthwhile entry in the series.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Best of Halloween, Part One

When John Carpenter crystalized the tropes of the slasher genre in the first two "Halloween" movies, the horror genre was changed forever, for better or worse. This is the first of two posts that take a look at the better of the "Halloween" series.

Halloween (1978)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Michael Myer, who has been confined to a mental institution since committing several brutal murders as a young child, escapes and returns to his hometown to kill his last remaining relative, his sister. While his psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Pleasance) tries to get the local sheriff to clear the streets of Halloween trick-or-treaters to protect them from a killer who the doctor believes to literally be possessed by evil spirits, Michael is cutting his way through the population of Haddonfield, getting ever closer to his actual goal, his sister, Laurie (Curtis).

"Halloween" was the first of this type of movie--an unspeakably violent, hands-on killer butchers his way through hapless victims until one girl faces him alone--and it still remains the best. The gore may be mild compared to the countless slasher flicks that follow, but the tension and terror flowing from the screen remains unmatched.

All actors featured in “Halloween” turn in great performances, with Curtis’ portrayal of the terror-stricken, yet scrappy, Laurie being particularly impressive. Horror movie veteran Pleasance also turns in a great performance as the stressed-beyond-stressed-out, gun-toting mental health professional bent on stopping a man who is “pure evil” before he murders again. Even the actor playing the masked, silent Michael Myer is wonderful—he has an animal-like way of cocking his head that is very creepy.

Other strong aspects that really make “Halloween” stand out is the camera-work, lighting, and set-dressing. All of these combine to turn typical small-town America into a creepy and threatening environment that is as much a character in the film as the principle actors. Much of the tension that is built in the early parts of the film grows from the curiously unsettling aura throughout the town of Haddonfield.

Finally, the soundtrack score of "Halloween" needs to be singled out for praise. Performed completely on synthesizers by director Carpenter, it stands as not only one of the creepiest horror movie scores but also as one of the best works of electronica ever composed. Plus, no other horror movie has a theme as memorable as "Halloween." (Only "The Exorcist" comes close, and the theme from it wasn't originally composed for the movie.)

Halloween II (1981)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

'Halloween II" is a direct sequel to the original movie, picking up pretty much exactly where it left off. After narrowly escaping death at the knife-wielding hands of her insane brother, Laurie is taken to the local hospital while an apparently dead Michael Myers is taken to the morgue in its basement. It quickly becomes apparent that someone was a bit hasty in declaring Myers dead—a natural mistake since Dr. Loomis had shot him six times in the chest--and soon he is stalking through the darkened hospital and sending everyone on the graveyard shift to the graveyard. Maybe Laurie won’t live to see the sun come up on November 1st after all.

The film takes place almost entirely within the Haddonfield hospital. Director Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal successfully uses the empty, darkened hallways to evoke suspense and horror, and to eventually emphasize the isolation of Laurie as she for the second time in one night is the object of her brother’s murderous intentions.

On the acting front, we’ve got Curtis and Pleasance reprising their roles from the original “Halloween”, and they are just as good as they were before. Curtis once again strikes a perfect balance between strength and terror, and Pleasance once again excels as a man obsessed with putting an end to what he views as evil given form on Earth.

The only weakness that prevents this film from being as good as the original “Halloween” is, curiously, the script. Although Carpenter and Hill wrote both, the story for “Halloween II” never really seems to build up quite the same momentum as the original movie. The middle is actually downright dull at times.

“Halloween II” is still worth watching, but a tighter script would have made it so much better.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Danielle Harris

Danielle Harris celebrated her 11th birthday while on the set of her debut film "Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers": She so enjoyed acting in this film and its sequel "Halloween 5" that she set her heart on being a horror movie actress for the rest of her life.

While she appeared in thrillers and comedies and done voices for cartoons, Harris has been successful in fulfilling her childhood dream. Her career survived the transition from child star to adult actress, and the majority of the she has d appearing in over 60 movies and television shows she has appeared in have horror films or thrillers.

Harris remains a busy actress and starting with the "Halloween" remake in 2007 (and its sequel), her projects have almost been entirely horror-oriented. She appears in four movies slated for release in 2011, including "Night of the Living Dead 3D" and the Michael Beihn-directed "The Victim".

Friday, January 7, 2011

'Season of the Witch' is a time of fantasy/horror

Season of the Witch (2011)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Ulrich Thomsen, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Stephen Graham
Director: Dominic Sena
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of 14th century Crusader knights (Cage and Perlman) return to their homeland to find it ravaged by a terrible plague. They join a priest (Moore) and three other swordsmen (Graham, Sheehan, and Thomsen) on a dangerous mission to escort a mysterious girl (Foy) who is suspected of being the witch who has caused the plague to a remote monastery where her soul will be cleansed.

"Season of Witch" is a fast-moving fantasy/horror film that mixes movie cliches--can there be a horror film set in the Middle Ages that doesn't feature some plague or another?--and refreshing approaches to standard fantasy/horror/action movie types--such as the knights played by Cage and Perlman who have grown disillusioned with earthly religious institutions but who still don't go on long, never-ending screeds about God not existing--with a degree deftness that a fairly standard story and characters have enough of an air of freshness about them that you won't regret the time or the money spent on watching this movie.

The audience for this film are big fans of D&D-style low-fantasy adventures, as the horror here is more R.E. Howard than H.P. Lovecraft, and the heroes' relationship with God and religion is more Solomon Kane than Joan of Arc. It's a straight-forward adventure populated with situations and characters that will either bring feelings of nostalgia or satisfaction to DMs and players who will feel like the scenery in their mind's eye while playing paper-based RPGs has come to life on the screen before them. This movie is what a D&D movie should be like, with its ass-kicking heroes, sinister witches, zombies, and uber-powerful demons.

Unfortunately, the film shares a bit of the haphazard plotting that is typical of even the best conceived roleplaying game adventures, be they "homebrews" or published scenarios. Much of what happens in the film seems to happen just because it's a plot necessity, especially once the characters reach their destination. I can't go into it too much without spoiling the movie, but you will find yourself wondering why the heroes even made it inside the monastery walls as the film barrels toward its CG monster-filled climax. The red herrings presented--is the girl a witch or not?; is the priest a bad guy rapist/satanist or not?--are clumsily implemented and there is never any real doubt on the part of the viewer what the truth is. And then there's the unfortunately, unintentionally comedic named location of "City of Villach."All in all, the script is fairly weak, succeeding in large part because it is constantly moving the film forward to the next creepy scene or the next fight, and because the filmmakers were smart and confident enough in their abilities to stay off the soap-box and show us the brutality and corruption that can arise from religious fanaticism instead of telling us. (Although the friend I saw the film with though less of it than I did, she being troubled by the fact that the only women in the film were demon-possessed witches who were just there to be dispatched.)

The other keys to what makes this film fun to watch is the peformances by Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, and Claire Foy. None are particularly deep characters, but Cage and Perlman play well off each other, and they are perfectly believable as life-long friends and honorable knights. Meanwhile, Foy can project wide-eyed innocence and demonic menace with equal force.

Fans of the films stars and of low-fantasy (or the even lower D&D-style fantasy) will enjoy "Season of the Witch". Admirers of the Tolkien and Lewis screen adaptations might want to skip it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Needed more of Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)
Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinz, and Brandi
Director: Danny Cannon
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The survivors of a murderous rampage by a hook-wielding mass-murderer (Hewitt and Brandi) win a free Caribbean vacation. However, their trip to paradise turns into a stay in hell when the slicker-clad killer seems to return from the dead to stalk them once again.

"I Still Know What You Did Last Summer" is perhaps the worst big-budget slasher-flick ever made. From a really dumb title, to a weak set-up, through a barely coherent middle, to a lame and boring unmasking and final confrontation with the killer who has a motivation so thin that it makes the psycho in "Scream" look like a heavy-weight, there isn't a single story element in this film that works. It's not like a slasher flick is hard to do, but these folks couldn't even use the cliche building blocks of the genre properly.

The technical crew does a fine job, the actors are all pretty good (even if Brandi's "I'm a hipper than hip ghetto chick" routine is grating), and even the camera work is decent. If the film had a better script, it might have risen to an average level. The same might have been true if the film had been played partly for laughs like the aforementioned "Scream." Even Jennifer Love Hewitt, who is one of my favorite current actresses and who was interesting even in the most boring episodes of "Ghost Whisperer", seems to struggle in this morass of cliches and bad dialogue.

In the final analysis, the most watchable things in this movie are Jennifer Love Hewitt's breasts, but since we don't get to see her in as many tight tops as we did in the first film of the series--"I Know What You Did Last Summer"--even they aren't quite the reasons to watch this film they were. Everything about this movie is disappointing.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Victoria De Mare

The first Saturday Scream Queen of 2011 is Victoria De Mare, an actress, dancer, and singer who has been working steadily in low-budget horror and sci-fi flicks since getting her start in the early 2000s in the Roger Corman-produced horror spoof "Slaughter Studios" and the Charles Band-directed ""

Over the past decade, De Mare has appeared in over 40 movies and television episodees, with roles ranging from tiny bit parts to starring turns in "Shadows" and two different 2010 releases--"Contagion" and "Killjoy 3". Horror fans will be seeing even more of her in the years to come, as she is already featured in a dozen more projects at various stages of production.

Welcome to 2011!

May the only horrors if your life this year be the fictitious ones.