Wednesday, August 31, 2011

'Horsemen' is predictable and slightly dull

Horsemen (aka "The Four Horsemen") (2009)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Ziyi Zhang, Lou Taylor Pucci, Liam James, Patrick Fugit, and Eric Balfour
Director: Jonas Aakerlund
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Homicide detective Aidan Breslan (Quaid) is struggling to reconnect emotionally with life and his two young sons (James and Pucci) after the death of his wife when a gruesome series of murders linked by the Biblical Prophecies of the Four Horsemen begin to have a strange resonance with his life.

"Horsemen" is one of those films that started out with a great idea at its core, but then the filmmakers either lost track of it along the way, or they were never competent enough to carry it out. Where they should be subtle in their dropping of hints, they are hamfisted... and when they should be clear and straight-forward with what they are trying to convey, they are so vague that the viewer is left wondering "what was the point of that" more than once. Or worse, we wish they'd get on with it, because we've figured out where they're going and attempts at being clever for no apparent reason become irritating.

The hamfistedness at the wrong times as the story unfolds goes a long way to making this movie strangely dull, despite the fact that the cast and technical crew does their best to keep the suspense up. In fact, the film ultimately feels like an extra-long, weak episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investators", both with its look and storyline.

Cast-wise, everyone does a decent enough job, although they would have probably done better if they'd redubbed Ziyi Zhang with a good voice actress who spoke better English. She is clearly still struggling with the language and that hurts her performance somewhat, while I think a well-acting re-looping of her dialogue plus her body language on screen would have brought out the intensity that is lost in her thick accent. (Plus, I find it hard to believe that an adopted child who has been with an American family and going to American schools for a decade wouldn't know better English, no matter how bad the parents were.)

This one is worth checking out on cable TV when there's absolutely nothing else that looks interesting, but otherwise this is one to take a pass on.

Monday, August 29, 2011

'The House That Screamed' has Hammer Films mood

The House That Screamed (1969)
Starring: Lilli Palmer, Christina Galbo, Mary Maude, Maribel Martin, and John Moulder-Brown
Director: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The head-mistress of a boarding school for wayward girls (Palmer) tries with increasing fierceness to keep order and discipline in the sea of run-away hormones and rebelliousness among the students and her teenaged son (Moulder-Brown). But soon after the arrival of a new student, someone starts enforcing an even sterner form of discipline in the school's shadow-haunted hallways... a discipline that leaves girls dead.

"The House That Screamed" is a Spanish horror movie that successfully crosses the look and feel of Hammer Films' black-and-white psychological thrillers from the early 1960s with their gothic horror films of the 1960s. Writer/director Serrador isn't quite Terence Fisher, but he's the next best thing, as he delivers an effectively paced, well-staged film that will keep you guessing as to the identity of the killer and what exactly is going on within the walls of the girl's school until the Big Reveal at the end. While the ending ultimately is not all that surprising, the path leading there and its execution is chilling and stylish.

Featuring a talented cast of young actresses as the students, and a superb performance by Lilli Palmer who manages to portray a sadistic, controlling bitch and still illicit sympathy for her from the audience, and some shocking murders, this is a great film to check out if you liked "Susperia" or any of the black-and-white Hammer Films psychological thrillers--even if this film is in color. (Oh, one thing the film is surprisingly short on, what with its all-girls boarding school location, several sexual themes, and even a shower scene, is nudity. I don't recall any, in fact.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Edwige Fenech

Born on Christmas Eve in 1948, European actress Edwige Fenech started her career on a beauty contest circuit but soon found employment as a model. In 1967, she made her film debut, and she cut a striking (and often naked) figure in dozens of horror films and sex comedies through the 1970s and early 1980s.

As the 1980s wore on, Fenech transitioned to parts that called more upon her talent for acting rather than disrobing, but by the mid-1990s, her career had evolved to the point where she was famous for mostly being famous and she was a regular on Italian talk shows.

Fenech retired from acting and moved behind the camera at the head of her her own production company. She has produced numerous films and mini-series for Italian television, including a very well-received adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

Fenech made a brief return to acting in 2007 with a bit-part in the torture-porn cannibal extravaganza "Hostel II," mostly just showing up to show up as an inside joke for fans of 1970s European horror films.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good advice from Chris De Burgh

Keep this in mind when you're Crossing Over....

(This song dates from 1982, and it's probably the best thing Chris De Burgh ever recorded. And that's setting aside that it's got some really creepy lyrics. Am I just an old fogey, or is it true that they simply don't make them like this anymore, what with all the Auto-tune and sampling shit that every other popular singer seems to be up to?)

'The Ferryman' by Rainer F. Engle

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A stylish film too disjointed for its own good

A Bell From Hell (1973)
Starring: Renaud Verley, Veveca Lindfors, Maribel Martin, Nuria Gemino, Christina Betzner, and Alfredo Mayo
Directors: Claudio Guerín and Juan Antonio Bardem.
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

John (Verley), a young special effects artist, is released from an insane asylum into the care of his crippled aunt and her three attractive daughters. He becomes convinced they were behind his being committed in the first place, and they intend to have him sent back, so he plots his revenge.

"A Bell From Hell" is too disjointed for its own good. It's well enough acted, and it moves along as a decent clip while offering many unexpected twists and turns, but there are a couple too many tangents and too many badly defined characters who are doing things for no discernible reason other than the script says so.

This is a very moody, creepy, and stylish film, and the last half hour ranks up there with some of the great horror movies--with John's fate the most chilling part of the film--but the story is just a little too chaotic for this movie to truly be considered worth the time to watch.

(Trivia: Director Claudio Guerín fell to his death from the tower housing the title bell on the last day of principle photography.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

'Planet Terror' is worth landing on

Planet Terror (2007)
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin, and Jeff Fahey
Director: Robert Rodriquez
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Planet Terror" is a sci-fi/horror flick starring Rose McGowan as a tragic stripper, Freddy Rodriguez as a bad-boy tow-truck driver with a mysterious past, and Bruce Willis as a Army lieutenant with a dark addiction that results in a chemical that transforms those exposed into flesh-eating, pusstule-festooned zombies. McGowan and Rodriquez join with other survivors in fighting their way to safety.

The best part of "Planet Terror" is its very John Carpenter-esque musical score and its subplots involving a psychotic doctor (chillingly portrayed by Josh Brolin) and his unfaithful wife, and that surrounding the town sheriff and his BBQ-cooking brother. Unfortunately, these subplots swirl around in the general chaos that is the flow (or rather complete lack thereof) that makes up "Planet Terror" and just as they get going, we go back to the main story of puss-filled zombie fights. The film also serves nicely as a send-up of over-the-top action movies, but it drives this aspect so far into the ground and is so heavy-handed about it that the hilarity gives way to tedium by the time the film is over. It's a nice effort, but it barely clears that bar of average. (And it doesn't help matters that the director chose to intentionally leave out a chunk of the movie to recreate the atmosphere of a cheap movie theater.)

The actors are good all around, with Rodriquez, Willis, Brolin, and Jeff Fahey (as J.T., master Texas BBQ chef and zombie killer) being particularly noteworthy. The true star of this film, though, is the Carpenter-pastiche soundtrack. It is what truly gives the film its 1980s horror flick air.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Rose McGowan

Rose McGowan spent her earliest childhood within a fringe Christian cult in Italy and her teenaged years struggling against false accusations of drug use that saw her briefly committed to a mental institution. At the age of 15, she was emancipated from her parents, and eventually graduated from high school and gained a beauticians license.

However, in 1995, McGowan began her acting career and received many early accolades for her quirky performances, despite giving them in films like "Bio-Dome" and "Encino Man". When she was cast in Wes Craven's "Scream," McGowan seemed destined for horror movie stardom... but then she entered a romantic relationship with Rob Zombie.

Although she continued to appear in leading roles throughout the rest of the 1990s--including chillers "Phantoms" and "The Last Stop"--very little notice was paid to them, as she was defined first and foremost as "Rob Zombie's girlfriend,"

Once they split, however, McGowan's stat began to ascend again, and she burst back into public consciousness with a starring role as a young witch in the television series "Charmed" and two roles in the retro horror double-feature "Grindhouse", one in "Death Proof" and the lead in "Planet Terror".

McGowan's latest role is in the new film adaptation of "Conan the Barbarian" as a particularly perverted villainess who really loves her daddy. (My guess is that relationship would be Roman Polanski's favorite part of the film.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

One of Argento's best still prompts the question, "That's it?"

Suspiria (1977)
Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, and Joan Bennett
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Suzy Banyon (Harper) comes to study at a prestigious German dance academy, but instead becomes drawn into the murderous and deadly web of secrets exists within its walls. Is there a killer on the loose in the school, or is it the spirit of its founder--a reported witch--who has returned from the depths of Hell?

When "Suspiria" was over, I mused out loud, "Was that it?"

The film is praised by critics and viewers as being Argento's best, but I think "Deep Red" is a far superior film. The only things "Suspiria" has going for it are some fantastic sets, some interesting lighting, a neat theme by Goblin, and the attractive Jessica Harper's deer-in-the-headlights performance.

Everything else is "Suspira" is sorely lacking. The structure of the dance classes shown are odd and unrealistic, the acting is mostly wooden, and the script is so weak so as to feel like an excuse to simply display the three set-piece murder scenes. To make matters worse, what story their is only succeeds due to Stupid Character Syndrome, except here it's the villains that engage in such mindless stupidity that one wonders how they managed to the school's secrets for as long as they did.

There are countless really cool cinematic moments in the film (prime among them are Suzy's trip through the rainstorm at the beginning of the film, the climactic moments of the first murder, the sequence in the open plaza, the entire sequence of Sara's flight through the school, and Suzy's exploration during the film's climax), but the story that should be motivating all these scenes is so ill defined and poorly explained that it makes an already weak climax feel rushed and as if the movie ends before we're even given one-quarter of the story.

Impressive visually, but severely lacking in the story department, "Suspiria" isn't as good as its repuation might lead you to believe. I think it's worth seeing if your interested in seeing a technically well-done film, but you can spend your time better if you're just interested in watching a creep-fest.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

2-fer-1: 'The Crawlspace' and 'The Red Cell'

Up today, are reviews of two horror films from the very talented Chris Schwartz. Unfortunately, he seems to have stopped making movies after finishing these two efforts.

The Crawlspace (2006)
Starring: Chris Schwartz, Jason Hastings, and Julian Peck
Director: Chris Schwartz
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Mike (Schwartz) wakes up in a filthy, cramped space. A phone rings, he answers... and he discovers that he's been kidnapped and imprisoned by a psycho (who calls himself "The Director") intent on playing mind- and torture-games with him.

"The Crawlspace" is a surprisingly effective low-budget (well, probably no-budget) entry into the mysteriously popular "torture" horror subgenre that's emerged in recent years. Think "Blair Witch Project" meets "Saw", and I believe you'll have a sense of the general look and feel of this picture.

Chris Schwartz, who, according to the credits, did everything on this film but grind and install the lenses on the cameras, not only manages to convey the claustrophobic environment of the film's setting, but he gives a performance that's amazingly good, given what is typically found in small-budget indie pictures. Further, Schwartz seems to be a filmmaker who understands how to work within the limits of his means. The film he's set up here is almost perfect for a film shot on a partial shoestring budget, and Schwartz concentrates his resources and efforts on creeping the audience out with what he has on hand. Based on this film, I think he could probably do wonders with a four-figure budget, and I hope to find more films by him in the future.

That's not to say this is a perfect movie. Part of the film only works because of Stupid Character Syndrome, some of the sound effects needed a little more work, and the film could have used a stronger ending. But, these flaws are far from fatal, and the good outweighs the bad here, making this a picture that's worth seeing.

"The Crawlspace" is another movie that earns a spot on my "Free Advice for Low-Budget Filmmakers" list. If you're dreaming about making a movie with the change you just scooped out of the fountain at the mall, this is an example of how it's done, and it's a movie you have to see.

The Red Cell (2007)
Starring: Donovan Schwartz
Director: Chris Schwartz
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ayden (Donovan Schwartz) wakes up in a shabby basement where the walls are lined with cardboard and the only window has a strong electrical current running through it. He soon discovers that he has been abducted by a gasmask-clad maniac who is committed to curing him of his lethal cancer through a variety of hideous tortures.

"The Red Cell" does what most of the "capture and torture" movies fail to do. It generates genuine mystery and even some confusion (of the good kind, not the kind arising from a poorly executed flick) for the viewer to resolve as they watch. Has Ayden truly been kidnapped by some crazy man who fancies himself in possession of a miracle cure, or are all the horrible things that gasmask-clad figure--who sneaks in and out of a sealed room with ease--something that's simply a product of Ayden's sick body and brain? The film also has a dimension of psychological horror that so far I haven't seen any other of the sub-genre even come close to featuring.

I thought I knew exactly where the film was going, but then Schwartz throws in a twist-ending that made gave me a "Wow!" feeling that someone who watches entirely too many movies (like, oh, me) only rarely has. Schwartz, in one stroke, showed that not only can a talented and creative filmmaker do something VERY worthwhile artistically with the "capture and torture" genre, but he actually managed to make a film that deserves to be considered along side not only the "greats" of this sub-genre, but should be included when considering good horror films in general.

What's even more remarkable, Schwartz made his film on a tiny fraction of what the other wide release examples of the "tortured captive" genre are made on, and probably even less than the majority of the low-budget direct-to-DVD examples of it.

"The Red Cell" is currently seeking distribution, and it's a film that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. It's not a perfect film--it's a little too slow at times, driving home Ayden anguish and suffering well past the point where the audience has gotten it and the scene starts getting tedious--but it's one that horror movie fans will appreciate. Particularly those fans who are looking for something a little different.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Rachel Nichols

Rachel Nichols is another model-turned-actress, and in the roughly ten years since since she turned to acting, she has had major roles in three different TV series (including the serial-killer-centric "Criminal Minds") and numerous cinematic big budget extravaganzas, such as "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", "Star Trek", and "Conan the Barbarian", which opens in theaters Friday, August 19, 2011.

While horror fans might find something to enjoy in the new Conan films, assuming its done in a manner faithful to the original Robert E. Howard stories, the are probably already familiar with Nichols from her starring turn in the chilling "P2" and the retro-horror flick "The Woods".

In 2012, Nichols will further expand her horror/thriller resume with a lead role in the latest screen adaptation of a James Patterson novel, "I, Alex Cross".

Thursday, August 11, 2011

'Point of Terror' is nearly pointless

Point of Terror (1971)
Starring: Peter Carpenter, Dyanne Thorne, Leslie Sims, Joel Marsten, Paula Mitchell, and Lory Hansen
Director: Alex Nicol
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Lounge singer Tony Trelos (Carpenter) thinks his dreams of stardom are at hand when he becomes the latest boy-toy for the oversexed wife of a record executive (Thorne) and she promises him a record contract. But things get dangerously complicated when her husband (Marsten) turns up dead and Tony falls in love/lust with her stepdaughter (Hansen).

"Point of Terror" is a messy movie that meanders through a predictable "Pride Goeth Before a Fall" story. The tone varies widely from comedy to thriller to horror, but it never stays with one atmosphere long enough to establish whether writer/producer/star Peter Carpenter failed at making an erotic thriller, a horror movie, or a dark comedy. Although the demise of the abusive husband, some of the revelations around Dyanne Thorne's character, and the fact that Tony Trelos is about as dumb as a box of rocks make me wonder if this is a REALLY dry comedy, I THINK Carpenter and director Alex Nicol were trying to make a thriller in the Italian "gaillo" vein. Unfortunately, while they captured the incoherence so dominant in many Italian mysteries and thrillers, they captured none of the style. Worse, scenes with flourishes that were intended to be artistic drag on and on and on and feel more like padding than anything else. (You know you're watching an erotic thriller gone wrong when you are reaching for the remote to fast-forward through the sex scenes because they are boring and the music score under them is nerve-gratingly bad).

The film isn't helped by the fact that the only performer with any screen presence in the whole thing is Dyanne Thorne. As prone as I am to make jokes about her two humongous talents, she actually does have quite a bit of charisma... and it really shows when she's surrounded by the caliber of actors in this film. She pretty much steals the movie from poor Peter Carpenter, although he obviously intended this to be his vehicle of stardom.

Speaking of Carpenter, this is the second of his films that I've watched--the other being "Blood Mania", which he also wrote, produced, and starred in, and which I will be reviewing one of these days. In both cases, I felt that he was an okay actor but simply didn't have much in the way of screen presence... or maybe he simply had the misfortune of always playing against actresses who outshone him. This was the last of Carpenter's films, and I feel like he was to the 1970s as John King was to the 1940s.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

'Don't Answer the Phone' should be disconnected

Don't Answer the Phone (aka "The Hollywood Strangler") (1980)
Starring: James Westmoreland, Nicholas Worth, Flo Gerrish,
and Ben Frank
Director: Robert Hammer
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A serial killer (Worth) is on the loose in Los Angeles, murdering hookers and photo models with unchecked savagery while taunting radio psychiatrist Lindsay Gale (Gerrish) with on-air phone calls. Will the homicide detectives in charge of the case (Frank and Westmoreland) catch him before his torment of Gale turns to murder?

Indifferently acted with cinematography and lighting to match, not to mention listless direction, the thus poorly written killer-on-the-loose flick doesn't have much going for it other than the graphic nature of its highly sexually charged murder scenes and the overall creepiness of the mad killer... and that's only if you watch the uncensored version, which is what is included in the "Pure Terror" boxed set.

There's little question that the creators of this film were trying to be as nasty as they could be, with the kill scenes each lingering on the pain and suffering of the victims as they are choked to death (with the one exception feeling strange as a result) and almost always following up with some disturbingly perverted behavior by the insane killer. In some ways, this film is worse than some of the "torture porn" films that have been so popular in recent years. It could even be considered a precursor to them, although it has more in common with Italian bloody thrillers from the hands of Dario Argento or Mario Bava than the more recent flicks.

This is one of those films where I almost feel bad for the actors in it. I've no doubt everyone was trying their best, but they were working with material so badly written that even the greatest actors would have a hard time saving it. James Westmoreland plays one of the dumbest, most obnoxious cops that's ever been presented as a heroic lead character in any film, and his partner--played by career bit-player Ben Frank who probably had hoped that this, one of his few large roles would have been better--is only slightly smarter; Flo Gerrish is so shrewish and shrill that you will find yourself HOPING she gets killed just so she will shut up--although, to the filmmakers' credit, when she finally does become a direct victim of the killer, it is a scary and well-done sequence and we are genuinely worried for the character as she is about to be brutalized, murdered, and raped; and Nicholas Worth's killer is so brutal and crazy and depraved and so over the top that he almost become a parody of the mad killers from the aforementioned Italian thrillers.

In fact, the script for this film is so bad that I've seen some reviewers comment on it as if it was a satire of slasher flicks and Argento-style thrillers. While that is certainly a charitable way to look at the film, I sincerely doubt that writer/director Robert Hammer was trying to make anything but a serious thriller.

In the final evaluation, "Don't Answer the Phone" might be fitting as part of a line-up for a Bad Movie Night centered on detective movies or Italian-type thrillers, but only if your viewing buddies have a tolerance for stupid cops and extended rape/murder scenes.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Lass

Polish-born Barbara Lass' was on track to a career as a dancer when, at the age of 17 in 1957, she won a contest hosted by a movie magazine and was offered a film role as a result. By 1959, she left Poland for western Europe and an international film career that spanned three decades and 30 films. She also changed her last name from the very Polish Kwiatkowska to the very simple Lass.

Lass was seen mostly in comedies, as befitting her cute appearance, but she did manage to squeeze in a few horror roles, such as "Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory", "Effie Breist" and "The Thorn in the Flesh."

Barbara Lass was once married to convicted child rapist Roman Polanski. She married him in 1959 when she was 19 and he was 26, but they divorced in 1961. It's easy to see what attracted Polanski to Lass, and even easier to imagine why she divorced him.

Lass died in 1995 at the age of 54 from a brain hemorrhage.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A special discount for Terror Titan readers
on my new PDF eBook

I've just released a little collection of classic horror stories through NUELOW Games, and I am offering a 50 percent discount for all readers of Terror Titans who get a copy.

"From Dark Corners" contains a total of thirteen short stories from Robert E. Howard, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and Clark Ashton Smith. The newly prepared anthology takes you beyond the usual stories of Conan the Barbarian, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Martians while sending chills down you spine that are sure to beat even the worst summer heat! (Naturally, I didn't write these stories; I just assembled the anthology and did some of the art.)

Use this link to buy your copy of "From Dark Corners" for $1.25, and start reading today!

In order to get the book at a discounted rate (or at all), you'll need an account with one of Onebookshelf's websites--be it DrivethruHorror, DrivethruFantasy, or RPGNow. Setting up an account takes no time at all, and once you have it, you can order thousands of books in many different electronic formats... even some good, old-fashioned print editions. Many products are even free.

I invite you to check out NUELOW Games' other fiction offerings, as well as our entire catalog of roleplaying games--if nothing else, grab a free copy of "ROLF: Old Skool" while there. We hope to release a Halloween supplement that will be compatible both with it and the new and improved "ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game of Big Dumb Fighters".

The special price is good through the first week of September, so get your copy today!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blind Guardian: A Voice in the Dark

The song is "eh", but the video is pretty darn cool if viewed as a mini-horror movie. (From German metal band Blind Guardian's latest album....)

Monday, August 1, 2011

'Eerie Midnight Horror Show': Almost worth staying up for

The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (aka "Enter the Devil", "The Devil Obsession", and "The Sexorcist") (1974)
Starring: Stella Carnacina, Chris Avram, Ivan Rassimov, Lucretia Love, Luigi Pistilli, and Gabriele Tinti
Director: Mario Gariazzo
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

While working in proximity to a relic tied to a Satanic cult noted for its wild orgies, young Daniele (Carnacina) is possessed by Satan. Before you know it, she is engaging in wild masturbation and making in decent proposals to anyone who will listen. Her parents (Avram and Love) taker her to a remote nunnery where they hope a famed exorcist (Pistilli) will cure her.

A film with little reason for being other than it was made to catch some of the money raining down from the record-breaking box office of "The Exorcist" in the early 1970s, "The Eerie Midnight Horror Show" plays like a sleazier, less coherent version than the block it was chipped off from.

However, the rambling, wandering story structure was the most interesting thing about the picture; it brought a sense of realism to a film that at times works a little too hard to bring deeper meaning to its parade of titilating and shocking imagery. The haphazard way scenes are strung together and the badly connected logic versus action of just about everyone in the picture, from the demon straight up through the priest called in to cast him out, gives the movie a sense of what I imagine it would probably be like if there really was such a thing as demonic possession.

But, aside from some creepy imagery here and there, and scenes of a young woman engaging in sexual activity that will make you feel a little dirty while you watch it, there's really nothing here that's noteworthy. Everything is either bland or overplayed to the point where it loses impact, such as the handsome, sexy demonic figure. The casting of Ivan Rassimov was a clever move, as he is both a very attractive man and has the ability to look exceptionally creepy... but his lines are so over the top with their melodrama that he becomes almost a parody of the evil he is supposed to represent.

I came across this film as part of the 50-movie megapack "Pure Terror" collection, and as such it is relatively harmless filler. However, I don't believe it would be worth the price to rent or purchase as a stand-alone film unless you are a dedicated student or rabid fan of this particular horror sub-genre.